Welcome the Refugee

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Tell me the story again.  Please?

I remember those warm summer nights, lying next to my aunties.  Some of us would be crowded onto a small mattress on the floor, while the rest of us lucky ones got the bed–there wasn’t enough room for three aunties and four nieces in this small room with the sloped, attic ceiling.  But I was warm and comfortable, sleepy and secure lying beside them.

“Again?” one Auntie would say.  “But you already know it.”  My sisters and I would plead with them:  “Please?  We want to hear it one more time. Tell it again.”  Inevitably, one of them would give in.

“It was a warm night, like this one….”

My mother, her siblings, and her parents were in their home.  It was a warm April evening in Saigon.  The year was 1975.  They had just finished dinner when a loud explosion blew out the windows to the back wall of their house.  My mom – the eldest of all of her siblings – would always say: “We learned during the war–when you can hear a rocket whistling somewhere overhead, you are safe.  It is the ones you can’t hear coming that are headed right for you.”  I used to imagine what that was like for my mother.  Sitting on the floor of her living room, hands occupied with helping to get the days’ chores done, yet always wondering…what can I not hear?  When will what I can’t hear finally find me?  Will I realize what is happening before things are over?

My grandmother had worked for 20 years at the US Embassy in Saigon.  She was recognized as a hard and loyal worker there.   Her American boss had assured her over the past few weeks that when the time was right, he would send word and let her know where to be with her whole family.  “Don’t worry, Rebecca.  Don’t worry.  We won’t leave without you.  We’ll make sure you are taken care of,” he had promised.  But she had not heard from him in days.  She did not know that he had already left the country, leaving her and her family behind without so much as a telephone call.

Now, sprawled across the floor of their small home, knocked onto their stomachs with their ears ringing from the blast, my grandmother decided:  it’s time to go.

With the sound of other blasts shaking their street and the homes around them, my mother, her 3 sisters, and her 2 brothers scrambled as quickly as they could.  Each packed a small bag of what they considered essential items…some clothes, perhaps some photos.  My mother–just 18 years old at the time–looked longingly at her new shoes.  She had been so proud of them.  They would not be coming with her.

Outside the house, they could hear the chaos throughout the city.  Bombs were exploding, taking down shops, houses, and people.  They ducked low, making their way from ditch to ditch in the darkness, slowly making it to the U.S. barracks by the airfield.  It took them all night.  When they finally arrived at the security gates, my grandmother showed her papers to the guards, telling them her boss’ name.  “He told me he get us out,” she said in English.  “He tell me, my whole family can come.”  The guard shook his head.  “I’m sorry.  Your name isn’t on this list.  I can’t do anything for you.”

“Please!”  My grandmother begged.  “Please…I work for Embassy.  I work for you, for the Americans.  If we stay, my family….they will kill us all.  Take this.”  Desperately, she opened her bag, grabbing the gold jewelry and small items of value that she had taken from her house.  “Please,” she said.  “Take all of this.  Just help us.”

The guard took all of it, then let them through.

Somehow, my mother’s family finally made it to the evacuation point where thousands of people waited to be loaded onto helicopters that would carry them to ships.  They had discarded their bags long ago–they were permitted to take nothing.  They stood, waiting, empty-handed…nothing to show for their lives, and no idea of what was to come.

As they neared the front of the line, soldiers were barking orders, attempting to fill each helicopter to the maximum capacity.  My grandfather and my uncles urged the women in the family to go first…to take the first available chopper.  “No!” my grandmother said.  “We cannot separate!”  But my grandfather insisted.  “You cannot wait!  Who knows what will happen?  You women go ahead of us so we can make sure you get out.”  My grandmother finally agreed.  But somehow in the chaos, my grandfather and my uncles lost sight of the women.  They did not see which chopper they got put on, though they were pretty sure it was the one they had their eye on.  As the chopper finally lifted off, they watched it power ahead into the darkness.

Suddenly, the night sky lit up with a burst.  The helicopter that the men in my family had been watching exploded as a missile made contact with it.  My grandpa and my uncles looked on with horror, their hearts in their throats, believing that they had just lost their mother and their sisters.  “No!” my grandfather said.  “That should have been us.  It should have been us.”

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My mother (top left) and her family at the Saigon Zoo, some time before they fled Vietnam. My best guess is circa 1973.

My uncles….as a child, I loved to wrestle with these men.  Their brown faces, laughing, tickling us, teaching us the  latest knock-knock jokes they had heard, making us squeal and giggle.  They were just boys on this night…12 or 13 years of age.  I imagine that long journey to America for them.  Grieving the loss of their sisters and their mother…feeling the weight of that responsibility…”it should have been us”…knowing they would make it to this new land…wondering how they would be able to start a new life without the ones they loved.  It would be about two weeks before they discovered they had been mistaken.  They had watched the wrong helicopter as it took off.  My grandmother and my mother and my aunties had made it safely onboard a cargo ship that would take them to the Philippines.  Living in tents that had been set up on the U.S. army base, my grandfather stumbled across one of my aunts by chance, and learned that everyone had made it out safely.  It was a miracle they found each other there, amid the chaos of the crowds.

