Birth-Like Death: A Thank You to Phyllis Tickle

May 29, 2015

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There is something about life that brings us back to death. There is something about death that brings us back to life. And it is, quite possibly, the reality that they are not all too different.

When the intellectually infamous, philosophically articulate Christian author Phyllis Tickle came through our city two years ago to speak at the local liberal arts college, she was brought on a time-filler tour of our intern house where young adults come to live temporarily and experience Christian intentional community. To have her walk through our halls was a humbling opportunity indeed.

She was brilliant and gracious, like a woman in her 80s with the energy of a 35 year old and the wisdom of many centuries all packaged into one. She chuckled as she moved to various parts of the property, sharing stories and concepts of the different communities she’d visited and asking questions about life-together here in our neighborhood.

She spoke that night, with the same assurance in which she writes, about how the church is not dying but is changing. Her researched and convicted words about Christ’s Body weaved in and out of her birds-eye view on Christianity and the very intimate motivation for what we are to do now—for what we are already doing. She was funny and spry, reminding a room full of church elders and laypeople that she is currently at the age where she can say whatever she wants so why hold back. And it was beautifully charged with hope and perspective. Undeniably charged with those things.

I met Phyllis Tickle just this once on her short visit to Shreveport, LA, but I cried in deep, grateful grief as I read the news that she now faces the road of Stage IV Lung Cancer, predicted to only have a few more months to live. “What a gift we have been given by her life,”is all I can repeat.

News of her recent diagnoses has spread throughout the religious and writing worlds (where she has been at the forefront for so many years) as people have turned to hear her response to impending death. I laid awake one night this week, unable to get comfortable in these final days of my first pregnancy, and read an interview with Phyllis on religionnews.com where she so eloquently shared her perspective on this next chapter of life called dying.

But the part that caught my attention the most was her story concerning a near death experience that she had at the young age of 21 where an experimental drug, meant to lessen chances of miscarriage, had almost cost Phyllis her life. I read as she explained the (beautiful to some, eerie to me) process of hovering over her own body, of passing through a tunnel entirely covered with grass and coming into a “light”or a “peace”where she was invited to stay but chose to return.

“You’re never afraid after that,”Phyllis said in her interview.

This could have been comforting to read. Truly, this should have been comforting to read—this near-death-experience that has left someone unafraid of the unknown that proceeds the after-life. However, lying awake at 1:30am with the back pains of approaching delivery, this peace-filled perspective only gave me further fear and anxiety about what is to come once we leave this earth.

I try not to think about death or heaven or what’s next too often. If I sit with it long enough, I am faced with this reality: I know no one outside of Jesus that has ever experienced it, and that by itself can create a canyon of uncertainty and fear that I would simply rather avoid. But awake at such a late hour, and unable to move or distract much, I asked myself that night why this conveyance of Tickle’s made me so anxious. Why did that tunnel, and even that light and peace, sound daunting and sad and morbid? Why does death seem so hollow?

It did not take me long to answer. It is in fact because it seems so lonely. To me at least. It is the most unknown of journeys that one must make “by themselves,”often leaving what and who they know for much of what they don’t. It is surrounded by black cloth and tears and words like “loss”and “end.”It is often referenced as the opposite of life. And we tend to like life and a good deal of what it encompasses.

I put my phone down and rearranged our nursery two or three more times in my head in order to trick myself into going to sleep and stop thinking about mortality and sickness and heaven.

The next morning I waddled down the hall with my cereal and a couple of articles meant to educate about labor—the marathon we are expecting to kick-off any day now. I read about how our bodies more often than not simply know when it is time, and all the gears and wheels start cranking for this baby’s transition into its next stage of existence. I read how our son will begin movement and how it will come with very specific aches and require a very specific strength. “It will be like he is passing through a tunnel as he comes through the birth canal and into the light of the room,”it explained. And I stopped.

The tunnel. The light.

I thought about how this womb-life is the only reality my son has ever known. It is what is familiar, it is how he has grown, it is where he has stayed connected. And very soon he will be required to make a journey that—if he had the capacity to understand or articulate—might could seem very unsettling, frightening, and ultimately lonely. It is in fact true that no one else will be traveling this same exact path as he will at the same exact time.

I compared my fear of death to what could potentially be paralleled to an infant’s fear of life. And I asked myself what I would tell him if I could.

“You do not need to be afraid.”

“I am right here, all around you. And I love you.”

“Everyone experiences this, it is natural, and it is good.”

“You cannot understand right now, but life here is so much more than life in there.”

“You are not actually doing this alone. We have to do it together for it to work.”

“There are people who already love you, and have loved you this entire time, waiting for your arrival. And they will be there directly on the other side.”

“You’ve actually been here all along. You’ll just be able to see it and be a full part of it now.”

 

You’ve actually been here all along. The scriptures about new life, and torn veils, and being seated in the heavenly realms came to mind. I thought about the verses in Romans that say, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”

Peace found me in the thought of this world as a womb that leads to a next life actually more similar to birth than what we think of death. Peace found me in the thought that heaven is maybe more near than we think.

Rachel Held Evans says in her book Searching for Sunday, “Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”

And this is good news to me. That maybe death isn’t altogether different than life. Maybe heaven is not as much distant as it is more. And certainly, it is not lonely and for that reason, does not need to be scary.

Thank you, Phyllis Tickle, for your years, your words, your bravery, your interpretations, your love for the Church. I am grateful for yet another lesson on why there is much more reason to hope than there is to fear. What a gift we’ve been given by your life, indeed.

Where I’ve written…

May 29, 2015

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Recently, an article of mine was published on the Art House America Blog. This is a special and vulnerable piece to me that talks about distraction, marriage counseling, and what crocheting blankets taught me about both. Luke and I were happy to be able to share this part of our story, and invite you to head on over to read it and all the other wonderful works by AHA contributors!

Economy of Need: A Web Not a Staircase

April 23, 2015

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The after-school program for 6th-12th graders in our under-resourced neighborhood that takes place each day in the bottom floor of my house is primarily filled with kids who come from similar backgrounds and home-lives. The specific makeup may vary, but for the most part, my little neighbors exist in houses run by single, strong, black matriarchs. Many know too well how to navigate the monthly waters of food stamps, WIC, and welfare. They know what weed looks and smells like, understand the meaning of the term “trap house,” and have been residents of several different areas of town and students at a variety of schools since they were born.

When we moved here, I knew full well how different our backgrounds and experiences were. I grew up in an American middle class family with two married, educated, and working parents. I took lessons when I was younger that helped cultivate a range of skills I would and wouldn’t end up utilizing. I came away from my liberal arts college with no debt and a job offer. It would be years into my 20s when I would finally figure out what weed actually looks and smells like; and I am constantly having to google phrases like “trap house” to keep up a decent (yet lagging) understanding of the world around me.

When we moved here, these children and neighbors were my “others.” They were my “poor.” And I could be good because they were in need. Since Jesus called us to do life closely with those who have to go without, I could look most like him in places like these.

Four and a half years of a routine imbedded in Highland (two of those working closely with these students) has done some definite deconstructing and reconstructing of perspective and placement for me, my family, and my community.  Experience after experience of having my savior-complex debunked, learning the truth and need of interdependency across economic lines, and (quite frankly) being humbled by the things I do poorly and the stuff I don’t know have been powerful teachers in reality.

This past month, we have been discussing what it means to “grow compassionately” in our after-school club of about 20 teenagers. And in an effort to work some of that out, we’ve taken part in several different experiments in goodness around the city—such as ding-dong-ditching tiny gifts at neighbors’ front doors with cards that read “you’ve been hit with a random act of kindness, pay it forward!,” scavenger hunting for donation bag items to deliver to one of our city’s day shelters, and packing rice and bean bags to restock pantries in different parts of town.

What has been most surprising to me throughout the last four weeks has been the commentary surfacing out of this little band of young folks who are serving. To be sure, food pantries are not foreign territory for a few of their families. At least once in many of their lives, a shelter of some sort has been involved. And the other parts of town that we visited were not unlike ours in crime-rate and income levels.

Yet statements and wonderings bounced around such as…

“Are we in a bad part of town, Mrs. B? This looks like a bad part of town.”

“I was a little nervous to hand him that bag at the shelter because I don’t know how to talk to poor people.”

“Can we come and help cook at this kitchen for hungry folks?”

“I’ve got some clothes I can donate. Could I bring them here?”

