A Word on Friendship

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A couple of summers ago, Andy and I drove from Atlanta to Ocean City, New Jersey where my family vacations every year. It was a long drive but a good one where we spent significant amounts of time talking and attempting to keep a 6 month old entertained in her car seat (please be impressed that we succeeded).

At some point on the return trip home I got antsy and began to search my phone for those lists of questions to ask your spouse when you’re out on a date. I found a list of good ones pretty readily and asked Andy to answer them as he drove. Often, while he was formulating his response to one question or another I would also be thinking about how I might answer the question myself. It ended up encouraging some great conversation and got us through some long stretches on the way back to Atlanta.

I really don’t remember much of what we talked about. I know there were a lot of questions like: If you could do a career change, what would you do? There’s one question I do remember asking though that I will not soon forget. The question was:

“Why are your closest friends, your closest friends?” 

This struck me immediately for two reasons.

  1. I knew my answer almost as soon as I finished asking the question.
  2. The answer made me realize I was missing something. And missing it deeply.

I knew just as soon as I asked the question aloud that my closest friends are my closest friends because I have spent the most time with them. As Andy gave his thoughts on the subject of friendship I considered Kristin and Heather and Suzy and Marie and I realized that I had known each of these girls for at least a decade if not since the moment I was born! These four are and continue to be the ones I call when I want someone who gets it or who will get it just as soon as I get the issue out into open air.

In the moment that I named this. Named these friends and what their consistency meant to me I realized, all of a sudden, that I was missing it. Missing them of course, though I keep in touch with each of these four as regularly as one can once you move to a different state. Even more than connection with these specific individuals though I think I realized I was missing the point.

I started to sense in that moment what friendship expert Shasta Nelson revealed on a podcast interview with author Jen Hatmaker just a couple of months ago. She stated on the show that in her research she and other social scientists have come to realize that the way we American’s prioritize our lives has become cause for an epidemic of loneliness.  American’s are so focused on achievement that relationships and community have taken a back seat. I can think of dozens of times when I’ve ignored an opportunity for connection in the name of my to-do list. It took a road trip 10 hours south of my hometown to realize that perhaps in some bigger realm I’ve been missing the point.

I’m hesitant here as I continue to write. It would be all too easy for me to say here “pack up your stuff, find where the majority of your best friends and closest family members are and go live out the rest of your lives in communal bliss.” Despite the fact that every ounce of me wants to write this, I think that’s just swinging the pendulum in a completely different direction. We’ve all read about cultures or met people who made family or relationships the ultimate purpose of their lives. It can be disastrous as people cut each others heads off in the name of an illusive familial bliss. People are just as messy as the work we put our hands to.

So what do we do?

Here’s a few thoughts that are grounding me these days:

  1. Seek first the kingdom of God.

In Matthew 6 Jesus says, essentially: “I know you need the fruit of your labors (clothing, food, shelter). Any good father knows this about his kids. So bank on the fact that you’re my kid. Trust me and then do this: seek first the kingdom of God.” I’ve dabbled a bit in books on Kingdom theology, and let me tell you…it.is.a.cluster. I haven’t quite wrapped my mind completely around what Jesus (or what all the interpretation of Jesus) is trying to say. I believe that’s because the kingdom of God is mysterious. Like the nature of love, it’s too wonderful to be defined. I do sense a certain theme though that repeats itself throughout the scriptures and in the winsome people in my life. That theme looks a lot like the powerful and rich being brought low so they can see the poor and oppressed brought up and out of the valleys.

Think of Moses brought out of an Egyptian Palace descending to the bottom of the pyramids to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Think of David brought up and out of a sheep’s pen to slay a giant. Think of Jesus, a King, born low as a baby, descending from high on his throne and ascending to a cross. Dying…and then waking back up. The mountains are made low and the valleys are raised up in the kingdom of God. 

Before any of us read this and simplistically say “OK, I’ll pull out my wallet and write a check to XYZ Charity,”  we may just be missing the point here too. Hear Jesus say in other gospel pages “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is not giving an economic argument when he talks about the kingdom, though it certainly doesn’t exclude the economy. He’s saying blessed are the people who sense when they are brought low. Blessed therefore am I when I realize in my spirit that I am poor in friendship. Blessed am I because I get to run to the King and ask him to show me out of his riches what friendship looks like in my current poverty. 

2. Listen to God-given wisdom in any God-given season.

There’s a moment in that friendship podcast when Nelson says there are often two voices in her head competing for air time. The voice of her ego and the voice of wisdom. I loved this. Ego being: a person’s sense of self esteem or self importance.

In America in 2017, listening to my ego would look a lot like ignoring the still small voice that says again and again these days: “Relationships are important. Stick with this theme right now. Even when you’re tempted to work on your day off. Even as your introvert identity clamors for attention. Even when you want to run and hide.” Solomon, who asked for nothing more from God than wisdom, says it best when he says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven

Solomon knew what most Americans do not. There is a season for putting our all into our achievements. Undoubtedly. Solomon also knew that when the work was done it was time to call up his friends, set a fire in the fire pit and tell some stories in the cool autumn breeze. America has enjoyed great prosperity after much hard labor. We just haven’t figured out how to share it with those we love.


I’ve asked God to show me practically what friendship in 2017 America looks like. Here’s what he’s said so far:

“Just Connect.”

Connect locally. Connect on the phone. Connect in person. Connect by taking the trip. Connect by invitations to visit. Connect by being vulnerable. Connect by holding his hand. Connect by giving the gift. Connect by turning off the TV. Connect by taking the job. Connect by letting the next job go. Connect at the dinner table. Connect by reading the bible together. Connect by reading Moby Dick together. Connect by praying. Connect by getting on the floor with her and the blocks. Connect. Connect. Connect. Connect.

