A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Author: Janel Breitenstein (page 1 of 27)

What comes to mind when you think “refugee”?

For key thoughts on this important topic, make sure to check out this post on ways and reasons to welcome refugees.

“Teacha!” He loped across the pavement to me where I stood shaded beneath the tailgate of my high-clearance minivan.

At 6’5” and change, he couldn’t fit. In fact, the two of us are a caricature of opposites. His skin is the stuff of 80% cacao chocolate. Parts of mine are Cinderella-white (though Africa worked hard to darken me permanently with sun spots). Like his Sudanese ancestors, he’s built like a marionette; still, when he throws that rangy arm over my shoulder, he dwarfs my genetically Swiss shoulders and barrel chest.

But we’re friends. And I’m immensely proud of him. On scholarship to Bible school, he recently completed his first term, working hard in his second language of English. He aims to be a pastor for his people.

It’s hard for me to reconcile my friend with the stereotypical image of a refugee. It’s even more befuddling, admittedly, as I think about the controversy surrounding people like him. He’s never seen a day of his life where his nation’s at peace—and yet he is a man of peace, who wants to lead his people in peace.

Honestly, when I think of refugees—it’s not necessarily someone wrapped in a hijab (though they’ve been friends, too); it’s not even a child stretching his thin arm out of a dinghy. It’s people like “Sarah” who come to mind, my student who’s trained in Human Resources. Or “George”, who’s a civil engineer, and has taught at a local grammar school since he relocated to his new nation—though his parents are still in a refugee camp. Or the three other pastors in my class who’d stay after, asking questions and cracking jokes.

“A Narrative of Fear”

My kids frequently tussled about who got to come with me to the refugee center. A part of me was tickled pink by my blond sons reluctantly/happily swallowed up in the arms of towering, adoring refugee women.

So when my kids ask me to explain why their home nation is making laws against refugees, it’s challenging for me to explain.

I ask them to remember all the videos we watched together from 9/11, when tears rolled down my cheeks and onto the collars of their shirts at the elaborate deceit and wickedness to maximize iconic loss of life. I try to explain how smaller attacks around our country and around the world are causing people to feel so afraid for what our world is becoming. Islam—and most refugees—are an easy target as we wrestle to feel safe at school; in a mall; on a plane. (Christianity Today addresses here the narrative of fear surrounding the refugee crisis.)

But then I tell them of a professor of mine, who speaks Arabic for his archaeological digs. Soon after 9/11 at an IHOP, my professor noticed a cashier with an Arabic accent and oddly pale skin. When my professor greeted him quietly in Arabic, a single tear rolled down his cheek—revealing that the man, fearful for his safety, was wearing makeup to disguise his skin tone.

There’s fear on both “sides.”

Yet Ed Stezter of Christianity Today explains startlingly,

There is a 1 in 3.64 billion per year chance that you will be killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist in a given year. If those odds concern you, please do not get in a bathtub, car, or even go outside. And, for contrast, there were 762 tragic murders in Chicago alone last year compared to 0 people who were killed last year (or ever since the mid-70s) by a refugee-perpetrated terrorist attack. (emphasis added)

(Um, for perspective–cows kill 20 people per year.) To further this point: USA Today states that 78% of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States were women, or children under the age of 12–the estimated 18,000 by the end of last year still a tragically small amount of the 5 million left homeless. (I also found these statistics eye-opening about committed Christians’ response to the refugee crisis.)

Unfortunately, some of the most grave, horrific decisions in our history have hinged on this powerful emotion of fear–particularly of those culturally or racially different. We stop seeing people in the context of their stories and flatten them into a label on which to cast our fears.

An Unlikely Immigrant

I was recently moved by these words:

Our Savior came into the world dependent on hospitality, from the moment he was born in a borrowed manger until he was buried in a donated tomb. What is more, Jesus longs to meet us face to face in the disguise of the stranger, the guest at our door….

Laws don’t dictate how we are to treat immigrants, but Scripture does.[1]

Now clearly, we are still called to respect the governments God’s put in place (see Romans 13). But I still find salient the point that we take our cues on the foreigner from Scripture: not our fears (think of Ananias welcoming what he thought was a murderous Saul). Not the government. We take our cues from our own status as refugees: Those of us who are Gentiles were foreigners to God’s people…and God took us in, clothed us, and became our true home.

