Thursday, July 26, 2012

Storms and Calls

This post is part of a synchro blog at in which we answer the question "What is saving your life right now?" Hop on to her blog to read all of the amazing responses!


I look upon grandpa's silhouette, dark in front of a tear-dropped wet window. His stature is sloped, worried. On the other side of thin glass the world rains angry, yells, lights up here and there.

The house is dim, quiet (well, except for the weather channel screeching in the kitchen). The family is gathered round the forecast, table set for an early dinner in anticipation of the power failing. We notice that the tomato plants out back have toppled--this before the wind has even come. A stray limb is sitting on the front lawn.

The weather channel bleeps loudly and all turn and listen as the monotone voice issues a thunderstorm warning. All are on edge, for a storm a few weeks back leveled parts of this town.

Soon, the colorful weather map dances behind us as we chomp our corn and serve up the barbecue. It is all very American--the meal, the Norman Rockwell hanging all around us, the wide, green fields spreading before us out the kitchen windows. All except the boy. He is distinctly NOT American, though you wouldn't know it until he began speaking. He is from the other side of the world.

He has come here for the summer, from an orphanage in a far off land. When he interviewed for the trip he, twelve years old, told the lady that he wanted to come to America to see his sisters. Two sisters, brought here four years ago, now part of a family. He is still an orphan, living without a true home thousands of miles away from them. All he wants is to see them while he is here.

We have been unable to make it happen so far, and we only have one week left.

He is a dear boy. One of the dearest there ever was. He is quiet and shy and goofy and silly. And SUCH a cheater at Uno. And he won't let you take his picture even if you make your meanest face and threaten him with...well, there isn't much you can threaten him with. But the mean face has not worked.

And this. This is what is saving my life right now:

As the thunder rumbles, as the storm passes through, the phone rings. My husband runs out to the car, comes back in with a tattered u.s. map, secludes himself in the other room. I hear words like "visit" and "Kentucky" and "Saturday" and I know who it is.

It is his sisters' family. They responded. We make plans to see them in two short days. In person.

There is a whole story there. A story of wild coincidences (coincidence? Do any of us still believe in such a thing?) and the kindness of time. It is a story for another day because it is still so unwritten.

But the fact is that tonight, as the skies sob and the atmosphere rages, a phone call is what is saving my life.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just Another Sunday

The evening we drive into my husband's hometown, we drive up the main street and notice the new things: the fancy lamp posts, the wide sidewalks, the thriving flower boxes. We ooh and ahh over the updates--genuinely thrilled that the small town is rediscovering its charm. And we see the sad things: trees and roofs and livelihoods felled by a tornado a few weeks back. Old faithfuls taken out by a strong breeze.

We glance at but don't really talk about all of the empty storefronts. My husband nudges me, points to the large vacant spot where a bookstore and coffee shop resided the last time we were here, two long years ago. The faded sign still hangs, holding on to lost hope. I make a sad face, he makes a joke. Something about how the hipsters must not live here yet. About how this town must still be full of regular people who can't spend precious time ruminating over books and free trade coffee.

I notice this again the next morning, at church. It is an old church, with old pews and old music. I can't bring coffee into the sanctuary. There is no drummer or guitarist. There is a distinct lack of skinny jeans. A solo pianist plunks along to songs from decades ago and the pastor shortens his sermon because the vbs kids need to go and release their butterflies before they wilt away in their storage envelopes. There is barely even a message. He is wearing a tie.

And, I'm telling you, life is oozing from this place.

On a hot July Sunday morning, the wooden pews are packed tight. Young and old, rich and poor, all belong. And they are not shy. Oh, no. They stand up during that worship service and they announce things that god has done that week--ways he has blessed, places where he has been near. And they stand up and they declare that they are in need, that they can't leave without prayer. And sometimes they walk up front and allow hands to touch backs and living words to bridge the gap between god and men. There is the distinct feel of holiness to it all. God has drawn near, here in this church.

They are studying the words of James. That is what the sermon was supposed to be about, had the butterflies not taken precedent. The part of James where we are told not to favor the rich over the poor. The part where we are reminded of god's heart being with the least of these.

