Thursday, March 9, 2017

Year 4.5 - the Look of Life


Sometimes my fight is against cynicism. Sometimes it's against apathy. It's always against the fleshiest part of me that wants what I want when I want it, the part that is never satisfied, always longing, always turning away.

Lately, my fight is against the urge to shut it all down and sleep for the better part of a week. It has been a tiring couple of months (yawn.)

So, yesterday, when I found a rare ten-minute window, I decided to spend it sitting on my front steps in peace. Just ordinary me, the birds, the bare Maple limbs and the familiar wail of the train. No people. No words.

Not thirty seconds later she passed by on the opposite sidewalk, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She walks by a few times a day, her face lined with hardship more than age, her skin closely matching the tan of her backpack. If I had to guess how old she is, I'm sure I'd overshoot it.

Warily, she said hello.
A minute more and she crossed over to my side of the street.

This neighbor cares for her disabled granddaughter. She writes letters to her daughter at the women's prison every week and wouldn't you know, her daughter just won a coveted spot in the Dog Program. (I assumed this was an acronym for something. Drugs? Daughters? Who knows. In fact, it's a program where inmates learn to train dogs.)

I asked about her grandkids who, like so many others, broke my heart when the hard-luck housing market swallowed them up and they were forced across town. "Oh, they're much better," she smiled. "I still can't believe it."

She railed against mistakes made, injustices dealt. There's the daughter serving time downstate on a meth charge when "so many damn people are out there doing so much worse." There's the school who tossed her grandson out when he was just a kid. He's better now, back in school. He found a new friend and they share a name, but they also share the weight of the world pressing down on them, daring them to survive. "He's a good friend, a true friend." She paused. "I don't have many of those, myself. I'm too honest, I guess."

Tell me the truth. Show me what is real. This is my ten minute window, but I'm willing to stretch it to twenty if you are.

I did little more than listen and nod along, watching the ash grow longer between her fingertips then fall to the ground. "This weather is really something, isn't it? They say global warming is a bunch of BS, but I don't know, this doesn't make much sense. It's weird." She trailed away, we said our goodbyes, for now.



I recently sat with a late cup of steaming tea and listened to a message from a new friend, hundreds of miles away. Through tears she processed her own journey from safety and comfort to one marked by the weird way of Jesus.

"I'm so confused... I feel so disconnected from my old life but I'm lonely here, too... My life used to be so much simpler... When will this start to get easier?"

Staring out my window at the street that keeps pummeling my pride along with my heart, tears streaked my face. I shook my head and wept. Then I messaged her back, "It will never get easier."

We are four and a half years in and here's what I can tell you: I know my place. It is no longer unfamiliar to me. I know the smells. I expect the shattered glass gleaming underfoot on our slow morning walks to school. I know the cars and the kids. The sounds have formed a particular sort of white noise; the hammer, the chainsaw, tires on wet pavement, the train. I am no stranger here. I'm not new anymore.

This life is exhausting, it's not going to change. But there's more to the story, and that's where words often fail me. 

The longer we stay, the more closely I'm drawn to these struggling, optimistic, frustrating, beautiful, hard-working humans. I am bound to them inextricably. I know their pain. I know there's no sense bearing witness to it unless I'm willing to bear it physically, to hoist part of it onto my shoulder then walk with them in the same direction.

I want their pain. And that's a tough one to explain.

The faces change. They move away. They are sent away. They're locked up, driven apart, uprooted. They are talked over, looked over, despised for their poverty and the way it shines on our own. But the trouble they know is ground into the asphalt lining my streets and yours. Nine year olds casually mention there's no food at their house between hands of Go Fish. Men and woman talk without emotion about abuse, about shame, about what it feels like to plunge a needle into a ropy vein and know peace for a moment. Here, there is simply no point in making small talk.

Meanwhile, we buy toilet paper. We brown onions with meat, unclog the drain, scratch down reading minutes with the dried up marker found underneath the table. We laugh every day, especially when it's all we can do. We live mostly paycheck to paycheck, hunted down by the fact that we still have far more than we need. We field requests, praying our love is enough. We battle our own entitlement and frustration with every "No" we speak, and our energy bleeds out between the cracks of this very good life. We erect barricades of paperback books and stream Dawes from the speaker hidden above the kitchen cabinets. We sing along. We eat with our neighbors every chance we get, knowing this is the "work" we've been called to, knowing it isn't work at all.

It is exhausting.
It is liberating.

It doesn't get easier.
It gets harder.

But I have wonderful news - we were not called to comfort. We weren't called to be unshakable portraits of courage or calm. We were not intended to self-soothe with warm messages of false pride and emotional placidity. We were not made to be happy. And we sure weren't made for small talk.

We were made for the mess, that ridiculous mixture of suffering and gladness, that disquieting blend of love and grit that stresses us out and raises us up. This is our birthright.

Four and a half years in, I have never been more sure that the only way to live is at the razor edge of myself, in full view of my rebel God who prefers low places.

Life stopped being simple long ago. I still fight the chaos. There are days I so desperately want to believe the common narrative, that I should come first. That I should say no. That God does not need my exhaustion, so I can go ahead and hang it up. From every side I'm told I am enough, even if I never answer the door again.

I suppose all of this is theologically sound, if you hold it in the right light. Thankfully, I'm a neighbor, not a theologian. I'm no Biblical scholar, just a woman who has learned through tears, scheduling nightmares, lost keys, and the occasional, well-timed triumph that as image-bearers of Christ inching toward the character of a Holy God, we are promised a life that will only be saved if it's lost.

It's hard to put all of this into words, so hard that I sort of gave up for a while. But the world is on fire and the church is burning to the ground. This cannot wait. I need the truth in my ears, in my retinas, floating on the page and lodged down in my throat. We were called to so much more than comfort, and the cost will be our reward. 

Come with me. Find your chaos. Call it good.