Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fragile

adjective: easily broken or damaged


Dear Jenn,


Tonight, my mom found out that her dear, lifelong friend is dying of stage four cancer.  Her survival odds are pretty low...grim.  She's one of the most beaufiful and carefree and trusting souls I've encountered.  Her husband shared Christ with my father 30-plus years ago and changed our family tree forever.  This friend was a mentor to my mama in their early years of being young marrieds, and then as young families.  Mom calls her "the big sister I never had."  When geography separated them physically, they shared life from a distance.  They shared the heartaches and joys of raising children in this broken world.  And now they're new grandparents together.


So when my sister sent me a message with the news, I knew I needed to call my mom.  Not because "misery loves company."  Because grief is the great isolator, as you once wrote to me.


As I dialed mom's phone number, I had no idea what I was going to say.  And as the phone continued to ring, I realized the only thing to say was that I love her.  No, I have never walked with a loved one through cancer.  No, none of my closest friends have died.  But I remembered what you worte.  We just want to be known in our pain.  Simply, known.  So, through sobs on her voicemail, I told my mom that I heard the news about her dear friend, and that I love her.


Then, I ran upstairs and dug a box from underneath my bed.  It's my box of letters saved over the years.  Wedding invitations and birth announcements.  Birthday cards and Christmas cards--the kind with the all-American family similing back at me.  But this time, I wasn't looking for a walk down memory lane.  I was looking for you.  And there you were, sitting right on top, all your letters tucked nicely in a bundle tied with ribbon.  You and beautiful, sweet, perfect Aria.  And your heart.  Your God-given heart to love deeply and passionately.  So I reread your pain, and your faith, and your passion.


In one of your letters, you wrote about "...when we were younger, we always did what was easy.  Now we know true blessings are always hidden behind tough stuff."  I'm pouring over your rhetoric so I may better understand just how fragile we are, and how to love the brokenhearted more deeply.

True Confessions

Dear Church that Shall Remain Unnamed,



When I didn't have you, I dreamed of you.  I dreamt of being encouraged, inspired, enfolded into the flock of people just like me, struggling through life and sanctification together.  I did what I could to hang on from a distance: downloaded podcasts with my slower-than-dial-up Internet access, read articles, and occasionally communicated with a few faithful friends.  But as time went on, so grew the distance from familiarity and accountability.  I became more accustomed (though never fully comfortable) with the more charismatic style locally available. 


And then I returned.  All my wildest church dreams were about to come true.  The seemingly best part?  I could even return to a body of believers I was familiar with.  Faces I knew, just like me.  My expectations were about to be met, one by meaningless one.  Only, they weren't.



The simple truth is that I've changed.  The church hasn't changed that much.  Sure, staff members changed, families and individuals moved on or joined.  New programs were implemented, new babies added to the family, and different people become involved in different ways.  Individual lives have certainly changed in the midst of it all.


I still haven't quite figured out what irks me about you.  Why, sometimes, I just want to run out of the structured, predictable service as if I simply cannot take any more of it.  Why the music really grates on me, why I'm continually dissatisfied with the teaching.  Why I frequently wave my invisible stick of righteousness and stream of conscious thinking:
You don't really know the world out there beyond these walls.  You don't know the suffering, the pain, the hardship that they're going through across the parking lot, across the city, across the oceans. You're too wrapped up in your tidy little building with people who look exactly like you to notice. You think that donating--even sacrificing--money to missionaries and charities you read about and see occasional pictures of is enough to not be working in the trenches yourself, striving after all that is Pinterest-perfect and posting about it on other social media venues.  How many non-Christians are you friends with?  That you really reach out to and invite to share life with?  And you young, single girls.  My, do I have qualms with you.  Don't you know that there's more to life than being pretty and nice and making babies?  That you don't have to just find something to do until you get married?  Do you know your value beyond being desirable to a man and creating an inviting home?

