I read. They teach.

The weather is nice—a rarity in Chicago this spring—so it’s a quiet morning at the women’s shelter at Breakthrough. Most women are gone for the day, out and about, but one regular, C, an older woman whose soft, gentle voice is rarely heard, is here. Kristine, a staff worker stationed at the desk in the common room, introduces me to J and tells me J, too, is coming. J is wiry and full of nervous energy. She’s an addict, she tells me in a spill of words, has been for years, but she found Breakthrough and has a bed there and wants to finally attack her addiction. She’s started going to AA meetings. “This,” she says, waving her hand at the three of us gathered to pray and read Scripture, “will help me. Prayer always helps me.”

I always begin our time together by asking if anyone has any passage or story in particular they would like to hear from Scripture. J says she wants to read about beginnings, since she herself is embarking on a new start. I read Genesis 1 and then I ask if they would like to hear the beginning of Jesus’ story here on earth. Both do, and I turn to Luke 2 and read. J has to leave for a meeting, so I ask C what she would like me to read next. She puts her finger on my Bible and points at the next chapter. “You want me to keep going?” I ask, and she nods.

So I read Luke 3. C whispers, “Keep going.” Luke 4. She smiles and gives a little nod of encouragement. Luke 5. Another smile-nod. Luke 6.

Luke 2-6! These are long chapters, covering (among other things) Jesus’ birth, baptism, and temptation; his calling the disciples; his healing people with demons and leprosy and paralysis and withered hands. The grand teachings of chapter 6 include “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep…; love your enemies; be merciful; don’t judge; produce good fruit”… And all these teachings are followed by the parable that begins: “‘Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?’” Jesus talks about the house built on rock and the house built on sand. He ends by saying, “‘The one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’”

I finish reading chapter 6 and check the time. It’s past 11. We’ve been reading for over an hour. “Sorry, Carol, we have to stop here,” I say. “Do you have anything particular you want to pray about today?”

She reaches over again and touches my Bible, pointing to that parable. “Let’s pray about that,” she says softly. “I don’t want to be that house that falls.”

“Me neither,” I tell her. “Me neither.” And we pray that we will be followers of Jesus who do what he tells us to do.

Every Monday, I read…

and they teach.

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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.

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.”

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.