My every moment these last days has been given to packing, sorting, taping, and not sleeping. I have much to share here but I will wait until my ability to communicate in full sentences returns.
I’ve come to see
that all of us are travelers
from here, to somewhere, to eternity!
We travel not by Caesar’s but by hope’s decree
that we might come upon some small thing
that will make some larger sense of us,
of our mysterious beginning and our end:
a word, a silence, a fragment of song,
some signal at least fractionally clear,
as came that night, in a woman’s shriek,
a baby’s cry, the humming of the wind,
when the night breathed deep, gathered all in,
then moved to the dawn of what would be.”
Ted Loder, “A Twist of Hospitality” from Tracks in the Straw
But then, as Paul Tillich said, Christianity started in the cemetery, not at the cradle. Might it be the fault of God to be too hidden, always seeming to show up under opposites - in straw, on a cross, in a tomb, yes, even stalking cemeteries? God shows up where God is most needed, not as the stoic observer or as the hero showing up at the last minute, greedy for glory and gluttonous for gain. This God in Jesus, carrying buckets of water, washing the feet of others, touching lepers, enjoying meals with outcasts, praying for his killers - this God appears too small to find and too hidden to be helpful. Wherever the need is the greatest, the testing severe, the pressure enormous, and someone comes along to pick up the load with us, it is the same God in Christ who carried buckets of water, showing that it is not the fault, but the genius and gift of the Infinite to be so small as almost not to be found.
From John Weborg in Hard Sayings: God With Us!
A number of pastors are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of resources we pour into the weekly show. One remembered the solos of the minimally gifted “Aunt Jane” who - nevertheless - was powerful in her musical ministry because of the power of *her life.* But there is no way she would be ever singing in any attractional mega-church service. An appreciation of her public worship only came because of an appreciation of her life of worship.
I read with interest Dan Kimball’s recent post on Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog where he posed some questions about whether or not “missional” churches are churches that bear fruit in terms of effectively making disciples. He points to larger “attractional” churches (Willow Creek, for example) whose buildings and impressive gatherings seem to, in his estimation, hold great appeal for many and therefore be more effective in the fruit-bearing department.
A few things came to mind as I read this. I remember taking a van-load of neighborhood kids to attend a worship service at Willow Creek when I was living and ministering in Chicago. They were totally awed by the buildings, the food court, the size, the scope, the big screens that descended from the ceiling, the way the blinds automatically lowered during the service to block out the setting sun. They were engaged, on every level, with the singing, the video clips, and the music. And I can remember so well their reaction when they saw the budget update printed in the bulletin: “Just the amount that they are over budget this week could pay for our program for ten years!”
My kids wanted to go back every week. They loved it. Yes, it ministered to them; it appealed to them. It was impressive and exciting and cool. But would driving there for an hour each-way every week really translate into transformation for them and for their community? As their schools crumbled; as parents abandoned and abused; as gangs walked up to parked cars and opened fire, what difference would video screens and food courts really make? I don’t say that to disparage Willow. I have dear friends involved there, and have no judgment to make about their effectiveness in what they do. But for my kids, an “attractional” church divorced from their community made no sense.
Fast forward to Los Angeles, ten years later. A homeless couple, living in a city park, comes into the park’s rec center one Sunday morning. The hot coffee tasted good after a cold night on the ground, and the people were warm and friendly. Free coffee soon turned into relationships which led to some financial help with first and last month’s rent to get into an apartment. This eventually led to work and sobriety and counseling. And casual Sunday friendships turned into family.
I wrote this about one of these dear friends two years ago, and to this day this memory makes me cry:
When it came time for the ushers to come forward to collect the offering, a nicely dressed woman from our congregation walked to the front with the other usher, each carrying large baskets. She began to pass the basket to those sitting on her side of the congregation, soberly collecting it when it reached the end and offering it the next row. Ushers can sometimes look either bored or distracted; like they don’t know what to do with their hands and eyes while the baskets are moving through the congregation. She was not like this: she was focused, intent on her task, participating fully with those she served.
