Friday, December 6, 2019

Night Vision

I had just stacked the bags of groceries along the floorboards, making sure the milk wouldn't topple the eggs, checking my watch with relief that for once my timing had worked.

Backing out of my parking spot, I looked to the left, and there it was.

Tucked in between rooflines scrubbed dull from the decades and the glowering December cloud cover, peeking out from around the corner of gloom with just one eye - a bright spot. Small and warm.

I took a picture from the driver's seat. Then three more.

I drove away.


We had our weirdest Thanksgiving yet. Weirder than a roomful of strangers. Weirder than tacos served with pumpkin pie. Weirder than realizing mid-bite that some of our guests had once coexisted in the underworld of light-blocking curtains and meth labs.

This was the year we would run home to Ohio. This was the year we would humbly accept that no one really needed us, not like that.

But then a beloved neighbor, only fourteen years old, went missing. By Thursday our hearts were on fire and by Friday it was impossible to think about anything without picturing his mother's tears.

We schlepped around in our sweats and socks, ate pie for breakfast, and tried not to imagine horrific scenes. From the corner of my parents' hunter green couch I ordered 150 vigil candles while Cory talked to news reporters on the landline.

We wrote social media posts. We talked to authorities with raised voices.

"He's been trouble for a long time," we were told.
"He's a runaway."

"If he comes home, he comes home."

"He's loved."

"We're scared."
"We know him better," we countered.

Later that night, after the candles and the calls, after some solid attempts at distraction, after six endless days of vanishing, he emerged from thick darkness, safe.

"We tried to tell you," they said."


I always forget how disastrous the holidays are in our neck of the woods. It takes me by surprise each year, confusion followed by a spark of recognition. Ah yes, this is what we do in November.

Neighbors lose homes. They lose jobs. Relationships fracture. Out from the cracks of desperation, pain seeps and soaks. It saturates. It swallows some whole. "Just this once," they tell themselves. "Who cares?" they say out loud, to no one.

Meanwhile, I go numb without a drug.

This is the season of waiting in the dark. For hope. For peace. For Jesus. What does that mean when you've stood so long in low lamplight? How do we observe Advent - this quaint, symbolic thing - with eyes like bats, permanently accustomed to the night?

I'm still thinking of that parking lot sky. "I guess this must be hope," I'd said out loud to no one.

Hope is not being bullied by an "I told you so."

Hope is running to a safe place at midnight and believing the door would be opened.

Hope is acknowledging relapse as part of the process of recovery, sometimes.

Hope is being brave enough to say, "This is day one," again.

Hope is not being ashamed of believing the best.

Hope is lighting 150 candles in the dark on the worst of nights, and one on the best.

Hope shows up at Kroger, over asphalt, when you're out buying sausage for the soup. It's right there, not close enough to feel, but near enough to notice.

Hope arrives, small and warm.

{I stumbled on this short, meaningful video on hope earlier this week. "Hope is precisely not being happy," Laura Jean Truman shares. If you're struggling to hold onto hope or if you want to better empathize those who are struggling, this will help. Follow the Rise series by clicking here.}

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Resisting Miss Daisy

If I'm being completely honest, I felt like Robert's mom long before I knew what it would actually mean. I couldn't imagine what it would look like in the day-to-day or how loving him would land a wrecking ball against the clean lines of life as I knew it. If I had I summoned the courage the peel back each layer of my good intentions, to let my eyes bleed from the innermost rings of truth, I would look at you and speak slowly. 
Our    love    will    fix    him.

I'll save you the long, turbulent story arc: I was the one who needed fixing. It is purely a testament of our son's resilience that he endured our early “efforts” largely unfazed.

Adoption made me a mom at a great cost to my kids. There is no salve for this, no secret essential oil elixir. There's no Bible verse pliable enough to stretch around the truth that loss and gain are often mirror images. We’re a family. We love each other, depend on each other, end most nights piled onto the couch with adolescent feet nearer to our faces than we'd prefer.

