a dose of gladness

flowersThis morning, as the dog ran in the park, I sat on a bench, leaned back, and lifted my face—and then had to squint because the sun hung in the air so bright it seemed to make the blue of the sky and the edges of the young leaves almost pulse with intensity.

It felt too sharp.

Friday night my husband came home from his inner-city school and went straight into our bedroom. I followed him in, took one look at his face, and shut the door behind me. Between tears, he shared with me one tragedy after another he’d learned of that very day. The violence and dysfunction in several neighborhoods had spilled over, and several students and one teacher had endured trauma and loss and setback.

No matter where you teach, there is always hardship. No matter where you live, there is always heartache. But we’re learning that when you teach in an inner-city school, when you live in an under-resourced neighborhood, the hardship and heartache seem to be the norm rather than the exception. The students and teachers at Dave’s school are always going through something, but this past week, there was simply too much. Their young, vibrant principal called a special meeting Friday and, in tears herself, relayed to her staff one story after another after another.

“We have to love each other,” she told them at the meeting’s end. “We have to encourage each other and love our kids and get rest. This is really, really hard.”

Yes, it is.

After Dave told me everything, and we cried together, he lay on the bed and fell asleep. And I went out and explained to our kids and our guest that it was going to be a slightly different evening than we’d planned. And our wonderful guest said that was perfectly all right.

The weekend rolled on. Soccer on Saturday morning and an evening spent with friends; church on Sunday and then, unfortunately, lots of homework. But underneath was heaviness.

So this morning, between sending Dave and the kids off to school and getting to work myself, I took the dog to the park and thought and prayed about the hard things I know about and all those I don’t, and then I just needed to sit down.

And the sunlight was too bright.

How, God, when you know all the darkness, all the sorrow, all the hurt and pain and evil inflicted by humans upon each other—and even on themselves—how does the sun still shine? How is the sky so blue, the trees so green?

If I were you, clouds would hover above the sites of such tragedies; trees would stand bare and stark in sorrow at what they have seen; the sun would hide; and the grass and flowers would shrivel in horror at what we humans do to each other, at what some humans must endure.

And yet…

And yet, the sight of a tree breaking into purple flower still caused me to smile—just this morning.

How?

I don’t know, but I do know that in the midst of all this, we need gladness in small doses and large, to whatever degree we can take it.

So today I pray that for a few particular students, one particular teacher, a couple of graduates, a student now in search of a new school. I pray that something—like purple flowers, the brilliant blue sky, the squinting-ly shining sun or the gleaming green of the trees—makes them smile today in spite of everything. Better yet, Abba, may a fellow human, bearing your image and your presence, make them glad.

In spite of everything, may they sense a love that cannot be explained or seen but which is real, is true.

Is you.

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Hope Cafe and Pray Chicago

Hi everyone,

I’ve been out of the loop a bit the last couple weeks with travel and my kids being out of school. I’m getting caught up now and should be back to regular posting next week. In the meantime, I’m sharing two things:

  1. a for-fun piece I wrote for dineANDrhyme about Chicago Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe is my new away-from-home office and is a coffeeshop with a great cause–to support nearby Chicago Hope Academy, a  Christian inner-city high school (those are a real anomaly!). If you ever find yourself on the west side of Chicago, swing by (they have free street parking!). Tell them you read about them on Dine and Rhyme; they’ll be thrilled! Click on the dineANDrhyme link above (or in this sentence) to read the poem. Click on the Hope Cafe link above (or in this sentence) to visit the cafe’s website.
  2. Pray Chicago is having an event this weekend, a prayer summit (scroll down for a video and info about the prayer summit) at Progressive Baptist Church on Sunday evening. Pray Chicago is also asking Chicagoans to consider this Sunday a day of fasting and prayer. If you haven’t visited Pray Chicago’s website before and you live anywhere in the Chicago area, it has my full recommendation.

Cross-shaped prayer

iron cross at Westminster

A picture taken in London just before heading to Scotland in January 2016–looking into the inner courtyard of Westminster Abbey

In January of 2016 Dave and I led a group of Wheaton Academy students on a trip to Scotland. It was a double-duty trip for us. We were praying for guidance; about which of two very different directions we should pursue. One of those directions was Scotland. We met with the UK field director of GEM (Greater European Missions) during that trip, and it was in many ways an exploratory time for us.

