a request

(Warning: This is not a normal blog post!) Dear readers, as many of you know, I’m living now on the west side of Chicago, where Dave and I feel God has specifically led our family. Dave is teaching at a high school here that serves under-resourced students, and in early January I went on staff with Greenhouse Movement, a church-planting and partnering organization. I was specifically brought on staff to work with Bible Telling here on the west side of Chicago (I’m SO excited about this! I get to write and teach and connect with people–and all of it’s related to the story of God!).

Greenhouse is a missionary organization, so I am in the very faith-stretching process of finding my team of supporters. I know God already knows who they are, and He’s the one who will prompt them to join the team; my job is simply to share the vision of Greenhouse and the specifics of my ministry with as many people as possible! I decided to put this on my blog because I thought there might be some readers who would want to know more and who might, after talking with me, want to join my team. So if you’re reading this, and you would like to hear more about Greenhouse and what I will be doing, PLEASE email me at jenunderwood0629@gmail.com

I would love to talk with you!

Thanks!

~Jen~

 

 

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All children

The verse, “Children are a gift from the Lord” hangs right next to my bed. It was given to me not long after the twins were born. I hung it there mostly because there was already a nail and it fit the space perfectly, but also, in all honesty, because sometimes I need that reminder!

A few weeks ago, I lay in bed late one night staring at that verse, but I wasn’t thinking about my own kids. I was thinking of the two teenage boys who’d been killed in our neighborhood earlier that day. I was thinking of their mothers. Was anyone mourning with them?

I’d read the news account of the killing. The two boys were barely mentioned, just their names and the statement, “Police believe the shooting was gang related.” Much more space was given to the neighbor lady who was injured by a stray bullet.

I get that. She was the “truly innocent bystander,” caught in the crossfire of Chicago’s gang violence.

But they were teenagers; one of them 17, the other 16—the age of my Emily. And though I understand the attitude that glosses over their deaths a bit—because, after all, “they chose to be in a gang and they know how violent they are and who knows what they did to cause retaliation and…”

…they were 16 and 17.

I don’t know about you, but at that age, I was nowhere near ready to make major life decisions. Particularly not ones that involved gangs and mortality. I was nowhere near ready to step completely out of the flow of all my peers. I was nowhere near ready to recognize and then actually carry out logical planning to map out potential options for my future and how to proceed.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t need to do all that. I was guided in that process. I was surrounded by peers who were, for the most part, engaged and busy and active with good things—because they too, for the most part, were being guided—by their parents, by our school, by the structures surrounding us—in the messy, confusing business of growing up. We were guided toward a future we couldn’t even imagine yet. We were shaped into and equipped to be productive members of our society.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the case for those two boys. There was lots of shaping and equipping going on, but I doubt there was much future planning involved. Boys in gang-saturated neighborhoods, going to underfunded schools, coming from broken family structures, living hand to mouth… they often don’t expect to live very long, and the few who do don’t know any other structures to pass on to the next generation. I would argue that most 16-year-old kids involved in a gang have few other options presented to them. It’s not a real choice in the sense of “I’ve got a few good, productive options in front of me and I see them as real and possible.”

Honestly, though, my point in writing today is not to write about the violence in Chicago. It’s not even to protest police or military force (though I think it’s a horrible idea.)

Here’s what’s been itching at my heart the past few weeks. A couple days after those boys were shot, I walked past the house where it happened. There was nothing there to mark it—other than police tape. No signs, no candles, no stuffed animals—nothing. They’d been erased, and it really felt like no one cared.

But they were someone’s babies. They were someone’s boys. They were created by God just as my precious children were. They mattered. And they really had no chance.

At least not like the chances my kids have.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

I would say that until we see other people’s children as being as valuable as our own, as valuable as the children of our friends and our neighbors and our fellow church members—we will not seek justice for them. In fact, we will place the needs and the safety of our own children above theirs. If we feel that good done to other people’s children might have negative effect on our own, we will choose against them. In other words, we really won’t care that much.

Martin Luther King also said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”

Those are strong words!

But I think they need to be repeated.

And we need to listen.

Till we see all children as precious, precious gifts.

How we grow

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artwork and photography by Em

About 20 minutes into one of my favorite workout videos, the trainer asks, “Are you out of breath? Hurting? Remember, you started this video so you would get a good workout—and those things are part of it. You chose to do this. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s how you grow.”

