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

On the Harm of 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 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 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 when 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. The heart of the issue remains concealed beneath the surface: 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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Prepared

You guys, I love a good story. This one, so much so, that my heart might explode with excitement just sharing it. It’s nearly impossible to find a starting point so I’ll start with this song that has come full circle in my life:

I have such vivid memories of 10-year old Monica singing this song at the camp where I spent my summers growing up. “Oh God let us be a generation that seeks, seeks your face, oh God of Jacob.” It warms my heart to think of the child-like faith behind such a sincere prayer, but at the same time, it pains my heart to think that my innocence would not be preserved for much longer. I had not yet seen poverty, or felt the crushing ache of divorce, or experienced death, or heart-break or tragedy. I knew that the world was vast but I pictured its expanse as beautiful and glorious as the starry Wisconsin night that echoed back the words of my heart-felt song. And in some ways, this world very much is that beautiful and glorious. But the next decade of life taught me that the blackness of night is far from the greatest darkness those stars have seen.

The thing about discovering brokenness after already knowing its remedy, is that hope can take root rather than despair. I remember asking God to “break my heart for what breaks Yours” and He has faithfully and abundantly done so. God prepares us for what He has prepared for us. Reflecting on His hand over details of my life that in hind-sight, hid such profound purpose, has been humbling and overwhelming. I have cried many tears of awe these past few weeks as I have marveled over the way the Lord has grown my heart to cherish the diversity of His children and the hope of His glory. From the beginning of time, His grand narrative has been in the process of unfolding; and for 23 years I have had the privilege of admiring the story and playing a very small role. I want to share a little bit of that story and more than anything, this is my heart: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name, together.” (Psalm 34:3)

On11754246_10207640758206644_8022338870675079961_n April 7, 1993 I was born the daughter of a man who had recently immigrated from Colombia and a woman with one of the biggest-hearts in the world. I would not trade my upbringing or family for anything. I can’t speak highly enough of my parents. They are wonderful, hardworking, loving, and full of wisdom. My Dad would instill in me an appreciation for different cultures, and my mom, a heart for welcoming in the outsider – among MANY other things.

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11541949_10207640807287871_5414074207632151579_nAt five years old I learned that God had a son who died on my behalf. His name is Jesus. There was so much still to learn, but I knew that the implications of this were life-altering. I told my mom right then and there that I wanted to respond to this unbelievable act of love and sacrifice. The next years were filled with soaking up a greater understanding of this Jesus I loved. I came to know God’s Word through Awana Clubs and memorized hundreds of verses. My intentions may have been motivated by my competitive nature, but those years spent hiding God’s Word in my heart were paramount in laying the foundation of faith that would persist through many trials to come.

At twelve years old I stared into the eyes of Colombian children begging for money a few hundred feet from their island of cardboard houses. I could not reconcile the vast differences between our childhoods. I was humbled to realize that I did nothing to earn my lot in this life. I returned home with a broader worldview and a conviction that the gifts of family and education and opportunity were to be used for God’s glory.

At sixteen I scooped up sweet children from Belize into my arms as they squealed in Creole and ran through the village with bare feet and big smiles. This same trip my pastor pulled me aside and told me that I had a gift for teaching. He challenged me to seek out ways to be a good steward of this gift. I left Belize with a strong desire to be a part of bringing the hope of Christ to the Nations.

At seventeen I held hands with a precious Dominican woman on her death-bed and we sang Spanish songs of worship together. I had never known such fullness of joy in the midst of brokenness. In that moment I knew that my life-long dream of becoming a nurse was most definitely a calling-that my life would be filled with moments just like this: holding hands with precious people during hard times.

At twenty I rejoiced with a Quetchuan woman from the mountains of Peru as she regained her sight and took in the beauty of this world for the first time in years after undergoing eye surgery with our team. I came to understand the redemptive nature of the Gospel in a clearer way than ever before. This trip revealed to me that God is truly in the process of making all things new.

At twenty-one my eyes were opened to the world of refugees who call Fort Worth home when I was assigned to work with African Refugees for my public health nursing clinical. I fell in love with these inspiring people and my roommate and I began praying for the opportunity to host refugees in our home. Though the opportunity didn’t present itself then, we did end up living with 4 different girls during the course of the next year and had plenty of opportunities to practice (and fail and practice some more) living with different personalities and loving the people placed in our lives exactly as they are.

