Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When There is Still Hope

So I wrote these words originally in 2013. But I cannot think of anything I need this morning more than this reminder. That there is, in fact, still hope. Even on our darkest and most disappointing days. Hope wins (even though now the statistic would be zero-in-five-of-our-kiddos-has-never-been-arrested).

Maybe one of you needs this reminder today too: 

I tease his tiny fingers until they curl around mine, tracing the freckles dotting his upper lip and chin with my fingertips while his eyes flutter into sleep. And tears drip off my own chin unchecked. His sixteen-year-old momma watches Pitch Perfect in the other room, and this baby unhinges me into the conviction that it is all just too much.

Six years ago, we got to know 5 ten and eleven year olds. They fight and tease and wrestle like siblings, quick to argue and quicker to stand up for each other: growing up in the projects together will do that to you, I suppose, solidifying community and family in mysteriously beautiful and unexpected ways. We have watched these five lengthen from all-knobby-knees-and-gap-teeth into teenagers who look more adult than child. And of the five, three are not just teenagers enmeshed in high-school drama, but mom or dad. Only two are still in high school at all, and one of those two at an alternative school. There is only one of the group who has never been arrested. And the odds stack ever-higher against them.

I finish reading Grady Baby, and flip back to the front to see when it was published. 1999. I wonder, even before I can stop myself, how many of the babies from the book find themselves, fourteen years later, back at Grady to deliver their own babies.

Sometimes cynicism mounts; the weight and pressure building until it all feels hopeless, not to mention entirely-too-hard. If you’re not growing your ministry, if you don’t have measurable results, you’re dying. He smiles at me after telling me this, and I smile back bravely, sure he can see the waver beneath. Because I look at our “results” and I’m not sure we have anything we should tell potential donors. I can talk all day and climb up on my soapbox about stopping the cycle and helping the kids and fighting for their futures. But things in the trenches look different than they do from the air.
The window on the door has been shattered when we walk up to the neighborhood high school. After discussing whether we should just reach through and open the door ourselves, we buzz ourselves in and wait patiently for a reply. When we tell the lady in the front office we’d like to volunteer, she wrinkles her nose and look confused while rifling through files to see if they even have a volunteer form of some sort. No one has ever done this before she offers by way of explanation. So we file tardy slips and shuffle tenth grade files back to the ninth grade drawer, and pull folders out for kids who have moved or dropped out. And it’s not glamorous, and perhaps even a little futile. But we show up anyways.
Yesterday during play-time, Jayci managed to dump out every single solitary card game we own (which, by the way, is a very large number of card games), and mix them together into a giant mountain of cards that were impressively thoroughly shuffled together. I walked in to find her sheepish. She tells me she accidentally made a big mess. I contemplated just shoving them all back in the baskets as they are, pretending it never happened and just pulling out cards when we need them. Finally, I sigh loudly, and perhaps a little dramatically. I yell for Adam; together, the three of us sat cross-legged on Jayci’s floor for nearly two hours sorting out cards. Occasionally, Caden is distracted from the play kitchen where he cooks “hot gogs,” and runs over to mix up our piles a little, to all of our chagrin and loud protests.

Putting cards in the right boxes, shuffling file-folders into alphabetical order, feels both strangely satisfying and smacks of futility. Because some of these kids wont show up for school tomorrow. And chances are better-than-good that Caden or Jayci, or both of them in a show of mischievous solidarity, will dump out all the cards again. And I’m not sitting here writing because I have this all figured out. I certainly don’t have an answer, or some wisdom to share with you. I write because I need to process why-DO-we-keep-showing-up? To process why we keep shuffling and sorting and reaching down into the grittiness of it all.
Sun streams through the windows as I wipe tears from my cheek and chin and gently wrap him in a blanket, burrito-style, just like we did with Jayci and Caden. Then I join his momma in the other room to watch Pitch Perfect, and can’t help myself from singing along. I jiggle him a little until his blinks lengthen, long lashes resting on his cheek and wrinkles smoothing from his forehead. He relaxes into sleep and I hold him close, ignoring my mile-long-to-do-list. On the drive back to their house, she tells me about the “other white lady from church,” (not my church, I don’t know her as it turns out) who helps their family and bought her sister a car. Through tears, she tells me how when church-lady (her words, not mine) met her son, and realized she had decided to keep him instead of giving him up for adoption, she said: congratulations, you flushed his life down the toilet.

