Why “ink”?

Earlier this week, I did something I never thought I’d do…

I got a tattoo.

My youngest, Megan, has been obsessed with getting one ever since she turned 18 last fall. She spent way too much time googling tattoo ideas, which she kept running by me to see my reaction. Most of her initial concepts provoked a roll of my eyes and a sigh. I told her she had to wait until graduation, secretly hoping she would lose interest in the idea, but figuring that at least by then she would have had time to come up with something truly meaningful that she could live with for the rest of her life.

This spring, she finally landed on something: “It is finished” — the last words of Jesus from John 19:30 — in Hebrew (we tried for Aramaic, but it looked basically the same as the Hebrew lettering), inked on her right side to represent where Jesus was speared by the Roman soldier. So it was decided.

And then, she asked if I would get one, too. (Sigh. If you have read my earlier blogs, you know that this child often manages to get me into stuff that’s out of my comfort zone.)

I had to admit that I always thought small ones, especially of religious symbols like Celtic crosses, were kind of cool — but not for me. Besides that, I couldn’t think of anything I would want permanently etched on my body. But I made her a deal: “If you can come up with an idea for something that would really be meaningful to me, I’ll do it.” So, of course, she did.

My favorite scripture is Micah 6:8, which says, “What does God require of us? To do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” To me, this verse sums up the way we should live our lives. It’s the gospel in a nutshell — sweet and simple. And since I’m terrible at memorizing anything, I also love that it’s short enough for me to remember.

On Tuesday, we went to Main Street Tattoos, and a nice young man named Jesse engraved these words in a lovely script on my right foot, from my ankle to just above my little toe: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. (And yes — it hurt. Quite a lot.)

I have to admit — I love it.

As my pastor, Arden Gilmer, commented on my facebook post of my new acquisition, this is my way of living out Deuteronomy 6:6-9: These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Jesus asks us to live in a way that’s often out of our comfort zones. And sometimes, he asks us as individuals to do things that are way out of character for us. I’m not a tattoo kind of person. I don’t ride Harleys, pierce body parts beyond my earlobes, or smoke Hookah pipes. But I’m serious about my faith, and I wanted a tangible, visible symbol of it that’s more permanent than the silver cross I wear on a leather strap around my neck.

I know many of my fellow Christians would disagree with me, and maybe even cite Leviticus 19:28, the one scripture that specifically prohibits tattoos, as evidence. (As we were talking about the meaning behind my choice of tattoo, Jesse-the-tattoo-artist told me that another Christian client of his got a nasty message from someone in her church, who told her that “only whores get tattoos.” Nice. That’s a very Christ-like response, huh?)

If one is going to use Leviticus 19:28 as ammunition, one also has to observe the commands in the rest of that chapter, which include not eating steak, not eating fruit from a tree that’s less than three years old, not harvesting their field a second time if they miss anything (but rather leaving it for the poor to glean), and not mixing two kinds of fibers in their clothing (so no more polyester blends). There’s also a lot of good stuff in that chapter that applies in any situation, but we must always realize that each book of scripture was for a specific time and place, so we have to take time to look at the purpose behind these commandments. Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am The Lord.” In that time and that place, pagan rituals –such as marking up your body to honor the dead — were an issue. And if today’s Christians were getting tattoos to honor the dead, that would definitely be a problem.

But followers of Jesus getting tattoos to honor him? Let’s let God be the judge of that.

For me, this “ink” will be a constant reminder to walk the talk. To be the hands and feet of Jesus in my community. And to do this with love and humility, not arrogance or condescension.

Maybe it’s foolish. But God wants us to be fools for him.

David celebrated his love for God by dancing in his underwear in public. That’s a bit of a stretch for me… so I just got a tattoo.

Justice starts in your neighborhood, with people you actually know

For today’s blog, I’m reviewing Signpost 9: Prodigal Justice as part of the blog tour for Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. (You can read reviews of the entire book by clicking here and here, or reviews of each of the previous eight signposts by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

I should explain that, while I don’t usually write book reviews, I’m honored to blog about this book for a couple of reasons: First of all, it’s written by people I know and respect. I’m a DMin student at Northern Seminary, where both Fitch and Holsclaw teach, and have been privileged to study with both of them. I’ve come to realize they not only believe this stuff — they live it. Prodigal Christianity for them isn’t about theological concepts or the latest church trends; it’s their reality. And they want it to be their students’ reality, too.

