Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Making for Peace

Actual statuses and captions from the kiddos pictures (warning, some badly misspelled foul language included)
“Behind this beautiful smile lies a world of pain”
“Grown up wit no father figure, da streets was my role model”
“1 day I hope I will B able 2 smoke all da pain away.”
“U can look me in da eyes and feel my pain.”
“Mann Wen iGo BaXk Too cKourt IHope Dem cKracKers LoXxk My BlaXxk Ahh BaXk Up FuxXk Dese Streets
“Now they tryna give my brother life man, I swear this shit make me want to take my life fr man“
“Just could Have threw my life away but good is good”
“GeekedLife higher than i ever been
Thinkin bout my past and got mad at the faxt that i gt to live like dis but this only make me stronger”
Sometimes I get on facebook or instagram to check on a kid I haven’t seen in a while. I usually regret it a little, because the things I see, they clench my stomach in terror for my own children to face the teenager years. I always feel old saying it, but heavens I am grateful I did not stumble through the horrors of adolescence in the age of social media. And so I am sad for them, and a little alarmed; but also slightly amazed at the insight these kids have into their own hearts. That they recognize and can even name the pain behind their behaviors. That they know they can’t quite smoke away all the agony. That they recognize how the streets hunger for their lives.

The amount of death that invades their lives, as a matter of fact, grows astonishing and quickly. My friend Ashlee tells me that at last year’s Carver HS graduation there were eight speakers, the two top students from each of the four schools. Of those eight, six of them had lost a parent. Those statistics stagger. I wrack my brain to think of one kid I knew in high school who had lost a parent, or a sister or brother. Loss permeates the landscape in ways both hidden and open like a gaping wound.

Not far from our neighborhood, pieces of Atlanta look startlingly similar to a war-zone. In fact, a certain street that I drive down often is marked by blood-red graffiti on boarded over doors and shattered window frames: W-A-R. The red scrawl unsettles me, particularly across the side of a house charred by flames, where they sit above the words JIM CROW NOW, although someone has scratched through Jim Crow unconvincingly.
As I drive and the words sear themselves in my heart, I think about war. About violence, and about loss and death. I wonder what we are doing here if not fighting for peace. And then I think about the awkward juxtaposition of “fighting” for peace and what it REALLY means to be a peacemaker. To be a part of the things that make for peace.

When we first started working with inner-city kids, I remember feeling caught off guard by just how difficult it felt to try and get the kids to apologize to one another. I wonder, I remember telling Adam, if it is physically impossible for his mouth to form the words: I’m sorry. What should we do, we discussed, if the message they get at home is that if they get hit, they should hit back harder.

It comes down, of course, to the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that somehow, more violence will put an end to the violence. Zack told us when you start a new school, you will have to fight a couple people, and then no one will mess with you anymore. I remember feeling confused by this ritual, this idea of escalating to end it – of fighting to put a stop to more fighting later on. Of course I dont understand, because I grew up in a school and a reality where violence was not a part of the cadence of my life. But still, it is a pervasive myth. One that permeates not just here, but all the way to corners of the war rooms and highest offices of the land.

And yet, regardless of our different landscapes and histories, we believe in the Jesus who declared a gospel of peace. In fact, His admonishment to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, might just be the most revolutionary and counter-cultural idea he spoke of. And just like those who didn’t want a peaceable Jesus, those who crucified Him because they expected a Messiah who would overthrow their enemies, who would take back by force everything taken from them. So too, for a historically oppressed people group, this message of peace sounds suspiciously like foolishness. Because for the one who has had their cloak taken again and again, giving your tunic as well sounds not like victory but defeat.

I find myself often lately looking at the boys around us, both the ones who sit down at our table, and the ones who play football and give hugs but still look at us suspiciously when we invite them in. I look at them and remember when Jesus “saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!” And so I pray, of course, for wisdom and change and hope and grace. But mostly, I pray for peace. For the kind of peace that makes no sense, that passes understanding, but that changes and heals and turns everything upside down.

Monday, April 28, 2014

For when I wake up early on a Monday morning

I downloaded this app on my phone a few days ago called "SleepBot." Supposedly it tracks your sleep movements etc, and then wakes you up when you are in the best part of your sleep cycle in a thirty minute window of your choosing. For example, I chose 6:00am-6:30am this morning, and my alarm went off at 6:21am. I dont know if it actually works, but the last two days I have actually got out of bed when my alarm went off, which is practically a miracle.