I appreciate that reminder every single time I do that particular video, not so much for the purpose of the workout, but for life. The first time I did that workout, I was deep in thought about the struggles resulting from our recent move into the city: each of our kids needed close friendships, and all of us were dealing with the loss of our close-knit community in our old home in Chicago’s western suburbs. When the trainer said those words: “It’s supposed to be hard; this is how you grow,” my head snapped up. It was a Holy Spirit message, delivered through my Fit by Kit workout. Crazy!
It’s a message the kids and I often discuss. We knew this move wouldn’t be easy for them. “Easy/comfortable” would have been staying just where we were. But God was stirring our hearts, and in all my prayers for my children (some of them rather panicky pleas), God kept telling me, “I have them.” I knew God didn’t mean that all would be easy and smooth for them, but that God knows the very best for them, knows how to stretch each of them, how to nurture hidden gifts, how to draw them into his boundless, intimate love and fill them with a real, deep, practical love for all people—all people. He knows how to embolden them with his love so they can go anywhere, do anything, and work with anyone. This is far more important than their comfort, or even their “success.”
Yet sometimes it’s hard to remember this ultimate goal in the middle of all that’s new and unfamiliar, in the loneliness that is part of forming new friendships, in the feeling slightly out of place in many situations. In the middle of all that, there are times when a return to what is comfortable and known is quite tempting.
One of my children and I are also prone to another temptation related to this: we determine God’s plan by how much we feel we are accomplishing. “I just don’t feel like we’re making a real difference,” this child told me just a few days ago. “Other than the little neighbor boys coming over, what else do we do to help in our neighborhood?”
I’ve learned (through personal experience) this kind of thinking can be a trap. When we think God’s will is all about what we do; when we see the work as ours rather than God’s; when we need visible, quick, substantial results as validation that what we are doing is indeed God-sanctioned, then we are not thinking rightly.
So I told this child, “I’m not sure the primary goal was ever about us making a difference. Yes, we moved here to join the efforts already being done in this community, but we moved here knowing the greatest change would be in us. We moved here so God would open our eyes and ears and deepen our hearts. We’re assuming that as he does this, he is also preparing us for involvement, but the change in us is a huge part of His work. Have you grown since we’ve moved here? Have you learned anything?”
She nodded. She has grown. I have, too. We all have. We still are. And we’ve got a whole lot of growing left to do, a whole lot of learning still to learn.
And it’s hard. At times we’re breathing heavy. We’re a little sore and achy.
But, in the words of trainer Kit Rich, this is why we came.
As I thought about and wrote this post, the Spirit brought to my mind friends and family members who are going through truly difficult situations. Some of these cannot be avoided (grief, health issues); others were stepped into (caring for a relative, pursuing a distant child, continuing to fight an addiction). No matter how much or little choice was involved at the initial entry into the situation, each one requires continual choice as to how the situation will be faced. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it hurts. But if we keep pressing into Jesus through the situation, our relationship with him will grow fuller, deeper. This is why he came; this is why he called us to follow. And he was clear about the nature of this call; his description was clear: it was no quick stroll in the park but a hilly marathon on rough terrain. It was a call to self-sacrifice, to the way of the cross, to the way Jesus lived. We answered this call; we chose to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Let’s not grow weary in the middle of it. 
For this is how we grow.

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”) 

An unexpected neighbor

I was in full mom mode, in route from an evening parents’ meeting at the elementary/middle school to pick Em up from art class across the city.

I stopped at a red light in North Lawndale, Douglas Park dark and deep on my right, and noticed a girl standing on the corner. The lights from across the street barely lit her face.

But it was enough to make her tears shine. It was enough I could see her mouth, open with sobs, her hands, clenched in fists, pressed tight against her cheeks.

I rolled down the window. “You ok?”

I startled her; then the words came rushing out.

“I missed my bus, and another one hasn’t come. I need to get home, but I don’t know how.”

I pulled around the corner onto the deserted dark street leading into the park and called her to come to the window.

The red line. She needed to get to the red line, and she needed a bus to get to the red line. She’d missed the right bus, ran after, but didn’t make it. And she’d stood there, alone on this corner, till fear kicked in and she started crying.