I watched from the back where I stood with Aaron in my arms. I watched her closely: her very straight posture, her face solemn with responsibility, her entire body attentive to this sacred act. I looked to the other side of the congregation where I knew her husband was sitting. His eyes followed her every step, his body moving continuously to keep her in his constant view. He could hardly stay in his chair and his face was unable to contain the enormous smile that overcame him. As the music ended and the ushers walked to the front carrying the baskets of gifts, I saw this woman walk quietly to our pastor and reach for the microphone. As the last note faded, she looked out at her fellow worshippers and asked us to pray.
Her simple prayer thanked God for his many gifts to us. She thanked God for waking us up that day and allowing us to come to this place to worship. And she thanked God for our pastor. Our “Amen” had scarcely joined with hers when the sound of clapping filled the room. Her husband loudly applauded for her: for her offering of herself, in service and in public prayer, for the sake of the body. Though she has worshiped with us since our beginnings in Loren Miller Park, this was her first Sunday serving in any formal capacity. Our pastor acknowledged that this was her first time participating in our worship this way, and we joined her husband with our applause.
I am sure that the visitors among us probably thought this all a bit strange. What they could not have known is that this poised and polished woman and her husband came to our church two years ago because we offered food and coffee and a warm place to sit indoors for the many homeless who slept in the park on Saturday nights. What they could not have known is that her story is filled with decades of the unspeakable and unimaginable. What they could not have known is that when we first met her, she was a woman consumed with fear and shame. And what started as our weekly gift of a warm drink became a very different kind of gift from Another: the gift of living water that becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
As I watched her serve with reverence on Sunday, I was struck by a memory from a year ago. I was very pregnant and extremely tired, and I needed to get my house clean in preparation for celebrating Mercy’s birthday with our friends and neighbors. This woman offered to come over and do some work around the house for me, and I accepted. Doug and I were very committed to helping her and her husband out in different ways, and I was eager to be able to bless them with some money for her time spent cleaning. I was also very eager for someone else to bend and lift and scrub and to give my back and belly a rest.
I had just put Mercy down for her nap when she arrived. I set out all of my supplies, told her what my cleaning priorities were, and then promptly went to my bed and collapsed, sound asleep. I woke two hours later to the sound of Mercy chattering through the monitor. I went into Mercy’s room and got her up, and we came out together to see a sparkly clean house and our good friend with a smile on her face. When she saw me her eyes teared up, and as she spoke she started to cry. She told me that she could not believe that I had let her into my home, with full access to all of our things, and then closed my door and gone to sleep. She said that she had never felt so trusted by someone; she had never felt so much pride and dignity and worth as someone who did not have to be doubted and feared.
I don’t think many of us have a reference for that kind of redemption. I don’t think that many of us come close to grasping the kind of tangible, radical social restoration that Zacchaeus or Mary Magdalene or the bleeding woman knew at the hands of Jesus.
My friend does. A year ago she could hardly fathom being trusted to clean someone’s home. How much more did she experience dignity and wholeness on Sunday as she collected our offerings and brought them before her Lord? I am grateful to my friend for leading us in what was most definitely a time of worship.
I don’t believe Willow should close their doors, nor do I think Church of the Redeemer’s slower growth is any strike against us through kingdom eyes. A widow’s penny was deemed a vast treasure by Jesus, so I am certain that we just can’t look at branches and fruit and harvest the way we do the stock market. The balance sheet can be very confusing…
So, in honor of Blog Comment Day, I have spoken up online at blogs that I visit but where I typically remain a quiet observer. So, here are the five posts that stirred my comments! Check them out…and join the challenge to leave five comments on the blogs you read and enjoy.
