Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What I'm Into: March Edition

I've been thinking a lot about motherhood lately. Perhaps because I have another one of the way, or simply because of the constantly changing (and quite exhausting might I add) dynamics of a three and six year old, who alternately adore and can't stand one another.

So just in case you are one of the three friends I have on Facebook who havent already shared either of these gems from Jen Hatmaker on parenting, you are welcome.
I Wish Someone Would've Warned Me About These BIG FEELINGS
What Would My Mom Do? (Drink Tab and Lock Us Outside) 
And some more articles around parenting that caught my eye/stirred my heart:
She Loves: Flawless
17 Modern Myths Making Motherhood Miserable
Raising Teenagers: The Mother Of All Problems 

And for those of you who really like Atlanta history and culture and enjoying knowing how race played roles in building the Atlanta we live in today: Where It All Went Wrong (Atlanta Magazine)

You know I cannot help but include good resources I find for understanding poverty, especially in America: America's Have-Nots: What it Means to be Poor

Some of you lovely friends/family/strangers like to follow along with our ministry (Blueprint 58), and I wanted to let you know that you can now also follow us on Instagram for more quick looks at the going-ons with our ministry. Also, Five8Football starts up again this week, fingers crossed for nice weather and no fights! Let me know if you're interested in helping coach/referee/provide snacks for the boys. We also started up a cheerleading squad with some of our younger girls, and could really use help managing those girls during the actual games (Tuesdays at 6pm). Let me know if you can help!

I binge-watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt over a few days, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Courtney. She did not steer me wrong, it's fun and funny - and that theme song? Always stuck in my head. Adam and I have also been watching Blue Bloods, although I have mixed feelings on the whole thing, which perhaps I can get into another day.

Also on her recommendation of Courtney, I started reading A Girl Named Zippy, which I'm loving. I also read The Girl on the Train this month, which was "good" simply in the fact that I couldn't put it down. Oh and A Spool of Blue Thread (which was also good, though slightly unsatisfying).

*Linking up with Leigh Kramer :-) 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Confessions on an Ordinary Tuesday

Lest you think our lives are always exciting and crazy and/or discouraging and hard, let me assure you that most of our days get spent in-the-betweens. Making mud-pies and banana bread, washing dishes and folding clothes. These last two tasks feel endless, as a matter of fact, a picture of unending cycles if I ever saw one.

I love my neighborhood more easily in the spring-time. The weather warms just enough for everyone to emerge with music and singing. Adam plays Disney from the newly installed speakers on our back patio, and the kids spin and dance particularly loudly when a Frozen song comes on. With the sun comes pulsing beats from cars parked out front, and the kind of off-key singing that emerges from teenagers singing with colorful headphones over their ears. We sit on the bright yellow swing, and the kids color and eat Easter-colored Goldfish, waving at the steady stream of people heading to the park and corner store. Occasionally we are joined by kids and straggles of teenagers and I mentally kick myself for forgetting to pick up popsicles at the grocery store.
I worry about how to disciple my own kids, how to discipline them, and how to make them eat their vegetables. Usually, I forget about homework until the last minute and despair of getting them to ever clean their rooms. My belly swells and I still cant keep food down, and I try to remember that God knew who I was before he gave me all three of these little ones to shepherd. 
Mostly, we get messy and make lots of mistakes. We double-book and dont always remember to show up. Our best intentions fall short, and we bring a half-eaten loaf of banana bread to dinner. And everywhere, grace. 

Because the longer I live here, the longer I parent and neighbor and sometime write, the less I know about it all. I'm never sure what to say and what to leave out, or how to process our lives and stories without infringing onto someone else's. I dont know 10 Tips for Becoming a Better Mother, or How to Force Teenage Boys to Make Good Decisions. I dont know how to combat racism and systems of oppression, or when to keep my mouth shut. And I especially dont know how to help the neighborhood elementary school kids with their fancy new math. 

I'm hoping the not-knowing is ok. That grace covers and fills the gaps where I fall short again and again. That my weakness and exhaustion will only point me and those around me to His great strength. That resting doesnt mean failure and that one day all the hurt will be healed. 

