Renewal Is All Around Us

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Not a day goes by without me thinking, “I’d rather be stacking shelves in a grocery shop!” I am primary school teacher, you see. At times, the job can be extremely stressful, but through it I get to experience the magic of having direct access to God’s power to restore and renew. How does that work? 
The truth is, when you’re fully immersed into the lives of other people, their pain may hurt you, but as they heal and become restored, their joy, their renewal becomes your own. 

As a teacher, I see children, parents and colleagues get ill, grumpy, angry, sad, or go through painful experiences of separation, betrayal and failure. Not long ago, one of the children in my class nearly lost his dad to cancer. The boy was fragile, vulnerable and needy as it was. His mum and dad went through a painful separation. Then his dad got diagnosed with cancer. All at once and within just a couple of months. The horrendous situation had a strong impact on me as well. But I stayed with them as their world fell apart, and as they journeyed toward renewal, I was able to join them and experience it as well. His dad went through a successful operation and is continuing to get better. Both parents seem more cooperative and are exploring the way forward. The boy is happier, and when I see him being cheeky with his dad who is now able to come to school again, it is as if I have also been given a new chance, a new life, a new beginning. 

Not only do I see it in my life, but I also see it in Scripture. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (NIV Rom 12:15.) We are meant to experience deep sadness as well as great joy together. We are expected to share other people’s burdens. We are meant to stick with those who are stuck themselves, to be there with them when they are yet miles away from any prospect of renewal. It is about staying there with them, even when and especially when their pain is completely foreign to us. When there seems to be no renewal, we are to sustain each other on God’s behalf, regardless of the particulars of the situation.  

I find it curious that the word “rejoice” has the same prefix in it as renewal. It is as if we are meant to be with people as they are rediscovering joy. They may have lost it for some reason but are now entering a new stage. There is re-storation and re-newal of some sort, and this is why they are re-joicing, and we are meant to rejoice with them.
To be honest, celebrating other people’s successes, breakthroughs and victories can be a challenge. Sometimes we make negative comparisons or we’re too busy looking for our own renewal. We feel like we can’t possibly be wasting our time celebrating awesome changes in other people’s lives when we’re trying to make some of our own. But God didn’t create us to stay in our little bubbles. He made us as a huge part of his huge world, and it is for my benefit as well as others when I learn to mourn and rejoice with those around me. 

As I started to look for renewal around me, I began to see it everywhere. I see it in my other half as he recovers from his father’s death. He’s begun to enjoy life again, and I too smile, feel safe and think, “Everything is going to be alright.” I see it when I write to my pen-friend Tony, who has been on the Death Row, in solitary confinement, for more than 20 years now. Despite that he continues to live and breathe, and hopes to one day be proven innocent. His commitment to this never-ending journey of renewal gives me hope and strengthens my faith.

Renewal is all around us. We must simply train our eyes to notice it. We must train our hearts to invest in others. It’s in doing it together that helps us experience the wonder of new life, the wonder of renewal. 

Celebrities, Marriages, and Hope

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I saw a headline this week while I was standing in line at the bookstore and my heart froze. “Jen & Ben. Together in Paris: He Wants Her Back”. Was this true? It was on the cover of People, the most reputable celebrity magazine, so it has to be true, right?

I came home and read a few articles, hoping to glean bits of truth from the anonymous sources. Is she pregnant, is she not, are they just co-parenting, are they in love?

Back in the day, I used to be celebrity-obsessed. My first websites I made in high school – on Geocities and Angelfire – were about Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince William. I thought outgrew a lot of it. I know they are just people living their lives and doing their thing.

But then I took a quick trip to Los Angeles 3 years ago and got to spend the whole day by myself. I pretty much lost my soul. I spent a good hour at a counter, with my camera out, waiting for a 60 second scene being shot for New Girl. I mean, I got it, and it was the coolest thing ever, but still.

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Nick!!!

Apparently, I haven’t outgrown all of it. And when it comes to caring about Ben and Jen, I know I’m not alone. I know this because one day in June last year I had a status that said NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. And everyone knew what I was talking about!! Because we all wanted them to be the couple that makes it. (Speaking of which, I also saw a magazine that has a cover story with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson about their marriage and faith that looked good. But I didn’t buy it. See, progress!)

There’s something about celebrity that captures our imagination. If only I had all the money in the world, I could be happy, be in love, be popular. Stories like these can be voyeuristic, sure. But I also think they can be a way of humanizing people so often objectified and consumed thoughtlessly.