“There are how many hungry people in the world? And I throw away food at school everyday…”

 

“My poor people” had poor people, I realized. And they have something to give. And they are compelled to do so.

God’s economy of need and giving is not hierarchical, I am learning. The goods of life do not trickle down from the haves to the have-nots. Rather than a staircase of provision, God’s economy of need and giving is a web where poverty is both relative and varying, where the most “unlikely” of folks have what I need and vice versa. It is the most backwards of things, this Kingdom way.

I may have a lawnmower to contribute to the little crew of boys who are starting a yard business this summer in the area, or I might have a connection and the networking skills to get a graduating senior help in filling out their FAFSA; but I have been shared the treasure of a connected community of porch-sitters, bike-riders, and door-knockers that I did not have in my previous residencies. This makes my life fuller and more relational with the stuff you can’t buy. I have both a need and something to give, just like my neighbors.

I have seen upper/middle-class folks find purpose and perspective while also sharing the fruit of their privileged resources. I have seen families under the poverty line find camaraderie and assistance for financial struggles while also sharing their wide-wisdom in open-door policies and a new understanding of who family includes. I have watched wealthy widowers, divorcees, and single moms need other wealthy friends just to make it through. I have witnessed families who are living off of aid systems stand in food lines as the servers and bring their gently worn apparel to donate to church clothing banks.

It makes no sense, and it makes all the sense.

The rich are not the helpers and the poor the helped. The rich are not the needed and the poor the needy. Rather, we are all in need and all able to give. It is what makes us human, one body, a family.

I am beginning to wonder if our commission for the rich to live life closely to the poor is far more about the restorative work of learning who actually needs whom rather than simply the affluent taking advantage of opportunities to share wealth. I am beginning to wonder what type of world would be cultivated if we all had to acknowledge our needs and wear them written out on large billboards above our heads—and would we be surprised at who would step up to meet them. I am beginning to wonder about the disservice we have done ourselves in the realm of middle/upper class church missions where we have created and functioned within programs as the givers in this trickle-down system of help. I am beginning to wonder if life-together with people who are unlike us is what forces us to break down some walls of false understanding and seek healing and freedom from those we thought “needed us.”

Ultimately, today I am wondering if the world’s money economy has aided in our belief that God’s economy of need and giving is similar to it: where few have the most and the most have the least, where the rich need little and can give more and the poor need more and can give little. Have the top-down ranking patterns of our societies robbed us of the understanding of our own needs and abilities to give…of our true placement in body-life.

During this season of Easter leading up to Pentecost when we most often remember the earliest church and read of their lifestyle in Acts where “all the believers were together and had everything in common,” where they “sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” I would challenge leaders and shepherds of congregations and faith groups to press their congregants and community members to be honest about the needs in their own lives. If they were asked to wear it in billboard fashion above their heads, would it be news to those around them? And would they consider looking in unlikely places to get those needs filled and/or healed—maybe by someone of a different background, economic status, race, belief, or lifestyle.

There is something empowering to the individual and the Church when all sorts of folks start getting honest about the need in their lives and start allowing the improbable givers an entrance into those hurts and deficiencies so that we can all get better together.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” -Romans 12:2

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” -Acts 2:46-47

Grace for Us All: War, Death Row, & Peace

February 21, 2015

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What a time in our history to be studying nonviolence, imbedded in a world and a country so vehemently desperate to protect ourselves, you think as you read the latest news about the U.S. now exporting armed drones to other countries. It’s 5am and you’re unable to sleep because the child you’re growing inside of you has started the morning stirrings. Phone with drone articles in one hand, you grab your belly with the other, and pray from deep within your gut for a different world in which your son may grow.

Strange timing aside, your small community marches on in its reading, watching, and discussing about this topic so foreign to the majority of the culture. What on earth does it mean to practice peacemaking in the midst of violence?

Peace is a nice concept in theory, you conclude, standing as the ideal that we love to hold in high esteem when it comes to our global existence and how we function. Your leaders claim their decisions made on its behalf. Your holiday songs croon of its rightness. Your pageant girls have notoriously stood for its coming. And the car stickers in your military town show the B52 planes positioned as peace signs proclaiming the words, “Peace the Old Fashioned Way.” It is everywhere, and it is no where.

You’re trying to wrap your head around the blurred lines. Peace is not peace just because we talk about it. Peace is not peace just because we’re able to sit in steady normalcy while conflict rages on over oceans. Peace is not peace just because we are unable to see the fight. We are not at peace right now. We are as humanity, it seems, ever at war. Lord have mercy, you whisper into the morning.

You scroll through articles to find what writer and farmer Wendell Berry has said in a recent online interview.

“We threaten and make war, as a first choice or as a matter of course, because we conceive of violence as the normal answer to other people’s violence. As war becomes ever more industrial, more technological, more able to inflict its damage at a distance and by remote control, we seem to like it better. President Obama has become, as he was fated to be, the new head pioneer of remote control. There is no need to face your enemies or even know them, if you can push a button and kill them at a distance of thousands of miles without getting up from your chair. For this there are the urgent practical reasons that war invariably supplies.

But we also are susceptible to the technological charm of, for example, drones. In the very midst of war, these weapons of precision killing have become ‘consumer products,’ and the most modern and up-to-date people are buying them as they bought cell phones. They fit with perfect logic the needs of the preservers of the ‘balance’ of freedom-and-security, and by the same logic the needs of blackmailers and hit men. No doubt already there are drone billionaires.

Peace assuredly would pay even larger dividends, but to the wrong people. It is not at all clear how you could make a billion dollars by being peaceable. And so we don’t consider or study the means of peace, or make them available to our leaders. We speak well of peace, we say we want it, we have paid the lives of innumerable other people and unaccountable wealth supposedly to get it, but we seem not to mind, we seem not to notice, that all we have got for so much loss, for so long, is more war.”

This is what you read to start your day, and you give thanks to God that people of faith are thinking, considering, concluding, and moving on behalf of real peace. You resolve, it is about time. We have grown and evolved in so many ways throughout the last few hundred years. It is baffling for you to think that we have not figured out how to coexist without killing each other. Especially when so much of the world follows the God-man Jesus who, without question, instructed us in such practices of wild and wondrous grace. Especially when we have recently shared this time in history with such practitioners of nonviolent resistance as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi—appliers of a brave faith and a system that said and showed, “Another way is possible.”

The hours of this normal Thursday take you into morning prayer where you and your little tribe of folks pray for this way to be seen by more eyes—eyes that are so bound by lines of loyalty to militaristic values and enemy hate. Eyes like yours not too long ago.

The afternoon should be interesting in this arena, you realize, as you remember that today is the day you will help walk your community’s interns through writing letters to people sitting on your state’s death row.

Your coworker has been diligently researching these last few weeks the names and stories of those who now face capital punishment at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. Profiles have been made with pictures, offenses, and rulings. Not surprisingly, very little can be found about the lives and stories of those convicted prior to their sentencing or since.

You read aloud as a group the details of the death penalty in your state—all of the whos and hows from the last few decades, complete with demographic details of victims and convicts. It is easy in this moment, disgusted with the system, to raise a fist in the air and repeat the words of Jesus, “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword!” It is nonsensical, this enemy-hate, this life-taking, this repentance-stopping that death for death brings. And you see this clearly when the numbers are read.

But then the stories get shared. Your group cracks open the first page and you see the face of the woman who murdered the elderly couple. You look at the eyes of the man who kidnapped, raped, and killed the four year old. You become nauseous with each description, each account of heart-breaking violence, desperation, and cruelty. You had not expected this part, the part where the hate begins to well up inside of you as well, you who had no direct connection to this story, you who moments before were singing a different conviction. And yet, there it is. The “make them pay” part of you that you thought you were above because “Jesus spoke against it and you believed him.” So many emotions and postures at play in this moment—the impossibly heavy grief for a world where hurting people hurt people, the confusion over whether or not a different way is actually attainable, the need for hope to come through three minutes ago. And here you sit, flipping through the pages and the faces of people you had all planned to write.

“This is a practice in active forgiveness,” your coworker shares. And you remember quickly that the teachings of Jesus always feel impossible. They always come with a tension of how our flesh is in battle with the spirit. They always lead to freedom if we will but follow them though we do not quite understand them in the moment.

“What should we say,” your interns ask? “How do we even start?”