I appreciated the words of Tim Breene, CEO of World Relief, quoted in Christianity Today: “World Relief does not believe compassion and security have to be mutually exclusive. While it is wise to always work to increase effectiveness, a lengthy and complete ban is not necessary to meet our commitment to security, transparency and compassion” (emphasis added). It’s critical for us to be wise; to continue to intensively vet those coming into our country (see the process here).

Yet what if helping refugees…revitalized us? What if–as my family’s experienced–opening our own doors to refugees detaches us from our fear, propels us toward compassion for other mothers and children and fathers, illuminates our perspectives, requires us to share, and help us know more of God?

Is [the fast I, God, have chosen for you] not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst…The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong…

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

I wonder. If the story of the Good Samaritan were retold today, is it possible it would be our own political enemies who might do the rescuing?

In our own homes and in the greater community of our nation–may we move forward not in fear, but in compassionate, informed wisdom and faith.

If you’re interested, consider signing We Welcome Refugees’ solidarity statement.

 

 

Like this post? You might like

3 Reasons I Welcome Refugees (and 3 Ways You Can Help, Too)

Thanksgiving Memos from a Bunch of Refugees

Living Sent: An Updated Job Description

An Open House

 

 

 

 

[1] Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

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Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: (Relatively) Painless Ideas to Help Kids Share Their Faith

New to this series? For the thoughts behind it, start here.

It was yesterday, walking to a train, that we met her—I’ll call her Gretchen. Conversation unfolded among us in the blistering sunshine. We were all drawn in by the details of her home country; the stories of her life there. At thirty, Gretchen is pretty and successful. She vacations around the world.

Perhaps that’s why I was intrigued by both my daughter and my son after disembarking the train, when she’d warmly wished us well and waved to us out the window. Completely separately, they asked me if we could pray for her, that she’d know Jesus, too.

I could tell you this is because I’m some kind of fantastic parent, but if anything, I hope you’ve picked up through this blog that I’m muscling my way through this parenting thing like anything else. (I’m sure perfect parenting is on the next blog over from mine.)

Spiritual disciplines, after all, are about cultivating, right? Richard Foster, author of The Celebration of Discipline, writes that in all these disciplines, we just prepare the soil of our hearts (and our kids’). It’s the Holy Spirit who moves. Or as the verse read which my sister neatly painted around the rim of her terracotta plant pot: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

And really? That’s what sharing our faith is about, too. When I was trained as staff with Cru, they taught that evangelism is sharing Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leaving the results up to God.

THE KEY: For kids to be confidently equipped and constantly ready to give a reason for the hope that they have—with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). We encourage them not to view evangelism less as a single, isolated event, more as an ongoing lifestyle of bold love. The point is not for friends to pray a prayer. It’s for them to become true and lifelong disciples of Jesus.

Here are a few ways I see this unfolding with the kids in our lives.

  1. First, the heart. This is the most long-term of any of these ideas. Any child—any human, for that matter—naturally wants to share what’s fantastic in his or her life. When a new cousin’s born, your daughter can’t wait to share it with her class at show and tell. So before sharing our faith comes the experience that our faith is unstoppably worth sharing! Kids who are excited and filled by Jesus won’t share their faith as much as a have-to as a natural outpouring of who they are. To share the hope that they have—first, they must have that hope.

 

And if I may be so bold—a lot of that is a tone set by us as parents, right? Ours is not dogged religion that “works our way to heaven”. Grace is what makes Jesus different from every other religion on the planet. Kids growing up in homes where faith is authentic and grace-motivated are equipped every day to know what their faith looks like in any given situation.

 

  1. I shared in this post about how not to share your faith, and how it’s critical love must fuel all “agendas” for evangelism (please read this post for more). My kids found the video on that post, as well as the one below, hilarious. (Note for Protestant readers: This video has a minor Catholic thrust.)

My husband and I used these to generate conversation about why these methods can be off-putting for the majority of the population. As much as tracts and other tools can give kids brilliant steps and thus boldness to share their faith, I am of increased conviction that traditional methods can actually distance people from our kids because the methods are socially alienating to a modern Western audience–which can hinder loving them well. That’s not the Cross that’s getting in people’s way. That’s our lack of understanding of people—the whole “clanging cymbal” thing.

You may remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. The former’s prayer is essentially, Thanks, God, for making me better than him. The vital message for our kids: We are not the savior, but the saved. We’re about humility, not results.

