5Jan

Resolution for the Un-Invincible

In college, I used to stay up all night so often that four a.m. almost lost its filter of delirium. Sometimes I’d put my favorite Ben Folds Five album on repeat while I caught up on work. Other times I stayed up for the pleasure of ambling down lamplit paths with a friend in the deep Texas hush. In retrospect, I can’t figure out if I’m glad that I befriended the night back when my only real responsibility was keeping up my grade point average or if I want to shake some sense into that college girl who didn’t recognize her perpetual exhaustion for what it was.

I still have to remind myself that the skinned-knee tenderness at the front of my emotions in the week following New Year’s Eve is fatigue, not inadequacy. It’s so easy to underestimate my need for rest. I see it clearly in my daughters, the link between sleep-deprival and total personal fragmentation, but my perspective blurs when I look at myself. Even all these years into adulthood, a part of me still insists on believing that grown-ups are superheroes.

If I were to adopt any one resolution this January, it would be this: to approach bedtime with mindfulness and gratitude instead of careless disregard.

This isn’t an easy one (though what resolution ever is?). There’s something prowling and nocturnal in my makeup, and the thinner the hours stretch, the easier it is for me to believe myself invincible. Time loses its price tag. I see the dark and the quiet as valuables that someone has left out on the curb, and I have to fight every thrifty, curious instinct in me to leave them be, to declare the day sufficient unto itself.

Right now, though, I’ve cleared enough of the post-holiday fatigue to remember just how smoothly the gears of life slip into place when I’ve gotten enough rest. This seems too basic and obvious a point to bother writing out until I consider how often I neglect it. Sometimes the simple truths of our biology are the hardest to approach with reverence or even acceptance. Thus the resolution: to end my days with gentle determination, to respect my own need to recharge, and to treasure sleep as if it were my greatest asset in 2015.

Because, in some ways, it is.


How about you? Any self-care strategies you’re focusing on in the new year?

31Dec

New Year’s in 2D

Traditionally, New Year’s Eve is personified as an old man with a pocket watch, but this day strikes me more as a teenager, awkward in orange vest and bowtie, manning a bin of disposable 3D glasses. There are plenty of pairs to go around and the promise of a year in review once we put them on. Inevitably, though, the red and blue cellophane lenses are wrinkled and the paper frames keep sliding down our noses and our visions have trouble adjusting to the depth and scope of what we’re seeing. Or is it just me?

I’m struggling to hold the entirety of 2014 in my gaze right now. As much as I treasure perspective and closure, I can’t seem to zoom out enough to get the shape of the year—all its triumphs and frustrations and the few big changes uncapping like matryoshka dolls to reveal an infinity of smaller ones. This is how it is every New Year’s Eve. My mind is still licking red and green sugar off its fingers and trying to remember what I used to do with myself before Christmas came to town.

I used to write. I know this much. I used to wake up in the morning with a thousand ideas straining against the confines of whatever responsible, grown-uppish tasks were scheduled for the day. I recently asked a friend looking into graduate programs (hi, K!) what kind of writing she was hoping to do, and she answered, “all of it.” I know exactly how she feels. The desire to make art out of inklings only gets stronger with time.

There’s the desire for community as well—to cultivate it always more, to live in our neighborhood and our church and our city as people invested in the outcomes. I did better at this in October and November, but I also ended up flat in bed with my breath clenched tight around a runaway heartbeat. I need to learn to do smaller more deeply.

There are so many other bits of myself, past, present, and future, bobbing around my periphery, indistinguishable from one another in 3D. Trying to pin down the nuances of this past year keeps pulling me straight into the next on the same threads of hope, and I wonder if that’s all New Year’s Eve should be after all—a surge of forward momentum, a hello.

Real live snowflakes are waltzing around my window right now (a once-every-two-years kind of sight here in central Italy), and tenderloin is roasting for a low-key evening with friends. The girls are in the next room chatting in the vein of sisters who will never, ever run out of things to say to each other. Dan is cooking lunch; glory be. My fingers are typing out the rust, and a whole new year is waiting in the wings, and it’s enough. My year doesn’t have to be processed in reverse to be complete. Sometime in the future I’ll look back and see the perimeter of 2014 backlit clearly by hindsight, but it doesn’t need to happen today, whatever the kid with the bin of disposable glasses says.