“Let them know you’re praying for them, and that you honor the God who made them and sees them. Ask them questions and offer the re-humanization of someone wanting to know something about them. And as we write, we must ask for forgiveness for all the stuff inside of us that makes us as susceptible to such an outcome given the right circumstance, hurt, or fear. We must ask for forgiveness for the web of brokenness that led this specific person to this place in the system. We must ask for forgiveness for the hate in our own hearts that leans to whatever extent in the direction of violent revenge for violence. We must ask for forgiveness for the structures and policies that we have supported as a cooperate body of faith that have made us the judge over someone’s sin and therefore over their chance to be restored or not—the policies that would rather end a life and a chance rather than offer the rehabilitation that we know love can bring. We need grace on every side, grace for us all,” your leadership shares.

You realize this small move of active, all-sides forgiveness is what you are hoping for the grand scale of our world. But now you are acknowledging that there is a reason it is hard—because people have been hurt or scared and they feel that it is the right, natural, and a justifiable option to get those who have gotten them and theirs. You realize that the kind of grace for us all that stops wars, and forgives enemies, and convinces leaders to put an end to an economy of drones and militarism, is the kind of grace that only a Savior can bring. But you know that it is possible, you have seen a tiny version of that miracle here today as the pens move on the letters that will head to Angola later this week. And you pray…

Lord Jesus, we need you to help us forgive ourselves for the potential to take life that lies within us all. We need you to help us forgive those who have terrorized, intimidated, hurt or stolen life from us—be they friend, intruder, or foreign extremist group. We need you to remind us of your radically-unnatural, all-encompassing, entirely-restorative grace that can make way the possibility of generational wars to cease. We need you to show us how we are to speak and share and vote and pray so that our leadership may acknowledge that another way of life is possible and at hand. We cannot argue that in your Kingdom, there is no death for death, only sacrificial death for life. And you have taught us to believe, claim, and bring your Kingdom here to this world today and tomorrow and the next. So we have hope that our cries and actions for peace are not in vain, for they are your heart and hope for the world as well. Raise up the contagious pockets of people who believe that you have made us with the creativity and infused us with the love to find the alternatives to violence that are good news for our world. That the next generation might live in lands where all are not dying by the sword they have raised, but are rather forgiving as you have forgiven, and loving as you have loved. Amen.

Additional Resources:

The Gandhi Movie

Michael J. Nojeim’s book, Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance

Preston Sprinkle’s book, Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

Recent Interview with Wendell Berry

Is New Monasticism for Everyone?

February 7, 2015

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We recently had one of my favorite authors on this subject here as our houseguest for a couple of a days. To say that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s books about applied faith, racial reconciliation, close Christian community, and deliberate life among the poor and the enemy have been formative for me and our neighborhood here in Shreveport would be an understatement. He has given concise language to so many inner wars and wonderings of mine over the past seven years; and I am restocked with new and fresh gratitude for the fact that I get to live and learn during this same century and era of faith as him and those like him.

Jonathan met and shared with many in our community and greater city during his visit. And much conversation has been birthed and rebirthed in a ripple effect since he left. And while many things stuck out during all of the discussions being had, I noted a common inquiry floating around the rooms in which he sat. It is a question that is not foreign to us, one we’ve asked and have been asked many times in our last five years of attempting to grow a life of intentional Christian community.

Is New Monasticism for everyone?

I have sat with this more heavily for a week now, this question that is no stranger to my own thoughts. And I have wondered, what would be my answer? New Monasticism has been a tool and a structure in recent years that has given words and practical challenges for my own faith to be real in, connected to, and informed by the world where we live. Its name (alongside other buzzwords like “intentional community” and “life-together”) have been a guidance for the transformation of this Sunday School Christian into one that thinks her following of Jesus should have something to say to the various (actual) hurts of our earth…like poverty, systemic racism, cheap “solutions” such as war, loneliness, enemy-hate, the dehumanization of human trafficking, immigration issues, fear, the death penalty, how we spend money, creation care, and disconnection of the wealthy, etc. God has undoubtedly used its marks and measures to show me that this life of discipleship has something to say about how we eat together, share possessions, fight well, give unreservedly, and live closely.

But, is it for everyone?

Is this lifestyle of taking some of the most long-standing monastic practices and applying them in the more marginalized places of our societies today in fact for all people? Do any of the marks (or implementations) of New Monasticism that recent theologians and practitioners have outlined lay outside of the reach of any person’s lifestyle or season (barring a bit of sacrifice)? Do these twelve practices, written to help laypeople model the ancient ways of monasteries, indeed exist for some but not for others?

  1. To relocate to “the abandoned places of Empire” (or rather, to integrate your life into the marginal places of society where people are overlooked and oppressed)
  2. To share economic resources with community members and the needy among you
  3. To show hospitality to the stranger
  4. To lament racial division within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of just reconciliation
  5. To humbly submit to Christ’s body, the Church (in all her forms, dialects, and imperfections)
  6. To take part in intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate (or rather, to be formed by a body of believers’ vows to a specific lifestyle that hold you closer to the way that Jesus exampled)
  7. To nurture the common life among members of intentional community (by eating together, praying together, sharing together, grieving together, celebrating together, marching together, working together, etc.)
  8. To support celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children (in a world where our faith separates people who need each other into staunchly divided small groups)
  9. To live within geographic proximity to community members who share a common rule of life (or rather, to live geographically close to the tribe with whom you make promises and share your day-to-days…this has not always been a foreign concept)
  10. To care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
  11. To make peace in the midst of violence and resolve conflict within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
  12. To commit to a disciplined contemplative life

I suppose it would be easy for me to say yes, it is for everyone, as it would be easy for anyone to say yes who has had their life changed or informed by something significant (be that a traveling preacher, a powerful retreat, or a mountaintop experience like Peter, James, and John witnessed as Jesus transfigured before them). “We’ll make tents and live here, Lord…”

Knowing full well that it is the human tendency to want to camp out in the area that has most transformed us, I have wrestled with this question, hesitant to answer for fear of being unrealistically hell-bent on my desire to get us all doing the same thing.

But I think, after much processing, I have come to an answer with which I feel peace about sharing.

Is New Monasticism for everyone?

My answer: I don’t know. But I think maybe it could be for anyone.

There are many tributaries that get us to where Christ wants us to go, as there are many different people in the world living out a plethora of existences that I believe could be called “faithful.” And variety is good.

However, I think that I have noticed a trend when this question is being asked—there are two different wells from which the words surface.

One person is asking if this New Monastic life is for everyone because their manifestation of faithful living doesn’t quite look like the common examples of intentional community (a life imbedded within an under-resourced neighborhood, community gardens, common purse and prayer, etc). However, they may in fact be living out different versions of the same marks. They may be living in an upper middle class neighborhood, opening their home to foster children, and sharing meals and prayers with the neighbors they’ve grown to know and love. They may be living in a downtown loft intertwining their lives with addicts and prostitutes while growing a family of unlikely connection. They may be a grandmother living under the poverty line who has little but her stories to share, however she shares them as she plants flowers to make the Projects more beautiful; and she invites all ages and races to come and visit. They may be a person of trade (electrician, dentist, hairstylist) who shares their free gifts with those less able to pay for the service; they may be standing on the front lines of political issues that are effecting the most overlooked in our cities. Though their living may not totally line up with the more referenced versions of New Monasticism or Intentional Community, their lifestyle (when examined more closely) is in fact not far from the marks, though they may never use this language to explain why and how they do what they do. And I think that’s just fine.

The other person is asking if New Monastic life is for everyone because they do not know how to reconcile their current lifestyle with the call to which they feel they (maybe) should be living. They are wealthy, or they are in school, or they live in a gated neighborhood, or they are highly involved in the traditional institutional church, or they work too many hours for this communal life to be an actual reality no matter how they’ve felt inspired. In this case, the language and structure of intentional Christian community and/or New Monasticism (as it has been most commonly manifested) goes on to present a problem for the doctor, the preacher, the university student, the rich woman, the CEO. It is a life that seems not accessible to them, they decide, therefore they ask this question seeking confirmation for this conclusion. Monasticism was never for everyone, in fact; the monks knew and honored this. Monasticism was for the few, and something else was for the others. These are words that bring comfort to the wrestling soul.

However, that is the very reason why I have so appreciated what this language of New Monasticism has brought to our time. This way and rule of life has been deemed “new” or “neo” because it is slightly different from the structure before it; it is meant to be accessible to those living out real life in a real world. I just think we, in many circles including mine, have maybe lacked the tools, creativity, and space for the conversations needed that help people see some practical alternatives for what this might mean for their own special lives.