  1. Equip them. (I know, I know. Now she gets to the practical part.)
    1. Help your kids to articulate their faith. For weeks in our family discussion, we’d quiz our youngest: What’s grace? We’d ask application questions, too. No, it’s not a quiz. But our kids talking to their friends first means they truly get the idea of how God saved us inside and out. Not with confusing platitudes—“I asked Jesus into my heart!”—but in ways that communicate in kid-language what Jesus did.
    2. I found this video to be a great jumping-off point for discussion with my middle-school kids. You might also try this one on sharing your faith without being pushy.
    3. Together, memorize verses that equip kids to talk about the Gospel. Here’s a good top ten list of them. You might find the music and free printable memory cards from Seeds Family Worship’s Seeds of Faith.
    4. Another gem from Cru: “The Gospel flows best through the holes in people’s lives.” In other words, people are most receptive to Jesus in the areas and seasons where they most feel their need for His answers. Talk with older kids about how to compassionately listen and come alongside friends in hard times–with true hope and comfort.
  1. Make your home the locus. Did you know that a significant portion of evangelism in the book of Acts happened from homes? In the past, I was always coached to invite people to church—and this is still a great idea! But the nuanced culture of churches can, depending on the person, occasionally increase the feeling of our friends feeling like outsiders. We’re not inviting them to a social club with all the trimmings. We’re inviting them to Jesus. I wrote here about practical ways to make your home an “open house,” and here about ways to live “sent” in your community.
  2. Pray often as a family for those around you to know Jesus. Let your prayers communicate true love and humility, and that it’s God who is the great Softener of Hearts. After all—He softened ours! He’s bringing us from death to life—and He works the same in our friends. (Prayer changes our own hearts, too.)

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Freebie Friday: FREE Printable Chalkboard Art–God, Give Us Discomfort, Anger, and Foolishness

This week, I’m moving back from Africa to the U.S. Rather than writing you a half-baked post, I opted for chalkboard art–an artistic version of this challenging Franciscan benediction:

Free printable chalkboard art God discomfort anger foolishness Franciscan blessing

 

God, give us discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that instead we may live deep within our hearts.

Grant us anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may wish for justice, freedom, and peace.

Bless us with enough foolishness to believe we can make a difference in the world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

May God encourage you wherever you’re at, changing your little corner of the world for His renown.

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How am I supposed to have joy when my world’s a wreck?

joy in sorrow

It needs to be said: I am a teeny bit of a freak show right now.

Yesterday, we moved out of our house, which was (after months of supreme effort) stripped and echoing, like a rumbling empty stomach. A half an hour before we left, we said goodbye to our dogs, who wagged their tails obliviously down the dirt road on their leashes with their new owners. (My children were in tears.) We said goodbye to our closest Ugandan friends. (My husband and I were in tears.) We prayed in a tight circle on the front lawn.

It was at least a month ago when my husband looked at me, my face pink and slimy again from tears that seemed to squeeze out at all the wrong times for months on end. He said, “I’m not frustrated you’re crying. I’m just remembering that you’re grieving, and that takes a long time.”

(Have I mentioned I love him?)

I was reminded of is words when a friend mentioned that in the year after someone dear passed away, very few people walked that road with her. Grief is…lonely. And we grieve in waves. Sometimes the waves are close together, sloshing upon each other with slopping, crashing forces and sucking undertow.

 

Shouldn’t Christians be happy?

I’ve written before about the hidden art of Christian lament and profound grief; of bringing our deepest questions into the sanctuary that is our worship and gratitude. One of the most mystifying words in the Bible to me is joy. What in the world does “joy” mean? When I think of it, I consider someone who’s, say, lost a child. What’s joy look like there, when the edges of your world curl black?

I find value in the words of John Piper:

We [Christians] are a happy people. But we are not what you might call “chipper.” There is a plaintive strain in the symphony of our lives. I think Jesus was the happiest man who ever lived. And O how sorrowful! A man of sorrows…

[The world] need[s] the greatness and the grandeur of God over their heads like galaxies of hope. They need the unfathomable crucified and risen Christ embracing them in love with blood all over his face and hands…They need to see “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

A friend shared with me an exercise she learned in counseling. She took a sheet of paper, and chose a color to represent every emotion she was feeling. Then, she covered her paper with circles whose size was proportionate each emotion. I think of this when I realize I’m often experiencing many emotions at the same time. Even on our blackest days, we have a pervasive, underlying sense of contentment, hope, and even happiness in God.

 

Happiness is…?

