stretching.

[This post originally appeared in House2House Magazine.]

When my husband and I moved to Detroit, we purchased a house on the Northwest side of the city, with our heart’s set on providing a safe home for our friends following Jesus and friends we would make who don’t yet know Him. It’s a decent-sized two-story house, with an apartment upstairs, an apartment on the main floor and now a fully finished basement apartment. At this present moment, we have two married couples, an unborn baby, two single guys, two single girls, and a kitten that only a few of us even like all living together. Together we have just endured the longest, coldest, snowiest winter Michigan has seen in 40-some years.

There are some serious perks to living in community. My husband and I are both in grad school and have extra expenses with a baby on the way, so the additional rent income from our housemates has been a miraculous lifesaver for us. The heat bill has been astronomical this winter, but with so many people sharing in the expense the burden has been bearable. With three refrigerators in the house, there’s almost always guaranteed to be an egg to borrow, or really anything you need for that matter. One of our housemates works at Whole Foods, so whatever forgotten grocery can’t be borrowed can be delivered when she gets home from work. There’s always someone to help dig you out when your car gets stuck in the snow or ice (and believe me, it happened many, many times this winter.) There’s almost always someone home to get packages from the FedEx guy and switch the laundry to the dryer when you forget. Often when I am really hankering for something sweet, someone bakes cookies and offers me one. Our 6am Friday morning prayer is now held in our living room, which means I can roll out of bed at 5:55am, stay in my PJs, and still make it on time.

A wise man named Joe Steinke has been known to say, “Community reads romantically and lives sacrificially.”

He’s right. There’s a least 30 pairs of boots clogging up the entry way. The wooden floors in our old house creak, which means every you can hear every step anyone ever takes. Everyone has different work schedules so you might hear music, conversations, a blender, coffee grinder, or singing coming from any part of the house at any given moment … and definitely always when you are desperate for a nap or need to crank out another page of homework before its due in an hour. The closets are bursting at the seams. The floors get dirtier faster and the bathroom rug always looks gross no matter how often I vacuum. Without fail, someone will set their stuff on the table or put a dirty dish in the sink minutes after I’ve just finished cleaning. The door to the entryway gets left open, which means the guys in the basement freeze. Stuff gets broken, the kitten eats plants, parking spots are rare commodities. There’s a line for the shower when I really have to pee and a line for the washer when I have no clean socks left. There’s often an extra person or two… or five… hanging around unexpectedly at dinnertime, which is great… unless you were banking on taking leftovers to work for lunch tomorrow. And to top it off, its been -10 outside for half the winter, which means escaping to the front porch or usually tranquil backyard are not an option. In fact, some days this winter, escaping at all has been impossible unless you wanted to risk your life driving on 3 inches of ice and 6 inches of snow.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

This week I had a moment. Truthfully, I have a LOT of moments… definitely every day, sometimes every hour, but for now I’ll just confess one.

My husband and I had bought a package of organic, grass-fed beef bacon at the farmer’s market over the weekend. It was a little on the pricey side, but since being pregnant I’ve been trying to eat more protein for this little guy growing inside of me, so we felt like it was a worthwhile investment. I woke up starving this particular morning and knew just what I wanted – a solid breakfast with eggs, kale, left over homemade spelt cornbread and that fantastic bacon awaiting me in the fridge.

As I am preparing this breakfast for Myles and I, he is in the dining room helping one of our housemates polish up her resume. The whole time I am cooking I am simultaneously having a serious internal conflict: should I offer her some too? It would obviously be a kind gesture, something Jesus would do. But quite frankly, I don’t want to. This bacon is delicious. It was expensive, and I want to make it last for a few more meals. Our housemate isn’t much of a meat-eater, and besides I can see her empty cereal bowl on the counter, clearly indicating she already had breakfast. I should offer her some… but I don’t need to… I could… but that means less for me. By the time breakfast finishes sizzling, I successfully talk myself out of it, hand Myles his plate of steamy goodness, and retreat to my room to eat in peace and spend time with Jesus before heading to work.

The bacon tasted even better than I thought it might, but I was miserable the whole time eating it.

I can say that I trust God to provide for all my needs, that there is no lack in His kingdom. I can say that He gives me my daily bread – that I have never gone without. I could write out the entire history of my life and show you hundreds of examples of miraculous provision.