To see famous people struggling is on one hand encouraging, because gosh, if people who have everything can’t hack it…..and on the other hand, it’s depressing, because gosh if people who have everything can’t hack it…

I think there is something in us that yearns for restoration and renewal of relationships. Somehow we’re wired for hope. We want to hope that amidst the business and power and sexism of Hollywood that there is some good. That there can be normal families, and like Jennifer said, a real marriage. We want there to be restoration. Whether or not that’s feasible, we want it. We all know places where separation and divorce have taken place and for a lot of people, it’s been the best option, the most healing thing. But we want Ben and Jen back together, and for Ben to shape up and be good enough for her. We want a happy ending, proof that love and hard work can work.

And I think we want to believe – or at least, I do – that people who have everything can still be like us. That in a culture as notorious as Hollywood, people can still be good and normal and find happiness and love.

I think there is also something about breaking out of prescribed boxes, where only certain experiences and attitudes are allowed. Only stories of drugs and sex allowed in Hollywood; no genuine marriages allowed. Only happy marriages allowed in church; no struggling or divorces allowed. I find hope in people who’ve found the courage to buck the system, no matter what system they’re operating in.

I want to believe that even in a place like Hollywood, genuine love can be found and kept. Because if, in a place as hard and soul-sucking as L.A., love can be found and kept, then maybe there is hope for the non-glamourous lives of the rest of us.

And I know that our happiness and the successes of our relationships don’t hinge on the success of Ben and Jen.

But still.

I want them back together.

Do We Idolize the Brokenness?

FencesI was 17 and living in my small town with two stoplights when I declared I wanted to grow up and become an urban missionary. And I was 19 when I left college to spend a year serving in downtown Atlanta. It was a crash course on life in the margins, and I was hooked. Living among the poor was where I learned to be an adult, where my faith was challenged and deepened, and where my understanding of the world as it is was formed.

After a few years in school and other cities, my husband and I bought our home back in Atlanta seven years ago. At that time, almost a third of the houses in our neighborhood were boarded up and abandoned. They’d been mined for copper and become makeshift shelters or places to hide nefarious business dealings from the public eye.

We joined a group of Christian community developers already at work creating spaces of mixed income housing, economic opportunity, youth programs, and more. They were doing transformational work, and we were excited to be a part as intentional neighbors in the community. I was living out the dreams of my youth.  

But after seven years, here’s the thing. Our neighborhood is changing.

A small coffee shop has stayed open and provided community space for socializing and local meetings. Artists have repurposed rundown buildings for creativity. We’d been a food desert for decades, but a year ago, a local market opened. That may or may not sound like a big deal, but after years of half-hour car rides (or hours longer on the bus) for milk, these are signs to my neighbors and me that our community is being restored. It’s coming back to life.

And what if it does?   

Urban renewal and gentrification are not new ideas. And many who care about the poor worry that an influx of new homeowners, ice cream shops, and well-supported schools will push out longtime residents to a new place of margin. This concern is valid and important.

In our neighborhood, though, fifteen years of conscious community development has come alongside current residents to prepare them to navigate the inevitable transition that is happening all over the country. Many of my neighbors own their own homes thanks to a housing agency that’s been quietly selling affordable homes and offering low interest loans. Some residents have purchased second properties to keep affordable rentals available. And the new grocery store hires locally and offers a product mix that serves recent and longtime neighbors alike. Shoppers can find hummus and pickled pig’s feet, local honey and loaves of white bread. In such a small store, the intentionality is clear.

My neighbors on the margins are being included in the mainstream renewal of our community, so isn’t that a good thing? I mean, of course it’s a good thing! I feel both hopeful and delighted. And yet, I also find myself questioning, wondering about my own place in this revitalization.   

Does my identity come from living in a neighborhood where outsiders would drive through with locked doors? That hardcore 17 year old who proclaimed she’d live her life in the margins—will she feel like a failure if the neighborhood is restored? Have I been here because I really want to see change or because I’ve wanted to be seen as doing something radical? Somewhere along the way, I had created a message that “doing hard things” was the way of following Jesus. And while that’s not entirely untrue, perhaps I had accidentally replaced my desire to follow Jesus with a search for suffering and sacrifice.

It makes me wonder if my theology idolizes brokenness and suffering and sacrifice without relationship to healing and redemption. Do I understand the death of Good Friday, but forget all about the joy of Resurrection Sunday? If my sense of self requires my neighborhood to stay disenfranchised so I may be validated, that is a serious problem.