Second, it’s one of the most important books I’ve read about the missional movement, but also one of the most accessible. This book is based on decades of study, reflection, and — perhaps most importantly — experience (both the successes and the failures), so it’s biblically solid, theologically deep, and grounded in reality. It’s also written in a clear, straightforward style that makes me feel comfortable giving copies to both my pastor and my peers.

Okay, so let’s move on to Signpost Nine: Prodigal Justice.

As they do in much of the book, the authors begin this chapter by sharing a story from their church, Life on the Vine, about how individuals within their community reacted to the Occupy Wall Street movement in completely different ways. Was Occupy Wall Street’s attempt to highlight economic inequality about “justice”? Or is “justice” achieved when those who work the hardest and smartest earn the most money? The folks at Life on the Vine learned first-hand that the word “justice” means different things to different people.

Fitch and Holsclaw point out that the topic of justice is so controversial that many churches and pastors prefer to avoid the issue altogether. Yet, they say, this isn’t really an option for those who follow Jesus. “God in Christ has already begun making the world right. This is the kingdom. This is the gospel. This is our story. It is therefore not possible to proclaim God’s salvation in our neighborhoods and ignore injustice as if it is unrelated.” I appreciate their willingness to engage this issue honestly and head-on, and to share their missteps along the journey.

So justice is a non-negotiable. But how do we as Christians discern what is just? And how do we lead our churches (whether we’re paid staff or lay people) to respond to injustice?

Throughout the book, the authors follow a pattern of comparing the views and practices of the Reformed and Emergent camps as two extremes of missional church, then offering a “third way” as an alternative. For this signpost, they compare NYC pastor Tim Keller with author Brian McLaren. Keller is well known for leading a church that actively seeks justice. He argues that justice begins with salvation: as individuals are justified by faith, they’re moved to show love, mercy, and generosity toward others. While Fitch and Holsclaw applaud Keller’s work in correcting those who believe justice is separate from salvation, they point out that “frontloading individual salvation like this — making one’s personal justification by faith the prior entrance point for justice — can have some unintended consequences.”

As a case in point, they share the story of a woman who became a regular at several area churches, repeatedly declaring herself a sinner in need of salvation and offering to pray and attend their church in exchange for financial assistance. By getting to know this woman better, the people at Life on the Vine learned that a deeper source of her need was an unreconciled relationship with her sister. How easy it is, the authors say, for us to separate personal justification from justice in our relationships. They express concern that Keller’s tendency to make justification the entrance point for justice is dangerous because it makes justice an optional after-effect of being saved. “It becomes something we do, not something God is doing.”

McLaren, on the other hand, sees biblical salvation as the social transformation God is working in the world — something we can participate in by joining in God’s work for justice. According to McLaren, sin is a social disease that breaks down relationships, and Jesus brings the kingdom as an alternative to the narratives of power and oppression in the world. Fitch and Holsclaw affirm McLaren for “renewing an emphasis on salvation as God’s justice in the world” and instigating a revival in social justice movements among Christians. But as they probe further, of course, they question this view and ask whether it’s enough to simply call individuals into the way of Jesus.

Another situation from Life on the Vine illustrates this concern over McLaren’s viewpoint: The authors tell the story of a well-meaning group from within their congregation who wanted to support a Christian rock band in raising a large sum of money to fight AIDS in Africa. Life on the Vine had no relational connection to this cause; however, they did have a direct, ongoing relationship with a hospital in rural Africa ministering to a thousand AIDS patients a year. But the latter effort wasn’t as grandiose, so their people weren’t as excited about it. This episode is one example of a story lived out thousands of times over throughout churches in the U.S. It’s easy for us to throw money at a cause and get pumped about it. And in doing so, Fitch says, we often perpetuate the very problem we’re trying to fight by sending money detached from relationships. “Being with — living the gospel relationally with people as part of everyday life — seems to be the common practice from which God’s justice breaks in,” Fitch and Holsclaw write. “In this way, in submission to his reign, Jesus’s presence is extended incarnationally through our lives.”

And this brings us to the authors’ proposed “third way” to live justly.

