Neighbors in suburbia

I was having one of my “Why here?” mornings, when I am fed up with suburbia and longing to be in ministry elsewhere—a small town, inner city, overseas…

Without examination, this built, and I saw everything around me with a snarky eye. It came to a head at a four-way stop not far from our house. “Get a move on,” I inwardly muttered at the man across the intersection who had clearly arrived before me and yet still hadn’t moved. FINALLY he turned, and I saw through the car’s side window that the driver was a neighbor who lives across the street and a couple doors down from my family. His wife died only a few months ago.

My anger dropped and I received a moment of empathy, a tiny bit of his sorrow knocking off my cynicism and settling in my heart. I followed his car up the hill and then watched as he turned into our local cemetery.

That broke me, and I cried out, “I’m so sorry, Lord. So sorry.”

Why here?

I don’t know completely.

But we ARE here.

And rather than ask Christ, like the Pharisee in Luke 10 did, “And who is my neighbor?”, I need to ask instead to be a neighbor, not only to those in the sex trade, to refugees and immigrants, to those without Christ in foreign countries, to the widow and orphan and oppressed BUT ALSO to the well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated suburbanites all around me.

I often pray Matthew 22:37-39 over my children:“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” And when I do, I don’t specify which neighbors they’re supposed to love. I leave that up to God. 

I’m still learning to do the same for myself.

“Which…proved himself a neighbor?” (Jesus asked).

“The one who showed pity and mercy to him,” (he answered)

And Jesus said… “Go and do likewise.”

Longing to Belong

Nearly two years ago, our family moved back to West Chicago from Sterling, Kansas.

It was not an easy transition for me.

Though we lived in Sterling only three years, I felt I belonged in that tiny Kansas town more than I’d belonged anywhere else. I could be myself there, quirks and all. I felt that I fit, that there was a bigger purpose for my individual gifts.

Then we moved back to West Chicago—a place we’d already lived—and I felt launched into no-man’s land. I had to re-discover who I was, what I should be doing, and where I fit—all in the bigger context of suburbia with its many, unconnected worlds.

In October of our first year back, an editor friend offered to look over my adoption-story book proposal. We met; she gave me her very sage advice; and she said, “You know, there’s a theme running through this, and I think you need to let it shine more. This book is really about belonging.”

I missed the irony at first. How do I show the struggle to belong in this story? I wondered, not realizing I was living it out in my own life. But bit by bit, I started to see it. Then, though, came the feeling that I was the only one going through this. Everybody else has it all figured out, right? 

Um, no.

We all “long to belong.”

We all “long to be.”

We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to be integral to this bigger something, and we want to belong for simply being who we are, not for our talents or accomplishments.

At the same time we have a desire for significance in who we are individually. We want to be seen as important or needed or gifted. We want to be unique and special.

I call these longings the “we are” and the “I am.”

These two are perfectly combined in the person of God.

God is the complete “we are.” He is three IN one, completely inter-connected, with the same purpose, sharing the same “being.” Jesus said, “I and the Father (WE) are one.” In I Corinthians 13:14, this unity is called “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

Yet God also calls Himself the “I AM.” God is significant—He is significance Himself. He IS unique and special.

So our desires—to belong and to be—have holy roots.

But when they’re not fulfilled in the Three-In-One who combines them, they grow up twisted.

That describes most of us, most of the time. Look at me, we cry. See what I’ve done. See that I’m special.

OR we cry, Pick me, pick me. I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be “in,” not “out.” I want to belong.

And deep down, we really want both.

The only answer to them is found in our God, who calls each of us His “masterpiece,” who tells us that together we are His body, and there are no unnecessary parts. In Him, He says, “we live and move and have our being.”

God, help us to lose our earthly ideas of “i am” and “we are.” Help us to understand that being IN the “I AM” fulfills both our desires: our longings to “be” and to “belong.”

In the great “I AM,” we can be.

In the great “WE ARE ONE,” we can belong.

