Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do!

We took the kids to a professional soccer game Sunday afternoon, an opportunity provided by the kids' soccer league for teams to enjoy each other outside of practice while watching the way the pros play. None of us had been to a pro soccer game before. In fact, the kids and I didn't even know the name of the team until Josh informed us: The Dynamo!

Nevertheless, we undertook this endeavor with gusto, wearing our boldest orange and cheering from our seats in the very last row of the stadium under the relentless glare of the afternoon sun.

About three quarters of the way through the game, after the other team scored its third goal and our team continued to shoot miss after miss on the other end of the field and the huge strawberry lemonade we bought for a small fortune was empty and the sun just would.not.quit, Abby, whose body had long since given up on sitting still, announced in her poutiest voice, "I'm bored. I did NOT come to watch the other team score."

And I, who was amazed she'd lasted this long, did NOT hold back a chuckle.

Fortunately Josh, wise sage that he is, found words to calm her frustration. "That's probably how the teams you play feel when your team keeps scoring," he said with a smile and a trace of jesting detectable only to me.

And with that unarguable dose of perspective, Abby settled back in to watch the Dynamos finish the game scoreless without another complaint.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Redefining "Home"

As well as the transition has gone, as much as we are enjoying our new life here in Texas, it still doesn't feel like home. I told Josh a few night ago that this still sometimes feels like a strange, extended vacation. Josh, the breadwinner among us, said, "I'm not sure I'd go as far as a vacation." Fair enough, but he did get what I was saying.

I suppose it's not entirely surprising. We're living in a 2-bedroom apartment without any of our regular furniture. We've made it a functional space with enough decor to keep it from feeling sterile, but it doesn't quite feel like ours, or us. We are making wonderful memories together in this makeshift residence, but it just isn't "home."

Is this a function of our privilege? I've thought about this, how so many people live their entire lives in spaces they don't own, in apartments smaller, in conditions dire. Here, we simply don't have our "stuff" or a place to call "ours" completely. Does that say something about us? That we could live our lives fully without most of our household? That we feel adrift because we don't have walls we can drill at will?

Our situation is a function of the fact that our house in Colorado still hasn't sold. It's been at once embarrassing and infuriating. It has made me feel both dumb for not figuring out the secret to selling it and out of control, because all reason says it should have sold by now, so the fact that it hasn't means something, Someone, greater is at work.

For months, this tension left me feeling every duality possible: anxiety and peace, claustrophobia and freedom, responsibility and surrender, exposure and security, suspicion and wild faith, impatience and gratitude. And it all hinged on whether, in any given moment, I believed I was in charge or God is in charge. The plot changes dramatically depending on the narrator.

In the first months of selling the house, I would be seized by moments of intense panic. It would grab my chest, wrap its fingers around my mind, and squeeze until the pressure felt unbearable. During these moments, I would greatly question the benevolence of God and then call Josh or my sister to make crazy suggestions like maybe we should cut the price in half and throw our furniture in with the deal. Then I'd email my precious group of friends and say, "I feel like God's out to get us," and they'd email back prayers and assurances of God's goodness, they'd remind me of all the reasons I could trust Him, they'd help me believe The Plan is for our good, not for our demise. And for a few weeks, I'd be able to breathe again.

Most of the time, I believed The Plan. But still, there were moments.

Once we arrived in Texas, there was a permanent shift, though. I started reading Ann Voskamp's book One Thousand Gifts, and I felt the anxiety release. Completely. It was a miraculous transformation of perspective, thanks in part to Voskamp's beautiful prose but largely to her assertion that gratitude--the act of noticing the thousands of tiny gifts in our seemingly unremarkable day-to-day--changes our heart and mind to see the miracle. That "eucaharisteo," thanksgiving, in every moment, even the disastrous ones, trains the eye to "see" accurately, that we are not forsaken, that we are not lost, that we and those around us and our circumstances are not hopeless, that in every time and place, God is working the miracles of mercy and grace and redemption. Right now is not the end of the story, and yet right now, we can notice the signs of what's to come.

