All the Good Things

I didn’t know which I hated more: death or the love that made it so excruciating. It was one of those seasons of deep wrestling and at various points, I had been tempted to believe that everyone would be better off if we just loved one another less. I had seen all the risks of love become a reality. I had seen that love made the pain of loss cut so much deeper. And I sincerely wondered if it was worth it. For several weeks I had watched a mother in a rickety armchair pulled up to the bedside of her 15-year-old son, her hand intertwined with his as they both rested their eyes, night after sleepless night. It was a beautiful and heart wrenching picture of just how intertwined his whole life was with hers. His dad would pace throughout the night, worry lines now etched into his kind and gentle face. Each day that passed, the news only got grimmer and yet, their love seemed to only grow stronger. From my chair at the adjacent bed space, I could only steal glances. It physically hurt to look upon something as powerful as a parent’s love, mingled with something as fragile as a human life. It felt like watching two high-speed trains barreling towards one another, Love and its great enemy: Loss. I needed to cover my eyes; brace myself for the dreadful impact. It actually seemed like the most foolish thing in the world – how we love people who are perishing. And we all do…we all are. Why would anyone subject themselves to such inevitable pain? How could it be worth it?

Yet, even as these desperate thoughts ran through my mind something inside of me rejected the notion entirely. It’s only foolish if self-preservation is the goal. I could hear a thousand truths at war with my heart: There are treasures much greater than comfort to be found in this life. Lean in. Endure this momentary pain. I could sense that a great mystery was unfolding here. Something tragic and beautiful and undeniably holy was taking place and though I wanted to stand up and close the curtain, walk out of the theatre, make it all go away, I knew deep down, I could not miss this.

As the weeks passed, I ached for words to comfort, for a touch that healed, for news that offered hope. But no amount of longing could give me the power to muster up any sort of remedy; all I could do was show up and be present- with my empty-hands and breaking heart. There were nights, I’ll admit, I actually wished his parents loved him less. I thought it would make this more bearable. But for two months there would be no reprieve. Without exception, every day I showed up to work, I was always assigned the room right next to his – even as he moved beds throughout our unit. The tension that ensued as I confronted love in the face of suffering, and my own human-limitations was gut-wrenching and faith-testing. But it was exactly in this wrestling that I uncovered something remarkable.

One night, after months of peering through the window of this hauntingly mesmerizing story, after months of offering a weak smile through the glass whenever our eyes met, his dad walked past my chair like he had every night before. But unlike any other night, on this particular night, he stopped in his tracks, retraced his last few steps, and stopped right in front of me. My heart started racing. I had been fighting to keep my distance. I had watched other nurses pour themselves into his care and embed themselves in his story…mostly from my safe vantage point across the hall. I would occasionally peak in and say hi if I was feeling especially brave. I would ask the dad how they were doing, hoping maybe someone had forgotten to tell me that this family I was so desperately rooting for had turned a corner. I hated every interaction that I entered into with nothing to offer. As the outlook was seeming worse and worse, I was feeling increasingly small and helpless. But now he was standing right in front of me. He looked me in the eyes and the weight of the pain furrowed in his brows nearly broke me.

“You know, I think we’re nearing the end of our stay here…” he began. I nodded solemnly, my face and heart filled with pain. “But I have to tell you… since our first night here, every time I looked out this window and would see you sitting here, smiling…I don’t know” he trailed off…”it’s always given us hope.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “No matter what happens…you nurses, all the doctors….” he paused. “We have experienced our worst nightmare, but have never once been alone.”

He looked down and took a deep breath. A breath filled with the weight of sorrow and worry and loss. He sighed and I could see the heaviness escape from his body for just a moment before the next breath took it all back in. He looked up once more. “So I just wanted to say thank you.”

I was speechless. I blinked and stared at him. Tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted so badly to have something profound to say. Or some good news…of healing or a cure. I wanted to proclaim that he would be ok. That stories like theirs don’t end in tragedy. So many longings, so many sentiments, so few words.

“It’s been an absolute honor.”

We nodded at one another before he made his way back to their room. I was stunned. These parents had walked the dark and heavy road of grief and fear and loss with such courage and grace…and as they stood here, nearing the end of this long, excruciating chapter, they had a love that had stood the test of time and the fires of hell and emerged all the stronger. The words of 1 Corinthians 13 came to mind. Love is patient, love is kind…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

There. That last one. Love endures all things. And it did. It does.

The next time I came into work, a new patient with a different mommy and daddy sat behind the glass of that room. Days, weeks, months have passed and I still think back to that exchange. I think of all the people I have met, all the lives and stories that have intersected mine. It’s hard to believe the impact that a single human heart wrapped in flesh with a set number of days to live out on this earth can have on the lives of those around them. I know this family’s story will forever be a part of mine. And I am so humbled when I think that I was able to be a part of theirs.

And I think this is what it all comes down to. It’s not about having the right words, or the power to heal or make right or fix. It’s about being present. Having the courage to let your breaking heart keep another’s company. It’s this beautiful vast overlapping of lives and loss and all the hard things but all the good thing too, and if we do it right, if we lean in despite our fears, if we show up and brave the storms together, the cost will be great, but the reward will be greater. Because here’s what I’m learning: this world is not a beautiful place overcome by brokenness and death. It is a dark and painful place overcome by light and love.

