The gospel according to Los Angeles

During a recent lecture in my Early Church History class, our professor was discussing Epicurus and his understanding of reality. According to Epicurus, life happens when a bunch of atoms bump into each other and stick together, and eventually become a complex enough clump to somehow produce life. Death is inevitable, and when it happens, the atoms return to their original source: life is therefore a very temporary experience.

Those who followed Epicirus believed in maximizing their pleasure and happiness at all times, and finding every way to make their present life as long and as happy as it could be.

Maximizing happiness and extending life: it sounds a lot like what life looks like here in L.A. From zany health trends to expensive dieticians, spas, and of course surgical procedures, Angelinos are all about making life look as good and last as long as possible.

But something doesn’t match up. My professor also discussed how, according to Epicurus, anxiety is the enemy of the pleasurable life! He would argue against going into politics, for example, because it is too anxiety-producing.

So here’s what I find intriguing in all of this: everywhere I turn, I see people scrambling after happiness. I see people terrified of death and going to extremes to prevent it! I see pleasure placed on private alters everywhere and worshiped faithfully. Yet if you were to ask me what other word could best describe the families and individuals I know, I think it would have to be anxiety. I have too many peers on too many medications; I know too many teenagers who cut, starve, or wish to die; I see too many desperately controlling people whose lives are held hostage to every kind of fear. And these are just my Christian friends…

I heard a sermon recently that reminded us that we are all yoked to something: our egos, our addictions, our stuff. I wonder if it isn’t that, for many of us, we have we chosen to yoke ourselves to happiness or pleasure or longevity. And in doing so, we have found that we have chosen our Self as our ultimate yokefellow; and that is where the anxiety comes from. For when we grow weary, our yokefellow does too. When we desperately need the strength of another to help shoulder our load, we are left with the limits of our own endurance. When we simply want to turn and see that we have a companion in our labor, we instead find our own haggard face staring back.

What does the promise of an easy yoke and a light burden look like today-and are we brave enough to proclaim it?

Requiem

“May the angels lead you into paradise: may the martyrs receive you at your coming, and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have everlasting rest.”

faith

Last night I took out the trash from our kitchen (something I do much more often now that diapers have entered the scene). It was dark and as you walk out our back door, you have to go down the two flights of stairs to get to the driveway where the trash cans are tucked away under the trees. Usually the top flight of stairs are somewhat lit—whether it’s the moon or the generic city “light” or the lights from neighbors houses, I can always see comfortably at the top. Once I get to the bottom stretch of stairs, the visibility has almost disappeared, and I am always very anxious about tripping, missing a stair, rolling my ankle, whatever. When carrying some large item, like the baby carrier or a big box of recycle, this feels especially scary.

Our landlord who lives below us has a motion sensor light that comes on when you get to the very bottom. It lights up our back parking area quite well and I can make my way to one of our cars or to the trash cans with ease. But, it will not trigger until you have come to almost the last stair.

Every time I go out there at night I have the same experience—I walk cautiously down our steps, growing increasingly afraid as I near the bottom, until I get to the point where I feel like I cannot take another step because I just plain can’t see. And just when I think I can’t go any further, I step down into the darkness and the unknown and boom, that motion light kicks in and all is well.

Now, I do this often enough that you would think I would quit being afraid—that I would know the light is coming and that it will show me where I need to go. But every time it is the same story—anxiety, hesitation, disbelief that the light will work THIS time, even though it has always been faithful before.

I am at a funny place in my life right now. I sometimes feel like things seem a bit like the journey down my back staircase—I can’t see where I am stepping; I’m not sure that I will make it; I wonder if the Light will come on and show me where to put my feet.

the sacrifice of praise

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them to your foreheads.” Deuteronomy 11:18

I went into H and R Block last night with much fear and trembling. We had a lot of anxiety about our taxes and our prognosis was not good. After an hour and a half, Pat (my new favorite person), pushed the little button on her screen that totals everything up and there it was: not only did we not owe, we would be getting money back!

As I walked out the door of their office toward the street where I had parked, without meaning to, I burst into song. One of the worship choruses we sing just came pouring out. As I drove to my husband’s office to share our good news with him, I found myself belting out yet another hymn we sing at church.

I was struck by the gift of song—the way that words that are not our own become our own. The way a common language of praise and petition grows in the minds and hearts of a church family, creating language for all occasion; language that speaks what is true about “what is God and what is not” for every circumstance, and for all time.