Justice, they argue, must be rooted in both relationships and context. Fitch tells about a time he interviewed famed theologian Stanley Hauerwas at a conference in Toronto in which he asked Hauerwas to explain the connection between Jesus, the church, and justice. Hauerwas’ response was, “No Eucharist, no justice.” Fitch translates this as, “No Jesus, no justice” — and, likewise, “No justice, no Jesus.” Justice for Hauerwas is seen in the Lord’s Supper — the communal eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. Something almost mystical happens in this process “that shapes us into the reconciliation, forgiveness, and renewal of all things God is working in Christ by the Spirit.”

Translation: If we’re not living justly, then Jesus isn’t present. If we’re not spending time with “the least of these” in our neighborhoods, we’re not in the kingdom. If we’re not generous and only take care of ourselves, we can’t receive eternal life. And so on. Likewise, if our good deeds aren’t inspired by and performed through the power of Jesus, then they aren’t truly just. The two — Jesus and justice — go hand-in-hand.

Finally, the authors ask, if God is calling us to live as communities of justice and partner with Him in bringing justice to the world, what does that look like? And how do we do it?

First, they say, “God’s prodigal justice happens through being with people in the midst of their lives. It is intensely and simply relational.” This is a hard lesson for many of us as Christians to learn, in my humble opinion, because we’re so used to “doing justice” through programs of the church, or donating money to causes highlighted in the Sunday bulletin. This kind of justice is easy. It makes us feel good. We can do it on our terms, when it fits our schedule and budget. (For the past few years, I was the pastor responsible for “outreach” programs at my local church. I bought into this definition of justice and, unfortunately, passed it along to others.)

Real justice, through getting to know people who aren’t like us and forming genuine friendships with them (not with a goal in mind — for example, to save them, or “fix” them), is much harder — at first. It’s not a weekend mission trip or a day of service; it’s part of our everyday lives. Eventually, it can become organic and second nature. But initially, it’s just plain awkward.

Again, how do we begin? Fitch and Holsclaw suggest that we should “simply notice the hurting around us and begin to be available to them in relationship as our schedules allow. Soon after, as we know the hurting as friends, not as clients or people who need us, and commit to each other’s growth as friends, something changes, and God works in that relationship. Kingdom breaks in.” They seem to suggest that, like participating in the Eucharist, merely being with “the least of these” allows something mysterious to happen. God is present where we as the church encounter and are present with those in the margins.

We must do this humbly, not in arrogance. We must let it develop naturally, not force it with tracts and programs. We must be vulnerable, and allow ourselves to receive as well as to give. And it’s in this “with-ness” that justice takes place.

I strongly believe in the ideas put forth in this chapter. A confession: I’m a bleeding heart, a social justice fanatic, someone who gets behind every worthwhile cause with the intent of changing the world. It’s hard for me to admit that. But I’ve learned over the years that this approach, although it often brings good to the world, lacks depth and authenticity. And many times in my life, I’ve done more harm than good. The authors are right — justice must be rooted in day-to-day relationships with people whom God puts in our paths.

My one concern about this chapter is that some may read it and use it as an excuse to not go out of their way to connect with the least of these. (That’s obviously not the authors’ intent — I just know how we church people can be.) And if we choose to go on about our busy lives and not see the poor through God’s eyes, not befriend people who are different from us, not realize how much we can learn from others who see the world differently — well, then God isn’t going to bother continuing to create those opportunities. Why would He?

BUT… if we do let ourselves learn from the incarnation, if we do slow down enough to let God use us… we will have the opportunity to participate in his kingdom in our own corners of the world, with our own neighbors. And we will be transformed in the process as his kingdom breaks in.

Don’t buy one copy of Prodigal Christianity. Buy a few, and give them to your pastors, your peers, and anyone you know who exhibits a deep desire to live missionally. This is a foundational book for all of us who want to join in the missio Dei.

Oklahoma, Day 4

It’s actually the morning of Day 5 now, but Megan and I were so wiped out from working in the 95-degree heat yesterday that we were asleep by 7:00 last night. So after 11 hours of sleep, I’m the first one up and am using this little slice of quiet time to reflect on the week and catch up on writing.