My aunties would tell us of the horrors of the large cargo ship that carried them to the Philippines.  Unequipped to carry the thousands of refugees crammed onto it, the ship did not have the necessary food or accommodations.  Each refugee family was given only one small bowl of rice each day as their ration, and a can of milk.  My mother would tell us what it felt like to starve–how her stomach gnawed at itself, and her eyes grew larger in her head.  She would turn down her spoonful of rice each day, giving it instead to her youngest sister–just a child at the time.  When my mother reached the US, she weighed a meager 90 pounds. Out of desperation, some took to stealing what food they could get their hands on, but when they were caught, they would be forced to walk the ship with a sign that read, “Thief”, while others flung things at them, shaming them for their behavior.  One older woman could not stand this punishment.  She flung herself from the ship, where sharks soon got to her.  There weren’t bathrooms on board that could deal with the numbers of people, so instead, they were forced to use a small plank that stood over the side of the ship, each time trembling at the thought of what might happen with one small slip.  There was so little room with the thousands of refugees onboard, that they had to take turns sleeping on the small piece of floor they had staked out for themselves.  Early on in the journey, they could look out across the sea and see another ship, full of people fleeing, but it was burning.  They cried as they watched the ship burn, their hearts torn for the people on that boat…wondering if that would be their own fate as well.

The Migration Policy Institute states:  “Vietnamese migration to the United States has occurred in three waves, the first beginning in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, when the fall of Saigon led to the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of approximately 125,000 Vietnamese refugees. This first wave consisted mainly of military personnel and urban, educated professionals whose association with the U.S. military or the South Vietnamese government made them targets of the communist forces.”

My mother’s family would most certainly have been killed by the Communist forces that overtook Saigon that April of 1975, or at best, placed in concentration camps (a fate some of my extended family did face).  They escaped with their lives that night, but nothing more.  Months later, they finally reached America (after living in refugee camps in the Philippines, and then Guam).  But it was with empty hands and empty pockets.

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My grandparents in their younger years. Such a handsome couple!

I once asked my mother, “What did you bring with you to America?  Was it hard to choose what to leave behind?”  “What did I bring?” my mother repeated, the words not computing for a few seconds.  “Nothing!” she finally said, with a tone of voice that meant “what a silly question to ask, foolish girl.”   “We could bring nothing with us.  We had nothing.

Both of my grandparents were well-educated and knowledgable.  They had provided comfortably for my mother and her siblings their whole lives.  My mother had attended french school in Vietnam, and spoke not only Vietnamese, but fluent French as well as English.

But they had literally left with only the clothes on their backs.  They could not prove their education or their previous work experience.  My grandfather spoke no English.  And the States were full of anti-war and anti-Vietnamese sentiments:  refugees from a war that nobody even wanted to fight.  They were a drain on society.

And yet a generation later, my sisters and I were here…snuggled up next to our aunties, sheltered in a small house in Lafayette, Indiana.  My uncles and aunties were all students at Purdue University.  They would later become engineers and computer programmers.  My mother met my father at Purdue while they were both students.  My father became a medical doctor, while my mother worked hard to raise five children–four of whom would become doctors…one of whom became a minister.

What made this possible?

Well, of course, my grandparents were hard-working and determined.  They loved their family fiercely.  They did everything they could to keep providing for my mother and her siblings here in the US–even after their world changed drastically and they were plunged into the hard reality of having to keep going in a place where they did not speak the language well, and many did not welcome them.  My grandfather–a well-respected officer in the Vietnamese army–took a job as a janitor at a high school. The kids there were merciless to him, and he spent his days scrubbing toilets and cleaning up after them.  He worked hard and humbled himself to take any job that would enable him to provide for his family.

But that’s not the whole story.

Because they wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to work hard if they hadn’t first received mercy.  A small baptist church in Lafayette, IN were convinced that God’s heart was for refugees.  Together, they committed themselves to sponsoring a refugee family. They raised money, found housing, provided clothes and furniture, and became an extended family to a family in need of one.  Because of their generosity and commitment to love the people that God loves, my mother’s family was able to settle in a college town, where later, each of them would receive a top-rated university education, enabling them not only to support themselves, but to become contributing members of their new home country.

…the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.  Deut 10:17-19

More than that, my mother’s family was reached out to with compassion, kindness, and generosity that sprung forth from faith in a God who is a shelter for the refugee (Psalm 16).  Through the kindness of this small congregation, my mother’s family heard the good news of what God is doing through Jesus Christ and came to believe.  A woman from that same church used to have lunch with my mom every week.  My mother once told me that it was in those lunch-time conversations with this woman that she came to understand the grace of God, and what it meant to be a “Christian.”  A generation later, I am still the recipient of this faith community’s love and mercy, and my children are recipients of their love and mercy.  We speak often of how trauma and violence filters down through the generations.  Well praise be to God – the same is true of acts of love and compassion.