As time passes, I continue to learn that my love is not enough. It’s so much more than buying their favorite cereal, making sure they read and run, wiping their tears, and saying prayers. Being their mom means looking past my own experience and into the scorching center of theirs, especially when it makes me defensive or uncomfortable. This is what love requires.

I didn't set out to ramble like this. But maybe it helps explain why I'm still up in arms about the Oscar awards, which aired a solid century ago in the standard time zone of Pop Culture. (Remember that night? Architectural hot pink taffeta? Gaga’s Shallow? Realizing Paul Rudd guards the fountain of youth?) It was all fun and games until “Green Book” was named Best Picture by a vastly white group of Academy voters.  

“Green Book” was the last movie I saw in a theater. At first glance it looked like something I would love, a movie a "woke" woman would happily pay cash to see on. I walked away disappointed. 

What appears to be good and even helpful in theory can crumble in the hands of power. The story wasn't inherently bad, but the perspective from which it was told was all wrong. In contrast to other Best Picture contenders like “Blackkklansman” and “Black Panther,” this was a movie for white people, with a white hero, written from the perspective of white people imagining the experience of People of Color. It was Driving Miss Daisy 2.0. Only this time, decades had passed and I am the mom of four non-white kids and neighbor to many, all of whom struggle to be seen.

The morning after the Oscar’s I listened, as I do most days, to The Daily podcast. The episode was titled "What Hollywood Keeps Getting Wrong About Race." You can listen by clicking here and I hope you will. In a short 23 minutes Wesley Morris sheds important light on the conversation around the fantasies central to mainstream Hollywood's portrayals of race and racism, one of which says "prolonged exposure to a black person is going to cure [us] of [our] racism." Morris continued, "Green Book should be about a man named Don Shirley...Tony Vallelonga is the actual protagonist, a nice, lovable, cartoonish racist."


The more time passes, the quieter I get. Right now, my writing voice is lodged somewhere in the throat of my consciousness, a chicken bone poking at my best ideas, blocking smooth passage. It's getting harder to swallow around it.

I have come to understand that I am so many of you, with Robert as a son. I'm a white, middle class woman who lived and breathed white culture and white faith in perpetuity and exclusivity for most of my life, until a black young man crashed through my own mangled fantasies.

Familiarity helps us clear the hurdle of understanding and I’m so glad you’re here with me on this footrace. I only want to be cautious that I'm not another white person commandeering stories that aren’t solely mine.

I woke last Sunday morning to the news that the officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark will not face criminal charges, a headline I would have once breezed past. An hour later, Robert hugged me at church and I said, "I just want the world to leave you alone."

He chuckled, pretending to not adore the fact that his mom loses sleep on his behalf. For a second, he tried playing the macho card, but he's no stranger to any of it. My learning curve was paved, unfairly, by him

Where we stand changes what we see.
Changing what we see changes how we think.
Changing how we think changes what we do.

If I'm proposing anything, it's that we move our bodies toward the pain points throbbing around us. Amid the small things that weave into life as we know it, (for me, packing a suitcase, chopping asparagus, folding laundry, and writing a book endorsement) let’s consider where we're standing, who we're standing with, and what reorienting ourselves might cost us. 

Here in the tempest breath of March, staring at the winter sun, may our addictions to comfort, niceness, and fantasy scorch into husks and blow away. May this be the moment we truly begin to see.

* I planned to send this out as a secret email, to my close community of Tea Time subscribers, where I often share my most personal writing. I decided to share this one more broadly, but if you'd like to join me for "tea" and receive future emails, click here to sign up. I usually send out emails just once a month and it has become my favorite place to write!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Blind Shall See

It was a typical Sunday morning, sun streaming through the stained-glass window, the microphone making its rounds through the sanctuary for sharing time, when Brian raised his hand to speak. "I’m part of a local coalition against homelessness,” he began. “In December we started talking about what could be done to help homeless people this winter. A few weeks later, an overnight warming shelter was opened. It’s unbelievable that this came together so fast. That says something about our community. The mayor, non-profit agencies, even some churches helped meet these needs. I’m grateful.” 