Because most of our days are quite ordinary. The kind of lives all of you live, behind your own front doors and perhaps on your own porch swings. And ordinary will always be enough when we lay it down for His glory. When we choose to live and love well, even in the most mundane messes of all. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dry Bones

We watch boys march towards seventeen like a precipice. Then tumble over its edge like a cliff, landing impossibly tangled in the streets. No one calls them boys any more, except maybe us; instead, they find themselves solidly in the land of young black male. I want to shake each by ever-broadening shoulders and beg them to stop giving themselves over to the stereotypes. Their instagram feed leaves little to the imagination, and I scroll past quickly. Certainly, I never watch the videos.

It all feels lately like a hopeless tangle of fights and arrests. And we watch, mired in our own helpless uncertainty as everyone gives up on them, until finally they give up on themselves. Can anyone escape this warzone unscathed? I roll the question around in my chest, hoping the answer may yet surprise me.

Pearls before swine, people tell us. We’re wasting our time, should be focusing more on the “good kids,” the leaders, the ones whose feet land solid on the path towards success and escape.

A few problems wrap themselves around this theory, not the least of which is how to decipher which kids will make it out. Whose coattails could we ride, claiming their victory as our own? Three kids on our basketball team this year graduated last summer and went off to college full of promise and hope, only to find themselves woefully unprepared and back home after a single semester, with fewer prospects on the horizon and deepening defeat ringing around their eyes.

And no matter how often I turn it over and flip it around, I cannot make this theory jive with the Jesus I know. The one who doesn’t give up on people. Who chooses the least-likely as leaders. Who ushers in an upside-down Kingdom, and eats at the tables of sinners and prostitutes. Who promises hope in the darkest places, and asks why we tremble in the midst of the wildest storms.
Last week’s basketball game ends in boisterous victory, a clatter of chairs and basketballs echoing as we exit into the cold, puffs of our breath hanging in the air. One of the boys gets angry, and refuses to get in the car. Adam follows his trek down the dark road in shorts and t-shirt. I shiver just watching, and we all coax and plead for him to get in the car, or at least to put on a coat. Defiant, he ignores us and juts his chin skyward as he continues his march. The rest of the boys laugh uproariously and I fret as I drive them all home, occasionally calling Adam to check on their late-night walk down marginally icy streets. Finally, I circle back around, my tires crunching and blinker flashing, stopping next to a cemetery shrouded in blackest night. They both climb quiet into the car, and we drop him off at a friends house, because he has nowhere else to go; which is all he will tell us before texting a few days later to inform Adam he never wants to see us again. We are unsure of what even happened, and let tears slip out alongside hope he knows he can always come back.

Adam spends more time at the courthouse and then the bail-bond building. They’re trying to give him ten years, one of our boys worries about his older brother, by all accounts another good kid who went away to college only to quickly find himself back home and mostly unemployable. I try to imagine my life without the last ten years: no marriage or kids, no ministry or house in the city.

You know God, I tell Him during a long solo drive back from North Carolina: what we really need is a win. Because it all feels like a endless circle of loss, like all we’ve done is offered to step ourselves into the never-ending cycles of poverty and hopelessness that entangle all around us.

I keep driving, occasionally pulling a handful of starburst jellybeans from my stash in the middle console. In the quiet stretch of highway ribboned before me, it dawns on me like a flash: the real problem is that I’m still thinking of it all in terms of wins and losses. Like a giant tallyboard somewhere somehow determines the weight and success of what we spend our lives on. But God doesn’t operate the way the world does. This is the best news, of course. But I keep forgetting, listening again to all the wrong voices. I insist on using my own standards of success, more tied to my middle class values than to anything that resembles the Kingdom Jesus whispers.

Maybe what you need, I hear somewhere in my heart, is actually more losses. I try desperately to ignore this whispering, shushing myself loudly and quickly turning the volume back up on the radio.
We arrive late to church and can't check the kids into the nursery. Instead, they sit quietly beside me in church for all of five minutes before things dissolve into tears over phone-playing and sharing the Bible and who has a bigger piece of offering envelope to draw on. I grit my teeth and drag them from the sanctuary, climbing into the car before dissolving into tears.

Adam shows me his phone when I circle back around to pick up the boys from youth group. He has pulled up the text from the boy who marched home in the cold, saying he never wants to see us again. I feel nauseous and stop to throw up, despite being well into my second trimester. The kids squabble over chocolate milk and I send them to their rooms indefinitely.

Two days later, the next basketball game ends in a fight and the police getting called. Adam isn’t there, but my children are with me, and they sob as they watch boys they know and love throw chairs across the gym and shove the referees.

It’s all too much, I tell Adam. I quit.

