Made for Good

Chicago night skyline, Em's

photo by Emily Underwood (to see more of her work, click on her name.)

This past Sunday my family and I attended the Missionary Baptist church right around the corner from our house. It was their annual outdoor service, so we sat under a tent in the church parking lot and sang, danced, listened, worshiped—and fanned ourselves—along with the church’s very welcoming congregation. Pastor Turk, speaking about how Christ’s purpose gives us purpose, reminded us near the end of the service that not one of us—not one human being given being by God, made in the image of God—was ever created for evil purposes.

“You were made for good,” he said. “You were made to be a blessing.”

The very next day—Monday—as Em and I drove and walked along North Avenue to shop for her school uniform pants, we saw several people holding signs, asking for money. Begging.

I want to set the record straight right now. This post is NOT about whether those with means should or shouldn’t give cash to homeless people. It’s not about the reasons they are homeless or begging or about what they might do with the money they receive.

This post is about the people themselves: the woman and teenage girl sitting outside one of the upscale clothing stores, jacket hoods pulled tight against the rain; the man who squats with his back against a metal fence, his leashed cat next to him; the guy, clearly strung out, asking for train fare; and the lady who chants the same phrase, “Just a dollar. Only need a dollar,” over and over and over again All. Day. Long.

These human beings make sorrow rise in my heart every time I see them. And whether I give them money or not (I’m not telling.), I try to make eye contact, to say “hello,” to smile, to see them.

This past Monday, there was one man, one man in particular…

An older gentleman, standing at an intersection, his head up, his eyes looking straight ahead, his sign reading, “Lost job. Need help to get back on my feet.”

Grey haired.

And there was something about him that felt like a punch in the gut.

The words of Pastor Turk came back to me. “He was not made for this,” I thought. “He was not made for sorrow and humiliation. He was not made for other human beings to pass by, some obviously trying their hardest NOT to see him, some scanning him as if he were an animal in a zoo. In God’s kingdom, he will not be doing this. No one will be. We will each have a clear understanding of each other’s dignity, of the God image in every single person, including ourselves.”

This—some humans walking past and around those who hold cardboard signs as if they were no more than a tree or a light pole—is not right.

This—those humans holding signs, most of them with their eyes downcast because it’s less painful to not know you’re being blatantly ignored—is not right.

The sorrow lingered. As I prayed, a question wandered into my mind. Jesus, is this how you felt all the time you were on earth? Was there always a sorrow because you knew this is not what we were made for? Because you saw each human, created to be citizens in God’s world, walking around instead without true knowledge of Him, oblivious of each other at best, downright cruel at worst, full of fear and anger.

Did you walk through each day looking at those around you and thinking, “This is wrong. This is not Kingdom life”?

Is this what I am meant to think, to wonder? Is this sorrow supposed to linger, to always color my perspective, to remind me this is not the Kingdom? And is this sorrow ironically supposed to lead to hope? Because a Kingdom must, by definition, have a King—and ours is coming.

And he is good, and He works good.

He works good—even through and among and in his broken people.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

 

*If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize a new look to the blog. The header photo was taken by daughter Emily, and she chose the new format as well. Hope you like it!

Today I Awake

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The Garfield Conservatory is just down the street from our house–so beautiful! And free! This is the entrance to the fern room. (shot by Emily Underwood)

In the Daily Office app I use on my phone (The Daily Office from Mission St. Clare), yesterday’s hymn was “Today I Awake” by John Bell. (I’ve shared another of John Bell’s hymns, “Take O Take Me As I Am,” in a past post [click on the title above to see the post, which has the words as well as a link to a recording of the hymn].) Bell’s treatment of the Trinity is beautiful, and it reminded me of the book Delighting in the Trinity (this link leads to a blog post recommending that book–so good!)

I re-read this hymn all day long yesterday, and last night I found a Youtube recording of it so I could also hear the tune. Click on the title below to listen to the recording. Hope you enjoy as well.

