Monday, May 31, 2010

Outdoor symphony

Some nights, when I wish to escape the caucaphony of distraction, I wander in the direction of water. And there, tonight, I found myself stretched out upon a chaise-like rock, one of the few fingers of a fountain on the pier. A front row seat to the outdoor symphony. In the cool of the late May evening, I lounged in my seat of honor, awaiting the music.

And it's amazing how the ordinary stuff of nature is arranged so artistically from a different perspective. In this case, sideways.

The opening act: nightfall's descent from a sidelong glance, revealing the heaven's wrinkled brow. Creases of stormy blue and pearl and silver. Sailboat masts pierce the sky's brow, stately and stoic, bobbing rhythmically in the bay.

Second act: nature's surround sound increases as my mind's distraction decreases. The distant roar of a train thundering by, wheels squealing intermittently. The more immediate gurgling of the fountain above and below and around me, sometimes, sneaking up behind me. The gentle hum of the wind, blowing through sails and blades of grass. The synchronicity of the outdoors.

Final act: Tall wispy grass bends and dips, shakes and shimmies, plie's and pirouettes, dancing with an invisible partner. Dancing with grace and ease. Dancing because they can.

I close my eyes and open them again slowly, the world around me appearing to spin ever so slightly. I photograph the moment in my memory, knowing this symphony will be here when I return, but never will I see this exact performance repeated.

I sigh, contented. It is time to rest.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shades of grey

“Sometimes I think we are trying to find the black and white

when all we have is varying degrees of grey.” ~ Kristine Davidson

I’ve noticed a trend in my life. The more I learn and experience, and the older I get, the more I negotiate a tense alliance with shades of grey. This is a difficult thing to explain, as it can prick the sensitivities of peoples’ deeply held beliefs, and on the surface, some might decry, “Moral relativism!” But I object, it’s not that simple.

On a fundamental level, absolutes are simple. Some things are just “right” or “wrong” in the world, whether or not we care to admit that. For those of us who put our faith in God and biblical principles, absolutes are a part of the package of faith. We know that murder is wrong, idolatry is wrong, adultery is wrong, the list goes on. We know that loving our enemies is right, that seeking justice is right, that forgiveness is right, and again, the list goes on. I have less of an issue with professing moral absolutes than I do with declaring the circumstances in which they often unfold “black and white.” Issues of morality do not occur in a vacuum. They are engendered in the messiness and blurred lines that all of us call “life.”

In studying theories of human behavior, I’ve learned one important thing. People don’t fit into theories, not neatly at least. I’ve noticed, as a counselor, that therapy and formulas don’t mix well. On paper, in a case presentation, formulas look good. They seem simple enough. But when a client is sitting before me, a human being in all his or her complexity and unique intricacies, formulas about techniques slip away. Am I saying that the experience or circumstances of each individual dictates what’s defined as right or wrong? No. What I’m saying – really, what I’m posing as a question – is, can we directly transfer black and whites into a shades of grey world? Or is there a meeting point, sometimes, in which the two intersect and are subsequently affected by the other?

This raises the question, for me, what is God most concerned about? Undeniably, He is a holy God. He is a just and true God. There can be no bending of truth in God’s sight. But in a world where things are marred and messy – a world in the process of redemption, groaning for transformation – God is dealing with lives that are not black and white. And I have to wonder, are there times when God is more concerned about the life at hand and with revealing Himself than with the bottom line absolute? That may be heretical, but it’s an honest question to ask, and I’m not afraid to ask it. I’m not afraid to wrestle, because in the world we live in, we cannot afford to get by without wrestling. Indeed, some people have no choice but to wrestle.

In an example from Christ’s life, He encounters a desperate woman, caught in the act of adultery. [On a side note, have you ever wondered how she was caught, the circumstances surrounding the capture of this sin? Surely some people had a close eye on her, plotting her demise. And where, I wonder, was the man? It takes two for “adultery” to occur]. The religious leaders wanted to stone her. Jesus refused to judge her. Instead, He made a statement. God seems like He’s into making statements, the ones that make us stop and scratch our heads. He said, “Woman, where are your accusers?” Stunned, she replied, “They have gone.” And He responded, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” I’ve heard a lot of people refer to this story as a way of pointing out that Jesus neither passed judgment on her nor dismissed her sin. But I’m not convinced that was the only statement He was making. I’m not so much concerned with His words, as with the statement made by His actions toward this woman. There are certainly black and white components to this story. But Jesus encountered this woman in her shades of grey, and He let her go. By law, she should have died. More important than the Jewish law, in this instance, was the encounter and the revelation of Himself to a woman whose life was messy. I wish I could put my finger on it, but it feels like there’s something deeper I’m missing in this story. Something about the character of Jesus that can’t be quantified, formula-ified, or dogma-ified. Something in the way He was with this woman. What was Jesus’ bottom line with this woman and was it really what we assume on the surface when we read this story? To me, Jesus is more mysterious than that. Not in an illusive, out-of-touch way, but in a defying-my-sense-of-logic way.