Yet joy might not even be accurately described as an emotion. The words of Tim Keller were a balm to me this morning:

…we must remember that in the Bible, the ‘heart’ is not identical to emotions. The heart is understood as the place of your deepest commitments, trusts, and hopes. From those commitments flow our emotions, thoughts, and actions. To “rejoice” in God means to dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who we are, and what He has done for us. Sometimes our emotions respond and follow when we do this, and sometimes they do not. But therefore we must not define rejoicing as something that precludes feelings of grief, or doubt, weakness, and pain. Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow.

Here is how it works. The grief and sorrow drive you more into God. It is just as when it gets colder outside, the temperature kicks the furnace higher through the thermostat…The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy.

When I think about grasping joy in grief, I find it inextricably braided with trust; with God’s inexplicable, unshakable care for me—that inimitable trio, faith, hope, and love. So hope, to me, is a defining characteristic of Christian grief: We do not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Our grief is different.

 

What hope is not

Here is what hope is not always. It doesn’t always mean

  • Answers (see Job).
  • Rescue (see Jesus).
  • Lack of weakness (see Paul).
  • Lack of doubt (see John the Baptist and Elijah).
  • Happy feelings (see David).

Emily Dickinson famously wrote, Hope is the thing with feathers. It takes us beyond here, beating with life and promise.

In the previous post, I mentioned we grant humanity to those around us when we don’t walk around their pain, but lean into it. (Think the Good Samaritan here.) I am increasingly willing to walk through others’ pain. But what about walking through my own funk, when my own soul sprawls there, feeling robbed? As I texted a friend this morning who asked how I was doing: I am getting the idea that God wants me to walk through all this and not around it.

Wherever this finds you, may you unearth joy not after your sorrow, but even further within it.

 

Like this post? You might like

Cry: On the Hidden Art of Christian Grieving

For the Days When You Feel Powerless, Parts I, II, and III

Doubting the Dream Weaver

On Keeping Your Heart Soft When Times are Tough

 

 

 

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I, Robot: 6 Ways to Preserve the Humanity around You

When I was young, my dad regularly mortified me at restaurants throughout the Midwest. We’d be at Hardee’s, say. And he insisted in calling the waitress—there behind the counter, awaiting my straightforward order for a chili dog—by the name on her plastic nametag. As if she were another old friend, of which he had innumerable others not just in our small town, but a substantial radius around it. She would inevitably smile beneath that brown visor. At twelve, I simply wanted to crawl beneath a Formica table next to the French fry fragments and Rorschach blots of dried ketchup and wait out my dad’s exuberant friendliness.

Nowadays–you saw this one coming: I’m the one using the Starbucks barista’s name.

Maybe my dad primed me for one of my perennial takeaways from Africa: greeting everyone, even before you, say, ask where the olives are at the supermarket. There’s even a greeting, I learned, for people you pass on the road. (When I use it, yes—I’m the one now drawing a grin from a stranger. All they need is a visor. Or a nametag.)

An African friend explained that she believes it even prevents crime. When you make a relational contact with someone, even briefly, it simply…humanizes them. As in a quote I read long ago, hatred ends when you can see yourself in the eyes of another.

I am reminded of this in the words of the communal prayer, Brother, I greet the Christ in you. And this is what I’m chewing on today: how, in an increasingly automated world, we can acknowledge God’s image in people around us in simple ways.

My home culture is full of delightful doodads like ATM’s and self-checkouts. But as efficiency rises in importance—uh, a quality falling admittedly below my expectations in Africa—the relational element shrinks, out of necessity. People can become means to an end, not unlike machines. When they don’t produce in the expected manner and timeframe, there’s more opportunity for irritation.

Once, sitting at Arby’s and admittedly shoveling people into what I deemed their appropriate mental categories, I was convicted by a quote of C.S. Lewis:

The dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare… It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.  (The Weight of Glory, 1949, emphasis added)

Obviously there’s a place for us to be task-oriented. But today, just in case you’re not the use-the-waitress’-name type: A few practical ideas to preserve the human in the imago Dei around us.

  1. Lean in.

    Someone once gave me good, simple advice about panhandlers: look them in the eyes, even if you don’t plan to give. When someone’s in pain, I can find myself in the mental equivalent of rolling up my windows and locking my doors—not just in self-protection, but simply because I don’t know what to do. Taking any form of responsibility is simply overwhelming. One of my takeaways from the Good Samaritan: He didn’t step around the guy in front of him. In Isaiah 58, God pleads, Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen…not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? No, I’m not suggesting we be the savior of the world. Africa, for one, is overwhelming if every problem is mine. In a sea of broken people, I try to see what fits within 1 Peter 5: Shepherd the flock of God that is among you. Who’s among me? Let’s start there.