This is what really got me riled up inside this week:  Why are you so caught up in battling your own sin?  Yes, we need to be privy to it, continually confessing.  But there comes a time to be forgiven and move on.  It's almost ironic how egocentric we've become in the midst of it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#blessed


Dear Social Media Peers,

Recently I read an article, The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying. The one thing: blessed. For those of you too lazy or Internet-challenged to read the entire short article, it basically challenges our current societal use of the word against its original Biblical meaning. I commend the author’s calling out of our flippant attitude toward true blessing. And as a believer functioning (read: barely surviving) outside of the Christian bubble for almost 3 years straight, I have grown to be frankly annoyed by Christianese, or Christspeak.

Our new house is such a blessing.

I am/we are blessed by such an amazing family/church/community/lover/friend/insert noun of choice.

                  That sermon was so amazing, such a blessing.

I am not attempting to undermine the things and circumstances that bring rest and humility and conviction to our lives. As such, those things can truly feel like a blessing, especially in the midst of an opposing environment. Sometimes it is even noble and humble to confess blessings. I will not judge hearts nor inward motives. It can be an act of humility to acknowledge the Provider and Sustainer of all things tangible. It should be our regular practice. But does it have to be out loud for—really-- the whole world to witness?

We, dearest Social Media Peers, have taken it to an extreme. Go ahead, search #blessed on any Internet-based venue (Instagram, FaceBook, and Twitter producing the most laughable results). How is a picture of your tattooed, voluptuous, bronze boobs #blessed? Or your bare, ripped back and outstretched arms facing an ocean sunset #blessed? And what does #blessed have to do with #workout, #suave, #itsadogslife, and #elsalvadorian (all-inclusive #blessed hash tags)? That #blessed mountain gondola ride: would it still be #blessed if in less than 2.5 seconds somehow detached itself and plummeted 1,359 feet to its fate…and yours?

The
TRUTH
is
YES.

Why are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted, and the falsely accused #blessed? (As promised by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5.) The rich young ruler is not #blessed by his riches. Is the board-house, rice-sustained, drought-stricken Jamaican not blessed?
The
TRUTH
is
NO.

 It would still be #blessed if the gondola came unattached and you freakishly died. Maybe not for your perfectly picturesque life as documented on Instagram and by way of FaceBook status updates. The mourning mother is comforted by the Author and Perfector of life and will be reunited with her deceased daughter in the perfection of heaven.  That is how she is #blessed. Those Jamaicans are still giving thanks for their boards and their rice (check out the "Give Thanks" heading on this blog post). They realize that #blessed comes from more than a perfect life. Consider the true blessing: the beauty in the ashes, the stars that shine only because of the dark that surrounds them.

Author, speaker, and blogger Jen Hatmaker writes in her documentary and personal journey of simplification, 7: “Oh, how we love religious yokes, not for what they communicate about God, but what they say about us. This is the kind of people we are.” Even if you refuse to believe in any kind of god, your posts about being #blessed are undeniably about YOU. Which is ironic. Because in the acknowledging of #blessed itself, you subliminally acknowledge grace.

We are missing the point of #blessed. We are reducing its value when we use it every 5th post or update. Dare I venture to suggest we use it selfishly, pompously, as an attempt to appear humble in the guise of really showing off our envious lives? In a way, I appreciate the use of #blessed. It’s passive. It acknowledges grace, something we have been given that we do not deserve or have not earned and can in no way accomplish or create on our own. Yet we have made #blessed egocentric, solely about us. We have selfie-ized the true blessing and reduced it solely to an esthetically-pleasing, carefree attitude of look at me. No, really, look. at. me.

Whether you believe in God as I do or not, the vast majority of us would agree that the world is NOT about us. For the God-fearing, this life is obviously about God and sharing Him with the world around us. For everyone else, I bet I can get you to admit that this world is about others. About sourcing drinking water for villages in Africa, about providing meals and shelter for the needy, about smiling at a stranger, and—in the least—about donating perfectly usable unwanted items to Goodwill rather than merely trashing them.