So how do I live uprightly with a foundation of moral absolutes in a shades of grey world? Perhaps there is no real formula.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The discipline of authenticity

The past two years have been, for me, a practice in the discipline of authenticity. When you experience a significant loss, you have, broadly speaking, two choices before you regarding your pain: to stuff or to share. There are, of course, a plethora of subtle degrees in between the two choices, some healthy and some not, but the polarizations are clear enough. One of the central questions posed to me by my loss was, "Will you be real?" The answer came, not in an automatic rational response, but deliberately, over time, through experiencing the landscape of grief and maneuvering the uncharted terrain within myself and in relationship with others.

This may not come as a shock to some, but I found the most challenging place to practice authenticity, at times, was in church or among other Christians. Though this may resound with cynics, with people who have been burned or turned off by church people, I do not write as one of those people. I love the Church; I am bound to the Church as I am bound to my family. There is no perfect church, just as there is no perfect family, but in some churches and some families there is a fuller degree of openness and authenticity than in others.

But I do not wish to make this singularly about grief, or my grief. I merely wish to make a point, that in the same way I craved authenticity as a person in grief, I crave it now in my everyday life, and I have a strong hunch that there are many who share this craving. I have developed almost an intolerance for falsity, beginning with myself and also in others, but particularly within the body of Christ, the Church. We cannot afford to be disingenuine. The rest of the world is searching for what is genuine and real and they - and collectively we, as human beings - can sniff out a fake from a distance. People with pain and questions and brokenness walking into a church need to see something other than a bunch of people who have their stuff together all the time, who cannot talk about their trials without wrapping it up with a Christian platitude and tying it with a "praise the Lord" bow. We need to move beyond merely talking about being people in process and actually allow ourselves to live it out in relationships with others.

I know many are already moving in this direction. I look forward to the day when the Church as a whole has made our peace with uncertainty, developing a level of comfort with not having all the answers for pain and suffering and injustice. What healing we will see when we've laid aside our bandaids, no longer fearing the pain of others, or for that matter, our own pain. To acknowledge pain and suffering and weakness is not to minimize, but to accentuate, faith in the strength and character of God. In fact, I believe it takes faith to allow the these emotions and experiences and questions to co-mingle.

I do not have a list of Christian disciplines that I practice religiously, though I am aware of practices that I intentionally seek to incorporate in my daily life, flowing freely from intimate relationship with God. Of these, it has become my aim, when I am around other people - those who know Christ and those who do not - to be authentic. To allow others to see that I love Jesus, but I am not immune from doubts and fears and anger and depression and heartache; that, though I may be shaken, I do not crumble. Not because I am "so strong," but because Christ alone is the solid foundation of my life and he cannot crumble.

If such is the case, what have we to fear in being real? In being fully real (something I have not yet achieved, but strive for), we experience a greater depth of being alive, not sheltering ourselves from the shared human experience of struggle and suffering. When I witness this authenticity in the family of God, it causes me, not to retreat in disillusionment, but to praise God for his incredible grace and faithfulness to his people, that he has not left us alone, not left us without hope, but lives among us and within us as a living testament of his glory and redemption. When people truly behold this kind of community, I believe at the very least there will be a curiosity and, hopefully more; hopefully, a desire to become part of this unique family, the hands and feet of Christ fleshed out in sweat and tears, joy and pain, joining with God in his beautiful, redemptive work among all of creation. It is my heart's cry to be part of this kind of family, this kind of faith community. Let it begin here, with authenticity.

I'll close, echoing Tolstoy's candid words in a letter he wrote:

Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I wish I understood why it so often feels like an unrelenting battle to abide in a place of contentment and joy. I've been learning it, writing it, living in it, but as quick as a flash flood, I can find myself swept away by the current in a completely different direction. I wish it weren't so; it's humbling to admit it. But I can so easily forget what I know to be true, nibbling at the bait, caught at the end of a hook of lies. How one day I can know that I am completely satisfied with Jesus alone, that I love my life for where it's at right now, unsolved mysteries and all, and the next day, feel like my life is a complete failure, so far off course from where I wanted to be at this point in time - it can be downright discouraging. And all those things I've been assimilating into my being, those nuggets of truth that are stashed like treasures in my heart, suddenly seem so illusive. Like I was an idiot for believing they were real.