Does this post resonate with you? If so, would you share it either on your social media page or with friends who might be encouraged by it? I cannot tell you how often in the last 18 months I’ve heard in some way or another that people are lonely. Some doctors have named it the health crisis of our time. Seriously. One doctor said if faced with a patient who was morbidly obese and lonely he’d prescribe friendships as his first line of defense! I am convinced we have the tools at our disposal to be a great nation full of inspiring communities. We’re just letting our egos run the show right now. Here’s hoping we can get quiet enough to listen to the river of wisdom running below the surface. If we rise above the clamor I’m certain we can hear it roar. 

Much love, Courtney.

 

 

 

 

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Mary Oliver is My Spirit Animal

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Hi Friends. I have been contemplative lately and when I get that way, at times, I like to read poetry. In the past year or so I have discovered both Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and I just love so much of their poetry. I thought I’d share one of my Oliver favorites with you all. I have this saved on my phone for times like these because it reminds me that I’m not the only one who believes not only that “people do what they want” but that this whole world is one big question mark handed back to us that says: “What is it that you want?” So much so that Jesus asks it of us all the time in the gospels. I think it is THE question of life because it gets at the desires of our hearts. More on that some time. For now, I’ll let Miss Oliver encourage us:

 

Morning Poem
by: Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange
 
sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
 
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
 
for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it
 
the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
 
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,
 
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

 

Bring Me Your Bird Cage

birdcageSo we are called to be culture makers. Not sit back and endlessly critique. Not enter in and self righteously condemn. Nor are we called to gluttonously consume culture in its various forms either.We are to enter in and make spaces for gospel goodness to shine bright. But how?

It doesn’t take very long for me to read a blog post about a call to create culture before I start to feel my inner self get antsy and nervous. I know how this has played out in the past. I’ve felt the world on my shoulders and have moved in as its personal lever only to feel it crash down on me in frenetic glory when I take the one role I was never designed to take. The role of world changer, dear readers, is not my role.

Say it with me. This is important.

The role of world changer is not my role.

I’ve been camped out in John chapter 8 for a few weeks. Its the chapter when Jesus is confronted by both a woman caught in adultery and her accusers. The Pharisees desperately want their way of life, their rule keeping, validated. At this point they will throw anyone under the bus in hot pursuit.

So they cast a woman at Jesus’ feet and say, essentially, “You be the judge. You say you are God and you know the laws of God better than we do. So you tell us what to do with this woman who deserves judgement and a penalty.” (Never mind that there was clearly a man involved in this woman’s sin and yet no one is calling HIM to account. Pharisee Identity Awareness Week rule number one: if they’re not forthcoming with the WHOLE truth than their probably just trying to maintain a cherished identity and are best left to a corner petting their favorite teddy bear named “Pride.” The bottom will fall out for them at some point, I guarantee it. We’ll be ready to welcome them back to the table then.)

So what happens next? Jesus responds with a clearly articulated treatise on Mosaic law…

Ha! No, actually, that’s not how it goes.

Jesus bends over and starts drawing in the sand.

AND I JUST COULD NOT LOVE HIM MORE FOR THIS.

I love this because he’s giving the people in his midst a chance to get tired of themselves. He’s letting the Pharisees continue their finger wagging and he’s letting this woman continue in her despair and he is waiting for the moment when they all run out of breath. Finally, after we’re all wondering if he’s gone crazy on us, he holds up a verbal mirror to the woman’s accusers and says “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The older ones leave first, having lived long enough to know that they fall short of perfection. Then the younger ones follow suit if only because their mentors led the way. Soon its Jesus and the accused staring at whatever picture Jesus drew on the ground while he was waiting for everyone to just “Give up on it, already.”

I kind of wonder here what he drew for her. Maybe it was an Israeli emoticon. You know, the smiley face of his day. Maybe. I like to think Jesus had a sense of humor. But this was a weighty moment for this woman so likely not. The guy was as pastoral as it gets. I’m betting it was more like the image of a bird, standing at the open door to her cage, ready to take flight.

Most of us know how the story ends. He asks the woman who has condemned her and looking around she says, “Not a soul.”

Though lets be honest, there’s still one hold out. The clamor has died down and the urgency has given way to exhaustion and everyone has left the stage. Except Jesus. He’s still there in all his authority and has any number of options at his disposal. No ones looking after all. He could lay a final coat of shame on nice and thick and leave her wondering for the rest of her days why she was so stupid to have walked the road she walked. But he doesn’t.

He lets the bird fly free.

“Go now, and leave your life of sin.” He says. To put it another way…“Leave your life of missing ME in your midst.”

Readers: If this isn’t culture making, I don’t know what is.

At this stage in the game of life, the year 2017, we are not so different from the clamor of the temple courts where Jesus is making space, holding up mirrors and drawing pictures of birds getting ready to take flight. We are all vacillating between our sky high soap boxes or iron clad bird cages and wondering how we’re ever going to walk again with the wind at our backs.

The answer lies in culture making. The answer lies in making space. We hold up mirrors to the overconfident and kindly point out the logs protruding out of their eyeballs and then we invite them to join their other four fingers to the one that’s pointing at the ashamed woman on the ground and ask her, together, if she needs help standing up.

Why? Because we are all going to need help standing one day. You will. I will. Don’t let American independence fool you. It is a joke. Actually, let me rephrase that. It’s a lie. American independence is a lie that is propping far too many people up and I, for one, would like it to fall down in droves. It appears it already is.