I’ve learned to perk up when Brian speaks. He’s a man of measured words, well-studied and direct, with a teddy-bearish demeanor and the sort of quick wit that makes him everyone’s buddy. Having experienced homelessness himself, his perspective has opened my eyes to the complex rules of survival on the streets, and the rigors of compassionately walking someone in from the cold. 

I still can’t shake his words, “Even some churches helped.”
I’d read about the need for a shelter from the comfort of my kitchen over several lunches of reheated left-overs. The newspaper picked up the story of a local couple trying to provide refuge to homeless men when temps dip below twenty degrees. “We don’t want [these men] to freeze to death,” Julie Kramer explained. “We want them to survive. That is our mission.”

The fuse was lit on this conversation. How many homeless men exist within city limits? Is an emergency shelter really needed? If so, whose responsibility is it? Powerful people asked important questions while Mother Nature drummed her fingers, holding temps steady at an unseasonably warm twenty-five degrees. I followed the updates, my mind drifting to the estimated 80 congregations in our small city, comfortably vacant overnight. 

Driving out of town one evening in the dusky, December half-light, I passed a church sign with a familiar message, “Remember Jesus this Christmas.”  

Our problem is not that we don't remember Jesus. Our problem is that we do not recognize him.

He is the woman up the street, exhausted from the grind of relapse and recovery. 

He is the child who recently chirped, smiling, “I love myself even though I’m brown!” 

He is the man doubling up on socks, huddled in the “tent cities” we try to ignore, half-hidden in the overgrowth. 

We remember him, of course we do. But do we see him? Do we want to?


It was still December, right in the middle of the brainstorming sessions, courthouse rallies, and newspaper articles when a long-lost friend showed up at the front door after having disappeared for a while. He emerged from the shadows in a mishmash of layers, collapsing onto me and Cory in a despairing, moonlit group hug.  Sobbing into our necks, he rattled off a discouraging state of affairs, pausing only to rake in jagged gulps of air. Tears of regret and weariness dripped from his blue eyes to his scruffy beard. 

I couldn’t help but grin in the dark. He’s back!

That dimly-lit stoop was a hospital waiting room. An airport terminal. A sanctuary. Only after my eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness, was I able to really see him. Jesus

Only Jesus could turn us away from ourselves and toward our wounded brother. Only He could abolish the murky past, the missing pieces, the gaps in our understanding. Only He could elevate an ordinary weeknight to a bittersweet homecoming. 

When we train our eyes to seek God’s face in our ordinary midst, we receive Christ, moment by moment. He came as a baby, but he didn't stay that way. Until we pluck Jesus from the manger and track his audacity to the margins, our relationship with him will languish in the caverns of our memory when we could be hugging him on the porch.

It’s now the last sweep of January and our city is being slammed with the lowest wind chills on record, plunging to fifty degrees below zero. We didn’t know this was coming, those weeks we delighted in trading our down coats for fall jackets and allowing government officials to find shelter for the poor. 

I'm comforted that there's a warm bed for anyone in need, thanks to the local non-profit that opened its heart and its building for overnight use. Yes, a few churches came together in support of this solution, but I have to wonder what we miss when we hesitate to tear our own doors off the hinges in welcome, our vision clouded by the empty promises of hyper-vigilance and self-protection. 

God moved his kingdom into every heartbroken neighborhood and hides in plain sight. Should we choose to live as if it’s true, eyes open and hopeful at street level, exposed to the elements as we wave Him into warmth, our churches will be shaken, our lives will be complicated, and our cities will flourish. 

We will see his glory in our midst and it will set us free.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Matthew 25:45

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory…” John 1:14