Today I Awake” by John Bell

Today I awake and God is before me.

At night, as I dreamt, God summoned the

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Fish @ the Conservatory  (by Em)

day;

For God never sleeps but patterns the morning

with slithers of gold or glory in grey.

Today I arise and Christ is beside me.

He walked through the dark to scatter new light.

Yes, Christ is alive, and beckons his people

to hope and to heal, resist and invite.

Today I affirm the Spirit within me

at worship and work, in struggle and rest.

The Spirit inspires all life which is changing

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Another Conservatory pic (by Em)

from fearing to faith, from broken to blest.

Today I enjoy the Trinity round me,

above and beneath, before and behind;

the Maker, the Son, the Spirit together

They called me to life and call me

their friend.

Black Movers, White Neighborhoods

Perhaps it’s just that my current life chapter could be titled, “White Movers, African-American Neighborhood” or that the author of this piece, Esau McCaulley, is a fellow Anglican who desires more African American leadership and presence in the Anglican/Episcopal church in the United States, but I nearly cried when I read this piece. I want to sit down and have a really, really long conversation with this man. And, oh, do I wish he were in Chicago instead of in New York.

Thicket of the Jordan

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Yesterday, four movers arrived at our new home to deliver items I had not seen since we placed them in storage some three years ago. Two of these delivery men were African American brothers. When one of them walked in he said, “I remember this house! I moved the people out of here a few weeks ago.”  Then he gave me that subtle nod that black people exchange.  Next he asked me what I did for a living.  I told him that I was starting a new job as a professor of New Testament at one of the schools near here. Soon after this, his brother walked in and he told him that I was a professor and that I moved here to start a new job with my wife and kids. His brother then started to educate me on the glories of my new neighborhood and the…

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Missional churches

Early in June–before we got completely crazy with moving, I took a five-day intensive class at Northern Seminary. It was taught by Dr. Michael Frost. It was excellent, and I wrote a blog post about it (“Exiles in a post-Christian era“) for Northern Seminary’s blog. If you’re interested in missional living and the missional church, Dr. Frost is a leading thinker in this area, and the post has links in it to several of his books. If you’re at all wrestling with feeling separated from your neighbors or community–or church, I highly recommend Frost’s book Incarnate.

Click on the title above to read the post. While you’re on Northern Seminary’s site, I also recommend checking out some of the other posts. Northern Seminary leaders have written some really good pieces this summer on the violence plaguing and tearing apart our country.

 

 

Moving grief–and greed

I wrote this piece a week or so before we closed on our house, but Dave (husband) told me I couldn’t post it till after we were completely out of the house! :) Seriously, though, despite my awful thoughts during the selling process (which you’ll read about later in this post), we do hope and pray the very best for the new owners of our old home. 

I wouldn’t normally consider greed as one of my besetting sins.

But when we decide to move, and we begin the process of selling our home…

the green-eyed nasty comes out.

I get insulted by offers that are lower than the asking price; I want to quibble (I don’t actually do it, but the impulse is there) over the inspection results; I begin to think of the homebuyers as “those people.”

Case in point: Two weeks ago, when we got an offer on the house—and it was a good one and such an answer to prayer—my first response was greedy.

Dave, very excited, got off the phone with our realtor and turned to me. “We’ve got an offer!”

He was ready to rejoice, but I wanted to know the amount. He told me.

My first words?

“That low?”

Dave wasn’t even mildly surprised. He laughed and called me out. “You get so greedy when we sell a house.”

Yes, I do.

And even though I try to fight it, it’s a constant all through the process. When the home inspection report from the city comes back, I say things like, “Shouldn’t the inspection report from when we bought the house have revealed this?” (What I’m leaving unsaid are these words: “…so the previous homeowners could have paid for the repair?”) When, during this current home-selling process, we got the request from the owners to provide two working garage door remotes, I said, only partly joking (I’m embarrassed to even admit this), “Someone told me that if an automatic garage door opener isn’t on the house listing, you can just unplug it and say it’s a manual.” Dave just stared at me after that one.