My journal is full of insights, hers and others. She writes, "My human experience is the sum of what the soul sees and I see precisely what I attend to and what the eyes focus on is what the life is" (p. 133).

What will I attend to? What will my eyes focus on?

Our apartment doesn't feel like "home" in the same way our mountain house of 11 years did, but...

I look out these windows, and I still get to see trees, huge oaks and pecans reaching higher than the three-story rooftop,

And the kids and I get to ride our bikes or walk to school each day, ten-minutes of time precious for its slower pace, its space for conversation or easy quiet, its opportunity to greet the other neighbors who walk to and fro, its reprieve from the next task,

And we have less to clean and put away,

And the kids share a room and giggle with each other in the morning and make forts and spend the last five minutes of their day talking with each other,

And I have time to read and write and learn and recharge because I am not unpacking and decorating and settling in, nor am I overcommitted because I am new and get to make new decisions about where to spend my time,

And Josh gets to learn about other cultures and perspectives over lunch with coworkers who come from every continent,

And the kids are perfectly content riding bikes in the parking lot and throwing the baseball near the garages,

And they get to do this most days because it's rarely cold outside,

And Merlot is learning to let dogs walk by outside the windows without issuing a huge, echoing bark,

And we are happy, together, in our simplicity that is still an abundance,

And, and, and...

In truth, this place may not feel like our physical home yet, but in some ways, I've never felt as at-home in my own skin.

This season untethered by square feet is a gift, so as long as the time lasts, I will continue to focus on what is in front of me: Josh, the kids, new friends and old, this page. I will trust that this timing is a blessing, not a curse.

And I will be grateful.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Beautiful, Upside-Down Gospel

Most nights before bed, Josh and I watch Jon Stewart's The Daily Show in order to get a chuckle from the otherwise despair-inducing lunacy of the political realm. A couple nights ago, we watched Jon Stewart interview Malala, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year in retaliation for advocating for education for girls. Miraculously, she survived, and her platform has exploded. She was even nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

If you can watch the interview, please do (ignoring Upworthy's summary at the top...not quite accurate). About four minutes in, she makes a statement so pure, so beautiful, it stuns Jon Stewart and evokes uproarious applause from the audience. He asks her how she felt when she learned she was being targeted by the Taliban, and she responds with this:

"...even after the threat, when we saw it, I was not worried about myself that much. I was worried about my father, because we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child, because I was fourteen at the time. But then later on, I used to, like, I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come and he would just kill me. 

But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do, Malala?' 

Then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him' [audience laughter]. 

But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' 

Then I said, 'I'll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well,' and then I would tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you. Now do as you want.'"

In the face of imminent death, she wishes to bless her enemy. She decides she will not fight hatred and violence with the same weapons of destruction. She will not be like them. Instead, she will lay down her life for the sake of all children, even his.

Did you hear it? Did you hear the voice speaking through this precious Muslim girl, through a mouth now lopsided from the Taliban's bullet? She speaks Love. She speaks Mercy. She speaks Grace. She offers body broken and blood shed to the Taliban, to some of the hardest, cruelest of hearts who claim to act in the name of God.

The audience went wild. Jon Stewart, giving all due respect to her proud father in the wings, asked if he could adopt her. The video has since gone viral on facebook and news outlets. The world does not stand in the presence of such Love unchanged.

It's an upside down gospel. The crucified conquer, not the powerful. The last and the least become first. 

And ultimately, I believe the "first" will be won by the glorious beauty of grace, too. 

Because one day, I believe the Taliban will stand before Love and Truth. There may be weeping and gnashing of teeth as they recognize the great wounds they've inflicted upon this world. But they will find themselves before one who says, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And if they will receive the grace, if they will not hide in fear and shame, they will put down their guns, surrendering their religious ideology to a person. Then they, too, will know Love. 

