A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Category: challenging (page 1 of 9)

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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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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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?

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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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Welcome Home

FREE Printable Scripture Art: Psalm 90:1

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Know Thy [Stressed] Self, Part II: The Stressed Version of Your Marriage

Missed Part I? Grab it here.

One of the unexpected delights of our final couple of months in Africa was the arrival of a college friend who’s known my husband and I since the beginning. She watched us meet, cautiously date, giddily become engaged. She played the piano when the two of us spring chickens said “I do” forever. Later, I stood with her as she spoke her own vows beneath a spreading tree. And when she visited us in Africa and we stayed up entirely too late, she gave us this gift: I told my husband, “I love that she reminds us how good we are together. That you and I together are a really good thing.”

I wrote before that this time of leaving Africa, of setting a foot on two highly divergent continents, has delivered unavoidable stress to our relationship. Both of us are strained, so it makes sense that our most intimate relationships would bear that weight. So it was kind of God to remind us that despite the ways we occasionally feel like the losers in a three-legged-race right now—“us” is still a really good thing.

Part I of this post outlined some essential reasons we need to identify when we’re stressed. If you’re convinced, let’s get down to it. What are the signs your marriage is under stress?

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Suffering–and the People We Become

We lounged in the lamp lit half-dark: my husband and I, and our college friend. We’ve been friends for about two decades now, which makes us feel impossibly old. We still easily bend over in outright laughter over hilarious references to our college days and their mishaps. Now, though, we have things like minivans and tax returns, and my friend and I swap tips on how cast iron is really the best way to cook fish, or omelets, she says.

But years aren’t the only thing under the bridge. That night, I marveled sadly how out of our six parents, we wouldn’t have guessed we’d have lost two of them by this point. My husband and I have moved to Africa, caught malaria, gotten robbed, etc. My friend has dealt with multiple nightmarish diagnoses of those she loves.

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The Three Words Our Kids Critically Need to Hear

It was a low moment in my parenting—so I’m still a little flabbergasted for the high point my then-four-year old made it.
I’d made a phone call to him as he stayed at his grandma’s for the day. I hated I even needed to make it. After shouting at him that morning, I’d done a fairly false, overall lame job of apologizing. I’d still been so stinkin’ angry—and my mind’s eye zoomed in on his own error. (That’s him at four years or so, on the right.) So I picked up my cell and attempted something more like Jesus.

What I will always remember was what he said in return.

“Mommy, I forgive you. And I want to let you know that even when you do bad things, I still love you. And I want you to know that even when you do bad things, God still loves you.”

Now I felt really bad for blowing my top.

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Guest post: God of My Heartbreak: Teaching Teens to Pray

Of the many nuggets I’ve gleaned from my father-in-law, perhaps one I am most grateful for is his response to my husband’s teen years.

A lot of people find merit in Mark Twain’s quip: When a boy turns 13, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug up the hole.

But my father-in-law wasn’t one of them. Those tornadic years of my not-yet-husband’s were a signal to pull out the outdoor gear, summit as many of Colorado’s fourteeners as they could knock out, and tack on some decent kayaking, cycling, and snow caving along the way. My father-in-law saw the rippling strength of the teen years as a chance to explore manhood together.

teaching teens to pray

As people have forecast heartbreak for these years of parenting—and I realize my portion will come—my husband and I loved our six years of youth ministry. It was a little like working with wet cement, these textured, gravelly years of becoming. We could hold gut-level conversations about real, heartrending issues. Our faith offers unmatched answers to the question marks looming in the teen mind: unfathomable meaning and purpose for their lives, far beyond themselves.

On many of the Wednesdays of 2017, I’ll be 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 week’s post, God of My Heartbreak: Teaching Teens to Pray, offers ideas to come alongside teens in prayer.

I hope it encourages you today, wherever this finds you.

 

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Guest post: Why Our Kids Need to Struggle

My family and I are headed back from Africa, which twists my heart in all sorts of new ways. But with that, my kids will be attending school for the first time—American school. Any of you mamas out there imagine the ways that messes with a mama’s heart?

So many of my prayers are poured out like water over their adjustment. Over finding just one solid friend. Over teachers and my son’s learning disorder and my kids’ abilities to be kind in the face of insult. And I think this is as it should be: asking God’s generous favor, slathered all over our kids.

But there’s this. I was reading Brene Brown last night, who occasionally helps me get my emotional head screwed on straight. And she reminded me of this: “Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle.”

I’m thinking out loud about this over on WeAreTHATFamily.com again. Want to hop over and check it out?

May you have all you need this week to do things hard and holy.

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