I beg you, Social Media Peers, reconsider your #blessed life. Are you #blessed because you have something to envy? Or are you #blessed because you have been given something you know you do not deserve? Give it a moment of thought before your next hash tag.

P.S. This letter came to fruition after a few weeks of marinating in my brain and a recent trip to Denver, where I discussed all the juices with my sister & her husband. Here is her take on #blessed.

Friday, July 4, 2014

4th of July

Mama,

My mama. Today is your 55th birthday. And the 28th birthday that I have the privilege of being your daughter.

You may remember the sappy, depressing teenage romance novels I read as a young girl, always centered around a youthful young woman with every promise of life before her, only to die of some rare, degenerative, juvenile disease. Of course she always had a boyfriend and was the star of her high school and oftentimes came from a poor socioeconomic home. There was one such character, Melissa, who was probably dying from leukemia, and her rich best friend (who drove around in a red convertible and laid by the pool all day), Jory, had anger issues with her best friend's disease and death. By the end of the story, Melissa had written Jory a letter. In in she wrote,

"Wrinkled and grey sounds good to me."

Those words have clung to me ever since. (See, life lessons can come from awful books.) Melissa understood the value of grey. She wasn't worried about crow's feet or smile lines on her face. In fact, she was dreaming of it, longing for the day to embrace the fact that she was old. Because that meant that she was living.

You, my mama, are almost all grey. You've had smile lines around your eyes ever since I can remember. And you've embraced it with every graceful year. You've never been too concerned with esthetics or looking a certain age. Until you became so grey, people frequently guessed you to be much younger than you actually are. Thank you for passing those genes along. :) Despite the grey and the wrinkles and the height difference, people know--without a doubt--that I am your daughter. You are my mother. Even just today, the spunky cashier exclaimed to us, "mother and daughter!" It's like people can't help themselves because we look so similar.

I've always favored you looks-wise. Dad spends long moments pausing at my high school graduation picture on the wall, probably because it reminds him of his youthful love, of the early days of your high school romance. And what I've come to realize is how much I yearn to look like you on the inside, too.

To have your patience
your calm composure and responses to other people and circumstances that are not so patient.

To have your thoughtfulness
the way you think of others when you see, when you create, when you share.

To have your positivity
constantly looking for the good in seemingly frustrating and discouraging circumstances.

To have your beauty
knowing that while outward appearance matters to some extent, a woman's beauty comes from inside,
how she treats others and cares for the world around her.

So on your 55th birthday, Mama, enjoy the most festive birthday cake you've ever had, the fireworks that are just for you, and the gift of aging.
I love you so very much, my Mama.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Tangle of Tears

Dear Jenny,

Why do you think God created us with the ability to cry? Each time I cry (which has been more often than not recently), I think
This is the worst pain I've ever felt.

I even went so far as to tell a boy somewhat recently that his not making a presence in my evening was the meanest thing anyone had ever done to me. Sure, it felt like that in the emotionally-driven moment. The accompanying tears confirmed my pain. But as soon as I communicated those words to him, I knew it wasn't true. I was merely being selfish in my hurt.

You, my dear friend, have cried--I imagine literally until there were no more tears--over your newborn baby girl's life and death for over a year now. I have witnessed your irrevocable loss and journey via the stumbled-upon exchange of our letters over time and oceans. You wrote transparently and explicitly about your pain. I read, I discovered, and I learned true suffering second-handedly, vicariously. And then I began my own journey of loss, completely blind and ignorant to how deeply I might eventually mourn.

You wrote about the invisible stick of righteousness you used in the beginning, measuring others' painful circumstances to yours. My sister confessed to doing the same in the midst of her miscarriage. You have often found that, compared to your daughter's death, other people's mountains are, in fact, molehills. This is my molehill, but it is sorrowful loss reducing me to tears nonetheless.