Anything beyond the green and brown lines, and I’m a bit clueless about the Chicago L system. In that moment I couldn’t even remember which direction the red line runs.

But I knew this girl couldn’t stand on this corner any longer.

“Will you get in?” I asked her.

She hesitated, then figured the gray-haired woman playing soft music in her car was a better option, and got in.

I turned the car around and headed east, into the city. Em’s art class is on the north side; surely there would be a way I could get this child to the red line on the way.

We talked. I tried to drop as many reassuring bits of information as I could. Mom of four (turns out she’s the oldest of four), the ages of my kids (she’s fourteen, a freshman in high school; siblings are 12, 10, and 5), mother of twins (she’s a twin, too, though her brother died soon after birth, right on her mother’s chest. “His lungs weren’t developed enough.”) My name, her name.

She wasn’t breathing so hard any more, but I had to check. “Did anything bad happen to you? Anything besides missing the bus?”

She said no. My shoulders relaxed.

“You need a Kleenex?” I asked her.

“Yes. Is it okay if I blow my nose? Sorry, I got a little cold, so it might be noisy.”

I laughed and told her that was just fine.

She asked if I was a teacher—I have no idea why: do I still give off that vibe?

“Used to be,” I said. “Now I’m a writer.”

She wanted to know if I was famous.

I laughed again. Far from it, I said.

“You write books, though?”

“Well, I have one written, but it’s not published. I write magazine and news articles for a school.”

We talked about her school then, how her mom and grandma and she picked it because it’s college prep, because it helps its students get scholarship money, because she wants to go to college.

I pulled over to check the red line map, making sure I was under a street light, telling her what I was doing.

I called Dave just to confirm what I thought would be the closest stop to Em’s art school.

We talked more as I drove. Her face lit up when I asked about sports. Basketball is a favorite, track, too.

We talked about her siblings, what they’re like. Younger sister by a year is actually taller, but she doesn’t want to play basketball; she wants to be a cheerleader, even with her long legs. Their aunt said she should play basketball like her sister, that if she became a cheerleader, she’d knock out the whole first row of fans when she kicked. We talked about her grandma, a police officer, about her own long commute to school from the south side to the west side, about where she lived before moving to Chicago.

I saw the L track ahead and pointed it out to her. “I’m going to turn left just before it,” I told her. “The side street’s not so busy and I can let you out. And I’m gonna’ give you my business card so you can call or text me when you get home and let me know you made it safe. Will you do that for me?”

She said she would. I told her again where to cross the street, where to go up the steps to the platform. She got out and was gone.

Later that night I got a text from her grandma.

Her grandgirl had made it home safe.

She’d made it home safe.

And her grandma was very, very thankful.

On Roosevelt Road at 7 p.m.

Driving from one mom “job” to another,

Unaware of the Father’s hand orchestrating/planning/moving,

I’d been exactly where I was supposed to be

To see a neighbor.

Insignificant barriers

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When Emily and I toured the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park, IL, a couple weeks ago, I was struck by the quote carved above the fireplace: “Good friend, around these hearth-stones speak no evil word of any creature.”

A few days ago at the small fenced park where I let the dog (Chai) run, she chased a squirrel behind some deep, thick bushes. When I crouched down to check on her, I noticed a piece of foam tucked against the fence behind the bushes, a small blanket spread along one edge of it.

“Someone’s been sleeping there,” I told Em.

Today I met the someone.

The man on the bench on the sunny side of the park wore a ball cap, a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, a big stadium jacket, insulated work pants, and boots.

A big bottle of liquor, almost a jug, sat at his feet.

I entered the park on the opposite side, tied Chai’s leash to a bench there, sat down, and started to work. I assumed the man would soon leave, and I could let Chai run free.

He didn’t leave, and something tickled the back of my brain.

What if Jesus had entered the park with me?

Because, after all, didn’t he?

Come with me, be in me?

Suddenly sitting there, across the park, back turned to this person, waiting for him to leave—it didn’t feel so right, didn’t feel like Jesus’s way.

I shoved my laptop in my bag, stood up, and turned in the man’s direction. He waved. I waved back and walked the circular path toward his side of the park.

I stopped next to his bench.

“I don’t bite,” he said, his voice gravelled but warm.

I smiled. “She doesn’t either,” I said, gesturing at Chai, and sat down.

