Saturday, December 24, 2016

Expecting

Somewhere around 1991 my mom loaded a K-Mart shopping cart with Christmas gifts for me, my brother, and my sister. She wasn't a shopper and Amazon was just a rain forest, so it strikes me now what a sacrifice it was for her to do that each December. I don't know what was in the cart, because I wasn't there. But I remember hearing her tell my dad how embarrassed she'd been when she had to walk away from the cart and leave the store empty-handed. Maybe she forgot her check book. Or maybe the total was higher than what she thought it would be. Whatever the reason, she fixed it. She went back the next day and retraced her steps, filling the dang cart for the second time.

I couldn't guess at what she hoped for when it came to being the mom at Christmas, but her expectations were somehow always exceeded. There weren't lists of meaningful family traditions, but I remember feeling like I was lit from within at Christmastime. I felt extra tucked-in. Safe. Warm. It was the best of everything.


It's 10:13 pm and I'm blogging at night, as if it's 2009 and my three babies are tucked into their single-occupancy rooms in the creaky upstairs of our farmhouse. The train wails and a fiddle weeps from the speaker hidden above our kitchen cabinets. I'm right here, in 2016, where not even an hour ago, I sat at the kitchen table trying to jam mismatched puzzle pieces together while worrying I'd already ruined Christmas.

I want my kids to somehow experience that intangible feeling that something special is underway. I'm desperate for it and I hate it. I fight the shine even as I fork over money for new books, a tulle skirt, a telescope, a complicated electrical outlet system with its own remote control.

I tell myself we'll lounge around and eat like kings, or maybe like the judges on Master Chef. I categorize a three-columned grocery list and burn a three-wick candle. I bake things. I buy a new puzzle. I play Yahtzee with an eight-year old and pretend it's not frustrating at all.

Last night I dreamed (again, again, again) that I was back in college and had nonchalantly skipped the entire semester, only to come to my senses as finals week approached. Was it too late to drop every class? And would I still have to pay for the credits? I woke up sweating bullets. All week long, I've known what I was up to with my big ideas and my faux-pine scented air. I'm no stranger to the calamity of Shannan Martin, who busies herself crafting unrealistic expectations in an attempt to combat the sinking feeling that most days she's pretty unremarkable.

~

Earlier tonight we did our third Advent reading of the season. It was about the name of Jesus, and what it means. We tried talking about Emmanuel, but apparently it was a bit too soon after three rounds of Mad Libs because Ruby and Silas couldn't stop laughing about moldy bears clapping their belly buttons together.

We all know it's important that God came as Jesus to be with us, but I honestly wish I had just been with my kids in all their inconvenient exuberance. I noticed Ruby's cheeks swallowing up her full moon eyes, her mouth wide, like a child who doesn't know unnecessary pain. But this was a serious moment we were trying to have, and I forced myself not to let go.

Now I'm left wondering if Jesus wouldn't have felt most near if we had just closed the book and giggled together until our vision blurred.

As I sit here, Cory is downtown in the dark with his camera, trying to nail a shot of something having to do with Christmas lights and rain puddles. Before he walked out he asked me what I was going to write about. "I don't know, meth, depression, and white supremacy?" I joked.

These have been hot topics in our house this week as I wrap gifts and daydream about whisking heavy cream into flour for cranberry scones.

People I love are burning alive, and my cheeks are on fire.

But I am with them in this dirt. They are with me.
This life is a gift I'll never deserve.
And sometimes rain at Christmas is a relief.


Tomorrow morning (Christmas Eve) we'll open a few gifts. We'll turn off our phones and thank God for the surprises he dealt us, especially each other. Calvin bought Ruby a whole bag of oranges just for herself and Cory's gifts both came from Goodwill. There's sausage thawing for gravy and a pineapple ready for slicing. Dinner will be homemade Korean food, in honor of our oldest Korean who will be playing his violin at the Christmas Eve service.

We will grab our fresh start with glad hearts and both hands. At some point, we'll drag it face-first through the crumbs beneath the table. We will need the Savior who came for us and doesn't stop.

Emmanuel.

God is with us, even when we run.
God is with us, even when we fight.
God is with us, even when we are tired.
God is with us, even when we are sad.
God is with us, even when we can't get a grip.

God is with us, even when our streets swallow us whole.
God is with us, even when people say we don't matter.

God is with us, even when we are sort of sad for the family we lost along the way.
God is with us, even when we sit in seg at the county jail.
God is with us, even when we are strung out and picking at our skin.
God is with us, even when it seems too quiet to believe.

God is with us, even when the house is a wreck.
God is with us, even when the marriage is a wreck.

God pierced the earth with purity and humility and now, we don't have to keep clawing for something better. We don't have to do anything alone. We stretch out our arms, reaching for fistfuls of grace while wearing shoes caked with mud.

We are here, but he is here, too.

God is with us.

I can't wait for tomorrow.


Friday, December 9, 2016

The Gift Your Family Might Not Know it Needs

Yesterday, in passing, someone referred to next weekend as being one week before Christmas and I almost spit out my tea. Like most of life these days, it feels entirely impossible yet close enough to touch. 

The kids have one week of school left, but all week I've been ahead of myself. I'm ready to bust out the puzzle and hunker down. I'm so ready to eat random dips with my friends at strange hours and stay up late with Cory. (Friends, we have hopped on the Poldark wagon and *I have heard* there is trouble coming, but I can't walk away. We're springing for season 2 the minute Christmas break starts. Don't try to stop us.)

For now, I'm slowly adding Christmasy touches to our home and we're enjoying what I hope will be a new tradition for our family - sharing our home and our table with someone each Friday during Advent. We're all waiting with expectation and it's even better to wait together. With a plate of tacos.

All the while, life is still life. The neighbor boys pile into our living room every morning and some afternoons. Three nights ago as I was running out the door for a PTO meeting, two brothers showed up at the door - one crying, one sulking. I was in a bit of a rush and no one was really talking, but I eventually gathered up the loose ends of their angst. Not knowing what else to do and because their ears were bright and freezing, I cupped each of their faces in my XL hands, looked them in the eye, called them by name, and said, "I love you." I told them to get along. Be good to each other. "Friends will come and go, but the two of you are best friends for life." They sniffled and avoided eye contact and didn't say a word in return. Then we headed into the bitterly cold night and walked our separate ways. It felt like maybe the most important three minutes of my entire week.