This doesn’t negate the fact that our lack of independence can be scary, though I would argue, it doesn’t have to be. We can trust in the great “space maker.” He’s pushing back the crowds that roar to life this peculiarly jarring type of shame – a shame birthed from loneliness and fear – and says something pretty clear following his interaction with the woman. He says it both to her and to all of us who will stick around long enough to listen:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

To that I say: “Thank God.” Because the world needs a little more light. My soul needs a little more light. And I think yours might need it too. Lets keep making space for ourselves and for our neighbors. Pretty soon, I’m betting we’ll feel the wind at our backs. And with enough wind, everyone knows it won’t be long before we’re able to fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Change a Culture

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So, I have a confession to make. I have a terrible time reading fiction. Its just awful. Not the fiction. Me. I just can’t seem to do it. I have recently published a few articles in an online magazine and was asked to submit a couple of sentences for my bio. I am embarrassed to admit this but at the time I was asked I had just checked out two novels from our local library where I had forced myself to avoid any stack but the adult fiction section. So when I wrote my bio, in an effort to will myself into fiction glory I wrote that “I love an engaging novel.” GASP! Lies. This is all lies! Alas, I have renewed these books so many times that even the library basically said through their online portal the other day: “Give it up already. Other people will actually enjoy this one. We need it back.”

I’m still not willing to give up on the genre. I’m counting it a win that I got through half of this recent one. I’m also proud to say that there are a few outliers like Go Set a Watchman and The Signature of all Things that I actually enjoyed (Although, can anybody forgive Atticus Finch?! Ugh, NO, WE CANNOT. I am full of despair.) But clearly, I digress. In the end I’m a memoir/spiritual non fiction gal at heart. A spiritual memoir makes my heart go positively pitter patter.

All this to say that recently while successfully avoiding the mystery that I had promised myself to read cover to cover I ran to the library again to pick up a book I had encountered titled: Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. The book is written to a Christian audience and is a treatise on our call to create culture. The book was kind of “heady” and so unless you’re game for a more textbook like read you may find it more laborious then you’re up for. Even for all my interest in these things I was tempted to put it down in parts until I came across an illustration the author used that I cannot get out of my head.

Crouch talked about life in his family and the culture he and his wife are creating in their home. On Tuesdays, its Crouch family chili night. Andy grabs beef and onions, tomatoes and peppers. After some fine chopping, dicing and sauteing its not long before the smells of chili envelop their house and dinner is served. The only problem with chili night at the Crouch home, he shares, is that he has a couple of picky eaters at his table. One child doesn’t like green peppers. Another hates onions. Yet its a cultural value at the Crouch house that you eat whats put in front of you. There will be no alternative meals made on the side for a picky child in this family. (Or in the Beck family for that matter. Eliana, my sweet. You will politely take note of this.)

The author made an interesting point though. What if one day, 10 years from now at the age of 15 or 16, one of the kids comes home and says he’s had enough of Tuesday chili night. Sure, he could devise a lengthy treatise on the health benefits of chicken nuggets and suggest the family change course on Tuesday nights. Mr. and Mrs. Crouch love chili though and the comfort that those smells and tastes bring to them on a given Tuesday night might not easily sway them. After the treatise fails, Crouch Jr. could continue to complain each Tuesday night and hope that enough whining will cause a change in their Tuesday night dinner plans. This won’t work either though because Andy and his wife are also committed to raising respectful children. Its likely that this method will end up with a hungry Crouch child in a bedroom with the door shut while the parents eat their food in peace.

You know what would probably work though? What if Crouch the younger, now old enough to drive and hold a knife without killing himself asked his dad for the car keys one night. Baby Crouch heads to Kroger and maybe he picks up chicken and breadcrumbs. He grabs some pasta and tomato sauce and whips up a glorious Chicken Parm Casserole that he found courtesy of Yummly or some other recipe website. The author drives home the point here. After a long day of work, if his teenage son uses his energy to actively turn Chili night into Crouch family Chicken Parm night, he’s betting it might actually have some sticking power. After all, what father isn’t going to take his son up on a rare opportunity to kick his feet up and rest after a long day at work while his son makes dinner. Sure, this isn’t going to change chili night the world over. There are some families that will still eat chili on Tuesdays. But for the Crouch family, Chicken Parm night might start to take root and actual change in one particular culture – the Crouch family Culture – could start to change.

I hate to make a dent in book sales but for those of you who don’t want to read the book in its entirety, here’s the main point: You don’t change a culture by endlessly critiquing or condemning it. You change a culture by rolling up your sleeves and making it. 

Its a subtle truth right? If we really sit down and think about it, this makes total sense. Who hasn’t been told that if you don’t like the way somethings going, you do it yourself. But in a social media age I fear its become all too easy to sit back and yell about “culture” going to hell in a hand basket (never mind that the word “culture” here as we use it is really rather ambiguous. What does “the culture” even really mean?) without realizing that we can all have a hand in making it different than it is. And, might I add, without realizing that by sitting back and yelling on social media we’re making a culture that says we should all sit back and yell on social media as opposed to doing something more helpful. Like making a Chicken Parm casserole for dinner for family and friends.

So what do we do now?

I’m not sure.

But as I’m writing this I have this stupid grin on my face because I know down to my toes that this is how you create change. So I think there may be more posts about this topic in the future. This topic of culture making, to be precise. Stay tuned! I’ll be back with more. Right now I gotta figure out how you actually make Chicken Parm Casserole. That sounds delicious!

 

Everyday a Hurricane

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Hi everybody!