More losses, I hear.

But why, I wonder. Why more losses? Why not a win? It would certainly help boost morale, you know.

But perhaps we dont win by fighting the darkness so much as by surrendering to the light. Because God doesn’t need our tallyboard of foolishly calculated “wins,” so much as He desires our hearts. Because He’s the one who created everything from nothing. Who breathes life and sinew onto dry bones, even as we try desperately to hold together skeletons.

Maybe what we really need is to throw out the whole system we use to measure ourselves. To upend our thinking so we gain our life by losing it, and find His strength right there in our weakness. Maybe we dont know the whole story, because the Kingdom is both here and has not yet come.

When we first started doing inner-city ministry nearly nine years ago, we visited a church in the middle of the scariest (we thought at the time) part of Atlanta. The pastor spoke on Ezekiel, sweeping his hands and announcing this is the valley of dry bones. I look around at the expanse of what looks dead, hopeless, like unending cycles and unshakeable defeat. And I remember that we can never breathe life by our own effort. And that we dont define success or defeat by anything but the very breath of God moving into the most-dead places.

Through the eyes of men
It seems there's so much
We have lost
As we look down the road
Where all the prodigals
Have walked
And one by one
The enemy has whispered lies
And led them off as slaves

But we know that
You are God
Yours is the victory
We know there is more to come
That we may not yet see

So with the faith
You've given us
We'll step into the valley unafraid
As we call out to dry bones come alive, come alive
And we call out to dead hearts
Come alive, come alive
Come up out of the ashes
Let us see an army rise
We call out to dry bones come alive

Oh God of endless mercy
God of unrelenting love
Rescue every daughter
Bring us back the wayward son
By Your spirit breathe upon them show that
You alone can save
You alone can save
-Lauren Daigle 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Intentional Neighboring: Part 2

If you missed the first part of this series on Intentional Neighboring, you can go back and read it right here. This series follows a series of dinners we have been hosting to chat with some friends about what it actually means to be a good neighbor, particularly in a neighborhood that looks similar to ours. I want to take a minute (again) and acknowledge that my blog isn't the best medium for getting across this kind of information, because I'd much rather sit down with you across a cup of coffee or diet coke (and maybe some of Adam's famous cooking). Another disclaimer: we are not the experts here; rather, we are fellow sojourners who make many mistakes, but love our neighbors dearly and want to do our best to see them treated with love and dignity.

When we first moved downtown, we probably would have described our motives with, "we just want to serve our neighbors." This, of course, sounds noble and right; and I have heard similar assertions from many other Christians who are moving into neighborhoods that look like ours across the city. The only problem is that service, real service, finds itself inextricably entangled with and necessarily preceded by things like understanding, trust, and acceptance. In fact, according to Duane Elmer in Cross-Cultural Servanthood, you cannot actually serve someone until you have fully walked through five critical steps to get there (more on this in a minute). 
For those heading overseas as missionaries, much time gets spent training and preparing. Missionaries-to-be learn the language, study the culture, and hopefully prepare their hearts and minds to live somewhere new in ways that are dignifying and loving. I fear that much of this gets skipped over by those who are moving into inner-city neighborhoods (or any new neighborhood really). And the truth is that wherever you are moving, there is a culture and history that has preceded your arrival. Not only that, but God is already present and moving: you are not bringing Him with you. 

If you move in and immediately start "serving your neighbors," then this service comes out of what you think your neighbors need. Which, as it turns out, is an assumption based on your own cultural system of beliefs, and not necessarily on what your neighbors actually need. Unconsciously or not, your attitude will subtly reflect this underlying assumption of your own "rightness," rather than the humility that comes with serving as Christ does. 

Since the end goal is still serving your neighbors, the question (for me at least), quickly moves to: well, then what CAN I do? In Elmer's 6-step process to serving, you start with openness.
1. Openness - Openness is the ability to welcome people and make them feel safe. This is closely tied to hospitality, but it’s not a one-way street (remember Jesus was usually the guest when he ate with people). Some of the skills you need as a neighbor during this first step are: suspending judgement, tolerance for ambiguity (trying not to think black and white, and not to form opinions without all the facts), and positive attribution (assuming the best of people without being naive). Here is where you need to be honest with yourself and figure out where you might be unwilling or unable to give up power (or just your opinion as the “right” one).