When I tell you my neighbors have changed my life forever, I know it sounds a bit trite. But I grew up in a tiny corner where both walls were white, along with the floor and ceiling. My childhood was simple. It was bright and beautiful. But it did not allow me to see or understand the breadth of human existence. I had one Asian friend. My cousin wanted and received a black baby doll for Christmas one year and it disarmed us. It was a topic of conversation, not because we were "racist", but because it simply did not fit the script. That was not our world, or so we thought. People of color existed, somewhere far removed from us. Without intending it to happen, I learned to see them not as bad or less than, but as "other".

I will never begrudge the tiny towns sprinkled across our country which lack diversity. It doesn't, in itself, mean anything about the good people who live in them. It simply means that is where they live. If that happens to be you, please remember it was also me, not long ago. Wherever we are planted, we're called to love people and make God's light known. 

But I wish my library had been stocked with books featuring people who didn't reflect my own life. I wish my white teachers would have at least talked about different experiences. I wish my white pastors would have refused to hang pictures on the walls of a white Jesus with light brown hair. I wish I hadn't casually, quietly been taught that "people like me" were the center of the Universe, and everyone else was somewhere at the periphery. 

I wish I had learned the beauty of God's diverse kingdom from birth, in a way that was meaningful.

Life is a crash course now, and I'm playing catch-up. My bland diet has left me starving for the essential nutrients of a well-lived life and faith. 

Maybe you feel like I do. Or maybe you honestly don't, but you sort of wish you would. Changing courses starts with just a single degree of rotation. Most of you are not called to change communities (though some of you are,) or adopt a child of a different ethnicity. But there are small things we can do that have big impact on our lives and particularly on the lives of our kids. 

Here's one: Buy your kids books that feature people of color. Let your gift to them be the understanding that the world is much richer than they imagine. 

As a mom of multi-cultural kids, this has become imperative and life-giving for my family. As they grow, I become more keenly aware of how important representation is for them. But even if my kids were Caucasian, like me, there would be tremendous value in a personal library that honors a wider scope of personal history and experience. 

I've put together a list of the books my kids are receiving from us this Christmas (shh!) along with a list of favorites we already have on hand.


Song of the Trees by Mildred D. Taylor

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Ichiro by Ryan Inzana

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba


These are favorites from our personal stash. I scour thrift stores for new additions.

Additional favorites:
Brown Girl Dreaming
Esperanza Rising

(Also, check this out: 1000 Black Girl Books Resource Guide )


I would love for you to list your favorites in the comments. We're always on the hunt for new favorites! You can also pass this list along to your public library and request a more diverse selection if you find it lacking.

Also, next week I'll be sending out a Super Scoop newsletter, sharing some of my favorite things this season. Make sure you're on the list to receive it!


*All links are Amazon affiliate links. 


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Ministry of Giving a Rip at Christmastime


Two nights ago I sat curled up on a friend's couch, listening as she talked about feeling a little sad right now.

"It's Christmas," I said. "It's the season for sadness."

She laughed knowingly. "Yeah. I reminded myself I felt this way last year, too."

It wasn't always this way for me, or not precisely. But time keeps on turning. We learn things. We grow. And like my second grader trying his best to focus and "grow a bigger brain" just two blocks away, learning is never without a cost.



My kids have started praying for Aleppo. Over the weekend Cory and I decided to share Ann Voskamp's post with them. In keeping with most of our lives, it wasn't a particularly tender moment. I was listening from the kitchen while I mashed avocados into guacamole, but I noticed the way the usual rumble of our home's waking hours was hushed. And the questions began pouring in.
"Dear Bana & the Kids in Aleppo…

When we heard that you’re eating grass, and garbage… that there’s only a few days left till your starvation… while we were all swollen with how much turkey and cranberry and pumpkin pie we ate this past weekend — we all needed to come find you and look you in the eye.

When you, Bana, you tweeted to the world what you’re seeing through your little seven-year-old eyes, and we read what you typed: “Last message – under heavy bombardments now, can’t be alive anymore. When we die, keep talking for 200,000 still inside,” we hardly breathed and we needed to hold out our hands to you.

The anger of this world cannot and will not make us deaf to the cries of our children..." (excerpt from Ann's post)

 abc news

I worried maybe it was too much, lingering on the popular belief that kids should be protected against this sort of thing, that it's not fair to burden them. But the skinny tree is crammed in the corner of our tiny living room and soon it will have presents underneath. It's so hard for kids to wrap their minds around suffering, especially during Christmas, but quite honestly, I know no other way to show them the full story - the Herod that led to the manger that meant our Savior was born humbly so we could see the beauty that grows from low places.

They are children. I don't expect too much from them when it took me 35 years to begin to understand. But when God called my family to the compassion of suffering with our neighbor, he called all of us. We refuse to look away.

I covered the guacamole with plastic wrap, grabbed the chips, and eyed Cory across the room. As always, we created a "big" moment in the midst of our chaos without leaving enough room to tidy up the edges. Parenting, at least for us, is an exercise in begging God to fill in the cracks. Shoes-coats-last minute bathroom visits - and we were in the van.

"Does anyone want to pray for Aleppo?"

Calvin did.

Here's the thing - I struggle when people talk about how "beautiful" so-and-so's prayer was. Call me immature. Say I'm missing something. I'm sure both are true. I happen to not have the gift of poetic prayer, and I've learned to not pretend otherwise. They all count, even the ones breathed through gritted teeth. Even and perhaps especially the desperate ones strung with cuss words from our friends at the county jail, who have learned to speak the language of pain.

All that aside, Calvin's prayer made me weepy. It was beautiful.

"Help the people bombing Aleppo to change their ways."

My eleven year old somehow understood that in the end, it's the only miracle that will help.
Image result for aleppo children
save the children

My house smells like pine, I'm sipping orange-spiced tea, and I'm offering you the gift of sorrow for our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters and mothers in Aleppo. They are not so different from you and I. They cook dinner, laugh, and cuddle up. For generations they have built a future just to watch it crumble around and upon them in a picture of apocalyptic hell on earth.