The Lists We Make

“So how was your week?”

Absolutely crazy!

Dave coached three away games and had an evening meeting.

Em and Kelly’s junior high team had five games.

Em had a choir concert.

Judy and I had three dress rehearsals and two performances of the international student production.

And on Wednesday, Patrick broke his arm!

So–how was your week?

++++

I had that conversation several times this past weekend, and it made me think about the “lists” we make. I would call the above list a “suburban mom” list. There’s a little bit of an undercurrent of, “So how busy are you—in comparison with me?”

Ugh!

That’s not the only kind of list we make. Our lists change depending on the people we’re with. It’s a little bit like small kids talking about their dads: “My dad can run faster than a car.” “Well, my dad can run faster than a rocket!”

We can have academic lists, job lists, travel lists, sports lists—even spiritual lists.

I’ve certainly been guilty of using a list to make myself seem higher than the person I’m talking to—or at least to feel myself equal to that person.

What a nasty thing to do.

What a dangerous thing to do.

These lists separate us from other people. They deceive us into thinking that we have more differences between us than commonalities. They make us forget that we are all fellow creations, that we are all sinners, that we are all loved by God. We are all so much lower than the God who created us that our individual differences count for nothing. After all, a flea with an impressive list of accomplishments is still, well—just a flea!

And that brings me to the second dangerous thing about these lists: they separate us from God. Aren’t all of these lists ultimately ways to identify ourselves as worthwhile? Don’t we use them to convince others—and often ourselves—that we have purpose and value?

Purpose and value apart from simply being a creation of God. From simply being a flea, if you’ll pardon the extended metaphor. A flea among fleas, but each one uniquely created.

Paul had lists, too. In the context of church-planting, his were pretty impressive. In Philippians 3, he talked about his credentials as a Jew of Jews: circumcised on the 8th day; full-blooded Israelite; tribe of Benjamin; a Pharisee; strictly obedient to Jewish law—without fault! And zealous to boot! In II Corinthians he feels he must make a list simply to point out the Corinthians’ wrong way of thinking. You want to judge me the way the world does? he asks. Well, my list is better: beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned, hungry, thirsty, cold, naked…

But Paul says this about his list-making: In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool (2 Cor. 11:17). I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him (Phil. 3:7-9a).

That’s the choice we face: we can hold onto our lists—the things that, according to the world, give us value—or let them all go and gain Christ!

When we gain Christ, we no longer have to carry around our value-less lists. Like Paul, we have other things to boast about it: (For the Lord) “said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

For when we are weak, then we are strong! Because HE is strong in us.

What a difference it would make if we boasted in these kinds of lists! When we share our weaknesses and how God meets them, it unifies us; it reveals common ground; it encourages and gives hope to others. It creates real, authentic, ultimately beautiful relationships.

Let’s start making a different kind of list!

suburban gratitude

Dave bought me this sign for Christmas and I hung it in our family room. I think (I hope) it describes us well.

Dave bought me this sign for Christmas and I hung it in our family room. I think (I hope) it describes us well.

I’m working on chapters three and four of our adoption story, so I spent a couple hours this morning sorting through emails I sent out during 2008 and 2009. Some of those were specifically about adoption matters: court dates and home studies and official documents, but many others were simply newsletters about our family.