We pull up to a red light, and I fight back my own tears, laying my hand on her arm. You know that’s not true right? I ask her. She shrugs. And I remind her that God doesn’t make mistakes. That despite the odds, and although raising her son will not be easy, THERE IS STILL HOPE. Because I have to believe that is true. I have to. Or else I might as well stop showing up. I have to believe that Jesus cares far more about us standing in the right place than He does about us being right. He would rather me stand with this precious young momma than stand and accuse her. Because I have to believe that the shame of this deep-seeded-belief, that her own life is worth-less, is exactly what led her to stare down the barrel of a life she declared again and again she didn't want for herself, and pull the trigger. To sleep with him, to have a baby, to step right into the cycle she has fought against for sixteen years.

And so we measure our success not with statistics or growth charts, but with love. And we hold our ground, refusing to be moved by what the world tells us we should be doing. Even when we trip over disappointment and set-backs, we regain our footing in the sure and ever-present promise of hope in Jesus. Because the darkness will not win, and success neither belongs to us nor can be measured by us anyways. Don’t we follow and chase after a God who delights in turning things on their head anyways? Where the first are last, and to find your life you lose it? We hold our ground, standing in solidarity with our neighbors, in an unexpected and beautiful kinship with those around us.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe we should care more about outcomes and statistics and RESULTS. There are certainly not any grant-givers or funders breaking down our door to offer us money for our “one-in-five-of-our-kiddos-has-never-been-arrested.” But I am holding-fast, nevertheless, to my belief in the slow work of a patient God who doesn’t give up on us. Who watches and waits for the prodigal to return, and then lifts His robes and runs to him when he takes the first steps towards home. We will believe in our kiddos until they believe in themselves. And in the solidarity and kinship of linking ourselves to them forever, regardless of decisions or outcomes, we open ourselves up to hurt and disappointment. But we also open ourselves to the beautiful heartbeat of hope and to the realization and we belong to each other. And we can finally believe the words of Jeremiah when he says “In this place of which you say it is a waste . . . there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness . . . the voices of those who sing.”

Monday, April 17, 2017

An Easter Prayer of Confession

Dearest heavenly Father,

Even as we celebrate your risen Son this very morning, our hearts are already turning to forgetfulness and doubt. We stare with widened eyes into an empty tomb, and yet we choose death over the resurrection life you offer us. The angel asked the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And so we ask our own hearts the same question. We confess that we are searching for life in places that only offer death. We cling to our selfish ways, to our idols and strongholds, holding tight to our sins even as we stumble beneath their great weight.

We confess that it all seems too heavy, too much to bear. The weight of the world, of the hurt, and the pain, and the sickness, and the loss. We stumble beneath all we have piled high on our own shoulders; and yet the only thing you have asked us to carry is our cross. You urge us gently to leave our sins in their tomb; and we ignore your beckonings. Paul's words are familiar to us: because we too do the very things we don’t want to do. We speak harshly, when a gentle word is required. We judge, we compare, we covet, we slander, we idolize.
 And even still, you sent your beloved Son to die for us. To sweat drops of blood and defeat death so we might share in His communion with the Father. To tenderly take our hearts in his hands and cover us in his grace, calling us righteous, even when we are decidedly not. We confess that we are unworthy of your forgiveness, and we thank you Lord that today we don't have to be worthy, because Jesus was.