Of course, if I'm going to drag myself out of bed early, I wish I could write something worthwhile. I sit here and read some Anne Lamott, and wish I had her wit and wisdom. I type some words about the neighborhood, and then delete them. But a friend admonished me "we cant always be writerly" . . . and so here I am with some pictures of my most-adorable children.

I was reminded this weekend of just how beautiful this place can be, particularly under the warm morning sun of spring. When temperatures rise and the streets buzz with life and pulse with music. We lend them our picnic tables, and then venture to join a neighbor's backyard marriage celebration. The DJ plays the wobble, and my children join in enthusiastically, oblivious to their lack of rhythm and milky-skin in a crowd of chocolate. We laugh, and Ma Sands welcomes us with hugs and offers us jello shots, which we politely decline. She apologizes for the joint in her hand and fills our plates heaping with macaroni and baked beans which Caden licks off his plate and Jayci refuses to eat.
And so we dance, and we eat, and we tromp back home to swing on the tire swing and water the garden and admire the rose bush that grows wild and unafraid on the fence, spilling into the street.
Adam has already gathered two pints of early-harvest strawberries from his garden. I pop them in my mouth like candies, their sweet juices staining Caden's chin and Jayci's fingers. We admit they are the best strawberries we have ever had, and I let the kids spray each other with the hose. Summer stands waiting just around the corner, and the kiddos count down the days until their freedom.
We laugh and play soccer and Jayci doesn't even mind when Caden soaks last year's Easter dress, which makes both for wedding-celebration-attire and gardening clothes alike. 
And now Monday morning birds are singing, and Zack is ironing clothes before school (sure proof he must not be related by blood), and Jayci stumbles out of bed to snuggle in my lap while coffee brews. It will only be a matter of minutes now before she needs a "snack," and Caden starts crying for his mommy. In fact, he just did. Happy Monday everyone!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sharing . . . because it has been forever and i miss you

Hi friends. So I realize I've already posted twice since my long absence (40 days!) without saying hello. So I thought we needed to take a minute and reconnect. I know how hard it can be when people you're used to seeing often suddenly stop dropping by. Anyways, HELLO! How was your Lent, and your Easter? Ours went quickly and unexpectedly in lots of ways, predictably in others. As usual, I struggled and fought against the giving up and found peace and release in loosening my grip. I wondered and wrestled, and bent dangerously close to never showing back up in this space until some friends convinced me to keep writing.

All that to say, I have missed you guys and the freedom of a space to share my heart, our story, and some pictures and such along the way. Also, I am currently SO far behind on sharing my 365 project for this year, that I'm going to have to stick in a bunch of collages to catch up without making this post entirely ridiculously too-long. As a disclaimer: I stink at collages, so these are messy and quickly-put-together (also, the pictures are small . . . because there are so ridiculously many. I'll try to do better and keep up next time, amen).

I've also been collecting some reads and posts for you over the last 40 days, which means I have a whole lot of them. However, if you are only going to read one, make it this one from ProPublica on the resegregation of schools. I wept over it. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . . to separate black children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." These words are from the original ruling to desegregate schools in the 50s. But I cannot help but think of all our kiddos who sit in classrooms that unequivocally made up of monochromatic skin tones, and wonder what we are doing to their hearts, regardless of any arguments of whether or not their education is equal to their white counterparts (hint: it's not). The article tells the story in three chapters of three generations of a family in one school: a father who went to school pre-integration, his daughter who attended the integrated high school, and his granddaughter who goes to the same school which has now been "resegregated." It's fascinating and heart-wrenching.
Reading (on the inter-webs)
The Struggle of Stewarding a Story (Sarah Markley)
700 Words (Jamie the very worst missionary)
Making Room (Artifact Uprising)
The Pope, Obama, and inequality (Chris Arnade)
Thoughts on the Wait (Amber Haines)
Speaking Fear, Praying Shalom (Osheta Moore)
In which I go to school (Lori Harris)
In which the women of Haiti make me stand straight (Sarah Bessey)
Torn (Because I always have to link to at least one Flowerpatch Farmgirl)

More Reading (in book-form)
I've been reading a lot the last couple weeks, mostly because sometimes when I'm extra-stressed and/or overwhelmed, I need to escape into a good story. I'll share my whole reading list sometime soon, but for now a few favorites from the last couple weeks:
Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage - Ann Patchett
Yes, Your Teen is Crazy! - Michael Bradley (any guess why/who prompted this one on the list? sigh. teenagers are not for the faint of heart. Especially those who live-with-you-but-arent-actually-your-kids exactly-but-still-need-boundaries-and-such)
I'm not sure if I already mentioned this, but you simply need to watch About Time. Seriously Adam and I both loved this movie so much, and were more-than-pleasantly-surprised by all of it. We also really really loved The Intouchables, particularly how it portrayed a mutually beneficial relationship between two very different people. I loved that they both needed each other, and had so much to teach and demonstrate to each other . . . . Plus it made me laugh and cry, so perfection basically.

