Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.
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Why the Mosque?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.40.07 AMAfter I published my last post about my experience at the mosque, I heard questions about why we went there and what we were doing. I decided to write a follow-up to that one and address some of the questions people might have had when they read it.

Why did you go to a mosque? Why is Andrew in particular interested in Muslims?

Andrew teaches intercultural studies and world religions courses at the college where we work. He’s been teaching those subjects for sixteen years now and before that worked as a missionary. He has multiple masters degrees in foreign policy, practical ministry and theology and a doctorate of ministry in missiology. He’s studied politics, ministry and missions his entire life. As a professor, he feels like part of responsible teaching involves going to places where other religions gather and learning about them there. Meeting people who practice the religions he teaches about enhances his teaching and provides the students with a more thorough education. He also takes students with him to places like the mosque, Messianic Jewish churches, and churches that practice in ways different from how we do. This helps them feel comfortable connecting with people who are different from them and therefore learn more about them. This approach is not unique to him, it is a routine part of cross-cultural education at Bible Colleges such as Johnson University, Cincinnati Christian University, Hope International University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Education aside, as Christians we believe it’s important to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible. In the post-911 world in which we live, many Americans see Muslims as enemies. Although Andrew and I do not see them that way, even if we did, how does Jesus instruct us to treat our enemies? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love involves respect. It involves time together. It involves sharing my life with someone. If I say I love my husband but never speak to him and avoid going places where he is, do I love him? How can I love Muslims if I never meet one, never speak to one, and do nothing to understand the way Muslims think and act?

In going to programs at the mosque or inviting friends we meet there over for dinner, we create conditions that foster mutual trust. We show genuine interest in their culture and their ideas. We demonstrate that we care about and value them as human beings and appreciate the good things about them. And we actually do care about them as human beings because Jesus cares about them. If we fear them or fear going to places they believe are important, we create mistrust. They will in turn mistrust us. How does that create an environment open for any kind of meaningful, positive interaction?

Are you trying to convert the Muslims you meet to Christianity?

Andrew and I both believe that all people are in some sort of relationship with God. Some people are close to him, pursuing him full-speed ahead. Some people have turned their backs on him and refused him. Most people are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. My goal as a Christian should be to somehow nudge people a little bit toward Jesus. Some people will jump straight into his arms, and some people may just slightly turn their faces toward him. In everything we do, we want to point people toward Jesus. Doing small things like attending a service at a mosque a couple of times a year may not make a huge difference, but it’s a little like sending $30 to a ministry that helps stop sex trafficking. It’s promoting something worthwhile in the world, even if it is a small thing that doesn’t by itself fix the problem.

Will attending a prayer service at another place of worship make you question your own faith?

I can only speak from my own experience when I say that going to another place of worship does make me question my own faith. It makes me ask what parts of my beliefs are really essential and what things are only cultural. It makes me question how I live my faith on a daily basis and whether I’m really expressing it well. Seeing how others worship makes me look at my own worship with fresh eyes. Why do I do what I do? How do other people understand that? Do the things I say and do actually communicate what God wants me to communicate?

I think questioning the things I believe is healthy. Thinking through what I believe leads to stronger faith. We see this happen in other parts of our lives. If we never use our muscles, they weaken and cease to function properly, but if we use them daily, challenge them even, they grow stronger and more efficient.

What about posting about it on Facebook? Even if your faith is strong, won’t that influence people whose faith isn’t as strong?

I hope so. I hope hearing about our experiences challenges people to start thinking about their beliefs and about the things they believe about people who are different from them. I hope it prompts them to step out of their comfort zones in order to reach out to another person and make a connection with him or her just as one human being to another.

Aren’t Muslims dangerous? Doesn’t the Qu’ran, their holy book, say things like, “Death to the infidels” and instructs them to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim?

This is an excellent question! The speaker at the lecture we attended at the mosque actually addressed this very question on Saturday. One of the teenagers in the audience said that people in his school say he’s a terrorist because all Muslims are terrorists and want to kill all non-Muslim people. He pointed out a verse in the Qu’ran that said Mohammed instructed people to do so. The speaker said that if you read that verse in context it happened during a war time, and it referred to people protecting their families and fighting for their freedom. It happened centuries ago, and, according to him, is something mainline Islam does not teach today.