All this time I had been grasping for hope and life and peace and joy; anything but this devastating, selfless, heart-shattering love on display for all to see. But as it turns out, these abstract things we spend our whole lives pursuing – all the good things– are waiting on the other side of the pain and suffering we seem to spend our whole lives avoiding. And to think, had I let my fear of suffering have the last word, I would have missed out on my breath-taking view of this grand gesture of love.

And what a grand gesture it was. Where else can love defy loss but in the face of death? And how else can hope triumph over despair but in the midst of grief? And when else can the selfish inclinations of a man’s heart be overcome by something as selfless and reckless as Love, but in this broken, fleeting life? And who else can tear through the veil of this all encompassing darkness but a Light that bursts forth in this valley of death?

The more I’ve reflected on this experience, the more I am convinced that Love, not Death, got the final word in this story. And herein lies hope: it can have the final word in yours too. By this we know love, that He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers – 1 John 3:16. We are each uniquely nestled in different places and seasons of darkness to bear the burdens of our fellow sufferers and to bear witness to the beauty that grows when we persevere long enough to allow it- because, we have a Savior who goes before us in suffering and death, love and life. There are still moments I falter, but I truly believe that to avoid suffering is indeed the far greater risk.

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Day One

Privilege. I remember first learning about it my sophomore year at TCU during a leadership training for all the Resident Assistants. We lined up and a facilitator read statements about our upbringing and family as we took steps forward or backwards. Our staggered line represented privilege. I stood ahead of many people in the room and was infuriated as I was told that I was privileged- that since day one, I have had advantages that have helped get me to where I am. Regardless of what they were saying, all I was hearing was that I had not earned my accomplishments- my 4.0 in high school or scholarship to college, my acceptance to nursing school or summer internship… I felt like all my life my successes were destined to be tainted by people claiming that my life circumstances had given me an unfair advantage.

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4 years later I’ve learned a lot about this thing called privilege. It actually has nothing to do with what I’ve earned or not earned. Privilege refers to the life circumstances that positions one for success. You can squander privilege and you can have very little and beat the odds. At the end of the day though, hard work is hard work and the successes that come along with it are earned and should be celebrated. What privilege refers to and what I think we can all agree on is that everyone is born into different life circumstances- some of which are more favorable than others. Where I think we disagree is the extent to which this impacts the rest of our lives. There seems to be a popular perspective that anyone receiving government assistance or who ends up homeless, jobless, or down and out at any point in their life has just failed to pull up their bootstraps and hit the hustle. And so I want to share a story with you to paint a picture that four years ago, I did not and could not wrap my head around. Names have been changed but every detail is true to my recollection. This family gave me permission to share this story.

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Monday, August 21, 2017. Today is the first day of public school in Fort Worth, Texas. Saturday night I received a text from my neighbor, Gelila: “Hi Monica how are please can you help me Monday Zahra she will go new school I don’t know where can help her to register am work so please thank you.” Gelila was worried because she did not know if Zahra was registered for sixth grade or even which school she would be attending. Gelila is a single mom of three kids and their family has lived in America for less than three years. After reaching out to another neighbor we find out that Zahra’s middle school is a few miles away and that registration is at 9:00 Monday morning.

Gelila starts work early in the morning as a housekeeper at a local hotel and cannot be late. She takes the 7:10 bus to clock in on time. School starts at 9 AM and so this morning, we woke up and drove to the middle school at 7 AM to figure out registration. A woman is sitting in the office, we can see her through the front door of the school. Gelila goes in to inquire about registration. I see the secretary wag her finger in front of her face and point hastily to the door. Gelila walks out seconds later. “The office doesn’t open until 8.” I took a deep breath and let my white, accentless-English-speaking self through the front door of the school. I peer around the run-down hallways- lockers hang crooked by one hinge, old paint furls off the wall. I enter the office and explain that I have a quick question about registration. The secretary politely opens the file, looks up Zahra, and confirms that my neighbor was automatically enrolled from fifth grade and is good to start this morning. We then drive across town to the hotel where Gelila works and afterwards, I head over and drop Zahra off at a neighbor’s house who will drive her to school. Before heading off to a meeting I have at work, I asked Zahra to smile for a first day of school pic. “Smile Zahra!” She stares back with a heavy face and wide eyes.

“I can’t. I am too stressed.” she whispers. She looks like she’s fighting back tears so I kneel down and ask her what’s wrong. “I’m not wearing a uniform and I don’t know where to go.” I look over and the neighbor’s son is wearing a white collared shirt and navy pants – the uniform all the other kids will be wearing. I give her a huge hug, tell her it will be ok – “it’s room 16, you can ask for directions when you get there…” We pray for her first day together but my heart is breaking as I rush off to the meeting I am already late for.

As I drive to work I can’t help but contrast this whirlwind of a first-day-of-school experience to all of my first days. Each year my grandma took the grandchildren shopping and we picked out a few outfits for the new school year. I went to meet-the-teachers with my mom a few days before the first day, met some of my classmates and learned how to find my classroom. The morning of, my mom would make us a special breakfast and I would put on my favorite outfit I had picked out school shopping with my cousins. My backpack would be filled with fresh notebooks and crisp pencils, along with all the other random supplies on the list. My mom would go inside and take the classic “first day of school picture” with my teacher. Our classroom would be beautifully decorated with bright colors and crafts and there would be a desk with my name printed on a name card. At the end of the day, my mom would pick me up right where she dropped me off and I would tell her all about my first day.