But I am convicted that this work is not about me. I always hope to seek justice for and suffer with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, but I also want to recognize and embrace the redemption present before my very eyes. I want to enjoy the renewal in our midst and fully celebrate this season of restoration in my community.  We are witnessing the redemptive work of God in our schools, streets, and neighborhood spaces so this is our time to dance together and proclaim the goodness of God.

On Being Refinished

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Walk into St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on a Monday and you’ll be greeted with a distinct smell.  And not a pleasant smell at that!  The church has embarked on a project to refinish their pews.  I’m not sure if it coincided with the start of my attending worship there weekly, but it did seem fortuitous.  I attend worship there most Sundays because I’m no longer serving full-time in a church.  I’m home with my daughter.  I’m focusing on writing.  Like the pews I, too, am in need of some refinishing.  Of stripping.  Of sanding.  Of refining.  Of making new again.  

At St. Paul’s the pew refinishing project came about as many church projects come about – in preparation for a big celebration.  That would be the 100th birthday of the church building.  For 100 years people of faith have been walking through the church doors to find hope, solace, and peace.  For 100 years music has echoed through the building.  For 100 years sins have been confessed and forgiven.  For 100 years hearts have been broken and healed.  For 100 years people have wrestled with the big questions of life and death and faith and doubt.   Through it all, the church pews supported the bodies of those present.  Weak, strong, vulnerable, hopeful, hurting, young, aging, and growing bodies.  At some time or another anyone who came to St. Paul’s touched those pews.  

What stories those pews could tell.  The warmth of families gathered together.  The gossip heard.  The secrets confessed.  The memories etched into the very fiber of the pews.  The melodies and harmonies of every hymn in the book pulsating through them.  God’s word proclaimed in each grain of wood.  These pews have stories.  Life.  Love.  Grace.  They tell a story of a particular group of people living in a particular place.  So after years of supporting the faith of so many and witnessing so much, the pews have their turn for rest.  For refinishing.

The process and attention given to each pew is long and arduous.  It’s also prayerful and holy.  Calming and meditative.  Each pew garners the full attention of the workers for a few days.  Moving.  Cleaning.  Stripping.  Sanding.  Finishing.  In gratitude for the decades of support, the workers carefully refinish each pew; trusting that their past will continue to nourish and support the church in the future.  

By Easter the two sides of the church had been completed so that it is unmistakable to see the difference from the not-yet finished center section.  The refinished, stripped, and sanded pews stand in their original, lighter color.  The weeks of work are evident to anyone who enters the sanctuary.  To sit on a refinished pew is to sit upon decades of history.  To sit down is to continue to be a part of the faith community striving and struggling to live as God’s people.  But to look at each pew, you see a difference.  

That difference in the pews goes beyond simply a color change.  It’s not just from what is seen on the outside, but the work that went into them that makes the difference.  That difference goes to the heart of living as a disciple of Jesus.  That difference is our call in this world.  Jesus called to the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26).  That difference is what I’m striving toward this year.  The work done on the pews taught me about the refinishing work I need to do.  I’ve witnessed the pew workers day after day, week after week.  They work for hours with their hands calloused and their backs hunched over.  They work as a team moving the pews back and forth from the sanctuary.  Hard, physical, demanding work.  

My soul yearns for some of this same refinishing.  This denying of myself to find and know Jesus.  Some of my own stripping of unhealthy behaviors.  Some of my own sanding of rough edges.  My own renewal.  I don’t know what the outcome will be or whether it’ll be noticeable from the outside.  I only know it’s a process that will take work.  And struggle.  And commitment.  And pain.  And hope and trust.  A process meant to be done in community.  Done with this St. Paul’s community that understands the importance of hard, grueling spiritual work that will be sustaining and nurturing.  

I have my own ideas of what I need to strip away to live a more God-centered life: attachment to things, envy, acedia.  The constant need to be connected through the phone and social media.  The desire to please.  

I also know that in the process of refinishing it’s important to give thanks to all that is within me, all the places I’ve been, and all the people who have supported me.  So I pause first to give thanks.  To know that I am a gift and marvelously created in God’s image.  That the One who fashioned me before I was born is the One who will continue to mold and shape me.    

It is the season of Easter now; the shouts of Alleluia are louder than any shouts of grief and lament at Jesus’ death.  Jesus is risen!  The future is being made new each and every day in the presence of the empty tomb.  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Each Sunday that we gather for worship at St. Paul’s I sit on these newly refinished pews knowing full well the time and work and attention given to them.  I give thanks offering a prayer for this life given and shared.  And then I look forward to the hard work of being made new.   