The temperatures here are not helping the working conditions; we go hard for a couple of hours in the morning, take a break for lunch and to cool off in the shade, and then work two or three more hours in the afternoon. The heat peaks around 3:00, so most work crews then quit for the day in order to stay healthy and have energy for the next day. (We keep saying that if it were only 10 degrees cooler, we could accomplish twice as much.)

The heat, combined with the dust and the breeze that constantly kicks tiny fragments of debris into our eyes and noses and mouths, is one of the hellish parts of being here. But of course the most grueling part is simply the massive devastation — the loss of life, the destruction of dwellings, the seemingly endless regulations people have to hurdle in order to piece their lives back together.

However, this morning I’m not thinking about that. I’m reflecting back on the past few days and realizing how God’s presence has manifested itself here — how many ways we are seeing His Kingdom break in amidst the tragedy.

Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of God — how it is both here, and not yet. Some religions tend to emphasize the “not yet” — how we need to “get saved” so we can go to heaven when we die. And although that is certainly true, we too often overlook the “here” part and forget that God is present with us every day, and we as His people can participate in a life that is more Kingdom-like.

Moore, OK, in the aftermath of an EF-5 tornado, is the strongest in-breaking of the Kingdom that I’ve ever experienced. As I mentioned in a previous post, we felt it first at the Plaza Towers Elementary site — a place that witnessed the tragic loss of seven innocent lives. Despite being a place of deep sadness, or maybe because of that — it has become hallowed ground. God’s presence is palpable there; it’s in the seven wooden crosses, the gaudy makeshift memorial, the Hope Raisers tent where children and parents come to heal, and maybe in the ground itself.

But the Kingdom extends far beyond that spot. Jesus uses the language “the Kingdom of God is like…” or “the Kingdom of heaven is like…” Here’s how I think He might talk about this place…

The Kingdom of God is like… volunteers flooding in from every corner of the country to spend a few hours or a few days, or even a few weeks, laboring to rebuild this town.

The Kingdom of God is like… the Oklahoma City Rescue Mission — a place of recovery and freedom for countless marginalized families — which decided to open its doors and provide free cots, meals, and showers to hundreds of weary volunteers who will stay here this summer. (A huge THANK YOU to them for the incredible hospitality they’ve shown us this week, and especially to Jill, who not only gave us a tour when we first shuffled in after a 16-hour drive, but shared a little of her story, and how God used the mission to heal her from decades of abuse.)

The Kingdom of God is like… ServeMoore, a volunteer-led organization that materialized out of the rubble to serve as headquarters for clean-up efforts. They not only gave thousands of volunteers work to do this week, but provided us with every supply and tool (from sunscreen to wheelbarrows) we could possibly need.

The Kingdom of God is like… the church across the street from ServeMoore, who provided incredible free lunches of homemade chicken salad and pasta salad, an endless supply of cold drinks, and shade tents, and who will be there all summer long doing the same for other volunteers. Yesterday they even brought in huge fans and misting machines to cool us off. Amazing.

The Kingdom of God is like… the guys from the Baptist Disaster Relief Team who seemed to show up whenever we needed someone with a backhoe to push a pile of rubble to the curb, saving us hours of work.

The Kingdom of God is like… a busload of teachers from Duncan, OK, who arrived just when we needed a burst of energy, and helped us clear debris for an hour. They were just the encouragement we needed, just when we needed it.

The Kingdom of God is like… Dave the firefighter from New Jersey, who in his spare time runs a non-profit that does disaster relief work, and who organized us to clean up the home of an elderly professor and save his precious books and memorabilia. (Dave has done this work in six states so far in 2013, and he invited us to join him in two little towns in New Jersey who have yet to be cleaned up from the hurricane last fall.)

The Kingdom of God is like… the college kids we met through Adventures in Mission, most of whom flew here on their own, without knowing a soul, and congealed as a team to do some very difficult and tedious work this week.

The Kingdom of God is like… Amy from Texas, a 50-something widow with a big heart and the gift of hospitality, who instantly befriended us and invited us to join their group. We miss her already.

The Kingdom of God is like… our team leader, Blair, having her jeep break down — and five mechanics who happened to be hanging around ServeMoore offering to fix it for free so she could continue hauling volunteers, and make it back home to Dallas.