It is Tuesday, December 6th in Aleppo. This very moment they are kissing their kids' cheeks and praying for tomorrow. They're tending to what needs done and asking for a miracle. They are as full of life and dreams as we are, as hopeful and creative, every bit as funny. They like their toast a certain way and their coffee black, or heaped with cream. They remember the feel of wool on their skin. They remember a time when they weren't starving and scared, and when their children didn't look like this.


Some say this isn't our problem. It's too impossible. The stakes are too high, or too confusing. It's Christmas, after all, and we can't bear more darkness just now.

But I know we are different.

Five long/short years ago, we stood against injustice by trying to fund a well so an impoverished village could have clean water. We watched water run through our homes and looked hard at the ways we took it for granted. We forced ourselves to face their pain. And though it looked impossible on paper for our tiny community to accomplish this huge goal, we were not deterred. We stepped out in obedience, not knowing how long it would take or if if would ever even be "successful" (in the ways the world defines success.) 

When we exceeded the goal ($12,000!) in less than two months, I was slackjawed. Speechless. These are the kinds of things that return lonely hearts to their homes and restore souls. This is Jesus brought low to the earth, small and unlikely, to save us.

So, here I am, today, not asking for a dime.
I'm just asking us to care.

For some of us, caring might mean sending some cash along the way. But for many of us, it will be much bigger than money. It will mean risking our reputations and sacrificing our common sense. It will mean bearing a burden we'd rather ignore. It will mean hauling around a bucket of sadness while we shop for presents, bake cookies, and wait. The most important sacrifice is the one that is hardest to make, and I am asking you - begging you - to define with me that *thing* holding us back from loving these precious neighbors, then tossing it on the altar and watching it burn.
“You don’t feel the siege biting until it’s gone too far. Then the market shelves are free of everything. You see no bread, no milk, no rice. We’re eating two small meals a day now and soon it will have to be one. But you know what scares me even more than hunger? The international silence. No one has helped us. We are alone.” Washington Post article from December 3, 2016

Ann has helped create a website full of important calls to action. Please read through it and act in whatever way God is calling. Please, please share. Rally your families and your people. Print the ornaments off and pass them out at church or the coffee shop. Take a picture of you and your people holding a DIY #WithAleppo sign and tag it on social media. Above all, pray. This is not an invitation to a miserable Christmas, it's an invitation to a meaningful Christmas, where we carry out our beloved traditions while fighting for the life we say we value.

I cannot stress this enough - people will think you're nuts. They might be annoyed. They might talk smack that you dare to try to "ruin" their Christmas. But we were not born to live among the "international silence." Most of the world seems to be okay with leaving an entire city alone and bleeding - we are not among them.


Our bread feels painfully small right now. There is simply not enough of it and we're too far away. But in the face of need, Jesus faced his disciples, looked them in the eye, and said, "You do it."

They dared to believe he meant it. They suspended their judgment long enough to trust that for some crazy reason, he wanted to work through all they lacked. They handed it over and the Savior of the world made a way.

With Aleppo and with so much love,
Shannan (& Co.)

Here's the website, one more time.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Two Kinds of Buckets


Exactly one week ago, our friends Becca & Adam packed up their family in Atlanta and drove into the night to hang out with us for 24 decadent, wonky hours. They showed up on Tuesday around lunchtime while I was upstairs "handling" the crime scene that is the kids' bathroom then, as an expression of my gratitude, I immediately whisked Becca away to Kroger. She also obliged when I asked her to keep me company for the approximately 6.33333 hours it took me to make a humble pot of soup for dinner.What I'm trying to tell you is, visit at your peril and/or boredom.

Later, the kids watched Tom & Jerry in the basement, and us adults managed to stay awake until almost midnight as a demonstration of our eternal youthfulness and vigor. (It helped that we had a crockpot full of strange and delicious dip consisting of sausage, cream cheese, and Rotel melted together.)

We spent most of our time commiserating about loving people with complicated lives and how the mess so easily bleeds onto us. On paper, it seems like it wouldn't be worth it. We unanimously agreed that life used to be simpler, not to mention quieter. But they hold the secret in their hearts and in their bones - life was meant to be lived near the margins. The magic is never far from the mess.

We parted ways reluctantly and headed off to celebrate the season of thankfulness with our respective families. I spent much of Thanksgiving day alternating between bites of peanut butter pie, sad thoughts about my locked up friends, and bites of sugar cream pie.

One day later, I was leveled over the destruction and suffering in Aleppo, Syria. The thought of families being torn apart and children facing imminent starvation weighed on me as I tried to enjoy the day with my own healthy, happy, safe, and overfed family. The thing about love is that it's often inconvenient. Love, in its purest form, is lived without regard for what it might cost us.

Now, the tree is mostly up and I burned the Harvest Spice candle down just in time to replace it with a piney one. Christmas is  in the air, and I'm still feeling some type of way. 

At the risk of repeating myself for the 7th straight December, this time of year throws my emotional equilibrium out of whack. I wrote about this way back in 2010. Silas was home for his first Christmas, we had recently met a small community of homeless people who were skewing our worldview against everything we thought we knew, we were knee-deep in Radical, and we had no earthly clue that it was only the beginning. The door was cracked open just a smidge to the burn of the world. We found ourselves wondering if maybe by choosing to walk toward the hurt rather than away from it, our own weary hearts would somehow be healed.

~

When I was a kid growing up in the country, I remember my dad teaching us that the best way to carry something heavy is to carry something equally heavy in the other hand. From personal experience, this applies to buckets of water, oversized suitcases, grocery bags filled with cans of Spaghettios, concrete blocks, and dense emotions.

Decades later, I remain a distracted and forgetful student of balance. Gratitude and sorrow aren't, as I once believed, mutually exclusive. They actually pair quite well together, one in each hand.