At twenty-two I moved to Colombia for four months to live with family, learn Spanish, and work in a hospital. Through my experience living in Bogotá I was on the receiving end of both incredible gestures of hospitality and harsh judgment as a result of cultural misunderstandings and worn out patience. I came to appreciate what a gift it is to have a place to call home in a culture not my own. I also discovered that living with people very different than myself is not always easy. In fact, it is very hard. To open one’s home and heart requires the suspension of judgment, an abundance of grace, and sincere heart-searching for hidden expectations and conditions. I could not have designed better training for my dream to one day live with refugees.

When I arrived home from this experience, I was looking for ways to take all that I had learned in Colombia to continue to grow and serve others. Through a sweet friend at the City Church, I connected with a ministry called DASH (DFW Asylum-Seeker Housing) Network, where there just so happened to be an opening on their leadership team for the role of Assistant Female Asylum-Seeker Support. The role description? Building friendships with the women in the program, encouraging one another in faith, and planning events to bring together members of the community and our asylum-seekers. All my years of being an RA and serving in this exact way throughout college could not have better prepared me for this opportunity.

At twenty-three I walked the streets of Ladera Palms, an apartment complex in Fort Worth, Texas where the majority of our Asylum-Seekers are housed as well as over 4,000 refugees from around the world. I stood in awe before this kaleidoscope display of the nations living alongside one another. Women adorned in beautifully designed headscarves, men with small colorful hats, children laughing and yelling in all different languages. I was in awe and instantly in love with this place. Goosebumps raced across my arms and in such a clear voice, the Lord declared this place: “home.”

At this point my heart already cherished people of different cultures. I had already grown to recognize and treasure the voice of God in my life. I had already experienced God’s faithfulness to provide for my every need when He calls me out of my comfort zone. I had already been praying for the opportunity to host refugees for over a year. You see, I had already been prepared for what He has prepared for me. No story other than the one the Lord had written for me could have better positioned my heart to respond with an overjoyed “yes!” in that moment.

And so friends, it is with such great excitement, expectant hope, and deep awe that I share with you this plan that seems to have been in the works for years and years. On July 29, one of my best friends from college, Victoria, and I will be moving into a four bedroom apartment at Ladera Palms, with the intention of hosting two female asylum-seekers as 599620_4367862244363_1025256604_nroommates. We will be partnering with the City Church’s partner-driven organization, DASH Network to build relationships with the asylum-seekers within this ministry (Click here for more information on what DASH does and how you can support this ministry near and dear to my heart!). The City Church has also recently launched a City Group with a focus on ministering to the community at Ladera. Incredibly enough, one other family from our church felt called to move to the same apartments around the same time as us and will be our neighbors and partners in this adventure. How crazy and awesome is that!?

I wrestled with how and if I should share this story- mostly because I know my prideful heart. I knew there would be a real temptation to let pride swell up. The truth is, despite my bent towards sinfulness, this is a testimony of God’s faithfulness and magnificent glory and I HAVE to share it. I am merely a storyteller for the best Story-Writer of all times. My heart for sharing this news is two-fold. First of all, we so crave your prayers and support. I would love to include you on our email list to send out prayer requests and updates. Also, if you need someone to take some boxes of your hands, I know just the girls ;). And who knew laundry could be such an opportunity to build community! We won’t have a washer or dryer so opening up your home in this way would be a HUGE blessing and a nice break from the Laundromat. Second, we want to proclaim what God is doing here! And so a little background might be helpful as we share our triumphs and struggles over the course of the next year.

Although this story is FAR from over, the sweet words of the song I grew up singing have been ever on my heart lately. “We bow our hearts, we bend our knees, oh Spirit come make us humble…Oh God let us be a generation that seeks, seeks your face, oh God of Jacob.” I pray with everything in me that this endeavor will make known the name and face of Jesus in this small nook of the Earth where God has called us. May this diverse and colorful generation that calls Ladera Palms home, come and seek the Lord with us.

7 lessons from the 17th Grade

This time last year I was halfway through my time spent living in Colombia. The year that followed has been nothing short of life-changing, world-rocking, both devastating and exhilarating, and maybe despite everything, one of the best years of my life. If I could sum up these 12 months with one word, it would be learning. Learning about myself, learning about the world around me, learning about my unspoken expectations and misplaced hopes, learning about my own sinfulness, learning about the intricate hand of a Good Father over every detail of my life, learning how to be a nurse, learning how to be a friend, daughter, sister, and learning that the process of learning turns pride into humility REALLY fast. I’ve taken some time to reflect on some of the huge lessons I’ve learned this year and I think they can be well-summed up with this list of seven:

