Happy Day

Dear Mom,

So I bet this is your first ever “blog” Mother’s Day card. I thought it fitting since you are one of the greatest supporters of my desire to write and share my heart and faith with others. So I realize it’s a bit public, but oh well, so is a billboard!

The last time I published something about you, I got quoted for the first time ever by another publication. That was a stroke to my ego, but more importantly it was a testimony to the kind of woman and mother you are–someone who makes people feel inspired or convicted or just plain grateful that someone like you exists.

Tonight Doug and I are sharing our home with a fellow classmate from Fuller. She needed to spend the night with someone involved in “incarnational ministry” and visit the ministry and ask questions. Earlier today I was anxious about the Hebrew test I will have Monday and my desparate need to study and prepare. Having a houseguest interrupted my ability to do that, but I am reminded of how you and Dad always had a bed or a couch or a floor somewhere for just about anyone who needed a place to stay–need I mention accordians?–and it was never about your convenience or ease. I hope that Mercy will grow up seeing her mom and dad do the same thing.

Tonight I was at Ralph’s trying to exchange the formula I purchased last night with my WIC coupons. I had accidentally picked out the wrong kind and the checkout lady noticed so she sent the bag boy back to the shelves to get the right kind. He bagged my things and I left, only to discover when I got home that he had again given us the incorrect kind. Tonight the store manager gave me a hard time. As soon as it was apparent that I was a WIC customer, his demeanor changed and he told me that they were out of the kind I needed and that he couldn’t help me. I told him that my baby can’t drink milk and this is a milk based formula and that he would give me a different kind–I would happily take a different brand if that was my only choice. He finally relented and gave me the larger size can in exchange for two of the four cans I brought to return. He told me repeatedly that they weren’t supposed to do this and that I needed to be more careful next time. Then he turned with a smile to the USC student waiting to order a keg of beer beside me. I was reminded of all the ways you would stand up and fight for me when I was young–getting me into the best programs at school; getting bus service for me when they told you they couldn’t help you. And it wasn’t just stuff for me or Anna, or now for David. Anywhere you encountered a system working against people, you would stand up and fight and you would not stop until right prevailed. I hope that Mercy will grow up seeing her mom bravely tackle obstacles and injustices, not just for her, but for many.

Tonight I sat in the green rocker holding my sweet Mercy asleep in my arms. I remembered all those nights that you would come and sit on my bed and rub my back or give me an arm scratch and listen to all the stories from my day, and you would often sit there patiently until I drifted off to sleep (often nodding off yourself). I realize that since marrying Doug, that precious ritual is gone (though it was alive and kicking up until that point) but I do my best to make up for it now with cuddles on the couch whenever I am home–though Mercy is stiff competition. Tonight as I gazed down at my sleeping baby, I almost suffocated with love for her. I hope that she will know many nights of ending her day with a mom beside her who will listen and talk and rub, and falling asleep knowing well how very much she is loved.

At our wedding, Pastor Mike said something about how Doug and I were made for each other. I feel the same way about you–that God gave me the mom God knew that I would need. Thanks for loving me. Thanks for making my life so very rich. And thank you for showing me what kind of mom I want Mercy to have. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.

Erika

mercy-and-mama.jpg

P.S. Talk to Debbie Wilkins–she has something for you!

cartoon houses

A friend of mine has owned a home here in our community for many years. Recently, she and her husband painted their exterior in rich earth tones and enhanced their landscaping. When you drive by, you immediately notice how nice their home looks. This past month, their neighbor also decided to beautify his home. He worked for weeks on a complete makeover of the exterior. And then came the paint…

Neon orange and lime green are the best I can do to describe the colors–the house is vibrant, electric, and probably glows at night. In the words of my friend’s husband, “It looks like a cartoon house! “ And he’s right. If you drive down the street this is certainly the one house you will not miss!

I heard last week that my friend who lives next to this house had said: “I just don’t want to leave the house anymore, because when I come back home I have to see it.”

I was thinking about how this feels a lot like what Bonhoeffer calls, “Life Together.” There are people who are like that house: bright, bold, foreign—ultimately, different than us. But we like OUR color scheme; OUR style; OUR way of looking at the world. And sometimes people’s colors can clash so badly with our own carefully chosen palette that we choose to stay inside so as not to be reminded that they exist.

