Extravagant Creation: A Reflection from Tanzania

Our team of 11 from Grace Fellowship returned home yesterday evening from 11 days of travelling together to visit a family we help support in Tanzania.  We had an amazing time learning about Tanzania and the work that Aaron and Stephanie and their team are doing.  They are building deep relationships and discipling leaders and using a tool called Discovery Bible Study that helps people discover for themselves what Scripture says about God and about humanity and about how we should live.  On our last day in Tanzania I wrote this reflection and shared it with the team for our morning devotions.

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The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;  ~Psalm 24:1

I’ve been reflecting on God’s extravagant creativity.  Here are just some of the things we saw and experienced in Tanzania.

  • We ate food like mshkaki, chapatti, and chips mayai.
  • We drank Stoney Tangawizi and mango, papaya, and watermelon juices.
  • We made friends with people who don’t look or talk like us.
  • We danced and played and sang with children who have different abilities and different resources than us.
  • We purchased live chickens!
  • We rode in a Bajaj!
  • We were received into Bibi Single’s home with both great humility and great joy.
  • We celebrated Paulo’s birthday and he fed us birthday cake.
  • We observed the marine life of the Indian Ocean at low tide.
  • We learned a Swahili worship song.
  • We built some tables.
  • We dyed some scarves.
  • We made blocks for children to play with.
  • We brightened a porch as a resting place for weary Kingdom workers.
  • We learned about airdrop!
  • We saw seven people baptized.
  • We watched green coffee beans turn into roasted ones and then into wonderful brewed coffee.
  • We ate Ethiopian food with our hands. (Both of them!)
  • We learned a few Swahili words that mean something very different in English!
  • We learned a little about Maasai culture and tradition and drank milk from a gourd with our Maasai friends.
  • We saw zebras and giraffes and impalas and hippos and baboons and wildebeests and warthogs and elans and elephants and lions and the most beautiful birds.

What an amazing trip we had experiencing the marvelous creativity of our God! I used the Discovery Bible Study questions to reflect on these experiences.

  • What does this tell us about God?
  • What does it tell us about humanity?
  • How will I put it into practice?

One thing it tells me about God is that God delights in diversity.  God didn’t just make one kind of fish or bird or livestock or wild animal.  God made a diverse variety.  And God didn’t just make one kind of person either.

I have a hunch that, when God looks over creation, it’s the things that make each creature (humans included) unique that bring God the most delight.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to want to blend in.  I try to camouflage those things that could make me stand out and I compare myself to other people to figure out how I measure up or what I need to change in order to fit in better.  I don’t really want to be considered “unique.”

But! If what makes me unique is what delights God? Then I really want to do that! Even if it doesn’t fit the mold that our society or culture or tradition have defined.  Scripture tells us that God is revealed in creation and I believe that we most truly reflect the character of God in the parts of us that are uniquely created.

So one thing I want to take from this trip is to let all of us off the comparison hook.  To learn how each of us, myself included, is uniquely created and to find ways to reflect that into the world in order to magnify the image of God that each of us bear.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.  ~Psalm 139:14

 

 

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A Plow Creek Prayer

You know Plow Creek is ending, right?

I’ve been surprised at the number of times I’ve burst into tears in response to this question.

As a teenager, living in intentional community in a tiny little town did not seem cool. If you weren’t careful you might be weird enough to be left out of the adolescent social milieu altogether. So, even though I loved people at Plow Creek, I really didn’t want to be associated with “The Creekers.” I didn’t want to be that weird.

I don’t know when this deep love for that community took root in my heart. But it did take root and has grown over the years despite the fact that I haven’t lived there, or really even visited much, since I moved away in the early 80s. Still, somehow, Plow Creek has become for me a picture of what I believe the Church could be.