This gap, between my story and Zahra’s, captures this concept of privilege that so deeply offended me when I first heard about it. It is to no fault of Zahra that her first day played out how it did. It was to no credit or fault of mine that my first days looked how they always did. Life is not fair and we can all clearly see that. But a lifetime of exposure to such vastly different circumstances changes the entire course of one’s life. I grew up in a home where my mom spoke English, where she had the flexibility to volunteer at school and know my teachers and classmates. We lived in a middle class suburb with great schools. She had time to go over my homework with me and taught me to read long before Kindergarten. I was signed up for ACT prep courses and started visiting colleges when I was 16. My family could afford travel soccer and I had a ride home after school when there were National Honor’s Society meetings. Did I work hard? Absolutely. Are there people for whom hard work, intelligence, and skill does not even get an opportunity to flourish because of their environment and circumstances? Unfortunately, all the time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it this way: “I did not understand it until I looked out on the street. That was where I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” These words are still sinking in for me months after I first read them.

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So friends, here’s a few things I am slowly learning from my experience living in refugee housing with an up close view at a way of life I had never even come close to understanding: Be slow to get defensive. Ask questions. Engage in dialogue. Listen to the stories of others. Be willing to believe them when their life sounds nothing like yours. Step outside of your comfort zone. Experience other’s realities up close. When others let you into their pain and suffering, believe them. Be empathetic. When a lifetime of systematic oppression leaves someone feeling angry – try to understand. Be a friend. Be kind. Be slow to anger. Be willing to have been wrong. Respect the hustle. Stand up for others. Stand with others. Let their trials weigh on your heart; celebrate their victories. Seek unity. Advocate for and empower- with your words, your actions, your time, your self. Love widely and deeply. It’s time we begin the long, painful process of building bridges where fires have been burning for far too long. It will take time, it will take humility, it will take nothing short of the radical and far-reaching love of Christ. But every movement in history starts with day one- and today feels like a great day for a first day.

On Privilege

I sit on the pebbly stairs outside my apartment in my pastel scrubs. A luxury of working night shift are these slow “mornings” before heading into work. It’s just about dinner time and the hot Texas sun beats across the west side of the complex. My cheeks feel flushed and I close my eyes to take in the warmth. The colorful clatter of everyday life in these refugee housing apartments is in full swing. A swarm of little boys whiz by on scooters and pink second-hand bikes, laughing and chattering in Swahili. The old man with the colorful hat from Nepal strolls along the sidewalk- part of his nightly routine. I give him a head nod and he solemnly returns the gesture. A car horn obnoxiously sounds for the third time, impatiently signaling for my downstairs neighbor. A beautiful young girl with glowing brown skin and a vibrant, patterned dress walks steadily along the street, a platter of fruit atop her head, arms swinging at her side. She can’t be older than 16. I stare, entranced by the grace in her steps and the dignity she exudes with her perfect posture. A familiar, squeaky voice calls out to me from below the cracks in the stairs – “Monica, is Sadie home?” I poke my head between the railings and see three of my little neighbors adorned in their traditional Afghani dresses. I smile and wave. I tell them she’s sleeping inside and they run off to their next adventure. The sounds, the colors, the stories, I breathe in deep and soak it all in.

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I love these people.

But no amount of love for these people can make me love this place. Rodents run rampant within the walls of the apartments, scurrying across counter tops and burrowing beneath bed sheets. Their feces litter the cabinets and floors and no amount of diligence can maintain an acceptable level of cleanliness. Management’s attempt to control the infestation leaves us with poisoned mice corpses rotting in the walls and strewn across the fields- decaying flesh for the maggots to feed on. I came home the other day to a pile of dead mice carefully arranged in an empty parking space- the hand prints of little children all over the scene. I shiver at the thought of the diseases and germs these little ones are exposed to. The health department comes and goes but nothing ever changes.

I’ve walked through the painful process of finding a minimum-wage job for those with fragmented English. Hundreds of applications submitted, dozens of trips pleading to managers for the opportunity to work. Dead end after dead end. When a door finally opens, I think of their hopes and fears for their children: that they do well in school, respect others, stay out of trouble, have dreams and goals, grow up to cherish their culture, their language, and where they came from. But this all requires cultivation. Discipline. Counsel. But these children spend their days and evenings in summer school, after-school programs, and at neighbors’ houses so their parents can work two jobs. Meanwhile, teachers label their parents “uninvolved,” and the children, “unmotivated.” It’s all the price of the hustle to make ends meet, hoping that one day, the stars might just align.

From my spot on these pebbly stairs, I clutch a mug in  in one hand while my fingers mindlessly circle the rim with the other. Hues of purple, orange and pink sprawl gloriously across the horizon. From my vantage point within the barbed wire fence that perimeters Ladera, the sun seems to be setting over another, far-off world. Here, garbage blows across the grass. Barefooted children run on asphalt glistening with the glass of broken beer bottles. A father and toddler play near the metal, chain-linked fence. The son holds the wire between his sticky two-year-old fingers and stares at the wildflowers, swaying just beyond his reach.