Maybe this is why so many housing developments have restrictions and a carefully chosen menu of what colors homeowners can choose from. Maybe this is why so many people are attracted to living in those kinds of places–and abandoning those where you can’t legislate your neighbor’s taste. Maybe this is why churches struggle so hard to bring together people of different cultural backgrounds; or why they don’t.

Yoda and the Passover

Dick Staub has written a new book, Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters, that explores the question of how my generation has (or in most cases, has not) been mentored by those who have gone before us. He uses the clever comparison of Jedi in desperate need of Yodas who will instruct and guide and enflesh what it is we hope for in our Christian lives.

Sunday night I attended a Seder dinner with my husband and the messianic Jewish congregation he helps lead music for at a synagogue in Beverly Hills. The irony of the evening was that I should have been home studying for my Hebrew exam on Monday morning, but instead I spent the night participating in something very beautiful and strange.

The Seder dinner celebrates Passover: the occasion in the history of the Jewish people where God brought judgment upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews, and “passed over” the homes of the Jews in his slaughter of the firstborns, both children and animals, throughout all the land. It is this gruesome event that causes Pharaoh to finally release the Jews and “let them go”: following the Passover, the people of Israel are slaves in Egypt no more.

As I was reminded frequently throughout the Seder meal, celebrating Passover is about celebrating redemption: redemption from bondage and slavery, and extinction. For Messianic Jews, this dinner also celebrates the life and death of Yeshua, the messiah, who shared this very same meal with his disciples hours before his passion began.

So what does this have to do with Staub’s book?

It is said that the Passover is celebrated for the sake of the children, that they would hear the stories of their people. At the beginning of the Seder, there is a ritual where the youngest child asks four questions:

“On all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread. Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?

On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables. Why on this night do we eat only bitter herbs?

On all other nights we don’t dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?

On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining. Why on this night do we recline?”

As a gathered people on Sunday evening we read, together, the answers to these four questions. And over the course of the evening we read, sang, and listened to the stories of a people who were once enslaved and who are now redeemed. And through eating and dipping and washing and hiding, we answered, as a body: “why is this night different from all other nights?”

Sunday night, I sat in a room filled with Yodas. Sunday night I ate and drank with young and old who gather on this night with the express purpose of shaping the next generation. Sunday night I shared a meal with a people who would probably not understand the need for Dick Staub’s book. Sunday night I shared life with a community that regularly speaks to what Staub describes as the hunger “to discover your true destiny and your place in the cosmic story.” For my Jewish sisters and brothers, faith has never been something that one has to go out and get a hold of by oneself. Faith does not exist apart from ones family; one’s people. Faith is always something corporate: or as my husband likes to say, for our Jewish friends, “belonging” comes before “believing.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but in my church people get annoyed if they are not spoon-fed their worship experience by people up front. I don’t mean to be critical, but in the name of being “welcoming” and “sensitive” to visitors, there is a dangerous trend toward making the Sunday morning service a fun “experience”; something that can be “enjoyed” as a spectator, with actual participation and responsibility left at a minimum. The long hours and high level of participation that the Seder supper demanded would, in the language of my church, be “inaccessible”, “uncomfortable”, and a “turn-off.”

I wonder what it must be like for the children on the night of the Seder. As they look around they see their parents, elders and friends practicing a strange, inaccessible ritual with flat bread, parsley dipped in salt water, and hard boiled eggs:inaccessible, that is, unless one knows the story. As I sat there and shared in these rituals I thought of my own little girl. What in her life and experience in our home and in our church will teach her about who she is and who her people are? How will she learn the story of salvation as something bigger than a private romance between her and Jesus?

Maybe what Staub’s “Jedi Christians” need are not more conferences, seminaries, books and workshops. Maybe what we need is not another new, more “fashionable” way of doing church. Maybe what we need are not more opportunities to be “performed” to. Maybe what we need are simply more places where we gather to encourage our children to ask questions; where we eat and dip and wash and hide; where we, together, retell and reenact our story.