What did I lose, again? Well, put that way, I'm not really sure. I don't exactly know. Perhaps I am losing something as little and insignificant as a great time, having had my fun, and now it's time to be an adult and move on. Perhaps I am losing a significant friendship, someone who cared for me but life's cruel circumstances have us in different times, different lives, forever separate. Perhaps I'm losing the one I'm meant to love, the man I've dreamed of one day marrying and being companions with for the rest of our lives. I don't know. And that is, without a doubt, the hardest part of the process from my limited view.

I know crying doesn't make it any better. And my grown-up self is totally judging the teenage hormones expressed through tears over a boy. So why? Crying so hard and so long that I become physically ill? (Go ahead, I'm not offended if you judge me, too.) Does the expression of sorrow mean anything? I want it to. I want to be my six-year-old self again when crying earned my parents arms holding me tightly and rocking me back and forth in the squeaking rocker until I could breathe again. I want someone to see my tears and empathize with what I'm going through, seeing how what I'm feeling on the inside is so strong that it cannot help but show outwardly.

I cannot think of a more vulnerable expression of emotion than crying. Crying due to a loss is a message to the outside world that pleads for help with coping with internal sufferings, a way one comforts oneself. It is here that your experiences become so much more real to me. I fully understand now your desire to be met in your pain. I'm here; meet me in mine.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

You May Never Know

Sweet Rianna,

       Your quiet disposition, small frame, and hugely curious eyes caught my attention first. You would walk timidly through the door into my corner of a classroom, almost holding your finger to your lips as if whispering sshhhhhh while your brown eyes searched for unspoken permission to enter. You came with the curious masses in the beginning, stepping aside as the bigger, more outgoing students won the prize of participating in Miss Wright's puzzles, books, coloring, or games. When another student came in, you scooted over on your already small chair, making room for another person to sit and participate in whatever was going on at the small table for that moment.

       Then my novelty wore off. The masses stopped coming, learning quickly that I am a firm and strict (albeit equally kind and silly) teacher. Some were offended that I would not grant them permission for certain activities on certain days. Others bored easily of the same books over and over or lost interest when the bracelet thread ran out. But you stayed. You continued to walk quietly and respectfully into that corner, touching things gently and practically whispering permission, taking care of and respecting that which was not yours. Your toma, Rhianna McCarty, and you enjoyed solving the cardboard puzzles together, personalities begging for praise at a collaborative job well done. Your tiny hands eagerly reached for the fallen Uno or Old Maid card without hesitation, even if you were not the culprit who dropped it. You never left my sacredly organized space without making sure things were back in order and put neatly away. The way you treated your friends, peers, and surroundings caught my attention next, proving the age-old mantra that actions speak louder than words.  

       I did not work directly with you, pulling you out of class to improve your reading skills or because your teacher simply needed a break from behavior. You are a smart girl, as the Jamaicans say. You came to me on your own merit and on your own time, leaving play time outside to the birds. I cannot recall a single time that you complained or shrugged your shoulders when I said no to a certain activity, unlike many other students, perfectly content to simply be and enjoy. Your naturally agreeable, trusting nature had a calming effect in the midst of an unpredictably noisy and chaotic environment. 

       And then you stole my heart. You, Miss Rianna, made every suffering through Jamaica and Peace Corps worth enduring through. You may never know, but you certainly let me know. Tears brim my eyes as I write and remember this, a story that I shared with one or two Jamaicans while still on island, and a story that has become the answer to What was Peace Corps/Jamaica like?.

       I was weeks away from departing Jamaica as the local Peace Corps Volunteer. Apathy had set in as I worked to complete paperwork, wrap up projects, and prepare my house and classroom for the volunteer following me. My head was full of and focused on the boy and potential relationship I had recently started investing in. A teacher's yelling broke me out of a said trance one morning before school started, and I eventually rose from my table to see what the commotion was about. There you stood, quiet and wide-eyed as the teacher scolded and kissed her teeth at the boy who tore your uniform clear across the back. Having taken on more than my assigned role of Literacy Intervention Specialist (what PCV ever doesn't?), I offered to sew your uniform back together.