Every time this greed rises up like bile in my mind or actually vomits out my mouth, I’m appalled, and I try to figure out where it’s coming from (as if it simply can’t be a part of ME!); I pray about it; I try to talk myself out of it; I remind myself how really awful it is. After all, in this current sale, our home was on the market only two weeks—incredible!; the offer was good to begin with; when our realtor countered, the homebuyers accepted it; and their “fix-it” requests have been minimal. Knowing all this, I ask myself, “Jen, what is wrong with you?”

About a week after we sold our house, I was reading the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (fantastic book, by the way) and I came to a line that was so good, so applicable, it made me stop and put the book down. The narrator of the book, John Ames, a pastor, is reflecting on the long, lonely years following the death of his young wife and their only child. In particular, he is remembering when, during that time of singleness, he christened his best friend’s child. He said the correct words, he blessed the child, but his inward thoughts were quite different.

“…my heart froze in me,” he wrote, “and I thought, This is not my child…”

The line that follows that statement is the one that made me set the book down.

“I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”

Oh.

Yes.

There is a grief in moving. I am leaving behind friends whom I love, neighbors whose stories I’ve learned, a house which has been a home, memories of Dave and I and our four children and our two international girls becoming a family…

…and there is a part of me that is flat-out jealous of the new homeowners. This right here is so good, I think, and what is ahead for us is so unknown that I’m simmer-level jealous of these people who are moving into what we are sorrowfully—though willingly—leaving behind.

I am, in John Ames’ words, taking offense at someone else moving into the happiness I’ve experienced here.

To be honest, I think there’s a good dose of penny-pinching, old-fashioned, straight-up greed involved as well.

So confession is in order; repentance is in order; but also in order is acceptance of the forgiveness of God.

Because it is in times like this–when I see some of the twisted nature of sin, its stem reaching deep into self-focus, its branches weaving through hurt and fear–that I remember I need absolution from Another, that there is no way I can ever pluck something like this from out of my heart.

A few days after I read the passage in Gilead, I read a section of Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz Weber, a Lutheran pastor, in which she was writing about this very thing. Forgiveness, she said, is not like a dry erase board that we are frantically trying to keep clean so God will be happy with us. Rather, it is freedom from the bondage of self, wrought for us by Christ, who is fully aware of our deep sinfulness, more aware than we ourselves are.

We need to know this truth about forgiveness, she says, and then she writes about the Maundy Thursday practice of individual absolution. In it she lays her hands on each congregant’s head and pronounces, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I proclaim to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, Amen.”

Jesus—not my efforts or repentance—sets me free from my sins, so that I may, as the prayer of confession says, “delight in (his) will, and walk in (his) ways, to the glory of His name.“

Amen!

Treasured sons

PJ's preschool picIs lament possible without identification? We white mothers must come to the point of understanding that we cannot say, “This could happen to my son—for no good reason—through no fault of his own—through no action of his own,” and really mean it, BUT nearly every African American mother CAN, and with these words a little surge of real terror spikes in her heart.

That is an example of white privilege.

I know it is, because as a white mother of a black son, I have a hard time really believing those words. Though I know my son’s risk factors are high (he is black, very dark-skinned in fact, and he has pronounced ADHD and high impulsivity), I don’t have the history that makes his danger REAL to me. I don’t have the from-birth distrust of a system, of a majority group that sees me as inferior (though they don’t come right out and say so). My skin doesn’t ripple with a subtle prickle of fear when I see a man in uniform. Even though I am truly “in the shoes” of other African American mothers, my white privilege keeps them loose in the day-to-day. They’re not pinching my every step.