I try to remember that there are different sects of Islam, just as there are different sects of Christianity. I would not want anyone to assume that all Christians are like the members of a church like the Westboro Baptist Church. I am most definitely not like them, and I never want to be seen like that. Some Muslims are radical, but most, like the ones we interact with, are regular people. They just want to live their lives and practice their faith and are much less aggressive about converting people than most churches try to persuade their members to be. Many of the immigrants who come from Muslim countries have been persecuted by the very extreme radical groups we ourselves fear.

At the lecture we attended last weekend, the man spent about 45 minutes telling the children in the audience how to react when someone bullies them for their faith, their skin color, their accent, etc. He told how he was bullied as a child and how he told the principal, who gave him the choice to ask the bullies to be punished or to forgive them. He chose forgiveness and from then on the children who had bullied him were friendly to him because they saw forgiveness in action. He urged the children in the audience to do the same, to be good examples and good students and to show others how to live peaceful lives. Many people would be surprised to know this is the message being taught in the mosque.

Good Missionary Methodology in Practice

What we hope to do by visiting a mosque a few times a year and going to the places where other religions practice, by making friends with people of other faiths and other denominations is good missionary methodology. It’s putting our faith into action by actually attempting to live out the principles we have learned in Sunday school since infancy–principles like loving our neighbor as ourselves and thinking of others above ourselves, working to build relationships with people who are discriminated against by society and standing up for those in positions of less power. These are principles that Jesus taught us. He urged his followers to be involved in people’s lives and not to rest in the safety and security of their comfortable and familiar cultures but to go out of their way to show him to those who may never see him otherwise. This is what missionaries do on a regular basis. In our current situation in America, we have the chance to do that without even leaving our own towns.

I appreciate that people asked questions about our mosque experience. I hope seeing what I wrote encourages them to reach out to a coworker or acquaintance who’s different and find ways that they are similar.

Broken Arms and Changed Plans

FullSizeRenderYesterday I complained before leaving work because I had to take my youngest to open gym at the gymnastics place last night and would have to sit there for an hour and a half waiting on her to do her thing. Later that evening during open gym, my girl asked me to come in the gym and play with her. Apparently other parents were in there showing me up, so I dropped my book and went in to watch her balance on the balance beam and practice her moves (and she was super cute and surprisingly athletic, if I can brag on her for a minute). While I watched and “helped” her, I snuck a few texts to a friend, commenting on how much lessons cost and how could we ever afford this? And I dreamed about what I’d do after all of the kids went to bed and the evening stretched out before me, free and open for Netflix or knitting or writing or whatever.

Open gym was almost over, a fact I knew because I kept a watchful eye on the clock on the wall, when she lugged out a springboard thingy. Running down the lane leading to it, she jumped on it and sailed a few feet into the air in an attempt to do a cartwheel. She is actually pretty good at gymnastics and cartwheels, so I didn’t expect what happened next. She landed wonky on her arm, and I knew the night wasn’t going to end for a loong time.

I ran over to her, all thoughts of time and clocks and what I’d do that night after she went to sleep already vanishing. All I could see was that arm hitting the ground. I had flashbacks of another time I watched that little arm, a lot smaller that time, as she jumped from playground equipment at the age of four and landed on it the same way. That time she broke it, and I believed she had this time too. She looked up at me stunned and said, “It got black and I saw stars for a second.” And it hurt a lot.

My little girl’s pretty brave, but by the time she got to the car she was crying, and I headed toward the emergency room. She held up well. She put ice on it. She looked at the aquarium in the waiting room and exclaimed about how much it looked like Finding Nemo, which it did. In triage, the nurse asked her how much it hurt on a scale of one to ten with ten being “I just got hit by a semi truck.” She said seven. I was surprised. She didn’t seem to be at seven pain level, but maybe she hid it well. She asked about shots. Would she have to get a shot? The nurse said, “You won’t have to get a shot unless you need surgery, and then they’ll give you an IV.” All fear of shots left her as she looked at me in panic and said, “I might have to have surgery?!”

A couple of hours and some x-rays later, and it turned out to be a pretty bad sprain. No IMG_0969surgery. No shots or IVs, a fact that relieved her greatly. She did get a splint and instructions to follow up with an orthopedist in five days just in case they missed a break. Today she proudly showed her arm to her brother and sister and explained what happened. They were in bed at the time and didn’t know we even went to the ER. She secretly told me that even though surgery would have been horrible, it would have been a good way to get some extra attention. My response: “Girl, if you need attention, I’ll take you out to ice cream! You don’t have to get surgery!”