I can say that whoever sows generously will reap generously.

I can write a check to a friend whose dad just died or buy coats for some neighborhood boys that have outgrown theirs.

But the truth is, I am fearful. All these years of following Jesus, and I still genuinely think I have to provide for myself. I don’t actually really think there is enough to go around. I still doubt God will intervene. I have put limits on generosity… which isn’t really even generosity then, is it?

Sitting with Jesus, eating that stupid piece of bacon, He showed me that everyday living in this house I am faced with a series of choices: I can pretend that I am entitled to a certain amount of space and quiet – calling on my rights as a member of Western Culture – disregarding the fact that most of the rest of the world shares less space and less food with more people, and forgetting that I actually belong to a Greater Kingdom. I can ignore the prodding in my spirit towards generosity and seek my own provision and comfort. I can fake a smile, hide in my room, and secretly pray for everyone to disappear.

Or I can embrace the tension. I can acknowledge that my discomfort is revealing deeper sin and let it be confronted by love and mercy. I can allow the Holy Spirit to stretch me, to make me more like Jesus. I can look my doubt and fear straight in the face, over and over, a dozen times a day. I can make the most of this crowded season, because the reality is, that without these beautiful human beings all up in my space, I would continue living blissfully unaware of how far I am from true dependence on Jesus.

Pretty soon, we’ll have a baby boy joining us in this full house of ours. From what my friends who are parents tell me, the sacrifice that comes with kiddos brings on a whole new level of revelation about selflessness. Right now my belly feels like its stretched as far as it can go right now, and I have this feeling that the rest of me is about to be stretched when he finally arrives.

Cheers to more real, true dependence on Jesus for everything. Knowing Him more fully is so worth it all.

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my Higher Power.

[This story was initially featured in House2House Magazine…]

About a month ago, my husband and I were in the chiropractor’s office for an exam. My husband had been having hip and back pain for far too long. I too had a nagging little pain in my lower back, and at 6 months pregnant, I thought I ought to have it checked in case it would affect my ability to labor. Because Myles had been in chronic pain for many months, we fully expected his report to be worse and my report to be something minor. But instead, the scan of Myles’ back showed only one trouble area, and he passed his stress test with flying colors. I, on the other hand, was quite a different story. My back scan showed a whole slew of trouble spots, I was having muscle spasms on over half of my spine, and my stress test was… well, frankly, embarrassingly out of control.

As we stared at the results on the computer screen he chiropractor gave me a stern look. “I don’t want to worry you, but this is BAD. You have got to do something to lower stress in your life.”

He thought for a second. “Do you do yoga or meditation?”

“I pray,” I responded.

“Well, you need to get in touch with your Higher Power and seek some serious wisdom about this! Especially because stress has a major effect on your baby.”

There’s nothing like getting horrible results on a stress test to stress you out even more. I was a wreck the rest of the afternoon, overcome by anxiety, and deeply troubled that my little baby could be harmed by my state. That night, after Family Dinner, I pulled a few women into my bedroom, shared the results with them and tearfully asked them to help me “seek my Higher Power.” I felt like I’d already made a few hard choices at the beginning of the semester in order to maintain a lower stress level and keep the baby healthy and I was dismayed by the negative report. My friends graciously and patiently sought Jesus with me.

Later as Myles and I climbed into bed, I began to consider something I never would have considered on my own. I am currently in graduate school, and was quite determined to finish by the time our son is born at the end of April. This meant I was enrolled in two classes and I was attempting to write a Master’s essay, while working 20 hours a week, and maintaining my commitments to our community. I was convinced that I needed to have my degree completed before the baby came and had not even considered postponing graduation. But in the midst of seeking God’s voice, I felt that perhaps I should just focus on my classes and write my essay next semester instead.

To understand the weight of this decision, you should know that I am an extremely competitive and driven individual, particularly when it comes to academics. I have always pushed myself, and have always found much of my identity in my ability to excel in this arena. I graduated from high school before my peers and I finished my undergraduate degree – a double major and a minor with honors – by the time I was 20 years old. All the while leading 3 different campus ministries. But, I was also a far cry from healthy. I gained a lot of weight in college, suffered from a few different bizarre stress-induced sicknesses, and was an emotional wreck. On paper, my college years might impress someone, but my personal life was such a mess that I rarely think of them with fondness.

