“It is likely that our theological problem in the church is that our gospel is a story believed, shaped, and transmitted by the dispossessed; and we are now a church of possessions for whom the rhetoric of the dispossessed is offensive and their promise is irrelevant. And we are left to see if it is possible for us again to embrace solidarity with the dispossessed.”
From The Land, Second Edition (p. 206), by Walter Brueggemann
(Thanks, Parks family, for the great birthday gift!)
In our neighborhood, there is a significant population of young and old who push shopping carts around. For most of these folks, the carts are filled with their belongings–they are their “homes” so to speak. For others, they are more about commerce, filled to overflowing with the recycling they are able to collect from the neighborhood trash cans. In fact, whenever we have overnight guests in our home on a Sunday night, we warn them that they will hear a fairly steady stream of noise throughout the night and early morning before the trash trucks come: we call it the shopping cart parade.
We do our best to meet and greet as many of these folks as we can, though many of them seem to come and go in the shadows. Sometimes David has his cart with him when we visit with him. And often when we play at the park, there is any number of folks asleep in or next to their baskets. Whenever we walk, we are sure to pass at least one neighbor who greets us as we wheel past each other.
Mercy has a little baby stroller and she has always loved pushing it around our apartment filled with different dolls and toys. An old GI Joe doll, stripped of half of his fatigues, is probably her favorite passenger. But lately, she has a new obsession. Every morning she wakes up and first on her agenda is hanging any possible bag or basket or purse over the handles of her stroller, wheeling around the house, then coming back to the toy corner for more stuff to put in and on her “basket.” She is hilarious about it–by noon the stroller can barely stand upright without tipping over. I don’t know if she is imitating what she sees every day when we walk outside, or if this is just a normal almost two-year old impulse.
This week I have had two separate instances where something that I expected to have done could not be because of liability concerns.
The first was when I contacted the Salvation Army to come and pick up a mattress we had purchased on Craigslist that ended up not being usable (long story). When the guys came with the truck on Tuesday, they informed me that they couldn’t take it because it was not new, and someone could complain or hold them accountable for getting sick, etc. from contaminants or whatever. On their donation website, they clearly have a category for “mattress”, and now I am wondering how many people are in the habit of giving away their new ones?
The second was yesterday when the Sears delivery guys came with our new gas range. They were quite sweet and carried our old one out to the curb for me, but they informed me that they could not hook my new stove up because the valve in the wall that delivers the gas was too old and they couldn’t vouch for its safety. I think I more fully grasp how really old our stove was: “I have never even seen a valve this old” were his exact words. When Doug came home, we went ahead and hooked it up ourselves and scheduled an appointment with the Gas Company for a replacement in a couple of weeks.
These two isolated exchanges with random deliverymen made me think about how we approach relationships now. Like Sears and the Salvation Army, are we too not heavily guarded and cautious, concerned about what we can and can’t take responsibility for in our relationships with others? A healthy amount of this is what we comfortably refer to as “good” or “appropriate” boundaries, and I am all for that. But I sometimes feel as if the pendulum might be swinging a bit too far in this area, perhaps compensating for how many unhealthy patterns have existed in so many people’s lives before.
For example, I know that for many, the idea of giving money to someone on the street is so much less preferable to giving to a sound organization working with the homeless and hungry. I don’t have any problem with that, but I wonder if our aversion to the first is as much an aversion to entering any sort of relationship with someone who is obviously so desperately needy? The other kind of giving is always a much simpler, cleaner transaction. We are more “effective” by giving institutionally; and it allows for us to keep our hands clean.
And it is not just the unlovely we approach this way. Doug and I have been “needy” in various definitions of that term in the past few years, and we have seen firsthand how that can change how people interact with you. We have seen how for some, there is an intentional drawing near that takes place while for others, there is the attempt to avoid or ignore or deny that something painful or difficult is present. And we have often been surprised by who responds in which way.