I don’t know that New Monasticism is necessarily for everyone. I do however think that discipleship of Jesus is intended for everyone; and if the marks of New Monasticism are simply an outline of values and practices for a disciple, then they could be a tool for anyone interested. But there are many interpretations and outlines that lead folks to Christ-following lives, and the way we talk about it doesn’t have to look or sound like the next person’s. As our friend Jonathan pointed out, monasticism has always been intended to point people toward Christianity, not toward monasticism. However, I am saying that I think that New Monasticism and Intentional Community are accessible and applicable for anyone interested in/inspired by it, no matter their life season or status. Deep connection to people in these ways doesn’t just have to be limited to the single years of your early twenties. And if in fact you are the person interested/inspired, however you feel like you’re life is not one that can live according to these practices, my question might would then be, “Which of the marks are holding you/us back?” And then with our answers, I’d want to talk about our different motivations and unquestioned systems that may be getting more stock than might be necessary. Creative conversations about how another world and life might be possible are critical things for which to make space.

The brainstorming in such spaces would potentially sound a bit like this…

Are you a college student that feels like you have to put your desire for intentional community on hold until you graduate? Maybe try meeting with a small group of folks 3-5 mornings a week before class in one of your dorm rooms to go through the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and watch as your sense of community grows. Spend your weekends with the homeless or get to know the neighbors that live along the outskirts of your campus. It is likely that your custodians and grounds keepers are among them. Create and attend forums that question oppressive systems and perceptions of our societies—universities have been brilliant birth places for creation care, anti-trafficking movements, peace marches, etc.

Are you an over-time professional whose hours are not flexible for shared and intentional life? It may be good to ask why is it so important to be so overtime? Could your cutting back make room for someone else to have a much needed job? Are you scrambling to satisfy the debt that has acquired? Intentional Christian community (though hard and heavy at times), should indeed make the load lighter, and life fuller, and existence cheaper…something from which we can all benefit. Have you asked yourself lately if you know anyone who is poor? Are you a part of a small group that could pool your money for a relational tithe then challenge each other to get to know and do life with actual people who are in need of it?

Are you a middle class family living in the suburbs? Don’t fret, you are surely not exempt. Have you met your neighbors? Hosted a block party? Suggested a supper wagon among a few families who can help carry the load of meal sharing, each taking one night a week to cook and deliver? Is the community of folks with whom you do close life (or with whom you wish to do close life) in a different part of town? You may want to consider relocating. Are a few of you unsatisfied with and disconnected from where you are currently placed because of the homogenous atmosphere of people just like you? You may want to consider your relocation being amongst folks who are marginalized and different from “your kind.” Try making space in your home for both strangers and friends to be welcomed, and ask the hard questions about what it means to live well. Establish a rule of life to which your body of folks (be that a small group, or a collection or neighbors, or a circle of friends) can covenant. Hold each other to these promises, submitting decisions and questions to one another in an effort to be made new in our asking, “What does our Christianity have to say to the world?”

Are you working for the traditional institutional church? Great! These lives are not meant to be separated. Maybe consider living closely to those in your congregation or within walking distance of your church’s front doors. If your church is located near an under-resourced neighborhood, however most of your members are piped in from the “better parts of town,” start questioning this reality and making friends with those who live near. Support the movement of your staff and congregants in living lives of intentional community. Learn from them, have your church be shaped by them. Do not be afraid of them. Establish time and space in your already erected buildings to host conversations about “othering,” war, greed, and poverty among community members. Offer people practical ways to live out the Good News in our world; show them those ways with your own life. Commit to not leading one more sermon series about community until your life is intricately intertwined and committed to a body of people with whom you’re being vulnerable. Our world and our churches could only be helped by senior pastors and ministry directors who would be willing to submit to lifestyles such as the ones that New Monasticism encourages.

Periodically, look back over the twelve marks with people who know and love you, and remember how they are connected to the life that Jesus lived and instructed, and then ask yourself which one/s seem currently far from your lifestyle and why.

Is New Monasticism for everyone?

I don’t know. Maybe not. But for those who are drawn to it, with a little bit of margin to think creatively, I can’t imagine a life or a season that would have to be excluded given some sacrifice and adjustments in order to make life-together possible.

 

A book list of Jonathan’s work that has been most helpful to our community here:

New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church

-Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests

-The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture

-Free to be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line

-The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Contemporary Paraphrase 

-God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel 

-Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (coauthored by Shane Claiborne & Enuma Okoro)

 

The Borderlands: Part 2

December 20, 2014

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We’d been in Sahuarita, Arizona for three days, and yet our hearts, minds, and questions were already churning with content once foreign to our Louisiana lives. Our intentional Christian community, traveling for an immersion experience, had seen so much already. Interestingly enough, we noted, we had never heard the sides of immigration we were witnessing on any of the hot-topic news stations back home. “What are we covering if not the truth?” I wrestled.

It was Sunday morning, and Pastor Randy gave the sermon at our host church (Good Shepherd United Church of Christ). And as he moved toward the pink Advent candle for Joy, he called upon the youngest person in the congregation (one of our group), the oldest person, and the person who had moved the farthest to be there. With an explanation that in God’s kingdom and economy, family is redefined past border and biology, this “new family” read the Advent liturgy together. The wick was lit as Randy shared that the journey towards true joy means that it is only joy when it includes us all. I couldn’t help but think about that shivering Mary and her song through the fence from the day before.

We left Good Shepherd and headed toward the house of another Green Valley Samaritan named Laurie. She would be taking us on a hike through migrant memorials of those who’d lost their lives just yards away from water and a phone.

Closed toe shoes were a necessity for this cactus-ridden expedition. “You each get a comb, and you’ll brush the cacti away from your body. Do not try to pick them off with your hands,” she emphasized. The desert was dry as soot despite the steady rainfall from the day before, and every few hundred feet called for a comb-stop. With the rock-ridden terrain as far as the eye could see, I simply could not imagine making a bed there for the night.

We came upon a set of crosses decorated with an old worn shoe, water bottle, and written prayers. Here, with houses in view, human bones were found scattered beside personal possessions most notably that of migrants.

“We know that this life had family and a story, that this grave represents far more questions than will ever be answered. The Samaritans feel it is our duty to honor this life and visit this grave since no one who knows it will ever be able to,” Laurie shares.

We first noticed the one cross reading, “Desconocido,” while the other proclaimed, “Presente.” “Desconocido means ‘unknown,’ and Presente is a hispanic term meaning ‘We know your spirit was here and in some way is still here,’” she explained as she bent down to adjust the plastic flowers. We took time to reflect and to pray before moving on to the second and third memorials of unknown travelers.

The last one we came upon represented bones that had gone through the same investigation process as the first two prior to being memorialized. However, the wrists on this particular one indicated that this migrant was no older than a teen. Laurie informed us that many things can account for a migrant getting separated from their group: an escape from Cartels, a Coyote leaving them behind due to sickness, an inability to keep up, a poor set of directions. We sat in silence and listened to the birds (that happen to migrate themselves to this area this time of year); and the teens in my after-school program came to mind. I thought about the luck of the draw that this being born in America is, and how terrifying and lonely it would be if any of my young neighbors were left to die alone in an area such as this.

We woke up to a crisp Arizona morning the following Monday and made our way 30 minutes north to Tucson’s Federal Courthouse where we would be witnessing something called Operation Streamline, a procedure we had never heard about before our travels.

Operation Streamline (OS) is a process of trying as many as 70 illegal immigrants a day who are chosen at random from lists of soon-to-be deportees and incarcerated within our Criminal Justice System. Sentenced to time in privately run prisons, they are ultimately deported anyway at the end of their punishment. The OS cash-cow has been twice declared unconstitutional by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals(1), yet the local courts have made minor adjustments in an effort to allow for its continuation.

We stood outside the courtroom of Tucson’s large, sleek, and fairly modern building. We waited with two other intentional communities and immigration humanitarian efforts who had come to witness the confusing legal system. With only 6 small rows of seating, we decided on a plan for how we would change out people halfway through the trials so that everyone would have a chance to participate.

The judge’s voice was calm and kind, and I thanked God for that as I looked out over the 60+ men and women wearing translation headphones and the clothes in which they were found while crossing. The 15 attorneys (being paid $125/hour of tax money(2) and only able to meet with their clients for but 30 minutes before the trial) would wait behind each row of the convicted as they were called before the stand. The chains connecting the wrist, ankle, and waste shackles made me feel like I was in another era of history, reverted to a time less humanized in our culture.