But we were also praying about moving into the city of Chicago, to live in a depressed neighborhood, for Dave to teach/work with underprivileged kids. It was strange how God used the wonderful, spiritually rich trip to Scotland to confirm that it was not the decision for this time, and Chicago is. One of the confirming moments came when we put on the program for an assembly at a Scottish public high school. We began with a video one of our students had made to introduce the team members and their home. After shots of Wheaton Academy and its grounds, the video moved to the downtown area of Chicago. One shot showed hundreds of people milling around the Bean. Watching it for the first time in that assembly, I suddenly got choked up. There were all those people, of all ethnicities and races and religions, gathered together to look at a reflective structure, but going home to segregated neighborhoods, going home to places sorely in need of gospel hope. Behind me in that auditorium sat rows and rows of students who needed to hear about Christ, and I was fervently praying for them, but my heart was pounding for the people of Chicago. When Dave told me—without my saying anything about my own experience—that he’d had much the same reaction when he saw the video, we knew God was stirring in our hearts.

Another affirming moment on that trip came in a coffee shop, where Dave and I had retreated while the students shopped in the area. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that time:

We were talking about a topic we’ve often discussed: why are some prayers—especially those for “small” things—answered, while others, particularly those for very necessary, very important things, seem to be ignored. This topic had re-surfaced because I told Dave how glad I was that a member of our mission team who’d felt sick the day before was fully recovered. I remarked, “Several of us were praying for her.”

He got a funny look on his face and pulled out the book he’s currently reading: There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago journalist. It follows the lives of brothers Lafayette and Pharaoh, two young boys who lived in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex just blocks from Chicago’s Loop that was a veritable war zone. Dave turned to a passage and gave me a preface before reading it aloud. Nine-year-old Pharaoh, seeking respite from the violence and drama of Henry Horner, has found a condominium complex nearby with green lawns and trees. He goes there to sit under the trees and simply be.

Pharaoh had long sought such a refuge. For a few months last spring, he’d attended Bible classes at the First Congregational Baptist Church. Washington Boulevard was lined with churches, but most of them now served people who had since moved from the neighborhood. Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner. Pharaoh grew bored with the classes and began to question whether there was indeed a God. He often prayed to him, asking that he let them move from the projects. But, Pharaoh would say, “I be praying but he don’t do nothing. Maybe there ain’t no God.” It was as much a question as it was a statement. (page 143)

Dave read the last line and then looked up at me. “I’m struggling with this right now. How can we pray for such relatively small things as someone’s upset stomach when people all over the world are living lives like this?” He tapped the page in the book. “And how does God see these vastly different prayers? Why are our prayers for someone’s stomach answered when a young kid praying not to be molested or sold for sex doesn’t get the answer they so desperately need? When a mom who has prayed for food to feed her family watches her baby starve to death? I don’t understand!”

I don’t understand either. Part of his question does have to do with God, to be sure, but Scripture tells me God is not indifferent to suffering, and Christ proved to me God is not indifferent to suffering. But we, the people of God, the Church, are the body of Christ here, so why is it that Pharaoh was left so abandoned? Where was the church? Why weren’t the churches of Chicagoland agonized by Henry Horner and the other housing projects? And the violence and hopelessness of areas like Englewood and Lawndale and Garfield Park? Why aren’t we agonized now?

I asked Dave to hand me the book. I wanted to look at one line in particular. I read it aloud to him. “Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner.”

“What if the churches were supposed to be the answer to Pharaoh’s prayer?” I asked. “What if they were supposed to pray about Henry Horner—along with all the personal requests they had—praying BOTH, until God so changed their hearts they were ready to act and intervene and enter in, even if in small ways at first? Until they served the people who lived right nearby rather than those who’d had the resources to move out?

“I know it’s not really an answer to your question, but I don’t think the answer is an either-or proposition. I think we should pray about all hurts, even the ones we see as small.”