But they know all of this. Know it with their lives.

They are going out in droves. Daily. Welcoming neighbors to picnics. Sharing the love of god to people in prison, in nursing homes. Snuggling children close and pointing them to their father. Sharing what they have with one another, helping their brothers and sisters clear storm wreckage, pulling one another along in action and in words.

And, people, they deliver pies to visitors. Pies.

I am starting, now, to become a little embarrassed. Because a month or two ago, we told my father-in-law about how we were living missionally, now. We were building community, doing life together at a local park with others of similar vision. Reaching out without evangelizing, connecting without overwhelming. We had read all of these books and put our heads together and now, here we were, living a mission that continued to confuse and fall short of expectations. He'd wanted to know all about it, a few weeks ago. And I was sure he couldn't relate because he hadn't read the books or had the conversations, and our contexts were so starkly different.

It never occurred to me to ask about the missional lifeblood of their church. Turns out, I could have learned a lot. Turns out, community isn't built, but lived. Mission isn't sought, but received.

A woman in a yellow shirt gets up and announces that she has just received a letter and needs to read it aloud to the congregation. It is from a man who has wronged them all, a man who is not loved in this congregation. And rightfully so. Several months ago, he broke into the church and stole things, expensive things, leaving a sanctuary full of people asking, "Who would steal from a church?" Everyone around me stiffens, on guard.

The woman in the yellow shirt begins reading. She gets to the part of the letter, right there at the beginning, where the man declares that he is sorry and proclaims that he knows he can never make it up to them. He talks of burdens he will carry for the rest of his life. Of years of alcohol and drug abuse that he is trying to escape, of amends that he will make even if it kills him. Of how he hopes to come some Sunday and make it right in person. And we all realize that he must be a brave man. The woman, she stops, takes a deep breath, chokes back tears.

She and the pastor, standing there together facing the congregation, they take stock of their people and tell them what they already know: that they will welcome this man. That when he comes, they will embrace him. That as he works to pay them back, they will work beside him. That the burden he carries, they will all carry it together.

I have the sudden urge to take off my shoes. To repent. Oh, we are on holy ground, and god is passing by as we sit in these hard wooden pews among all of these regular people.

I wish I were going to be here when that man comes. I imagine how he will walk through the front door, and how his heart will probably beat fast and how he will probably want to turn around and run away, but he will choose to make things right anyway. I can see the expressions on the people's faces when they discover who he is, and I can see him standing up in front of the sanctuary saying he knows he can never repay them but he is here anyway to make it as right as a man can. I can hear his voice quivering and feel his sweaty palms.

I wish I could watch, with bated breath, as they break the news to this man: that, lo, your sins are forgiven dear one. That you are a sinner among sinners, and we are in the midst of one who transforms. That, no, of course you don't carry your burden for the rest of your life. That you can leave it right here, right now, and we will help you.

And then they will ask, what is your favorite kind of pie, friend? We will be out on Tuesday, to welcome you properly to our church.

The body of Christ. Regular folks, broken, transformed, redeemed.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Conversation with my 14 Year Old Self

As I creep through the bends in my mind I want to stop and chat about all of the proud places. The glamorous places I have been, the triumphant moments that have come my way. And I can see them. Can always see them. But I am not allowed to linger today.

No, I am propelled through the doors, down the hall treading dingy orange carpet underfoot. I can smell it before I realize where I have come. The odor of cigarettes mixes with bathroom disinfectant and there I am once again.

The high school bathroom.

I look around. It is empty. The mirror hangs annoyed over the large communal sink. Not even glass, but shined aluminum. I see myself. I am 30. And though the bathroom appears empty, I know I am in there. In one of those stalls on the end. And when I crouch down to see, there are those shoes that I used to wear. There are my feet shrinking back from the gaze of the one outside.

The girl in there, locked down tight and silently begging for me to leave, she is 14. She is me.

I stand outside the locked grey stall for quite some time. My comfort amidst silence, that has not changed. And that is what I begin with. That, dear child, to be quiet is not to be strange. To be quiet is to be one who hears, one blessed with sight. And to be one who listens and sees is one who can find all of those hidden treasures along the way and, more importantly, one who can find god.