I remember, several years ago, driving through rural Indiana with a Latina friend. As we approached one city-limits sign, I remarked, off-hand, casual, “This is a pretty town, but it was a KKK hotbed until just a few years ago. It’s more hidden now, but it’s still here.”

Her response was immediate, and it wasn’t just emotional. Her breathing quickened; her face went pale, and she was unable to relax until we were miles into the country on the other side. I couldn’t identify, but I “got it.” She’s experienced “difference” her entire life. And I, except for when travelling in Africa (and the “difference” I experienced there brought, for the most part, privilege), have not.

This morning I woke early. We are preparing for a move to one of those very neighborhoods where the other mothers in it live everyday with this fear for their children, where I, too, will experience it more, simply because of location. Because of this upcoming move, our house looks like a picked-over junk shop. It is at the stage when everything formerly “in”—cupboards, closets, drawers—is out, and all knickknacks are off shelves and ledges, revealing hidden dust.

Late last night I moved the verse plaque from the windowsill above my kitchen sink. Behind the plaque I found a picture of my black son taken several years ago when he was in preschool. At some point I’d tucked it behind the plaque and forgotten about it.

This morning, up before anyone else, I read updates on the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I cried. I prayed. Then I went to the sink to fix myself some tea. And there was the smiling face of my beautiful son, like a treasured photo of a lost loved one, placed in a spot where one sees it several times a day.

And for one moment, the shoes tightened, hard, and I remembered the words I’d read just a few minutes earlier in one of the news reports. Philando Castile’s mother, speaking to a group of African Americans mourning the death of her child, told them, “This could be your son.”

If one is truly to grieve, lament, repent, this is what we must understand.

Education Confronts Injustice

My family is in the middle of packing for our move, so I haven’t been blogging, but I do have a piece that went live on Master Teaching today. Master Teaching is a website run by LEAPAsia “for teachers who follow the Master Teacher” and is currently hosting a series on “Education as Justice.” Through my connections at World Relief, I was asked a couple months ago if I would like to contribute a piece to the series, and, as this is a subject near and dear to me, I said I would love to.

My piece is titled “Education Confronts Injustice” and is specifically about refugee education. Click on the title to read the piece. I also highly suggest another piece in the series titled “Education as a Wealth-building Strategy is Bankrupt.” It’s got great wisdom for everyone, not just those in the education field. Following each piece are questions for reflection and articles for further reading.

Thanks for reading!

Jen

 

 

a piece up on DineANDRhyme!

matcha 2Sometimes, in the middle of writing class assignments and web articles, you gotta’ write something just for fun! So last week, as I was trying to squeeze a paper down to its required 5-6 pages (I failed), I wrote about my favorite “office away from home,” Cafe K’tizo, and submitted my just-f0r-fun poem to DineANDRhyme, a blog of poems about restaurants.

Here’s the link to my poem about my favorite treat at my favorite place. The piece on DineANDRhyme also has a link to K’Tizo’s website. You can order teas from the website no matter where in the world you are, but if you happen to be in the western suburbs of Chicago, I would suggest visiting the store in person. Who knows–you might see me there!

Misplaced trust: the pitfalls of homeselling

family pic

A good family picture, which, for us, is an amazing feat! This was just after Judy’s graduation ceremony. She’s a college freshman now!

When our realtor, a long-time friend, came into our home for our “putting the house on the market” interview, she was complimentary overall, but she also helped us come up with a to-do list for our open house in a couple weeks’ time.

So we did the first “weeding” of the extra stuff we’ve accumulated, and we sold some of it in a yard sale and carted what was left over to the local thrift store, and then realized, as we looked around with critical eyes, there was still much to do

We often have people stay in our house, and I clean in different ways depending on how well I know them. When my sister or in-laws come, I clean mostly so they’ll be comfortable. I don’t go overboard. But when, two summers ago, we told our church pastors they could house some incoming conference attendees at our place while we were out of town, I cleaned like a madwoman. I’d never met these people; their entire impression of us would be based on our house.