The nation has Hurricane Harvey fever right now as we all watch our friends and family in Texas face this incredible storm. The devastation is stunning and I know us Becks are having trouble peeling our eyes away from the news coverage primarily because we are so familiar with the areas that are effected and are concerned for the people we care about who are in the middle of it.

For those of you who may be reading this from Galveston/Houston know that we are actively praying for these rains to stop and for flood waters to recede quickly. We are also asking how we might be most helpful to the recovery process once that gets underway. One thing is for sure…Texas will not recover alone. I am certain of it.

For those of us at a distance I thought it might be a good time to repost a poem I wrote a few months back. I was inspired to write it after reading some great counsel about how to best consider terrorist attacks without losing your mind with fear. Its so hard to see news coverage after attacks and hurricanes and be stuck in the “in betweenness” of it all. We’re not necessarily there to experience the devastation of it all first hand but we’re stuck watching it from a distance, feeling helpless.

Well the writer of the article I read said that the reality is people in our very neighborhoods and cities experience personal hurricanes and terrorist attacks everyday. Everday, someone gets a cancer diagnosis or in a car wreck. Aging parents need care or children are bullied at school. Mr. Rogers said it best when he described how his mother helped him digest difficult news: “Look for the helpers,” she told him. This has been the best advice as I’ve watched the news coverage and seen countless men and women in boats working to rescue folks in Texas. Its also helpful as I watch from a distance and realize that while I can’t go help an emergency crew right now I can head to my neighbors house and ask how I can lighten her load while she battles severe morning sickness. Be encouraged friends. There’s always something we can do to make the world a little lighter and always someone who can lend a helping hand. Lets all dig in and give where we can both in Houston and at home.

Everyday a Hurricane

By Courtney Beck

After the Hurricane hit New Orleans

I went to Jazz City to see what could be done

Hundreds gathered early one morning

Rallying for orders and direction.

Our leader took to a makeshift metal stage

An open top, turned upside down,

Elevating him above the crowd.

He shouted from his belly

That Jazz city would rise again because

Lumber and nails could join together

Via voluntary hands

The crowd shook off their slumber

As his cadence quickened into

shouts of togetherness. Excitement

filled the air in audible crescendo

as my neighbor; a German native

cheered and laughed from her guts.

“Oh how wonderful!” She exclaimed.

“This is all so incredibly AMERICAN!”

A hurricane hit my neighbor’s house last night.

His father just passed away.

There’s no day, quite like this day

To be an American.

To Worship with the President

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This past weekend, Andy and I had the opportunity to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School lesson in Plains, Georgia. I had learned from a friend shortly after we moved here that he still teaches regularly and had put it on my mental bucket list to do at some point. When I heard of his recent fainting spell on a Habitat work site I moved it up a notch in my mind, recognizing that at 92, it might be important to do sooner rather than later.

I have always loved President Carter. Its my understanding that he was not popular in his presidency but having not been alive when he was elected my understandings of him have always been in relationship to his work with Habitat for Humanity. Its a common misunderstanding that he started the organization when the reality is simply that he used his name and connections to put a once unknown organization on the map, so to speak.

I still remember reading the chapter in Forces for Good that talked about the benefits of what the author called a “superevangelist.” If a person of good reputation likes your organizational mission and agrees to champion it the opportunities for exponential growth abound. Every year that I worked at Habitat we would receive updates about the annual Jimmy Carter work project that builds 100 plus homes each year in a community of great need. Mr. Carter mentioned this on Sunday and I just about cried to hear him say that at 92 he had helped build 150 homes with families in Canada a few months ago. I mean really…the man looked like he could be my grandpa and I found myself simultaneously in awe of this man who’s given his life to the service of others AND at the same time wanting to ask if I could just sit on his lap for a minute.

The entire experience, from our entry into Plains at 8:30 Sunday morning to our travels around town before we left at 2:00 just pointed to all that is right, good and beautiful about our country. People showed up for service in any manner of dress and as the President started his time with us he asked where people in the audience were from. A dozen or more states were represented as well as a couple of countries. I recall Japan and Ukraine. He also asked if there were any missionaries present and had one of them open his time up in prayer.

Mr. Carter started in with Galatians and reminded us that despite whats happening in America today we can rest assured that Jesus Christ was no racist for “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He then took us into 1 Peter 3:

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For

“Whoever desires to love life
    and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
    and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
    let him seek peace and pursue it.

President Carter was criticized in his presidency for failing to, quite frankly, worry about the politics. In a long form article by the Rolling Stone six years ago the writer states that he became known for focusing on goals that “required tremendous diplomatic exertion…if only because they were of such low political priority to everyone else. ‘There was something more than a desire to lead,” says Hertzberg. “That was very strong. But as strong was the self-sacrificial ideal of doing the right thing even if it cost him the presidency.’

This sentiment about President Carter oozed out of every minute of the experience and I can’t help but find myself rising to the call of his (and Rosalynn’s) life. I mean think about it. We were in Plains, Georgia at 10:00 in the morning on a Sunday in August. Its two and a half hours from the nearest metropolis and there is exactly one street going through the town with six stores that sell nothing but peanut butter and peanut butter ice cream. There is one restaurant called “the cafeteria” that you can eat at after church is over which is just as fancy as it sounds: grab a tray and choose between fried or roasted chicken, green beans or collard greens.

Yet by the time we were finished at that little Baptist Church on a country lane in Plains we had listened to him urge us to be more sympathetic, more unified, and more compassionate. Then we watched him step aside from his lectern to show us that where we fail to do that, and he reminded us that we will fail to do that, we have no better partner than Jesus Christ whom we all turned to worship. And that was it for me. That partner word. Its the word we used approximately 10 billion times at Habitat to emphasize how you change a life. You do it by showing up and working in humble partnership with God and your neighbors.