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 The distant Fort Worth skyline, bathed in the bright colors of cotton candy skies, reminds me of the Dream that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in his book Between the World and Me.

I have seen this Dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. it is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. This has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies…

It felt like a punch in the stomach the first time I read those words. My whole life, all I’ve known is this Dream; I woke up in it and made my bed in it, blissfully unaware of the world beyond its picket fences. Here, from my pebbly steps, my heart aches not because I’m cast from this Dream while I live here, far outside my comfort zone. The opposite actually. I ache because of the deep, intimate experience of doing life with those who are, when I myself can hop in my car at any given moment, cruise down 35 and be welcomed into it- as if I never left. Because the truth is that I haven’t. I can’t. One does not simply leave the Dream as if it exists in a physical sense. It’s a social construct embedded in the DNA of our society. So although the twinkling lights of West Seventh glisten just a few miles away, for them an eternity separates these two worlds. But not for me.

Despite every effort to shatter the dividing walls of injustice, to step into hard places, to reject the Dream and all it has to offer, the haunting truth is that at the end of the day, I am still living out my days on this earth in a body to which this world caters. A westernized, educated, middle-class body with an ethnic background that creates the ultimate propaganda for the Dream: a rags to riches foreign heritage that overlooks the fact that before I was even born, I was many steps ahead. The opportunities and circumstances that laid the foundation for a lineage of hard work to flourish?  Brushed aside so that my story can silence any objection to this artfully crafted Dream.

A little familiar voice interrupts my thoughts, “Monica, is Sadie still sleeping?” I chuckle. “Tomorrow she will come out and play.” The day is turning to dusk and I steal just a few more minutes soaking up the dimming daylight. Hope reminds my weary heart that the fading realities of this world are temporary. That a far better Dream of reconciliation and wholeness exists in this “already/not yet” life of following Jesus. But tonight, that hope is a mustard seed. From my pebbly steps I draw circles around the rim of my mug and close my eyes to feel the warmth of the fleeting sun across my cheeks. For a moment, I pretend that it is not a million light years away. I open my hands turning them upward as I take a deep breath- my feeble attempt at laying all this mess, all this hurt, all this injustice, at the feet of a God whose goodness I believe in with all my heart, but whose ways I do not understand. Then I rise to my feet, hop in my car, drive down 35, and head into work; another day living in this far lesser Dream turns to night.

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On Beholding

I took this photo at the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep while in Thailand a few weeks ago. The view was breathtaking, but as this particular scene unfolded before me, I marveled instead at the opportunity afforded man to come and behold it.

Behold. The word itself carries an air of noble formality and elegance. It means to gaze upon, to become aware of, to contemplate, or to recognize. When I think about it, I cannot recall a time that I felt compelled to behold something and it did not evoke a response within me. Contemplating great expanses of nature produces an unequivocal notion of humility and awe. It is a universal experience distinct to the moments we find ourselves reveling in our smallness in light of great glory. In these moments, we find our hearts positioned to see and embrace the beauty around us- providing a brief respite from the natural self-focused condition of the heart. It is elating and mysterious and undeniably profound. The magnificence of this experience lures many men to the heights and depths of this earth. Here, we find our pride is eclipsed and can no longer distort our ability to recognize and respond in the face of grandeur.

I would argue that this phenomenon is the beckoning call of the heavens and earth for all living creatures to turn and worship God. The sense of wonder erupting within us is so gratifying because it is the very thing for which we were created. The Westminster Catechism posits that the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Romans 1 declares that God’s invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived since the creation of the world through the things that have been made. Beholding God’s handiwork allows us to behold God himself- to gaze upon His glory, to become aware of His presence, to contemplate His splendor, and to recognize His hand. This is the very heart of worship.

But here’s why I love this photo: as I was wandering around the temple studying the intricate features of the grand structure surrounding me, I noticed these two men. When the overlook came into view, they simply approached it and paused for a moment of reflection. I was captivated by their response: a perfectly uniform, wordless sense of wonder. It was as if there was no decision to be weighed! In the face of unspeakable glory, we all must come and behold. It was my very response as well.

As I study this photo, I find myself contemplating these men with humble curiosity. I consider their eyes, their hearts, their bare feet…what other sights have they beheld? In what ways have they suffered? Have they loved and been loved in return? Do they know the anguish of loss? What paths have they walked? What paths will they walk?

Looking at these men, I do not see their bodies, their strengths, or their flaws through my normal lens- a lens inclined to exploit as I decide how these qualities can serve me, or offend me. In this moment we are simply fellow beholders of the life and beauty around us. I, beholding the workmanship of God in front of me, and they, beholding the workmanship of God in front of them.

This photograph captures a state of my heart that I hope will one day characterize my perspective. Unfortunately, I have quite a ways to go. I realized that a sense of awe for others is not my natural response. I so often view people in light of the expectations I project on to them. I create ideals in my head of who I hope they are and think they should be. I scrutinize and evaluate people based on how they measure up or fall short of these expectations. Instead, I should appreciate their unique giftings and admire the God who designed and spoke it all into being.