The Kingdom of God is like… SUVs full of church ladies showing up at random times to offer cold drinks, sandwiches, and snacks to volunteers all over the disaster site.

The Kingdom of God is like… finding precious mementoes in the wreckage of a 90-year-old professor’s home: Family photos. His original thesis from 1942. His “Oklahoma Sooners” welcome mat. His collection of expensive-looking dress shoes, in perfect condition. Bits and pieces of his gun collection. Stuff that is meaningless to us, but everything to him.

The Kingdom of God is like… the people of Moore and Oklahoma City, who are some of the friendliest people we’ve ever met. Everyone is so thankful for the volunteers, and so kind to strangers.

The Kingdom of God is like… having prayers answered almost immediately, maybe because we’re praying for the right things, or because we’re doing God’s work. We haven’t figured that out — but it’s very cool.

I could go on and on… but it’s 6:57 am, and time to get to work. This will likely be my last entry from here. We’re working all day, then hitting the road, planning to stay in a hotel (preferably one with a swimming pool) somewhere en route to home.

Meg has been talking with her friends who went to Florida for their senior trip; they had a great week, and even met Reed Robertson from Duck Dynasty, who hung out with them for several hours on the beach. I asked her if she regretted being here instead of with them, and she quickly shook her head.

But I already knew the answer to my question: Neither of us has an ounce of regret. This has been an amazing week.

Thanks, Lord.

Oklahoma, Day 3

Media coverage of the Moore, Oklahoma, disaster relief efforts led us to think that thousands of workers were here, efficiently razing houses, removing debris, and restoring order to the Oklahoma City suburb. Megan and I were somewhat concerned that we would merely be in the way.

The reality, of course, is quite different from the TV version. Volunteers poured in from all over the country, but most came the first week. Although it’s difficult to estimate how many are here now, I can tell you there are certainly not enough. We expected the City Rescue Mission gym to be lined with cots just a few feet apart, packing in a hundred or so workers. Tonight, just 16 of us remain — 12 women (mostly college girls) and four men.

Yesterday morning at Serve Moore, the site that is coordinating volunteer efforts, several clusters of a dozen or so people wearing matching T-shirts (Lutheran Youth League, Southern Baptists of Alabama, and the like) waited for instructions from a couple of 20-something organizers. As we cruised the affected neighborhoods — most of which are sandwiched between 4th Street to the north and 19th street to the south, and stretching over a couple of miles from east to west — looking for our own work site, we passed a half dozen similar groups of volunteers already at work. But the majority of houses sat untouched.

The volunteer work itself can be frustrating and tedious. After a Tuesday afternoon full of false starts and dead ends, I was sharing my frustrations with a couple of Alabama ladies wearing chaplain T-shirts. The women looked at each other and nodded knowingly. “We had the same thing happen to us the first time we did this,” one said. “You need to be trained. Then you can go in immediately, before the organizations take over and make everything more difficult.”

Her words named our reality. We could look around and see an overwhelming amount of work to be done, but the actual tasks we were allowed to complete were limited by insurance processes (evidenced by company names and claim numbers spray painted on garage doors), utility companies, local officials, FEMA, and other powers-that-be, all of which are vital to restoring a community, but most of which combine to create gridlock.

Yesterday ended in frustration. We both prayed for patience, but asked God to please use us and the others who had come so far to help. It didn’t seem right that so many people needed what our group had to offer, but yet connections weren’t being made.

This morning at first appeared to be more of the same. After meeting up with our group at Plaza Elementary to sort a pile of bricks (the Hope Raisers group wanted the good bricks saved to give to the families of school children and teachers), we planned to meet up with some Baptist pastors who had heavy equipment to raze a house for an older woman. We waited at the partially demolished house for a half hour, talking with the woman, who shared her family’s story: Nine of them (including kids and grandkids visiting from out of town) hid in the backyard storm cellar, which had the door sucked off by the twister. They survived unscathed, but the house did not. The front was ripped off, exposing the rooms inside. We could see her bed still sitting in a room upstairs.

The Baptists arrived and decided they couldn’t use us until tomorrow because the heavy equipment needed to be brought in first. So we drove back to Serve Moore to await further instructions.