In this way, Carter is one in a million. All the history books seem to read that he was a failure of a president. And perhaps its actually true. In many respects he probably was. But this is also a president who knew, or at least struggled hard to hold onto the knowledge, that the presidency was never the point. It was what he could do with the calling he’d received.

We were reminded on Sunday that we follow a savior who received none of the glory this side of heaven that people consider worthy of honor. Jesus of Nazareth was a childless, unmarried man born into poverty who was killed at the hands of the religious and political elite at the age of 33 after just three years of public ministry. Yet by partnering with the risen Spirit of this man, Jimmy Carter is eliminating poverty, eradicating crippling disease and promoting world peace. The man is truly a living embodiment of Christ’s words in John:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

Its tempting, when confronted with your heroes, to see their lives and think that we’re supposed to take precise notes and follow in their footsteps. This inspiration can last for a season but it quickly dies when things get difficult and you realize that your hero is actually a human being who can’t possibly live up to the expectations of a god. Heroes do serve a purpose though and the worthy ones are those that get out of the way and point you to a lasting hope. President Carter did that for me this weekend when he put down his notes and sat in a pew beside his wife of 71 years and sang “Turn your Eyes upon Jesus.” What a privilege it was to worship with the President. I will not soon forget it.

Acknowledgement, Humility and Connection

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So this past Friday I went out on a limb and decided to rejoin Facebook. I had pulled the plug four years ago when I felt like I was somehow closer to living more of my life online than living my actual life. (When you’re walking into work and wondering what people are posting while you’re supposed to be preparing for a busy day of interactions with real live people, its probably time to cut the cord.)

I jumped back on last week in an effort to feel more connected to our community here but within 24 hours I wondered if I had made a mistake. By Sunday, my entire feed was filled with news articles and blog posts about the events in Charlottesville and as someone who tries to regulate how much global news threatens her inner peace it was all a bit unsettling. Don’t get me wrong, I have STRONG opinions about whats happening in our country. I even posted a blurb from the President of Emory that I so appreciated on the topic. But sometimes I wonder if posting our deepest held opinions on a social media outlet ever gets us anywhere in the end. Maybe we’re just supposed to be fully present and compassionate in our daily interactions at work or in the grocery line and work our way towards unity that way. 

Then I read this in a post by Tim Keller on the topic:

Twentieth-century fascist movements that made absolute values out of [“Blood and Soil”]—putting one race and one nation’s good above the good of all—also claimed to champion traditional family values and moral virtues over against the decadence of relativistic modern culture. Even though [fascists] were no friends of orthodox Christianity (see Adolf Hitler’s heretical “Positive Christianity” movement), they could and can still appeal to people within our own circles. Internet outreach from white nationalist organizations can radicalize people who are disaffected by moral decline in society. So it is absolutely crucial to speak up about the biblical teaching on racism—not just now, but routinely. We need to make those in our circles impervious to this toxic teaching. 

Now to be clear, I don’t think I have the power to sway anyone’s deeply held beliefs on a topic any more than the next gal. But in reading this I felt a nudge that staying silent on the topic isn’t necessarily the answer either. We all become products of what we put our attention to and if anyone reads this post and feels nudged in any way towards compassion than I’ll count it all worth it. So here goes nothing.

I can remember a dozen or more instants off the top of my head when I realized the color of my skin bought me a type of privilege that I hadn’t earned. There was the time I overheard my black co-worker responding to an apartment listing on her lunch break and watched her slam the phone down after insisting angrily that of course she had a job or she wouldn’t be calling to apply in the first place. (No one’s ever asked me that in response to my questions about an apartment) There was the time a local donut shop wouldn’t allow a 45 year old black volunteer I was working with to pick up a box of donuts I had ordered in advance because they thought she was stealing them from the 22 year old white girl who had placed the order the day before (I’ve never been questioned incessantly when sent in to pick something up on behalf of another.) There was the time I looked at my “competition” for a job waiting to be called back for an interview that I had just finished and knew without a doubt that I would land it because my private school college professor had admonished me ahead of time to wear a skirt suit and no one told him that his short sleeved dress shirt didn’t go with his tie and dark sneakers. There are also the untold number of times that I introduced well meaning white volunteer groups to a group of leaders on a work site only to watch them shake hands with all the white construction team leads but ignore the black future homeowner I’d also introduced who was standing directly next to the team lead.

These instants all happened but the one that shocked me the most was the moment directly after the donut shenanigans. Jackie and I got back in the car after she had been told to find me and I immediately felt shame on Jackie’s behalf that she had to be a part of that entire scene. No middle aged woman wants to hunt down the 22 year old college kid who’s running an errand across the street to tell her that she’s not exactly what Dunkin Donuts had in mind. We silently grabbed our seats in the Habitat van with the four other African Americans that were in the car with us and started making our way to our destination when I broke the silence and apologized to Jackie for the whole ordeal. She shrugged it off with an “it happens” when one of the other ladies in the car shared a recent experience at a grocery store. She had handed a clerk a $20 bill to pay for her items and the clerk slid her change back to her on the surface of the cashiers desk. “It was like he didn’t even want to chance that he might touch me when he returned the change.” she told us. My internal jaw dropped and then followed quickly by my actual physical jaw when all five women in the van said in some form or fashion: “Oh, I HATE when they do that!”