My family moved to Tiskilwa and began to participate in life at Plow Creek just as I was starting high school. My dad had been gone from our family for a few years and we were still reeling from the trauma and abuse to which he had subjected us.  My mom, my brother and I were still struggling to shoulder or bury or numb the pain that he had inflicted. We desperately needed care, though we weren’t always good at receiving it, and the Church at Plow Creek took seriously their commitment to walk with us, to care for us, and to seek the Kingdom with us and for us.

What a ragamuffin group of people has gathered there over the years. People have come, some passing through and some putting down roots, with all kinds of brokenness and pain and humanness. My friend Kelly Johnson writes, “The highest imaginable human life in the world as we know it is not one of strength and independence. It is, rather, Jesus’ torn, immobile body, the weeping and helpless mother, the repentant thief, the cowardly followers. These are not failures of human dignity, but they are love enduring the horrors of a sinful world.” Plow Creek tried hard to be “love enduring the horrors of a sinful world” for my family and for many others who participated there, whether for a season or for a lifetime.

I think it’s a beautiful picture of the community that Jesus gathered and cared for when he lived in skin. Jesus went to those who didn’t fit, who were broken and hurting, who had been left out of their own social milieu and said: You are invited. You are welcome. You belong here. You might stink. Maybe you’re obnoxious. Maybe you’re a criminal. You’re not likely to ever get it together. It’s ok. We see you in all of your brokenness and we are committed to you and we love you. You don’t have to be better than you are. You belong here. Period.

That’s the Church. Or at least what I hope for the Church. It’s a home for people like me. People who are a little lost, who have no roots anywhere, who need a place to fit with all of their brokenness and weirdness and humanity.

And that’s what I’m grieving.

You know Plow Creek is ending, right?

It seems a tragic loss.

May each of us who have been touched by this little Kingdom outpost carry well its legacy of love enduring the horrors of a sinful world.

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Finding Jesus in Haiti

IMG_2979The airport in Cap-Haïtien is one room.  We arrived, walked across the tarmac and through the door, then filed through immigration and baggage claim, moving across the room to customs. As we stepped out the door we were greeted by our Haitian pastor friend who informed us that our rented vehicles were not available.  Welcome to Haiti.

The pastor and a few of the guys from our team headed over to Avis to sort out the situation while the rest of us tried to find shelter from the Haitian sun and to keep spirits up as the minutes dragged on.  After some lengthy negotiations, vehicles were obtained and people and luggage were loaded up as we began our 40 mile trek to Pignon.

None of us were prepared for that 40 mile journey.

As we pulled away from the airport, those of us who had never been to Haiti before were immediately overwhelmed by what we saw.  There were people everywhere.  The buildings were in disrepair.  Motorcycles with 4 passengers.  Trucks with 12 passengers.  Women carrying loads of various interesting things on their heads.  And trash.  In every direction, piled and strewn everywhere.  It felt traumatic, like a visual assault.  I kept thinking to myself, “Oh my God.  How, in heaven’s name, have we allowed this to happen?”

There were four vehicles in our little caravan.  The only road between Cap-Haïtien and Pignon is a national “highway,” a hard, rough, dirt road with giant potholes and places still saturated from flooding earlier in the year.  We could only safely drive about 12 miles per hour because of the condition of the road.

We soon lost sight of both the van and the vehicle with the pastor and our leader in it, but we felt confident that, as long as they were ahead of us, we’d find them waiting for us at any point that we needed direction.  So we focused on navigating the terrain in front of us, still reeling from the sights we’d already seen.

Before long we came upon the vehicle carrying the pastor and our leader.  They were changing a flat tire.  They waved us on around them, assuming that they’d change their tire and catch up.  The van, the first vehicle in our caravan, was long gone, but the two remaining cars stayed together and focused on navigating the road.  Before long, the second car had a flat tire. Both vehicles stopped and changed that tire, only to discover that the rim of the spare was bent.  So, we took the only remaining spare from the other car.  We now had three vehicles with no spare tires and no idea really where we were or how much farther we needed to go or what we would do if we had another flat.

