Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Letter to My Pastor

Though I’ve very little time for writing I cannot let another Sunday come without telling you how much I appreciated last week's sermon.

As I think you know, my husband and I, and our three daughters, have been living in a low-income apartment on Franklin Road. Though a far cry from the kind of poverty I have encountered in other parts of the world the environment in which we live is nevertheless marked by a degree of external brokenness that far surpasses anything I’ve ever experienced before on a daily basis. 

I believe that, like Abraham, our decision to get out of our father’s country, and move to this land that we did not know, was an act of obedience. And yet I have been surprised - even offended - at the degree to which God has demonstrated His grace to me by exposing my sin, and my need for Him, rather than – I now realize, I somehow vaguely anticipated – ushering me into a season of spiritual vitality.

Like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, I am being given essential pieces of self-knowledge through violent means. “Violent” in the sense that God has wrenched from my grasp those people and things which – unbeknownst to me – had taken hold of my heart's affections, giving me a sense of security and worth apart from Christ; in exchange, He is showing me the grotesqueness of the sin in my heart, and my need for grace, which is, in itself, as Miss O'Connor would affirm, a grace.

For example, I have, very naively, never considered myself someone who harbors what Malcolm Gladwell terms, “racial preference.” But living here, on Franklin Road, has shattered my self-image: I not only recognize, in a much deeper way, why racial prejudices form, I see their seeds struggling to take root in my own heart.

This raises troubling questions: how can you love someone whom you are tempted to look down upon? Whom you judge? Toward whom you feel a paradoxical combination of pity and contempt?

You can’t.

At least, not without Jesus.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." But as a Christian I recognize what is simultaneously liberating and devastating news: I cannot change myself.

I need Jesus for that, too.

Yesterday, while walking up the soiled stairs to my apartment, my mind was suddenly struck with the phrase: change or die. As far as slogans go, this is a fine one, for a Darwinian economy. Alter it only slightly and it becomes better suited to describe the life of the Christian: for to follow Jesus means answering the call both to change and to die, though not in that order. 

For the Christian must die in order to change. 

Perhaps more accurately, it is as we die - to those loyalties and affections which keep us from loving God and our neighbor -- that we change. We come alive in the truest sense. Not overnight. But slowly, painfully... 

I wonder if this is not the meaning of Paul's admonishment, "You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies!" (1 Cor. 15:36). As we die, we not only discover a life hidden with Christ in God, but we come alive to the world in a deeper and more authentic way.

As you said, we learn to love God more and to love people more.

This kind of change is always a process. It is also always a gift of God's grace. As Flannery O'Connor herself says, "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."

Your sermon inspired me to stop resisting. 

Under The Mercy

HM Baker

Imogen Rose

   It's the little things... that make your heart sing.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Year Begins Now

*Image courtesy of Frolic

“Help me, O Lord, to throw myself absolutely and wholly on thee, for better, for worse, without comfort, and all but hopeless. Give me peace of soul, confidence, enlargement of mind, morning joy that comes after night heaviness; Water my soul richly with divine blessings; Grant that I may welcome thy humbling in private so that I might enjoy thee in public; Give me a mountain top as high as the valley is low.” ~”Peril,” Puritan Prayers and Devotions

In my last post I announced that our family would be saying goodbye to Tucson -- to that land of desert gardens, big skies, and glowing sunsets - for Atlanta, Georgia.

What I did not disclose was that we would be moving – not into a cheerful neighborhood full of happy families, where lemonade stands linger on well-groomed lawns – but into a low-income apartment on a street called Franklin Road.
Dutch manages the property, and is engaged in the slow process of turning it around – remodeling units, bringing the buildings up to code, and installing programs aimed to assist the people who live here. He wants to make this plot of land, which is scattered with buildings in varying states of disrepair, into a community – a place people can proudly call home.

This vision came to him out of Isaiah 58:12 which says: “…you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” He asked me to support him by moving onto this street, into one of these “broken places,” for a time. I asked how long. "A year," he said, "give or take a few months."

I didn’t want to do it.

At the time I was six months pregnant.  I would have a hard enough time getting myself up and down the stairs, never mind the children or the groceries. What would it be like when I had another baby?

Then he took me into one of the units. I had to cover my mouth because of the stench. Dead cockroaches were scattered all over the stained carpet. Doors had been ripped out of their frames; the kitchen was dark and cramped, with only a fluorescent light above the sink.

“We’ll clean it up,” Dutch said. “We’ll paint the walls and put in new carpet.”

I was trying not to panic. “What about the bathroom?” I asked. Toilet, sink, and tub were streaked with rust and grime. In fact, the whole place looked like the scene of a crime or the abandoned quarters of drug addicts or hoodlums. Here and there were bits of trash – an empty chip bag, a fast food wrapper; personal items, forgotten, perhaps, or simply abandoned in the hurry to leave: a child’s barrette, a small plastic horse, one cracked half of an Easter egg. Pieces of a life. Broken pieces.

“We’ll clean that up, too,” Dutch said. “We will replace the sink and spray the tub so that it looks new.”

I sighed. My chest felt heavy, constricted. He made it sound so simple. But we are both old enough to know that nothing worth doing is ever simple. Or easy. Especially not at the beginning.