It can be easy to get caught up in focusing on my own comfort. Or even to ebb into the dark seas of sadness, staring too long at grief and disunity. The trick is to keep filling the other bucket. And the only way that's possible is Emmanuel, who comes to be with us, who offers the hope of salvation, who calls us to drive our ego, our pride, and our common sense into the dirt as we love each other more. The world says, "Save yourself first!" The Gospel tells of a narrower way where life is found through death, and where gratitude and sorrow twist into an enduring cord of hope.

In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about the importance of keeping Herod in Christmas. Though the tidy version initially feels nicer with its sugar rushes and cheery lights, we can opt to stop dumbing it down and acknowledge the suffering Jesus came to redeem. This is the only way to celebrate Christ's birth with authenticity.

The finest gift we bring is our willingness to stare pain in the face while carols hold the beat. Aleppo, Standing Rock, addiction, chaos, strife, abuse, grief, the attack that occurred on an Ohio college campus while I wrote this blog post - In his name, all oppression shall cease. Today, while our computers light up with flash deals and Amazon magically spirits new stuff to our front doors, we can fill the other bucket, surrendering what we think is "ours", and releasing it back into the kingdom.

The heartbreak of the world around us won't wait for the party to end. The heartbreak is the very reason we sing.


Here are a few of the organizations* Cory and I enthusiastically support:

Compassion International
Legacy Collective
Mocha Club  
Owens family (with Africa Inland Mission)
The Good Story
The Mentoring Project
Tiny Hands International

*Another way to fill the bucket is to look around your actual life and find people who need help. Think single moms, struggling families, older folks falling through the cracks, friends in jail who pay through the nose for basic needs like shampoo, Q-tips and sports bras...This kind of giving is not tax deductible, but Jesus says it counts, too. ;)


Friday, November 25, 2016

Bright Friday

Yesterday my sister wrangled all of us out of our Thanksgiving-day stasis for a family picture. She's prone to this sort of thing. Meanwhile, I'm prone to feeling like I'd rather not fix my hair, I'd rather not move away from the wood-burning stove or the book in my hands. It's windy outside. The ground is soggy, et cetera. I'd rather not.

But she's right about this just like she's right about a lot of things, and I want to get better at looking past how I feel in up at the surface and fixing my eyes on the long view. This is just one more example of how I tend to trade the eternal for the temporary, or miss out on moments with real value because, well, I like my cozy pants.

I threw on some earrings to make up for the rest and the wind whipped them around as I walked to the edge of my parents' acreage. Voila. A time capsule woven of years and surprises. A freeze-frame of gifts we would never have had the guts to ask for. I could tell you family stories that would singe your heart and I'm certain you could burn me back. We have lived full lives, haven't we? And aren't they all forged from flames?

I don't have to convince you we're strong or faithful, because mostly, we aren't. But we hold on to each other when the chips are down. We shake our heads at what an unlikely group we really are, and then we eat more pie. Together.

We usually stay home in Indiana for Thanksgiving to huddle up with the people drawn into the misshapen circle of our family. On one hand, I can hardly bear the thought that life pulled us out of our routine this year. On the other hand, we desperately needed the slow motion, the giggling kids, the zero responsibilities unless you count the Brussels sprout salad and minor clean-up duties. I spent most of the day lulling myself into a pre-meal coma through sheer inertia, so I don't really want to talk about the full spread my mom made for dinner, or my commitment to trying all of the desserts.

Along the way, I prayed for friends by name who sit in windowless cells, who run the streets, who run the scams, who run toward pain because, like the song says, sometimes that's all that's real.

The lesson for me here, again and again and dangit, will I ever really learn? is that sometimes I get to invite my people, all of us misfits who need to know we belong, around my table. But other times, I just don't. (I always think the easiest one is the one I'm not doing.) I like being served as much as the next girl, but what keeps me warm in the winter is the lie that I make other lives better. That quiet pride still creeps up around me, so God benches me for a minute while he governs creation and transmits his mercy in humbling ways. Rather than gulping left-over regret straight from the gravy boat, I'll be thankful instead.

Because through God's famous trick math, I am always exactly enough, particularly when I'm busy screwing stuff up.

Happy Day After Thanksgiving, homies.


~

Weekend Links: Mini Edition

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::  I wrote at (in)courage today about the intentional practice of hospitality my family is building into our December. Join me? "Every Friday this season, my family will be intentionally seeking ways to come together so that our hearts might remember the heart of Emmanuel."

::  This Confession For the Church written from the soul by Rebekah Lyons has been circulating for a while, but I just found it. And it's beautiful.

::  Dads Behind Bars Hold Their Kids for the First Time {and we all sob.}

~

I haven't been a Black Friday shopper since I went once in Junior High with my Aunt Wendelin and was so tired and overwhelmed that I almost puked. TMI??

BUT...I can appreciate some crazy-loco deals from the handful of retailers I love to support! 

::  Amazon is offering $10 off a book order of $25 of more using the code HOLIDAYBOOK. Basically, two books for fifteen bucks! For a girl who keeps a "books" line item in our squeaky-tight budget, this means something. If you haven't already ordered your copy of my new release, Falling Free, now would be the time! I also suggest Kris Camealy's Come, Lord Jesus - a 25-day Advent devotional (the one I'll be using this year) and to round out your order, one of our favorite wintry kids books, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

::  Canvas People is offering 85% off all canvases. I have ordered many canvases when they drop the prices like this and I love them. You can't find a more personal, high-impact gift.

::  Tea Collection is offering loads of adorable, global-minded, high-quality kids wear for under $15!

::  FashionABLE is offering 20% off their ethical leather goods, handcrafted jewelry, and and hand-woven scarves along with free shipping with the code HOLLYJOLLY


*Affiliate links used.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Chase the Light


Over the past two weeks, I accidentally went into hiding. I wrote my last post with a good bit of optimism, feeling above the fray, ready to take a couple of deep breaths and then move along. Let's get on with it. 

But as Cory says, a lot can happen in two weeks. Or even two days. What is real on a Monday might bend against the shadows come Tuesday morning. The plight of a world in constant flux is the chaos it invites. We suffer fickle hearts and good intentions gone bad, both as victim and perpetrator.