      I placed my tin of sprinkle (sparkle) crayons and haphazardly torn pieces of scrap paper on the table in front of you as you sat in your blouse and shorts. After a few quiet moments I looked across the table at you, creatively coloring away.

"You know you're a pretty girl, Rianna?" I inquired, attempting to redeem the moment for what I grew to care about most in the students' lives: character.


"Yes,"

you replied, barely glancing up from your paper that now contained 2nd-grade sketches of two girls and the words I love you on it.

After another set of quiet moments  I asked, 

"What makes a girl pretty, Rianna?"

And without a second of hesitation, you replied,

"her soul."

I was speechless. Thoughts ran through my head faster than I could process them to exit my mouth. 
               
She is thinking critically! 
Who are her parents? 
I want to go meet them and praise them and learn what they are doing differently and right. 
What a wise, wise girl at such a young age. 
She is more beautiful than I ever imagined.

Eventually, I managed to mutter out,

"That's exactly right! Who taught you that, Rianna?"

And, again, without skipping a beat, you looked up through your long lashes and said with the most confidence I ever witnessed in your being:


"You did."

Monday, June 23, 2014

On Settling, Compromise


Dear Surrogate Father,

            As you are very well aware, I don’t use the word love lightly. As a college student, I worked as a camp counselor alongside an older, wiser man who shared his thoughts about our inclination to over use the word. When we understand the importance of something, we take care of it, protect it, and are mindful of its value. Mr. Battenfield shared with me his habit of valuing the word love by using it only in reference to his family and his God. He doesn’t love frozen yogurt. He wouldn’t love to see you. As awful as it sounds, he doesn’t love his friends. This is challenging in more than one way, having to come up with creative ways of expressing deep gratitude or passion. But, in the name of love, is worth it to be able to whisper or pray I love you and truly mean it. Because of Mr. Battenfield’s humble example and challenge, I have adopted the same practice. Yes, it is challenging. But it’s so worth the effort and sacrifice.

            That being said, I really, really appreciate your concern, your perspective, and your sharing thoughts about my life and how I am choosing to live it. We jive. You get me, even in ways that I don’t get myself. You blame having the same birthday, fellow 6-14ers. God knows that I need you to shoot straight with me, not being embarrassed or awkward or dancing around the real issues. Telling me what men really think and helping protect me from making bad decisions. I am grateful for our relationship, to be your “other” daughter. Deeply grateful.

            I know that you want little more than to see me happily and passionately married to a man who will provide for me, protect me, spur me on to being more Christ-like. To see me bear children and raise them in a godly home, praying all the while that they, too, know their Creator and go on to do likewise. To see me experience life in a way that you have and are experiencing, challenges and joys intermingled with an unshakable faith that one day we will be in a perfect world and in perfect union with each other and our God. And to be vulnerably honest, I yearn for it as well.

            Yet another yearning exists deep inside of me. I wrote a text in response to your ongoing suggestion to find a good, family-friendly career and “settle down” to have a family with a good man:

I don’t wanna be a nurse. Can hardly bear to see people suffer with physical wounds. Don’t wanna settle down for the sake of settling down. It’s not…me. I know I would be living the life of wiping runny noses and load after load of laundry, always looking forward to the next cool thing or vacation or season of life regretting that I wasn’t doing something to help make society and our world a better place. Sure, I want a companion, someone to lean on and love passionately and let protect me. But I’m not willing to “settle down” for that if it means compromising my calling to cross cultures and be a light and a resource and haven to places and people who don’t know what that is. There are plenty of genuine Christians in America with big hearts making a difference. Not so many willing to leave.

For a long time I didn’t think the two could mix: living a life serving others while simultaneously raising and serving a husband and family. I still am not certain that the two will ever intermingle in my life. But I move onward in pursuit of what I cannot deny in my heart, hoping and praying that someone comes along beside me and content knowing that I am not settling if that person does not come along.

Postings