The good news is that there is a God in heaven who is worthy of worship and there is a rightful posture by which we can approach the beauty in the created things around us. Ephesians 2 describes man as God’s handiwork or masterpiece. Psalms 19 proclaims that  “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above makes known his handiwork”. In this regard, we are not unlike the magnificent mountain-view over Chiang Mai. The beauty and creativity of our Maker shines through us!

So what if we were to assume the same posture before people as we do before mountains? To behold people? To contemplate with curiosity and admire without expectations? To consider as beautiful as the likeness of glorious canyons and sunsets? And to let our beholding direct our hearts to worship the One who creates and sustains us all? In light of this, the flaws we perceive in others would not detract from the beauty of the masterpiece. On the contrary, we could marvel at a God who chooses flawed canvases to display such a depth of beauty. Can you imagine seeing the world and others in this way? I suspect that this beholding might actually be the intended lens through which we are to view all things- rather than a rare posture we assume, confined to mountain-top experiences. And if that is truly the case, well then I think we have found ourselves in the midst of an art gallery that puts the Louvre and the Uffizi to shame.

Ahz Yashir

img_5886I wear a gold necklace engraved with the words Ahz Yashir. If you’ve ever asked me about it, I’ve probably mumbled through a vague explanation. It’s hard to explain in passing! This phrase is the name of the song that Moses and the Israelites sing after crossing the Red Sea. It translates to “thence we sang” and it’s the beginning of the first verse of the passage in Exodus 15: “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously.”

Daniel Eliezer offers this commentary on the passage: “The Song of the Sea [Exodus 15] begins with the words, “אז ישיר” – “Ahz Yashir” – “thence we sang”. In simply looking at the Song of the Sea we all recognize that it’s sung and written in the present tense. Given that this is true, the word ‘אז’ – ‘Ahz’ – ‘thence’ makes no grammatical sense whatsoever. Astoundingly, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak says that ‘אז’ – ‘Ahz’ – ‘thence’ refers not to after we crossed the sea and are standing on the other side, but it refers to when we were standing on the shore facing the sea and hadn’t yet set foot in the water…meaning that our song was already forming inside us before we made any move whatsoever! Our song, sung, in the face of monumental hopelessness.”

Here’s why reading that commentary STILL gives me chills: my freshman year of college I had a dream in which the words Ahz Yashir were written in white across a vast, black, darkness. When I woke up I could remember the spelling perfectly. Having never heard or seen these words before, not knowing what language it came from or if it meant anything at all, I immediately researched the phrase and found that it was the name of the song in Exodus 15. If you know me, you probably know that I don’t prescribe to a particularly charismatic theology. So although I did not know the significance of these two words at the time, I marveled over their mystery and hid them in my heart.

Five years later I would find myself walking through a relentless season of some of the hardest experiences of my life. This year more than ever, I have clung to the promises of the Lord through song. The past 12 months have been challenging and beautiful and I am grateful and amazed at how my heart has been changed and my faith deepened through the trials and the joys. I want to share a little about each month, what I learned, and which songs put words to the cries of my heart. I hope you find these songs as worshipful and beautiful as I have.

With much love,

Monica

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January: Fill Me Up – Will Reagan

I sat in my warm car with my face pressed against the cold window after every shift at the hospital and prayed the words of this song incessantly. This was the month I spent immersed in the world of pediatric cancer. My heart was torn apart and at a time when I felt so empty inside, I prayed desperately to the Lord, “Fill me up, God” over and over again. I was amazed as each and every day, when I felt broken with nothing left to give, He gave me the strength to keep going and the faith to trust in him when nothing made sense. Psalm 23:4 – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

February: Hidden – United Pursuit

I didn’t think I could make it through the month of January. My heart was nearly crippled from the weight of grieving. But wow, humans are resilient creatures. I came out on the other side with a deeper understanding of the way the Lord gently leads us through the deep trenches we encounter in this life. “Now I am hidden, in the safety of your love. I trust your heart and your intentions. You’ll guide me through these many shadows.” The shadows are promised but so is our God of all comfort. Psalm 139:12 – “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day and the darkness is as light with you.”

March: Lord of All – Young Oceans

“Oh weary world, how long O, Lord, must she wait in anguish?” Anguish. It’s the sound of a parent’s cries echoing through our unit in the late hours of the night. It’s the twisting feeling in your heart as sadness too excruciating for words sucks the breath out of your lungs. It’s paralyzing grief, tears with no end, words failing, knees crumbling, mind searching for something, ANYTHING, that makes sense. It’s agonizing to experience, heart-wrenching to watch, and it’s become all too familiar. “I’ll look to Thee, my light, all my days and sing to the Lord: ‘He alone can save, glory be to God. All nations praise, praise his holy name, every tongue proclaim. Jesus has come the perfect man, the pure precious ransom, so now shall I this broken world forsake.’” I was slowly accepting that this world is heartbreaking. Anguish fills the hearts of many of those with whom we share this human experience. I began to fix my eyes on God and place my hope in him in a way I never had before. Psalm 43:5 “Why are you downcast o, my soul, Hope in God.” Have you ever tried to will yourself to hope? It’s hard. It’s nearly impossible! But as I sang this song, hope began to take root. Prayer is indeed powerful to change our fragile hearts.