2. Acceptance - Acceptance means communicating respect, value, worth and esteem to those around you. As Christians, we find a call to acceptance in Romans 15:7: “Therefore accept one another as Christ has accepted you, for the glory of God.” One thing to remember is that acceptance does not necessarily equal approval. This was a hard one for me as we delved into this world, when girls we knew and loved got pregnant at age 14, I wrestled through how to love them while making sure they knew I didn't "approve" of their choices. For me, now, I mostly just love them and know that they already realize how we feel about the whole thing. Because we have a relationship in which we know each other on deeper levels, we've already talked about things that free me up to just love and accept them for who and where they are. 

On that note, another important piece tied into acceptance is around labeling. I look back and cringe at some of the language we used to talk to people about our neighborhood and our neighbors. Now, Adam and I have discovered that the similarities between us and our neighbors far outweigh the differences. We've discovered that we belong to each other; and that together we discover Jesus across the dinner table, in the backyard, and throwing the Frisbee at the park. That the lady on the corner is Mikey, not prostitute. Because who among us wants to be labeled and described by our most desperate mistakes? So we learn names. And then we call people by them. Because we firmly believe that Christ would not brand junkie or homeless or drug dealer or gang-banger. Why do I believe this? Because the gospel in my own life carries the freedom and grace in called-by-name, not labeled by the mistakes I’ve made. Not proud, or greedy, or fearful, or anxious, or depressed, or quick-to-anger. None of that defines me in Christ, and living out of my identity in Him opens me up to allow my neighbors to do the same.

3. Trust - Only after our neighbors know that we accept them for who-they-are (and not just who we think they should be) can we begin to build trust. This is a process of establishing confidence in a relationship so both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them, but will act in their best interest. Trust requires an abundance of time and patience, and also carries an aspect of risk because we cannot build trust without opening ourselves up to hurt and placing our own trust in those around us as well. 

Here's the thing: I wish this process could be hurried along. That we could just jump through a couple hoops and BOOM, become trusted members of a community. But anyone who has built authentic relationships know that they always take time and commitment, and this is no less true in neighbor relationships than in any other part of our lives. 

4. Learning - The process of learning goes back to what I talked about a little earlier regarding the process and ways that overseas missionaries learn about the folks they are going to serve, seeking to understand the culture and language and nuances in ways that we tend to skip over here in our own country. We also seem to have a limited availability to learn from those we perceive as less educated or less spiritual; an attitude which only harms us and limits us from growth both in relationships and in our own lives.

There are three kinds of learning: 1.) about others; 2.) from others; and 3.) with others. Unfortunately, even for most overseas missionaries, learning often stops at "about others." But we are severely limiting our ability to love and serve those around us if we don't take the time (and humble ourselves sufficiently) to also realize and understand that we have much to learn from, and alongside, our neighbors as well. We always tell our mentors during training that they will grow best in their relationship by not only teaching their mentee new skills and abilities, but also letting their mentee teach them, and by learning something new together.

This is hard, of course, because it requires an admission that we dont already know everything. That we dont have a corner on all-the-answers for all-the-problems. At least in my own life, I've discovered the unexpected joy and peace that comes alongside this admission, despite how painful it might feel to make it.

On this note, you can start learning about your neighbors and neighborhood by seeking to learn more about the culture and history of where you are moving. For us, this meant learning about the historical context of Atlanta (I loved Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn), as well as devouring books and articles about the culture of the people we suddenly found ourselves in. We have also sought to spend time really learning about our neighbors and neighborhood from the people who live here now, and especially from those who have lived here long before we moved in. This has led to some of the richest and most eye-opening conversations and experiences I have ever had, just saying.

5. Understanding - Understanding centers on the ability to see through the other's eyes, to grasp the bigger picture. Integral to this understanding is a recognition that people usually act out of a larger framework that makes sense to them. Even when someone (like our neighbor) makes choices that dont make sense to us (out of our own framework for understanding), this does not mean they are acting irrationally or foolishly. Instead, it means we dont see the framework or life-view from which they are making these decisions. The process of understanding feels like putting together a puzzle without the picture, understanding how it all fits together takes patience and perseverance. One important piece to remember here is that we learn about God as we learn about other cultures, because He had NOT revealed all of His wisdom to the Western/middle-upper-class world.

I love that this fits so beautifully with the idea of incarnation, and that we fit into a culture when we fully understand it. It's also important to remember that unchecked ethnocentrism turns humans into objects to be manipulated and changed, and people can tell. People know if you are seeing them as objects used to accomplish your end-goal, rather than as friends and brothers/sisters who are deeply loved because of Jesus.