The Restoration We Find through Confession

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Confession has never been a feel-good word to me. I grew up in a Korean Presbyterian church, so confession often meant something along the lines of punishment, sinner, dirty, shame. Shame for the things we had done. Shame for the ways we had failed. Shame for not being able to overcome. Shame for even feeling shame. A prayer of confession ended with an amen drenched in guilt rather than freedom and forgiveness. We were taught to be tough, to have it all together, to cover up weakness, to confess our brokenness silently before God but not to one another.

Over time we wrapped our identities around the idea that being a Jesus follower meant being joyous and victorious without fail. It meant we could and should sustain our faith and the practices of it on our own and without help. It meant not struggling with sin but overcoming it. It meant stepping higher, becoming stronger, growing holier. Otherwise, only the opposite could be true- that our faith must not be good enough.

It’s a shaky foundation to be standing on. And this is when I wonder if the Catholic Church got it right. Would we be better off if we got into the rhythm of confessing to one another as they do to their priests? Confession even among pastors- or maybe even more so among pastors- is a rarity, and I wish it weren’t so. I think about the lives, the families, the churches that could’ve been spared. The damage and the hurt that could’ve been avoided. I think about how ministries and leadership teams could’ve been revived, how integrity and community could’ve been fostered.

Confessing in quiet prayer before God is good and needed, but confessing out loud to a trusted friend opens the door to a whole new level of healing and restoration. It allows for us to be priests to one another. To minister to each other, to repent on behalf of the other, to become the open door through which the breeze of grace flows. It breaks the stronghold of sin and exposes the darkness we’d rather hide.

It softens us. Yes, it makes us vulnerable, but it allows us to apply the balm of the gospel into each other’s souls. We get to sing the truth over one another, and hearing it from the other’s mouth helps restore us back to our true identity. The going back and forth of confessing and truth-telling reminds us that we are His beloved, His desired ones. It helps us to remember that we were created for more, that we are being made into Christ’s likeness, that He is our greatest Reward. Our identity as sons and daughters of God is restored, and we once again stand in that place of confidence.

Confessing to one another, when it’s done well, lets us experience true community. Could anything be sweeter and holier than that? True community is meant to give us a glimpse of the communion we have with God- to be wholly seen and wholly loved. And from this foundation of love, we can understand the freeing power of authenticity. The freedom to be weak. The freedom to need help. The freedom and lightness that comes from bearing each other, of holding each other up, of linking arms and walking together. When we come to the end of ourselves and invite others into the mess, we can become restored to our truest selves, our most loved and secure selves through one another.

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed (James 5:16 MSG)

We need each other. We need confession in our lives. We need to get into the rhythm of confessing to one another so that we can become whole and healed, so that we can become an authentic community. We need this to happen in the leadership of the Church, for the sake of the Church. We need this to happen for those outside the Church to see that we are in need of grace just as much as they are.

Let’s make it a common practice. Let’s confess to one another so that we may be restored.

For When I Am Yearning

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There is a bridal portrait, 8 ½x11 in a crackled frame that sits atop my husband’s dresser in our bedroom. In it, I am twenty years old, blonde hair, shock white smile, blue eyes glistening at the hope of the future. My veil spills out all around me and though I am covered in a dress made of up seemingly endless layers, I appear to somehow be weightless, floating on the clouds of what is to come, of joy and contentment and love. I look at that picture, sometimes alone, sometimes with my three-year-old standing by my side, exclaiming, “Mommy! You looked like a princess!” I think about how few days have felt princess-like since then, about how many components of our life do not reflect the fairy tale that our wedding seemed to promise.

There are days now, nearly 8 years down the road, a few moves and two children and health issues and so many unexpected twists later, that I long to be restored to that twenty-year-old self. She had known hardship, but she had not yet known that moment in the doctor’s office when the news is grim, when the air seems to disappear from the atmosphere and nothing will ever be the same. She had known exhaustion, but she had not known the feeling of near collapse at 3am, when the baby will not sleep and the night will not end. She had known deep sadness, but she had not known the crushing weight of depression, of feeling as though life was a labyrinth, as though the Minotaur at the center of the maze was anxious to devour her.