As the daylight waned we began to grow more anxious.  Our two cars stayed together but we didn’t have any Haitian guide with us. We weren’t sure of the directions to the ministry compound. We had no cell phones. No GPS.  We didn’t speak the language.  We were each beginning to imagine that we might have to spend the night in these cars lost somewhere in rural Haiti until we could figure out what to do.  The utter vulnerability of it was overwhelming.  And this experience of vulnerability set the tone for my reflection for the rest of the week we would spend in Haiti.

On our last day in Pignon, I shared these thoughts with the group.

Matthew 25:35-40

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

I read something recently that said essentially that we think we are like Jesus when we serve “the least of these” but according to this passage it is the hungry, thirsty, naked or sick person who is like Jesus. 

As I prepared to go to Haiti I prayed that my heart would be right, that I would not see people as “other”, that I would love with my heart wide open, that I would remember that the service I offered was service to Jesus and that I would see Jesus in Haiti.

As I reflected on the utter vulnerability we experienced on our travel day it occurred to me that I NEVER feel that way at home.  In fact I’m certain that, in many ways, I’ve ordered my life so that I don’t ever HAVE to feel that way.  I have my little routines and safeguards in place so that I can avoid feeling that sense of not having control.

But that vulnerability is a way of life for Haitian people.  And it was a way of life for Jesus who was born poor into the nation of Israel that was ruled by the corrupt Roman Empire.  And thinking about that in Haiti gave me a new understanding of Jesus’ words.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers…,” he was saying it to people whose lives likely looked much like Haitian lives.  He was saying it to people who didn’t have access to the material goods and resources that we take for granted.  He was saying it to people without the power to influence the corrupt systems of leadership that governed their lives.

When he taught them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” that was a very real need in their every day lives.  So, in a very real way, serving a person in need in Haiti is like serving Jesus himself.  Jesus was “the least of these.”

So, did I see Jesus in Haiti?

I saw him in the way our four vehicles were reunited on our four hour, forty mile journey to Pignon.  I saw him in the relationships and sharing and work and play that happened on our team.  And I saw him in the joy and warmth and vulnerable dependence of the Haitian people that I met.

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches people not to be anxious.  Not to worry about what they’ll eat or drink or wear because God knows we need those things.  And in verse 33 he says, “But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”

It’s a verse that’s been particularly meaningful to me since I was 15 years old.  And  I continue to learn and grow and live into that verse even as we’re coming home from the amazing unpredictable adventure we had together in Haiti.

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On Why I Aspire to be a #BlackLivesMatter Ally

Yesterday I posted a Facebook status about #BlackLivesMatter.   The status said this:

I wonder why we are so committed to dichotomous thinking. Why is everything either/or? It is entirely possible to appreciate law enforcement professionals who do their job well and to acknowledge that there IS a race problem in our law enforcement system and in our country. ‪#‎Blacklivesmatter‬ is a legitimate response of an oppressed group trying to speak truth to power. Instead of reacting with a bunch of counter-campaigns which are, at best, lame and, at worst, further evidence of our racism, perhaps we should try listening and acknowledging the very real pain of our black and African American neighbors. I suspect it’s what Jesus would do.

It received a good deal of attention – at least as far as my posts usually go.  Several likes, some brief supportive comments, one friend who strongly disagrees with my position, a few shares, and some private feedback from white friends who were afraid to say anything. But it got me really thinking about what’s happening in this conversation in our country.

I do believe it’s possible to appreciate law enforcement professionals who do their job well.  In fact, I believe they mostly are good people who care about serving and protecting their communities and that’s why they chose their jobs in the first place.  I don’t think most police officers are sitting around thinking about or discussing how to get rid of black and African American people. But I do think we, as a nation, by and large, have a subconscious attitude that causes us to react differently to a situation when a black or African American person is involved.  I think this because, if I’m honest – really, really honest – it’s true of me.  As a woman, if I’m walking down the street in the dark and I’m approached by a white man, I’m afraid.  Approached by a black man, I’m more afraid.  God forgive me, I don’t want it to be true… but it is.  There’s no logical reason for this; nothing in my personal history that I can point toward to explain why this is true of me, yet it remains true. I learned to believe it from somewhere.