Here’s to the hope-threads stretching ahead, to every bright possibility we’ll be toasting at midnight. Welcome, 2015!

Merry Christmas 2014(And however you celebrate, happiest of holidays from the four of us!)

8Dec

7 Years a Gentile

Come the first of December each year, our family calendar changes from a responsible and somewhat sickly matron into a party animal. There are get-togethers and game nights and recitals and celebrations, and we love winding down (up?) the year in the company of our friends and neighbors. Plus, holiday food here makes the herald angels sing. 

The holidays can be a mixed bag of emotions though (as everyone everywhere in the world knows from experience), and one particular source of mixed emotion for me is the fact that I’m so far from my own relatives and culture during a season devoted to both. December doesn’t so much pull me out of my element as remind me that I’ve been living out of it the past seven and a half years.

And I’m glad it does. The experience I have had and continue to have as a foreigner has changed me for the better, shifting my field of vision and even teaching me to read the Bible like a proper Gentile (that basically means Muggle in ancient Jewish context). More about this, including a vocabulary tip you can use to scandalize your Italian friends, over at A Deeper Story today:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

I suspect that the only difference between an expat and an immigrant is the amount of money a person brings with her into her adopted country… and I’m not entirely sure which one this makes me.

In 2007, my husband and I moved to Italy for work, but not for lack of opportunities back in the US. Admittedly, my English degree is in far greater demand overseas, but Dan turned down several good engineering jobs so that we could follow the invisible strings tugging our hearts across the Atlantic. This is where folks tend to look at us with envy (if they’re American) or with incredulity (if they’re Italian). Everyone, regardless of nationality, thinks we’re at least 65% nuts. Invisible strings? Riiiiight…

The truth is that Dan and I are weird hybrids of travel enthusiast and missionary, and if you’ll pardon a quick detour into Christianese, we feel called to this life. We find ourselves rooted to Italian soil by something so strong and so inclusive of who we are that it covers a multitude of bureaucratic headaches. Daily life is daily life pretty much anywhere on the planet, but when we stop to absorb what we’re doing on a deeper level, we’re overcome by gratitude that we get to raise our girls in the culture that brought us both the Sistine Chapel and the double espresso. We love this place we’ve chosen to call home.

Italian soccer game 2

That said, these last seven years here have stretched us. (That’s missionary code for “This shizzle is HARD.”) The fascist dictator Mussolini is quoted as having said, “Governing Italians is not impossible, merely useless,” and I’m convinced that he must have said that after going to his local DMV and seeing what passed for a line. Those bureaucratic headaches I mentioned earlier are no joke, not only because the odds of receiving the correct documents in a timely fashion are slightly worse than those of winning the Powerball but because “standing” in “line” is a contact sport here. My Type A soul needs a solid week to recover from each institutional errand.

And then there’s the language. Dan grew up in Italy, but my foreign language skills before moving here were pretty much limited to ordering from a Mexican restaurant. I learned Italian the sink-or-swim way, by diving into the deep end of dinner parties and doctor’s appointments and trying to keep my splutters on the dignified side. For an introverted perfectionist whose childhood dream was to blend in, immersion-style language learning was like running an emotional triathlon every time I stepped out of the house. It can still feel like that if I’m tired or in a new environment or if I’ve recently slipped and said “ano” (anus) instead of “anno” (year) to a new acquaintance. Why yes, my child does have seven anuses! How many does yours have? Goes over great in the pediatrician’s waiting room.

One of the hardest aspects of living here, however, has been adjusting to the idea of being a foreigner. We generally refer to ourselves as expats on social media, but it’s not the Expat Office we go to when we need to renew our sojourner’s permits; it’s Immigration. We shuffle along in a crowd of elbows and body odor, men in turbans and women in headscarves vying with us for the chance to hand paperwork over to the dispassionate officials on the other side of a Plexiglas window. We are the “stranieri”—the strangers. The strange.