There are currently millions of refugees on the move (the latest estimate I read was 19 million), largely due to the situation in Syria and the persecution and destruction happening in ISIS-controlled territories. Tens of thousands more join them each day.   At the same time that these large-scale crises are forcing families to flee for their lives, Western and wealthier nations have been instituting increasingly anti-refugee politics, fearful of what may happen with an influx of immigrants.

What can we do?

First, if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to sign this petition for the US Government to allow 65,000 Syrian Refugees to come to the US.

But second: I want to speak directly to anyone reading this who claims to worship the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ.  All throughout the Hebrew Bible, God revealed Himself as One who looked after the refugee, the stranger, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow…and He commanded His people to do the same.  When the US government allows these families in, they will need help.  Let us be known as a people who welcome these strangers into our midst, because doing so reflects our Father’s heart.

A group of people from my own faith community (Life on the Vine Church in Long Grove, IL) are trying to gather folks who would be willing to co-sponsor a refugee family through Refugee One.  This will take a lot of resources!  They will need an apartment or home, clothes for each family member, groceries, transportation, furniture, household items, regular visits…To find out more about what co-sponsoring looks like, go here.  And if you want to join our efforts, talk to me and let me know!

We are witnesses to all that these people are suffering through.  What will we do in response?  The trauma and loss that these millions of refugees are facing has long-standing consequences: in their own lives, and also in the lives of their children.  God’s mercy and love, enacted and demonstrated through His people, ALSO has far-reaching consequences!  Let love and mercy flow down like a river, bringing rest and refreshment not only to this generation’s refugees, but flowing down through each generation after them, so that they may all know the goodness and mercy of the One who is a shelter to all sojourners in the storm.

A Prayer for Refugees

*From An Invitation to Prayer
Almighty and merciful God,
whose Son became a refugee
and had no place to call his own;

look with mercy on those who today
are fleeing from danger,
homeless and hungry.

Bless those who work to bring them relief;
inspire generosity and compassion in all our hearts;
and guide the nations of the world towards that day
when all will rejoice in your Kingdom of justice and of peace;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

There are two ways to be right. (A letter to the Church regarding George Zimmerman’s acquittal and the following reactions)

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About a year ago, I was spending time with my youngest sister, Jessica.  She made a comment–I don’t even remember what it was she said–but it confused me, and so I asked a question that I hoped would clarify things.  She paused, seemed to re-think what she said.  At the same moment, as we replayed the conversation in our heads, we both realized that she had used a word incorrectly.  A simple mistake.  Not a big deal, in my mind…I had asked my question simply for clarification.  But then to my surprise, and before I had a chance to move on in our conversation, she said with some indignation, “Stop making fun of me.  I’m so sick of it.”

Let me give you some context.  First, we all know that as a typical person grows up, she must use a certain amount of trial-and-error as she learns.  We “try on” new words, sometimes using them incorrectly.  We make observations and draw conclusions about the world.  Sometimes we are wrong.  It’s a normal part of growing up.

The unfortunate thing, for my youngest sister, is that she was born with four older sisters who were always going to be ahead of her in terms of learning these things.  And we weren’t exactly kind as we witnessed her develop and go through her trial-and-error stages.  In fact, we were downright mean.  We have re-told “classic Jessica” stories at family gatherings over and over again.  We have laughed at her, snickered over each small mistake, and all at her expense.  And each time this happened, she experienced feelings of injustice, the frustration of not being taken seriously, the shame and indignity of being ridiculed and turned into a joke.

I know–how horrible and insensitive of us!!  The thing is…..when it comes to families, you can have the most unfair, dysfunctional dynamic going on, but because you grew up in that context, you don’t really see it.  It’s just a part of normal life.  “We just always treat so-and-so that way.  That’s how it is.  [Shrug].”

Cut back to the story.  That’s precisely where I was in my relationship with Jessica.  I had no idea she had felt this way her whole life.  I was blinded to her reality.

And so when she accused me of making fun of her for using this word incorrectly, I immediately put up my defenses.  “Whoa,” I said.  “Calm down.  You’re totally overreacting.  I wasn’t actually making fun of you.”

“Yes!  You were!” she said, as she continued her charge.  “You’re so mean!  It’s not like you’ve never made a mistake in your life!  Why do you always have to treat me like this?”

It never feels good to be accused of something that you honest-to-goodness know that you are not guilty of.  And so I continued to defend myself.  And she continued to rail against me. And I began to throw some accusations at her (irrational, illogical, over-emotional, drama queen, etc).  Walls went up.  And the war went on.