I fell asleep wrestling with myself and with God’s gentle, persistent voice.

There is no one in the world telling you that you have to finish in April besides yourself.

But this is not me… I always get done faster, not slower!

Your essay is already paid for because of your scholarship and you have five YEARS to finish it by the university’s standards.

But this is not my plan.

What is coming first in your plan, your ego or the growth of your child?

You’d think that last line would have gotten me, but if I’m honest, I woke up still wrestling. After getting ready for my day, I sat down with my bowl of granola and banana. I was leaning towards postponing my essay, but I still wasn’t 100% convinced it was the right thing to do. I opened my little prayer book to the Wednesday morning prayer, and tried to turn my heart towards Jesus. Here’s exactly what it said:

“Let us arise today in the Spirit’s power:

In place of fear, God’s strength to uphold me;

in the place of emptiness, God’s wisdom to guide me;

In the place of confusion, God’s eye for my seeing;

In the place of discord, God’s ear for my hearing;

In the place of froth, God’s word for my speaking;

To save me from false agendas that harm my body or soul.”

(The letters in bold were literally in bold in the prayer book.) The Lord doesn’t always give me answers in bold letters on page, but that morning He sure did! I knew instantly that my plan was a false agenda that was harming my body and soul and my baby’s body too. I knew that my “Higher Power” had indeed granted me wisdom for my life, and that I needed to lay down my plans and my ego.

Can I give a testimony? These days I am truthfully the least stressed I have been in years. My internal state is calm, and my body is healthy. This is quite possibly the first winter in my whole life that I haven’t been sick. Because I’m not spending every spare minute writing an essay, I have time to embrace a more sane lifestyle. And you know what? I have a bit of revival in my heart these days. I am hearing from God more clearly on a daily basis than I have in a long, long time. My spirit is more receptive to Him, and I am far more aware of His presence with me. I feel the desert places inside me springing to new life, and I find myself wondering how much of that desert was self-inflicted.

When I made the decision to postpone my graduation, my husband was so relieved he cried! I had no idea how much my drivenness was affecting not just my baby, but my marriage and my relationship with God. My false agenda was simply getting in the way of things that are the most valuable to me and the most valuable to eternity. That chiropractor didn’t know it, but my Higher Power really is the wisest.

takeover.

“Guys, these are all really amazing ideas, but I’m not sure that we’re really getting at the point of the project. We’re supposed to be generating ideas about how to raise multicultural awareness in our respective communities, and all these suggestions are super nice things we can do for people, but they don’t really raise multicultural awareness.”

Blank stares.

It’s a group project – do you know the kind of which I speak? The kind where you’re headed nowhere fast and there is definitely a time limit. The kind where you are supposed to collaborate together and do a presentation with a specific goal in mind, and there might be a lot of excitement, but there’s no real vision and no real leader.

Somehow, I almost always end up taking over in those moments. I blame it on my take-charge-and-make-something-happen personality that the good Lord granted me. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but moments like these it comes in handy.

I re-read the goal of the project at least 3 times, but all I get is more enthusiastic off-base ideas and more blank stares. So I start scrambling for an example to get the wheels turning.

“Okay, well for example, my husband and I and our housemates have what’s called ‘Family Dinner‘ every Tuesday night. We invite our neighbors kids, co-workers, classmates, random people visiting to the city. Most people bring an ingredient to help make the meal or a dish to share, except the kids – they usually just show up with a lot of energy! We sit together, there’s always black and white, sometimes Latino and Asian too. Some people share our faith, and some people don’t. Every week we take turns telling good stories from the week, things that God has done for us or miracles we’ve seen. We take turns doing dishes afterwards, playing card games with the kids and helping them with their homework. Family Dinner is a way we raise multicultural awareness in our community because there are always people who are different from each other eating together and learning from each other. I mean, maybe the Mexican guy who works at the grocery store never would have talked to twin African-American boys from the West side or heard their story, but now he has because he came to dinner the other night.”

Let me get this straight: when I walked into class that night, I had zero intentions of sharing about Family Dinner. In fact, if I’m honest, I don’t usually think about Family Dinner in terms of “raising multicultural awareness.”

No more blank stares. Now I’m looking at dropped jaws instead. Quickly followed by the clamor of a dozen questions.

“This is simply amazing! Wow! How long have you been doing this?”