I looked back at this journal entry a few times during the months that followed, as we prayed for both “big” and “small” and received guidance for all and then detours and then more guidance. For us the conversation was about the inner city and inequality in education and racial reconciliation in the church. But even more so, it was a conversation about prayer and change–heart change. And that’s a conversation for everyone. Not everyone is being led to the inner city, but all of us are being led somewhere, even if it’s right out our front door, even if it’s simply onto our knees.

Prayer opens our blinded eyes and guarded hearts to the needs we are meant to see, meant to enter into.

So I’d like to end this post with some words I read recently in The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright.

The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God. … Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? (The Challenge of Jesus, chapter 8, “The Light of the World”) 

O God, make haste

I’m struggling with worry right now. On the other side of this move, with some things settled (like Dave’s teaching position), other things are still very much up in the air: a job for me that brings in more income but still allows me to homeschool Em and “mom” my kids well; Em’s schooling—is this the best path longterm?; soccer and friendships for the kids; church; adjustment to a decreased budget…

I finger all the strands in my mind, till it’s simply a snarled mess and I’m hopelessly tangled in it.

In very low moments, I ask, “Are you there, God?”

In other moments I know He is. I remember His faithfulness, the fact that he has never, ever failed, that the darkest moments of the past have then turned into seasons of watching and marveling at the creativity and goodness of God.

I feel like I’m cycling through the lament psalms, repeating the psalmist’s rhythm of despair/crying out/remembering God’s faithfulness/hope.

By the time I get to the remembering part, I’m ready to dump my entire snarled mess in God’s lap. “Please take this. I can’t do it. I can’t figure this out.” This brings relief, because his lap is large, big enough to hold me as well as my mess.

But, just a day or two later, sometimes only a few hours later, I find a fresh snarl of yarns in my head and the cycle begins again. Who knew my mind could gather fluff so quickly and spin so much so fast!

God has used my neighborhood to help shred my worry web, to help me move past myself to others. When I get out and about in the neighborhood and pass mothers waiting at bus stops, holding children on hips, others by the hand, I think, How many of them are running a rat race that feels hopeless? How many are working minimum-wage jobs, trying to feed and shelter a family on $350 a week, with childcare swallowing up a huge chunk of a paycheck? And, comparing these struggles to my current light-in-contrast worries—which I’m flattened by pretty easily—I wonder how long it would take before the hopelessness of that kind of grind would wear a person into the ground.

My husband’s work also shapes my perspective. The other morning he got a text from one of his student’s mothers, asking if Dave has heard from her son, that he ran away the night before and she’s hoping against all the fear in her heart that he shows up at school, that he hasn’t succumbed to some gang that’s promising him belonging, that he’ s not using, that… oh, the darkness that can swallow up all our hope.

And so my prayers change, and when I say, “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us,” I do not have just my family in mind but my neighbors, my city, beyond.

As I recite Psalm 143, I imagine myself standing before God linked hand-in-hand with a long line of people: “Hear (our) prayer, O Lord, and in your faithfulness give ear to (our) supplications; answer (us) in your righteousness.”

And for those who are so burdened they cannot even whisper the words, whose heads are bowed low, whose knees are week, I change the singular pronouns to plural; I speak louder; I raise my voice: “Our spirit faints within us; our heart within is desolate. We stretch out our hands to you; our soul gasps for you like a thirsty land.

“O Lord, make haste to answer us; our spirits fail us; hide not your face from us lest we be like those who go down to the Pit. Let us hear of your loving-kindness in the morning,

For in you we put our trust.”

Shepherd me, O God~a hymn share

flw house 2.JPG

A homeschooling perk: Em and I took a field trip last week to the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park (that’s US history, right?). Em took this pic of one of his window designs.

This hymn showed up in my daily prayer app the other day, and I re-read the first stanza several times: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants/beyond my fears/from death into life.” My default wants are safety, security, comfort, acclaim… And why am I so fixated on those? Because I fear that if I am not concerned about them, God will not be either. So I also need shepherding “beyond my fears.” I need God to move me “from death into life.”

