Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bearing Witness

Raphael was just shot and killed.
I get the text message from Adam as I pull out my phone to switch on airplane mode, squished between two strangers on a nearly-empty flight to Chicago.

I text questions furiously with few answers, before dutifully switching off my phone as the plane taxis to the runway. Finally, trying to distract myself, I read Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. She writes poetry-prose about her husband’s death:

It’s a fact: black people in this country die more easily, at all ages, across genders. Look at how young black men die, and how middle aged black men drop dead, and how black women are ravaged by HIV/AIDS. The numbers graft to poverty but they also graph to stresses known and invisible. . . And so the black artist in some way, spoken or not, contends with death, races against it, writes amongst it . . . Survivors stand startled in the glaring light of loss, but bear witness.
We realize this flight is quite empty, the stewardess announces over the intercom, but please don’t switch seats until after take-off. Weight balance is most important during take-off, especially on such a light flight.

During takeoff, however, my seat mates fall asleep and I don’t want to wake them to move, so I try to type quietly and without jostling my arms, my laptop partially closed to fit on the small table folded down from the seat in front of me. We bounce over clouds, and my stomach drops again and again.

I sit here in this tiny airplane seat (seriously, have they gotten smaller?), helpless against this loss. And so all I know to do is bear witness. This witness-bearing to his life is not quite my job; nor even should it necessarily be my privilege, considering how little we knew Raphael. But I am desperate for the world to know the ways he made life bright. For my friends to understand all the boys in our neighborhood, to know the ways they carry light and life, along with the weight they shoulder and the ways they are shaped by the landscape they walk as a young black male in this country.

Though we have lived in our neighborhood five years now, we strangely only just met Raphael this past basketball season. His younger brother has played on our football team for years, even before he was technically old enough. He is the smallest one on the team those first years, but athletic and fast, and his mom tells us the football games in the park are the first time she has ever watched him play. This season he is one of the largest players on the team, and I cajole him back onto the team when he quits every time we lose.

I am bouncing Isaiah when Raphael first knocks on our door. I swing Isaiah to my hip, and answer without checking the peephole, surprised when I don’t know the young man standing on the other side.

Good morning ma’am, he says, is Mr. Adam home? I smile and tell him Adam’s at the office, asking what we can do. I would like to play basketball please, he says politely.

Oh we would love to have you I exclaim, always overly eager when meeting new neighbors. I direct him to Adam’s office, pointing him the back stairway visible from our front porch. Thank you ma’am, he says. I am surprised to hear my mother’s voice coming from me as I scold him for calling me ma’am: I’m not that old, I tease. Yes ma’am, he responds, then laughs when he realizes what he’s said.

Raphael shows up that season for every game except one. Every week, he’s a few minutes early and turns down my offers of food, sitting on the green lost-and-found box by the front door (yes, we have a lost-and-found box at our house, mostly full of smelly t-shirts and shoes discarded before or after sporting events, which I wash and stack in the large box, hoping they will find their way back to their rightful owners).

What school do you go to? I ask Raphael one week. Oh I dropped out ma’am, he tells me (his use of ma’am a habit we haven’t quite been able to kick), but I’ve received my GED and now I’m working, he continues: Oh and I’m sorry I missed last week’s game, I had to work.

We never quite dive below polite answers, and now we will never get the chance.

Adam and I have forewarned each other, just a few months ago: its only a matter of time before one of these funerals is for one of our boys. I am frustrated at this inevitability, at my inability to help, at the inadequacy of words. I want to somehow do justice to who Raphael was, to who he was becoming, before he fades to the background as another statistic, another life lost to bullets strewn across pavement and lives.
I return to my book, looking for light even as my seat-mate lowers the shade against the brilliance of sun reflected on white clouds, scattered over patchwork brown laying beneath us like a quilt:

Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes it quicksilver. Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.

