Stuck in the Middle of a Crowd

Sometimes, memories pop up from living overseas that surprise me.  They aren’t part of my “normal” memories…they aren’t stories that ever made it in a prayer letter or a photo book.  Usually they are stories that are hard to understand even for me, someone who lived in a Somali context for enough years to have some scaffolding to understand experiences in the Horn of Africa.  For this reason, I don’t share them, lest people from my home culture grossly misunderstand my host culture.  They are stories that grieve me, or hurt me, or scare me.  Mostly, they are stories that I’ve put on the shelf to think about and grieve “later.”  Later hasn’t come for many of these memories.

As I was cleaning under my couch, I found a page of questions I had written in red crayon.  Maybe when my boys were coloring, I was praying in crayon.  I don’t remember writing these questions and I have no idea why they were under my couch, along with 27 fly corpses, dozens of Legos, and my husband’s book that has been missing for days.  But instead of crumpling the paper up and throwing it away, I smoothed it out to see if it was precious.  In a way, it was.

My questions, directed in prayerful writing to God, included ones that sparked my memory: “What was it like to be surrounded by religious leaders?  Was it like that day in Eastleigh?  Were you ever afraid of them?  Were you afraid that day?”  

For some months, I taught in Eastleigh, the primarily Somali neighborhood (you might call it a slum) of Nairobi, Kenya.  The streets and my classes were full of people who had just escaped different crises in Mogadishu and the surrounding areas.  It was a time of powerful aggression by Al-Shabaab, and my students shared stories that are too raw and too private and not mine to share.  Full of fear, full of pain, full of grief.  Eastleigh is also home to many Kenyan Somalis and to a strongly Muslim religious community.  If you’ve ever read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s writings, you might remember some of her descriptions of Eastleigh from her time there (which were by no means objective).  Otherwise, unless you’ve been there, it’s probably not a place you’ve heard of or ever will.  

I worked at a Mennonite Community Center that had been in Eastleigh for a long time, and had a decent enough reputation to remain.  At the moment when I taught, it was understaffed and being boycotted by the local community.  A short-term missions team from the States (bless their hearts, if you know what I mean) came in and in a fundamentalist, conservative Muslim community, tried to teach sex education.  Like I said, bless their hearts.  The class caused a ruckus, religious leaders instructed young people to boycott the community center and I arrived, ready to finish my grad school requirement for a teaching internship but with almost no students.

Thankfully, a regular teacher of ESL with an American accent and passport overcame a lot of the boycott, and I found myself with enough students to teach four mornings a week.  I didn’t have a place to stay in Eastleigh and I’m not sure I could have convinced my bosses to let me live there, frankly.  So each morning, my husband fought Nairobi traffic (again, if you haven’t experienced it, I probably can’t describe it well enough, so I’ll just leave it at that) and dropped me off in a sea of men leaving the mosque and insane matatu drivers and sewage running in the road and people yelling to me in Swahili until they realized I answered in Somali.  

For the most part, I was welcome enough.  I didn’t have the welcome I enjoyed in other Somali communities in my five years in the Horn of Africa but I was ok.

One afternoon, waiting for my husband to come and pick me up, I popped over to my local copy shop who had been printing all my lessons for me.  Coming back out at the time that midday prayer dismissed left me in the sea of young men and several older, religious leaders.  I was an anomaly–my skin shouts out that I’m not Somali, my head covering mumbles that I’m aware of being in a religious community that values modesty, my language skills defend my presence there but clearly show that I’m not a true belonger.  The sea of men around me turned quickly from disinterested, to curious, to openly hostile.  Again, in case it needs to be said, this is one of only a few incidents over years of living abroad when I experienced hostility on this scale.  My normal days were full of welcome and hospitality and generosity and love.  