As I lay down in bed last night at 1:00 am, I realized I’d done none of the things I’d planned. I’d had no free time. I’d watched no Netflix and knitted no scarves. I thought of how fast things had changed. In that one 30-second time span, I stopped caring about how much I accomplished and whether I had any time alone. All thoughts focused on my daughter, with a few stray thoughts thinking how much will this cost? (I know, I know, I’m materialistic and petty.) But as I drifted off to sleep, I also thanked God that it was only a sprain. Not a break. As Emma said, “I could have landed on my head!” How quickly things can change. Thank God it was only a small change!

The Holiday Rush

It's the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It’s the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own drummer boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It happens every year about this time. Between the end-of-the-semester crazy time at work and Christmas preparations, we have all sorts of school programs, band concerts, piano recitals and now, since we have teenagers, finals to worry about. Add to that list cold weather and ever-increasing darkness as the winter solstice creeps closer and closer and the fact that, for whatever reason, in the winter I like to hunker down with a blanket and a knitting project and binge on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a recipe for disaster. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled afternoon scurrying around to try and get as much done as possible at work before going home to get as much done as possible before going to bed. 

Not only do I feel this, but I’ve managed to pass it on to the next generation. My daughter sometimes comes to me at almost 14 years old and laments that she’s tired and doesn’t have time to study amidst all the band practices and concerts of the season and conflicting advice wells up in me. Part of me wants to tell her to let up and give herself a break. Take some time off. Don’t put too much stock in those finals because it is, after all, just junior high, for crying out loud! Another part of me says no way. That’s when she learns how to juggle so much and be productive in a safe environment. I mean, if she tries too much and fails at some of it, she’s just in 8th grade. That failure affects nothing in her future but may teach her a valuable lesson. Besides, she’s got the energy and enthusiasm of youth on her side.

I look around and see that we are not alone in this. In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of college people who are staying up later and working harder than I am, and I realize I’ve actually learned some things about holiday time management that I didn’t know at their age.

So which one is right? Isn’t that the question all firstborns like my daughter and me struggle with at some point? The longer I live, the more I think it’s both. Let up and lean in. Don’t do too much, but do all you can. And how in the world is that even possible?

  1. Prioritize. Yeah, I know. That’s what they all say. But seriously, I ask myself this all the time: What will I wish I’d done now when I look back at this time in 20 years? Work harder to do some job with excellence or take time off to play with the kids? Since I stumbled upon this technique of imagining my future self talking to my present self, I have used it relentlessly in decision-making, and I have been amazed at how helpful it has been in helping me focus on what’s really important. It also leads me to the next point.
  2. Pay attention to now. That may sound contradictory to saying look at the future and work toward it, but it’s not. If you’re like me, it can be easy to get too caught up in memories of the past or fears of the future. I can’t do much about past events, but if I’m worried about the future I can affect that by what I do right now. I just realized this morning that our oldest daughter has only five Christmases left before she goes off to college. That’s five, people! The Christmases and birthdays as a solid family unit don’t stretch out endlessly before us anymore. They’re limited. How do I make those count? Not by making the perfect gingerbread house or buying the best present ever. By being present with her right now. I want to decide what I think is important for my kids’ futures and do the things in the present moment that work us toward that goal. That’s not just true for people with kids. We can do that in all areas of our lives. What do you want to remember about this time of your life? Work to be present for it.
  3.  Lower expectations. In school I used to want to have an A in every class. Not just an A, but the highest A. Then I realized that if I implemented suggestions 1 and 2 above I would not get the highest A. I began to lower my expectations because there are more important things to do than study, and studying all the time will not help me be present any more than studying less. If I want a perfect house, I have to sacrifice more important things (like my sanity) to get that. If good enough is really good enough, I have more time and energy to devote to the things I feel are higher priorities.

    Yes, that is indeed my youngest wearing a turkey headband. I’m lowering expectations, remember?