One by one they were read their rights and confirmed their understanding via translator. Then one by one the pleading began. “Culpable,” guilty.

“Culpable.”

“Culpable.”

“Culpable.”

I heard it 60+ times out of the mouths of women, men, young, old, weeping, angry, confused, tired. I heard it as they were given 30days in jail for first time offenses. I heard it as they were given 180 days in jail for multiple offenses, labeled as felonies. I realized in this moment that news stations have been quick to infuse the nation with fear of the ever-crossing felons. Never once had I heard that so many of these felonies were prior crossings rather than accounts of drugs, theft, murder, or rape.

A boy no older than my younger brother pled guilty in English before his lawyer whispered to him and his answer changed to Spanish. On his behalf, the lawyer requested that his client serve his time near another lawyer who he hopes can help him stay out of Guatemala due to his incredible fear of returning. “I’ll see what I can do,” calms the judge.

“Culpable.”

“Culpable.”

A man in a hospital gown, injured while crossing, was made to give up his glasses before exiting the court room. A woman’s attorney requested that she serve time in Greenville, CA where she is trying to prevent her parental rights from being terminated for her two US citizen children. Another woman ran out unconsolable as her children’s father was skirted out in his chains as she cried, “I don’t know if we’ll ever see him again.” And a boy barely 18 years old poured his wrist chains back and forth from hand to hand while being escorted out of the large steel door.

We made eye contact with as many folks as we could, attempting to smile smiles that said, “We are sorry” and “You deserve to hold your head up.” We made eye contact knowing now, that while some of the convicted in the room are likely to be Coyotes or Cartels or drug pushers, it is also probable that most have come through hell and back again into hiding for a life for their families that is somewhat better than the hunger and crime of their homelands.

We processed that night as a group, repenting of our own lack of understanding and education, and asking God and each other what in the world does all of this mean. We’d watched and listened as our many hosts and guides talked about the journey of learning Spanish in order to say, “Do not be afraid!” We had heard the stories of the threats to their own lives and freedom by minutemen, Cartel, Coyotes, Mexican Federales, and Border Patrol. We heard them say that they listen to an authority that is higher than that of Southern Arizona and that if someone is dying of thirst, they will give them water. We commented on the parallels of the current migration and the historical underground railroad, of those willing to give aid in Nazi Germany and in slavery-escaping North Carolina no matter the cost. And I asked myself would I be among them? 

We talked about how a lot of good people don’t really know what is going on but have been fed news that makes them angry. And we asked what we could take back in our journey.

“There are illegal migrants in your area, scared and hiding, I guarantee it. Some of them have maybe even come through the deserts that you walked this week. I encourage you to get to know them,” Randy commissioned.

“Read books and show films that are telling the truth about what is happening and how it is happening,” Shura encouraged.

Know that we are for legal immigration, but also know that we are for some huge changes in our systems. Remind people that America had a hand in this, and that we ourselves are not invincible—Lord help us if our country ever finds itself so vulnerable that we too would need to migrate. Get to know your politicians that are worried about the root problems which are truly causing this crisis. Encourage them in the renewal rather than the militarization of the border. Push for policies that would creatively help all of our countries, like giving out more 2-year work visas which could include a 25% withdrawal of migrants’ income into a bond which they would collect after their time. This would return them to their homelands with $20,000 to invest in the revitalization of their own countries.  Press for the corruption of private prisons and Operation Streamline along with the loose authority of Border Patrol to be called into accountability. There are options, and we don’t have to be so afraid. And we can apologize and move forward together.

These are some of the bits of advice we were given to take home, praying that we would be good stewards of an experience so enlightening and burdensome.

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt,” Exodus 22:21 reminds. God’s people were once foreigners in Egypt. Jesus himself was once a foreigner in Egypt. And our ancestors were once foreigners on the soil of America.

We have a duty as the church to welcome the stranger, especially when she/he is in need, as we were once welcomed as souls unable to save ourselves. We have a duty as the church to question systems that are convoluted, confusing, oppressive, and not transparent. We have a duty to not stand divided by walls of nationality or the reds and blues of politics. We are one church in Louisiana and Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. We are one church charged with the power and expectation to make this world better, with Good News for all.

My prayer is that we will give ourselves to the conversations and visits that will inform us in the truths of the matter, and that compassion and liberation would be the driving force of our view on immigration. Here are just a few resources collected from our travels to assist in the start of that process:

Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration, a book and movie by Miguel A. De La Torre

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States, a book by Seth Holmes

800 Mile Wall, a film by John Carlos Frey

www.endstreamline.org, information about facts and action concerning Operation Streamline

http//vimeo.com/67640573  is where a 50minutes report on Operation Streamline by Dan Rather can be found

http://stories.weather.com/realdeathvalley is a 29 minute film about the untold stories of mass migrant graves in South Texas

www.tucsonsamaritans.org & www.gvsamaritans.org for updates and contact information of those working in the borderlands

As the sun over Interstate 10 begins to turn all blue things orange, and the east-bound train is no longer in site, I think over the three things I new about immigration 6 days ago. I think about how my understanding was very different, apathetic at best. But my mind has been changed.

May our minds all continue to be curbed ever more towards the Good News being good and life being full for all of God’s people. And may we know that we have a large role in this coming to pass.

(1)  “‘Streamline’ teakes hard line on crossers,” Perla Trevizo, Arizona Star, 3/24/13

(2)  “Detention Must Be Paid,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 1/22/14

The Borderlands: Part 1

December 20, 2014

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On November 17, 1993 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law by President Clinton in agreement with Canada and Mexico to create the world’s largest free trade area. Following the signing, NAFTA paved the way for US manufacturers to relocate to Mexico and Central America (through CAFTA) in search of cheaper labor, displacing 682,900 US jobs(1). As a consequence of the importation of cheaper crops (such as corn) from the US into these countries, rural Mexican farmers (who were not provided environmental or labor protection under NAFTA) were unable to compete with the changing and imposed market. As a result, 1.3 million farm jobs were lost(2). On January 1, 1994, three minutes after NAFTA came into effect, the Mexican State of Chiapas exploded into its first of many political uprisings in fear of what the new trade agreement would do to their economy(3). Since then, the eruption of armed conflict and displaced people has not ceased. This and situations like it have created and enhanced a current desperation to survive by migrating north for millions of people over the past twenty years. 

 

Interstate 10 is slowly illuminating with the glow of a dawn creeping over the blue terrain of Arizona. We’re winning an unintended race with an East-bound train as we head homeward toward Shreveport. With a week in the borderlands behind us, I am processing, and I am grieving.

Six days ago, the grey New Mexico mesas, peppered with shrubs much more stunted than our Louisiana pines, were a sight for sore eyes after the 7th hour of low-lying-everything that West Texas offers. Six days ago I knew three things about immigration and the border.

  1. There is an issue.
  2. There are sides.
  3. I probably lean more heavily towards those yelling “no more entries” because, at face value, it makes the most sense.

We arrived at Good Shepherd after two days of road time. With air-mattresses grown to full bed-hood, and unbathed bodies, our intentional Christian community joined our host church for their annual Mariachi Christmas in the multi-purposed sanctuary. We had traveled for an immersion experience, to learn by seeing; and its inaugural celebration was appropriately cultured.

Monica, one of four bandmates, belted through pipes that sounded sculpted by only the best of opera schools, while a room full of warm, retired white folks sang along in Spanish. Embarrassment followed conviction in this moment as I realized my own prejudices toward Hispanic people. And to think, racism was an illness I thought I’d grown above in our southern, half black/half white city. And yet, here she was, destroying my walls that boxed her and “her kind” into farm hands, restaurant workers, and criminals with every heart collapsing note she carried. “Here are demons I didn’t know I had,” I cringed.

Pastor Randy joined us in the Sunday School room we would call home during our stay, and began fielding our first round of questions about the area and its ambiguously daunting issue called immigration. “This valley is and has always been a funnel for periodic migration—of birds, of wind and seeds, of people. This wall is stopping something that creation has made natural,” he explained. “And people don’t realize that we are getting Mexico and Central America’s best and brightest because of the millions of hard and educated workers who lost their jobs when the US approved free trade.”