Is it not our willingness to be “liable” for each other that determines how we engage our friends, our church, our world? Scripture is full of stories that illustrate God’s call on our life to live with these sorts of “liabilities”. Are we willing to accept what is not shiny and clean in people? Are we willing to take risks in where we go, who we befriend, how we spend our money and time? Or do we hide behind company “policies” that protect and regulate and keep us safe.
I am not known for my love of the police. This dates back to a now infamous encounter my senior year at North Park with two of Chicago’s finest WHOM I FLAGGED DOWN one night a few blocks from my apartment. I had left my apartment to catch a cab when a creepy man started propositioning me. The cops stopped and I ran over to their car but instead of getting information on the man or pursuing him, they proceeded to take me into custody for prostitution. (When I told them that I was a student at North Park their response was: “Yeah, we know a lot of girls like you who get through school this way.”) I have perhaps never been so utterly confounded by a situation that was at once so unbelievable and yet so horrifyingly real. After persuading them to take me back to my apartment so that my mom, who was visiting that weekend from Seattle, could vouch for my story, and after offering them a copy of the latest College News with a front page article about my Senior Par Excellance award, they agreed to let me go: “If we don’t catch you again this month your record will be clean,” they informed me.
This one clearly absurd situation would not have been enough to sour me. But the stories my kids from my ministry would tell me made my stomach sick: their stories of beatings, verbal assaults, and manipulation pushed me further, as did my own somewhat regular interactions when I would walk my kids back to their apartments after my drop-in center closed: “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be walking out here. Go back where you belong.”
To this day, if I see a police car I have to fight the urge to cross the street or turn and go the other way.
Moving to L.A., a city notorious for their police force, did not improve my outlook. The first Senior Lead Officer we had stood a foot away from me and told me, point blank, that there had been no homicide on my street that week after I questioned him about the case. I had stood on our front porch just days earlier, it was our first Easter Sunday in L.A., and watched as the investigators worked the crime scene for the man shot and killed in his car a few houses down. But what did I know…
Last night we had our first block club with our new Senior Lead, and while there were disconcerting moments where his answers clashed with what we wanted to hear, I realized half-way through the meeting that this guy was being real with us. He is energetic, he loves his job, and he desires to impact our community for good. And it is his honesty (”I would love to live here if I didn’t have a wife and children”) that, while sometimes painful, is the thing I actually appreciate. Because while there are things I may not want to hear him say (what does that imply about us wives and mothers who DO live here?), his honesty is a step in the right direction.
Often I feel like life here is filled with sacrifice and costly choices. I can even focus on this at times and feel like the joy and life embedded in those things is not accessible or believable. It has been a strange season for me here in many ways. Having lived without many comforts and securities before; having walked through risk and danger often enough; having journeyed the road “less traveled” by my peers for years before this, I do not know what makes our time here feel so hard. Is it that I am getting older? Is it being married and having kids (something that must impact one’s perspective greatly)? Or is it L.A. and the way the sins of this city just feel so heavy?
This month marks the beginning of my employment with Servant Partners, a unique organization mobilizing church-planting movements worldwide among the poorest of the poor. As I read my employee handbook last week, the reality of what Servant Partners does sunk in on a new level: explicit discussion of conduct in light of kidnapping, war, natural disasters and the like; directions regarding how to approach education for children of staff who are on the field (read global slum communities); contingency plans for evacuation and refuge in crisis situations. As I read this document, my heart grew heavy for the cost and sacrifice that our church-planters implicitly endure to follow Jesus. And the inconveniences and “burdens” of life in South Central began to feel so small.
It is not a competition in this life: who can be more “noble”; who can give up more; who can accumulate the most scars and the greatest pain. That is not our gospel. But neither is the impoverished “good news” of comfort, safety, wealth, and popularity. As Eugene Peterson writes:
“The operating biblical metaphor regarding worship is sacrifice. We bring ourselves to the altar and let God do to us what God will. We bring ourselves to the eucharistic table, entering into that grand fourfold shape of the liturgy that shapes us: taking, blessing, breaking, giving—the life of Jesus taken and blessed, broken and distributed; and that eucharistic life now shapes our lives as we give ourselves, Christ in us, to be taken, blessed, broken and distributed in lives of witness and service, justice and healing.