Know this: you will find him. And, oh, he is so big and so good and so much closer than you would ever imagine. You will find him, and you will know him.

Because I know you doubt that.

I know that sitting there in that stall you wonder if anyone notices your absence. I know you question god and if he is really real because if so shouldn't he know how lonely you are and shouldn't he care about things like rejection and pain and crying yourself to sleep at night? And, dear one, those are all of the right questions. You don't know it yet, but that's one thing you are incredibly good at: asking the right questions. The hard questions.

You, the timid one in there, you are actually incredibly courageous.

Oh, little blonde one, you have no idea. You will grow no taller, but you will look mighty ones in the eye and never flinch. You will stand strong in hard fought battles. You will pick the right sides.

It makes me proud, seeing how far we have come. And grateful.

And all of those adventures you long to have, all of those places you long to see? You will do so many of them, and you will do them right. You will allow the things you see and the lessons you learn to soak deep and break your heart. And you will be a kinder person, a better person, because you will know that loving deeply is even worth it when you have to pick the damaged pieces of of your own heart off the ground, one at a time.

I know that the lunch hour is almost up and that you are watching the second hand on your watch so that you can be ready to exit your prison the instant the bell rings. But there is one more thing you need to know.

The life you are going to build for yourself, it is going to be a good one. I know how much you worry. I know you fear wasting precious time and think that you'll never be able to live up to your own incredibly high expectations. And the truth is that you're right. You are going to waste a lot of time. Your path will be anything but the straight and narrow you are aiming for. And your expectations? You will have to learn to bend. But, oh hear me now, the bends? That is where the life is.

Don't you worry about a thing, quiet one. You'll figure it out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Beacon and Joy

There is an intersection amidst the rolling terrain of Boston where Beacon and Joy come together. The day I discovered this, I was elated.  I may have cried. It was an affirmation that, yes, a street---a normal, unremarkable street--can lead you to that elusive treasure: Joy.

It was something that, really, I had known for years.

I had known it since those first days of freshman year, when with fearlessness and a craving for adventure, I walked out my door and just kept going.  It so happened that Beacon was the street.  Those were our courting days.  

When she saw me she would preen. She would convince the sky to banish the clouds and darken to just the right shade of blue.  She would loose her magic on the trees and turn the leaves yellow and orange and red, and make me gasp in spite of its expectedness.  And when nature refused to conspire she would shine up her old deco buildings and make her hard New England people smile.  As I walked along her haphazardly cobbled streets, she drew me in and I was taken.  

And though through the years her beauty never wavered, it became familiar. It stopped being my reason for coming.  The reasons, they shifted.  Sometimes I came because she was there, and I didn't know what else to do.  Occasionally, I went utilitarian on her and came for her coffee shops and bookstores and restaurants. But mostly, I came because I knew her and she knew me, and there is safety in knowing.  There is freedom.  

And within the confines of her freedom, I grew up.  Reared, in so many secret ways, by a street.

Even now, I think of the hours I spent on those sidewalks as the critical hours of my life.  If all had to be wheedled down and concentrated into the essential decisions and beliefs that shape a person, the majority of mine were arrived at as I walked along Beacon.

Because, you see, God resides on Beacon Street. I am quite sure of it.  If you ever go walking there with me I can point out the building in which I am certain He lives.  And maybe that is the attraction.  Maybe that is why--after all of these years--I can't shake that street.  Perhaps the breezes that blew through my mind as I traipsed the hills of Boston were breathed from an open window of a flat on Beacon Street.  And maybe all of my wanderings were tracing that origin.

It is the places where we meet God that we can't shake.  If we know where He can be found, how can we not keep coming back?  Some people meet God at church.  Or at a friend's home.  Or in a hospital. I have met Him in all of these places.

But I met God--regularly--on a street.  Beacon Street.  And it changed everything about me.

So you can understand how, when years later, after winding my way from one end of Beacon Street all the way through the hills of Newton and Brookline and Boston and Beacon Hill, I looked up and saw that Joy intersects with Beacon, it was like I had always known.  

If God lives on Beacon Street, Joy has got to be close by.

And it is.