I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want to touch me because of the color of my skin. It hand’t occurred to me because it just simply had never happened. You pay for your food, grab your change from the cashiers hand and go. But that conversation with those five women changed me. From that moment forward I couldn’t help but see all the tiny gestures that all of us, myself included, made or didn’t make due to skin color. We defer to the white people in the room for their opinions more quickly than the black. We ask the white men in our church to consider eldership but overlook the black gentleman who’s faithfully served for years. I walk into a crowded room and say hello to the group of white friends seated at a table in front of me and completely miss acknowledging the black man who was so kind to OPEN THE DOOR FOR ME TO WALK THROUGH in the first place. (Emphasis mine because I’m 10 plus years into my journey of awareness on this topic and I did this approximately 6 weeks ago. I was kicking myself all the way home and at least aware enough to apologize for my rudeness and introduce myself).

Here’s the thing. Its all about intent, right? White supremacists are a whole other category of people with a severely twisted ethos. As the President of Emory University said in her email to students this week: “supremacist groups are not engaged in the difficult work of informed civil discourse… These groups seek to undermine the fabric of civil society through ignorance, fear, and violence.” This is truth and I think we need to denounce this activity with every cell in our bodies. My question is, what do we do when all we have left is to look at a facebook feed that’s filled with clamor and fear and a heart that’s wondering if that feed is total reality?

For me its looked a lot like acknowledgement, humility and connection. That day in that van I had to acknowledge truthfully that my experience has not ever been close to what those women have experienced. I have never once had to reconsider pursuing something because of my skin color and my friends in that car had. If the roles had been reversed and I was a 45 year old white woman told to go find the 22 year old black girl because I didn’t have the right skin color I would have promptly said “Excuuuse me” with all the sass I could muster and said “Either give me the donuts that my organization has paid for fair and square or you can do without our business and all of our friends business from now on. AND DAMMIT WE ALL LOVE A GOOD DONUT!” But for Jackie, the look on her face showed me that this was a common occurrence and she didn’t feel like making a scene. (which means we can also have a little more understanding next time we see someone making a scene too, right? Maybe they’ve just had it up to here with this crap. Can you blame them?)

After acknowledging the difference I found that a little humility went a long way. And hear me. I’m not saying white guilt. None of us tapped our mothers from the womb and said I’ll take white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes thank you very much. Feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone. But I do think it means we make amends when we notice that we screw up. I also think it might require an openness to the fact that success might look different than we thought.

A few years ago we installed a new pastor at our church in Galveston. He has an adopted African American daughter and I would assume has a similar stance on these topics that I do (though we’ve never discussed this). Within short time I noticed that the African Americans in our congregation were entering various leadership roles slowly but surely. One Sunday morning, Terry, a teddy bear of a black man with a booming speaking voice stepped up to the podium and read the scripture passage that the Pastor would be teaching from that morning. It could have just been me but I think I could have heard a pin drop. I closed my eyes and his voice sounded like an angel’s speaking truth about the God he and I both love. After he was done reading Terry closed the Bible and prayed the most eloquent and intimate prayer. With my eyes closed it felt like Terry and I and God in one room by ourselves, communicating.

I went up to him at the end of the service and thanked him for reading. He said he’d been nervous all morning because he’d not spoken in front of a crowd for a while. I told him that I hoped he would do it again because his reading and prayer blessed me profoundly. He thanked me and we went on to enjoy the rest of our Sunday.

Maybe this is what revolution actually looks like. Revolution after all is defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Well, the social order of our day appears to mean throwing our opinions on the moving target that is social media and saying RAGE and then going back into our churches and workplaces and letting all the white people continue to run the show. But what if the forcible overthrow of the dastardly tremors of systemic racism in our country starts with acknowledging the gifts and the very presence of the people of various races we encounter by saying with our words or our actions “You are stunning. I see you and you take my breath away.” 

Is this not the Imago Dei in action? We can share articles and like posts until the cows come home but if it doesn’t work itself out in our day to day interactions then all of it is nonsense and all we walk away with are anxious and angry hearts. So perhaps today you’ll stop at a grocery store or walk through a park and meet someone who’s different than you are. I know I will. I’m praying in this moment that I can be present enough to acknowledge that person’s presence. If we’re exchanging money for goods purchased I am probably going to skim his or her hand before one of us takes our leave. I’ve done this since the day I left that van, a new person for the education I’d received from the other passengers in the car.  I don’t know what its like to be overlooked or ignored because of the color of my skin but I do know what it feels like to be ignored for other reasons. It’s lonely. And I can stare at my phone and wonder what I can do to make a difference or I can leave my phone in the diaper bag and have a conversation with the other mom at the park who’s kids look different than mine. At some point along the way we’ll get past the awkwardness and realize that we’re a lot more similar than we are different. And the world will be changed a degree for the connection we’ve made.

 

A Spacious Place for Creativity

woman and city

For so long I had felt incredibly confident in my stance on women in the home and workplace. I know, I know. You’re probably ready to bounce off this page as who hasn’t heard every argument in the book when it comes to the Mommy wars. I totally get it. You know what though? The other day I had a bit of an epiphany on this front: What if all the debate on the topic of work and domesticity is actually healthy? Sure, we can go down rabbit trails that are unhelpful. Yet lets be fair to ourselves…we’re talking about the meat of life here. Our callings to the people we love and the world outside of our households. Shouldn’t we allow ourselves a bit of debate on such important topics? Yes, I believe we should.

The funny thing is that it didn’t take long after I hit the fork in the road that suggested that I would need to contend with this debate on a personal level that I felt my confidence slipping away. You see, for some time now, I’ve felt pretty certain that there are multiple ways to build an admirable life. I have friends and family members who are full time working moms. I know others who stay at home full time with their kids from the start. I know people who mix it up in various seasons. I also know people who have chosen not to marry and/or have children at all. So many of these people are building lives and families that I admire and I glean bits and pieces from each of them as they live out their lives in front of me.