I did the same as we prepared our house to go on the market. The dirt at the base of the windows, between the glass and the screen, has never bothered me, but what if it disgusted some potential homebuyer? Two days before the open house, we got a request for a showing. I was still de-cluttering, still cleaning, but we agreed to the showing.

They arrived before we’d even left, didn’t say a word to me, stood outside looking the house over as I piled the kids and dog in the car. Later that evening I got an email telling me their realtor had written an online review of our house. I shouldn’t have looked at it, but I did. “Buyer considered the lack of central AC a negative. House could have shown better.”

Well, the AC was their issue; it was clear on the listing we didn’t have it. But “could have shown better”—those four words haunted me. I went to sleep, late, thinking of more things I needed to clean, more areas to clear out. Suddenly our house—the place where we’ve become family with our international students, the hangout spot for so many of our neighborhood children, our home!—didn’t feel good enough for others.

I woke the next morning still fixated on what I could do to make our house “show better.” I stood in the laundry room, mindlessly folding, while my mind raced from one idea to another. Suddenly I realized I was humming, the same phrase over and over.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

I hadn’t turned the radio on that morning, hadn’t listened to anything on my phone, hadn’t heard that hymn recently. I wasn’t actively trying to get my gaze back on Christ at all! It was a clear Holy Spirit nudge, and I saw my frantic thoughts for what they were, a sandbar eroding beneath my feet.

And I remembered the words from Psalm 146.

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;
    there is no help for you there.
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth,
    and all their plans die with them.
But joyful are those who have the God of Israel[a] as their helper,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them.
    He keeps every promise forever.

 

 

Lots of “Q”s and one “A”

James 1-5

I wrote this in my journal in late January. We’d been quietly praying about direction for months, and this verse came up as the verse of the day on Bible Gateway. I wrote it in my journal and then took a pic of it so I would have it on my phone as well.

With our upcoming move into the city of Chicago, we’re facing lots of questions.

Where will the kids go to school? Don’t know.

Where will we go to church? Ditto.

What ministries will we be able to plug into as a family? Another unknown.

Where will we live? Still in process on that one, too!

But the biggest one of all for me is not one of the “W” questions, but the “H” one. How? How, in all these different, new places and contexts, do we learn how to live out our faith? How do we approach others with sensitivity and get to know them well? How do we make authentic friendships in which Jesus is evident? How do we become good neighbors and trusted members of a neighborhood?

Each time I’ve opened my daily prayer app this spring, I get the answer.

flashback of venture corps

The picture above was taken in spring 2008 in Uganda. See the little guy on the right side? That’s our Patrick. He was being cared for by all the other people in this picture while we, in the States, were in the process of adopting him. That was also a time filled with questions! In the picture below, taken just outside our house in West Chicago, Patrick is front and center, and his brother Jake is kneeling on his right. Four of the other people in the picture above are also in this pic–joined by two of Jody and Aaron’s children.

It is the season of Pentecost in the church calendar, and the opening sentence for this time is Acts 1:8. “You shall receive power when the Holy Ghost has come upon you; and you shall be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I am reminded: the disciples in “real” Pentecost time experienced some of the same feelings we are experiencing. After three years of following Jesus around, of always knowing who their leader was, of seeing his example of love and faith and care, they lost him to the skies.

They returned to their upper room and huddled together, unsure of where to go, what to do, and how to do any of it.

Yep, same questions.

But the beginning of Acts, written later in retrospect, begins with some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “You’ll get the Holy Spirit,” he told them, “And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses…”

Matovus, Hoekstras, and PJ and JakeAnd where will they be able—enabled—to be his witnesses?

Answer: Everywhere.

Downtown Chicago, therefore, is covered by this promise. It may be new to us, but it’s not new to him.

The “when,” the “what,” the exact “where”–he’ll answer all of these.

And he’s got the “how” covered, too.