I write as revolt against his death. I write to find the light, to acknowledge the loss, and to carry gently the weight and honor of encountering the life of Raphael. Even without knowing the details surrounding his final moments, carried through bluest skies on silver wings, I settle deep in the knowledge of the Father's tender mercies through every unspeakable tragedy. I stubbornly believe in the grace and beauty of holding close to the brokenhearted, of breaking my heart alongside theirs. Because I don't have answers as often as I allow myself to widen in pain that mysteriously births new life, new mercies that rise on the gentle and fierce tides of life and death and every sacred moment between. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

My Favorite Podcasts (and many, many pictures)

I have been really bad at updating things around here (shocking right?), so I thought I should pop in with some links to my favorite podcasts. A big part of the reason I have no time to update is all-the-work-days, which have been consuming my time, but which also mean I have some car-riding time in which to listen to podcasts (the only time I usually actually listen to them is when I am in the car by my lonesome, which is a rare occasion indeed).

So for now, a few of my favorites (hopefully some new ones for all) that come highly recommended (by me, mostly).

* Nomad Podcast: I love their takes on faith and church in this podcast, and I especially enjoyed this episode where they interview Jamie Arpin-Ricci who does inner city ministry in Vancouver.

* Serial, Season 2: I adored season one of Serial (along with the rest of the world), but I was having trouble getting into season 2. My friend Sarah encouraged me to stick with it, and I'm glad I did because the farther into it I get, the more I am fascinated hearing about the army strategies in Afghanistan for community development and the ways we need to be rooted in a place for the long-term in order to bring about any lasting change.

* On Being: I love almost every single interview Krista Tippet does here, but I especially enjoyed this one with poet Nikki Giovanni and this one with Martin Sheen (because who knew he has been arrested so many times as an activist?!)

* The Liturgists: I feel like their latest episode, Black and White: Racism in America, is a must-listen.

* Osheta Moore's Shalom in the City (especially the one with my girl Shannan Martin, and the one with my friend Megan Tietz, both of whom chat about things close to my heart).
Also, it's Five8football season again, and Tuesday nights at the park are my favorite time of the week (come join us! I highly recommend bringing a picnic).

Two last things: 1- I will be going to the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids next week, anyone else going to be there? and 2- I am going to try and send out our third family newsletter this week if anyone is still interested in signing up for that!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Formula for Happiness

Remember how I mentioned that some friends asked us to film a Gerber commercial? Luckily, we already actually used Gerber formula (to supplement breast-feeding), so we could say of course without any misgivings.

Well, once said commercial was finally posted by Gerber (on their Facebook page, not on TV), I knew I had to share it here with all you lovely folks because you have been, and continue to be, so encouraging and excited with us for all of it. It is an honor to see my sweet little family represented so carefully by our friends who filmed it, and by Gerber too.

Also, for the record, at one point they told me: maybe less sarcasm #thestruggleisreal.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Megachurches and Valleys

Those of you who go to our church (new church/old church, or anywhere in-between) will recognize that I wrote this post a few months ago (Christmas-time actually). But somehow I still find myself floundering in the middle place, between justice conferences and megachurches. I never quite find my footing in either place, and in-between is a lonely place to live. Not quite justice-y enough for one crowd: after all, I don’t exactly make my own clothes, and there are few things I like better than a good Target run. But not quite ingenuous or upbeat enough for the other crowd: it’s hard not to let cynicism and righteous indignation creep in. Because I’m not sure we can fully understand hope rising until we have seen the valleys, experienced the darker places of our streets and lives. 

And so I share only to expose my ongoing confusion and hope, inextricably bound. 

Feeling a bit like spiritual nomads, we slip into the back of the mega-church where we have improbably landed these past few months.

On the way in, I snap a picture of the beautiful display where people can buy a book for $5 for an APS student. How cool, I exclaim to Ashton, explaining how they’re buying a book for every Atlanta Public School student this Christmas.

Ashton scrunches his face in his particular way, asking why would they do that?

Well, I tell him, they want to be a church for the city of Atlanta.