“Well, when we moved into the neighborhood last year. At first it was just a few of us, but now there’s probably 15-20 people that show up every week. But I mean, we did this in Kansas City before we moved here.”

Shock and awe. I’m not telling you this to win brownie points right now. I’m telling you, because truthfully, I was surprised that they were so surprised. I regularly forget how foreign the ways of Jesus are to people who don’t know Him.

“How did you think of this idea? Did someone show you this, did you read about it somewhere? Did you just think of this?? I mean, this is truly incredible.”

I stumbled for words. I scratched my head. I couldn’t think of how I got the idea; I couldn’t trace it back to one moment. Sharing food with my spiritual family and with people who don’t yet know Jesus is simply the way I’ve come to follow Jesus. It’s an expression of my faith. It’s normal life for me. Maybe I heard about it somewhere. I guess I did – the first followers of Jesus shared food and everything else! And followers of Jesus have been living church in this way every since. I assure you that however I ended up explaining that to my classmates was much less than glamorous and eloquent .

My lack of articulation didn’t matter. They dubbed me “the community expert” on the spot and kept asking questions.

“Has anything more come out of these ‘Family Dinners’?”

“Well sure, all the time… a few months ago someone brought someone who brought this guy who had just been kicked out of the place he was staying. Now he’s living with us.”

(And he gave his life to Jesus, is growing in his faith, and is getting mentored by our community.)

I could go on, but long story short, we ended up planning our whole group project and presentation around the idea of Family Dinner. No longer aimless, we had a vision. No longer undirected, we had a leader. And I do not mean my take-charge-personality self. I mean Jesus stepped in my group in class that night and gave us His vision for multicultural awareness. I can imagine Him chuckling over this group of stumped graduate students attempting to solve a classic social problem. Who better to strategize, than the Creator of all cultures and diversity on the Planet Himself? He’s been inviting everyone to His table for ages.

Literally, ages.

And if I may be so bold, I do believe our group project is the best of the whole class. Of course, why wouldn’t it be? Our Leader is a brilliant, funny Genius!

[Published recently in House2House Magazine.]

two truths and a lie.

“I am 27 years old. I’m in here for first-degree murder. And I have a beautiful mother.”

We’re playing a game called two truths and a lie. Have you heard of that game? Its a funny little icebreaker to help people get to know each other. The idea is that you tell people three things about yourself – two of those things must be true and one of those things must be something you make up. Your partners must then guess which of the facts you made up.

My partners in this game both happen to be inmates at a men’s prison. And I happen to be their classmate for the semester. The course is a an elective I chose in my Criminal Justice graduate program, and its called “Inside Out” – they are the “inside” students and I am one of a handful of “outside” students who drive over an hour to the prison each week with our professor.

Our first night of class is spent attempting to make everyone comfortable engaging with each other. Hence the game.

So here I am, facing a rather handsome gentleman who has just presented me and his fellow inmate with three facts about his life. Most of the other guys I’ve been chatting with stuck to small talk, but this guy just put himself completely out there right off the bat, I think to myself. I immediately look to the other inmate for guidance. “Well we know for sure he’s gotta have a beautiful mother, but… you know him better than I do! Which of the other two do you think it is?” “I think the lie is his age,” he says without even pondering. “Cause I know he’s in here for life.”

I’ll be honest. I felt just plain weird about assuming this guy had been charged with first degree murder. So I tossed my alternative guess his way. “Is the second one a lie?”

He laughs and for a minute teases that he won’t tell us which one it is. But he quickly caves. “I’m actually 33 years old.”

“Aaaahhh you totally could pass as younger!” I joke and turn to the next guy to continue the game.
But the first fellow is not at all ready to move on yet.

“What did you think when you realized I am actually here for murder?” His question is aimed at me and face is quite full of concern. “I mean, have you…. have you ever met anyone like me before?”

It’s a weighty moment. The make-it-or-break-it kind, when you know your next words have all the power to calm the storm or all the power to let it rage. Its the kind of moment I always feel Jesus made us for.

I lean forward and look the man square in the eyes. “I know lots of people like you. I have many friends who have been in trouble with the law. In fact, the reason I am studying Criminal Justice right now is because I have seen a great many people I care about stuck in this system and I want to see it reformed. I believe that we do not give people who want to right their wrongs the opportunity to so. And I believe that we do not give people who want to change the opportunity to do that either.”