My twenty-year-old self did not think our life would be perfect, not at all. She knew that suffering was a part of life, that to walk with Jesus is to have troubles in this world yet to take heart. But some truths rest upon the surface of our hearts until life drives them deeper, and these past eight years have contained many a moment of hammer to nail, truths driven into my heart whether I wanted them or not.

I look at that portrait and I want to be her again, some days. I want to live in her castle. She represents certain freedoms I no longer have, certain choices, and certain naivety that no longer exist. To be her again, however, would not be restoration. It would be regression.

It’s so easy for me to believe that to go back to that place in time would be blissful, would seem fresh and like things had been made right again. But the ache in my soul is not an invitation to turn back to a place no longer open to me; it is an invitation to the deeper waters before me. While the possibility, even the experience, of pain may be multiplied, there is greater intimacy here, and even, dare I say, increased joy.

Without the creeping in of clinical depression, I would not know the profound freedom of confessing my need for help. Without countless trips to doctor’s appointments for our son with special needs, I would not know the bonds of friendship created by women who give up their days to come with us, who comfort me while I comfort my baby. Without hours gone by in the hospital lobby, I would not know the deep compassion stirred in my soul for families who do not have the resources and support that we do, who do not have meal calendars and gas in the tank and friends who bring wine and cheese and chocolate and sit on the couch when there is nothing left to do, nothing left to say.

I still long for the castle. There’s an undercurrent beneath the ache, one that reminds that I am a foreigner here, that the castle is where I will at last know true home. But could it be that my glimpses of that castle to come become clearer, become dearer, as I wade into these deeper more turbulent waters? Could it be that as I smile at my 20-year-old self, carry her innocence and tenderness in me, as I absorb the truths that life drives deep into my heart, hammer to nail, that I find myself living more fully in the present? The past and future held within me, with all of their hopes and promises, they strengthen me; they compel me to engage right where I am, right where all of this pain is, right where the Spirit and the people of God are opening their arms to me.

The hammer drives the nail of truths more deeply into my heart, and the circumstances of life press me further into intimacy with the Father, with His people. I know greater pain, but I know greater perseverance too. I know greater loss, but I know greater love. The castle will open its doors to me in due time, but until it does, I’ll walk the muddy road, past cherished, future promised, present, in all of its wild, wounding, wonderful glory.

An Urban Mayberry

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Large, inviting front porches. Walkable, well-lit streets. Shared green spaces. Sidewalks to encourage pedestrian traffic. Affordable, gorgeous, well-built homes. Close proximity to downtown. Block parties. Diversity. Children playing basketball on makeshift street courts. Neighbors greeting each other as they walk their dogs or shovel snow. Access to great schools. Bike lanes. Nearby, mixed-use commercial corridors.

This weekend I was listening to NPR’s coverage of the Mueller Community in Austin. For those who don’t follow this series, NPR is currently featuring a series of stories related to urban living in their Cities Project.

The Mueller Community was developed as a “masterwork of smart urban design” with many of the above-listed features. The old airport closed years ago and city planners and developers designated the 700 acres close to downtown Austin as a space for a new urban neighborhood.

Mueller, like other new urban neighborhoods, was designed and built for people who want to foster meaningful community. The homes are built close together, each home with a large inviting front porch, garages oriented in the back yard, and sidewalks that beckon pedestrians. In Mueller, neighbors spend time together on their porches, use the shared green spaces to celebrate birthday parties, walk their dogs, and enjoy the amenities of the neighborhood. They have easy access to downtown. They know their neighbors. Mueller, and neighborhoods like it, are built with people (not cars) in mind.

Like an Urban Mayberry.

Of course, Mueller is not the first neighborhood in the new urbanist movement. Most new urban neighborhoods have marketed themselves as sustainable, energy-efficient, diverse, walkable, mixed-use spaces with high population density and smart public transport. They offer a range of housing types (apartments, condos, single family) to encourage a diverse, vibrant market and range of affordability.

And people are buying.

Buyers in new urban neighborhoods are drawn to mental pictures of diversity, of multiracial children playing in the streets under the watchful eye of nearby adults sitting on a front porch and enjoying conversation after a long day at work. They imagine walking their dogs and stopping for an impromptu chat on the sidewalk. They see themselves walking to a park on a Saturday to relax, or biking to the nearby cafe for a morning coffee and the newspaper. It’s idyllic. They imagine a rich life, full of diverse friendships and meaningful connections.

I’m going to take a risk here and say that most of us say we want to live meaningful lives with diverse friendships, but our choices do not reflect that.