He explained a bit of NAFTA/CAFTA and how they’ve benefited the wealthy greatly while causing so much detriment and divide for the lower middle class and the poor. “NAFTA is designed for those who have everything and militates against those who have nothing,” Randy shared. I had never heard of this before, but it sounded oddly familiar to the US policies enforced in Haiti in the ‘90s that wiped out most of the country’s farm economy through cheaper rice imports—a tragedy for which President Clinton has publicly apologized saying, “”I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else(4).” I had heard rumors of this history during my time in Les Cayes and Port au Prince, and I began to question what and where in the world was my country making these deals with the devil.

Unable to keep up with the market, the local economies were destroyed making a perfect desperation-cocktail for the incoming riots, violence, cartel solicitation of children, famine, etc. To be sure, the US can’t be solely blamed for such devastation (in countries of origin where governmental corruption runs rampant), but to say we’ve had a hand (which lacks accountability) in the mix for decades is an understatement. To be sure, we have much to learn and for which to apologize.

The next morning, we followed Randy in our 15-passenger vehicle to pick up Shura, a fellow Green Valley Samaritan (www.gvsamarians.org) of his who would be assisting in our border crossing for the afternoon. With the rain setting in for a day’s worth of steady trickle, we came upon a water station set out by the 200+ Samaritans on the private property of an acquaintance. It is not abnormal for a migrant—dehydrated and on death’s door—to be seen walking through someone’s backyard in this part of desert-country. We noticed the border patrol vehicle as we unloaded our own and moved toward the watering site. Shura waved. “I try to get them to be silly,” she says, “Because the minute you start butting heads, we’ve lost and the migrants have lost.”

They showed us the blue flag posted high above the scraggly tree indicating that maybe help and hydration can be found there. Information typed out in Spanish was stuck to the side giving instructions on how to call for help and where one might go. Shura explained how white supremacist groups periodically make their rounds to these sites, defacing water stations in their child’s play quest to “kill a migrant.” I shuttered at the hatred.

We then set out for our 30 minute drive to the border of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico where we would be crossing for the day. Along the way, Shura explained how over 2.9million acres in the area are run by the Cartels. She shared that as desperation increased in the southern countries, organized crime increased alongside vulnerable migrants whom they could now prey upon to an ungodly extent. “Coyotes used to be a mom and pop business where you’d pay a guide to help you find a better life. Now it is assumed that most Coyotes are working for the Cartels. Largely these Coyotes are solicited by Assassins who monitor the border’s every move during their own crossing desperation—a fate they can now only escape through death.” Ninety percent of women crossing are raped at least once by Cartels, Coyotes, fellow travelers, etc. It is not uncommon for a Mexican woman to begin taking birth control months before she begins her migration, we learned.

We were told that when people are picked up in the desert, they have often traveled for months with nothing but the shoes on their feet and a backpack, all in the drive to provide for their families that cannot survive in Mexico and Central America’s current situations. “When they are found by Border Patrol, all their possessions are taken (money, glasses and cell phones with every number they know included),” they explained, “Thirty-eight thousand dollars have been taken by the US from deported migrants as a means of ‘deterrence;’ and yet, they almost always return.”

Our group crossed the border into Mexico unchecked and with ease. I ran my hand alongside the gate through which they herd the deported back across the line. “Cattle,” I mumbled toward the tall wires.

The first stop for our time in Nogales, Mexico was at El Comedor, a Jesuit-run food program for deported migrants at which the Samaritans serve each week. A mural of the last supper (complete with hispanic women, children, and men with backpacks sitting beside a Jesus with a backwards cap) stretched the wall. A 29 year old dad from Phoenix sat at one of the tables where they cut bread. He shared through perfect english how he’d lived in the states since he was 5, had a wife and kids (all US citizens), and a lawyer. However, through means of a traffic violation, his illegal residency was discovered; and without signing papers, he was deported in the night with zero family in Mexico to which he could return.

We walked several miles through the city, meeting men like Angel at his tamale stand and seeing shelters where US families have moved to take care of the homeless. Along one stretch of our 12-mile day, we came upon a part of the 21’ wall which was spray painted with pictures of candles. It was a memorial for a boy shot nine times by border patrol, our hosts shared. A few men had attempted to jump the fence that day, but he was simply walking alongside of it when he was gunned down. Not far from this site hung signs declaring “Justice for Jose Antonio,” a 17 year old who was shot by US border patrol for throwing rocks over the fence. In light of all the recent stirrings in our nation, I became sick with grief as we continued our trek toward the Posada.

A Posada is a traditional reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging prior to the birth of Jesus. We followed a young Mary, Joseph, and their angel throughout the city of Nogales while the crowd read immigration reform liturgy through the fence asking, “Is there any room in the inn?” Mary’s donkey caused her purple umbrella to bob up and down as they sang through the rusty steel for reform, while men on the other side sang back “We are scared.” I realized in this moment that there were people in our group who could not, no matter what avenues they took, be granted permission to be on the other side of that wall. And here I, and the man singing in response, were able to come and go as we chose.

With achey feet and soaked shoes, we crossed back through the border check with nothing but a flash of our driver’s licenses as Cartel assassins called from the bridge’s overpass towards our group.

I thought about how Jesus’s first few years were met with threat in his homeland, causing his and his family’s necessary migration. I thought about what it would have been like if Egypt had erected a wall and an impossible system of entry to where our Lord would have not been allowed passage, forcing him to be in direct threat of Herod’s infanticide.

I thought about the season of Advent and its reminder that we are waiting on a world not yet made right with the promise of a God who came and will come again. I thought about all the ways that the world must be made new that we’d seen that day.

I thought about the radical mark of the Christian to be hospitable to the stranger. I thought about the pregnant virgin and her travels, the pregnant migrant and her travels, and my own child within me that came along for the journey that day. I thought about the obedience in all of those who have said yes to the suffering on both sides of the line—of all those who have opened doors when it wasn’t safe or esteemed.

I thought about the complexities of this issue and how, indeed, borders are important to a country’s functioning. I thought about how the song that is being sung is that no one wants anyone to be here illegally—not the right-winged citizen, nor the hiding migrant. I thought about how our greed has caused a desperation so deep, and more money has been pumped into the militarization of the border rather than the revitalization of the countries of origin.

I thought about all the references in scripture of how we should treat the alien among us.

And I thought about how I didn’t know any of this, truly didn’t care about any of this, 48 hours before, and how powerful Jesus’s “come and see” model is.

I asked for wisdom and words as my mind began to change.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

 

(1) http://www.epi.org/publication/heading_south_u-s-mexico_trade_and_job_displacement_after_nafta1/

(2) http://useconomy.about.com/od/tradepolicy/p/NAFTA_Problems.htm

(3)http://www1.american.edu/ted/chiapas.htm

(4)http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/20/with-cheap-food-imports-h_n_507228.html

Hot Glue-Gun Gifts: Another Blog About Christmas

December 10, 2014

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If I told you that I don’t start gathering Christmas presents for people in January, I would be lying through my teeth. I LOVE giving gifts, and I LOVE (the idea of) simplicity. Here is my dilemma.

There are two women living inside of me who want very different things this time of year. We’ll call them Rain and Paula.

Paula starts making a list in her notes app by January 15th of all the folks she will be giving gifts to come twelve months from now. Paula thinks she has lots of money, and Paula is greedy for good wrapping paper (the Hobby Lobby kind). She doesn’t have a ton of time in and amongst the hurricane that is her life, but she wants people to feel special and loved. So her avenue is buying quality, personalized gifts for folks—which also satisfies something in her that needs to shop every blue moon or two.

Rain is a woman of the earth and the Bible. She is still riding the high of Advent through the months of January-March. Her journal is special to her, and it is filled with lots of thoughts about the grief, and lamenting, and hope, and expectation, and waiting that is the few weeks leading up to Christmas. Her decorations are simple…one tree (a hand-me-down), a box of meaningful ornaments (gathered from trips with her loved ones…no Santas), and the wreath with four candles which will light the way for Christ. Rain thinks she has lots of time. If she gives gifts this year (outside of the gifts of love and encouragement), they will be up-cycled from her own blue trash bin. And she can do this, because Rain doesn’t have to buy the groceries, or fold the laundry, or work a 40-hour week. And all the people she loves are anti-materialistic (as is she).

You have never seen a cat fight like when Paula and Rain go at it. It is a battle of identity and intentions that result only in a confused woman who is crocheting pot-holders while simultaneously wrapping a remote control helicopter. Weeping and eating both flax seed chips and pizza rolls all the while (Paula and Rain also run the diet department of my life).