Our next site was more fruitful: We met Martin, a Harley rider who, along with his wife, survived the storm by putting on his motorcycle helmet and hiding in a closet as the house crashed down around him. His story made CNN. He showed us the spot in the backyard where he planned to build a storm cellar. At Martin’s house, we cleared debris, carrying pieces of wood and metal and random items — including football gear from the neighborhood junior high school — to the curb for the FEMA trucks to pick up.

Finally, our last work site of the day was most productive. We joined another mid-sized group at the home of a retired college professor who had lost everything. Our job was to sort through an incredible amount of rubble to save anything of value. As we did, we hauled larger pieces to the curb to begin clearing the site. The work was painstaking, hot, dusty, and exhausting, but there was something satisfying about helping recover some small pieces of this man’s life. We only made a dent in the pile of splintered wood, twisted metal, and shredded books that used to be his house, so we will go back tomorrow to continue the task.

We are learning that this is what disaster relief is like: there is no completed project, no fulfilling ending. Just many small phases, each tackled by a different group of people from a different place at a different time, one group picking up where the last left off.

To be continued…


Oklahoma, Day 2

Watching the news coverage of a tragedy like the Moore, OK, storm is always difficult. We see the photos. We hear the stories. Our eyes well up at the youtube videos showing the kid reunited with his missing dog.

But today marked the first time I’ve seen a story like this with my own eyes — and discovered that the TV version only skims the surface of the violent reality.

This morning, Meg and I were ready to jump in and start volunteering with the group that we met at the shelter last night, who invited us to join them. After several long days of clearing debris, they were ready for some fresh faces. However, they warned us that we needed to explore the devastated area for a while before going to work. “It’s shocking,” one woman told us. “You will be very emotional, and you’ll need time to process it.”

So we heeded the group’s advice and plugged Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children perished, into our GPS. The other group said we should start there because the school was in the center of the hardest-hit neighborhood.

Moore is less than 10 minutes south of downtown Oklahoma City via I-35. As we exited the highway, we noticed some debris, and stores with missing signs and roofs. There was significant damage to a shopping center on 19th Street. This was more evidence of nature’s violence than I’ve ever seen, but it was to be expected. Then, a mile or so down the road, the GPS instructed us to turn onto Santa Fe Avenue.

We rounded the corner — and everything changed.

Both of us stopped talking. My foot slipped off the accelerator inadvertently, and the car slowed. At first, my eyes couldn’t even make sense of the scene before me: Tornadoes are known for their randomness — a house ripped apart here, while the one next door is left intact. But on this stretch of road just west of Plaza Towers Elementary, there were no houses. They were simply gone. Piles of rubble remained, punctuated by the occasional tree — not uprooted, as with most storms, but sheared off just above the trunk. Standing like lifeless, limbless sentinels, guarding the debris. Cars were crumpled and strewn about, as if in a junkyard.

“Oh…” Meg choked out. “It’s so…” There were no words.

The devastation continued as we wound through the streets of the housing development surrounding the school. Finding our way there was like solving a maze; rubble barricaded some streets, while huge, noisy FEMA trucks and bulldozers blocked others.

After a few minutes, the GPS told us we had arrived at the school. But there was no school — only a chain-link FEMA fence surrounding piles of brick and dirt. We parked, got out, and walked toward a white tent set up just behind the twisted metal school sign, which proclaimed, “May 20 Awards Day — May 22 Super Kids Day!”

The tent was sponsored by Project Hope, whose volunteers stay for weeks at disaster sites like this one, helping victims process and begin to heal. We talked briefly to a volunteer who had lost her husband and 8-year-old child in the Joplin storms two years ago and learned that the first person she met at the tent was a father whose daughter had died in the school. Talking to the volunteers made us both cry, so we left them to explore the perimeter of the school grounds, where hundreds of stuffed animals, plastic flowers, and messages were tucked into the chain link fence as a makeshift memorial.

Just on the other side of the fence stood seven small crosses, each bearing the name of a child. In the middle, a taller cross with the number “7” at the top stood watch over the rest. We didn’t know what to do, so we just pressed our faces against the chain link, looked at the crosses, and prayed for those families… trying to fathom what they felt when they rushed to the school to find their children and saw the trusted, solid building leveled to the ground.

There was something about that place. Maybe it feels like that anywhere children die. It was unfathomably sad — but not dark. Despite the noise of trucks and dozers clanging in the background, it was peaceful. Serene. Like God was more fully present there. (I found myself wanting to stay, and later in the day I went back. It’s hard to explain.)