  2. See people for their stories rather than their role toward us.

    Remember the impossibility that your kindergarten teacher actually went home and had a life outside of your elementary school? From the checker in Wal-Mart to the janitor at the mall, we empower people when we imagine and honor the context they’re coming from. A friend once wisely counseled me to see my mom not just as my mom, but as a woman. Somehow, this clicked in me. What are her hopes and desires outside of what I want, outside of her and I?

  3. See people for more than their labels—and let them wiggle outside of the labels we’ve stuck on.

    Labels can either be tools to understand or tools to maintain distance, right? From personality tests, to race and culture, to besetting sins—labels are only helpful so far as they help us to more accurately comprehend and compassionately respond. Be consistently hungry for stereotype-busters, even within the labels people use to define themselves.

  4. Hear the message tucked inside the words.

    This was advice given to my husband and I before we were married: In an argument, try to hear what the person’s saying rather than how they’re saying it. Ever been in a disagreement with someone who was kind enough to hear the real questions you were asking, rather than just the (irritated, misspoken, inflamed) way you actually said it? It’s a game-changer.

  5. Call rather than text or email. Visit rather than call.

    Presence matters! God’s Word became flesh and lived among us. Take time to relate with an extra degree of face-to-face time. This is especially with potentially negative information.

  6. Respect their “no’s”.

    If people are more than what they do for us, we can receive and cheer on their reasonably healthy boundaries, even if we don’t understand them. Without being overbearing, I can even dignify people and their own needs by encouraging them to set boundaries despite what I want. For us here in Africa, this meant that we declined offers for people to work at our home on Sundays, even if it meant a level of inconvenience for us. (Some of our African friends find it hard to take a Sabbath, because it’s a chance to earn much-needed money.) As Peter Scazzero suggests in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, it’s all too easy to become “human doings” rather than “human beings.” Communicate dignity by celebrating boundaries in others—and even yourself.

 

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Guest post: A Prayer for Your Community–Every Day of the Week

It’s probably good that you can’t see my house this week. I actually said to a visiting friend yesterday, Mi chaos es su chaos. 

We’re moving out on Tuesday. As in, to very soon leave this stunning continent.

It’s some of why I’ve been exploring lately–in posts like this one on living “sent, like missionaries who stay, and this one on having an “open house”–what it looks like to live as people set on fire in and for our communities.  And after the heart-rending events in Manchester this week, we’re reminded again of the gaping need and pain in our communities. (In us, too.)

I like how The Message puts this:

 

But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it? That’s why Scripture exclaims,

A sight to take your breath away!
Grand processions of people
    telling all the good things of God!

Yeah, I’m leaving Africa soon. But Webster’s describes “poverty” as the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount. And don’t we all sense that “insufficient in amount”? Don’t we all sense that not-enough-ness?

On many of the Wednesdays of 2017, I’m helping my friend Barbara Rainey, on everthinehome.com. We’re exploring what she calls “prayer lessons”: ideas to pray for ourselves, our most critical relationships, our communities. This month and beyond, here’s a prayer for our communities for every day of the week–no matter what zipcode in which you find yourself. Check it out here on everthinehome.

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Guest Post: An Open House

Right now, scooter wheels are rattling past my bedroom window. Ugandan kids are out of school—and once 3 PM hits, they know they’re free to knock at our metal gate. They pour in from the neighborhood, sometimes even slinging their legs over the shoulder-height brick walls to leap down in our yard. Though I admit to some sense of relief when holidays are over—there’s a part of me that loves our yard swarming with kids.

Open House kids playing hospitalityScientist Jared Diamond’s quote remains perennially rooted in my mind:

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Living Sent: An Updated Job Description (Guest Post)

Quick role-play. Let’s say you, your spouse, your kids—you’re all headed back to the Western world from some distant land. You’ve been missionaries somewhere; Africa, maybe. (You pick.) You’ve been helping people gain clean water, maybe, or teaching refugees, or advocating for orphans of AIDS.

How would you live in your home country?

This is actually my personal, particular predicament. My family and I have been living and working in the developing world for five years now, and are now headed to suburban America. I’m asking a question that perhaps many of you are already asking: What does it look like to be missionaries…who stay?