  4. Give up control. This is a big one. I used to be pretty type A. I wanted a schedule. I wanted things to go according to that schedule. I thought if I could list it and plan it I would be happier. But then I moved overseas. There nothing happened the way I thought it should, and every day became an exercise in accepting what I don’t understand. I remember standing at a bus stop and seeing a trolleybus roll up. It had its destination written on a card at the front, but it was in a language and an alphabet I didn’t know at all. I just said to myself “what the heck?” and got on, not knowing where it was going or if I’d get where I needed to be. Guess what. It went somewhere. With me on it. I don’t even remember if it went where I wanted to go or not, but I remember that moment because it was a moment of surrendering control. I’m still alive, so it must’ve worked out ok, right?

So now you’ve heard my ideas for getting thru the holidays. What are yours?

That Christmas Feeling

Nativity_tree2011

I always tell my kids, who sometimes worry there will be a gunman in their school massacring everyone, that this isn’t something to worry about. I tell them it’s rare that something like that happens, despite the fact we see stories about that very thing in the news just about every day now. I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and I have to add even if the unthinkable did happen, God would take care of them and they’d be fine.

Secretly, though, these days I don’t know if I believe myself. We hear statistics about 355 mass shootings in the last year. We hear others saying that statistic is too high, based on loose standards, and if we go by stricter definitions of “mass shootings” the number is lower (see article here). But isn’t even one mass shooting too many?

We hear people say things like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and declare that if everyone carried a gun, we would most certainly all be safer. Yesterday Jerry Fallwell Jr. even encouraged all of the students on the campus of Liberty University to carry a concealed weapon (see article here). Now, I’m not trying to say anything bad about college students; I work with a whole campus of them. Most of them are great and would be fine around firearms, but they’re young and impulsive and heaven forbid they get depressed and angry about a grade they got and have a gun in their back pocket! What about the many suicidal college students that struggle every winter? Do we care about them?

We’ve Lost It

But you know what? I didn’t start writing this to talk about gun control. I’m not even really sure where I fall in the opinions about who should have guns. I started writing because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost its mind. We argue about everything. We’re so sensitive. We get our feelings hurt, we hold grudges. People work to provide an environment where everyone feels included and cared about, and then other people stand up and declare that being polite and kind with our words is politically correct and, dang it, they are tired of political correctness and would prefer just to blast everyone with their hurtful words.

What in the world?!

I hear people every Christmas say that they wish they could have the Christmas feeling all year. I want to say I’m not sure we’re ready to have that Christmas feeling all year. If we want to bring the Christmas feeling into January and February and beyond, we need to be ready to live with the peace and love that Jesus came here for. We need to work.

Falling in Love

love-05We’d love to just have this special feeling all the time, to feel this love and connectedness with others without putting forth any effort. We all know that’s not really possible. The feelings we have at Christmas are like the feelings we have when we fall in love. We see that special person and the whole world lights up. We feel so happy. We can’t believe there’s someone so very wonderful in the world. We feel like suddenly everything that was wrong about us is now right because that person somehow completes us. That’s the Christmas feeling. Somehow for just a few days, without any work at all, the world seems like a happier, more loving, more peaceful place where everyone feels good and makes us all feel good too.

But staying in love? That takes work. We begin to see the cracks, the flaws, the things we don’t always like about the other person. The things we’ve tried so hard to hide in ourselves start to show, and our insecurities come out. That’s when the real love begins, when we have to start working. That’s what I think happens in January. The shiny veneer the world had at Christmas wears off, and we see the cold, the snow, the harsh winds. We start thinking about ourselves again and how we don’t have enough money or we gained weight over the holidays. We start being irritable with the world and stop wanting that peace and love because it just costs too much. It takes too much work.

This Christmas, let’s go out of our way to give to others. Let’s do the Christmas stuff we like to do: bake the cookies, go caroling, decorate, donate and buy gifts. Let’s say we want the Christmas feeling to last all year. And then after Christmas, let’s put the work into loving other people, accepting our differences and caring about those who need care. Let’s put our words to work all year!

Holidailies, Day 3

Tonight my sister-in-law sent me a picture of Andrew and me. It was taken about 15 years ago, the year after we got married: pre-kids, pre-home ownership, pre-responsibilities and bills and debts and work. Looking at that, I wonder what I ever thought about during those years. What preoccupied my mind when I didn’t have to think about what to cook for kids, which is totally different from cooking for just two adults, and when I didn’t have to keep five people’s schedules in my head, and when I didn’t have to remember when I gave the last dose of medicine so I wouldn’t overdose someone on cold medication, and, most of all, when I didn’t wonder if what I was saying and doing every day was completely ruining some impressionable young son or daughter’s entire future and providing some therapist in the future with years of income.