After paying our respects at the school, we quietly walked the streets of the neighborhood for a half hour or so. It is a modest neighborhood once filled with simple brick, ranch-style homes. A crew of volunteers wearing matching church T-shirts were hard at work in the front yard of one partially destroyed house. FEMA dozers razed what was left of another house, farther down the street. A police cruiser slowly drove past, carefully weaving around the debris piles that lined both sides of the road. An older woman sitting on a lawn chair in her garage nodded at us, and we waved back. Hers was one of the few houses that still appeared livable; others were boarded up, or demolished down to concrete slabs.

We made our way back to the Hope tent, where we purchased T-shirts to help with their work. On the back of the shirt was space to write a prayer or message of encouragement. We borrowed laundry markers and carefully wrote these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

And then we got in our car, and drove to join the rest of our group, who were clearing debris from someone’s backyard. Tomorrow I’ll write more about that.


Oklahoma, Day 1

I’m typing this from a cot in the darkened gym of the Oklahoma City Rescue Mission, where my daughter Megan and I, along with roughly 40 other disaster relief volunteers (from 13 different states, one very friendly Texan named Amy tells me) are sleeping tonight.

“Lights out” was at 10 pm, so now the dark corners of the room glow softly with cell phones and laptops as everyone checks in with folks at home. I’ve already called to let my husband know we’ve arrived safely after our thousand-mile drive, which began at 6:00 this morning.

Wait — I should correct that: This little venture actually began a few weeks ago, just after the F-5 tornado leveled Moore, OK. Megan was absorbed by the round-the-clock news coverage, and finally told me she felt compelled to go to Oklahoma and help. At first, I dismissed the idea. Well meaning but untrained volunteers always flock to disaster sites in the days following the event, and usually they seem to just get in the way of the FEMA workers and others who are prepared for crisis intervention. Anyway, Meg was supposed to go with her friends to the beach after her June 9 graduation from high school. And I just started a new job, and had that week-long class in Chicago to prepare for…

As the excuses piled up and the impossibilities interwove, I tried to just push aside the nagging feeling that we were supposed to do this. I told Meg I was sorry, but it just wasn’t going to work.

Not 24 hours later, the two of us were sitting in the living room watching more news coverage of the disaster in Moore. The news showed video of an older woman who, with help from neighbors, was sifting through the rubble of what used to be her home. Suddenly, the neighbors all stopped and started removing debris frantically from one spot. A moment later, the woman scooped up a very dusty, disheveled dog of an uncertain breed — her pet that she obviously thought had perished in the storm. She hugged the animal and, over and over, said, “Bless your heart. Bless your little heart.”

I gulped back tears, looked at Meg, and said, “Do you still want to do this Oklahoma thing?” She nodded. A month later, after some phone calls and web searches to figure out where to stay and how to actually be useful, here we are.

The Oklahoma City Rescue Mission is housing disaster relief volunteers for free in their gym (we’re all lined up on cots as if this is an unusually messy army barracks), letting us use their showers, feeding us, and basically giving us the run of the place. Even after years of leading mission trips and staying in less-than-desirable accommodations, I found myself worrying at the last minute about my choice to stay here: Would the car be safe in this neighborhood? Where would we put our stuff? Do we really want to sleep in a gym with a bunch of strangers? Etc. I almost turned around to go find a cheap hotel.

But I didn’t… so we’re here. And it’s fine. More than fine — it’s great. The neighborhood is quiet, and seems safe. There’s a Sonic right around the corner. The rescue mission provides security to patrol the block, so the car is okay. And we’ve already met dozens of people and have been invited to join their group tomorrow as we work through Serve Moore.

I’ve decided to blog about our week, as I’ve already been told by volunteers who started two days ago that this is an experience like no other. I’m writing it down because I think it will matter — to Meg, to me, and maybe to you.

My laptop glow is starting to annoy people, most of whom are now trying to sleep, so it’s time to stop for now.

Stay tuned…

Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace

We live in a culture of frenzy.