Humph, he scoffs, looking around: these folks don't care nothing about APS.

I want him to be wrong. And I sit in the back of church turning his words over and over. I study backs of heads, looking for evidence of lives not just shored up and encouraged here, but ready to be poured out. For people who understand the ways they are buying books for a whole lot of kids who cant read.

Visiting our local elementary school just the day before, in fact, the guidance counselor said to us: ask me how many of our fifth grade boys can read. We oblige, and she answers: not even one.

Surely that’s an exaggeration, I tell myself, trying not to think about all the prison beds being funded and built based on third-grade reading levels, let alone fifth.

Sometimes I long to un-know the things I know. Ignorance must be bliss I mourn with rose-colored nostalgia. I want to go to big conferences without thinking about anything except the pulsing beat to the latest worship songs. Instead, I glance obsessively over at the teenage boys we brought, worrying over the ways they see themselves reflected more often in the faces of the conference center employees than in the conference leaders, or even other attendees.
At a housewarming party in the neighborhood last week (the demographics of which are a whole other post for another day), I found myself huddled over the cheese platter (always), chatting with a few friends about church. The conversation ping-pongs around until someone asks: do you think there’s any hope for the church?

Of course there is. I say it with more conviction than I feel. But really, I do. I still hope in all the earnest believers who come in droves to fill conference halls and megachurch seats in cold loading docks labeled overflow. Because we were them. And in many ways, we still are. Naive and earnest, doing our best to live out the whole Jesus-following thing even when we aren’t certain what that looks like. And hearts come alive to Him in all sorts of ways and places. Who I am to say how and where lives might look poured out?

A few days after the conference, I take the familiar long way home, the one that takes me past his corner. And this time he’s there. He flags me down with a grin, and I pull my car over next to a boarded-over corner store, cinderblock painted garish yellow with red hand-lettered EBT. He opens his flip phone to show me pictures of his baby, and peers through the open window to meet mine. He grins with a cigarette in his teeth, grasping Isaiah’s tiny fist. It’s me, he says, your big brother Sabo. I smile and hope he doesn't notice the way sadness lingers behind my eyes. We hug, and he puts my number in his phone. I hope he will call, but expect he probably wont. Pulling away with a wave, I navigate streets riddled with potholes and ignore the waves from the boys I don't know on other corners. The music from the conference plays: down in the valley, where waters rise. I’m still believing, hope is alive.

Glittering glass shards littering the streets and boarded-up windows line what is surely a valley of the shadow of death if I’ve ever seen one. It feels like the very place where waters rise, choking out life.

And yet hope lives, stubborn and relentless. In the church and in the valley. I trip over my cynicism, stumbling into hope each time I fear it’s lost. Because hope, ultimately, does not depend on the depth of the valley or the height of the mountain, but on the character of Christ. And He never disappoints.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Reflections on 10 Years of Marriage

Ten years ago today was our wedding day. Impossibly bright, with a biting wind, and so many perfect details I can scarcely recall. After the wedding, we laid on the couch in our suite at the Ritz-Carlton (thanks grandma), still in our nice clothes, while Adam pulled bobby pins from my hair. The next morning, we flew to Jamaica. Two hours in a bumpy van ride ended in white sand beaches, bottomless drinks, and guards that carefully patrolled the edges of the resort. I forgot my camera, so we hired the resort photographer to snap our picture in front of the Jamaican sunset. We both wear bright colors, fancy outfits that perfectly pair with the brilliant sun sinking low behind us on the beach. Adam holds me in one picture, and we are impossibly young. This time, our first all-inclusive trip since our honeymoon, we fly into Mexico and I remember my camera, but we both forget to bring nice clothes. We shoot each other glances as they remind us of dinner dress codes; Adam wonders aloud if his pink Anteaters t-shirt counts as “dressy casual.”