I love the shift from prayer to truth-telling in this hymn, with the prayer for shepherding alternating with verses from Psalm 23, reminding the pray-er of God’s faithfulness and goodness. It is because of this goodness that we can confidently ask Jesus to shepherd us. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows our true needs, well beyond our wants or what we think will satisfy us. He will lead us through dark valleys of fear and doubt into abiding faith. He will lead us from death (which sometimes looks quite lively and self-satisfying) into true, full life. At the bottom of the post there are two links (to a Youtube audio recording of the song and to the hymn writer’s website) and a verse.

Hymn: Shepherd me, O God

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.

God is my shepherd, so nothing I shall want,
I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love,
I walk by the quiet waters of peace.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.

Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul,
you lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth,
my spirit shall sing the music of your Name.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.

Though I should wander the valley of death,
I fear no evil, for you are at my side,
your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.

You have set me a banquet of love in the face of hatred,
crowning me with love beyond my pow’r to hold.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.

Surely your kindness and mercy follow me all the days of my life;
I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.

Words and Music: Marty Haugen

To hear the music, follow this link.

Visit Marty Haugen’s website for more of his music.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’sgiving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Matthew 6:33 MSG

Working through poopy

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

Em’s lettering–and Em’s photography (I think she’s amazing!)

My friend B calls it “working through poopy.” I think it’s a very accurate description. I worked through a little bit of my own poopy this morning: some jealousy, the desire to be noticed more/sought out more, some self-pity and fear and insecurity…

I’ll stop there.

After I spilled it all out in my journal, I felt better: ready to pray, ready to confess, ready to be grateful for the oh-so-much that has been gifted to me.

But God had one more step, one more gift.

I got up from the bench in the park where I’d been writing (so Chai [dog] could be outside) and noticed another woman entering the gate. She, too, had a dog. We exchanged pet names and then our own. In the chitchat that followed, we discovered we are both writers and the chitchat became conversation, with the shared language that comes with a shared vocation and shared concerns/frustrations/struggles/fears.

It was time for both of us to go, and as I walked toward the gate, I remembered, again, that we all—not just my fellow writer and I—are working through poopy. We’re all wondering about our purpose. We all want to be seen/known. We all struggle with identity. We all have very deep fears.

The second half of the St. Francis* prayer came to mind (another gift, that St. Francis!): Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

 

*Technically this poem is “attributed to St. Francis.” Here is the full text (also seen in the picture above):

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Praying for Chicago

pc-77-east-garfield-parkWednesday night I went to a PrayChicago event, where church members and leaders from all over the Chicago area gathered to pray together. PrayChicago announced a partnership that night. They’ve joined with Prayercast (a great ministry that makes short prayer videos for nations and groups around the world–I really suggest checking out the Prayercast website) to create 77 prayer videos for Chicago, one for each neighborhood. They are releasing a new prayer video each day for the next 76 days (it started yesterday), and each video is accompanied by an informational page on that neighborhood’s history and particular prayer points.

If God has laid Chicago on your heart, please join me in praying for each of its unique neighborhoods over the next couple months. Just go the PrayChicago website, scroll down, and click on the “sign up for daily Chicago 77 updates.” You’ll receive an email each day with a link to the daily prayer video.

If you’d like to check out the videos before you subscribe, go to the Prayercast site, where you’ll find LOTS of prayer videos, for many, many countries as well as for Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Just look at the options in the top menu bar. Maybe you’ll decide to pray for a country a day, too.

quiet, confident STRENGTH

rockI have been thinking about strength lately (which tells you I’ve been needing some 😉 ).

The word brings to mind the Strengthsfinder book I was required to read for work back in the early 2000s. Its premise was that we spend too much time focusing on and improving our weaknesses and not enough on discovering and capitalizing on our strengths. It included a test that identified a person’s top five strengths. I took it and was told to “lean into” the strengths it told me I had.

Not bad advice, though I don’t remember now what my test results were. I do remember thinking that if I really leaned into my strengths and ignored my weaknesses, it would mossprobably result in my losing my job.

That’s not the strength I need right now.

“Strength” also makes me think of the Rocky movies, which my husband introduced our younger children to during our stay-cation spring break. They were hooked by the first one and quickly watched 2, 3, and 4 on consecutive nights (he convinced them #5 was simply too cheesy). I watched bits of them with the crew but was eventually asked not to because I kept cringing at hard blows and delivering lectures about the violence of fighting sports. “Strength” in Rocky is physical, of course, but it is also human determination and grit and perseverance.