I think this attitude is so deeply woven into our culture and society that we almost can’t recognize it anymore. It’s woven in from our very beginnings.  Our founding documents say that “all men are created equal” but what we meant by that is all white land-owning men are created equal.  We reinforced that that’s what we meant when, 81 years later, the Dred Scott decision declared that people of African heritage could not ever be citizens of the United States.  Our country broke in two over the issue of whether it was right or wrong to own black people.  I want to say that again.  Our country divided into two countries over whether or not it was right to own people because they aren’t white.

I think at this point in our history most of us know that we shouldn’t be racist and that slavery is wrong.  Or at least we mostly don’t say it out loud if we believe something different than that.  But this history is woven into our collective subconscious and it causes us to react to situations differently when someone who is not white is involved. It’s this subconscious reaction that causes the disparities we see in our society.  It’s what #BlackLivesMatter and others who’ve thought about and experienced these disparities refer to as systemic racism.  It’s what causes police officers to react with deadly force more often or more quickly when engaging with a black or African American suspect.  And it has to change.

So how do we change our subconscious?  It starts with admitting we have a problem.  As long as we keep denying that an issue exists, we cannot address it.  We have to acknowledge that systemic racism (the subconscious attitude that causes us to react differently) is real. And we have to want to do something about it.

So, this is me, admitting that I have been guilty of racism.  This is me asking for forgiveness for my wrong beliefs and attitudes.  And this is me saying, “I believe this is wrong and I want to help change it.”  I’m not sure, really, how to be a good supporter of my black and African American friends, but this is me, saying I am committed to taking responsibility to learn about these issues, to rooting our racism where it exists in my heart, to not staying silent, and to standing up to say that #BlackLivesMatter.  I aspire to be an ally.

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IMG00036This morning on my way to work, God made a rainbow for me. He does that sometimes. It’s His way of hugging me and encouraging me to keep on.

Today, I noticed that though I could see the rainbow clearly through my windshield, when I looked out my tinted side window, I could not see it at all. Like it wasn’t there. I tried to take a picture of it and my camera could not see it either. And when I put my sunglasses on it disappeared. But I could see it plain as day with my own eyes and no tinted filter.

It got me thinking about how our filters alter our perceptions. And we filter without even knowing that we’re doing it. If my only view of the sky this morning had been through tinted glass you could not have convinced me that there was a rainbow. But I had an opportunity to see without a filter. I wonder how many times I’ve missed something beautiful or profound because I’ve only been able to perceive it through my own tinted filter.

It certainly makes me think about the race conversations we are having in our country these days. How we have learned to filter blackness as criminal and we have missed the Imago Dei in our brothers and sisters with darker skin. How we are willing to justify the behavior of police officers whose reactions are out of proportion to the situation they find themselves in because they too have learned to see through our societal filters of whiteness and blackness. They feel afraid for their lives in situations where there is no legitimate threat.

Over the weekend I attended The Justice Conference in Chicago. After the conference was over, a situation came to light in which a small group of conference attendees was racially profiled and harassed in a hotel lobby by hotel staff. When they insisted on speaking to management about the incident, the front desk staff indicated that they were “afraid for their lives.”

In the McKinney video that came to light over the weekend, we see one officer whose behavior is clearly out of proportion the situation at hand. I do not know what inciting incident did or did not occur that caused the police to be called and, in my opinion, that is not really the issue to be debated here. There were several police officers on the scene. Only one was behaving in an escalated manner. His treatment of the young black woman was unquestionably inappropriate. She may have mouthed off. And God knows, I have been tempted to violence by a belligerent teenager, but I have never actually physically attacked them.