Thankfully, in my confusion and frustration, I finally looked at my little sister, and I saw the pain in her face.  I really saw it.  And so I asked her, “Why is it that you feel this way?  Can you help me understand?”  And  long story short, she opened up to me about how it had felt to grow up in our family—to have been relentlessly teased, to have had every mistake brought up again and again, laughed at, and mocked.  And because I humbled myself to truly hear from her…because I laid aside the earnest, intense desire I had to justify myself and to show that I was right…I was able to hear my baby sister grieve over what had been hurtful to her for her entire life, to show compassion, to ask for forgiveness, and to grow closer to her.  She helped me to see a reality to which I had been blind for years and years.

This story has come to my mind many times over the past days as I have read articles and facebook comments and listened to my Christian family in their varies responses to the Zimmerman acquittal and the (largely) African-American community’s response.

There are those who seem to view these things (the event itself when Martin was killed, the trial, and the acquittal) as a puzzle to be solved.  “What really happened that night?”  “Was the jury’s decision correct?”  “Was Zimmerman really guilty of breaking the law?”  “Do we know for sure this was a racial issue?”  With these questions at the center, the reaction to the Black community’s cries of outrage and injustice is a reaction of confusion.  “How can we know for sure what happened?  And if we don’t know what truly happened, then how can we know if an injustice truly has happened?”

And so the (largely) Black community watches as the rest of the world responds with a seeming indifference.  They continue to feel as though they are alone in their desire for justice.  They continue to feel as though nobody is willing to stand with them in their grief.  And the division grows.

Brothers and sisters….Church….I wonder what God could do if we laid aside our questions and our desires to “figure out what truly happened,” and simply listened to where our African American brothers and sisters are coming from.  When an entire people are crying out, “Injustice!”, does it really move us forward to say to them, “Well hold on now, let’s talk about this rationally.”  What if, instead, we said, “Talk to us.  Tell us about what you see, because maybe we have been blind to it.  Help us understand what you experience every day as an African American in this nation.  Help us understand what you experience every day as a person of color in the church.  Let us grieve with you.  Let us stand with you.”  Could there be healing?

The way I see it is that we can expend all of our energy toward “being right” about all of the facts surrounding the Zimmerman-Martin trial.  Or, we could strive to “be right” with one another.  Which will we choose?

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“Hope knows…”

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Hope knows that if great trials are avoided, great deeds remain undone and the possibility of growth into greatness of soul is aborted.”

“Suffering, failure, loneliness, sorrow, discouragement, and death will be part of your journey, but the Kingdom of God will conquer all these horrors. No evil can resist grace forever.

I am not able to write much this week…the stiffness in my fingers and wrists prevents me.  But I am starting to feel the ache to write, so you can expect something soon.  For today, I just wanted to share these quotes from Brennan Manning, who is now in the presence of Jesus.  I am so very grateful for his writings, which my heavenly Father has used at various points in my life to reveal His love and grace for me and for others.  These quotes seemed especially poignant to me this week as the headlines in this nation have been filled with so much sadness.

There is hope.  In this Eastertide, we remember that amid this world of darkness, violence, senseless suffering, poverty, sickness, and brokenness, we have this hope:  Christ has risen.  And his new life is a sign of a new world to come.

Knowing the God that Jesus Knows: “Our Father in Heaven”

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fathers day3This season of Lent, I find myself wondering a lot about the God that Jesus knew.  The God whose words fed Jesus in ways more sustaining than bread itself.  The Father whose Presence revived Jesus with hope, comfort, and courage as he walked among the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, and the unbelieving.  The Abba Father whose goodness Jesus never questioned, but always proclaimed with joy.  “There is only One who is good!”  (Matthew 19:17).

I have a wonderful dad.  In all my life, I have never wanted for any material thing.  There has always been food on the table, clothes on my back, and a beautiful house to live in.  My father’s generous provision for my family, in many ways, has helped me to understand and rejoice in the generous provision of God the Father.

I chose a different career path than my dad had hoped I would choose, and when I made the decision to go to seminary, I remember timidly bringing up the subject of tuition with my dad, who until then had paid for every dollar of my education.  I wondered what his response would be.  I knew he would more than happy to continue to finance my education if I chose to go to medical school, but….seminary?  I’ll never forget his words.

Me:  So….Pops, I’ve been looking at all the information about my school.  I know that you aren’t exactly thrilled about me pursuing Christian ministry instead of medicine, so I would understand if you don’t want to help pay my tuition any more.  Plus you’ve done more than enough in paying for my undergraduate degree!  But I guess I just wanted to ask you what you were thinking.  Because, you know.  I have to make plans….look into loans, finding a job in the area, etc….[awkward trail off]…

Dad:  Julie…..how many Julie’s do you think I have that are my daughter?

Me:  [confused]  What?  Uh….just one, I guess.  [NO IDEA where this is going].

Dad:  Don’t you think if I have just one Julie to take care of, that I will always provide for her and take care of her?