Also, Adam and I just started watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine (thanks to DL Mayfield's recommendation:"This show makes me sad for other shows.") . . . We have only watched like 3 episodes, but so far would give it a big thumbs up.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Football is More than Just Football

Adam and I might be the least likely couple to start any sort of sports program. It has certainly never been a part of the plan. I mean, I suppose Adam is athletic enough in lots of ways – from scrambling to the tops of trees and rafting down rivers, to launching the football and slamming a tennis ball. But I personally loathe most forms of physical activity if I’m honest. My sports knowledge mainly begins and ends with my forays into a love for college football born and nurtured in the rich soil of four years at the University of Georgia.

And yet, here we find ourselves; not only coaching sports teams, but also starting an entire football league comprised of four teams from our neighborhood and a few surrounding ones. Which, of course, only increases in un-likelihood when you consider our decided lack of organizational prowess and follow-through gumption. Still, here we are. And truthfully, I cannot take responsibility for the whole endeavor, since I found myself decidedly on the now-might-be-too-soon side of the fence. But Adam prayed and persisted, and so we find ourselves spending Wednesday evenings in the park while the boys yell and pull flags and my own children run themselves ragged on the sidelines and on the playground.

When we first moved into our neighborhood nearly three years ago, we brought a commitment to not starting anything until we had lived here for at least six months. We wanted to get to know our neighbors, to introduce ourselves, to spend time in the park, to learn who they were and what they valued and cared about, and what they needed. And we had to do that separately from any agenda involving “fixing” the things that we determined were broken. I thought about my own life and emotions, and how it might feel if someone I had just met offered to help me parent or budget, when what I really needed was someone to be a friend, or possibly clean my house (obviously). And so Adam bought chickens, and we ate popsicles on the front porch. We planted a garden and built a fence that was anti-privacy. We exchanged favorite movies with the teenagers who lived behind us, and pushed our children on the swings. We walked around the block, baked cookies, and played games.

And when a boy we had befriended got shot, we visited him the hospital. And then his friends asked Adam if he could start something to keep them out of trouble. To which we answered, of course. And so football began. And then they begged for basketball, and we begged for help coaching a sport we know nothing about. And then there were basketball teams that spilled into three whole rosters full of teenage boys eager to play and practice and eat-all-of-the-things. And again and again I am staggered to discover the power of belonging. Because every time I really listen to these boys, I hear their hearts and a desperate longing for a piece of something worthwhile. To be on a team, to be part of a family, to belong. And sometimes this manifests itself in gangs, in getting caught up in the wrong crowd or following in footsteps that lead down dangerous paths. But at the heart of it all lies an innate need for community, for belonging, for a place to call home. I know this has to be true, because it’s the “worst” boys, the ones who find themselves in the most trouble and occasionally call their coach to pick them up from jail so they don’t miss the game; these very boys lean hard into the most commitment. They show up for every single practice, and I find them on my front porch hours before game-time making sure they wont be late.
And now they can play in their own neighborhood park. Their mom and siblings and cousins can come watch and cheer. The younger kids drink all their water and beg to play too. I grin at them, snap a picture, and promise we will try for next year. The sun shines bright, softening and sinking over the trees, and folks from different churches and neighborhoods gather and laugh, while older brothers help keep score and referee. We feed them all and I chase my kids around, meeting new friends and laughing with the other coaches’ wives. The boys’ uncles and friends cluster and ask when they can play too. I pick Ashton up from work so he will be in time for the game, and bring an extra pair of shoes for the boy who plays barefoot.So I suppose the whole football thing makes a lot more sense as something we wax passionate and poetic about when we recognize it cannot only be about the sport. Because it’s actually about the heart. About a place to belong and a place to play safe. To laugh and connect and build community. To change stereotypes. To bring wholeness and unity to a slowly gentrifying community, even in the smallest of ways. To make friends and bridge gaps. To see Jesus in the midst of it all, because rest assured He has been there all along. We just need the eyes to see Him.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When Death Does Not Win