April: No Longer Slaves – Bethel Music

In April I began to experience the freedom that comes with the hope I sang of in March. “You split the sea so I can walk right through it. My fears are drowned in perfect love. You rescued me and I will stand and sing, I am a Child of God.” The physical suffering I witness every day was such a clear picture of the spiritual suffering that God rescues us from. Our God does far greater than remedy our earthly illness. He makes us new and redeems us to himself for all of eternity. This sea of sorrow I was nearly drowning in was parted wide open in the month of April. The Lord picked me up, fixed my eyes on him, refreshed my soul, and allowed me to walk forward with a new and everlasting hope. Psalm 40:3 – “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”

May: Boldly I Approach – Rend Collective

I have a version of this song without words. I love it because I can just sit in the presence of God and meditate silently on the beautiful truths that I know accompany the melody. Hebrews 4:16 proclaims “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” The sweetest part of the earlier months of this year was the way the Lord invited me to bring my heavy heart to him. So symbolically, the rains from the storms of winter were producing beauty in my heart in the spring. I rejoice often that we have a God who invites us to approach His throne with confidence. Friends, he is so faithful to provide for us in our time of need.

June: Head to the Heart – United Pursuit

June was a month of pure joy. This month was filled with sun shining, windows down, radio blasting with dear friends riding shotgun- kind of days. “There’s no shame in looking like a fool when I give up what I can’t keep to take a hold of you. More than words more than good ideals, I found your love in the open fields.” I marveled over healing in the month of June. My heart beat within my chest and it felt light and whole. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my mom over the phone in January. I told her in tears “My heart feels so heavy, I don’t think I’ll ever feel joy again.” But friends, God is in the process of making all things new. 2 Corinthians 4:16 – “Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” In June, I began to recognize that hard days and seasons were sure to come again, but I began to see the beauty in the highs and lows. God is truly to be praised in the midst of both. Romans 15:13 – “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

July: Psalm 23 – Shane & Shane

At the end of this month I moved to Ladera Palms where I now call over 3,000 refugees and Asylum-seekers my neighbors. I became surrounded by people longing for lost family members, longing for a homeland that will never be home again, longing for community and something to hope for in this disappointing world. The words to this Psalm are so humbling and startlingly beautiful. “Surely goodness, surely mercy will follow me all of the days of my life.” Having experienced God’s goodness and true heart joy in the midst of deep suffering, I could now sing these words and believe with everything in me that they are true. “He restores my soul and leads me on for his Name.” This he does, friends! He really, really does.

August: Your Love Changes Everything – United Pursuit

The waves of joy and grief in this life alternate almost rhythmically, much like the tide soaking the sand and retreating. Sometimes quiet and gentle, sometimes crashing violently against the shore. I’m beginning to grow accustomed to this pattern. I’ve learned that though seasons of deep joy will surely come, while we remain on this side of heaven, grief’s presence will always linger; the shore never dries completely between waves. This song spoke life into me: “You’ve taken me by the hand again, you’ve given me strength to dance again, your love changes everything.” This month taught me this: God is gracious to give us seasons to mourn and seasons to dance. So in August, I danced- pausing to let the waters of sadness occasionally wash my feet. Psalm 30:11 – “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.”

September: Lord You’re Beautiful – Shane & Shane

THIS song. So worshipful, so humbling. “Oh Lord, you’re beautiful, your face is all I seek. And when your eyes are on this child, your grace abounds to me. Oh Lord, please light the fire, that once burned bright and clear, replace the lamp of my first love that burns with holy fear.” It’s easy to grow numb- to become despondent and indifferent to the hurt of others. It’s easy to grow prideful- to think highly of myself as Jesus begins to make my heart look more like his. It’s easy to forget- the wilderness that God called me out of and the helpless state to which I once belonged. This song was so worshipful for me as I wrestled with all of these things.

October: Looking for a Savior – United Pursuit

“I am looking for a Savior, I can see and know and touch. May a broken God be known, in the earth beneath our feet.” October was gloomy. This month, I longed so deeply: for this world to be different, for everyone to know the goodness of our precious savior, for healing and wholeness and unity. Sometimes I can think of worship in such narrow terms: it’s act of service or singing a song. But there’s a specific tune of a heart longing desperately for Jesus that is so worshipful- and it’s only found in the midst of hard things. Grief isn’t always something to “get over.” Hold it gently, tenderly, let it sing its song. Psalm 51:17 – “My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, o God, will not despise.”

November: Ascribe – New Life Worship

This song leads me to a place of awe as I sing of a God who is holy and worthy of glory and praise. “Great and marvelous, are your works O, Lord. Just and true are all of your ways in all the Earth. Alpha, Omega, the beginning and the end, forever, we’ll praise the name of the Lord most high.” Some worship songs lead us to reflect on who we are or what God has done for us- and those can be so beautiful! But sometimes our heart needs to forget our worries, our troubles, and ourselves, and pause to re-fix our eyes on Jesus. His glory can truly eclipse even the darkest of seasons. John 3:30 – “He must become greater; I must become less.”