Me:  Oh.  I guess so.

Dad:  So….don’t worry about it.

It still warms my heart to think about that brief but profound conversation with my dad many years ago.  Some of you from different kinds of families might be wondering what the big deal was about this conversation, but this was the closest I think my dad has ever come to expressing what I would call “affection” for me.

You see, that type of conversation was not typical in my family.  My father had high expectations for his daughters, and a very strong opinion about exactly what was best for us.  In reality, these expectations and opinions were his way of loving us.  My dad had all of these hopes for us because he loves us.  Unfortunately, what I often internalized was that I was a continual disappointment to him.  

Emotional intimacy was also not what I would call a high priority in my family.  This is not said in judgment of my parents…it’s just a fact rooted in their personalities and the cultures in which they grew up.  Words of affirmation, verbal encouragement, hugs, physical nearness….not my family’s strong suit.

To call God, “Father”, then, has always been a difficult thing for me.  “Father”–the One who provides for me.  Yes, I understand that.  “Father”–the One who is higher than me and above me.  “Father”–the one who has authority over me.

But doesn’t “Father” also mean, “the One who is constantly shaking his head at me?”  “Father–the One who is deeply disappointed that I can’t figure out a way to change who I am to make him happy”?  “Father–One who is above and outside of me, judging me, wagging his finger, sighing with discontent”?

We all do this, don’t we?  We begin with our understanding of what father means and then project that onto God.  And so where our earthly fathers were affectionate, present, generous….we see those things in God.  But what about those of us with fathers who were absent?  Abusive?  Neglectful?  Violent?

I’ve been counseled before that if calling God “Father” brings up too many negative images, that I can just call God something else.  And I’m not saying that that counsel doesn’t hold merit for some people, at least for a period of time.

But I can’t help but feel that that approach is giving up on something that I desperately need.  Something that I need to be healed.  Something that I need to be fully human.  Something that I need to be fully me.

Karl Barth wrote, “It is…not that there is first of all human fatherhood and then a so-called divine fatherhood, but just the reverse; true and proper fatherhood resides in God, and from this fatherhood what we know as fatherhood among us men is derived.”

When Jesus calls God “Father,” he defines for us what fatherhood means; and we must listen.  

I have felt a calling this past year to do just this.   I confess that I have allowed some false narratives to shape my relationship with God.  I know I don’t fully know the Father the way Jesus knew him.  I know this because if it had been me in that desert, hungering for bread in my stomach, I honestly don’t think I could say, “I do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of my Father God.”  I would have taken those stones and shoved them in my mouth.

Actually, now that I really think about it, I might not have eaten them.  I might have refrained physically.  But in my heart, I would be sobbing, “Why God???  Why won’t you just let me eat?  Are you truly good?  Or are you just a monster demanding me to prove my love for you?”  And that is what Satan really wanted.  Not just for Jesus to eat the bread, but to eat it with doubt in his heart…questioning whether God was truly a good and loving Father.

And so I am allowing Jesus’ words about the Father to shape me and grab hold of my imagination.  This is how Jesus prayed to His Father, and taught us to pray too:

Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed be your name.

God is a Father who is above and beyond me, in heaven.  But also a Father who is near me and all around me.  “Heaven” in Jewish cosmology was not a place that was far away, but the very air they breathed…the atmosphere all around them.  My Father is present and always with me.  And He is holy, or pure.  His heart is not one which can be corrupted…it is free from all evil.  He is entirely good.

Your Kingdom come, Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Our Father is a King who rules over heaven and earth.  He is strong and powerful.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Our God is a Father who provides.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

My Father is a forgiving father, who loves forgiveness so much that He longs for his children to know the joy of forgiving others as well.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the Evil One.

God is present and powerful, and with that presence and power, He protects us.

Jesus’ Father is nearby, present, holy, powerful, generous and caring, forgiving, and our protector.

Let us all come to know this all-good, perfect, and beautiful Father.  This is my prayer.

(The reflection above on the Lord’s Prayer was, in part, taken from “The Good and Beautiful God” by James Bryan Smith).

Lent. Ugh.

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LENT.  I’m not sure what comes to mind when you think of Lent.  Some of us practiced it growing up.  Others of us did not, but perhaps had friends at school who we knew had to give up all sorts of fun things to observe it.

As I have embraced the practice of Lent in my later years of life (I’m only 31, by the way.  I just like to talk like I am really old.  And to any 20-somethings out there thinking, “Wow, you ARE really old”, please go away and come back when you have something to contribute to the world)….I confess that I do not always enter into Lent with enthusiasm.  Ugh….40 days of psychological self-flagellation.  40 days of remembering that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.  40 days of staring my own weakness in the face…experiencing the shame of not even being able to say “no” to my desire for sweets or online shopping when Christ gave up EVERYTHING for me.