Quite honestly, living in a Shane-Claiborne-Style upside-down Kingdom has ruined us for lavish vacations. As we fly over turquoise waters and lush green spread as far as the eye can see, all I can think about is my friend Bridgit who provides prosthetic limbs to those who, desperate, have fled Mexico by riding atop trains and suffered terrible accidents in the process. I try not to imagine their faces as we take our private car over bumpy roads and through guarded gates into all-inclusive white sands and endless margaritas. We talk about how much water we use in the seven-stream shower, how much food we waste, how much alcohol gets consumed. I am glad they rake the beach to get rid of the seaweed that sticks between my toes and smells of fish, then wonder what’s wrong with a world where we are so desperate for things to be picture-perfect we forget how it is to be real.

It’s ok, I think, to live in this tension. To recognize our need for escape and the ways we saved and scrimped to get here, while also feeling a little uncomfortable with the excess. If nothing else, ten years later, we have learned the value of not running away from the tension. Of leaning into hard things instead of away. Because Adam and I aren’t really “fighters,” necessarily, there have been very few times in our marriage where I’m the kind of mad that gets out of the car. More often than not, I stay, but twist my hips imperceptibly towards the window. I answer with clipped words, refuse to talk about anything important, wondering why he can’t read my mind. I shut the dishwasher loudly, slam the dryer shut as I fold yet another load of laundry and ask Adam in all seriousness, but why do you wear so many clothes? I am lucky enough, of course, to be married to one who doesn’t run away from my prickly moods. Instead he keeps asking “what’s wrong?” until I answer honestly. Until I tell him how I feel overlooked, unimportant. How I worry that my desires pale in comparison to his. That I’m not sure I believe in just submitting, unless we are doing it mutually. We question and wrestle (not literally usually), and I collapse into bed with a book while he flicks the channel to something about Alaska. We have different ways of unwinding, different strategies for loving our neighbors, and disciplining our kids. We don’t really dance anymore like we did at our high school prom (!!) but we coordinate a complicated dance of our own at 2am while he pulls Caden into his arms from a night terror, and I bounce Isaiah back to sleep as he nestles into the space of my neck with fingers entwined in my hair. I kick Adam awake when his alarm blares in the morning, and he woos me with coffee in bed before walking to the office.

Ten years later, we know it’s the hard things that strengthen us most. Something real gets forged in the fire of unpaid doctor bills, ER visits, and sleepless nights for six months straight. We catch eyes and know what the other is thinking, and I love that more than the flowers he left on my car every day after high school. Together we laugh about my lack of cooking ability and his maddening way of knowing how to do everything, but organize nothing. I sigh and drive to a job I don’t want, so he can do the one he does. I sacrifice for him, and he does the same for me. Because marriage is this constant laying down of self for the other.

The way our lives have unfolded over the last ten years is nothing like what we would have imagined, sitting under the setting sun in Jamaica. We wouldn’t have known to ask God for all the things He has granted us. I don’t know how to give advice on boundaries and tips for making love last. Because what works for us surely won’t work for everyone; but even still, moving closer together in forgiveness and laughter every day can’t hurt.

Because I am many days behind in my Lent study, today my reading passage began with this: “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” This is hard, we agreed over breakfast in bed. We clasped hands and prayed for our day and our marriage over mimosas and omelettes with sausage that looks like hot dogs. And we went into our day, into another year of marriage, hoping that perhaps we will finally be able to live selflessly, putting the other first. Because this, of course, is the real trick to marriage. Mutual submission and a constant surrendering of my own needs for the other’s. Not because I don’t have needs, but because I can trust they will always be met both in Christ and in a husband who loves me and serves Jesus every single day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

How Long Oh Lord: A Lament

I started writing this a couple weeks back. Since then, the flu has laid me low (seriously, I am STILL sick over two weeks later), and we have shared our story of faith and one-step-at-a-time calling with a conference full of teenagers and adorable-awkward preteens. We had to remind ourselves a few times, we are not frauds. We told each other, we do what we do because we have been brought here step-by-sometimes-painful-step.