But here is the truth, between all the inner-dialogue of a multiple-personality-crisis: I am in the 6th year of a process of doing Christmas better. And maybe it being a process is ok for a little while.

Six years ago, while in college, Christmas was a blur. We finished finals, had enough time to spend (borrowed) money (from parents) to get everyone a gift from Youree Drive (which might as well be Hell itself during this season), get them wrapped, and get home with enough steam to blow through the food and the fun before classes started again. Christmas never quite felt like Christmas with all the rush and waste.

Five years ago, we went through a sermon series at the church I was attending called Advent Conspiracy. It was the first time a church had ever challenged me to do Christmas differently and I ATE IT UP LIKE IT WAS FLAX SEED CHIPS AND PIZZA ROLLS. The four challenges were to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. Our church set up a “make-day” in the workshop to help people create presents for their loved ones while encouraging them to take the money they would have spent and put it toward building clean water wells. This was new and exciting and a felt like good news to me. I participated to some extent but not fully, as I was still detoxing from Paula’s “shopping problem.”

Three years ago, I began to start seeing and honoring Advent for the deep and special opportunity that it is: a time to grieve a world not yet made right while joyfully waiting for the redemption that is on its way. This made Christmas feel real to me. We’d always celebrated Advent with my home church growing up, lighting the weekly candle each Sunday before the sermon. But this was the first year that Advent became personal and then communal. It made Christmas seem like it had something to say to me and to us today. Rain loooved this year.

Last year, we attempted both the making/giving more and spending less, while also donating just a little extra than we spent on gifts to things happening in our neighborhood, while also diving into one of the best Advent readings we’ve found as a community thus far: Enuma Okora’s Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent. We also started a new tradition in our community where “before we give gifts, we give thanks.” In this, we share how we are grateful to God for the year, for what He has done, for what He will do. This invited a new sense of worship and focus into our time together.

This year has been a hodge-podge of trial and error as we tackle yet another season of reclaiming Christmas. Truly I feel, in retrospect, that there are things I could have done differently, and should do differently in another round. However, with every small step backwards, I can see a couple of medium steps forward in this process of counter culturally embracing the holiday.

Here are examples from this seesaw season…

I did start (mostly) making my first gift in January of this year. However, this was more about spreading out time, and energy, and resources as to better protect advent and sanity than any other motivation (Paula was cool with it). This could sound like misplaced focus, but to be fair, I also like to make things. So while it helped check off a list, it was simultaneously therapeutic. During November, I used up the last of the wrapping paper (bought and borrowed three years ago), while re-using tissue paper and gift bags nonchalantly collected throughout the year from parties and such—the scraps of which found their way to the recycling bin, because: the earth. (Rain is floored.) There are coffee-mug-cozies under my tree that I made out of unused yarn from another project. And there is a Bed Bath and Beyond something-or-other there as well, representing all of my out-in-the-open consumerism. We have spent time in daily morning prayer with our community, lighting the advent candles and waiting on/praying for a world that awaits promised reconciliation. And we also bought our dogs a $7 Christmas bone to share, because: dogs.

I want to be an all-in, every year, consistently resolute kind of gal when it comes to Christmas and simplicity. But I am entangled and so easily re-entangled depending on the year and the mood. However, I take heart in my life’s small and evident changes that help November and December seem a little more surrendered to a bigger and more relevant story.

This year, the biggest difference from the years before is that there has been space carved out to remember with people. To remember that Christmas is about hospitality to the stranger (as Mary showed to the baby within her, as the inn-keeper offered to the rejected couple, as those in Egypt showed to the trio escaping Herod’s impending infanticide). To remember that it is about a father’s willingness to be a father to a child not born of his flesh and blood (as with Joseph). That it is about relocation into the abandoned places of a different reality and a different neighborhood (as when God put on flesh and moved into our world to show us the way). That it’s about Love showing up in a time of cultural hardship and hatred, and the promise that Love will show up again. It’s about the hundreds of years between the Old and New Testament when it seemed no one had heard from God, and yet the faithful like Anna and Simeon waited without disappointment. It’s about how our waiting now is not unlike theirs, and we trust what is to come is on its way.

So while not everything has been reconciled and settled within me, my family, or my community concerning how to approach this time, I encourage us all to do (see, say, give) something different this year. And then maybe something else different next.

Sometimes insisting that the revolution be slow means that it will actually be doable. -Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice

Here are some resources I have found helpful.

This blog post written in 2011 by Jen Hatmaker has been one of my favorite explanations about the struggle that is The Christmas Conundrum. It also has some alternatives/options on how to approach gift giving, for anyone looking. 

—Of course, Enuma Okoro’s book, found here on Amazon. It is filled with scriptures, prayers, and insight on the brilliance that is Advent. 

The Advent Conspiracy is a great resource for any church and/or family. It’s challenges to make stuff, spend less, and give more is solid. 

—This was by far my favorite article to read about Advent this year. Written by Christena Cleveland, its listing of the things that we lament in our current world right now are real and powerful and true. 

—Making an Advent Calendar can be a great way to redirect some of that materialistic energy with kids. One example being, for each day leading up to Christmas lead kids in a random act of kindness that is both fun and loving. Pinterest (calm down Paula) is a great place to find examples. 

—If you are going to buy, try buying as much fairly and ethically made things as possible. 

—Create new traditions that don’t include sitting in front of the TV being tempted by all of the holiday shopping ploys. Take an annual light-seeing ride with friends or family where everyone gets to drink hot chocolate in the car out of their favorite mug. Rake up your leaves and invite neighbors over for a once-a-year pile jumping evening. Make paper-chains together with each link having something you’re grateful for written on it; hang it like garland everywhere. 

—Carve out some time to be still and read the words of the advent hymns, believing that they pertain to us and our world today. “I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth good will to men…And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth good will to men…(my favorite verse) Then peeled the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men.”

—And lastly, if you are the creative type, make some of your gifts using things you may already have (or can find at a thrift store). If you are not the creative type, try debunking money’s power by bartering with a friend. I will make you a scarf in a heartbeat in exchange for a healthy meal** or help with folding laundry. Also, I bet you have lots of other people around you who are good at things and willing to trade. 

**pizza rolls

Good luck out there this year, fellow strugglers! May your holidays be more convicted and less and less conflicted because of your intentionality in the process, a little at a time.

Britney

The Big Life

November 29, 2014

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We live in a culture of constant and rapid expansion, the American church not being removed. Grow bigger, replicate, franchise. Add, add, add. Do something huge, be someone significant. There’s a mark we must make before we leave, and it should be Kingdom-worthy and Kingdom-size.

As we work with a growing number of young adult interns in a ministry that is still just so young in and of itself, I realize more and more the pressure from our Christian language to find your calling, find your niche, find the way that you’re different so that you can bring the thing for which we’ve all been waiting. It is not subtle: we must live a big life.

I was wiping down the handrails of our staircase last weekend after The Battle, thinking about how I’d rather be writing. I needed to get a blog out. There are few more humbling times for thought-processing than cleaning the filth that you created. Housework…a grand teacher. So as I wiped and swept and folded, I thought about the motives for my own words, written and shared. What are my hopes for their final destination once they leave my computer? Why write?

A story-offered? And experience created? A number of likes, or views, or forwards on the blog? A platform? An outlet to make a mark? To be known?

Then the question entered my mind: Would you write if no one read? If God still impressed upon you to write, and no one ever saw it, would you still?

My first answer? Well, I don’t know. My second answer? No, yes, I would, because I need writing for my own sanity. My third answer? But it wouldn’t be near as much fun and then where would my outlet be…to be…known?

Zing. There it is. An issue of the heart. The lure of fame is not far from you, Mrs. Lee.

But the message we must live a big life is interwoven all throughout the talk of our mainstream faith. How many people have I heard call how many other people “world changers” in the last year? How many people have I heard call children, who can’t even go to the bathroom by themselves yet, world changers. And what does that even mean?

When I hear it spoken over me, I think, “I must make a very large difference that affects a lot of people. Come up with some vision, write some book, create some music, speak for some large conference, be on the front line of some sort of action that liberates the nations. In this context, it doesn’t have to necessarily have my name on it (we are still humble Christ-followers, in fact), but it does have to be a movement that touches enough souls to show a dent has been made on this world because I and my calling were here (and sure, if they ask a probing question or two, they could probably get back to my name if they wanted).”

So the next question I felt in my house-cleaning-prayers was simply this, “If this thinking is actually an idol, and my calling is not my talent but rather is the commission of love…is love a big enough life?”