We shook hands, exchanged names—John, Jen—and talked.

Mostly, he did. Felt like he needed a listening ear.

His eyes were heavy lidded and watery. He wiped them often on his sleeve. His nails curved over clubbed fingertips, reminding me of my Pappaw, whose hands looked the same. When I was a kid, my mom told me it was from years of smoking. I looked it up later. In my Pappaw’s case, she was right: the smoking led to the lung disease, which led to the clubbed fingertips.

John “confessed” first—not with any sense of guilt, but more to get it out of the way, probably to stall any questions from me. Maybe he noticed my cross. Maybe he’d heard the questions a hundred times.

It was cheap beer in the bottle, no apologies. He likes beer.

It’s his bed in the bushes; new tenants bought the place where he was staying, so he’s in between “permanent” housing. He should be sleeping on foam for only a week. He’s just praying the rain holds off.

He does odd jobs, cleans a little, wears a mascot suit for a local business (“That’s me behind the mask,” he laughs. “They started me at $9 an hour; now I’m up to $14).

He hangs out at different places, is “like the furniture” at a local bar.

He showed me his ring of souvenirs, given to him by different friends who’ve travelled, a bracelet from a friend from Africa, his phone, his latest phone bill. Each item led to a story.

And then, unprompted, he went back, launching into tales from childhood, growing up in Canada, in French Canada.

He spoke some French for me, talked about learning English because, “Well, you just had to.”

He played baseball growing up.

One baseball buddy was Italian. He remembered eating at his house once. “So much food! We sat there for four hours! I told them they’d have to roll me away in a wheelbarrow. But I couldn’t refuse the food. Those Italians, they’re crazy about food! You can’t offend their mama’s cooking!”
I laughed. “I know. I’m half Italian. Maiden name is Del Vecchio.”

He nodded. “That’s Italian.”

He got off on a tangent then, and it was time for me to go, so I waited for a break and told him I’d enjoyed sitting and talking with him. “You’ll probably see me around,” he said.

I probably will.

When I thought about this later, I wondered at the ease of it, at the simplicity of sharing a park bench. What almost kept me from that?

Why would I let anything keep me from that?

Oh, Jesus, you wiped away the biggest boundary ever when you put on flesh. With that chasm crossed, how silly the gates we humans erect of status and race and gender and education must seem!

Help me.

Help me to see them as insignificant as well.

Doing and Being

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pic by Emily Underwood

As I pray for Chicago and my neighborhood, I often find myself saying to God, “I don’t know what to do.” “How do I get involved?” I ask, “How do I feel as if I am helping in some way?”

He’s not answering the way I’d like—with a beam of light or voice from heaven, or even an email or phone call. Instead I hear, “Patience. Steadfastness. Stillness,” the words I believe I was given months before we moved—that I thought were just for during the move.

Maybe not.

I’m reading A Light to the Nations right now, a book about the mission of God revealed in the Old Testament, about the nation Israel as a participant in that mission to bless and bring light to the entire world. The big idea is that Israel’s very reason for being—for being chosen, for being a nation—is missional, is for the purpose of revealing God to the entire world. “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you,” God told Abraham. God’s people are chosen and privileged not for their own sake or for the purpose of hoarding or mere enjoyment, but to be a display and contrast people to those around them.

But Goheen makes the point that this mission was not primarily about going but about being, about “living an attractive lifestyle to God’s glory before the surrounding nations,” about living “publicly to God’s praise” (Barth, quoted in Goheen 634/7002, Kindle edition).

So when I asked God again this morning, “What do I do?” these ideas from Light to the Nations came to my mind. I have, honestly, plenty of “doing” to do. Much of it seems mundane or even focused primarily on my family rather than my neighborhood, but this everyday doing, when “done” in the sight of my neighborhood or the other places I go in the course of my week, is a display, a way of being.

My next question, then, is if my way of doing/being is also a contrast. The Torah given to the Israelites reached into every area of life so they would understand that even the normal, everyday things all humans do belong to God. He is God of every area of life, and all can be done in the knowledge that we are his and not our own; and this is to His glory. When everyday life is done with this truth in mind, then it will certainly be a contrast from those outside the faith. It will also be a way of being, a distinct and different way of being.