Double-shot espressos and sugar-charged energy drinks come in a can so we can grab them without waiting in line at the coffee shop. Gas stations offer pay-at-the-pump so we can fuel up without having to engage in bothersome conversation with the clerk. Our cars now come with Bluetooth so we can multi-task on the way to work and save a few minutes of phone calls in the office. We are enslaved by tasks.

And when we get home, it’s not much better: Dinner is often a frozen entree complete with carbs, meat and veggies so we don’t have to waste time individually preparing separate components, and breakfast can be popped in the toaster and shoved in a hungry kid’s hand as she heads out the door. Television is picture-in-a-picture and TiVo so we can watch all of our favorite shows in the same prime-time span (and, of course, use our iPhones to monitor our social media sites while we do so).

Even our leisure time isn’t leisurely. After that period of shoving food in our mouths that we call “dinner,” we rush off to Kid #1’s soccer game, leave half way through to catch the end of Kid #2’s pee wee football game, drop Kid #3 at a friend’s house so we can make an appearance at our church board meeting, then bluster into mid-week yoga class just in time to say “namaste.”

The most extreme example of our culture of chaos I’ve ever seen is Times Square in New York City. I remember seeing it for the first time when there for a conference, emerging from the subway into the heart of Manhattan, and watching an A.D.D. friend of mine stop dead in his tracks. He just stood there, rooted in one spot, mouth hanging open, eyes glazed over — overwhelmed by the light/color/noise coming at us from every angle. We had to shake him to get his attention. New York City moves at a pace that we Midwesterners just can’t handle.

This morning, all of that came to a halt thanks to a force of nature. As Hurricane Sandy heads toward NYC, the city prepares for a possible 10-foot storm surge, which would flood lower Manhattan, Wall Street, subways, tunnels and more. News cams showed a very unusual Monday morning scene in midtown Manhattan — streets void of buses and taxis, sidewalks with only a handful of pedestrians. It’s like God pushed the “pause” button on NYC.

Sometimes I’d like to do that here.

I am entering a season where life is starting to slow down just a little. But I still live in the midst of the frenzy, and I see my younger friends succumbing to it, and I see how we as a society measure it: The busier you are, the more things you can juggle at once, the more programs you (and your kids) are involved in — well, the more successful you appear. Isn’t that how this game works?

Sometimes I bet God just wants to scream, “STOP IT!!!”

But, because he’s God, he whispers it instead: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message)

Pause (even though you’re trying to read this blog entry quickly because you have a dozen things to do today). Read that last paragraph again. Slowly.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? We ARE tired, worn out, burned out. We DO want to recover our lives. That “unforced rhythms of grace” part sounds especially appealing. And “freely and lightly” — what does that even mean?

I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and I think it boils down to this: God wants us to live according to his rhythm for our lives rather than keeping up with the insane pace set by our culture. I’m always afraid I’m going to miss out on something. So in the past I have tried to pack it all in — every class, every meeting, every activity. And I’m afraid that, looking back, there have been many times I’ve experienced many good things but missed out on the best thing — something God had in mind that I blew right by in my quest for self-fulfillment.

Other versions of this same passage tell us to bear Jesus’ yoke because it’s easy and light, and we’ll find rest for our souls. “Rest” in this passage doesn’t equal “lack of activity.” It doesn’t mean just vegging out on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s watching all of the Twilight movies in a row (er — not that there’s anything wrong with that). I think we’re pretty good at wasting hours in front of the TV, mainly because we’re so tired from the rest of our day that all we can do at the end of it is zone out and let someone else entertain us. I’m not suggesting we need more of that kind of “rest.”

Jesus is talking about real rest in this passage. He is talking about recovering our lives — doing the things that God designed to fulfill and energize us: Work that matters. Unhurried conversation with people we care about. Leisurely activities (whether sports or arts or music or whatever) that challenge us and let us express ourselves. Meals that nourish us and give us time to connect with family. Volunteer activities that we’re passionate about and that really help people. Time worshiping and listening to God.

We can’t do all of those things in the same day, or sometimes even in the same week. But we can do them if we start gradually turning away the stuff that doesn’t matter (and this is me calling myself out here, because I’m just a girl who can’t say “no”), and creating more space in our lives for God to fill up with the stuff that does.

And, when none of that is working and we’re so stressed out we can’t think straight, we can do as one of my former professors suggests when he  says: “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.”