Is this the narrative that Lent leads us through?  And if so, how does this narrative lead us into life with Christ?

Lent is a period of 40 days (46 days minus six Sundays which count as “little easters”).  40 days to recall the 40 years during which the Israelites wandered in the desert.  For the Israelites, on the other side of that 40 years was a land flowing with milk and honey.  And for Jesus, who himself entered the wilderness and subjected himself to temptation, the way to the resurrection life was through death on a cross.

This year, I am intrigued as I think about Jesus in that wilderness for 40 days.  Can you imagine?  All of that solitude and loneliness.  His hunger and the physical and emotional pain that must have come from fasting.  How did he do it?  And when Satan tempted him to eat the bread, to seize power and control for himself, and to test His Father to see if He would really, truly protect him from harm…how was he able to say “no” to those desires?

As a child, I always imagined Jesus straining to remember the Scriptures, and saying it through clenched teeth.  “Man shall not live on bread alone!”  But his stomach was so empty.  It had been so long since he had felt the delicious texture of fresh bread on his tongue, and the warmth of a meal that filled his belly.  I imagine him praying, “Fine, Father.  I will say no.  I will prove to you that I can be strong and resist temptation.  I will make this sacrifice for You so that You can see how totally committed I am to You and You alone.”

That is often how I approach Lent.  With gritted teeth and clenched fists and a resolve in my heart to show how serious I am.  If I make it through these 40 days, God will really see how committed I am to Him.  And won’t that be a great feeling?  To feel my Father’s approval and presence with me?

Of course, if I don’t make it…well, that’s all the more a reminder that I am weak and undeserving of His love.  The shame of my failure will lead me to the cross, where I can promise to do it better next time.

This year, as I was participating in my church’s Ash Wednesday service, an image of Jesus in the wilderness flashed through my mind.  Only this time, his teeth were not clenched, and his face was not pained.  His eyes were closed, and he was smiling a small smile.  He was enjoying the presence of a Father who already loved him….who was already with him…a Father who he trusted and enjoyed completely.  A Father whose presence with him gave him such delight, joy, peace, and comfort that when Satan extended that bread of physical comfort, that thrill of power and control, and whispered in Jesus’ ear, “Will God REALLY protect you and keep you safe?  Does He REALLY have your best in mind?  Let’s put that to the test,” he was able to confidently, and even joyfully say, “No!” to those temptations, and “Yes” to all that his loving Father had for him.

And I wondered…..do I know this Father?  Do I know the Father that Jesus knows?

To be honest, I’m not really sure I can adequately express the narrative that Lent leads us through.  How does subjecting ourselves to sacrifice and the pain that that inevitably produces in us lead us to life with Christ?  How does staring our failures in the face lead us into new creation and the love of the Father, rather than leave us sitting in shame?  I have vague notions of the truth that God seems to holding out to me.  The way to the land of milk and honey was through the wilderness.  The way to the resurrection life is through death.

But this season of Lent, I feel God beckoning me to be with Him and to come to know that Father that Jesus knows and loves.  His Father’s love sustained him…even through pain and emptiness.  I want to know that God.  I want to know that God, not just as I subject myself to the small pains I experience as I sacrifice some small comforts for Lent, but I also want to know that God as I walk through life’s hardships.  The physical pain I feel from rheumatoid arthritis.  The emotional pain I feel in broken relationships.

And so for the next forty days, I offer my heart to God and cry out, “I want to know you!  Help me to know the God that Jesus knows.”  And I pray that as God makes himself known to me, I would be able to say no to certain desires so that I can live more fully and joyfully under His reign.  I’ll be blogging about this all through this church season.  You could call this series, “Lent: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows So That Chocolate Just Doesn’t Seem That Important Anymore.”

(By the way, I don’t think chocolate is sinful.  I think it’s delicious and beautiful and should be rightfully enjoyed with gratitude to a God who makes such marvelous things, and who created creatures who themselves are capable of creating wonderful culinary treats).

What are your thoughts on Lent this year?  How have Lenten practices shaped you, in helpful or not so helpful ways?

Changing the Questions

ImageLast week I blogged about the spiritual discipline of Labyrinth Prayer, or more specifically, about how I have found that just the practice of slowing myself can be a spiritual discipline that allows me to come more fully into God’s presence and therefore receive more of His presence.  More on that later.

This week, I felt I really wanted to put some thoughts into words about something God has been doing in my life since last fall.  I returned from a family vacation in Lake Tahoe with a sprained shoulder.  The pain from this shoulder started to spread to various parts of my body over the course of a few weeks.  After a couple of months, I found myself unable to walk, let alone carry my children (who are staggeringly and confusingly heavy given the tiny amount of food they consume at family meal times).    Something was very wrong.  But I had no idea what was going on with my body.