December: This Altar – Psalmist Raine

I’ve been memorizing Ephesians 2 this month. The verses are breathtaking. The end though! I cannot stop marveling over it. “But you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (19-22).” To think: my body, this brokenness and sin wrapped in flesh with a beating heart, is being formed into His dwelling space. The trials and joys of this year are the gentle and holy hands of a loving and good father, crafting his altar. He calls us worthy of this! He makes us worthy of this. “So here’s this heart, build an altar here. It’s bruised and scarred, still I build this altar here. Father consume me, you can use me, breathe life into me, here on this altar.” This is my prayer for the coming year, may the Spirit of God dwell richly in each of you, He is truly building a beautiful altar in our midst.

Eliezer, Daniel. (2014, April). Shirat HaYam- the song of the sea. Jewish fundamentals: Jewish ritual and mitzvoth. Received from: http://jewsbychoice.forumotion.com/t392-shirat-hayam-the-song-of-the-sea

The Harm in Promoting our Narrative

I’ve spent the last couple of months advocating for and loving refugees and asylum-seekers. I love stories like these that provide insight into the hardships and common humanity we share with those who might seem so different from us on the outside. I love that hearts driven by fear and hatred might be softened through glimpses into the stories of those our society has successfully “othered.”

On the other hand, I grimace at stories that undermine the narrative I’m trying to promote, stories that challenge the notion that asylum-seekers are anything but kind, loving, intelligent, and vulnerable sufferers. When foreigners are painted in a negative light, I see it used as justification for the hatred and divisiveness that has broken my heart over the past year. And so naturally I never share such stories on social media or bring them up in political debates. I suspect many of you promote your own narratives in similar ways. It’s the same heart behind the way Psalm 139 appears in my Bible: every verse highlighted except for 19-22 (anyone else?). It’s because we prefer our own perfectly crafted stories over the truth. Because sometimes the truth doesn’t sound nice.

But, the Lord has been chiseling away at my heart over the past couple of weeks and I’m going to tell you one of those hard stories anyways. I’ve realized that I’ve promoted my narrative at the expense of promoting God’s narrative –an infinitely better narrative- and it’s time I make His story known.

With the presidential elections, race relations in America, the refugee crisis, and America’s response to it all, my heart has been heavy. SO heavy. As I fought to listen to and mend the hearts of angry and hurting people on all sides of these issues, I found myself running back and forth trying to defend each people group to those on opposing sides. I would engage in dialogues with my African American friends who were reeling from the increasingly prevalent racism and try to convince them that the media was perpetuating the sentiments of a small and vocal minority. Then I would run to my angry and hurting white friends who feared the riots in the streets and the potential for terrorists to enter our country as refugees, and would try to convince them of the same. “Black Lives Matter and Islam are mostly peaceful movements/institutions.” Meanwhile, more and more instances of violence and racism on all sides of the divide took place and my friends, family, and neighbors grew increasingly convinced of their right to fear and distrust the other.

My breaking point came following a conversation with one of my neighbors at Ladera. As we discussed the political climate in America it became evident that this friend from Africa held a deeply rooted fear of Muslims and a prejudice against African-Americans. The irony and hypocrisy infuriated me. I was speechless, filled with rage, and walked away with my heart in pieces. These sentiments are not uncommon in the community where I live. All of my neighbors are here because they have been deeply persecuted by a people group in their respective home countries. As a result, families often bring with them fear and distrust based on their personal experiences. If I’m being honest, as I processed through this newly discovered knowledge, I reached the end of myself. I couldn’t find it in me to forgive, empathize, lean in and love. I was angry and everything inside of me wanted to establish distance in this relationship.

In this conversation with my friend, my hope for racial reconciliation in my lifetime seemed to fade before my eyes. This small-scale conversation opened my eyes to a problem that seemed truly irreparable. How am I suppose to defend the right for asylum-seekers and refugees to come to America when so often  (but not always) they bring along deeply rooted prejudices themselves. The cognitive dissonance was nearly too much to bear; I could no longer believe my own narrative – how was I suppose to convince anyone else to? And, if my response was to abandon this friendship because of the real and justified hurt I was experiencing, how could I charge anyone else to respond any differently to their own very real hurt and pain?

The stress and weight of this realization was overwhelming and it built up inside of me for days until I burst into tears when a friend asked me how I was doing. I realized that the more I tried to paint every side of this complex issue in a positive light, the more fires there were to put out, and the more evident it became that my narrative had a giant hole that could not be overcome. And this is where God’s narrative takes over and proves far greater.

In my story, I urged people to love one another because they are not as bad as we think. The love I asked of people required a very human level of love- and it still proved too much to ask! It’s easy to love sufferers. It’s hard to love sinners. And if you’re loving people because you think of them only as sufferers, your ability to love them well will soon wear thin as sin inevitably emerges. As I wrestled through this idea, my friend, Ashley, encouraged me to see people through the lens of their suffering AND their sin; and come ready to embrace them where they are in light of both. Asylum-seekers are both sufferers AND sinners. We are all (African Americans, Caucasians, Police Officers, Muslims, Men, Women-ALL) both sufferers and sinners- each one of us has been hurt by sin in this world and contributes to the sin in this world.