The religious leaders started grilling me, ridiculing me, yelling at me.  I didn’t feel completely out of control but also knew that, unlike my daily life in Djibouti, no one else in the crowd was defending me, or telling the shouters to knock it off.  Quickly, I saw that I was at the mercy of a group of people who really didn’t appreciate my presence that day.  It took a while, and involved some aggression on their part and a somewhat fierce standing of my ground.  Soon enough I saw a small white Subaru bounce along the potholes and washboard road, and I thanked God for my husband’s arrival, and for His providential guidance out of a scary and potentially harmful crowd.

I’ve been, briefly, at the mercy of hostile religious leaders who would like me gone, or at least humiliated, and maybe hurt.  What was it like for Jesus to live there, often, for the course of three years of public ministry?  Was he afraid?  When they surrounded him with the intention to kill him, to throw him off a cliff, he didn’t get to teleport away to a safe location.  He had to look at eyes full of hatred and anger and listen for the voice of God, showing him his next steps.  

He didn’t sit down and have a friendly debate.  There were rocks picked up, and likely rocks thrown.  I’ve had a few thrown my way too, and while a few rocks don’t kill, they do bruise.  What was it like for him to live with the hostility of religious leaders in his community directed toward him every day, every time he worshiped?  I don’t know the answers but I feel strangely comforted to know that he understands fully the quiet fear that can quickly turn to panic when you find yourself in the middle of a crowd, with palpable anger pulsing through the group, with men who believe they represent the Creator of the universe at the heart of this group, turning toward you, turning on you. 
I wonder if my lack of trust for men in religious authority comes both from the stories of religious leaders that the Gospel writers share, as well as my own experiences.  And I’m thankful that my Savior lived his life in the will of God, even when that meant dying at the merciless hands of those who were to be the leaders of mercy in their day.  And I pray for those in religious authority in the places I worship, that they will know the true place of their power and use it in service, humility and grace.  


Five Minute Friday: Encouragement

It’s a new year and time to start writing again, if only life will cooperate.  Since life almost never cooperates with my desire for long spaces of silence and peppermint tea, I’m writing for five minutes with the community at Five Minute Friday.  My goal is to write each week on Friday but here it is week #2, Saturday and I’ve already missed week #1.  If you enjoy writing in community, consider joining us.

Last Tuesday night, a community of women (plus Steve) I gather with listened to our teacher talk about our will to be loved.  Why is it hard, she asked, for us to receive compliments?  To accept gentle and loving touch?  To let ourselves be loved?

My husband doesn’t think I have this problem—he says my only love language problem is that I’m fluent in all five and like a sponge, can’t soak up enough.  In a way, he’s right.  I tend to say, “I receive that,” when someone compliments me.  Not because I’m sure it’s true but because it does grow old to always be on the defensive, fighting off any encouragement people care to give.

As I thought about what my teacher shared, and why it can be difficult to trust the good that others see in us or want to give to us, I could only think about control.  Being in control makes us the masters of our own fate but we are woefully inadequate for the task.  So we shrug off the shoulder squeeze, the kind word, the insight that makes us uncomfortable because we are really living poorly as our own masters.  The encouragement that comes is meant to strengthen us for our true task: living as reflections of God’s beautiful image; when we are living as our own god, encouragement does nothing for us but call our attention to our humiliating failures.

Living with limits, being ourselves, reflecting God’s image: these are the places where encouragement can give our wobbling knees and faltering hearts the courage they need to go on.  Moving ahead in our idolatry of self only makes the kind words of a sister fall flat.

Wet on Wet

Blotches that became trees, with my formation class in mind.

Blotches that became trees, with my formation class in mind.

I don’t actually paint. But in an effort to spend time with women from other cultures in my painfully mono-cultural Kentucky life, I’ve joined a painting class on Thursday mornings at a large gathering for international women. It was there, a few weeks ago, that I was introduced to painting “wet on wet.” Using water colors and thick, absorbent water color paper, we splashed colors all over and watched them have their way. They bled and smeared and spiraled out of control. We watched and waited. We grew bored and turned our attention to another project while we waited. The paint dried and suddenly we were faced with the real creative work: how to turn these splotches of color into a picture?