I'll tell you, being in this place is not unlike being stuck in a whirlpool, sucking you down, down, down, with impressive force. The only way I know to exit the whirlpool, or be released from the hook, is really quite simple. Not to be mistaken for easy, mind you, but neither is it complicated. Here it is: I remind myself of what I know to be true. Usually, I sing it. Kinda like how liquids get into the bloodstream faster than pills, I just think swallowing truth in song reaches my spiritual bloodstream faster than reading it or thinking it. It sounds really spiritual, and I suppose if one simple definition for spiritual is something other than my natural human response, then yeah, it's spiritual.

Thank God I'm not powerless or helpless or defeated, because Jesus extends his lie-shattering victory on the cross to all who receive him as beloved Savior. Thank God that all those pieces of the puzzle of life that don't yet appear to fit together are not my responsibility to assemble. Thank God that, when those flash floods come in and threaten to sweep me away from my place of joy and contentment, the Spirit of God rises up in me and swells like a song of liberation, pushing back the flood waters.

Tonight, this song was the swell God used to usher in his peace (and I didn't write it - Misty Edwards did). Regardless of how I may feel about my life at times, this is what I know to be true, what my heart wants most in this life.

I will waste my life, I'll be tested and tried
With no regrets inside of me, just to find I'm at your feet
Let me find I'm at your feet
I'll leave my father's house and I'll leave my mother
I'll leave all I have known and I'll have no other

I am in love with you, there is no cost
I am in love with you, there is no loss
I am in love with you, I want to take your name
I am in love with you, I want to cling to you, Jesus
Just let me cling to you, Jesus

I'll say goodbye to my father my mother
I'll turn my back on every other lover and I'll press on
Yes, I'll press on
And I'll press on, yes I'll press on

For I am in love with you, there is no cost
I am in love with you, there is no loss
I am in love with you, I want to take your name
I am in love with you, I want to cling to you, Jesus
Just let me cling to you, Jesus

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thunderstorms, patches and rivers

There are memories: perhaps nostalgic or fresh, happy or sad, neutral or bittersweet, generic or specific, fragmented or whole. Memories are time keepers. And there are flashbacks. Flashbacks strike like thunderstorms, gathering energy in the distance, seeming so much farther away than they really are, until a streak of electricity cuts across the skyline, followed by a resounding clap and then dead silence.

It's hard for me to distinguish grief-related memories from flashbacks. Part of the process of grief is coming to a place of acceptance, easing into a new "normal." Everyone who knows the reality of loss, however, knows that this process is anything but one of ease. Contrary to the cliche, "Time heals all wounds," time can help prepare you for acceptance, but the wound is not necessarily ever fully healed. It's more like sewing a patch of new cloth over a rip in a pair of your favorite old jeans. The jeans know the cloth is not part of their original design, and slowly over time, the patch pulls taut at the corners, stretched to its max in an attempt to artificially cover the hole. The patch will never be part of the jeans, but it can do a decent job of coverage. It can even look pretty.

So, much like this, it can be a challenge to figure out when I'm just feeling the taut pull of this patch over the hole my Dad left when he died, or when I'm experiencing and reexperiencing flashbacks of the hospital days. I don't like to talk about those eight days in the hospital. None of us do. For one, they're a blur to me now. But deeper, whenever I think of them, I risk inviting back the flood of emotions I experienced during this time. I may be out on a walk in the neighborhood, or in a park, or in my car, or watching a movie at home, and bam, the flashbacks seem to hit out of nowhere, though of course, they were probably building for awhile or there was some trigger point or another. And suddenly, I'm transported back to his hospital room or back to the conference room with a group of medical staff deciding his fate or back on the living room floor, trying to sleep, surrounded by out-of-town family members the night he died, after we finally packed up and left the ICU ward.