Even still, I keep fumbling my way through all of this life. Because these aren't our stories, completely. But they are our stories, because our hearts are all entwined, and they belong to us as much as we belong to them, and we all belong together (do you see how confusing this is? Welcome to my brain). The mind-numbing exhaustion of six months of sleep deprivation (why oh why don't I produce babies who like sleep?) stack right on top of heart exhaustion, perhaps. And so I hit publish with trembling fingers, certain I have no answers and leaning hard into the thinnest places where grace covers and fills me most.
In a few hours I will leave to attend a funeral for a nineteen year old boy shot and killed last week. I don’t really know what to say, so I start a load of laundry. For once, I carefully sort out the colors and darks, piling whites into one big load and turning the water to hot. I fold the basketball jerseys, still warm from the dryer. They still carry the slight scent of sweat and adolescence, despite the double wash and three bounce sheets I gave them after last night’s game. I kick our washing machine when it tilts off balance and bangs loud, waking Isaiah from tenuous sleep. I try to feed him hurriedly, sweeping mascara over my lashes and tucking some kleenex into my purse before we slip out the door. Gray skies begin to cast drizzle across my windshield, in just the right amount to defy any windshield wiper setting. I pick up the two boys we have known and loved for five years now, and I drive them to their cousins’ funeral. One tells me he is a pallbearer. Unsure about how to help teenage boys handle grief, I tease him a little for wearing acid-washed slim fit overalls for the task.

We pull up at the church and I shield Isaiah’s face from the rain while we run to the doors, slipping into a pew near the back. I try to avoid the open casket, and to ignore the sniffling row of little kids wearing t-shirts with the teen’s smiling face behind me. I turn around once to see tears running in rivulets down their faces, quickly facing back to the altar while the whole motley crowd sings amazing grace in halting sopranos and altos peppered by wails. Palpable grief settles on the shoulders of his friends, young men with broad shoulders and stoney faces who occasionally allow themselves to shudder with sobs. When his little sister gets up to sing Take Me to the King, I last as long as the first line “truth is I’m tired,” before I feel my own tears slip down my face. I am tired, I think. Tired of carrying so much grief, of contact burns.

I barely knew him, really. Nineteen years old and we met only a handful of times. Laughed together over pancakes and spilled syrup, and hugged after a football game where he played against the anteaters. But the loss gapes like a wound and I cant apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding. Mostly, I feel numb. Which scares because I wonder what that means about my heart. Numbness is a bad sign, right? When the tragic turns commonplace, and we tie a tourniquet to stop the flow of emotion and hurt that threatens to drown us. I hug both boys I brought after they lower his body into the ground while the crowd shivers and rain falls cold on slumped shoulders. They both cry into my arms, and I wipe my own tears mingled with the rain.

The more we experience, the less I know. This seems backwards, like my knowledge should increase with experience, with age, with life. But I find myself with more questions and less answers as each day spins by. A third child reminds us that all we thought we knew about parenting and getting babies to sleep in their cribs is mostly party tricks I can barely remember at 2am six months in.

All the things I thought I knew flit away on the notes of a song sung by a little girl at her big brother’s funeral. They tangle themselves up in church politics. They slip past the shaky knees of the teenager who rids herself of her third baby over a toilet. They slide into dark corners where the flickering light seems faint at best. What is left to hope in when nothing turns the way it should and I disappoint myself at every step. When my voice grows hoarse from shouting, my heart grows weary with opening my door to strangers. A crisis of faith, clinging to the heels of six months without sleep, seems the best way to describe the gaping silence that echoes from the other side of my prayers.

I stare into the darkness and ask in a trembling whisper,
How long oh Lord?

With shuddering breaths, I realize that the only way through the darkness is to go deeper into it. Deeper and deeper still, until perhaps we might start to see a small flicker of light on the other side. Grieving together as holy work, walking into the darkness with hands clasped tight in recognition of sacred space. To not fear the darkness and the questions it carries, but to recognize and embrace all the ways darkness might mark new beginnings. The mother bird whose wings flutter over the deepest dark to bring forth a spark of something new.