Relief floods his eyes, and he settles back in his chair.

I’m sure I’ll be tearing up over this one later, because I know that relief in his eyes all too well. Its the relief I feel in my own chest. This is the exact conversation Jesus has with me every day. He is undaunted by the reality of my mistakes. He looks my brokenness square in the face and reassures me that He is not scared by it, not uncomfortable with it, and not willing to leave me in bondage to its consequences. He has lots of friends like me. And He is moved with compassion towards all of us. He gives us abundant opportunity to right our paths and change our ways. I believe He is far more convinced of the power of our destinies than we are.

[Posted in House 2 House Magazine]

paint me a mural; call it church

Let’s paint a picture.

Let’s paint a Puerto Rican single mom and her toddling half-Mexican daughter.  Let’s add a teenage black boy.  And his two sisters, one twelve years old, the other seventeen.  Let’s paint a Nigerian doctor, and a white nurse who was raised in Hawaii.  Let’s paint a white college student studying fashion, and a black one studying audiology.  A Brazilian soccer coach, and his newly wedded dancer wife.  A Colombian railroad worker.  A black rapper.  A white guy who owns his own computer business.  A black teen mom who has been separated from her daughter.  Let’s paint a half-Argentinean guy from California and his roommate from Kansas.  And let’s add one more white girl into that mix.

Stroke that brush and depict them sharing a meal.  Someone makes some soup.  Someone brings some bread and cheese.  Sandwiches are made. A pretty cake appears, and someone else traipses through the door with homemade mint tea in hand.

Let’s paint this small crowd sharing this meal in the living room of a two-bedroom triplex located on the border of the impoverished and crime-ridden part of the city.  Let’s paint a scene where the fifteen-year-old black kid leads the whole group in remembering Jesus’ great sacrifice by offering them a broken piece of a pita chip dipped in glass of Coca-Cola.  Stories are told from the week, stories of how the God who upholds the universe by the word of His Power invades each of their own little worlds.

Paint a book with words of life, and everyones hands held open on their laps.  Paint understanding pouring out in the form of simplicity off the lips of the twelve-year-old.  Paint tears in a few eyes.  Paint light dancing in many hearts.  Let’s be sure to paint smiles. And great sobs. And uncontrollable laughter.

Let’s paint the picture of these beautiful people praying for the sick in their midst.  Show how some are healed immediately.  Let’s not forget to add the scene where one girl’s leg is shorter than the other and grown miraculously on the spot.  Paint the prophetic words that fly around the room, and the ones that fly across the city via phones and laptops.  Depict the teenagers helping the single mom distract her little one, so she can have a twenty-minute break.

Paint that picture in such a way that we know that a few of those individuals have not yet made decisions to follow Jesus.  And several just started following Him a few months ago.  A handful more have known Him for just a couple of years.  Only a few have really known Him long.

In the middle of the painting, show the highschool students breaking up fights at their strife-ridden schools.  Show the Nigerian doctor sharing the good news of Jesus to a pregnant girl in his clinic.  Paint the nurse praying fearlessly over each of her ill patients, at the risk of losing her job.  Paint a few of the crowd driving their dear friend to the emergency room and taking her tiny kids home for the weekend.  By the way, their friend is a stripper & addict with sickness ravaging her body.  Let’s paint a scene where the computer business owner takes flowers to the eighteen-year-old while she recovers in the hospital after being shot in a drive-by shooting.

Paint these beautiful people crowded around a fountain nearby, as someone who just experienced the forgiveness of Jesus gets baptized by someone who has never baptized anyone before.

I wanted to paint a picture.  I suppose we painted a mural.  I suppose if we painted all this it would take up the whole side of one of these dilapidated buildings I can see out the back window that faces Troost Avenue.  If we paint with broad strokes it might cover a few.

What shall we name this lovely mural?

Let’s call it church.

(Note:  This is not a far-off dream.  This is not a bunch of nice ideas.  This is my present reality.  I have personally experienced all of these things happening within the last month, both here with my local spiritual family and as I have spent time with spiritual families on the other side of the nation.  I am in awe of what can happen when people begin to encounter the love of God for them.  I’ve tasted the miracle that Jesus called “church.”  And all I want is MORE.  This times a million, doused with even greater hope, greater faith, greater compassion.)