Eugene Cho’s post on influential movies
Grace’s post on growing disciples
Tyson’s post on prayer and suffering
Dan Kimball’s post at Out of Ur
and Jamie’s post reflecting on justice and Black Friday
As we prepare to leave here in a few weeks, my head and heart feel full of thought and sentiment around what we will so deeply miss about our life here. I thought I would share a bit of those things here…
Last night, I sat for a few minutes on our little front porch, appreciating the range of Christmas lights along our street that still feel funny to me in the midst of palm trees and hot-weather days. Doug and I have talked repeatedly about how we will miss the density of our street: the proximity of buildings, the crowding of people, the intimacy if you will of life on Kenwood. While this density can be annoying when trying to find a place to park on the street, it offers something vibrant and honest to the day-to-day.
On Kenwood, there is not a lot of hiding that can take place: people for the most part are seen and known and heard by one another, both when that is desirable and when it is not. That’s where the honesty part comes in. When I yell at my kids? The neighbors hear me. When we sit on our porch at night to enjoy a scotch or a glass of wine? Our time is punctuated with hello’s and waves as life crawls on beneath us. When Aaron runs out to greet his Auntie in his underwear? Everyone knows that I’m that mom who can’t keep three children consistently dressed.
Then there is the proximity of our landlord who lives beneath us. Recently retired from teaching high school, Paul is home a lot and he is often an hourly part of our every-day. He raises animals in the area behind our house, and I told someone last week that I never bothered getting a Zoo membership here in L.A.: if you came to our backyard, you would understand why. My kids have held and fed these animals; they have seen their eggs, held their newborns. Paul has been like a really cool Uncle to them, and it’s hard to imagine living in a house with no one else sharing the space. My kids are not allowed to jump off things in our apartment because it is “like elephants on Paul’s head”. While I look forward to seeing my kids jump freely in their space, it actually feels like more loss than gain in some ways.
The other piece of proximity that feels so significant is that on our street alone, there are five church families. I am not embarrassed to say that on more than one occasion I have pulled into my driveway with some impossible scenario of more babies sleeping than arms on my body, and I have called Elliot or Lauren or Arthur to come over and help me sherpa my family up the stairs. One of the joys of playing out front on the sidewalk in the late afternoon is welcoming everyone home from work. As our friends all park and get out of their cars after long work days, they will come over, set down their bags and say hello, run a few races with the big kids or chase Elijah down the driveway. Our play-space is a public walkway, and while that can cause me to tear my hair out on some days (especially now that Elijah is on a daily death wish about running into the street), it is also a very practical way we share our lives with our church family.
This past weekend I was rushing through Ralph’s with Mercy and Aaron when two very sweet older Latina women stopped us to ooh and aah over the kids.
“AY, que LINDA!” the first woman said.
“She called you GaLINDA, Aaron!” Mercy said, with huge eyes.
Aaron looked up at the woman and broke into a giant grin, apparently quite pleased at the comparison.
Yesterday I stood in front of our church family and tried to speak through my sobs as I announced that our family would be moving at the end of this month. Doug and I have accepted calls to serve my home church in Shoreline, Washington and we begin there on January first of the coming year. This decision was slow and in many ways brutal to make: we do not want to leave our life here. But we also recognize the need for a pretty major shift in how our family functions so that Doug can be freed up to finish his MDiv in the next three years, and the job opportunities in Seattle provide that for us in the midst of a wonderful faith community we know and love.
I could write volumes here about this decision. We are leaving people and a place we dearly love and nothing about that is easy. And it is painful to us when the well-intentioned say things about being happy or glad for us because we will be “getting out” of our community here.
I wish that I could somehow do justice in describing the beauty and overwhelming joy we have known here in this place. While I do not wish to glamorize our life here in any way (and certainly my writing here has been honest about the struggles and pains), I am saddened by the very quick conclusion that life among the poor is one to be despised, avoided, or shunned. Over the years, people have been quick to challenge our decision to be here on account of our responsibility to our children, and yet we have found the opposite inclination in our own hearts: we are currently mourning for our kids the things they, and we, will soon leave behind.
I am reminded of Doug’s response a few years back to a Fuller student asking us about raising our kids in South Central. Doug spoke for us both when he answered that they are the first thing to cause us to want to leave. But they are also the thing that makes us stay. In Doug’s words, “I want my kids to grow up not thinking twice about giving away a car.”