Most of us mimicked nature, offering the sincerest flattery to the One who creates beauty from ashes through our imitation. These unremarkable spots of color are transformed—sometimes beautifully and sometimes not—into flowers and trees and landscapes. After some effort, a picture is revealed in more wholeness, a kind of Rorschach transformation of art.

It reminds me of what I’ve learned through the women (and Steve, our lone man) and the readings of my formation class. Not a single one of us knew what we were going to get in this life. We were born into a situation we did not control, not one little bit. We didn’t choose our family or our looks or our generation or our birthplace. That none of us were born on the steppes of Mongolia in the 7th century is only this: God’s gracious choice for us. For others, the steppes of Mongolia were exactly what he graciously chose.

Life unfolded. We grew up. Many of us married. Who knew how it would all turn out? The longer I am married, the less responsible I feel for choosing a man of solid character. I have friends who were divorced within a few years, surprised that a man who showed no signs of it previously was abusive or adulterous or both. We birthed children; we waited for the adoption referral. We chose colleges and careers and spouses and geographies. We chose well. At other times, we didn’t. And life began to resemble those blotches of color—beautiful, confusing, bleeding and spiraling out of control. What would we make of it?

Formation gives me, and us, the space and the vocabulary to begin making art with our lives. In the same way I learned what “wet on wet” meant a few Thursdays ago, I learn from the writers and the leaders and the communities of formation in which I engage how to make beauty out of that which I do not control. On Tuesday evenings, I gather around a table of people who are full of humor and thoughtfulness. Women who are transparent and aware and innocent. People without guile and people full of hope and people who are flourishing. I gain courage as I watch them live and learn the art of grace. I find inner gentleness, a listening heart, an attention to my Creator as I dwell on their lives and their sincerity around the table. They show me how to live wet on wet and create beauty when I can only see blotches.

A Bosch Mixer

I have wanted a Bosch mixer for nearly ten years. These are the Ferraris of kitchen mixers, a bread baker’s delight. These are not for cookies and the occasional loaf of mainly white flour bread. These machines are work horses, the oxen of the whole grain bread-making world (and yes, that world does indeed exist). The problem is not that they are 110 volts and I often find myself living in a world of 220 volts. The problem isn’t that one would take up too much room in my luggage allotment. I hand carried a twenty-two pound grain mill over eight time zones in order to mill my own flour. I love baking bread that much, so I would find a way to get the Bosch mixer wherever I go. The problem is the $400 price tag.

One Christmas, my dearly loved husband gave me enough cash he had squirreled away in his wallet over months to buy me a mixer and then some. I paid the car insurance ahead of schedule. He occasionally instructs me to buy one from a small savings account we have. I can’t. I fret over money although God has clearly shown me in actual experience than He can feed me without my anxiety fueling the provision. Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God, and neither is wringing their hands fretfully over me.

This season, the longing for a Bosch mixer has awakened from its nap. I have a tab open on my computer that I look at every few days, the order form from a company I trust that sells Bosch mixers. I was nearly ready to put on in my cart and then I decided it is very definitely not a need but a want. I feel encumbered by living with too many wants fulfilled and fear that I could shipwreck the calling I know I have. So I just look at the website and dream about what it would be like to have a Bosch mixer instead of two hands to knead bread. And pizza dough. And so many other things my heart desires.

I was praying about this desire. It seemed silly but it kept bubbling up, so the feet of Jesus seemed like the right place to leave it. I prayed, “God, I would need a $500 check with “Bosch mixer” in the memo to believe that you are offering this gift to me. Otherwise, I’m sticking with my hands to knead bread.” I figured that I had give God an impossible challenge; I would remain Bosch-less.