On many of the Wednesdays of 2017, I’m helping my friend Barbara Rainey, on everthinehome.com. We’re exploring what she calls “prayer lessons”: ideas to pray for ourselves, our most critical relationships, our communities. This month, as we pray for our communities, I’m looking in to how to live “sent“–no matter what zipcode in which you find yourself. Check it out here on everthinehome.

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Off-season: When You’re Not Where You Wanted to Be, When You Wanted to Be There–Part II

Off-season: When You're Not Where You Wanted to Be, When You Wanted to Be There

Missed the first post? Grab it here.

In three weeks, my family and I will quietly glide across the line sectioning our lives into before and after. And it will be as innocuous as stepping onto an air-conditioned airplane.

With an escapade like living in Africa—and really, in many ways embedding ourselves, and it in us—we bear the marks inside. Strangely, truthfully, I have fear this plane will land me back in a place I was giddy to leave seven years ago.

My thirtieth birthday was approaching. From childhood I’d pictured and prepared myself for a lean, vibrant life overseas. Instead, my approaching birthday found me squarely in Little Rock, a fistful of miles from where I graduated high school. I wielded a deep inner fatigue unique to welcoming four children in five years. (No. No twins. A couple did feel like twins.) Insert the picket fence and the dog—and you can picture the level of contentment I both seized with two hands and questioned, even while cherishing my life. I mean, I knew how I got there. I was grateful I was there. But still, I wondered. How did I get there?

Continue reading

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No Place Like…

I’m already bracing myself for it, even as open duffel bags, plastic storage bins, and carry-ons line the walls of my house. Maybe the question will come at church, shaking hands as we walk in from the parking lot, or when we’re handing over a loaf of banana bread to a new neighbor (strategically timed before my kids’ Nerf wars propagate any noise violations).

“So, where are you guys from?”

Um.

Central Illinois. Arkansas. Texas. Oklahoma. Colorado. Uganda.

Nice to meet you! I actually have no idea. Do you have a different, easier question? Maybe ask how many kids we have. I have gotten that one right several times.

Home is such a nuanced, funky question right now. Perhaps an open duffel is just the metaphor for me. I feel transient. Half-packed. Misshapen. Awkward.

I was asked the other day what signified home to me, and…it took a little while for me to answer. While there are a few objects that have made it with us around the world—like the rest of us, home tends to be with the people I care about. Perhaps it’s a no-brainer that I’m a mzungu, a foreigner, here. But sometimes I feel just as much the mzungu in my “home” country.  My mind seems to perpetually be working out, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).

As returning to America spreads before me, the term Nile Perch out of water comes to mind. And truthfully, so does the term lonely.

But perhaps the opposite of lonely is what home is: a place where you belong.

C.S. Lewis’ words capture this exquisitely for me.

We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory…becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last. (The Weight of Glory, 8 June, 1942, emphasis added)

When my husband and I first came to Uganda, I remember standing on a porch, overlooking the Nile as it rushed by steadily in the starlit dark. Hebrews 11 will always remind me of that night, when I decided to put all my eggs in an invisible basket. The Message puts it this way:

By an act of faith [Abraham] lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.

(Perhaps this explains why sometimes this work doesn’t bring tangible, number-crunching results: because it’s building an invisible city. This is what I hope.)

A friend and former missionary kid wisely told me this past weekend about one advantage of our overseas lives. She noted we truly understand that as lovers of Jesus, we are “foreigners and aliens in this world” (1 Peter 2:11). Her father told her that because Jesus is preparing a perfect place for us, nothing’s ever going to measure up here. We will always be longing to be more home.

 

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

An orphaned Ugandan friend of mine is struggling with the new nationally-mandated identification cards. How do you find a birth certificate when you don’t have one? What if you were given a surname by the person who took care of you, and you now have to go and procure the “real” one the government will accept? As I think of her, I wonder what emotions this unsettles in that sludgy silt at the bottom of a girl’s heart. So tonight I put my arm around her: I want to let you know that you belong. You and me, we’re sisters. God says our spiritual ties are much thicker than blood (see Matthew 12:46-50). He says You belong with Him. He’s going to give you a new name. His name.

It was one of those moments where I felt a little sheepish, because maybe I should be listening to these words of comfort I was so eager to hand out. You belong, mzungu. You belong with Me. I am the Home you’ve been looking for all Your life. You’ve seen glimpses, but just wait till You get a load of the real thing.

And this is the verse that came to mind:

O Lord, You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. (Psalm 90:1)

You, God, are our home.

 

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