It turns out I was developing an autoimmune disease that runs in my family:  rheumatoid arthritis.  Autoimmune diseases basically involve your immune system turning on its own body and attacking things it shouldn’t be attacking.  In my case, it attacks my joints, causing pain and inflammation.  Over time, this self-destructive activity can lead to permanent joint damage.  I was thrilled (heavy sarcasm here) to learn that not only does the medication prescribed for RA patients not cure the disease (it simply suppresses your immune system and alleviates the symptoms), the medication itself can have horrible long-term side effects.

I was suddenly finding myself in a position where  I was not able to do the things I wanted to do because of the pain I was experiencing.  The present had changed for me.  I no longer had control over my own body.  I could no longer join my kids in a game of hide and seek (unless I was always the one hiding, and guess where Mommy is — in bed again!)  I could no longer pick up my two year old child and cradle him in my arms.

In addition, I was also having to re-envision my future…to grieve over assumptions I had made about what God had in store for me “once the kids were finally off to college” (oops, there’s another assumption) and I would finally be free to do whatever I wanted!

However, I am a “serious Christian.”  I knew that when it comes to suffering, good Christians lean into these hard times and learn whatever it is that God is teaching us through them.  Most likely, there was sin in my life I wasn’t aware of….something I had to figure out and fix.  Perhaps after that, God would even be gracious to me and heal me!  And so off I ran (metaphorically, because I couldn’t run literally) to learn my lessons like a good little believer.  “I can be a grown-up about this, God.  I’ll show you.  I won’t whine or complain.  I’ll work hard to learn whatever lessons you are teaching me.”

Do you ever find yourself acting in this way?  Do we believe in this kind of God–a God who holds out hoops for us to jump through to prove our spiritual maturity to him?  A God who even HIDES these hoops, challenging us to even find them first, and then jump through them too so that we can receive His blessings afterwards?  Where does this picture of God come from?

Maybe it’s not even as horrible as that.  As humans, we long for meaning.  And when suffering comes along, we yearn for this suffering to “make sense.”  And so maybe it would make sense if I could figure out why God was allowing this to happen.  If I could just understand why God was doing this, then that would change everything.

The difficulty there is that then it turns into us saying, “God gave me R.A. so that He could teach me a lesson about relying more on Him than on myself.  God gave me this illness for my own good.”  And at the end of the day, in my eyes and in my heart, God becomes a Teacher…not a Father.  And I become a student striving to be the Teacher’s Pet (or at other times ditching school when I feel fed up), trying to figure out how to get the grade I want, rather than a daughter.

A first step toward finding intellectual, emotional, and spiritual well-being in spite of the absurdity of our physical circumstances is to change the questions from ‘Why?’ to ‘What?’ and ‘Where?’ and to ask these with an open-minded commitment to look for answers.  More completely, the new questions are ‘What is God doing in the midst of this?’ and ‘Where do I catch glimpses of the Trinity’s grace?’  

The first question is crucial because it changes the axis of our lives.  We move from making ourselves the center with a focus on our own intellectual discovery of meaning or emotional relief to restoring the prominence of God in our thinking.  We also shift from demanding that God provide answers to our ‘why?’ queries to listening for what God might want to tell us about Himself and His provisions for us.  As a result, we partake in several great finds:  the gifts of letting God be God in our lives, of resting in God’s mysterious purposes, of humility.”

Marva Dawn, Being Well When We’re Ill

And so I confess that I have been asking the wrong questions.  I have been answering my “why?” questions with the answers to the “what?” and “where?” questions instead. And in so doing, I have viewed God as a harsh Master and Teacher who would destroy me if it meant I would finally learn my lesson.

Is this the Christian God – Father, Son, and Spirit – that we worship?  What do you think?  And if we are wrong, then where is this picture coming from?  Are we talking about Him the wrong way?  Where are we getting it wrong in our teaching and preaching and in our conversations with one another as we all journey through the ups and downs of our lives?

What I do know is this:  as I have started asking things like “Where do I see God’s grace in my illness?” and “What do I see God doing even in the midst of this?”, I have been overcome with grace.  I have experienced God as my loving Father, present with me, and mercifully showing up in places I did not expect to see Him.  I hear Him saying, “Yeah, this sickness sucks!!  But all is not lost…I am bringing good even from this evil.”  And I have grown in peace at letting the “why” questions rest.  There is a mystery to God’s timing, but I believe that in some way, the healing I cry out for is on its way.  It’s probably just bigger and more permanent than I could ever have imagined.

Labyrinth Prayer Part 1

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Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral I am fortunate to live within walking distance of a prayer labyrinth here in Lake Zurich.  A labyrinth is a metaphor for life…it is a picture of the pilgrimage we are on as we journey with God.  You can think of it in three parts:  part 1 is the journey in (coming to God), part 2 is being in the center (with God), part 3 is the journey out (sent back into the world).  It is not a maze, but one path that leads to one center, and then out again from that center.  It is full of twists and turns that your eye has trouble distinguishing and making out until you are actually walking them, so you cannot plan for them.  At some points, you feel as though you have reached the end of your pilgrimage…the center is in sight.  But another twist leads you away so that you realize now that you are farther away instead.  And yet, as you journey on, though sometimes you are physically farther away from the center than you were just one minute ago, you are also paradoxically always drawing nearer and nearer to the center.