There are many things I could write about from those eight days in the hospital, but I don't know what the purpose would be, trying to put into words an experience that was beyond awful. I just know, those images continue to break into my life now and then, like flashes of lightning, and then, after sometimes a few minutes or a few days, they pass. And I go on with my new normal, wondering when they will hit again, wondering when that patch will give way again. Such is the way of grief, with its ebbs and flows, its lulls and rapids, winding like a river through life, one day arriving at the destination I've known was there but never seen with my eyes. And there I know my Papa will be waiting.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I pace the floor of my living room, rubbing my temples, and stare out the window at nothing in particular. My cheeks are wet and my stomach is agitated. I pray as if I'm venting, and then, as one who is sharing a burden with a close friend. I close my eyes and see faces. Tear stained faces with vacant eyes where hope used to reside, paradoxically child and war-weary adult, occasionally breaking in a moment of universally buoyant and childish glee. An ocean between us, these hauntingly beautiful faces beckon to me. We are worlds apart.

These faces pull forcefully at my heart, a magnetic attraction. I could resist, but I don't want to. I am adrift at sea, unsure of whether to tread water, swim for shore, or climb aboard the nearest boat. All I know is that, increasingly, I just want to be where these faces are.

My conversations with God vacillate between waves of nauseated emotion, indignation, sorrow, helplessness, hope and pleading supplication. The knowledge that there are children living "free" as slaves, working the streets for a scrap of bread, abused and violated, without hope for a better future, without protection, without even the basic provisions, without family, without love - this wrings my insides like a wet towel and sets me aflame. I wrestle with the position of privilege I was born into, the life of relative ease I enjoy and the opportunities that are spread before me like a fine feast, while others - these little children - eke out a meager, day to day existence. This isn't just the guilt of White privilege I'm feeling; it's a mystery beyond that, of why some are born into abject poverty, to such heartache and suffering, while others of us are born into a life of provision. Surely none of us are sheltered entirely from suffering, it falls upon the poor and the privileged. I have walked through my own sufferings in my lifetime thus far and have survived my own earthquakes. But I still started off better than these children, far better. And while I ache with the question Why, a more relevant question to me is, How then do I live?

How, then, do I live in this beautiful, safe neighborhood in Seattle, in the United States, going between my job and my friends and my life pursuits, when somedays, all I want is to fly across that ocean and look into the eyes of one of these little faces, and hold them, and walk with them until they see a future that is pregnant with hope? How do I live when I want to give more than my money; I want to give myself, my love?

I remember going on walks through the neighborhood with my Papa, strolling along at a leisurely pace, contemplating life together. I'd ask questions, most of them ones he could not answer, and indeed, he often didn't try. He just listened and absorbed. Sometimes when I'm walking through the neighborhood, feeling the breeze off the bay, admiring the colors of the flowers and the shades of blue in the sky, breathing in the fresh air, I imagine I am walking with Papa again, talking about life. And I remember that I'm also on a walk, having these conversations with my Father, Papa God, and he's listening intently, absorbing everything I'm saying. And if I'm quiet enough, I may hear him share something that is on his mind, or we may just continue in companionable silence. But either way, I know I am not on this walk alone, and regardless of how it seems sometimes, I'm not adrift. I just can't see where I'm going yet or how these trails so intricately connect. I've been walking this path long enough to know there is no need to run ahead or forge my own trail or sit down in the middle of the path and give up. I'll just keep walking, not shutting my eyes to those faces, praying I keep heading in the right direction, holding tight the hand of my traveling companion.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The breath of Grace

Sometimes, it's easier not to want, not to feel, not to dream. To stay insulated, numb to desire, this can be a temptation for those who have felt a deep hunger that has yet to be satisfied. Tempting, perhaps, and safe in some regards, but not fulfilling. Sometimes, the most courageous thing we can do is to allow ourselves to feel the intensity of desire, with no visible signs of fulfillment ahead, and not retreat. Perhaps this is another facet of faith, or even the very essence of faith.

For years I have lived with this underlying tension, caught between a restless desire to be part of more in life and contentment with the here and now. I remember the feelings of restlessness as a teenager, growing slowly and steadily through the years, erupting post-college. I wanted to be part of something big, something much bigger than myself. I knew I was different, not in some superior way, but just in the way I so often felt like I couldn't find where I fit. I was an oddly shaped person, it seemed, and not many places came in my particular size and shape. One might easily have tagged me as an idealist and left it at that, but I felt it was more than that. I had a vision for the way life should be, the way I hoped it could be, but couldn't figure out how to flesh it out. I tried, oh, how hard I tried. And I learned, after my Papa's death, what can happen to the best laid plans when it's not God drafting the blueprints. So I let go of my plans, and with them, desire. I didn't have a choice about the grief I was feeling with the loss of my Papa, but I did have a choice not to feel the pain of unfulfilled passions. I went numb.