That being said, I won’t quickly forget where I was when I heard the voice in my head that said “Really? You’re changing life lanes? Are you really allowed to do that?” I was driving on Harborside Drive in Galveston in my last week at work before we packed up and moved to Atlanta. Already in my third trimester with Ellie, we had decided that I would stay home to start if only by necessity at first. We moved six weeks before she was born and there was clearly no point in finding a job only to take maternity leave almost as soon as we hit the ground. I didn’t know how I would take to staying at home full time so I reasoned that if I wasn’t built for it then I could consider getting back out there once we found our rhythm. (which by the way…do we ever really find the rhythm? No, of course we don’t. OK, just checking)

I was thinking about these issues recently as I was reading Paul’s freedom manifesto that is Galatians. There’s this verse which, again, Eugene Peterson translates so beautifully in the Message:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original. So live creatively friends…Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” Galatians 5:25-6:1, 4-5

Isn’t that just lovely to read? I love that a passage in the Bible is calling us to live creatively. This book is so much more than a book of rules to live by. Its a story of the Spirit igniting fires in the hearts of men and women to live beyond the categories we all want to put ourselves and each other into. Its saying that the mother who works a full time job and snuggles with her children on Saturday mornings, is just as valuable as the woman who encourages her neighbors at the playground down the street on a Monday afternoon. When you’re following the spirit’s leading (a key point), there can be any number of ways to live out any aspect of our lives. Its also saying that the couples without children are just as gorgeous in their spirit led careers and callings in the world as the single man or woman is in her willingness to mentor or paint or cook or account or whatever it is she does that culls out her gifting for the world to experience with her.

All this makes me want to do two things:

  1. Encourage, Encourage, Encourage. Can we be honest with each other? Does anyone really know what their doing with themselves? No, none of us do. We are all stumbling forward through our days and as a friend told me before Ellie was born “Whatever you decide. Its hard.” Work is hard, raising children is hard, singleness is hard, married life is hard. With all of it being so difficult in its varying ways I think we could do with a lot more encouragement and a lot less judgement of ourselves first and then other people. (A rabbit trail here but I really think our judgments of other people simply stem from our lack of confidence in our own selves. But that’s for another day). I’m so grateful that God has at least freed me up enough to be over the top proud of my friends and family members. Rest assured next time we get together for coffee…I am probably resisting the urge to bust out my pom poms and say “Get it, girl.” I really do stand amazed by the women and men in my life and I was not always that way. That is a straight up gift from God.
  2. Lean into the Spirit of God. The more I get to know the Lord, the more I realize that being in his presence is a lot more like taking a deep calming breath. Following his lead is lot more like watching a field of wildflowers bloom than it is striving to be or do something with all of my own might. I want to know where the spaces are that let me breathe deeply. This doesn’t mean I’m sitting in a corner all day mediating. It does mean that at some point in the day I am spending time getting quiet with God and then carrying that soul quiet into the work that I’ve been called to do.

Lets face it. Women in particular have an edge in the creativity game. We get to nurture loved ones and neighbors AND we also get to participate in the stewardship of our culture in a way that men simply don’t. This is a blessing. Yet as many before me have pointed out, if our theology or world view doesn’t work for ALL women, it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work for the woman in the African slum AND the woman in an American suburb than its never going to be open enough to include any of our paths and the myriad directions those paths can meander. My greatest prayer on behalf of the women in my life is that I might be among their greatest fans and cheerleaders. May I get quiet enough, even if its just for this moment, to hear God say the same thing back to me.

“He has brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me, because he delighted in me.”

Ps. 18:19

 

 

 

When Colored Pencils or Oil Paint will Do.

artist

So, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of freedom these days. Its one of the major thrusts of this blog primarily because it keeps coming up. Should Swedish fish become a major theme in my life I will likely just start writing about them…so stay tuned. (Though maybe not as this is not likely…if its a dessert, and there’s no chocolate, can we really call it a dessert? NO, I TELL YOU. WE CANNOT)

Something that has been helpful to me along the way has been to learn that several books of the bible have major themes running through them. When you grow up hearing scripture passages read out of their larger context it can be hard to recognize that the various authors often had particular themes they wanted to get across to their readers in a given letter. I’m only now learning about the narrative arc of the bible and the sub themes underneath it.

Given a consistent reminder in recent days to fight for freedom in my life, I was delighted to learn that the book of Galatians is often referred to as the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty.” Ha! So for better or for worse I may be blogging from time to time about what I’m learning there.

A verse I keep coming back to is verse 15 of Chapter 6: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” For perspective I’d recommend you check out the whole book but in short Paul spends his entire letter chastising the Galatian church for abandoning the gospel message. The gospel had freed them up to live creatively within their callings without guilt or fear and no sooner had they accepted that message did they go back to thinking there were certain rituals they needed to do in order to live a good life. Eugene Peterson translates these lines in his Message Bible like this:

Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do—submit to [the rules, reject the rules]. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life!

These passages in scripture about circumcision were always confusing to me until I realized that its simply a different word for all the little behavioral modifications we attempt to make in order to live the lives we want to live. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I’m abandoning potato chips and all desserts. Then I’ll lost the weight and then I’ll be in a better place.
  • I’m going to get up early and exercise every day. Then I’ll be more energetic at work and then I’ll finally be living right.
  • I’m going to pray the rosary or go to church every Sunday and then I’ll be right with God and then I won’t be so miserable.
  • I’m just not going to say anything when my kid/spouse/family member/friend irritates me. If I hold my tongue then we’ll all be a little more peaceful (never mind that smell that’s stewing underneath the rug.)