My husband is very intentional about what we as a church sing. He is big about ‘substance’ trumping ‘style.’ I think he’s right—the songs that found their way out from my spirit onto my lips yesterday did not come because of their rhythm, ethnic background, or genre. They came out because what they say described what is true about me and about God. They came out because, in my situation yesterday, they gave words to the gratitude and thanksgiving I felt toward a God who did not abandon us. They came out because I needed to testify, to say what was true in my situation, and they gave me the words to do it.

paradise found

Yesterday we drove out to Joshua Tree National Park. The traffic on the 10 on the way out was slow going, so by the time we got there we had only a short time to actually enjoy the park. But it was worth every second of traffic endured! It is absolutely amazing there. We drove out, having never been there, expecting to see some of the desert wildflowers still in bloom. No such luck. But honestly I didn’t even care because the place was just so spectacular.

I was thrilled when a feisty jackrabbit appeared in front of our car and bounded off into the cluster of trees beside us. My husband went crazy with our little digital camera trying to capture the majesty of the place. Even our baby went nuts. I have never seen her kick and squeal and wave her arms and basically just dance as we held her like I did yesterday.

There were rock climbers everywhere, like little geckos scaling stone faces. It was so fun just to watch them–it definitely made us miss our little rock gym community back home. We decided we definitely needed to come back when we have our climbing shoes and a lot more time!

I am reminded of how important it is to find those places that feed your soul. Our best friends, S and J, recently stumbled across a spot five minutes from their home in Santa Monica that had the same affect on them. We all agreed that we needed to be better about finding those places and giving ourselves the joy of experiencing them.

What is it about standing high on a mountain or sitting among giant boulders and curious trees or gazing out at a spread of ocean waves that changes us? What does it give us that we don’t seem to get from all the other areas of our daily life? Where does its power come from?

How do you do it?

I had an interesting conversation the other night about boundaries—in relationships and in life in general. I am pretty sure that I am not a person that has a very mature understanding of what it means to operate with a lot of boundaries with people.

Today my husband had taken a day off from his seven day a week work schedule so that we could spend some time together as a family. The morning quickly disappeared with playtime with the baby, getting our tax paperwork ready, and random household chores. I was really looking forward to the afternoon—to doing something frivolous and fun together.

Instead, the three of us ended up commuting out in the afternoon rain and the ensuing L.A. traffic to Pasadena to pick up microphones that some friends are kindly loaning to us for our church service this Sunday. Ours were all stolen last Saturday night, along with all of our church’s sound equipment. So, because I am the board chair, and because my husband is the worship pastor, we have a great deal vested in having sound for our service this week. And this meant taking our one rare day off and losing a bulk of it to a tiresome journey.

I wonder what it means to protect yourself and your family in ministry. Would another high-boundary person have simply not gone to get the equipment, or let someone else carry the burden of making some kind of arrangement? What does it mean for us to be pastors here when we are not paid for our time and work, thus causing us to fill our lives to overflowing so that we can fulfill our ministry calling and pay our rent?

Or am I just making a big deal about a stupid rush hour car trip out to Pasadena…

Sisters

Last night I drove to LAX to pick up an old friend, AB. She is here in L.A. for her spring break of her final year in college in the Midwest.

AB and I have a pretty special history together. In college, I was the coordinator for a big sister/big brother program in the inner city of Chicago. My job was to match college students up with kids in the neighborhood for mentoring relationships. Once a month, I would plan some fun activity for everyone to participate in together.

My “little sister” worked every Saturday at the swap meet, so she almost never made it to the planned events–she and I would get together on weekdays instead. AB was involved with the program and she was matched up with a college student, only her student was kind of lame and would often miss the events. Because I was usually “unattached” at our parties, and because AB was “big sister-less” as well, we kind of adopted each other, and became each other’s honorary big and little sister.

As AB got older, our friendship grew in depth and substance. In my years in Chicago, she became one of the dearest people in my life. I will never forget in those early years receiving my first ever mother’s day card from AB. I will never forget being the ”adult” for her birthday slumber party at her house. I will never forget her screening the boys I would date. I will never forget the hours of conversations we shared about boys, the hood, God, and family. I will never forget being there for each other when J was killed.