The Picture: Andrew on the left, me on the right, an aunt and a niece with us. That's not our baby, by the way. That was before offspring. Interestingly enough, I look surprisingly like my sister.

The Picture, taken in 2000: Andrew on the left, me on the right, an aunt and a niece between us. That’s not our baby, by the way. That was before offspring. Interestingly enough, I look surprisingly like my sister.

Not only that, but what did even do every day? I mean, I remember I worked out every day (hence my super skinny-ness…probably shouldn’t have let that go).

I remember reading books I wanted to read and being able to finish them in less than 3 months. I remember having a daily quiet time. I remember talking about stuff I liked to talk about for longer than a few minutes without being interrupted. I remember going out to dinner with friends and writing letters on actual paper and journaling.

I remember that Andrew and I used to lie next to each other on the couch without a) suffocating each other or b) falling off the couch because our bodies actually took up just a sliver of that couch at that point. To be honest, I don’t know if we could lie side by side on the couch anymore because we haven’t even attempted it for years!

I remember that we used to go to Applebee’s and say how expensive it was because it cost almost $20 to eat there. Now we spend way more than $20 at Wendy’s when all five of us go there and eat off the dollar menu.

I remember that I used to spend more than 3 minutes on my hair every morning, and once in a while I went without makeup for fun instead of lack of concern about whether I was wearing makeup or not.

I remember sleeping. I’m not even going to elaborate on the loss of sleep because, really, it’s just too painful at times to think about how I used to sleep and how I took a solid 7 hours of sleep for granted.

Those were fun days, nice times, when I thought about myself and how to make myself happier, prettier, skinnier, smarter, more interesting, funnier.

However, those were also days when I didn’t really understand responsibility and how loving someone means doing stuff for them, stuff they may never notice, stuff they will almost definitely never appreciate. Those were days when I thought I knew about love but what I knew about love was all about what another person could do to make me feel loved. I had no idea how to love a crying, pooping little person who would soon start throwing temper tantrums and basically refuse to do anything that was good for him/her. I had no idea how to love someone when we were both at our rope’s end and angrier or more hurt or more exhausted than we’d ever been.

I seriously wouldn't go back for anything. Look at those three cuties that didn't even exist 15 years ago!!

I seriously wouldn’t go back for anything. Look at those three cuties that didn’t even exist 15 years ago!!

I don’t really think I know that yet, but at least I know a little more about it. So maybe it’s ok that Andrew and I can’t fit side-by-side on a couch together or that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in 14 years. Marriage and parenting have changed us. In some ways for the worse maybe, but in some ways for the better.

Now, I just wonder where the next 15 years will take us.

For the Love of Minecraft

The concentration. They didn't even see me there taking the picture.

The concentration! They didn’t even see me there taking the picture.

I’m sitting on my couch. In the next room, my children have gathered around the dining room table. Their lively conversation, the kindest they’ve had in days, revolves around running for their lives from killer mushroom soup and a zombie that will kill them with one hit. Whatever that means. They’re playing Minecraft, rejoicing over the murder of a zombie with a Thor axe.

Most of the time, these three walk a fine line between beating the tar out of one another and simply ignoring each other’s existence. Once in a while, they start playing something that gets them all immediately involved 100%, and then this beautiful situation occurs. Over the years, different games have intrigued them. Once I woke up on a Saturday morning to the sound of three kids playing in the other room. I went in to see them all embroiled in a huge light saber fight. The girls each held a baby doll on a hip, deftly wielding a saber with the free hand. When I asked what they were doing, Hannah answered, “Playing Star Wars!” The babies were the twins, Luke and Lea.

Yep, they even play it at the library!

Yep, they even play it at the library!

A couple of years ago, Minecraft entered the scene. They became immersed in a blocky world of endermen and zombies, and they all became very good at building creative structures with blocks. Hannah even built an elaborate church, a throwback to when my sister and I played worship service in the garage or school in the dining room. Since then, they have played Minecraft with friends from church, students at the college, and one of the small group guys spent an afternoon playing it with them, despite his advanced age (20 something!).