I pray that through this being, we are a light to the neighborhood…

and I pray for patience, steadfastness, and stillness to wait for and recognize God’s calls to “doing” as well.

P.S. This piece came out of a class assignment that I wrote for my Former Prophets class at Northern. When I read the original assignment to Dave (husband), he suggested I should add it to this post, so it follows below. The post above stands alone, but if you’re interested in the topic of God’s mission as it is revealed in both the Old and New Testaments, then feel free to read on. The class is studying the books of Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel.  

Gile (professor teaching the class) expresses the concern that many Christians have jumped for far too long from Genesis 3 to Jesus, from God’s promise that the serpent would be “crushed” to the coming of the One who defeated sin and death. The intervening story, including all the history of Israel, has been reduced, sometimes to mere examples or morality lessons. And when we look at it this way, we lose sight of God and his big story, his mission that did not take a hiatus from chapter 3 to the New Testament but has always been in motion. God breaks onto the darkening scene in Genesis 12 with the promises given to Abraham, chosen by God to participate in God’s mission to restore his fallen creation and move them forward into the consummation of a full restoration on a new earth. In this action of choosing one man and through him, one nation, it is as if God has focused his intense beam of light on one side of a prism, not for the purpose of hiding it or simply making that one side glow, but for the light to move through that and emerge on the other side as a full spectrum, revealing the holiness and goodness of a God who longs for all his creation to be in right relationship with Himself and each other.

Looked at in this way, the Old Testament becomes God’s story, with Israel commissioned as its major participant. Goheen (author of Light to the Nations, referred to in the above post) quotes Wolff and calls Genesis 12:2-3 a “‘stupendous utterance’ for ecclesiology—indeed for the whole story of the Bible” (740/7002). Election has a “so that” purpose: “God’s people are a so that people: they are chosen so that they might know God’s salvation and then invite all nations into it.” This makes the story of Israel a revelation of God’s mission, of God himself. As God redeems his people, binds them to Himself in covenant, and dwells with them, the people of God are empowered to a particular kind of being, a holy people on “display” who live in right relationship with God and then reveal and mediate him to others as a kingdom of priests. Their display is one of great distinction from the nations around them; their entire society was to be righteous, walking in the way of Yahweh, and characterized by justice for all, the least as well as the great. This distinct display, this “light to the nations,” was to be winsome, drawing people in to learn more of the God who so transformed his people and then inspiring them to worship and praise this great God.

 

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.

Looking for the image

pilsen-mural

When my niece Anna visited, we spent an afternoon hunting murals. This is a mural in progress in Pilsen.

Before we moved, we held one last yard sale in an effort to avoid extra drop-offs at the thrift store. People asked, naturally, “Where are you moving?” Our response—inner city—garnered a lot of head shaking, puzzled looks, raised eyebrows. A couple people even offered gloomy predictions. “You’ll miss this,” they said, gesturing at the trees and yard. “You’ll get tired of the noise and the people and the dirt.”

I nodded. I was sure they were right. I’m sure now they’re right. I will certainly miss, deep in my soul, the waving trees and open spaces and wooded trails that were a great part of my life in our old town.

But I’ve asked, since even before we moved, that God would open my eyes to see loveliness right here in our new neighborhood. I’ve asked him to gift my eyes to look beyond the trash and poverty and sorrow and see elements of beauty.

He’s answering this prayer, but not in the way I expected. Yes, I do notice the old, turn-of-last-century architecture in our neighborhood—somehow-still-complete stained glass, gorgeous old stonework, intricately carved wooden doors—and the neighborhood gardens and the creativity of things like truck-tires-turned-flower-planters and murals brightening abandoned buildings.

But I’ve been most surprised by the beauty I’m noticing in God’s masterpieces, His people, these fellow bearers of His image. I’m seeing more than the destitution of those who hang out all day at the closest L station—I’m seeing the ways they cram close under the bus shelter when it rains, waving their arms at those outside to join them. I’m taking joy in the older men playing chess at dusk at the edge of the park, just under the rumbling L train, their heads bent low in concentration. I get a thrill of excitement at every baby I see, with face fresh and innocent, at every little girl with her hair fixed just-so, at every daddy proudly walking his kids to school. I’m looking for potential and not threat in the groups of young men sitting on doorsteps or walking, strong and sure, down the streets. I’m noticing the city worker riding on the back of the trash truck, dancing in plain sight of everyone to the music coming through his headphones. I’m thankful for the watchful eye and gentle wisdom of the neighbor who’s lived in the house across the street nearly his entire life. I love that on the same street corner on a Sunday morning I saw a man dressed for church—cane, hat, polished shoes, vest, and tie! so sharp!—and an older woman dressed in cheetah pajamas, hood with cat ears pulled up around her face. They seemed comfortable in each other’s presence. I’m noticing the woman, sitting on the seat of her push walker, earnestly carrying on a conversation with the air in front of her, and rather than feeling discomfort, I’m wondering if maybe she isn’t talking with God, maybe she “sees” more than I do.