In the season of numbness, I was met on the road by this beautiful, fresh wind blowing in from some distant place I'd visited before, but never lived. It washed over me like a cool summer breeze along the coast, sending a chill up my spine, invigorating my senses with light and warmth. I didn't know it then, but this breeze had a name, and it's name was Grace. Grace came as a gust exhaled from the lungs of God to my own, again and again, until it became more natural for my lungs to breath these breaths of grace. Until I realized I was utterly dependent on Grace to live, to breath, to move, to be. I didn't realize it, but Grace came and gently unlocked the door of my heart, beckoning me into a richer life of desire with the Lover of my soul. And Grace introduced me to the land of Contentment. I used to vacation there, but I didn't stay very long. Over the past few months, I've established a more permanent residence here. There is much peace and joy in this place, even while life may be teetering to and fro. Here in the land of Contentment, I find I need nothing but a steady access to the reservoir of God's presence. Yet even here, while I am content with the love of God, I find that other desires are still growing, pushing against the boxes I'd stuffed them in, asking to be felt, to be released. Asking if I trust God to fulfill them in his way, in his time.

Is it possible to have both contentment and restless desire? I may finally be moving a step forward on that tightrope, but the line is taut and I've never had the balance of a gymnast. At least I know that Grace is there, and Grace comes from the God who dances across the chasms of the impossible, and somehow, that makes me believe I can do just about anything.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A third way

“Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s no denying it, violence is a daily celebrated and lamented reality in our world. It gets confusing real quick, which “side” to be on. For most people with a moral conscience (not even speaking spiritually), there are “just” types of violence and “unjust” acts of violence. Genocide is evil and must be stopped, therefore, we may believe the use of violence is necessary to overcome violence, and we call this just. We imagine scenarios where we might be called upon to use violence to protect loved ones, or innocents, or ourselves - scenarios where, though not our preference, we wouldn’t question the justification of violence. We have many young men and women courageously and sacrificially fighting wars in other parts of the world, on our behalf, for the causes of peace and freedom and democracy and justice, and we would never want to dishonor them. So we draw a line down the center of a page and place these acts on one side, under the column “Just war” or “Redemptive violence.” And on the other side, under the heading of “Unjust war” or “Unlawful violence” or whatever we deem it, we place the murder of innocents, sexual violence, genocide, violent dictatorships, and torture (though not always in this column), to name a few. We live in complicated times, we say, so we cannot afford to be idealistic.

Though I understand this line of thinking, and indeed, have adopted this line of thinking for many years, my adherence to it the past several years has been tenuous. There is a tense line between idealism and reality. And I wonder if, in getting caught in the crossfires of that line, we lose sight of the third way. The way of the gospel, the good news, that Jesus announced through his entrance, life and death in this world, and then in his resurrection. The way of the gospel that proclaims, not idealistically, but through unleashing a new reality, that “another world is possible.” What is impossible for humankind to accomplish on our own is possible with God. In fact, Jesus assures us (one of his often used phrases, “Most assuredly, I say to you...”), another world exists, even now, and we are invited into it not only in the afterlife, but here and now. His way is not the way of redemptive violence, and I think there is much to support this - much more than I’ll touch on here.

With Jesus’ arrival on the scene of humanity (though he was always present, just not in the flesh), he lays the groundwork for a new kind of kingdom, different than any kingdom humanity has ever known. Jesus plainly stated shortly before his death, “My kingdom is not of this world”, and then went on to say that if it were, his followers would be fighting to protect him from arrest (see John 18:36). Instead, his way of fighting is to go to the cross. In this kingdom, Jesus is the King (not some other god, or all gods sharing the same throne), and all are invited to enter into this realm, leaving behind all other kingdoms, including the culture of whatever empire we came from (e.g., consumerism, imperialism, legalism, materialism, racism, idolatry, etc.), and fully embracing the culture of the new kingdom. When we enter this new kingdom, we receive a new identity: “You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, beacuse of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ ” (Eph. 4:17-20). In this kingdom, Christ alone is our model of perfection, and we learn the ways to walk by entering into intimate, dynamic relationship with him and allowing him to transform our mindsets and our lives.