And we are strange, no doubt about it. Dan and I share a sarcastic sense of humor that is zero percent funny to most Italians. We observe weird customs like fist bumping and putting ice in our water. He and I have the same last name, which confuses everyone and prompts fun getting-to-know-you questions like, “So you’re also brother and sister?” We have been known to wear flip-flops outside the home, and once I went out with wet hair to the enduring horror of every single person I encountered. Sometimes I even put butter on my pasta (shhhhhh). We’re odd and American, and that’s okay.

Foreigner has been a hard label for me to get used to though. It’s not that it doesn’t fit; it’s just that I’ve always thought of it as belonging to a whole category of “other.” Much like when I tried on my wedding dress for the first time, I’ve had to stare long at my foreigner status to absorb the fact that I am the one draped in it now. I’m the “other” now, the stranger, the splutterer, the one being stretched to fit a new context. If my life these last seven years were a game of Which One Doesn’t Belong?, the answer would be me.

Whether I count as an expat or an immigrant, the disconnect can hit close to home sometimes. Italian culture rests on a foundation of family, with people’s grandparents and uncles and fifth cousins twice removed usually living in close proximity and woven throughout each other’s lives like interlacing doilies. Someone’s always around to babysit or cook dinner or help fix what needs fixing. Granted, families themselves are sometimes what need fixing, but in a society built on interconnectedness, our stand-alone status is an additional spotlight on our other-ness.

This sense of cultural loneliness hasn’t been easy to bear. I’m grateful for it though because it’s shifted my field of view. I have at least a small idea now of what the immigrants I once regarded with indifference must go through in acclimating to a new home—every aspect of life suddenly different and they themselves considered the most different of all.

I’ve also started reading the New Testament like a proper Gentile. It’s not that I’d thought of myself as a Jew before, but I did grow up Southern Baptist, so I found myself identifying with God’s Chosen People more often than not. It was easy to imagine that the Bible was written for me, directly to my culture and worldview. Before becoming an outsider myself, I’d never considered what it would be to look in on this big happy religious family with VIP access to God and a stockpile of “Visa Denied” stamps for anyone else trying to get in. I’d never given the Gentile experience a second thought (or a first, for that matter).

I have a slim idea of it now though, which is why I can only read about Jesus’s inclusion policy from precarious footing on the brink of tears. When Jesus offers living water to a foreign woman whose culture and lifestyle put her lower than low on the Jewish totem pole, when Peter announces that God’s door is open to crowds of outsiders longing to be included, and when Paul writes to a primarily non-Jewish church in Ephesus, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” God meets me smack-dab in the center of my insecurity and isolation. He reminds me of the very real family that we have here in our church. He exchanges our displacement on the map with a borderless home base. He steps right over definitions like expat and immigrant and alien and poor and stranger and disconnected and “other”… and turns the whole system outside-in.

image source

5Dec

Chains Shall He Break

No hymn has ever gotten to me the way O Holy Night does. In fact, I tend to get itchy around hymns in general, but something about this one strums a resonant chord straight into my solar plexus and out the other side. If I were a good evangelical, I’d call it powerful. (And if I were a sufficiently ironic hipster, I’d call it trippy.) Admittedly, gaping-chest-wound is not the feel one usually looks for in Christmas songs, but there are some years when it’s a deep comfort, when getting busted open by lyrics about social justice and hope helps to make sense of all the other things busting our world apart.

This is one of those years.

You know what I’m talking about, I expect. Michael Brown’s and Tamir Rice’s and Eric Garner’s faces have been on the news here in Italy too, and I glance at the TV over my treadmill and feel another crack splintering across the surface of my heart. This ache has no borders.

I’ve been reading some of the stories and avoiding some, and each has its price. When I wade into the details of tragedy, I feel as though they’ll suffocate me. When I choose not to read though, to give myself a break from all the heartache, I’m distancing myself from a reality that dear friends of mine don’t have the option of escaping. My inability to breathe is only figurative. Not a real possibility. Not the script of realest loss.