In nine years of blogging, I've never been quiet for so long. I've written a dozen mental posts while going about the business of my life, deleting each of them by nightfall. My hope is that if I'm here at all, it's with my heart laid bare. I never want to show up just to say I've been here, and I'm sorry for the times when I have. This is my promise to you, that I will only give you what's real. When I write again about muffins or soup or my beloved mug rack (and I will,) I promise it will be because they form part of the fabric of my life. Sometimes they are what I find burning when I peer inside. I've never claimed to be so spiritual or important that I'm immune to being swept into passionate feelings about television, gingham, or tacos. This hasn't changed.

But sometimes what's just below my surface feels pretty inconvenient. Sometimes it takes forever to find my words and when I finally do, I wish I hadn't. They're too sad, or too difficult to explain. This might be one of those times. But I'm going to try anyway, because this is my story. This matters to me. Of course the online space wasn't made for real conversation, but when it comes to you and I, it's all we've got. So imagine my eyes, dark brown and weary, wrinkles at the corners and the stubborn birth mark that's sometimes mistaken for a bruise. I'll do the same for you. As always, I hope we'll walk away a little closer to each other than we were yesterday.

~


The morning after the election I caught a Facebook post from one of my dearest neighbors and my heart lodged up in my throat. I admitted to Cory that I had been overly optimistic as we stared out the window of our favorite Mexican restaurant and wondered what we would be willing to do to protect the people we love, if it ever came to that. The next day, I flew my crumpled heart to a deep red state where I was scheduled to talk with 300 white evangelical women about what it means to be a neighbor.

Thanks to pundits, with their statistical analyses and broad brushes, we know things about how certain demographics engaged in the election.  But I have learned that when it comes to living, breathing humans, categorizations lose their meaning. Distilling one another down to data bites was never what God had in mind.

The women welcomed me with open arms and tender hearts while I spoke the Word of truth for each of us - when we belong to Christ, nothing is off limits. He has the authority to shift our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our souls. He will take what is his, sparing nothing. Jesus came to be with us, to sit so close that our thighs touch and our breath mingles and we can't help but belong to one another. I talked about his unfussy example, and how terrible the implications are for all of us introverts and cozy Christians who prefer our echo chambers and our easy answers. I shared my family's complicated journey away from emotional comfort to this place where I never imagined I could cry so much, my voice breaking as if on cue.

I told most of the truth, dancing around the stuff I wasn't quite sure how to handle, or at least not publicly. I stuffed it down.

A few hundred miles away, a neighbor boy ran down the alley to our front door with a plastic juice pitcher full of pozole verde, comforting the comfortable.

Four separate times that weekend I stood at the mic, unable to finish a single story about my neighbors without wanting to lay my head on the wooden podium and weep. That was the story haunting me, the one I couldn't outrun even with prayer and preaching.

In the end, I was too emotionally exhausted to continue trying. I surrendered. We all survived.


Over the course of the following week I nursed sadness with gratitude over many mugs of lukewarm tea, sharing space with people who mirror my feelings and those who pointedly do not, parting ways each time with enough love to fill the cracks. I read until my vision blurred. I prayed desperate, tired prayers. I watched my neighbor's eyes fill with tears as he said, "My family is feeling better now because we are beginning to see that our neighbors really care. It's very meaningful. It helps us to not be afraid."

It would be wrong of me to talk about my life as a neighbor, to write a book about the ways my neighbors have changed my life and shown me a truer picture of God's power and love, yet not share with you that my neighborhood is hurting right now. I wrestle constantly with the most honoring way to share the lives which intersect with my own. I never know if I'm doing it right, but I can at least attempt to do it fairly by telling the whole truth.

I'm not interested in being a political activist. I'm far too cynical, having seen from close range the damage both sides do. But if I fear anything, it's my primal urge to default to apathy and inaction. Conservatives find me a traitor. Liberals find me a light-weight. No one is happy with who I am or what I stand for and half the time, I'm a little unclear myself. But my neighbors haven't asked who I voted for. They don't have time for political skirmishes. They just want to know I love them and I'm with them. They need to feel some of their sadness seep into my bones. 


November has been rough, but the war we're in is not the war we think we're in. Our fight is against darkness, wherever we find it, even and especially within ourselves. Our call is to look out and be about the business of those who are pushed aside, forced down, and silenced. Find them, walk toward their pain, and suffer it with them through service. I want to live in such a way that this is my first instinct.

Jesus sided with the poor, the grieving, the humble, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the persecuted, the champions of peace. He raged against rulers and grabbed hold of ordinary humans. He did far more than just pray. He questioned systems and voted for life with his actual life. My friend Shannon invites us most beautifully to do the same.


In this battle, our best weapon isn't our sharp rhetoric, our imposing size, or the threat of our force. We kill darkness by leaving our door ajar, passing foil pans of cakes and tamales, and being willing to look foolish.

The neighbors send a dove for an olive branch - a boy with a pitcher of soup - as if searching for dry land.

I sit at the island with a note-card and Spanish "skills" buried beneath two decades of mental rust, scratching out a string of mistakes that hopefully amounts to something like, "We are so thankful to have you as our neighbor."

We invite each other in. We listen. We cry. We hug. We eat together and laugh.

How do we win when the odds feel grim? By turning toward the light and chasing it together.


"What good is a door with just one hinge? You need two hinges to get doors to work, or it's just no good at all. Jesus said you are to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God is the top hinge, and loving your neighbor is the bottom one. Everything depends on both of these. They cannot be separated." 


*Amazon affiliate links used.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Best News About Election Day


Eight years ago on election day I woke up with a fresh cold sore blooming on my lower lip and the early tremors of a panic attack bubbling up to the surface. I was working for the Department of Health and Human Services back then, and certain a shift in the administration would mean the end of my career. (I was right.) Similarly, though with graver consequence, Cory was on staff with a United States Congressman. It seemed our lives hung in the balance of a system that was losing its mind. Gone were the years when we had ordered Chinese take-out and watched each state claim its color as if it were all a high-stakes sporting event. It had become personal. After all, in some small way, we were part of the machine.