In this kindgom, Jesus warns that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus irrationally instructs his followers to love their enemies, instead of hating them (see Matt. 5:44), and I don’t know that anyone can make a solid argument for killing enemies in the name of loving them. In this kingdom, we are told that our enemies are not of this world, and therefore, neither are our weapons of war (see Eph. 6: 12; 2 Cor. 10:3-5). In this kingdom, the ways of humility, gentleness, and love are demonstrated in power through the King himself establishing his kingdom through voluntarily shedding his own blood, instead of shedding the blood of others or dominating through force. This is scandalous and foreign to us. And taking it a step further, those in his kingdom are called upon to have the same mindset as the King (see Phil. 2:5-8).

Instead of using force and violence to protect the innocent (or our ideals, freedoms, lives, etc.) and fight evil in the world, we are called upon to choose another way, a higher way. Again and again, in the teachings of Jesus and the early church leaders, we are called upon to live peacefully with others, to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes us, to not defend ourselves when someone speaks wrongfully against us, to bless those who curse us. We are encouraged not just to endure suffering and trials patiently, but to expect them. A close reading of the teachings of the New Testament show us that it is radical love, not violence, that quietly, progressively takes the world by force and overthrows the strongholds of evil. This way of love is often not the quickest, most expedient, most practical way; but in the long run, it is the only effective way. After all, Jesus is not building a quick-fix kingdom; He’s building a kingdom that will last. When everything else has been destroyed, it will be the only thing still standing (see Heb. 12:28).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The day is still young, and I'm already frustrated and infuriated. I just returned from hanging out with the young married couple I met last week who are homeless (the wife newly pregnant), Jamie and Ashley. They've been staying in a stripped, graffitied, tin can of a camper on a crazy lady's property. This lady happens to be a crackhead and a clepto, a weak and miserable human being who preys on those with less power than herself. She's allowed them to stay in the camper in exchange for Jamie working her property and both of them basically being at her beck and call. They have no electricity, no running water, no lock on their door. Whenever they leave the camper and come back, their meager possessions are mysteriously missing. This woman owns a shotgun that she keeps loaded, and her house is known in the neighborhood as "the house where people go to get high." Her neighbors walk around with a wary guardedness, a tiredness.

Last week, after hearing that my new friends eat only every few days, I brought them a load of unperishables to stock in their camper. Ashley works at a local dollar store once or twice a week, and outside of that, sits on the sidewalk in front of stores trying to sell her artwork. Jamie has not been able to find a job and is restless, agitated, like a ticking time bomb ready to explode. Unable to do much on their own without a phone, Mom and I helped them get their prepaid phone going for at least a month, so they could make and receive calls for themselves.

When I showed up this morning to take them to an appointment, I hesitated before walking through the gate with the multiple "No trespassing" signs and crossing over to knock on the camper door. No stir, no answer. I knocked again. I half expected the crazy lady to open her front door and yell at me, but there was no sign of her. She was probably passed out. My friends were no where to be seen.

I waited in my car for a few minutes before I noticed Jamie striding up the street toward me, looking upset, with Ashley trailing twenty feet behind. He informed me they slept outside last night, in a nearby field, clinging to each other for warmth in this uncharacteristically cold May weather. The crazy lady is trying to sell the camper and kick them out. She's banished them from going inside. Their phone has been stolen, as well as much of their food. They haven't eaten in four days. As I'm listening to this, it's all I can do to keep from marching up to her door and giving her a piece of my mind, but I know this won't do any good. In fact, it would only make things worse. And that frustrates me, greatly, that I, too, feel so powerless. I tell them as much. "Welcome to our world," they said. "This is our life, all the time." I just nodded and stared at them silently as this news seeped in.

We went out to breakfast. They were anxious to get out of the cold. An enormous amount of food was spread before them, and they ate gratefully. While eating, Jamie vented, wondering again and again why he hasn't snapped yet. He's an ex-Marine with a self diagnosed anger problem, and it's really eating him up inside that he's being treated like cow dung by this lady, and that his pregnant wife has to sleep outside and work while he doesn't. He's lost several people close to him in the last month, and that, combined with all the other pressures, is like a fire smoldering at the ends of a frayed rope.

As I'm listening, I'm wracking my brain for what resources I have to help them. I have no extra room in the apartment Mom and I share. As it is, I sleep on the floor. I have no basement, no backyard, no tent to give them. I know no one who has an old junker car they want to donate to a couple in need. I can't afford to buy them another phone that will probably get stolen again. I can't help them get state assistance yet because they don't have an address. There are no shelters with openings for couples - they said they've called all of them, before their phone was stolen - and they don't want to be separated because they are all each other has. I know of one person with a business who is willing to give Jamie some occasional work, but I have no way to connect them since Jamie has no phone and no car and no bus pass.