I’m doing my best to listen to those who have the most to teach me right now, and what they’re saying is that racism and systematic oppression are not confined to the past. That Christianity is still very much a platform for prejudice. That people whose skin color makes them look threatening actually have far more reason to feel threatened by mine. That whatever pain I might feel over the injustice I see in the world, it can’t compare with the pain of those actually experiencing it. That my voice right now matters more than I realized.

O Holy Night is cycling through my headphones again, and the words press up against the raw of this week:

“Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease”

My mind can’t fathom what it would be like for all oppression to cease, but my soul has an inkling, and it feels like no coincidence that the first candle of Advent stands for hope—that “thing with feathers” which fills the dark with music and helps us believe against all reason and experience that one day we will recognize each other as kin.

None of us, I imagine, was hoping to spend these holiday weeks busted open and aching. This is about as far from tinsel as a soul can get. That doesn’t mean we’ve derailed from the season though. I especially appreciate Christena Cleveland’s recent thoughts on Advent:

“It was into this ‘worst world’ that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.”

Or, as Sarah Bessey puts it, “Advent is for the ones who know longing.”

This December, the weariness of our world is real to me as it never has been before. Not to say that violence or oppression are new arrivals, but I’m listening more closely this year. I’m willing my eyes to follow the threads of inequality woven deep, deep into the fabric of society and throughout my own thinking as well. I’m absorbing the stories of people (including friends) who have been harassed for being #alivewhileblack. I’m doing my best to engage with the discomfort instead of ignoring or rationalizing it away. I’m grieving, not with the same weight of experience but nonetheless with those who are grieving right now.

And it’s this year more than any other that Emmanuel, God-with-us, feels like a lifeline to this whole spinning, busted-open planet. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. A thrill of hope that one day, the first light of morning will spill over a humanity-sized heap of broken chains.

The weary world rejoices.


(If you can get past the organ music and the videography, this performance might just punch a hole through your solar plexus too.)

image source

1Dec

Open-Source Parenting: Advent

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Christmas season tends to barrel into me somewhere around mid-November and then plummet me toward December 25th strewing intentionality, budgeting, and more than a small percentage of my joy in its wake. I resolved to find a way off the Polar Express this year—to reclaim giving without all the slapdash spending, to create a magical holiday for my girls without piling presents to the ceiling, to keep the twinkle lights in our souls lit all month long rather than building up to one big event (and the subsequent crash).

And then I got too busy to do much of anything about it.

That’s how it goes, doesn’t it? Idealism and real life rarely play nicely, especially when children are thrown in the mix. However, that’s where grace comes in.

Grace for ourselves for not having it all together.
Grace for our kiddos for unPinterestifying our charming family projects in about two seconds flat.
Grace for holidays that go according to plan exactly zero percent of the time.
Grace for me for sharing this advent activities list with you the day advent begins instead of sometime, you know, when it might have been useful. (Hi, 2015 readers!)

I put together this list of family activities this morning with inspiration from my friends Andrea and Adriel, plus my own Elf-esque love of sugar. I tried to make it a healthy (figuratively speaking here) mix of fun and meaningful activities, and there are more than twenty-four options so we’ll have a buffer in case December gets a little unruly on us. Most of them take less than half an hour out of the day. Also, all of these activities except for the first two are free or nearly so.

I’m doing nothing fancier with this list than printing it off on a sheet of Christmas stationery so we can read over it as a family and choose which activity we’d like to do every day of December. We plan to do this in connection with reading a chapter each day from The Jesus Storybook Bible, a gorgeously written children’s Bible that focuses each story on Jesus. (Even if you don’t have kids, this book is a gem.) And… that’s it! Christmasy magic without a zillion trips to the store.

If you’re interested in doing something similar, I’m sharing what I came up with below. Feel free to tweak it, wreck it, truss it up in tinsel, or use it as a springboard for an original list of your own. The idea is to make December meaningful for our kids without losing hours of sleep or shelling out big bucks.