Each morning for weeks, maybe months, I scoured the polls from my chippy blue desk tucked inside our farmhouse. Back then, my friends voted in unison and the world around us was comfortably small. My first two little ones played near me while I stared out the window at harvested fields and picked at my lip. They banged wooden spoons against the plastic drum, pretended the laundry basket was a pirate ship, served me molded plastic peas on a pink plastic saucer. They were too young to care, so I cared on their behalf. I held them, kissed their faces, and worried fervently for their futures. They were too young to care, but I would teach them to care. They were Americans afforded great liberties. In time, they would understand the mantle of responsibility placed upon them, like it or not, to ensure the faithfulness of our great country. They would be special. Exceptional. Well-versed in political jargon and bearing a keen understanding that the government worked for and belonged to them. Failing all else, one day they would lose sleep for their country as unto the Lord. They would rise on a November morning, see the trees nearly stripped of their leaves, and believe the world was just a day away from ruin. This would be their burden, a hill worthy of a certain kind of death, and they would be faithful. It would be the very least they could do.

The years have changed me.

This morning, walking home from dropping the kids off at school, I was struck by how beautiful the trees still are. I thought last week was my neighborhood's finest hour, but here it is, still hanging on. It's election day, the culmination of months of our great country putting on a different kind of show. Standing beneath the elm tree while the kids filed inside, I asked a friend of mine if he would be voting today. "No way. The only thing I care about is the school board, and it wouldn't be worth my time to walk all the way over there just for that." Somehow, I'm still stunned by the ways my life is so much easier than the lives of most of my neighbors. I'm not sure I'll ever stop taking for granted basic things like a home where I can't be evicted, a van that takes me wherever I need to go, and the belief that I belong fully and completely, just as I actually am, in this world.

It's all pretty bleak, I suppose, pretty gloomy; or at least it should be, though the trees tell a different story. The trees and the sky and the men in orange vests sweeping my streets this morning are saying there's hope to be found, and work to be done. What they're trying to tell us, if we're paying attention, is that on this high-cycle news day, the very best news will show up in a hush.

~


On Sunday Cory filled the pulpit at church. For being a chaplain, this sort of thing doesn't happen as often as you might think. He moves around the county and does quite a bit of speaking, but preaching is a different beast. As the wife, it felt like a pretty big deal. As a struggling, often-faithless congregant of a church on the brink of either death or impending revival, it felt like a fine last hurrah. I've been telling myself that sort of thing for a solid two years now. Because for every step we take toward redemption there has been at least one that brings us closer to the inevitable end, and I don't know if the steps are linear, or if they even track a straight line. It has felt like walking in circles, into the desert and back out again. Or are we out? Because my throat sure feels dry. Our friends are tired of hearing about the sand and the mirages. We're sick to death of our own voices, very tired of complaining again only to circle back and explain why it still matters very much that we stay. We lost our "audience" at least ten rant-sessions ago. No one understands at this point, so why are we still talking? Why are we still here?

I could hear the piano pounding chords from the back door as we blew into the building our customary two minutes late. As I got closer to the sanctuary, I heard the voices of the saints. I climbed the steps, shook a few hands, and rounded the corner.

The pews, usually only a third-full on a good day, were up to a solid half. Across the room sat two familiar faces I hadn't seen in almost a year and it was all I could do not to sprint to them. Amid the usual sea of white curls were new faces, tattooed faces, smiling young faces, improbable-family faces.

We sang from our hymnals, and they kept showing up, each weighed down uniquely, bearing different shades of the same pain yet reminding me of the God in whose image each of us were made.

We spoke in unison, we prayed, we shook hands and hugged.
I passed a plate holding nothing but one quarter and one dime.

We heard from God, who promises His grip is tighter than ours. We lit candles, brushed tears from our eyes, noticed the light bouncing off each other's faces while pony-tailed men with Mt. Dew bottles traipsed out for a smoke then back in again. Collectively, we dared to believe half of the battle of church is in stubbornly showing up and that once we do, every moment within the communion of the walls belongs deeply and personally to us.

~




The best news about today is that it's all a bit irrelevant, though I would have silently rebuked you in the name of Jesus eight years ago if you'd told me the same.

It's background noise at best, a distraction from our clearest purpose, which doesn't change at all, not ever, even in the face of political maelstrom and a deep Constitutional despair.

The best news is, tomorrow, no matter how today ends, we get to return to the business of being the church in the midst of this jacked-up world. Make no mistake - there exists no reality where we are  more or less troubled tomorrow than we are at this moment. Our distance from God will be no further, and He will also be every bit as near.

What will continue to matter most is God's kingdom crashing into earth and our willingness to catch and release his very good news. We can rub the backs of the middle school boys who are afraid of Trump's Wall. We can look kindly into the eyes of the Evangelicals afraid of Hillary.

Because our first love is not legislation and our deepest loyalty is not to this country, only because our citizenship is born solely and significantly in Christ, we get to keep reflecting his mercy and incarnating his love which will not detour around the pain of a heart-sick world. Where others wring their hands and worry, we will march gladly into the thick of, where the real wounds throb and bleed, where we ourselves are tender and torn. We will tend to one another, and allow our own weary spirits to be kissed by hope.

We get to be the good news to all the sons who have been herded, often unjustly, into prisons, then let loose bearing the scars of our own sins, their right to vote relinquished forever. We get to remain the good news to the neighbor so far at the margins that she is sure her voice in any election doesn't register above a raspy whisper. Why bother? 

The very best news on this puzzling, shocking, heart-breaking election day is that we get to double our efforts tomorrow, no matter what, and fight like a lover for all of life. Where we have paid lip-service to the feel-good, "come as you are" Christian tagline, we are given the opportunity to actually be worthy of any addict or felon or welfare mom we are lucky enough to have among us for a moment.

Tomorrow and every day after, we get to live as though Heaven really is our prize.

We have seen enough over the past six months to understand in the marrow of our bones and at the center of our Christ-dwelling spirits what justice and righteousness is not. We have stood close enough to these fires to realize we were already burning with self-preservation, already ablaze with judgment and apathy.

Sometimes in order to see how far we have to fall, we have to stand at the edge of the cliff and peer over it with our stomachs in our throats and our knees trembling.

Tomorrow, we will take a step back, turn, and sprint in the opposite direction.