We leave the restaurant and head to Value Village to look for a tent. There is absolutely nothing, and we have no time to look elsewhere. So they find a few hooded sweatshirts, Jamie finds a pair of shoes, and Ashley finds a pair of work pants and socks. I feel like I've failed them as I drive them back "home" and park in front of the crazy lady's house. Their stomaches are full for a few hours and they have a few extra layers of clothing, but it's all just bandaids. And bandaids just seem outrageously insufficient when you're staring at a person whose multiple, gaping wounds are gushing blood everywhere.

I apologize to them, for being unable to do more. I tell them I'm thinking and I'll keep thinking about possible solutions. I'll make any phone calls to people or places I know that might be helpful. But I won't see them again for a week. They thank me for my help, and I know they mean it, but it feels like what they aren't saying is, "We forgive you, Amber, for not being able to do more, even though we think you could." I watch them walk away, to sneak into the camper and change clothes so Ashley can go to work. And I feel ill, knowing they'll be sleeping outside again tonight and I've done nothing about it.

So this is my venting. It's not to berate myself. I know I can't be their savior; I know I'm limited as to what I can do. But beneath my immediate frustration with my own limitations and my anger toward this woman who is oppressing them and getting away with it, there is another frustration: the partial ineptitude of the Church, which I am part of. With so many churches in the Seattle area, I don't understand why I don't know of any who would open their doors to take this couple in. When social services fall short, shouldn't the local churches be able to stand in the gap as a sort of ER for broken, hurting, desperate people in our community? With all of our church buildings that we use only several times a week, why are so many people sleeping on the streets or in fields, under bridges, or squatting on the porches of drug houses? There's something terribly wrong when a homeless person is granted reluctant access to sleep on a church's property but isn't allowed inside for the night.

And I'm not just talking about churches, as in buildings. I'm talking about us, the body of Christ, supposedly walking around as his ambassadors in our communities. Again, I know this includes me. Why, in these instances when I meet people like Jamie and Ashley, can I never think of a person I can call to ask if they have space to house a couple temporarily? Is it that we don't want to be inconvenienced? Are we so afraid of being scammed or taken advantage of that we are paralyzed from taking risks? Are we afraid for the safety of our families? I'm not saying these aren't legitimate concerns, to some degree, but I dispute that they are legitimately the final word in the kingdom of God.

Some people have wondered if this couple is pulling the wool over my eyes. If they're manipulative and taking advantage of me. And my response is to shrug my shoulders and say, "So what if they are?" I don't think that they are, but really, that isn't the point. Even if they were lying and manipulating, would that mean they needed love and assistance less than if they were telling the truth? Why would I only help someone if I was guaranteed they wouldn't take advantage of my kindness? Somehow I can't believe that Jesus was or is too concerned about these things himself. After all, he's helped me. He's loved and helped a lot of us who have taken advantage of him and given him nothing in return. If he's my model for loving people, then I cannot hide behind my own wall of self protectiveness, only offering myself to the people who seem "legit."

If this is true for me, I believe it's true for the entire community of people who love Jesus and desire to follow in his footsteps in the ways that we live. I know it starts right here, with me, and I pray to God I have the wisdom and courage to walk with Jesus and to love sacrificially, beyond my comfort zone. But I pray, too, that the kingdom that Jesus announced to the world - the kingdom that is here, available right now - would spread like wild, unruly brush in our city, offering something more, something different, than what the world's resources have to offer. And not only resources, but family. A place to belong and be loved, a safe haven, a place to find rest and healing. That's what I want so badly for Jamie and Ashley. I have hope that we can get there eventually, but I just wish I knew where I could point them to today. There must be more than bandaids.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rethinking the lingo

There's an awful lot of lingo, or Christianese, floating around in churches these days. It's been this way for as long as I can remember. But in the last few years, I finally started revisiting this lingo, questioning the meanings and usages of it, wondering where it came from and if it accurately represents the language of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know there are many out there who are unsettled as I am about the language often encountered in churches. I've got just three words I'm curious about today, and that is more than enough content, though I can think of many more and will probably reflect on them at a later time.

Born again.
It's a well-worn, often ridiculed in media, perhaps largely misused in the church phrase. What does it mean, if not to become a Christian? I've heard "born again Christian" used frequently in my life in the church, which seems rather redundant. I have to wonder, is "born again" so much an adjective, if an adjective at all, as much as it's a verb signifying an active process we must undergo in order to know Jesus? More than defining one clear moment when we cross over from "non-Christian" to "Christian," I think it's more involved than that. More involved, I'd say, than a date to remember on the calendar of our lives, marking the point of our conversion.