Here’s where grace calls us to a higher level of love: we are urged to love others even though their hearts are uglier than we think. Humans don’t naturally love in this way. This is a radical, hard, nearly impossible kind of love. But here’s why we can do it: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8), there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives our fear (1 John 4:18), and we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The story of the foreigner is our story; it’s the story of the Gospel. Jesus became a foreigner to make us foreigners no longer. We, who were far off from God, strangers too unholy to exist in His presence, are called near, clothed in righteousness (Isaiah 61:10), fed: Christ’s body, broken, and blood, poured out (Luke 22: 19-20), regarded as sons and daughters (Romans 8:17), and invited to draw near to the throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16).

My heart longs for racial reconciliation in America. But more so my heart longs for a far greater and eternal reconciliation. Racial tension in America is only the tip of the iceberg; there is a desperate need for a lost and hurting generation to be reconciled to God. And so I’m setting down my narrative and trading it in for the STORY OF ALL STORIES. It’s going to be messy and I don’t think anyone will come out on the other side unhurt, but friends, will you join me? I so sincerely believe it will be worth it.

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Regarding the American Delusion of Boundaries

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” – C. S. Lewis

Just as we ought to be cautious of the biases of our time period, we must also be cautious of the biases of our culture. Since moving to Ladera I have been amazed to discover that many of my ideals I had formerly classified as Christian would actually be better classified as American – specifically, my understanding of and entitlement to boundaries. We talk about boundaries in our home, boundaries with work-life balance, boundaries in relationships, and even boundaries with our service and ministries. And please hear me say, boundaries are a great and healthy thing. The book, Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, changed by life and has allowed me to serve with more humility and freedom. However, just as the distance expected for personal space differs from culture to culture, the boundaries we weave in and out of every nook of our life are influenced in much the same way. As I see better now through a lens widened with input from many different cultures, our American boundaries can often take the form of a stiff-arm held out to the world around us protectively guarding a glutenous amount of personal time and space.

This is where I specifically want to challenge American Christians. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have collectively decided to implement fierce boundaries around our time, our families, our finances, and our lives in general, in regards to our service and labor for the Gospel. We have drawn a line right where comfort meets stress, enjoyment becomes inconvenience, and manageable tips towards sacrificial. The second our leisure time is squeezed, our families’ comfort is challenged, or our wallets are stretched, we take a huge step back and tighten up our boundaries.

I was so convicted about this the other day when I was feeling overwhelmed by all I had to get done for the fundraiser I am helping organize for DASH. I thought to myself, “that’s it! I’m overcommitted and stressed. It’s time to let Ashley know I won’t be taking on so much in the future.” But as I pressed into my discomfort I realized that I do in fact have enough time to get everything done, it just might be at the expense of the time I would normally spend laying out by the pool or shopping or relaxing. And it dawned on me that my idea of healthy boundaries left no room for discomfort for the sake of others or the Gospel.

When I look to Scripture, I see no examples of our American concept of boundaries. Paul describes his ministry in 2 Corinthians 11: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

When I study Paul, I see a man who is truly running with perseverance the race marked out for him, taking up his cross daily, and bidding others to follow him as he follows Christ (Heb. 12:1, Luke 9:23, 1 Cor. 11:1) . Our life here is fleeting and yet so incredibly purposed and the amount of personal time and space we hoard for the sake of our comfort is most definitely an idol our culture struggles with. Our families, spouses, jobs, and responsibilities certainly shouldn’t be neglected. On the contrary, we have a responsibility to care for and tend to our people! But I suspect that somewhere between our much needed family time, date nights, and work, we all have so much more to give. In fact, what an opportunity we have to invite our people to join us in our dying to self. In doing so, we can both set an example and create community along the way. Discipleship at its finest.

Now I realize that a message to labor hard is almost counter [American-Christian] cultural. We live in a society and time that is constantly on the go, where productivity is the bottom line, and busyness is celebrated- and much of these ideals have seeped into our Christianity. In response, the Church has inundated our generation with reminders to be still, to walk in freedom, knowing that our works are not earning us favor before God, to abide in Him and rest in grace.  All truth, all good words. However, we need to hold these messages hand in hand with our call to deny ourselves and to give ourselves fully over to the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). Our resting fuels our labor, God’s grace provides freedom to work despite our shortcomings, our abiding enables Spirit-filled ministry. We need these messages to put into right context the former notions that can become cultural blindspots that lead to disobedience.

I recognize that there is a tension to balance and that no black and white answer exists. Self examination regarding the boundaries we have set for ourselves will require prayer and discernment. But what I do know is that rest is important and necessary. God designed us and commands us to set aside one day each week for the purpose of resting because we need it and because what is required of us the other six days is a high and hard calling. I also know that we are so bad at resting well. We seek rest in Netflix binging and mindless social media scrolling in chunks scattered throughout our week. We then wonder why we are tired and have nothing left to give. When laboring is done right, it is exhausting and uncomfortable and yet so incredibly life-giving and joy-filled. If we rest well, we can labor hard. So my challenge for you and my resolve for myself is this: pray often- carve out and protect your daily quiet time, be fiercely dependent on the Lord, surround yourself with fellow laborers, and rest and Sabbath well so that we can pour ourselves out, open up our homes, cherish the outsider, love the weary, carry one another’s burdens, give generously, even sacrificially, withstand stress and discomfort, and use the life we’ve been given to live the life to which we have been called.

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