I realize this is already running foolishly-long, but I wanted to share two quick examples (from When Helping Hurts) of how this plays out with some of the kiddos we love/serve. “For many young women (young girls, really), having a child may be the only way of finding someone to love and be loved by. Sex and childbirth among teenagers in the ghetto . . . [is] about personal affirmation.” (David Hilfilker). Another example: Carl Ellis discusses the idea of ‘ghetto nihilism,' which is a worldview of predatory gratification, in which other human beings are seen simply as prey to fill the hunter’s belly. Living in this context of violence, some children assume they will not live very long. This can make them very present-oriented and give them little incentive to invest in their futures through such things as being diligent in school.

6. Serving - The posture of servanthood is one I associate often with Jesus when I read the Scriptures. I think of the ways He loves deeply and serves those He loves in real and tangible ways. Serving my neighbors out of real relationship becomes, then, a way for me to encounter and understand Christ in beautiful and deep ways that change my own heart in the process.

"Becoming a servant is a journey—a pilgrimage. While not complicated, the steps require considerable discipline and perseverance….” “Therefore, let us intentionally, every day, ask what we have learned about how a servant looks and acts in this culture. Otherwise we may be deluded into thinking we are serving when others may not see it that way at all.” (from Cross-Cultural Servanthood). “Serving people is not just doing what seems good in our own culture but seeking out the knowledge of the people, learning from them, knowing their cultural values and then acting in ways that support the fabric of the culture to the degree possible. After taking these steps, we will have served them.” (from Cross-Cultural Servanthood).

So finally, the servanthood model has progressed along the following steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving. Each is dependent upon the next, but to make it actually work, think circular; as a continuous spiral, where each element facilitates the next. I think of the ways I encounter Jesus and deepen my own faith and trust in Him as I seek to build trust, understand,

Books for further reading:
Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christ-like Humility - Duane Elmer
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself - Steve Corbett

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Links and Pictures, and an Announcement

Even though I'm nearly 19 weeks pregnant, I'm still mired in a muck of nausea that I keep hoping will lift any-day-now. This makes life exceedingly difficult, in that my temper runs short and my exhaustion levels never seem to wane. Those blasted pregnancy reminders keep telling me "you're in the best part of pregnancy! no more exhaustion or nausea!" Don't worry, I turned them off; it's just that I really like knowing what fruit/vegetable my baby currently resembles (a sweet potato).  
Anyways, the good news is that the weather finally turned warm, which means we've been able to sit out on the front porch. And eat dinner on our back patio. Also, if I haven't mentioned it before, I absolutely adore my neighborhood in warmer weather. The number of people who come outside, and walk by singing songs, and head to the park, and stop by for a quick front porch chat: perfection.

All of this rambling to say that I realize I've been absent around here the last little bit. But between nausea, and some really discouraging/hard/sad ministry/life stuff, my words have mostly just been percolating in my own heart I suppose.

So for now, some links to other people who have been writing things I love around the internets lately.
Bringing a Daughter Back from the Brink with Poems - NY Times
A Death Row Inmate Finds Common Ground with Theologians - NY Times (Have I mentioned that you should read Wanted? Because you should).

I am loving my friend Lori's series on How to Love Our Neighbors Well (full of so much wisdom and beauty, as usual for her).
I'm also looking forward to following along with my friend Judy's new series: Understanding the Racial Empathy Gap: The Power of Narratives 
Also, it has come to my attention that most people dont know we have a dog (since I never talk about him). Well, we do. Meet Maverick, who has been a part of the Stanley Clan since 2006. It's just that he's mostly annoying and drives me crazy, so I dont regularly talk about him. Sorry for the confusion.

Finally, we also have some pretty big news on the newest Stanley front. No, it's not that I'm feeling better (I'm not). We went to the specialist yesterday for an ultrasound, and found out that we are having another little BOY! Which means that Adam was right, and he wanted me to be sure to tell you that this is because he is always right. 
The goal was to get a look at littlest's heart. Unfortunately, he was facedown and his spine shadowed the heart, so they couldn't really see anything. And apparently he's already a stubborn little guy, and didnt want to move for us. As a result, we have no news on that front, but we are excited to start thinking of names and other boy-related stuff that makes this whole growing-a-human thing feel more real!


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