My husband and I were traveling down I-75 South, home to Kentucky after Thanksgiving weekend at my in-law’s. A text beeped through; I looked down. My mother-in-law texted, “Grammie Pauline is sending you guys $500…especially for the kids.” I told my husband and laughed, more like Sarah than Abraham. I reminded him that God would have to send me $500 ear-marked for a Bosch mixer, not the kids. He, of course, wanted me to buy a Bosch mixer. This prayer of belief married to unbelief surged forth: “You wouldn’t really give me this, would you, Lord? Not when $500 could go so far in helping someone else. Not when $500 could go so far in meeting our bills. No…” I didn’t really expect an answer.

At the moment my eye was caught by a beautifully painted barn. I even craned my neck around to see the other side as we flew past. The far side was white-washed, with a large red rectangle calling attention to words that made me laugh again, this time more like Abraham. “The Father loves you.”

Indeed. He loves me. Right now, he loves me without a Bosch mixer. One day, He might love me with one. I will not be surprised if my husband manages to stash away money again; this time, I might let him grace me with a gift he longs to give to me. I might let go enough to receive grace which would be a better gift even than a Bosch mixer.

The River

A five minute Tuesday, as I’ve missed several weeks of writing!

For the lunch hour, I hung suspended between my life then and my life now. And for a brief moment, I felt like I was home again.

What does one make when her bishop from Rwanda comes for lunch? I’ve never been to Rwanda but there was that moment when I was nineteen, when I looked out past the tarmac to Lake Victoria, breathed Africa in and felt alive like I had never before. There was a moment that becoming the hands and feet of Jesus to others radically different had nothing to do with desperation or poverty or guilt or anything except the overwhelming reality of life. Of joy. Of entering into the stream of God that brings only delight. All that can happen in an instant on portable stairs after two days in various airplanes and airports.

And it can happen again when the lilt of eastern and central Africa returns in the presence of one’s bishop. When the table is piled high with chicken stew and rice and beans and sweet potato and biscuits and bananas and chai. When the stories chronicled in that lilt make you think for days and wonder aloud with your husband about how Africa has changed you and if you’ve changed even the tiniest square inch of her with your presence.

Because it isn’t about where for me. Or even who. This ache that makes me weep to return to Africa is selfish is many ways. It is about joy. About a waterfall of grace that pours down like you can’t imagine in a desert. When our bishop knelt on our floor, we knelt with him. And he prayed for us. The best part? That he prayed again for God to give us our needs and protect us from our wants. “Don’t lead us to our wants, our Lord.” Please, Lord.

I want comfort and ease and peace and nothing. scary. ever. again. I want to forget how my five year old ended up in the corner last week crying, “They’re going to kill me tonight,” when the neighbor’s satellite TV repairman peaked in our front window in the dark. I want to forget what it was like to live with a panic room. I want to forget the rocks thrown. I want to forget the inconvenience. The running out of water. I want to always have hot running water. I want to think hot running water is an inalienable right. I want to live in a house that doesn’t accumulate dust in a week, much less by the end of a day—enough to write in on the floor. I want to avoid people radically different. I want everyone to think like me, talk like me, dress like me and accept that I want to run outside for no other purpose than running. (Except then I don’t want those things.) My wants go on and on.

Underneath them all is my deepest need. There is a river whose streams bring joy. I need to live by that river, wherever I live. That river flows across time zones and for me, it has always brought me with it to other places. My only need is drink my fill of the abundance of that river, to be drenched in the fountain of life wherever I live.

Write: Five Minute Friday

Saying what is true and not knowing why today with the community at Five Minute Friday.

And just like that, it dries up. I thought I could never plumb the depths of the stories inside but a year after starting to write after a decade hiatus, I feel dry. Unable to write anything of value. Unwilling to discipline myself to write that which lacks value until my shovel-pen breaks through the dirt and I strike water again. Where did the words go? Where are the stories hiding? Like cockroaches in my bathroom in the Horn of Africa, retreating the instant the light is switched. I hear a few scratches but see nothing.