It’s amazing to me where friendship comes from sometimes. I’m glad that it’s like that—that you never know who will enter your life and change it forever.

and on the seventh day…

Tonight our pastor showed up at the park rec center where our Spanish language bible study meets to worship on Saturday nights. He was greeted by a few hundred members of the Bloods street gang who had gathered at our park after the funeral of one of their own. He made his way into the building and began setting up chairs but was soon interrupted by L.A.P.D. storming into the building with their guns drawn. Our pastor and a young couple who were there to help set up were forced out of the building by cops who had received a tip that the Crips might be on their way to pay the Red mourners a visit. The L.A.P.D. confiscated more than twenty-five guns from those gathered on the park grounds.

As our pastor relayed this story with me over the phone, I expected him to tell me that, as a result, the Spanish service had certainly been cancelled. But instead, he shared with me that more than thirty people had shown up for worship, and that, after some difficulty getting inside, all who gathered had experienced a great time of praise and thanksgiving. I am pretty sure that I would have sent everyone home and gotten myself out of there as quickly as possible.

The helicopters have been circling on and off here for most of the night. Meanwhile my baby sleeps peacefully in the next room—the barking dogs and the hovering aircraft don’t wake her. She is kind of like her pastor and a small band of believers who likewise were able to rest tonight in the midst of the din of fear and the agitation of violence.

I have wondered a lot lately about the Sabbath and what it means for us to rest. I think that there is a lot more to it than setting aside some time to pamper yourself, or creating space in your schedule for quiet times and prayer. I don’t think that it is ultimately something we are to do as individuals. How does the soft still face of my sleeping baby and a bunch of crazy Latinos change the way I understand this idea of Sabbath in South L.A…?

mailbox manna

Dear Anonymous,

My guess is that you won’t ever read this, but maybe writing this has more to do with me than you anyway.

When I walked down the stairs to my front door last week to check my mail, the highest hopes I entertained were that perhaps the Newsweek had arrived a day early, or maybe a complimentary shipment of Storyhouse coffee would be balancing on the rack beneath our mailbox. As I reached inside our box, I was disappointed to find it empty. Surprised that there would be NOTHING in the mail, I put my hand back in for one more swish (something I am usually hesitant to do because of the little family of spiders who live in the beautiful palms above the box) and my fingers brushed the edge of a sturdy envelope. As I pulled it out I realized that, strangely, it was not sealed. It was addressed to us with our address written plainly, however it had not been mailed. No return name or address was written, and the envelope was not even sealed. A bit surprised I reached inside (again, thinking briefly about the spiders) and I pulled out three folded, colorful gift card holders.

As I unfolded the first, I was surprised to see Trader Joes printed on the card. I didn’t even know they DID gift cards. The next one, with its bold bull’s-eye, was a bit more familiar. The final card came from our good friend down the street, Ralph’s. The amounts written above the cards were generous.

Baby formula, diapers, wipes, and rice cereal would now be purchased with ease. I could look forward soon to Trader Joe’s peanut butter, frozen vegetables and brown rice. And we could once again load up on rocket fuel-less water to keep a baby fed and a breastfeeding mom hydrated.

As I walked slowly back into my house, I encountered my mom (who was visiting from Seattle) at the top of my stairs. By then the tears had already started flowing and my mom, obviously caught off guard and concerned, asked me what was wrong. “Someone gave us money for groceries…” was all I could get out before I began to sob. I went and stood in my room for a few minutes, leaving my mom and baby in the other room.

I don’t always know what the tears are for when they come. Are they tears of gratitude for the anonymous generosity of a friend? Are they tears of anger that we still, with my husband working full time at Fuller Seminary, and part time for a Jewish synagogue, can’t pay our rent and bills and put food on the table? Are they tears of shame that my mom would see how her thirty-one year old daughter is relying on help from others to have her grandbaby’s basic needs met? Or are they tears of communion with a God who has heard my cries and has sent me manna for one more day?

Though you remain anonymous, I am trying to see you in everyone who surrounds us here. In my pastor who would give us the shirt off his back if we asked for it. In my sister who has never said no to watching my baby for a few hours so I can go to class or write a paper. In our Kenwood neighbors who have done more to care for us this past year than I would have thought possible on this side of heaven. I am also trying to see you in myself. What are the things that I have that can be quietly and generously given to another who feels discouraged, isolated, or afraid.

Thank you, Anonymous.

Erika Carney Haub’s musings on life and God from South Central, L.A.