Really, Lord? I thought. Could this really be what you are asking of me?

Now more than ever I want to build my own home. With a big backyard and a garden full of flowers; with creaking wood floors, a painted porch swing, and quiet corners in which children can read and dream and play.
Besides, I do not possess any real qualifications to assist in this kind of work. I majored in English Literature. I love to read books, tell stories. I cannot justly be called a community developer, unless you define "community development" as cleaning the toys up off the living room carpet long enough for three little people and one big one to meaningfully engage one another. Thus you can imagine my distress at the thought of applying to myself any of the labels I have heard used to describe the work of community building. When a friend of mine introduced me at a party, explaining that Dutch and I were moving into a low-income apartment to do “intentional living,” I felt panic. Guilty panic.

As far as I am concerned, I am not doing “intentional living.” I’m just living. I’m an ordinary mother, about to have a baby. My concerns are common enough. On the most basic level, I want for my children what most mothers want: a safe and stimulating environment where they can grow up into the best version of themselves, the people God made them to be. I want our family, all of us, to thrive.

But in spite of these doubts, I said yes. Yes to Dutch. Yes to God. Now I have a new address: I am living in that newly remodeled unit on Franklin Road. I am no longer pregnant; our newest daughter, Imogen Rose, was born six weeks ago.

I was right, getting the groceries and the children up the stairs is something of a production. But the most difficult thing by far is acting as a daily witness to the irreconcilable brokenness that surrounds me.
There are days I ask myself, why am I here?

It is not because I am qualified. It is not because I am able, in and of myself, to love my neighbors. I don’t have that much time or energy or – to be frank – that much interest.

In the few short months since we moved here I’ve realized how much of my life I have spent surrounded by people who for the most part look like me, dress like me, speak like me, and essentially reinforce my way of looking at the world.

Stripped of all that is familiar, separated from the people who know and understand me, I see how much of my identity, my security and significance, has been built upon people and things, rather than Christ.

Lacking comfort, I see how much I crave it. And when it comes to choosing between what is comfortable and what is obedient, my heart will choose comfort every time.

That is the real truth.

But there is good news: I serve a God who makes all things possible. He is able. If He can make a blind man see… He can change me. He can give me what I lack so that I, in turn, can have something to give other people. He can give me the grace to keep choosing obedience, in spite of myself, and in the process discover that it is not, in fact, an abnegation of joy, but an entryway to it.

Jesus said, "...I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly." To find life - a live green thing growing up out of dead soil. That is grace; and at the moment my whole life is built upon the premise that I will find it, even here, on Franklin Road.

I don’t know how long we will live here. Or whether what we are trying to do will “succeed” by any external measure. But I do know that this is the vision God put on my husband’s heart. This is the door He opened for our family. And when I am willing to stop and really listen, I can hear Him whispering to my heart, Heather, right now, today, for YOU, this is the way; walk in it.

As a result:

I am learning to define safety as obedience to God.

I am learning to replace my fears with greater faith.

I am learning not to define people by outward appearances.

I am praying the words of St. Augustine:

“O Lord, let me offer you in sacrifice the service of my thoughts and my tongue, but first give me what I may offer you.”

That is the only kind of intentional living I am capable of at the moment: to intentionally allow God to expose my heart’s misguided affections, the ones that keep me from loving God and people. By His grace, He will do it; and His grace, to me, will not be wasted.

So... let’s get on with it… Let the Year Begin Now.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Happy New

It’s been a while since I've written. Too long. Another miscarriage, a job change, a pregnancy – and with it three solid months of acute “morning sickness” – wrenched the proverbial pen from my hands. I must pick it up again. I must also mention: we are moving in the spring, from this now beloved trail dust town of Tucson to Atlanta, Georgia. The Peach State. At least, I believe that is what they call it. We don’t know a soul there but I am looking forward to the trees. A friend of mine described it as a “city full of gardens,” and when Dutch and I visited at the end of October, it was true – as the plane descended all I saw were colored tree tops crowding houses and streets, as well as an astonishing number of parks. On the ground, we wound through neighborhoods overhung with trees – I’m not sure what kind. Oak, maybe. And Elm. Anyway, they were big, enormous, their trunks hunched over the sidewalks in postures of concern, as if to shield from danger any little ones that might be found frolicking beneath their sprawling branches.  

We passed one house – a single story white bungalow with gray shutters and a glossy black front door – and I prevailed upon Dutch to park the car across the street. There was a little girl out front, maybe three or four, being pushed in a wooden swing by a man I assume was her father. Warm afternoon light filtered through the leaves of the trees, through the girl’s blonde hair, and over the rope handles she clung too so tightly, giving the whole scene a look of timeless incandescence. Through the large front window of the house I glimpsed a wooden dollhouse, a coat rack, the backs of chairs. A life. Their life.

And I wondered, could God give us a life here?  A new life? Of course, He could, I thought. He can. Leaves – golden green, auburn, and orange – flitted slowly to the ground like benedictions, blessing the sidewalks, the manicured lawns, and, it seemed to me, the two of us where we sat, voyeurs beneath the reflective windshield. He is bringing us up from the desert, I thought, and though this new land is not Canaan, it is the land He has chosen for us. And that makes it a land of promise.