  1. Expectations shape our reaction to everything. Managing my own expectations and helping inform other’s is a huge life skill. I have seen children with life-changing diagnoses have wonderful days…because their family has reframed their hopes and expectations for their child. On the other hand, I have seen families with temporarily hard situations lose all control of their emotions because today did not play out how they had expected. I’m not saying such a reaction is unreasonable or unexpected, but I have been amazed at the power of expectation. Well-placed expectations can have a huge impact on our joy, our hope, our strength, our peace, and our faith. I think there’s a whole world of learning to be gleaned from this lesson and I may have just scraped the surface.  But this goes hand in hand with number two:
  2. Humans are resilient creatures. I have been in awe of the strength of character and perseverance of hope I have witnessed in the midst of severely trying circumstances. It is said that the Lord cannot give us more than we can handle. I would have to disagree. This life gives us tenfold more than we can handle BUT, the Lord is our Strength and our Salvation. He is our Steadfast Sustainer. I am exceedingly thankful for this.
  3. Grace has absolutely nothing to do with time. I think I often find that I am able to extend “grace” to someone after enough time has passed to get over the offense. But grace isn’t forgetting that we were deeply wronged- that would neglect justice. Grace is acknowledging that yes, a huge injustice has taken place. In fact, this injustice demands punishment. But Christ who said “Father forgive them they know not what they’ve done” as his accusers drove stakes through his flesh, took our place and endured punishment on our behalf. And through that very process, demonstrated that sin can be forgiven with no regards to how deeply we’ve been hurt. It only considers that it is sin, and that the heavy price has already been paid. Man, when I think that Christ forgives in this way it humbles me immensely. I am such an imperfect extender of grace. I withhold this beautiful gift from others regularly and downplay the sacrifice of Christ when I extend grace merely as a result of my compromised perspective of justice.
  4. Sunrise and sunset admiring is good for the soul. It reminds me that light overpowers darkness, that God is a magnificent creator, and that dark nights and dark seasons last for only so long. “You, oh Lord, keep my lamp burning. My God turns my darkness into light.” Psalm 18:28.
  5. People cannot be classified by absolutes. I used to think that there were “good” people and “bad” people. This past year I have been deeply hurt by the actions of people I had thought of as “good” and blown away by the kindness of some I had classified as “bad.” This makes sense of course! All of mankind is both made in the image of God and innately sinful. But this was impossible for me to grasp. I found myself crushed when someone I had held on a pedestal fell from their exalted place in my mind. If you talked to me during the spring of this year, you would know that I had become cynical of nearly everyone around me. I felt like every.single.day someone I admired acted in a way I could not reconcile with my idea of who they were. But people are complex (thanks for the wise words, Stephen!). We act virtuous in some situations and may show different colors in another. Even Christians. Even friends. Even Martin Luther King Jr. ( I really struggled with this one haha) Even __fill in your own blank__. Sanctification is a life-long process and sin will rear its head in everyone’s heart from time to time. There is so much freedom in letting go of the absolutes and embracing the variability. I am striving to take each person I encounter at face value. Before me is a complex person with the capacity for both good and evil. This in turn lends me the opportunity to either be encouraged or extend grace. And this is always a good, good thing.
  6. Empathy plays a unique role in compassion. My ability to feel compassion has been hugely impacted over the past year. My eyes have been opened to the depth of suffering in this world and on one hand, I have never felt so  inundated with compassion in my life. On the other hand, I have found myself apathetic at times to the comparatively trivial struggles of every day life. It has become hard to be a good friend to those who have not experienced what I have experienced. They say that love is a choice not a feeling, and I’m starting to learn that the same goes for compassion. This is where empathy lends itself to the equation. If compassion is the heart-feeling, empathy is the choice- the choice to mentally engage and sit in another’s skin for a while. A lot of times, compassion is a natural reaction to someone else’s pain. But for the times when it is not so natural, empathy allows us to choose to feel it anyways, in the context of their world, because hurting humans remind us that this world is broken and no amount of brokenness (no matter how big or seemingly small) is beyond the reach of the healing and redemptive power of Christ. This brings me to the last lesson:
  7. Everyone’s values, beliefs, and perspectives are shaped in every way by the life they have experienced. I need to recognize this and respond to others within this frame of mind. We are all perceiving a vastly different world and I cannot hold it against others that their perspective is informed by different experiences than my own.

Exchanging a year filled with tears and discomfort for these 7 nuggets and a vastly deeper understanding of our God and the world He loves so dearly is by far one of the best deals I have ever unwillingly accepted. I can confirm with confidence that I would trade a life characterized by my comfort and glory for a life filled with high highs and low lows alongside Jesus ANY DAY. Our God breathes purpose into suffering and chaos, friends! (Genesis 50:20) And today, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of that purpose.

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