I need to write. Somehow the written word takes moments that could seem random and strings them together in the narrative that speaks sense and transcendence all at once. A whole-life story that is big enough to include rocking angry babies and a cross-cultural self and spiritual formation and The Year of Cancer and make it cohesive. Writing about it helps it hold together. And helps me see it as in unfolds. Just like learning all these Japanese names in a painting class: I need to see it written to make any sense of it at all.

But my fingers feel weary. It isn’t physical. There is fear; fear has barricaded me in the past and I can smell it a mile away. My spiritual director told me once, “Sometimes you don’t have to know why. You just have to know what is true.” I don’t know why my writing feels dry, why my fingers don’t fly, why my thoughts seem without value. My spiritual director is wise beyond her years; I can spend decades and journals and all my General Psychology 501 knowledge finding out the why.

Here is what is true: I need to write. Writing doesn’t need me. I have no guts for publication. I suck in my breath in pain with every rejection letter. Because I’m holding out a little piece of my heart that someone declines to hold with me. Yet I still need to write. Not for fame, not for money, not for statistics. Yes, I’ve covered that ground. This ground too: not for ease but in difficulty. In labor.

Two years ago at this moment I was holding a baby son, two hours old. That doctor let me push far longer than I wanted. He sat, unconcerned, and made the occasional (appropriate) joke as nurses started the pre-frantic, should we think about a C-section conversations. He was, as people in the birth world say, a hairy midwife. He let me birth my second son the way my body needed to and refused to join the nurses in panic as the clock dragged on and on and on. I push slow, apparently.

There is what is true: I need to push slow in writing too.

Five Minute Friday

Mercy: Five Minute Friday

Tagging along five days later to join the community at Lisa-Jo Baker’s, writing for five minutes flat with no over-thinking or editing. Choosing to be our vulnerable selves through the written word in a community of encouragement. It’s a good thing.

“’Tis mercy all, immense and free, for oh my God it found out me.” The words of this hymn haunt me today as I sit in chapel. A weeklong conference focusing on recovery and holiness and wholeness and their interconnected relationship isn’t where I belong, perhaps. Me, the teetotaler. Me, the one who watched during high school parties while others imbibed and smoked and inhaled. Me, who sat in ungracious judgment during those parties. Me, who married a man who got those parties started and supplied the illegal substances and thankfully, left his arrest record sealed in the days of juvenile delinquency.

But the words touch me as the man preaches. When he stands and says, “I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic. I’m a pastor and poser. I’m a father and a fraud.” This recovery stuff is for all of us. Because it is mercy. I haven’t ever taken a drink; that’s because I come from a long line of people who have. I’ve sat in church basements and fellowship halls on Saturdays and Tuesdays when those gathered are there because of brokenness and need, not confidence and growth. I’ve sat in those meetings not because I wanted to be there but probably because I didn’t want to stay home alone so I got to tag along. What a mercy. The truth is: I do need to be there. We all need to be there. Perhaps not at a recovery meeting but sitting in the river of wisdom that recovery offers us.

Knowing my own powerlessness: mercy. Knowing a God more powerful than even my brokenness: mercy. Giving Him room to work in my life: mercy. Being confident that regardless of theological training and studying Biblical languages, my knowledge of Him is not complete or perfect: mercy. Being honest about myself: mercy. Confession: mercy. Anticipating a transformation: mercy. Seeing my culpability and owning it: mercy. Seeking restoration: mercy. Seeking God: mercy.

I may not want it to find me out, to have to confess that I am actually powerless over this disease of sin. In my life, it isn’t in the shape of a bottle but that doesn’t mean I’m not sick. It is indeed all mercy that God found me out.

Five Minute Friday

Worship: Five Minute Friday

It’s Friday again. Time to take a breath and write for five minutes with the wonderful folks at Five Minute Friday! You can check out the rules here but the summary is: “just write, without worrying if it’s just right.”
Five Minute Friday

Today’s prompt is “worship.”