I’ve never been one to do small-scale. My laugh is big, my ideas are big. The meals that I cook and the parties I throw, all big. I have never been called “petite” or “quiet” once in my entire life.  The characters in My Big Fat Greek Wedding? They all live inside of me. So when looking at the days ahead, I am not quickly drawn to the idea of a small existence (maybe a peaceful, disciplined, and meaningful one, but not small).

Therefore, if the idols are not the calling and love in fact is, then…

Is love a big enough life?

Is it enough of a legacy to have loved as the scriptures say? To live well, and small. To love deeply the flock around you (and to make sure that flock doesn’t all look or sound or smell like you). To have spoken gently. To have made folks feel like they were worth something. To have forgiven radically. To have shared stuff because you didn’t need it. To have stood beside the oppressed without desiring praise. To have stood beside the oppressed long after the trend died down. To have done right by the earth, working the dirt with your hands, and renewing what God gave. To have made an unlikely family across lines of border and biology. To have shared tables, and rooms, and chores, and expenses. To have raised babies that believe in prayer and have big hearts for the underdog and little taste for material things. To have invited in strangers and given second/third/forth chances. To have known the Word, and spoken truth, and believed in freedom for people. To have laughed a good deal. To have spoken up when our systems were not working, no matter how unpopular the topic. To have stuck with people when you wanted to leave, when you were embarrassed, when you were mad. To have hoped, sincerely, that others may increase more than you.

Is this love not a big enough life?

We wish so deeply, are taught so fervently, to create a ripple of grandeur for God’s work and name…but we define those efforts as the world. Through fame, through franchise. But there is nothing that ripples like love. There is nothing that grows like love. There is is nothing that lasts long after we’re gone like love.

Now I’m still going to write. Contrary to where this piece sounds like it’s leading, I’m still going to post it and others. I’m still going to be a part of ministries and visions that develop and grow and fade and regenerate and have significance to the world, I believe and I hope. But these things cannot and should not be the outlet, the venue, the platform for a big life whose motivation is fame and a confirmation of worth. These things (and others like them) are the ways we tell the story of the big life of love. Love is the big life, and nothing should shadow, cloud, confuse, or replace that.

I’ll close with The Book of Common Prayer’s For Deliverance from False Desires and Fears, as I have shared one of my own today.

Deliver me, O Jesus, 

from the desire to be esteemed, 

from the desire to be loved,

from the desire to be honored, 

from the desire to be praised, 

from the desire to be preferred to others, 

from the desire to be consulted, 

from the desire to be approved, 

and from the desire to be popular. 

 

Deliver me, O Jesus, 

from the fear of being humiliated, 

from the fear of being despised, 

from the fear of being rebuked, 

from the fear of being slandered, 

from the fear of being forgotten, 

from the fear of being wronged, 

from the fear of being treated unfairly, 

and from the fear of being suspected. 

 

And, dear Jesus, grant me the grace

to desire that others might be more loved that I, 

that others might be more esteemed that I, 

that in the opinion of the world, others may increase

and I decrease, 

that others may be chosen and I may be set aside, 

that others may be preferred to me in everything, 

that others may become holier than I, provided that I, too, become as holy as I can. 

 

May our lives be huge when measured in the calling of love; and may what we’ve called “our callings” become the ways that we tell the story of love’s bigger life.

 

Britney

But I Caught the Glass

November 17, 2014

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Exploring intentional community over the past few years has given us the extreme blessing of sharing life from many angles. Sharing spaghetti around one table. Sharing the cost of someone’s new tires. Sharing the pain of someone’s old debt, broken relationship, deceased parent. Sharing the joy of someone’s passed class, new pregnancy, forgiven sibling. Sharing prayers, sharing chores, sharing loads.

I love it.

I love every bit of it.

I have loved every bit of it.

Until we shared the stomach virus.

I’m a realist leaning on the silver-lining side. To be frank, I didn’t think I was going to get it. What, with my track record of not having the thing since I was nine years old.

But this was a different beast. This was brutal. We’ll call it, The Battle.

The Battle started two weekends ago with our neighbor/friends/coworkers who inherited it from the Lord only knows where. And then the dance began. Before the week’s end, The Battle had made i’s way up the block and down the next until four homes and 8 people in our community were fighting against it.

The Battle shows no mercy. The Battle is out for revenge against someone, anyone.

I wasn’t planning on being dramatic when the The Battle showed up on our doorstep. But alas. It pushed its way into our home and took over our entire Friday-Sunday, and in the thick of it all, I was hollering to my husband from the edge of a trashcan, “Go on without me! Cut your losses! Leave me here!”

Not only was this a painful epidemic (second only in my book to the Flu of  2010) chock full of back aches and the swearing off of any food ever again throughout the rest of eternity, but it was also terrifying as we’d recently found out that I am pregnant (ps, I’m pregnant and we’re super excited!!!). What a combination. But apparently, growing babies are resilient, and though momma’s body was flopping around like a fish on concrete, The One Within remained tucked safely inside awaiting hydration whenever possible. Still, I panicked.

I panicked. And I got sick. And we got sick.

And then the temperatures outside dropped like crazy.

And then the renters from the home we own in the neighborhood called to say that the dropped temperatures caused a couple of our house’s walls to crack open.

And then another text came through that another intern…neighbor…friend…had started getting the first symptoms of the impending Battle. Bless them all.

And then I received a couple of disgruntled emails that expressed how much more we could and should be doing with our lives and with our ministry.

And then I hollered from the edge of the trashcan, “Go on without me! Cut your losses! Leave me here!”

I don’t know what form I think Spiritual Attacks take. I couldn’t outline it for you now if I tried. I do know that somewhere along the road, I decided that they were obvious. And connected. And you could see them coming.

But I don’t think that’s quite true. I think, in my experience at least, that spiritual attacks are incredibly subtle, seemingly random, and a bit unconnected to the naked eye. A virus here. A wall crack there. An extra bill here. An email there.

And maybe those are unrelated. Maybe they’re not the attack itself. But maybe they and they’re kind set up a good fertile ground, a decent weak space in the wall, for the lies to seep through.

The lies that make you question what you’re doing. The lies that panic you into a survival mode where you just make things worse. The lies that say, “You’ll never…” “Are you sure God said…?” “You’re not doing enough if you’re not doing…” “Everything’s just piling against you, so you better…” The fear mongering tactics of an enemy to Good News are not cheap. They’re costly, experienced, intelligent. And they mean we are on the winning side of a real fight.

Today I am disinfecting the entire house. I have nine piles of clothes, sheets, towels, and pillows to wash before I can invite our 30 after-school children back into the bottom floor tomorrow. All remotes, switches, and handles have been scrubbed down. No inch has gone untouched, save for the floors which are waiting on the mop pad…which will probably be found at the bottom of the ninth pile later today. The interns are disinfecting the whole of the Yellow House across the street and all remaining sick people have been quarantined until further notice.

But as I am cleaning, I am praying. And remembering that it is good to pray.

It is good to pray and have communal input to get our heads back above water.

It is good to remember how to fight our wars. Flesh-battles by fleeing, soul-battles through devotion, spiritual-battles through the Word.

And the word that keeps coming to mind is “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John14:27).

I was wiping down the hall shelves (just in case the germs can climb) and I knocked over a picture frame whose glass wasn’t secured well in the back. I felt the brat inside of me seeing this as “just another thing” to add to the list…broken glass…shattered something…more to clean.

But I caught it.

And I breathed.

And I took my time to get it back on the shelf. I didn’t get frantic or fussy and therefore cause a bigger episode than there needed to be.

I think I’m learning that these things that come our way all at once, in whatever form, in whatever order, do not get fought well through panic or pouting. We get out of these funks with peace-seeking. With prayer. With people who remind us of reality. With a bit of a pause. With the Word. Through an unrushed pace. Through a bit of cleaning, a bit of planning, some reversal tactics to get back on track. Through the willingness to believe that just because we feel strongly one way, one day, it doesn’t mean it’s always been like that. It doesn’t mean it will be like that tomorrow.

I didn’t do or think or say a lot of things right or nice or “true, noble, pure, and lovely” this weekend. But I caught the glass. And I slowly returned it. And I cleaned. And I prayed. And today feels different than last night, praise God.

So here’s to The Battle’s demise, in Jesus’ name, and the reminders in the midst of it all. We sincerely hope that this thing gets snuffed out. And for the love of your stomach, please don’t visit us in the next couple of days.