In fact, it's already happening. They've already glimpsed it in Malala.

It's such good, good news.

"Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


At this time last year, I was writing through Genesis with the children's minister at our church for the Sunday School curriculum. We started "In the beginning" and worked our way chronologically through the first several events and families of the Old Testament, wrestling through even the more difficult stories and subject matter, though we omitted the sexual violation that occurs throughout (you don't realize how much subject matter in the Bible is, in many ways, "inappropriate," even scandalous, until you dive in cover-to-cover without skipping the messy parts).

In our writing, we endeavored to put the Biblical language into more of a narrative form, taking the sometimes stiff timeline of people and events and creating a more recognizable story with language accessible to first through fifth graders.

Our hope was that the children, listening to the storyteller on Sunday mornings, would begin to really visualize these people and events, which otherwise tend to feel confusing and distant and irrelevant. We believed that if we remained true to the chronology, simply presenting the stories as faithfully as possible, the children would begin to make connections between the stories and also between themselves and the characters and events of the Bible. We prayed that as they watched God call, invite, provide for, and protect the characters in these stories, they would come to recognize Him in their own lives.

We dreamed that the children would begin to see the relentless love of God--perhaps more obvious in Jesus's life told in the New Testament--in these crazy Old Testament stories, too. After all, it's all one story: the same story from before the foundation of the world to the fullness of time and into eternity. God's love, God's plan, does not change from creation to revelation.

What I didn't anticipate was how much this process would transform my own life. By living within these stories as I wrote, by having to examine more carefully what the characters' motivations were, by searching for reasons why God would ask or command or discipline in certain ways, by looking for the kindness and compassion of God even in circumstances that appeared difficult or cruel, I found myself convicted of the same short-sightedness that those, at times, imbecilic-seeming Israelites experienced.

In turn, I found myself undeniably changed.

When I dove into the story of the Tower of Babel, my childhood understanding was challenged. I had always learned that the people built the tower in order to reach heaven by their own might and skill and so make a name for themselves. Vain glory, I thought. A motivation rooted in pride. However, when I read the text more carefully, I saw this: "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4). The primary motivation for building the tower was not simply pride or ambition but a desire to not be scattered.

In reality, the people were driven by a desire to remain, to stay, to maintain the status quo. They built a city and a tower so they could continue to enjoy the safety, comfort and security of their togetherness. They believed that together, in a great city marked by a great tower that could be seen for miles, they could take care of themselves. With the tower to guide them, they would be able to find their way home no matter how far they traveled. And the great name they'd build for themselves with their great tower would surely dissuade any who would consider attack. This was their plan to ensure they would not be scattered.

The only problem was that, from the beginning, God had been commanding his people to scatter, to fill the earth. This was his command to Adam and Eve. This was his command to Noah and his sons. Fill the whole earth.

Ultimately, the flaw in the construction of the Tower of Babel was a faith in each other that superseded their willingness to rely on and obey God. It was a different form of pride.

I sat at my desk in our office at home, writing this story for the kids, and I recognized in myself this same desire for stasis, a craving for the comfortable and familiar, a loyalty to the premise of not being scattered.

There had been times over the years when Josh had wondered aloud if we should consider relocation for job opportunities. Every time, without hesitation, my response had been an adamant "No." No way, no how. We could never leave. We were safe and comfortable in the mountains.

I had built a tower of permanence, finding security in our beautiful home, the kids' wonderful school, a church that truly sees the goodness of God, a community of people who love us sincerely. Even before my family had arrived, I was convinced we shouldn't, couldn't uproot our little family from our idyllic life in Evergreen. Above all, I wanted to remain.

Just 21 verses later, I found myself absorbed in the story of Abram (later Abraham), the father of Israel, who was called away from his home and family of seventy-five years into God's plan. I wrote the story like this:

"Once upon a time, a man named Abram lived with his wife, Sarai, and his parents and his brothers and their families in a land called Haran, near Canaan. Abram and Sarai did not have any children for Sarai was barren, but they lived comfortably and happily with their family for many years, sharing meals and holidays and work as families do.