My brother took me to an icy parking lot behind our high school one snow day to teach me to handle our shared vehicle: a fire-engine red 1985 Chevy Scottsdale truck, almost as wide as it was long. Whether it was out of goodness or a desire to see my eyes widen as we spun in circles remains undetermined. The primary lesson I recall, besides to not get in the truck on an icy day with my brother for a long time, was that I had to do the counter-intuitive. I had to turn into the skid. As I felt the tires slipping, losing grip on ice, I wanted to force us straight and slam on the brakes. Neither, it turns out, worked very well.

Seven house guests are on their way to me, to see my older son be baptized on Sunday. The laundry isn’t clean and the dishes aren’t either. The beds are half-made and I’d prefer not to think about the menu yet. I have 90 minutes until the first guests arrive.

The list of things to do is long. Some of the undone on that list seem ancient, following me around as long as I can remember. There is a friend of a friend, seeking political asylum a few hours away who needs certain help from me here. There are people waiting to help her in her new city, waiting on email directives from me. There are meals to make and Playmobil knights to put away and shoes to collect and a bathtub to wipe down. There are texts to send and people to pray for and the checkbook to balance.

All these things can be worship; in service I worship. In hospitality I offer to God a sacrifice that pleases him. In prayer, yes; in writing emails, yes; in setting my home in order, yes. Yes, all of these can be worship.

But there is that push inside me that says, “No.” Today the worship is to sit. To stop moving long enough to receive mercy and know that that is what transpired. To be still long enough to rest. To be quiet long enough to listen. There are things to do and work to finish and words to pray and write and speak but there is also a God who waits to be gracious to me. Perhaps the waiting is only that I might slow down, that I might know it is grace that comes from God and not from my busy hands and mouth and feet.

So I turn into the skid. I stop listing and I start listening. I stop moving and I start breathing, deep. I embrace the luxury that surpasses every massage, pedicure, spa day imaginable: I breathe deep and feel what I need filling my body. I do what every lucid brain cell tells me is absurd; I turn the way I shouldn’t. With this much to do, I need to get busy. But worship today is getting still. Turning in the other direction, the one that makes no sense, the one that will be salvation.

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it….”
(Isaiah 30:15)

Small: Five Minute Friday

It’s that time again. Time to throw out the rule book and the internal editors and get some words down. I’m joining in at Lisa-Jo‘s Five Minute Friday (feel free to click through to read the rules or join in yourself).

My mind wandered this week when his small hands pushed in my cheeks to the point of discomfort, wandered and wondered over the bigness his smallness brings. How small bends me low. How small makes me hush and listen. How small reminds me again and again and again that I am not above anything at all—not cleaning up vomit, not repeating an inane remark in a way that shows me to be less clever than I thought, not forgoing adult luncheons in order to avoid a missed nap. Small keeps me right close to the ground, to the dirt under my fingernails, to the pulsing reality of my beating heart that is dust to dust and ashes to ashes.

Small binds me close to home. Small brings me to the same room every night. Small rhythms and rhymes its way through my life with the same motions each day: the swipe of a table and the push of a vacuum and the point of the finger and the kiss of the boo-boo.

My maid of honor was taken on a whirlwind, twenty day trip of Europe this summer. Through the out-and-out grace of a college friend’s mother, she traveled to countries she may otherwise never have seen. She ate and slept and flew with glamour. (I think she does mostly everything with glamour.) And how there were lessons there. When everyone posted on her Instagram feed, “You deserve this!” I replied to my NYC-charter-school-math-teaching phenom of a friend, “You most definitely do not deserve this. Enjoy the grace.” Thankfully she knew what I meant and agreed. Yes, there are lessons when you are staying at a castle in France.

But the lesson I’ve been graced with today finds me on the same mattress and box spring night after night, pinching my pennies for a bed frame from IKEA (so close!). This lesson comes from holding small hands in my own and being awed by the height and depth and width of this life that stays mainly in 1200 square feet.

Five Minute Friday