Em was seven and Jake and Maddie about three and a half in the earliest updates (January 2008); the last one I read was written six months after Patrick and I came home from Uganda (September 2009). I wrote about funny things they said (like when Maddie was pretending to be Jake’s mommy until Jake, fed up with bottles and blankets, ran away from her, crying, “I all growed up now, Maddie. I not a baby any more”). I wrote about daily routines that I’d forgotten, like Patrick coming home on the preschool bus in Kansas. He would bring his backpack inside, tell me to “Close eyes, Mommy,” and then show me each paper he’d worked on that morning, one by one. Then we read his new library book—they went every day—TWICE. And all this before lunchtime. I wrote about life lessons they were learning, like when Em got the teacher she did NOT want and her words three weeks into the school year: “Mom and Dad, you were right. I think God did want me to have Mrs. Farney. I really like her.”
The emails made me a little sad. Those times are gone, and life with my kids isn’t so simple anymore. It’s not full of long Saturdays spent at home or morning playtimes at the park. They’re growing up and away—just as they should be—but I was suddenly a little nostalgic.
And I was also grateful—for something I don’t think I’ve ever before been grateful for. I was thankful for all the driving, the times in the car, the back and forth to this activity and that practice that consumes so much of my life these days.
Usually this is one of the things I hate most about life in suburbia. Twenty-minute drive here, thirty there, another fifteen…
But my kids are captive in the car—right there with me, right there with each other. And we talk about our days and we listen to good books (yay for audio books), and we sing, and we spend time together, and they can’t escape, and I can’t get all busy with housework or writing projects. And when it’s me and just one of the kids, we get quiet, let’s-really-find-out-what’s-going-on time.
Hmm. Maybe there are other things on my “hate” list that I can learn to be thankful for.

Pondering Philippians 1:6, part 1

As young people—in our teens and even twenties—possibilities often seem endless. I remember thinking I could be a doctor like my dad and help lots of people with their health issues—maybe on the mission field. I could write the next great children’s novel—and be like Madeleine L’Engle. I could open an orphanage. I could…

Now life feels more limited–and a lot more complex. I understand that opening one door means closing another. I see so many needs and often feel helpless to assist. I know children are starving around the globe and I look at my comfortable lifestyle and wonder what biblical living means for those of us who stay in the suburbs. I struggle with the differences between needs and wants. I wonder if all the “little” things I do each day are really making a difference. Is THIS what I’m supposed to be doing? I sometimes wonder.

The Christian life no longer seems like endless possibilities; it seems wrapped up in—perhaps even restricted by—“small” choices within everyday life.

But in the midst of my questions, my wondering, I’m learning to cling to the promise of Philippians 1:6—“…being confident of this, that He who began a good work in (me) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

And lately God has given me the privilege of seeing that verse “fleshed out” in the lives of some older believers.

Because of the writing assignments I do for Wheaton Academy, I often get to interview believers much older than myself. They tell me their stories and about what has happened with them since they left Wheaton Academy. In their 70s and 80s, they don’t focus on the “small stuff” that unfortunately controls much of my early-40s, mom-to-6-kids, suburban life. But I know they DID experience these things; I’m not always talking to people who lived their entire lives on the mission field. Like me, most of the people I interview have children. They, too, bought homes and “settled” and lived in American culture. They, too, worked and had to bring home a paycheck to feed and clothe and pay sports fees and activity fees and for the cleats and shinguards and guitars to take to the sports and activities.

But they have something I don’t, a vantage point that I usually lack. They have a long view. One of them recently said this to me: I look back on all my career, all the jobs and changes and successes, and on our family life, and I see God purposefully preparing me and my circumstances for what I am doing now, in my golden years.

This bird was hanging out in a tree in our backyard a week or so ago. Hawk? Falcon? Anybody know? Whatever it was, it was big and fun to watch.

This bird was hanging out in a tree in our backyard a week or so ago. Hawk? Falcon? Anybody know? Whatever it was, it was big and fun to watch.

This man didn’t orchestrate things; he just did what came next—which is what I feel like I do most days, wondering if it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, wondering if it’s of any eternal purpose. This man didn’t have the long view IN the moment, in the journey. He just put one step in front of another and NOW he can look back and catch a glimpse of the pattern. He sees how all the “little” was part of the BIG, and that helps him to trust that there is an even bigger, even deeper pattern beyond and beneath what he is able to see right now.

And his long view helps ME to be “convinced and sure of this very thing, that He Who began a good work in (me) will continue until the day of Jesus Christ [right up to the time of His return], developing [that good work] and perfecting and bringing it to full completion in (me.)” Phil. 1:6 Amplified version.