In this instance we see a white officer physically take down a young black woman by her hair. Then even after she is sitting on the ground – which, may I point out, is exactly what the young men in the scene were doing – the officer felt it necessary to yank her to her feet and force her to lay face down on the ground while he kneeled on top of her. And at one point he drew his gun. She was not armed and no way a threat to this officer. If you don’t see anything wrong with this behavior, I ask you to envision the same scene another way. What if this was a black officer behaving this way with a white young woman? Do you still feel like this behavior is justified? What if it wasn’t an officer? What if it was a neighborhood parent?

Our filters change what we see. If we are to seek the Kingdom, we must understand how we filter. Our tinted filters are causing us to miss the beautiful, profound gifts that God has placed all around us. We must get Jesus’ eyes and heart to see the Imago Dei in every single human being that we encounter. God, let it be true in me.

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Lost and Found

I love school. I love everything about it. Well. Almost everything…. I love the students. I love the professors. I love being in the city. Not so much the driving though. I love the ideas and the books and the thinking and the learning and the growing and the writing. I am wired for school. I’ve been so excited to go back. Last semester was so good. Hard. Stressful. In some ways grueling, but still, so rewarding and fulfilling. That’s why I’m struggling so to relinquish it.

There’s something else more important that I need to do right now. It’s harder and more perilous and I’ve been resisting it. And school has helped me do that. “I can’t do this hard thing right now. Because school.” “I’ve got to study.” “I’ve got to write a paper.” “I’ve got a final.” “So this other thing, well, it will just have to wait.” “Or work itself out.” “Or go someplace else.”

See, someone I love is hurting and they need a guide. But guiding them means I have to be willing to go places that I so do not want to go. Places I’ve worked hard to get out of. Places with pains I don’t care to recall. Places that remind me where I’ve come from. Scary, hard, dark places.

But, I’ve been there before and know the way out. And I had a guide. Not someone who sat on the sidelines or in the balcony and cheered me on. Someone who said, “I know you’re lost but if you’ll trust me, I’ll get you where you need to go. Come on, I know the way. We’ll go together. ” He was right. In that journey I have been made new. And I am so grateful.

And now, it seems, it’s my turn. To return the favor. To pay it forward. To help this lost one find their way. To walk right back into the scary, hard, dark places and say, “I know the way. We can go together. Will you trust me?”

And so, I’m relinquishing this school thing that I love. It’s so hard and I am so sad but I am entrusting it back to my Creator who knows me and loves me and wants the best for me. I’m giving up something good for the pursuit of something better. Because, in the end, it won’t matter how many other people I help if I don’t help this one.

Pray for me. I’m going in.

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Thanks Giving

I am thankful.

Thankful for people.  People who listen.  Who think deeply.  Who tell the truth.  Unapologetically.

For questioners who wrestle.  Who know that life is complex.  Who aren’t satisfied with easy answers.  Who are willing to live in the gray areas.  In the tension.

The tension of the already and the not yet.  Where life is hard.  And bitterness and fear threaten to overtake us at each bend in the road.

I am thankful for brave companions who are willing to journey into the scary, broken places.  Who are willing to say, “I don’t know.”  “This doesn’t make sense.”  “But I love you.”  “I am with you.”  “We’ll go together.”

I am thankful for kingdom seekers.  Who are available to let the kingdom come in them and through them.  For people who are willing to go first.  Who are willing to lead.  Who are willing to lend their strength.  To stand in the gap left by those who can’t or won’t.

I am thankful for the opportunities I have to return the favor.  To pay it forward.  The opportunities to let the kingdom come in me and through me.  To journey with.  To listen.  To learn. To grow.  To be made new.  To be fully alive.

Even in the tension.  Where it’s hard.  And scary.

I am grateful for the hope of kingdom come and kingdom coming.

I am thankful for Love.  Love that saves us.  Love that frees us.  Love that makes us whole.

Thank you God for this whole crazy, beautiful, broken, hopeful life together.

Let your kingdom come.

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