Again, not helpful right now.

Then, a couple days ago, I read the prayer “For Quiet Confidence” in the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve prayed it a lot in the past few months, but this time I noticed the theme of strength in it. It speaks of a strength that is available even when we are bone- and soul-tired, when both the Rocky and Strengthsfinder kinds of strength are simply useless, when we’ve come to the hard-but-blessed realization that we must look completely outside ourselves.

The prayer, drawn from Scripture, tells me my strength is found

in returning,

in rest,

in quietness,

in confidence in the God of the universe,

in stillness,

in the presence of the Lord,

in the might of the Spirit,

in knowing who God is and

in knowing his unfailing love for us.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The good work of refugee care

World Relief poster“(God) creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” Ephesian 2:9, The Message

I believe with all my heart that refugee care is good work. A few weeks ago I posted the news that the ESL classes at my local World Relief (WR) office are in jeopardy because they have not received federal funding. Last Tuesday I sat in a meeting with other WR volunteers and listened as the ESL director outlined a plan that will provide as many refugees and immigrants with regular classes while still cutting costs (and staff) dramatically. Despite the great stress she was under, Sue smiled at us and reminded us that God is at work. He will provide. He so clearly cares for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner. She said something like this: The decreased government funding gives the church a chance to step up and in with their money and their time. It pushes us to be more generous and creative.

Hear, Hear!

poster backAt the bottom of this post, I have links to both the national and local (western suburbs of Chicago) World Relief websites as well as specific ways to support WR DuPage/Aurora.

But before I get to that, I have links to four articles: the first three specifically related to refugees, the third about cultivating a generous heart toward all those in need.

The first is a Q&A with World Relief DuPage’s Executive Director Emily Gray. PLEASE read this article. Emily is informed and wise and above all, seeking to be likeminded with Christ.

5 Objects to Fuel Your Prayers,” is a great article about concrete ways to remember those in need. It’s specifically about refugees, but you could use the same techniques to remind you to pray for the poor, the persecuted church, victims of sex trafficking, those suffering from mental illness, orphans, etc.)

WR fundraisingGrowing in generosity with the Believing Poor” is by Elizabeth Drury. It challenges our views of generosity that do not extend past our wallets, that don’t impact our comfort levels.

What Refugees in Your Neighborhood Need from You” gives a bit of an inside look at how difficult it is to be uprooted and transplanted (often several times) and how the body of Christ can step into that difficulty.

~~~

For those outside Chicago’s western suburbs: visit the international home page of World Relief and click on the “Get Involved” tab to see if WR has a location in your area.

For those IN Chicago’s western suburbs: The ESL arm of WR DuPage needs volunteers. If you have some morning hours free beginning in January or would like to tutor a refugee one-on-one, email me at jenunderwood0629@gmail.com and I can get you connected with the volunteer coordinator. You don’t need any experience or qualifications other than the ability to speak English, and it is truly a blessing.

If you’ll take a look at the poster I have pictured above, you’ll find information about items needed for Good Neighbor kits. The back side (with items needed) is the second picture. One of WR’s dropoff locations is at K’Tizo–my favorite tea/coffee shop. You can drop off items and get a yummy drink!

The third picture (sorry it’s so small) is a “Quick Guide to Fundraising for World Relief DuPage/Aurora.” If you live in another location but have a WR nearby, I’m sure you could use all the same techniques to fundraise for your area location.

 

 

Open Doors link

I simply have to share this story published by Open Doors, an organization that empowers and supports persecuted Christians worldwide. The title of the story is “Iranian Jailer Transformed because of Faithful Prisoner.”

Noushin (name changed for safety), a house church leader in Iran, was terrified she would be imprisoned for her faith. She was afraid she would buckle under duress and reveal the names of her fellow believers or deny Christ. But when she was imprisoned, she experienced the peace and direction of the Holy Spirit in ways that amazed not only her but the man who interrogated her.

Please follow the link above to read the entire story, and if you’re a follower of Christ, remember He is in YOU as well. You have the same Holy Spirit indwelling you.