I’ve heard criticism galore about how too much computer time hurts kids, and I’m sure that’s true. However, this game and others like it have given my children much more positive interaction than anything I’ve seen them do. Ever. They have more to talk about and a language that only they understand. They work together in their Minecraft world. Tonight my daughter begged my son to play, saying that he could best save her and protect her there, so they even have a chance to rely on one another and care for one another in their virtual world.

The heavenly day when they received their very own laptops--a combined Christmas gift from grandparents and parents and worth every penny!

The heavenly day when they received their very own laptops–a combined Christmas gift from grandparents and parents and worth every penny!

Not only do they play the game together, but they watch YouTube videos of other people playing it. Today at lunch, one of them started laughing about something one of them saw on a YouTube video, and I swear it sounded like they were talking about a friend. When I realized they were all laughing about someone they knew from a vlog, I just shook my head. They’re already in a world I’ll never care about.

Hearing them talk to each other, laugh at things that happen online, and cheer each other on as they play makes me happy. These are the days I waited for, the days I longed for when they were little and covered in a mixture of snot and chocolate milk and unidentifiable goop from breakfast. These days, I have uninterrupted periods of time when they’re happy and fulfilled without me, when I can sit on a couch and write a blog post or take a shower without the guilt of a baby crying in her crib in the back of my mind. They’re growing up!

And not only are they growing up, but they’re growing up great. I know they’re my kids, but I think they’re pretty wonderful. Today I was the last of the family to leave Taco Bell and went out the door behind a group of people using wheelchairs. I thought my kids were all in the car, but as I walked out the door I noticed that the person behind it was my youngest, Emma. She had held the door for a long line of wheelchairs. I saw one of the caretakers accompanying the people smile one of those oh-my-what-a-lovely-little-girl smiles and I just felt so proud of her. She is a lovely little girl.

So here’s to enjoying these days when they’re all home and all having fun together. Days when they still just have each other, when they build memories they’ll take with them when they go their separate ways and find other people to share their lives. Here’s hoping that they remember these days as well or better than they remember the days when Mommy lost her mind and yelled about the car door that wouldn’t close or the day when everyone sat in silence during dinner because they got reprimanded for talking mean to one another.

For now, I’ll let them conquer the Pumpkin King with TNT and enjoy listening to their animated conversation…even if I don’t understand half of it!

I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

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This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

Random Thoughts

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Just a few random thoughts at the end of the week:

  1. New beginnings are exciting! School started this week. We have two junior high family members now, and the youngest child is sweetly still in fourth grade. On Tuesday, everyone got dressed in their finest clothes, straightened and spiked hair, and loaded their backpacks. As much as I love sleeping in a little in the summer and having a more relaxed schedule, I also like the routine and predictability of school.
  2. New beginnings are stressful! One boy in our family has gone to bed at 7 or so several times this week. People have had blow ups over tiny, dumb things, and by people have I mean I have. I’m not even in school, and I feel stressed out by it!
  3. Cicadas make way more noise than I’m comfortable with. I’m sitting on the deck in the back yard, and I can hardly think because of those things.
  4. The weather must follow the school calendar. On the very day that school started, the temperature went from don’t-even-look-outside-for-fear-of-radiation-burns to get-back-in-here-and-get-a-jacket. How does it know?!
  5. The feel of the world changes in fall. How strange is that? I was in the car with Alex yesterday around 7 pm and said, “Man! It even looks different now that school started.” The light is different–golden or something. The clouds and sky looked so crisp. How is it that I forget this during other seasons and only remember it when it hits again?
  6. I’m really tired. Overloaded with new routine, getting kids out in the morning and being home on time, an influx of new students around me all day, many of them needing something from my office, and less sleep than normal come together to make Tired Laura.
  7. I guess I break things when I’m tired nowadays. I mean, this hasn’t been a thing for me in the past, but I think I’ve taken up a new hobby of breaking pottery. Yesterday I dropped my fave coffee mug in the morning and broke the handle off, and last night I dropped a coffee mug out of the cabinet. It fell onto a plate on the counter below, and both of them broke.

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My poor Willa Cather mug

Tired Laura probably should end this overgrown Facebook status-y blog post and go make some dinner. Or, you know, break some stuff.