Let’s be honest. There is not a single thing new about this “new urbanism”. My 100 year old neighborhood touts all the features of new urbanist design, but to a better degree. The housing stock is better quality, more affordable, and the proximity is closer to downtown than many new urban neighborhoods. Yet there is no buzz, no media coverage, no frenzy of people buying up homes and developing the commercial corridors here.

You know why. We don’t know how to right the ship of existing urban neighborhoods, so we build new ships. It’s hard not to take it personally when developers and buyers would rather build an exact replica of my neighborhood (except use cheaper materials and craftsmanship), situate it farther from downtown, and pay three times more for said cheaper home farther away just so they don’t have to live in my neighborhood. What a bitter taste it leaves in my mouth. I cannot even imagine how some of my neighbors felt over the years as most white people moved out of the city and build whole new suburban societies that solely existed to exclude them.

I’m not mad at these new urban developments. I like sustainable, human-scaled, pedestrian neighborhoods as much as anyone in the new urbanist movement. I’m happy that people are recognizing an inherent need for community and are choosing to live in a built environment that promotes knowing one’s neighbor. But let’s call it what it is and it’s certainly not a “new” thing. Let’s call it Plan B. Because Plan A (moving into existing neighborhoods) is seen as just too hard.

We moved into the city of Milwaukee eight years ago for economic and relational reasons. When we were looking for our first home, we were living on the single salary of a full-time musician while I finished grad school. Obviously, our main determinate of a home was the price. We found a beautiful home we liked and accepted a dinner invitation from potential neighbors to hear more about the neighborhood before we committed to buy. From that dinner, we learned that many people had been moving to this neighborhood over the past 13 years to live in intentional community with each other.

We decided to buy that home, partially because the price was right and partially because we were just naive and adventurous enough to try something new. After telling people we planned to “move into the city” we received one of two responses:

 

1. “Wow, that’s awesome. You must feel really called to the city. But I could never do that.”
2. “You are crazy. Do you know what it’s like there?”

And as it turns out, we are neither crazy (that we know of) or dead, which is what the media may have you believe.

As we see it, it makes perfect sense for my husband (who works downtown) to enjoy a short commute on city streets rather than languishing in his car on the interstate. It makes sense for us to have an affordable, well-built home in a neighborhood that both stretches and enriches us beyond measure. We know and enjoy our neighbors. And our children are delighted with spontaneous play with neighborhood kids and invitations from empty nester neighbors to come and jump in the leaf pile in their front yard.

We sold our first home after living there for seven years and bought a boarded-up home one block away. Although this time we had the resources to buy elsewhere, we decided to purchase the boarded-up house without the naiveté we had the first time. I am thankful we had the opportunity to choose this neighborhood for a second time.

Yes, living in a diverse neighborhood has its challenges. I have looked foolish. I have said or done the wrong thing at the wrong time; I have had moments when people challenge my point of view and I don’t know what to say. I have had moments when I felt unsafe. But if I combined those moments together, they are outshone by the moments when I have enjoyed a block party, a spontaneous conversation with a neighbor, a helping hand from a neighbor with a snowblower, an 8-year-long-standing weekly dinner invitation from friends down the street, or a peaceful night on my front porch.

And it’s more stimulating, more challenging and more rewarding than anywhere else I’ve lived.

Of course, not everyone wants to live in an urban area. But for those of you who get excited about these new urban developments, please consider neighborhoods like mine as a viable option: we are the new urbanism. The urbanism that revives and restores, not the kind that builds from scratch and attempts to fill it so it can be considered “urban”. We have the opportunity and challenge to experience revival in these neighborhoods. We are the next new thing. We are the Insiders. We are not Plan B.

We need you, you Architects of Community, you Dreamers, you Entrepreneurs, you Artists, you Young Families, you Empty Nesters, you Change Agents. Not to be the savior of this neighborhood and neighborhoods like this, but just to be here, to live here, to bring your ideas and families here to experience the richness and diversity of living on the inside.

That is the new urbanism.

Where Stories Intersect

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Photo Credit: Rainier Martin Ampongan

 

I wouldn’t call us close friends. We had gone to school together our entire childhood. I remember her easygoing attitude, the big grin and contagious laugh. We had mutual friends, sat in some of the same classes and attended a lot of sleepovers together. Still, as adults our lives went in different directions and I didn’t give a second thought to us crossing paths again someday.