Things used to be less complicated. Or maybe I just marched through, blissfully unaware of the complication that existed all around me. It seems the more I learn about inner-city ministry and race and missions and privilege, the more confusing it all grows. Day-by-day, I find myself less sure of my goodness, less comfortable settling into the role of one-who-does-good. I stumble sorting out which stories to tell, how to share my life and our story without exploiting or using those dear to my heart.
He knocks on the door and when I open it, he smiles at me sheepish. Handing me a crumpled pair of khakis, he explains that he tore them jumping over a fence and asks if I can fix them. Last night, I finally willed myself to pick up needle and thread, knowing he needs them for school. Tears prick my eyes as the needle stabs my finger, and I stitch uneven. Fraying edges tuck and fold, and I tie a knot before cutting another piece of thread. I grab fabric and loop another stitch as tears slip silent down my cheeks. I piece-meal it all together, praying my messy work will hold strong for him.
She began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false. Americanah

I meet her at the first football game. She sits on a bench so far back from the field I wonder if she can actually see him play. The sun shines brave, but the cold bite never quite leaves the air as I walk over and settle myself next to her on the bench. I introduce myself and we chat as she rubs her swollen belly. Her due date looms Sunday, she smiles as she tells me; then whispers that she is terrified. I nod sympathetically, and tell her how terrified I felt when I gave birth. The game ends and her boyfriend jogs over for a victory hug. We exchange phone numbers and she promises to keep me updated on her baby’s arrival.

Just a few days later, I hover in the space between waking and sleep, that place where everything seems distant and the sounds of the street and neighborhood trickle gently into my ears like someone has turned the volume way down. Then my phone rings, and I check the clock: 12:38am. A knot ties quickly in my stomach, because what call after midnight carries good news? His voice speaks quiet on the other end, telling me he has bad news: they lost the baby. Today is his eighteenth birthday, and today his baby died. He tells me between ragged breaths and I cry with him.

The funeral falls on the same day as the next football game, and Adam has left for a week-long conference in Orlando. I find a babysitter, and agree readily to drive them to the gravesite. I hold her friend’s baby, while trying to pin on the pink ribbon they hand me with shaking fingers. Tears slip and I will myself not to be the one to fall apart as they lower the tiny white casket into the ground and cover it unceremoniously with dirt. On the car ride back, I rub her arm and we agree that it’s OK not to be OK. Both of our cheeks shine wet with tears, and she holds a cake wrapped in tin foil on her lap, while he carries the flowers and blanket that adorned the grave. Their brave and beautiful is not my story to tell; I think it even as I know unswervingly that this is exactly why we play football. This day, this moment, this pain entered into: this is why we are here.
People need me.
That’s the really insidious lie of our ego, we come to think that people need us in ways that they don’t, not really. Or if they do, they’re not supposed to – and empowering that is not really a good idea. Living from that place brings death not life - Jonathan Martin - Renovatus Church
We leave the wedding late Saturday night, determined to make it home for Easter with our families, even if it means driving until 2am. The sky has long stretched in front of us without light. The road unfurls dark: miles of black asphalt framed by charcoal sky and deepest black silhouettes of trees. The night feels unending and relentless, the blackness suffocating. What happens, I wonder, when we reach the end of ourselves on the long stretch of dark road? When I find myself uncertain of my ability to pick back up that which He has asked me to lay down? When I find myself more willing to stay in the tomb than I am to walk into the light, even as His voice calls me forth.

And then we sit for two hours in the dark. Traffic doesn’t move, and police cars followed by ambulance pass by, their lights flashing and bouncing through the black of night. We talk of the broken world, of faith and resurrection and the God who is Father, even when it doesn’t swallow easy. There has been a terrible accident, we know it and we try not to contemplate it, until finally the road opens back up and we drive again on the black-carpeted highway towards home. She drops me at my front door at 5am on Easter morning.

And the dark continues unrelenting only until it is not. Dawn peeks surreptitiously over the horizon, and birds chirp in anticipation as I collapse into bed.
I have no answers. No revelation or wisdom for what to say and when to remain silent. We don’t have a formula for any of it: for ministry or parenthood or stumbling through marriage or making it all work in a way that feels sustainable. I don’t know how to uncomplicated things, how to step back into a skin that feels more comfortable with putting myself in the role of Savior in incarnational ministry. I don’t know how to friendship and neighbor and love and serve and mother. I just don’t know.

But I do know that He has risen. That resurrection is possible. But every-single-time, resurrection first requires death. And so we drive into darkest night unending until we find ourselves suddenly at the edge of dawn. And the light comes. We emerge blindly: those first wobbly steps out of the tomb are squinty and painful. Because light hurts after so much dark. But we simply cannot walk into new life without it.

Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven - NT Wright

Thursday, April 3, 2014

When you are in the wilderness

A banner hangs over the entrance to Jayci’s school; changing to reflect the seasons and holidays throughout the year. We drop Jayci off late, or almost late, for school just about every day. I’d like to blame our lack of timeliness on the steady stream of boys knocking sheepishly on our door after missing the bus; but at this point we know they’re coming, and truthfully morning-time-management falls woefully outside my realm of ability. Finally, this morning, I pause for a moment to peer up at the words I have been hurrying beneath for weeks now, splayed below an image of Martin Luther King’s face: Lent is the first step towards resurrection. I nod and smile vaguely at the reminder, before hurrying Jayci and Caden away from the flowers and towards their classrooms. True, I think to myself as I lament and sigh and attempt to hurry Caden’s I-can-do-it-myself attitude towards three flights of stairs. But it’s also true, I can’t help but think, that Lent is the first step towards death. And this season feels more like an exorable and somewhat painful march towards death than resurrection if I’m completely honest.

What happens, I wonder, when we suddenly find ourselves deep in the wilderness, even as we wander the aisles of the grocery store, and wipe dirt from our children’s hands, and sip chai lattes with friends at the coffee shop. When we keep praying and reading and journaling, but suddenly everything seems quite silent on the other end. I read testimonies and memoirs of those who found their life transformed by Jesus. Who gave up bulimia and drugs and alcohol cold-turkey when they encountered Jesus or discovered they were pregnant. But what, I wonder occasionally, about the ones who still wander amidst the desolate landscape of temptation and failure. Who fear finding themselves at the end of their days with a memoir that writes more like one who died in the wilderness than one who tread triumphantly over the threshold into the promised land. Who march mile after weary mile through a dust-carpeted landscape that alternates harsh unrelenting heat of day with the icy darkness of blackest night.

A year or so ago, I helped lead a Bible study for some neighborhood girls. One evening, we opened with prayer and I passed around notecards and pens. My friend instructed the girls to take a few minutes to draw whatever came to their minds when they thought of God. I remember closing my eyes, fist curled around a blue ballpoint pen, beginning to scratch lines onto the 3x5 card in my lap. Looking down at the blue ink figure, I am vaguely surprised to recognize the curve of my back leaning into prayer beside Caden’s bed in the CICU. Surrounding the whole scene, arms enfold both my bended form and my infant’s tiny beating heart. God feels close and intimate, visceral, bodily holding me near in comfort and peace.

In the wilderness though, the landscape looms spacious and vast. Wide, dust-filled, parched. God feels not close and intimate, but distant and a bit ominous. Perhaps even a mirage. Here, I suppose, we must rely less on how God feels but on the promises He has already fulfilled. Wandering, complaining and grumbling, I find myself learning to rest on the promise wrought beside a hospital bed, in the baptism of His presence draped over my shoulders calling me Beloved. And when the enemy whispers lies, when identity wraps itself more readily in what I do, or what other people say about me, or the things I have; then I lean into this assurance of an identity bought at great cost.

When I wrote of untethering, my only intentions were in giving up coffee, diet coke, and alcohol. Which seems less soul-shaking than “gentle lent” or 40 acts of stewardship or what-not. But it’s harder than it should be for me to remember how much more I need Jesus than I need my morning coffee, or my late-afternoon-how-will-I-make-it-to-bedtime Diet Coke break, or my thank-goodness-we-made-it-to-bedtime glass of wine. And so I give them up, only to be reminded again and again of my great inadequacies. Which, of course, reminds me on a good day of my desperation for Jesus and on a bad day makes me try harder. But trying and striving gets me nowhere in a wild landscape of parched land stretched farther than I can fathom in every direction. The only thing I can do is lay my head on a rock and rest, remembering the ways God brings water to a woman beside a well, and to equally grumbly Israelites stumbling through their own wilderness. And hope and pray that when I wake, having wrestled with the Lord, I will say with assurance: surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.

From where I stand, Ash Wednesday is but a distant speck on the horizon; and Good Friday looms still out-of-view. Lonely and solitary, I will myself to remember solidarity with my Savior. Each time I sit down to meet you in this place: to write words, or share pictures, or point you towards my newest favorite book, something stays me. Maybe God, or maybe writer’s block, or maybe a desperate need to cut some strings and celebrate freedom. All I know is that letting go of things in this wilderness season both scares and liberates me. I walk towards the light and hope desperately that I am headed to Good Friday and, yes, towards death. But also towards resurrection. And sometimes, I catch glimpses of what lies ahead. And suddenly new life springs, if not an assurance, than at least a promise.


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