Lord, remind our hearts this Easter morning that resurrection is here. We want to live in the reality that you have defeated all the darkness. When we doubt, like Thomas, you enter through all our locked doors and invite us to touch the very places you were broken for us. You invite us to put our hands into your wounds, right into holes - the broken holy places that prove not your death but your victory over it. So we pray that this Easter, and every day from here on out, we will live in the freedom you offer us. We praise you because you have defeated death, and because you extend to us the holy and undeserved privilege of living resurrection life forever.

Amen

When you were dead in your sins… God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands; He took it away, nailing it to the cross. - Colossians 2:13-14

Monday, April 10, 2017

When we went to the beach and the world is crazy

I'm going to be honest with you all right now. I'm not sure what I'm doing with this blog these days. I mean, does anyone read blogs anymore? Does anyone write blogs anymore? We are having a bit of an existential crisis, me and the blog.

I do, however, understand that my family (hi grandma!) and also possibly our supporters check the blog regularly. So my apologies for the lapse, though I can't promise it won't happen again.
Last week was spring break, and we went to the beach. How boring and normal, and decidedly not-blog-worthy. After all, nearly the entirety of Atlanta also apparently went to this same beach last week. One day, in fact, we found ourselves sitting on the beach next to a couple who happened to have graduated from the same high school as we did. What a weirdly small world.

We managed to hit our family stride in the second half of the glorious week at the beach. In fact, I think there was one entire day when our older two children didn't even fight. A minor miracle, at the very least. If you must know, though, Isaiah was entirely too clingy all week. I still might unabashedly call this our best family vacation yet. I managed to read four books (I highly recommend this one, please read it immediately); however, I'm not sure if I've mentioned that speed reading is my best life-skill.

The very last day of vacation, our children rode their bikes without complaining for over seven miles. Isaiah napped quietly in the trailer behind Adam's bike and the wind lapped quietly at our heels while the sun poured over onto our shoulders. We spent a few hours at the beach, and then I read on the screened porch while Isaiah napped and we ate dinner and played cards together with nary an unkind word.

The same day we danced on the beach and rode bikes in the sun, Trump ordered an airstrike on Syria in response to the chemical attacks. My dailySkimm the next morning told me about terrorist attacks in Oslo. And today I read about another elementary school shooting, and attacks on Palm Sunday services in Egypt. And it all feels too much, right? Like too heavy a burden to carry alongside twirling daughters and a son who clasps your legs and sobs to be help when all you want to do is read just one more chapter of your book.
I am weighed by the guilt of enjoying the privilege of a trip to the beach. I can't figure out the best way to find my footing in either place of outrage or ignorant bliss, and it turns out that in-between is a lonely place to live. How can I be a mother who delights in the joy of my own children, while also holding space for the reality of how deeply suffering enfolds so many other children all over the globe? How do we parent and live from a place of rootedness in peace and joy, without simply turning a blind eye to the darkest corners of our world and neighborhoods?

Palm Sunday is past, Christ's triumphant entry to shouts of Hosanna and waving branches have only led us ever-closer to the cross. To the dark reality of death and loss, and to a grave that stayed silent for longer than we hoped. This week of anticipation feels fraught with a chasm between the privilege of space I don't take for granted, and the weight of a world that spins ever-closer to something darker than I can bear.
Thousands of years ago marks a day swathed in darkness, and a body racked by pain. Real pain and real darkness. Broken by thorns and vinegar in a wound. And sometimes we still live in this darkness, in the remembering that we needed blood to cover all this sin. But I also remember and hold close, this week especially, the hope that rings like a tolling bell in the not-too-distant future. Because yes the death of Good Friday looms ominous with darkness, but we do not live without hope. Because we know that resurrection is coming, and that the one who defeats all the darkness doesn't tell Thomas, when he doubts, to touch his wholeness but his brokenness. To put his hands into wounds, right into holes - the broken holy places that prove not his death but his victory over it. So we put our hands into the wounds, elbow deep in the blood and pain, because we know the brokenness will be redeemed. Life will be restored. We know that Sunday is coming. 

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