Will I miss my regular romps through the woods? Absolutely. That forest spoke to me of the beauty and grandeur and glory of God. I saw God in it. But it’s not God’s greatest handiwork.

We humans are. No matter what brokenness we carry—be it obvious or more subtle (even socially acceptable—like greed)— we are still his intricate, beloved creations who carry the image of God!

And that’s not limited to only the “beautiful ones” among us, nor to the saintly, the brilliant or the gifted. You, me, the lady in cheetah pajamas, those who hang out at the L station all day/every day, the alcoholic who regularly sleeps it off in the alley behind our house…

Made in the image of God.

I’m looking for that.

Father Heart

This past spring, when we felt certain the Lord was moving us into Chicago, one of our first steps was to explore school options for our kids. The search for the younger three didn’t last too long. We visited two schools; one of them felt like a good fit to both them and us; and that decision was confirmed when we attended their back-to-school night this past week. Yes, they will face the difficulties of making new friends and learning new systems, but we know already they will be in a nurturing environment, one in which they already feel comfortable.

This, however, has not been the scenario for our oldest child, Emily. Our first choice fell through. Then she found a magnet school she really wanted to attend. She made it past the first round of selections, but not the second. That was heartbreaking and sudden and late. We scrambled and discovered a charter school option. It wasn’t close; it didn’t have some of the classes she wanted, but we thought it would do. So she started classes there, but we found, after a week of trying to make it work, it simply was too far away.

So late Thursday night, Dave and I discussed, again, her schooling choices. We weighed pros and cons and talked through different scenarios, and then, with exhaustion sucking us into sleep, we prayed a plea of confused desperation.

The next morning I woke before the alarm. As I lay there, quiet, I received an insight into my daughter. I got a glimpse into why the less obvious, more complicated schooling choice might be the very best thing for her.

I looked over at Dave and saw he was also awake. I shared with him the insight I’d received. He nodded and told me what he’d woken up thinking about. The two insights meshed; they fit together; they formed something that was enough of an answer for us to move forward with peace.

But even greater than the answer was this: the Spirit’s whispered insights were not just a reminder of God’s great wisdom, they were even more a reminder of God’s Father heart for our girl, for our family.

In that moment of shared insights I got a glimpse of God’s great, beating heart for my girl, who is, even more and always, HIS girl. He knows her, inside and out, through and through, better than I know her, better than her dad knows her, better than she knows herself.

And He loves her.

He loves her oh so well, so tenderly, so knowledgably.

And that understanding is the best answer of all.

 

Post script: When I opened up the Daily Office on my phone later on Friday morning—just after what I described above—I discovered the day’s hymn was “Day by Day,” one I remembered from my childhood. It was like a loving letter written just for us, but I suspect, in God’s incredible way of loving all his people, together yet so uniquely, it’s for many of us, so I’m sharing the words below.

 

“Day by Day” by Karolina Sandell-Berg

Day by day, and with each passing moment,

Strength I find to meet my trials here;

Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,

I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.

He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure,

Gives unto each day what He deems best,

Lovingly its part of pain and pleasure,

Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Every day the Lord Himself is near me,

With a special mercy for each hour;

All my cares He fain would bear and cheer me,

He whose name is Counselor and Pow’r.

The protection of His child and treasure

Is a charge that on Himself he laid;

“As your days, your strength shall be in measure,”

This the pledge to me He made.

Help me then, in every tribulation,

So to trust Thy promised, O Lord,

That I lose not faith’s sweet consolation,

Offered me within Thy holy Word.

Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,

E’er to take, as from a father’s hand,

One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,

Till I reach the promised land.