Being born again strikes me much more as particularly poignant for us adults. After all, we're already grown up. We've been born and raised and have been set in our ways and worldviews for quite some time, at least many of us. We've gone to school and learned a ton of things (in theory) in both the classrooms of school and of life. For Jesus to come to us, in answer to our questions about the meaning of life and say, "You must be born again in order to live fully," leaves us scratching our heads. In effect, we must leave behind what we've known up to this point in life and scrap it all, starting over like babies. Learning everything over again, this time with a new paradigm. And in order to do this, we must be humble and teachable, not pompous and stubborn. We must have an insatiable hunger and curiosity, as well as an innocent trust in and reliance on the One who is teaching us. That is no one-time event. It's a marked starting point, yes, but it's largely an attitude and a way of life.

Blessed. I'm not so interested here in what the word blessed means as I am with who we commonly associate as the recipients of God's blessings. What I'm thinking of seems to be mostly a phenomena of Western Christianity, more than anything else. Over here in the U.S., we have it pretty good, even in the bad parts, compared to much of the world's inhabitants. I think the "blessings" of being an American have trickled into our churches, particularly the more well-to-do churches, and influenced our understanding and teaching of what it means to be blessed.

I'm in a really well-to-do church right now, and I love and respect them, more than I ever have. For years, I judged this bunch, without even knowing them. But I've got to say, and I say this without feeling critical, I just don't buy into their entire teaching of being "blessed." It makes me scratch my head, that we so often look at people who dress really well and have really successful careers and are well educated and popular and beautiful, who own nice condos and houses and drive nice cars, and we say, "Surely God has blessed them!" And the scriptural evidence for this is often taken from the Old Testament, from the stories of men like Abraham and Isaac, who were among the wealthiest in their lifetimes, more so than their neighbors, and had many possessions. Proponents of this teaching on blessing will say, we, too, have received the same blessings as Isaac, since the New Testament talks about followers of Christ being the children of promise, like Isaac, with the same blessings and same inheritance.

The discrepancy for me comes when I read about Jesus' life and teachings. It hits me square in the face. He never promises blessings to those who love him, in the form of material wealth and prosperity. In fact, whereas in the OT, material wealth is a sign of prosperity, in the teachings of Jesus, this is turned upside down. In a shocking upheaval, Jesus clearly states that now the ones who are blessed are not the rich, but the poor; not the bold, but the meek; not the happy, but those who mourn; not the popular, but the despised and persecuted; not the warriors, but the peacemakers; not those who kill their enemies, but those who love them. In all of Jesus' stories and interactions, the favored ones are not the rich and religious, but the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the homeless, the beggarly, the sickly, the blue collar workers, the women and children, the marginalized.

I don't believe Jesus is a proponent of poverty by any means, but I don't think he came so we could live cushioned lives, insulated from the needs of our neighbors. He often blesses us with resources so that we can be a blessing to others, and he encourages extreme generosity, but I think the real blessing lies not in the sum of the gift but in the giving of ourselves. We can be blessed and have next to nothing, and still give generously of ourselves to others.

Spirit-filled. Ah, this is a touchy one, for many Christians. The ones in the more "Charismatic" or "Pentecostal" churches will claim that being Spirit-filled is a baptism of the Holy Spirit, something that often occurs separately from salvation, an infilling of the power of the Spirit of God in the life of the individual believer. The evidence that this has occurred, they say, is that the individual will speak in tongues (a whole other topic I won't touch on here). Christians in Evangelical or Protestant churches more often teach that being Spirit-filled is a given when someone chooses to surrender her life to Jesus and follow him. I've been in both kinds of churches, so I can see the points of each, but I've got to say, I feel the use of the phrase Spirit-filled is, more than anything, divisive.

When I read the letters to the early Church, I see that the the Spirit is alive and active in the lives of believers in many unique and powerful ways - ways that are natural, and ways that are supernatural. But were I to narrow it all down, I guess I'd say that the most beautiful evidence of the Spirit of God filling a life is in what Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In the famous "love chapter" in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that speaking in tongues and prophecy and every other "gift" of the Spirit is nothing if not motivated by love. Love, he says, is the greatest gift of all, and it is the top of the list for the fruit of the Spirit. I hope that, whatever our belief is concerning the meaning of Spirit-filled, it is above all affirming of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers who love and obey Jesus. This is the highest thing.