Thy kingdom come.
They will be done.

On earth as it is in Heaven.



Thursday, November 3, 2016

Octember

For the past two days, I've been staring out my living room windows and wandering the side streets, straight-up gawking at this beautiful place I call home. It's funny how things like autumn happen every year, yet somehow distinguish themselves from seasons past. I've lived drippy, depressing Octobers. I've lived Octobers where everything around me was brand new and I was too busy finding my place to notice the leaves. This is my fifth October on North 5th Street, and I swear, it still feels new.

Just to be clear, I realize it's now November. I'm taking liberties here and lumping them together. I'm writing them down as a stunning collective, because next year, it might not look so pretty. I might need to dig this from the archives and remind myself that sometimes, October feels like November, but other times, November feels like the best parts of everything.

{via Calvin}

For whatever reason, fall tends to be one of my busiest seasons, and this one was no exception. We drove out to Arkansas in what ended up being our most epic road trip to date. In the past, any discussion of 12 straight hours in the van made Cory and I shaky and tense. But the time came to give it a try, and it was everything we needed. We were more desperate to cram ourselves tightly together and stare out the windows at unfamiliar landscapes than we realized. We detoured through St. Louis and craned our necks up at the arch, then kept on walking in search of tacos until we accidentally found ourselves in a neighborhood that inspired a woman in a Lincoln Navigator to pull up beside us and say, "Can I please give you a ride to wherever you're going? You really shouldn't be out this way."

Man, if only she knew...

 {via cory}

  {via cory}

  {via cory}

 {via cory}

{via seth}

In Arkansas we stayed up too late eating ice cream with toppings. We started our mornings so slowly that it became impossible to distinguish them from the rest of the day. We spent almost every minute talking about things like church, politics, vocation, food, family, and what love should speak to the world around us.

Meanwhile, the kids played so hard they needed two showers a day.

The leaves were barely turning, the hills reminded us of Tennessee.


{via haverlee}


Less than a week after returning home, I flew out to Seattle and Portland. It was my first trip to that part of the country, and I still can't get over it. I spent time with newer friends, slept in their homes, traipsed with them through forests that buzzed green with life. One morning, I walked with one of them to take her kiddos to school and was struck by how ordinary and spectacular these simplest routines can be. Our neighborhoods are different. Our schools are different. The trees and even the sky are different. But the heart and the guts and the trust are very much the same. Moss lined the curbs, so I stooped down for a street-view shot. The leaves were popping, the air was chilly, the crossing guards were as loving and beloved as the one I greet each morning at the end of my street.

As always, the best part of being away is coming home. Always and forever, amen. I missed Cory more than usual on this trip. I saw the PNW through his lens and if I could have reached through the miles and snatched him up to experience it with me, I would have. He is my home, and as our life gets weirder and, in many ways, harder, I'm ever more aware that the best moments are dulled without him near.

It was dark when I arrived home, still dark the next morning when I walked the kids to school. But somewhere around mid-morning, the sky caught up with us. It snapped awake and my neighborhood had never looked more beautiful.



My Instagram feed is jammed full of trees putting on a show. It can almost seem a little redundant. The leaves are turning! It's pretty! We get it! The thing is, we aren't really sharing our pictures for each other, are we? We're taking the time to notice, and remember. We're doing it because there's just no other way. This is the world we get to live in, and we all secretly feel like the luckiest one. We're partial to our leaves, our trees, our place and our lives, just as we should be. I wouldn't trade the walnut tree across the street for a single other walnut tree on the planet. There's just something about it.

Indeed, it's November, despite all evidence to the contrary. My gratitude meter is cranked way up. I'm tremendously thankful for my actual life even though heartbreak keeps heaving our way. It's all too easy to treat each day as if it's a marble on a tipping point - it'll either roll one way, or the other. Truth tells me it doesn't have to be that way. A moment, a day, a life shouldn't be reduced down to "bad" or "good". It's a little bit of everything. It's rain and warm air and leaves so bright and thick on the ground, it almost feels criminal to trample them. They won't be here for long, though. And if you ask them, they'll tell you - they were made for this.

I don't exactly know why the seasons teach me about God, I only know they do. This precise season, Fall 2016, is telling me to love harder. It's saying I should be hummingbird-fast with my apologies, that I should reach for my child and hug him when he's feeling and acting the most unhuggable, that I should swing my door wider and even that I should lock the door sometimes, and turn off the lights.

{via cory}

October was slow and fast. It's lingering, and November has lit a candle and brewed it a cup of tea. They are somehow better together, where the lines are blurred and the distinctions are lost. The combination is intoxicating, so I'll simmer a double-batch of soup and sing through the window screens. Who cares who might be listening? This is the right time to set the pace for a season of blazing kindness and world-changing, everyday love.

Are you with me?


//

I got to chat with one of my former pastor's on his podcast. It was really fun to talk about the turn our life took with someone who was actually there when it turned. You can listen here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Day Casper Died :: My Twists & Turns with Halloween

{This post originally appeared here on October 24, 2013. It seemed like the right time to unearth it.}

The details are a bit fuzzy, but I once Halloweened as Casper the Friendly Ghost.  His apparition "body" was tied around my neck in the form of a plastic barber’s cape; his face clung to mine via an elastic band. I saw the world that night through his two little slit-eyes, and I have to say, it didn’t look so bad. There may have been some scary stuff happening around me, but I was too preoccupied with my pillowcase loot-bag to notice. Halloween was fun, never mind the fact that it got a little stuffy and humid behind my molded plastic mask.

One year later, someone jammed the brakes. And by someone, I mean dear ol’ Mom and Dad. In one fell swoop, Halloween was nixed, along with Smurfs, Rainbow Brite, Care Bears, and Scooby Doo. All the fun stuff. I’m not gonna lie, it hurt.

But I trusted my parents – I still do, and when they said Halloween was devil worship and Care-A-Lot was the veritable portal for New Age Mysticism, I believed them. Plus, they had a point; Fred, Daphne, and the gang did make it seem like violence had no permanent consequences.

So, we embarked on a unilateral boycott of All Things Halloween, which reached a fever pitch around 1987 when even participating in the school party felt a little too close to the fire. I stayed home from school that day and went Christmas shopping at the mall. It all made perfect sense.