Until we did. In 2006, I saw Julie* for the first time in several years. She was one of two classmates who showed up to pay their respects at my dad’s funeral. They weren’t there for me necessarily. In recent years, they’d actually gotten to know my dad. Although years apart in age, they were part of the same party crowd.

Julie showed me a lot of support that day. I remember several times she came up to me with a hug and kind words. It was the Julie I remembered. Laid back but sincere. Knowing how our stories intersected, I was unsure of the proper response. The hard partying that forged a friendship between Julie and my dad had all but torn my family apart. A failed marriage after 25 years; the half-truths, all-out lies and broken promises. It was the effects of partying that had caused his untimely death. What was I to do with that reality?

A few years went by and we entered into the age of social media. Ultimately, Julie and I found one another on Facebook. Again, our friendship here wasn’t a personal one. We renewed our casual friendship online. We liked each other’s status updates and looked at photos of our kids. In a way I can’t quite explain though, I was thankful to have found her again. Somehow, she gave me a connection to my dad.

Julie passed away this past weekend. I, of course, found out through a friend of a friend. On Facebook. I immediately thought of her family, who I also knew. Of her daughters who I have not met but watched grow up in pictures these past few years. At this time, the cause of her death is unknown, and I sit with that.

All of this settles somewhere deep in my soul. We were never tight, Julie and I, but I felt a great deal of affection for those areas where our stories touched. The small town we both called home. The role of motherhood we both cherished. Our friends who have all found one another through this crazy phenomenon called Facebook. The fact that she spent more time with my dad in his final years than I did.

Now she’s gone. I didn’t know I would grieve so deeply. It’s words I struggle to express because you see, I didn’t really know her. It makes no sense I would feel such loss because a long-time acquaintance has left this world. But here’s what Julie teaches me. We’re connected to people at that exact point where our stories intersect.

That’s the beauty of story, if you listen closely in the telling. There are always pieces of our story that we have in common with others. Julie and I lived lives that were worlds apart really. However, it always stirred up emotions within me when she showed up on my Facebook wall. Sometimes happiness if she’d post something that was just so Julie. Other times sorrow when I learned about various consequences she endured due to her choices.

I hope you’ve found some peace my friend. I’ll continue to pray for your loved ones because I know a bit of the grief they’ll live with for the rest of their lives. Thank you for all you meant to me.

 

 

*Out of respect, the name has been changed.

When I Rejected God’s Forgiveness

MiahOrenPhotography-1-3

“Hi, I’m Miah, and I struggle with guilt and shame.”

Sometimes restoration has to start at the very bottom of the muck.

For as long as I could remember, I struggled with guilt and shame. This was probably a combination of perfectionism, fundamentalism, and a need to please others. Many days (and nights) were spent wracked with guilt. The first sign was a tightening in my calves. I willed myself to think of something else, anything else. Then there was the cold dread rippling across my skin, followed by nausea. I would remind myself of the Sunday school message that Jesus died for my sins. But I didn’t believe that I deserved his love.

Guilt can be a great diet. It can tear you apart.

I thought that guilt and shame were what being a Christian was all about. You accept Christ as your savior. God sends the Holy Spirit to convict you. Then you live with the knowledge that you are a terrible person. Each mistake adds up. I asked for forgiveness again and again, but I never felt forgiven.

God’s love felt like cold, clammy hands wrapped around my heart, reminding me that I was a failure.

Every time I received a compliment, I thought, If only you knew what I’ve done. I’ve lied to my friends and family. I can’t let go of my anger. I don’t deserve your praise. My shame increased until I dreaded going to bed every night, sweating and trembling. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would be rejected if people really knew me. But most of all I feared that God rejected me. I never felt forgiven.

Then one day the pain hurt enough that I decided to risk trying a program at my church called Celebrate Recovery. I had avoided going for years because that was where the people with problems went – not Christians who were doing everything right.

In a dark auditorium, I watched in awe as, from the stage, person after person admitted their failures. Things I had never heard before. Things you would NEVER say in church. I have an STD. I had an affair. I went to jail for theft. I abandoned my child.

And I saw that they were at peace. Happy, even. They told their stories without shame on the stage and were applauded for sharing.

Afterward, we all gathered in small groups. I sat in a circle of about 30 women. These women didn’t have a platform and a microphone, but they too shared, often with tears, their fears and failures.

It took me 4 weeks to speak up in my group. Everyone else’s words were accepted – what if mine brought condemnation? I wasn’t quite sure what I struggled with. I wanted to get it exactly right.

Then I finally introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Miah, and I struggle with guilt and shame.”