But this is not the American way.”
Let’s just say that my husband and four very dear friends pulled the most amazing surprise celebration for me for my birthday this weekend. Highlights included:
• A song written by my husband with the repeated line: “Happy no-bun-in-the-oven-for-the second-time-since-the-weddin’ birthday”
• Walking around downtown wearing a dinner roll with a big X drawn through it around my neck courtesy of my friend Jennifer
• An amazing dinner at Ciudad with two of our favorite people in the world
• Standing in the middle of the Water Court downtown talking to my husband on Steven’s cell phone and not knowing where he was–only to look up and see him standing above me in a lit corner room at the Omni Hotel
• Realizing that our sitter for the evening was actually our sitter for the whole night
• A beautifully large bottle of Bombay Sapphire and four martini glasses
• A card filled with names of people from church, Doug’s office, family and friends who had all chipped in to buy us a new stove for our apartment (our current one is a gas stove that chooses to light one in ten times if we are lucky)
• Leaving the Omni in our fully functional car that had NOT experienced mechanical difficulties after-all but rather was a pawn in my husband’s grand scheme
• Turning thirty-three surrounded by people who love me
“…Christian spirituality, the contemplative life, is not about us. It is about God. The great weakness of American spirituality is that it is all about us: fulfilling our potential, getting the blessings of God, expanding our influence, finding our gifts, getting a handle on principles by which we can get an edge over the competition. The more there is of us, the less there is of God. Christian spirituality is not a life-project for becoming a better person. It is not about developing a so-called deeper life. We are in on it, to be sure, but we are not the subject. Nor are we the action. We get included by means of a few prepositions: God with us (Matt. 1:23), Christ in me (Gal. 2:20), God for us (Rom. 8:31). With, in, for: They are powerful, connecting, relation-forming words, but none of them makes us either the subject or the predicate. We are the tag-end of a prepositional phrase.”
From a Christian Century article, Transparent Lives, by Eugene Peterson
Thanks to Randall Friesen for this link.
Today has been one of those days and it is only 10am!
I am always really careful about handling beverages on my desk: where I place them, what they sit on so as not to leave a ring, etc. This morning I dumped a large, hot cup of coffee all over my desk and legs. While avoiding the precious G Drive and various power strips, the keyboard was not so lucky. Coffee seeped in between the keys and is now floating around beneath them in the keyboard’s transparent-cool-Mac glory. If I try to type, the letter H repeats itself eternally, writing line after line of about how my frustration sounds at the moment.
So here’s the humility part: my dear husband has the amazing gift for collecting random computer components and storing them in our house (at different points in our life together we have had multiple monitors sitting in the bedroom or dining room at any given time, and this has not always been received well by me, to say the least). But this morning, after my coffee fiasco, I was able to walk into our front closet and pull out a new keyboard, plug it in, and have access to my computer once again. So I am sitting here now grateful for my husband’s special gift and contrite for all those times I got annoyed or mocked him.
When I called Doug at work to tell him about the keyboard and ask his advice for what I should do, he wasn’t in his office which was strange. I left a message with Julia and when he called me back he informed me that the reason he was so late getting into work was that our red car kept dying repeatedly on his drive to Pasadena. He ended up taking surface streets so he could pull over and re-start the car as necessary. Unfortunately, I do not have a complimentary spiritual gift for accumulating cars, so this issue will be a much more difficult (and likely costly) one to resolve.
People often ask me “what are your all-time favorite books?”, “who is your favorite author?”, “what are you currently reading?”, etc. In light of my upcoming birthday (hint hint), I thought I would share which books I am eager to acquire at the moment…
With God in the Crucible: Preaching Costly Discipleship by P. J. Storey
Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us by Scot McKnight
Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles and The Land: Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell
And with Christmas in mind:
Two good friends are publishing books later this fall with IVP, and I am eager for copies of both!