Each time I have used this community labyrinth, God has spoken to me.  I feel a with-ness with Him there.  I don’t attribute this to any magical qualities of the labyrinth…perhaps it is just the space that I make in my life to meet with Him, the rhythm of the walking and the silence that follows in my head, allowing me to finally pay attention to the One who is always reaching out to me.  Each time I make the decision to go to the labyrinth, I wonder if it will be the same.  Will God meet with me?  I wonder if I will get bored because I’ve done it too many times.  Will the novelty wear off?

The journey to the middle is often, for me, a time of “checking in” with God (and myself, because let’s face it, I am rarely that attentive to myself either).    I recognize emotions I have been experiencing but not acknowledging.  I wonder a bit about why I may have been neglecting that emotion.  I recognize it.  Nod to it.  Acknowledge its presence.  And in so doing, I am saying to God, “Here I am.  It’s not pretty, or tidy, but it’s what there is.”

It can also a time of “casting off”.  I become aware of lies I have been living into.  This often follows from just checking in and realizing what feelings have been lying beneath life’s surface.  This past week, as I walked slowly but steadily toward the middle, I recognized the burden I had been carrying all week as I have prepared to preach at my church later this month.  We’ve been journeying through the book of Revelation for the past few months.  Recognizing that I felt fearful and anxious–rather than joyful and excited to proclaim God’s good news (which is how I wish I could feel whenever I preach)–I began to cast off my desire to “get it right.”  I began to cast off my desire to understand each and every detail of the book so that I could appear knowledgable, and WORTHY in front of this congregation.  I began to shed the lie that I could ever earn the right to preach or minister in God’s Kingdom.  I began to sense, as I moved steadily nearer and nearer to God in the center, that this journey was being propelled forth by Someone other than myself.  And He was okay….truly okay…with where I am right now as a preacher.  Inexperienced–in life and in ministry.  Young–and not in a good way.  Not at the top of my seminary class from many years ago, and not exactly in the thick of Christian academia these days!!

The “journey in” always begins with a  good amount of restlessness on my part.  I long to skip the twists and turns and just get right to the center.  But it is those twists and turns that slow me, that force me to see and embrace where I am in this moment, to be honest about all that I am carrying with me, feeling and receiving the permission God gives me to be just where I am and nowhere else–not further along or further ahead–so that when I finally do get to the center, I really am all there.  Mind.  Body.  Spirit.  Emotions.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  And God welcomes it.  All of it.  All of me.

What places, practices, or disciplines help you to meet fully with God?

The start of something big. Or not. [Shrug]

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Like most things in my life, there is little record to show that I will follow through well with this blogging endeavor.  And I should make this clear:  I don’t have a glorious vision or specific mission for this blog.  I’m not trying to reclaim the mission of the church in North America, author a book, engage the evangelical world in a conversation, or make it on the top 50 list of Christian blogs (or even the top 10 list of Christian female bloggers).  I’m not a pastor (or co-pastor) of a local church.  I’m not a stay-at-home super mom who can offer tips on homeschooling or offer you newly composed devotionals for your family to use.

I’m just a follower of Christ who started out on this journey thinking life with my new Boss would be neat and tidy.  Instead, I have found that there’s more messiness than tidiness.  I graduated from seminary in my early 20s, ready for God to use me to save the world.  As I turned 30, I became more deeply aware of how much I still needed some salvation of my own…needed a larger understanding of God’s mission in this world and in me.

I wouldn’t say my life is a mess.  But it is full of messiness.  And so here I am…proclaiming that Jesus is King, even in the midst of this mess.  And trying to welcome whatever it is He is doing in me and around me.

I have moments of doubt.  Moments of freak-out-edness.  Moments of clarity and joy and hope.  Moments of despair.  Moments of forgetfulness.  Moments of glad remembrance.  This blog will hopefully help me reflect on these moments…..help me see time and time again how Jesus really is King.  King in spite of the messes I make.  King in the midst of the messes I make and the messiness of this world.

I can’t promise any earth-shattering observations.  I hesitate to even start blogging because I am not the kind of person who can tie things up neatly with a bow.  I will try my best not to be cute.  Or trite.  Or introspective in a narcissistic way.  (Lord help me).  And my initial goal is to blog at least once a week just to help myself reflect on how God is at work in me, around me, and manifesting His majesty.

And though the style of this blog will largely be reflective, I invite any of you to converse with me.  I’ll probably ask a lot of questions–I’ve been told I ask too many–but these are the questions I am asking in my real life.  And hopefully I won’t just be having a conversation with myself.