One day, the Lord came to Abram and said, “Abram, I want you to leave this land. Leave your relatives and your dad’s house and go to the land I will show you, and I will make a whole nation from you. I will bless you and make your name famous, and you will be a blessing, a gift. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse the one who curses you. And in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

So Abram did what the Lord said. When he was seventy-five years old, Abram left his home in Haran with Sarai and his nephew, Lot, and all of their possessions and servants to make the great journey to Canaan, a place he had never seen. They would be strangers there, like pilgrims, foreigners. But Abram left everything that was familiar and comfortable to obey God, because he believed God’s promises."

I could just as easily have written, "Once upon a time, a woman named Shaundra lived with her husband, Josh, and her parents and her sisters and their families in a land called Evergreen, near Denver...they lived comfortably and happily with their family for many years, sharing meals and holidays and work as families do..."

I wrote this story on November 1st, 2012, months before Josh lost his job and we learned we would be leaving Colorado. As I wrote, though, I felt a perceptible shift. Somehow, in the mysterious way He has, God began to prepare my heart for change, to soften my resolve that life in Evergreen, surrounded by family and friends, was the only possible path for the rest of our lives. I recognized and related to Abram's cozy set-up, but I also saw God's call for him to leave as one rooted in a desire to bless not just Abram but the whole world through him. I didn't think anything would come of it, but that day, a conviction was born that staying put in the familiar for the sake of comfort, security, or even family, should not be my primary goal.

So when I answered my cell phone in the car that cool Monday morning in March after dropping the kids off at school, and Josh told me he was packing up his office and would be home in a couple hours because the company had laid off most of its staff, my resolve was no longer to stay but to follow. My hope was not to rely on ourselves but to rely on God's provision. My mind was no longer wrapped in fear but in faith that whatever was happening was happening for our good and not for our demise, for blessing and not for harm.

I'm not suggesting that God's plan for us in Texas is as grandiose as His plan for Abraham, but the stories, you see, had changed me.

"So Shaundra did what the Lord said. When she was thirty-five years old, Shaundra left her home in Evergreen with Josh and her children, Benjamin and Abigail, and [some] of their possessions to make the great journey to Missouri City, Texas, a place she had never seen [before the job hunt]. They would be strangers there, like pilgrims, foreigners. But Shaundra left everything that was familiar and comfortable to obey God, because she believed God's promises."

It sounds dramatic, even melodramatic. Or cliche. Isn't that how the Bible reads sometimes? Yeah, yeah, so the dumb people built a tower. Obviously that wasn't going to work. So Abram left his family in Haran. Big deal.

Until you find that you are the one building cities and towers of security, that you are the one asked to leave. Then you need to know what kind of God you're following. The stories come alive, and you see that they are so much more than a crazy old text. So you look for the thread of goodness. You see past what looks like arbitrary discipline to the heart of God.  Can you believe His promises? Can you trust His plans?

Abram's story continues like this:

"Abram and his group arrived in the land of Canaan and stopped at the oak of Moreh. Here, the Lord said to Abram, “I will give this land to your descendants.” So Abram built an altar to the Lord there, giving thanks.

They continued their journey further into Canaan to the mountain between Bethel and Ai. Here Abram pitched his tent, setting up camp, and he built another altar. They hadn’t arrived at their new home yet, but they worshipped God, calling upon the name of the Lord.

Abram and his group traveled on, trusting God to provide their new home."

Well, I'm writing from my couch in Texas. We've been scattered, called as strangers to an unfamiliar place. We've pitched our proverbial tent in this two-bedroom apartment while we wait for what's to come. We haven't arrived at our new home yet, but we are giving thanks.

So we sojourn on in our day-to-day, trusting God to provide our new future. Because we can.

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