Ready? Here you go:

An Advent Activities List for Designated Magic-Makers

  • Pack a shoebox online for Operation Christmas Child ($25)
  • Sponsor a child through Help One Now ($40/month) and write an introduction letter to him or her
  • Go through old toys and games to give some away to a shelter for battered women and children
  • Make Christmas cards to send to great-grandparents
  • Fill an extra grocery bag when we shop to give to someone who needs it
  • Make a pinecone bird feeder to hang outside for the birds
  • Have a Christmas music dance party in our living room
  • Take a family walk around downtown to look at Christmas lights and get a treat
  • Make hot cocoa
  • Offer to help someone with a task they don’t want to do
  • Go on a Christmas shopping date with Mom
  • Put on our best Scrooge faces and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol together
  • Make Christmas cards to send to grandparents
  • Invite a friend over to play for the afternoon
  • Read I Spy Christmas or Snowmen at Christmas (or another hidden picture book) together
  • Make a Christmas card for friends who just moved away
  • Go to the local animal refuge to play with the dogs and cats
  • Wrap Christmas presents with Dad
  • Make almond bark pretzels and share some with our neighbors
  • Babysit a friend’s baby so the mom can go do some shopping alone
  • Play a Christmas piano concert for relatives on Skype
  • Write a letter to Jesus thanking him for all the gifts we’ve received throughout the year
  • Make origami star ornaments
  • Look up how they celebrate Christmas in other countries
  • Watch Elf (with plenty of sugary treats, of course!)
  • Write a letter to troops stationed away from home
  • Put on our Santa hats and read Christmas stories on the sofa
  • Write little love notes to each other and put them in our stockings
  • Make edible Christmas wreaths
  • Rewrite the words to a Christmas carol for fun

Your turn! What would you add to the list? Do you have any tried-and-true tips for making December special without stress? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

 

28Nov

The Waiting Room

Patience is a virtue, I know, but it’s not my virtue.

I would tell you that the problem is my current schedule, that if time weren’t such a commodity I’d happily lean back in my raft and let the hours carry me downstream, but I can remember this sense of urgency dogging me even on childhood afternoons when I had nothing to do but roost in my favorite tree reading Nancy Drew. I’ve always been a wind-up doll, whirling into my own momentum when I’m in motion, tense with expectation when I’m at rest.

I know better than to take it personally when the traffic turns to sludge or the customer in front of me brandishes fifty-seven coupons or the office is now closed, please come back tomorrow. But folks… the struggle is real. I need no reminders to rage, rage against the dying of the light. What I do need is practice at peeling my one eye away from the clock and my other eye from the lady in front of me who is describing her lunch in microscopic detail to the cashier even though I just need to pay for the one pair of socks. I need practice at taking the pace of the real world in stride.

And I am here today to attest that there is no better opportunity to practice this than when your calendar becomes polka-dotted with doctor’s appointments. I’ve been to eleven in the last three weeks. Eleven, which are about ten and a half more doctor’s appointments than we have in an average month. Some of them have been routine visits for the girls, but the rest have been for me, and I can’t tell you how far outside my comfort zone this catapults me, how poorly I deal with medical limbo.

Something is wrong with my body—maybe my heart, maybe my thyroid, maybe something else entirely. We don’t know yet, and this is the kind of wait that feels like it might just wind me a click past my stretchability.

There are the hours spent in waiting rooms… Yellow chairs, blue chairs, clinical beige, institutional gray. Signs on every door saying “Don’t Knock.” A solitary signal bar on my phone that comes and goes as if riding the tide of my thoughts.

And then there are the hours spent in my mind, a waiting room that never closes… Deep maroon worry, fluorescent blinks of irritation, blank putty-colored stretches of unknowing. All possible outcomes waiting behind those closed doors on which I’m not allowed to knock. An off-tempo pendulum swinging between anxiety and chagrin.

Because what it it’s nothing? What if I continue to ace these medical tests until the only explanation left is that I’m a psychosomatic phony? I honestly couldn’t tell you if the outcome I dread most is a diagnosis or the lack of one. Either way, I wait.

It feels like trying to sprint underwater, urgency trapped in slow motion. I often find myself thinking that I just want resolution so I can get on with my life, and that’s a normal response, right? I’m sure I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by at least a dozen characters on House and something like two hundred on Grey’s Anatomy (which is impressive considering I’ve only seen a handful of episodes). I realize though that when I think this way, it shows I’ve let the parameters of my world shrink to the size of a waiting room. I’ve let one small arena of unknowing press pause on my entire life.