The Choice

cropped-1918-2.jpgIf you’re on social media at all, I’m sure you’re up to your eyeballs in opinions: opinions about racial issues, opinions about abortion, opinions about Donald Trump. I scroll through my newsfeeds and see all sorts of opinions. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, attended a conservative Christian church as a child, and I work in a pretty conservative Christian environment. Among all of the opinions I hear and read on a daily basis, one theme winds itself around through most of them: many American Christians today claim that the government and cultural agents are slowly but surely eroding their freedom of religion.

I hear people say they think they’ll have to compromise their convictions because of laws regarding things like gay marriage and abortion. I hear them wishing that life would go back to the way it was when Christians were the majority and, even when people did not adhere to the Christian faith, they usually outwardly appeared to go along with it. The people I hear talking about this want America to be “a Christian nation again.”

US flagThe Challenge We Face

My husband said something profound about this topic this week. I knew when I married him he was super-smart, smarter than I can dream of being. But sometimes he says something that makes so much sense that I think to myself, “Man! Why didn’t I think of that?!” Then I remember: it’s because he’s super-smart.

We were driving down the street on our way to the library, where super-smarties like him go, and he said, “I think that American Christians are facing a huge challenge, and it’s not what we think it is.” He went on to explain himself by saying that Christians in America are used to feeling like America is a Christian nation. We’ve mixed Christianity and patriotism so well that we can’t tell the difference between what is Christian and what is American. We so badly want the government to uphold traditional Christian values that when the government acts like a secular force and not a Christian element we feel betrayed and angry. The challenge facing Christians in America in the coming years isn’t winning a culture war or standing up for our faith or our freedom.

The challenge facing American Christians is deciding whether to follow American patriotism or Jesus’ teachings. When the American government diverges from biblical teaching, what do we do? Do we rail against the government and demand that it return to biblical principles? That’s what we’ve been doing for the last few decades. We’ve been fighting this “culture war,” arguing and debating until we’re blue in the face, and yet we haven’t turned the tide of secularism in America. We seem to feel that if the American government doesn’t uphold Christian values, those values will no longer continue to exist. However, the government has never been called upon to promote Christian values. From what I read in the New Testament, I see Jesus tells us many times that as believers we will live in a way that is not culturally popular. This is not something to fear but something to expect. Despite the fact that throughout history much of the world has not been Christian, Christianity has continued to thrive.

According to Andrew, “We are facing a series of tests that cause us to choose between a political position and something that actually is a Christian value. For example, it’s legitimate to think that a country has to have reasonable control over its borders and its immigration policy, but when that turns into a blanket rejection of immigrants and we say racist and hateful things about a group of people, we’re choosing nationalism over Christian values. What is revealed in that situation is that our primary allegiance is to our country more than it is to the principles of Christ.”

cross and flagLove Your Enemies

In a political debate, we often express contempt for people who do not agree with us, although they are made in the image of God. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders, that God would guide them and bless them. Instead we call down curses on our leaders, criticizing them in ways we would never criticize someone for whom we were praying a blessing. When we do this we show that our political party or our nationalism is where our allegiance really lies.

There are Christian principles on each side of any issue. If we see a person on the opposite side of an issue as an enemy, as Christians we should react the way that Jesus told us to and love that enemy. When we gossip about him, turn others against him, work to divide ourselves from him, we show no evidence of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

An Example

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. The issue of abortion has taken center stage in the last few weeks. As a Christian, I am convinced that abortion is morally wrong. However, I know Christians who campaign fervently against abortion but refuse to accept and help young unwed mothers because they obviously sinned by having sex outside of marriage. These same Christians campaign just as passionately against government assistance, claiming that the people who need it should “just go out and work like the rest of us.” Now, tell me how a young mother who chooses to keep her baby instead of aborting it is supposed to afford to raise that child on her own. My husband and I have eight college degrees between us and two incomes, and we still need financial help from our parents from time to time just to make ends meet for us and our three children. What is the Christian response to abortion laws and welfare laws then? Can we just sit back and spew rhetoric about the precious life of a child while at the same time refuse to support that life once it has entered the world?

Christians today live at a crucial moment in history. We typically hear that statement followed by a stand-up-for-your-faith-by-fighting-against-the-culture kind of statement, but, just as Andrew said, that’s not really the crux of the decision. God is presenting us with a choice these days. Will we as Christian people choose nationalism and patriotism or will we follow his directives and choose Christian values?