Just the other day, Mercy and I sat on the floor by the coffee table and had an extended conversation about why we have peach skin and why other people have light brown skin and dark brown skin. We got to talking about how the mommy’s and daddy’s skins blend to become the color of their babies, so then we had to talk through all the different color combinations that could be made with different colors of skin. Mercy has four years of a worldview under her belt that I think would be the envy of any parent.The handful of “Mercy stories” I have shared here perhaps give a small glimpse of this.
While we feel great heartache over our leaving, we do rejoice at “the new thing” that God is doing in our life, and we are enthusiastic and eager about our new roles of service in our new faith family up north. I am already looking forward to the teaching and preaching opportunities I will have there, as well as the challenge of discerning with that community what it looks like to be “in the community and for the community” (to shamelessly steal from our Church of the Redeemer mission statement).
It is humbling as well to consider returning to the church that raised me to serve as a pastor there. I have preached, given lectures, and spoken for retreats there already, and at every step have been overjoyed at the response of my older and wiser faith companions in that body. It is pure privilege to consider leading the same people who nurtured my faith from childhood, and I rejoice at the relationships we will enjoy as a family. As Mercy and Aaron and Elijah have thrived here in the midst of a community committed to caring for them, so too will they be surrounded there by a community that knows well how to nurture and serve and guide even the very young.
Doug will begin studies immediately at Fuller’s regional campus in Seattle. Doug has one of the sharpest minds I know and I am so thrilled that he will finally have space to deeply engage his studies with both time and focus: Doug’s schooling has so often taken the backseat to our family’s other needs these last few years, and he has been exceptionally slow to complain about or resent this. Doug has also been increasingly pressed by all of the demands of his commitments outside of our family, and in this new season of our life together, we will fully share the role of primary caregiver for our kids. I am certain the he will be a better fort-building adviser, train-track constructor (his tracks always connect while I can never get them to join in the end!), and soccer coach than I have been (though Lauren’s football and basketball coaching will be sorely missed!).
One significant factor for us as well throughout this decision-making process was our desire to be near the rest of our families for at least a season of our children’s childhoods. From our home in Seattle, there will be six grandparents within three driving hours, and we are thrilled to give that gift of proximity to our parents and to our children (and to ourselves–apparently when you have small kids and live near grandparents you can actually go out on dates once in a while!).
Doug and I moved to Los Angeles right after we got married six and a half years ago (today!), and as I prepared to speak to our congregation yesterday, I was reminded of the blessing our pastor gave to us at the end of our wedding. After serving communion, Pastor Henry looked at us and gave us this charge:
“So now I release you, Doug and Erika. I release you to service, for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. And I also release you to struggle, for he also said in this world we will have trouble but be of good cheer, for I will come. And I release you to satisfaction, for he said “If any man come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross” and anyone who follows after Christ willfully, obediently, will receive satisfaction and joy. And so now in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I dedicate you and release you to dance…dance…dance. Amen.”
As I stood in front of our congregation yesterday, Pastor Henry’s words came flooding back through my mind. How true his dedication of us was: how rightly he spoke to us on that day. For we have served, and been served more powerfully than we could have anticipated or even desired; we have struggled, reaching points of pain and despair and fear and sadness that I have never before known; and we leave here as people who have been so deeply satisfied by our God. And throughout the serving and struggling, in the midst of the satisfaction, (and at some cost to our landlord living beneath us!), we have danced.
Another line from our wedding stands out to me today, and this one came from the sweet voice of our beloved songwriter friend, Annemarie Russel. Her words made me cry that June afternoon as I stood next to Doug in a white dress with our future in Los Angeles spread before us as the great unknown. They feel as true now as they did then as I sit here surrounded by the marks of a family of five.
“So walk with me tenderly out from this place and into the stretches of sky. Trusting that he who began a good work will carry us home by and by…”