Because brokenness is not the end, but the beginning.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From My Sick Bed

After two days of resting (or writhing in misery, rather) in bed with the flu, I think enough is enough. Adam leaves for a meeting after getting Jayci off to school, and both remaining children climb into my lap. My skin crawls at their touch and I sit in front of the heater to ward off the chills. I sip a mug of hot tea and lemon, trying to soothe a new tickle in my throat.

There is a pull within me to equate production with value. To believe I am only afforded a certain amount of me-time before I'm just being selfish (even if me time = in bed with the flu).

Its the first day of lent, and I don't have plans to give anything up exactly. Instead, I want to use these 40 days to remember my identity in Jesus. As Shane Claiborne says, lent is an opportunity to give up something that is sucking the life out of us so that we can be filled with God, with life, with love again. . . So whether it is giving up an old bad habit or take on a new holy habit, may we each use this Lenten season as an excuse to do something that empties us of ourselves so that our lives make better music.

This past weekend we had the (crazy) opportunity to share our story at a youth conference for a couple hundred middle and high schoolers. Besides being way outside of my comfort zone (Adam is the one who likes speaking to crowds), it was a really sweet time for our family and an amazing reminder of all the ways that God has called us step-by-step into this life we never would have dreamed up for ourselves. Also, I just wrote that it was a sweet time for our family and then remembered how many times I nearly lost it yelling at my children because they would not stop fighting for the love of everything. I only pulled it together because I thought "you are the keynote speaker, pull it together."
But seriously, I remembered some things I needed to be reminded of: that we didn't mentor Zack and Sabo because we wanted to start a mentoring program, but that God led us to mentor Zack and Sabo and that's why we ended up starting a mentoring program. Our end goal never skipped past the people who were right in front of us, and I want to keep living that way. To recognize the holy ways that God slips people into our lives (for a season or forever) who we will learn from and with.
Since I'm about to read some more and then perhaps nap while Isaiah naps, I leave with you with some links I love and a few books I'm going to preorder (and I think you should too).

First of all, Adam and I also shared a story with a friend of mine from UGA (which was apparently over 10 years ago, crazy). She came to our house and interviewed us about our lives and Blueprint 58 and shared the whole thing on her cool site (ATL 1X1). I'd love for you to pop over and read it if you're interested. And be sure to spend some time looking around the site, because she has shared lots of stories from really cool Atlanta change-makers, of whom we are beyond honored to be included. Its a great resource to find something you're passionate about in Atlanta and find out how you can get involved. Of course we would love that to be Blueprint 58, but really would be thrilled for you to find any way to let your passions meet the needs of our city.

I have rarely been as excited about a book as I am for these next two. Although if you've been around here long, I've linked to their blogs often enough that you've probably already preordered their books too (I hope!)

The first is my homegirl Shannan's book, Falling Free (Rescued from the Life I always wanted). Their story is so much like our story, and the time that Adam and I spent with Shannan and Cory cemented my love for them forever. Sorry guys, you'll never get rid of us now! But seriously, her story will inspire you for sure, and I've been meaning to tell her for days that I think her writing is only getting more beautiful and holy every single day. For real.

I'm also super-pumped to get DL Mayfield's new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. I mean seriously, I feel like I need to read it right this very minute because I currently feel exactly like a failed missionary who needs to rediscover some faith, please and thank you. Her writing is some of my very favorite, the kind that leaves me ready to both love my neighbors better and hand over my pen, because I have read very few people who can write like she does.

A few more books I'm excited about:
Renovate: Changing Who You Are by Loving Where You Are - by our dear friend and pastor Leonce Crump (our story is tucked in there somewhere too!)
Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark - Addie Zierman
Winter (The Lunar Chronicles).  Confession: I got this book for my friend for Christmas and then made him let me borrow it before he even read it. I feel a little guilty like perhaps I basically bought myself a Christmas present? Oops.


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