Those words were the beginning of a new life.

Even though I had been taught about grace, I never really believed in it. I had internalized the message that good Christians don’t make mistakes. I ought to be able to do everything on my own strength. If I ask for forgiveness, I will be rejected. I had been keeping a scorecard of my mistakes, rejecting God’s forgiveness because I didn’t want to need it.

 

Image Credit: Miah Oren Photography

Tasting Beauty in the Suburbs

Ashley Hales @ The Mudroom  -- Tasting Beauty in the Suburbs

It had been a string of days with too much noise—me, children, politics, social media—so I took to the neighborhood walking paths to work things out in my body, while my husband constructed things out of wood (his own way of working things out). I could feel myself hit walls, get to breaking points, pass the point of no return—whatever cliché I could trot out to say, “I need out.” I’d neglected quiet. And it was almost too late. 

There’s a gift of bodily presence that I’m finally learning in my thirties, when I’m past caring about men looking, or the perfect abs at the gym, or how quickly I’ve bounced back after four babies. My body can move, and movement is both glorious and a gift. So I unwrap it. My toes stretch out to dirt paths—the ones that feel a bit fake smack dab in this master-planned community—but I’m anxious to get myself out into nature, no matter its shape. I walk quickly up the hill, my lungs pounding, my mind blissfully quiet. 

I watch. I listen. I pick a path through California scrub brush and paths already dusty brown even though it’s still spring. I force my mind away from past years in green Rocky Mountain glory and remind myself right where I am. That this place matters, too. I chase the beauty in the broken. I look for meaning in the dirt. I need to believe with my body that out of death comes renewal. But “renewal” seems such a soggy word—the sort of word on jade green spa leaflets—and I need something more than renewal. I need resurrection. Even if it’s for a moment, a jolt out from ordinary.

As I crest the hill, I strain for a faraway glance of the sea. But it is foggy and the chances of seeing a button-sized spot of blue is slim on the best of days, given our distance from the Pacific. So my suburban walking paths will have to do. 

Sometimes solitary walks are full of noticing, and other times, my earbuds give my mind and spirit a bird’s eye view of the mundane so that it is again clothed in holy mystery. Today, I’m listening to Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, who is talking about physics, space, and mathematical equations, but he’s using the language of beauty. I’m hooked when he starts talking about asking beautiful questions. He says if there is a creator, than he is an artist. I stop and sit on the edge of some loose gravel. This isn’t some tie-it-up-with-a-bow Christian rhetoric about God-as-Artist, this is a man who understands the operation of the universe in ways I can’t quite fathom, who says the universe is like cosmic jello. He’s making the complex accessible. He’s chasing beauty too. 

He gets at the heart of all my longings in one short sentence: “Having tasted beauty at the heart of the universe, we hunger for more.” I can’t help but turn to the language of scripture—to all the injunctions to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, to story after story of Jesus feeding people, feasting with sinners, turning water into wine. I can’t get over the image of glory as a wedding banquet when we will finally be one with Beauty. But here and now, we are only left with hunger. We are left with noise. We are left with so much gaping space between the “already” here of the Kingdom of God and the “not yet” ache for its consummation. So we fill up the longing, the loss, the ache (whatever you’d like to name it), with more soul clutter. We are scared of the gaping wounds. We are scared of the silence. Finding space and keeping the gaps open is hard and holy work. 

Finding place is so much more complicated than I once thought. I trust that internal journeys extend from my own external ones and that even a short walk in my suburban neighborhood will show me more of God, more beauty, and how to be present here. I’m praying that I’ll find my place. I’m learning how to make a wide berth for the longing, to quiet my spirit from the noise, and to listen. 

It’s a quiet, unseen work—this listening, this footfall on dirt paths, this lifeline of noticing. But like Wilczek’s jello, every little thing leaves a trail across the universe. Like a rock skipping across the lake, the ripples grow. My walk to clear my head might leave bread crumbs behind me for another hungry soul to gather up. 

And it is not my job to stuff beauty into experiences or souls, to force-feed others when they would rather serve the god of busy productivity. It is my job as a writer to chase beauty and sustained attention. To toss out pain and ache as questions that invite possibility. After all, I’m just as enmeshed within this cosmic jello as anyone else. For, we all, as Rilke wrote, are “grasped by what we cannot grasp.” We are held. We have the blinding hope of resurrection, even as we sit in the dark. There is enough beauty in that for a long walk. 

Image Credit: Elizabeth Lies

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