I didn’t give it another thought until 20-odd years later, when I found myself with a husband and assorted small people, one of whom once shrieked with glee, “Calvin, it’s the Arthur about Halloween!”

For all of my collective years spent in denial, it’s time to sort this out a bit. Here’s where I am so far:

1) Halloween is kind of creepy.
2) But, I'm not sure it does anything to further God's kingdom when the Christians lock their doors and pretend they aren't home. (This is an actual thing I've done in past years.)
3) Also, holding a Not-Halloween party, complete with costumes and candy, is actually sort of like celebrating, uh, Halloween.
4) "Pagan" holidays aren't automatically sanctified when they're held in a Fellowship Hall.
5)  And dressing up like Bible characters? Lame and confusing.

"Nice robe! But weren't you David last year?"
"Uh, I'm clearly Moses."
"But you have a staff..."
"Dude, it's a rod."
"But it's curved..."
"Look, my dad wouldn't let me cut the straight limbs, okay? Dang you, Martha! You're such a    know-it-all!"
"I'm not Martha this year. I'm totally Mary. I've matured."
"But you're carrying a little bottle of olive oil."
"It's perfume. Duh."
6) I think Halloween can be "celebrated" with as much innocence or pagan fervor as we wish. Sort of like Christmas.
7) A pillowcase full of free candy? Come to Mama. No, really. Give me your candy already.

I don't know, maybe it's time to put the "allow" back in Halloween.

Then again, I've got zero practice making costumes and I'm way too cheap to spring for Plastic Casper.

So maybe we'll just wing it again and let the stale gummy bears fall where they may. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Learn and Live


I got my first official job when I was eighteen years old, soon after a Meijer grocery/everything store popped up in the nearest city from the village where I grew up. I worked in the shoe department in my lame polyester smock, sizing and shelving vinyl shoes that had people names like "Cindy" and "Kirsten".

Two of my co-workers would become some of my closest friends. I was the bones to their curves, the flat tresses to their curls. It worked. Together, we abused the store's PA system, sang along with the Muzak, raised more than one on-the-clock ruckus, and dipped our toes into the complex underbelly of retail store romances. Before summer's end each of us was dating a bad dude in a red polyester vest, dodging melodrama and re-spraying our bangs. We stacked the tiny toddler-sized shoes two pairs deep but it never crossed our minds to imagine buying some one day.

The days stretched into night and back again.We were young and ordinary. We were spectacular. We were good girls straining to be bad under a cover of privilege we didn't recognize. We knew the fury of the church along with its love. And the cost of every sin? We knew the weight of the invisible sliding scale dividing earth from air, ever set against the horizon, impossible to ignore.

The future loomed large, an escape hatch or certain death, depending on the hour. On our nights off we read smutty magazines out loud and talked about God.

One morning, walking to the stock room through the housewares aisle with its rows of screen-printed dish towels and tacky color palettes, a wave of dread swept over me. I would never belong to a world that required me to wash all the dishes and buy my own towels. I pictured an empty room with walls the color of melted vanilla ice cream and me, alone in the middle. If life was a blank slate, I was beginning to realize I had never even held a brush. It was too much, and I was ill-equipped.


Twenty years later, and I am here, a wife and mother, my two friends even more dear. We learned in the nick of time to find intrigue apart from men who hadn't learned how to love. We have mortgages now. Along the way we managed to discern our tastes in dish towels and acquire a good many.

But there is still so much I do not know.

In the past month, I sat near men addicted to drugs and women addicted to men. I watched hope slip through trembling hands and watched trust circle the drain. I saw men fight their way out of hell, running breathless and alive only to stop on a dime and stand perfectly still until it caught up with them again. Before my eyes, jail morphed into heaven, and freedom - certain death.

Sometimes Silas prays on our morning walk to school and sometimes I do, but for reasons I cannot explain, each prayer begins with, "Dear God, thank you for the trees." Lately, when I'm the one praying, my silky-haired boy murmurs along with his heart ablaze like the pious men of my youth, "Yes. Amen!" I have no idea what's become of him, but it sure wasn't me.



I have stirred sage into risotto and baked egg casseroles in foil pans so large, the middle wasn't set until the bottom was the color of my morning tea. I bought XL cans of Bush's baked beans in bulk as unto the Lord.

I have been lied to. I have been cried to. I have returned both favors.
I've washed load upon load of laundry. I've cleaned the bathroom for spite. I've played Rummy and laughed until I cried.

I have this thing about kissing my people every day, taking time to give them the affection they need, which differs across the board. So, I've done that. I've earned extra credit here, jogged this extra mile. I've kissed the soft cheeks of my children. I've kissed my husband, hanging on for dear life through another wave of the pain life deals, relieved again to realize we're still here, still mostly standing.

I have hiked trails to the tune of fall, inhaling white space, remembering years ago when we tried the same trail while in the throes of potty-training Silas. We're a happy family now, the one that quietly showed up while we were still grieving what we thought we had become.


Early one morning, I chased the neighbor dog in her cardigan sweater away from our cranky cat and worried for the boys who held the leash. I stared injustice in the face until my eye sockets bled, wondering why some kids are given opportunity while other kids are expected to earn it. I have watched as some of my small neighbors are cast quietly aside where they won't be missed. But we'll notice them again. One day, we'll stand with our rocks and make them pay for the sins we committed against them.

I have incited wars and hoarded grace. I've heard the voice of God from the lips of an ex-felon seated to my right at our dining table. 




This life is a blanket, and it covers us. We don't need to protect ourselves from it, it's the actual thing that keeps us warm, the very presence of God in the middle of the work we do and the ways we run. The narrative is one of profound sorrow and immeasurable hope. This melody is often sung in a minor key, so we brew another cup of tea, ride bikes with the wind in our faces, take chances and hot showers and hunker down, rediscovering the true love of the living God.

Things change, but the main things don't. The summer of '94 is still hot on my skin. I'm still fumbling around in the dark, stunned by all I don't know.

But there are trees that need watching and people waiting to be loved, so I guess I'll just keep learning while I live.