I do

I remember being single and really struggling with the idea of marrying someone and giving up my freedom to follow God wherever and however God would call me. I didn’t like the idea of giving up the “I” for the “We” because I felt like I would be held back somehow—no longer able to pack my bags and head for Africa or Chicago or anywhere else God might call me at any notice.

A wise friend told me to wait: to not marry until there was someone with whom I experienced MORE of life; MORE of God’s initiative and calling and direction than I had on my own.

So I waited. And waited some more. And then there he was. The one I tried to not want. The one I tried to tell myself I could live without.

My wise friend got it exactly right. Life with Doug is richer and more full than anything I ever could have imagined. There is more of God, not less.

Last week we had the pleasure of four friends from Seattle invading out little apartment and making their home with us. On Saturday they left to return to their own lives and callings back home, and while our apartment once again feels roomy and quiet, I miss them terribly. And it is not the morning Starbucks runs that Dick would make or the groceries that would just appear in the refrigerator or the extra hands that were quick to hold the baby that I miss. It is that being with them made life richer and more filled with God’s presence and grace.

I think this is what being the family of God is exactly about. It is that move away from singleness; from independence, self-reliance and “freedom” to a place where life is better together than it ever could be alone. It’s a lot like marriage and I understand why many are skeptical or afraid. Being yoked to one another is a lot of work. It can hurt. It is sacrificial. But just like life in our apartment last week, in all of the chaos and compromise, it is a treasure I don’t want to live without.

my burden is light

I love my baby. I love holding her, playing with her, talking to her, bathing her. I am one of those moms who simply cannot get enough of her little one.

With that said, when someone asks to hold her and I pass her into the arms of another, there is that moment where I straighten my back and shoulders and stretch my torso a bit. There is that feeling of release, relief, and the easing of a weight or burden, even if for only a few minutes. There is that sudden freedom to go to the bathroom by myself, or sit down and eat a plate of food unencumbered, or sit at the computer and read an email without her little hands grabbing at the mouse and shoving bills and papers onto the floor.

This week our church is hosting a group of kids and adults from my home church in Seattle, Washington. They are here this week to serve our church and our community through morning service projects at our tutoring center and at homes of church members, and through afternoon sports and dance camps for neighborhood children. It is an amazing group of people who chose to spend their spring break, many of them as families, not in Cancun or at Disneyland, but in the gritty streets of South Central.

I have been close to tears many times this week:

leaving the home of one of our church members who is widowed, wheelchair bound, and the primary caregiver for her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s disease where four members of the mission team were scrubbing walls, priming rooms for painting, scouring behind toilets, picking dropped pills up off the floor, and helping to organize the contents of a kitchen so that things could be accessed from a wheelchair;

standing in the middle of the street talking to a neighborhood woman and her son who had nothing to do with any of our camps or events but who had driven by our gathering time of singing with the kids in the park and had stopped their minivan to find out who we were and why we were doing what we were doing;

sitting in the auditorium of our local grade school watching a beautiful high school senior who is an accomplished dancer in Seattle teach dance to more than forty little girls—and remembering holding that young woman when she was the same age that my own little girl is now;

walking into the back classroom of the tutoring center I have directed for the past three years and having someone flip the light switch to reveal a brand new ceiling filled with new recessed light fixtures that fill the room with bright, warm light–no longer will young children and their tutors squint to learn new words on book pages that are barely illumined by a lone fluorescent light.

I love my life here in South Central. I love my church and the people I call neighbor and friend. I love the opportunities I have daily to wrestle with Jesus’ call to love mercy and to walk justly. There is nothing else that I would rather be doing.

But it is not always easy. And it can sometimes feel lonely. And so this week I am feeling that deep sense of a weight lifted, of responsibility shared; of partnership, companionship, and relief. I have stood on the sidelines of camp programs, free to chat with the watching moms. I have stood in the back of the group of kids singing, free to engage stopped minivans and curious neighbors in conversation. I have stood in the middle of a newly painted tutoring center, and watched others bend and sweat and cover themselves with paint so that children I love can be welcomed by cleanliness and beauty.

This week, twenty-nine people have come into our life here and humbly asked: “Can we hold your baby?”

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?

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