Well then. You’ve heard the Thomas à Kempis quote, “The acknowledgement of our weakness is the first step in repairing our loss”? In this, at least, I can feel like I’m making progress. The last few weeks have failed to turn me into a breezy and beatific version of myself, but I have felt the headlong staccato of my mind relaxing a bit as I’ve reminded myself (and re-reminded myself… and re-re-reminded myself) that life goes on.

Which it does, of course, in all its beautiful, maddening, un-streamlined glory. My days continue to fill like overstuffed gift baskets. The traffic is in there, but so are story times with the girls and coffee dates with the husband and three-hour dinner conversations with friends. The doctor’s appointments are in there, but so are leftover apple pies and Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas. There’s reassurance, actually, in knowing that life is absolutely unruffled by my impatience with it. I’m glad to remain a minor character if it means that in my pauses just as in my fast-forwards, life will go on going on.

It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s my cliché.

21Nov

Jesus Gives (or, How Is This Thing Worth It?)

Possibly the most significant search of my adult life has been for honest theology.

By that, I mean I’ve been seeking out ways of understanding God that don’t require me to shut down my curiosity, ignore my doubts, or twist pieces of the puzzle until they finally fit into the bigger picture. This isn’t to say that I’m against any sense of mystery in my spiritual journey. In fact, getting comfortable with not-knowing has helped me more than textbooks full of pat answers ever did. I just want to be sure that the experts who talk to me about God and the Bible and the difficult points of Christianity have wrestled their way through the kinds of questions that I do. I want my doctrine to come with rug burns. 

I’m sharing today at A Deeper Story about one such question and the grammar lesson that helped me toward an answer. There’s no expert advice here, but I can guarantee you this—

It’s honest.

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

My philosophy professor was a bright-eyed man with a Shakespearean sense of humor, but even that did not help me feel goodwill toward him the day our class discussion turned toward Jesus. It wasn’t that our views on Jesus were so very different. After all, we were at an evangelical Christian university with a strong Southern Baptist bent; folks there might disagree on whether the wine of Jesus’ first miracle wasn’t in fact Welch’s grape juice, but we all took as a given that Jesus was God incarnate and the basis of our faith.

It was the why behind my professor’s faith that made me feel as though a swarm of midges had invaded the classroom.

“We follow Jesus because he is The Truth,” my professor declared, all but dusting his hands with the certainty of his words. “Seeking truth is our greatest motivation in life, and God is true. That’s why Christianity has flourished throughout time. It’s why all of you are Christians today.”

I had to fight back an impulse to jump to my feet spluttering like a shaken can of Coke.

Instead, I raised my hand and explained—hopefully more calmly than I felt—that I disagreed. That not even God expects us to follow him out of a pure, Buddha-esque devotion to truth. That the Bible is full of incentives: healing, hope, blessing, joy, the divine trump card of salvation, even imperviousness to poison. That we follow God not out of some sense of philosophical duty but because he makes us an offer we can’t refuse.

My professor looked at me like I had just stepped off the madman set of King Lear, and I spent the rest of the class silent, fuming, and a little shocked by the intensity of whatever was fizzing around inside of me. So what if my professor approached spirituality as a quest for truth? Why should his view on the matter provoke such wild resistance in me?

The answer, as I was later able to articulate to myself in the privacy of my dorm room, was that I’d already experienced enough Truth to last me the rest of my life and then some. My childhood faith had been mapped out in the stark lines of right versus wrong. I’d learned to follow God because he demanded it of me, and how else do you react to a deity holding all the cards? You play along. You nod your head yes sir and no sir. You worship as instructed. You sing “I love you Lord” while trying to convince yourself that the emotion sweeping you isn’t actually the definition of holy terror.

College is where I finally began to extricate myself from the tyranny of Truth. Friends prayed with me weekly that I’d be able to absorb the idea that God loved me—really loved me, with the kind of crinkle-eyed affection that might just mean he liked me too—and I started to curate bits and pieces of a new perspective on Christianity that would welcome my heart and soul and experiences and emotions and curiosity in addition to my mind. I was only toe-deep into this process though when my philosophy professor declared that our ultimate goal is Truth and sent my fragile new setup spinning.