Many of these things are good and right things. Its good to go to church and to pray. Its smart to be a good steward of your body. Its often quite wise to bite your tongue in a moment of strife until you’re ready for a less heated conversation on a difficult topic. Yet Paul is saying rather emphatically in this book that the minute you think any one of these things can lead to freedom, you’re kidding yourself. Rules (honor your parents, keep holy the sabbath) and even the freedom you’ve been given to break those rules were things designed by God to lead you back to Him. They are not ends unto themselves.

These are some of Paul’s final sentences in his treatise on freedom and he wants to make his point loud and clear. So much so that a few verses earlier he says:  “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” I love this. All the translations I read said “with my own hand.” I’m no theologian but I feel pretty confident here that Paul grabbed the pen from his transcriber and said “Move over. I’ve got this part. Then in “large letters” with his “own hand” Paul essentially says to the Galatians in all caps:  “HERE’S THE DEAL. YOU CAN BE A RULE KEEPER OR A RULE BREAKER AND IT REALLY MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. YOU’LL STILL BE IN THE SAME PLACE YOU STARTED FROM – TRYING TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND A FREEDOM THAT ONLY GOD CAN GIVE YOU. WHAT MATTERS IS TRANSCENDING THE ASININE CATEGORIES THAT MAN MAKES UP FOR ITSELF AND LIVING A LIFE OF FREEDOM IN RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD AND OUR NEIGHBORS.

Paraphrase mine. But I think their the most freeing sentences I’ve ever written.

So practically, what does this look like?

Two weeks ago I came down with the weirdest bug. I had come down with cold symptoms a few days earlier and when I woke up with a wicked sore throat I figured it was more of the same. By lunchtime though I was googling “symptoms of strep throat” as the aspirin I was taking every 6 hours wasn’t cutting it and I was starting to get a headache. By 1:00 I started to feel like I had the flu so in keeping with my google search I headed across town to the only minute clinic I could find for a strep test. By the time I walked into the air conditioned CVS I was freezing cold and feeling like I was going to faint. Thankfully, Andy was right across the street at work and he came over and met us as all i wanted to do was go home and bury that 101 degree fever under a thousand blankets.

When the strep and flu tests came back negative, confirming a viral infection, I initially accepted that news and made a beeline for the door so we could go straight home. The more I thought about it though the more I had been certain I had had strep throat. Why would all of this have come on so quickly and randomly. So, I hit the google again (first mistake) and was suddenly quite concerned that I had:

TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME. (yes, please laugh. I am also laughing. Also, please see this post for context.)

TSS is deadly and I’d heard it comes on super fast. In my feverish state of mind it was the only thing I could think of that would have made all these symptoms come on so quickly and I knew that if I was right I could be preparing for my own funeral if I didn’t go to the hospital. But I also wasn’t sure…I mean the PA at the CVS hadn’t been too alarmed. I knew I did not want to be faced with a hospital bill if it was simply a virus that needed to work its way out.

So, I present to you my thoughts in that moment:

“Ugh, what if I have TSS. I should go to the hospital so they can treat it quickly. But what if its just a virus like the clinic guy said? I really don’t want to deal with a hospital bill if I don’t have to. But what if it IS TSS?!?!?! TSS, hospital bill, You’re probably dying, but what if you’re not, TSS, bill, TSS, bill, TSS, bill. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to pay the bill, TSS, bill, TSS, bill…”

Finally, in a brief moment of sanity, I said what I thought in the moment was a super random, off the cuff prayer.

“Hey God. I might have Toxic Shock Syndrome. I know its terrible. I wasn’t planning on meeting you today and if I do I’m sure it will be a great reunion. I’m also not sure if I’m ready to go yet and quite honestly I’m not sure if I’m just overacting to all this. I don’t really know what to do. So, um, help. Please. In a way that I understand, Lord. Soon.”

I put my phone down and closed my eyes. 5 minutes later, my neighbor who just moved in up the street whom I have met exactly once, 2 months ago, when we exchanged phone numbers for butter and eggs sent me a text message.

“Hey! Are you going to the Neighborhood Annexation meeting tonight?”

Sarah is an Emergency Room physician.

“Sarah! no, I’m not. Sick as a dog. Speaking of which, you mind if I ask you a quick question? I swear I think I have TSS. Fever, sore throat, freezing cold, feel like I’m going to faint. So random. It all came on in less than 6 hours. What do you think?”

Pause while I watch the three “she’s typing back bubbles.”

“Oh isn’t it awful? My husband has it right now too.” she responded. “I’ve already seen four cases of it. Same symptoms. Just make sure your fever stays low with aspirin. Should go away in a few days. So sorry you’re sick!”

I put my phone down and snuggled down into my blanket. By 10 pm that night, all my symptoms had gone away.

I swear, most of my natural inclinations in life are to jump between camps. Obey the rules, cover my bases, and go to the hospital or let the rules slide, come what may and, possibly, die. I don’t know about you but those have just never really felt like very good options to me.

Paul says, what matters is the new thing God is doing. What matters is presenting our lives as a blank canvas and saying you can use the colored pencils or the oil paint or some combination of both and it really makes no difference to me. I’m coming to you first, the master artist, to let you paint the picture of my life with whatever mediums you so choose.

So what does freedom practically look like? I think it looks a lot like getting quiet, however awkwardly and erratically that might happen, and lifting your head to the sun to say:

“Help me.”