Why, REALLY? I wanted to ask him. My soul had been chafed threadbare by esoteric arguments; what I needed was for God’s goodness to be real, observable, woven through the fabric of everyday me. I needed someone to look me straight in the eyes and tell me what drew them back to Jesus when the costs began to mount. How was following God worth it?

/ / /

Just over a year ago, we moved from one side of our neighborhood to the other, a distance of about half a mile. My husband and I decided to move partly because it would reduce our rent by half (one small plus of the economic crisis) but also because we felt cut off from our purpose in the beautiful large house on the hill. The image that we felt ourselves projecting from that house was one of wealth, self-sufficiency, and pulled-togetherness, even if reality sang a different tune. To be honest, it was gratifying to be seen as people winning at life. However, we felt the hollowness of that as well, the vertical distance it was creating between others and us. Our pulled-together appearance was only an illusion, but it was an isolating one, and after four years there, Jesus’s words on social justice had stopped making sense to us.

So we moved. We found a fifth-floor apartment on the other side of the neighborhood that would meet our work-from-home needs, and we began to understand just how much of a difference half a mile can make. Where my writing desk used to look out over olive groves, it now faces a row of gray government-subsidized housing. Our girls play with neighborhood kids on the concrete patio beneath our building instead of in a private backyard. The cloak of respectability is worn thin here, and we see brokenness lived out on the public stage of our block every day—domestic disputes, child abuse, mental illness, shouts of “Whore!” and “Bitch!” reverberating through broad daylight.

We’re out of the bubble just as we’d hoped. We’re finally getting the chance to wrap our arms around neighbors in crisis and engage meaningfully with our community. The cost though… Oh friends, the cost. I’d anticipated the sacrifice of our time, our mental energy, and our convenience, but I hadn’t considered that we’d also have to let go of our expectations. I hadn’t realized that the happy ending clause I’d tacked onto my willingness to serve was going to be rendered obsolete almost immediately. I’ve had to face that, in all likelihood, the people I help aren’t going to reward me by getting better,and it’s shaken up old questions to splutter and fizz around inside me.

Why continue? Why carry out Jesus’s directives to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and love the enemy when I don’t get to claim any [immediate or measurable] benefits? How is following God worth what it’s costing me? What gives, Jesus?

For better or worse, I’ve always needed to know what God offers in terms I can wrap my hopelessly practical mind around. “Fire insurance” isn’t a good enough reason for me; neither is the search for truth or the promise of heaven or any number of moral pats on the back. My impatient streak takes over and requires that I know exactly what Jesus is bringing into my here and now.

Which brings me to the major difference between my questions twelve years ago at college and my questions today: an answer.

A few years ago, I was reading through Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda when a certain paragraph stopped me short. In it, the author points out that John 3:16 was originally written in the present progressive tense instead of the future one that most of us are familiar with. (Any of you allergic to grammar, just bear with me a second.)

“For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life age-abiding.” (Concordant Literal Translation)

Ferwerda argues that the use of the present progressive—is believing, not be perishing, may be having life—is intentional and meant to convey that both salvation and soul-death are current processes. “Think of it like a green plant thriving by a water source, or withering away for lack of water,” she writes. Spiritual life or death now. Heaven or hell here. Salvation not as an insurance policy but as an active component of the life I lead every day. Kingdom, come.

The name Immanuel has been breaking me open and putting me back together lately because I really can sense God with me, setting the world right through touches of divine nonsense–my door opened to a neighbor who’s not going to change but who needs love anyway; a neighbor’s door opened to me even though my savior complex is showing; grace in the present progressive for us all. This grace is the why for me, the offer I can’t refuse. It’s what redeems the everyday moments and the cost of persistence. It’s the truest evidence of Immanuel to me, the truest expression of healing and hope and salvation-in-real-time, so true in fact that even I might be persuaded to call it The Truth.

 

image source (art by Banksy)

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