Mercy in the Darkness

What does mercy look like when the person who did the hurting doesn’t acknowledge it? Doesn’t remember? Maybe chooses not to remember? What if knowing that he was hurt too isn’t enough?

See, every year about this time, I feel a contradiction. The weather gets cooler even in Texas (eventually) and the leaves change color.  The pumpkins start showing up among the produce. And I love all that. But it’s also the time of year when ragweed grows. And my body reacts to its harmless pollen as if it is attacking me. As if it can hurt me. My head aches, my eyes water, and I blow my nose until it’s chapped. I try to laugh it off. Try to convince everyone that I’m actually not a carrier for the plague as I sneeze and reach for another tissue.

And I’ve started to wonder if there’s more to it. Is my body remembering old wounds? Times when something that seemed innocuous suddenly wasn’t? Is that even possible?

I don’t know. But now more than ever, I know that the body isn’t disconnected from the soul, from the spirit.

And either way, I’m trying to keep breathing. To have the courage to feel what I’m feeling and remember what I’m remembering. Which is stuff that’s devastating and that still has tentacles that touch today. Stuff that’s easier to put in a closed drawer and leave there.

Somehow, being honest about what happened when I was too young to know how to speak up for myself helps mercy matter. It doesn’t make it easier–I don’t think it ever gets easy. But it makes it more real. It makes it a battle worth fighting again and again. Not because it feels like justice. The part of me that wants retribution is still there. But there’s something underneath. Something truer. Something sacred. Something pure. I think it’s grace.

Postscript.

I was sitting in my living room gazing at my screen one Sunday evening after liturgy last fall. I hit save and considered whether to keep writing or call it a night. It was getting late and I was tired after a long day. Then the doorbell rang. After ten o’clock. Which was a little weird. My heart beat faster as I pushed my barking dogs aside and looked out the front door. A young man was bending to lay down on the porch, muttering something I couldn’t make out. 

Kyle left for the airport hours before so I was alone. With obviously empty houses on either side of mine.

My mind assured me that he was most likely harmless. Just someone drunk or high or confused. I pondered what to do as he moved to sit in one of the chairs on the porch, ringing the door bell again, still mumbling. Who was he talking to? Probably himself. But were there others out of sight in the shadows? If another person were home with me or if I could text my old neighbor Lobo to come over and see what was up, I’d have asked him if he was lost or needed bus fare. But as it was, it seemed better to let the police talk to him; make sure he wasn’t a danger to anyone including himself or me. So I dialed, heart pounding. As I spoke to the dispatcher, he rang the bell again and again. And again. The woman heard through the line. “Is that him ringing again?” It was. At this point, I figured, it should be obvious that if people were home, they were choosing not to open the door. What was his deal?

Finally, the police came. Made him take a sobriety test. And, a very long while later, they drove away without a word to me. It was after midnight by this point. I couldn’t tell if they’d taken my visitor or not and when I called the police to check, no one knew. So was he down the street? Would he be coming back? They’d ask one of the officers to call and let me know. I tried to sleep. And I wondered…

Coincidence? Maybe. But sometimes, it seems, the darkness talks back.

And yet. And yet. I don’t believe the shadows win. There is another Voice that speaks. Another invitation remains to mercy that is extravagant.

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…” 2 Peter 1:19

starry night

{photo credit}

Advertisements

Terrible Beautiful Things

Last night I dreamed of spiders.

I was in this odd space. It was a neighborhood that was also a sort of camp or community. Everyone had chosen to live there because they worshipped at the same church. They’d gather in this community hall for dinners together in front of a huge stone fireplace. And I know what you’re thinking. But it totally wasn’t a cult. I think.

I was visiting a friend who had a lot of kids. I headed toward the back door as I arrived. And as I walked I kept seeing these spiders. They beautiful actually. They looked like Mexican sugar skulls. They were black and velvety with pink and blue and acid green markings like icing.

My friend’s kids were playing in the courtyard and they were surrounded by webs. They were on gutters and eaves and doorposts. But the kids didn’t seem to notice them.

I asked my friend about them. Yes, they’d bite but they couldn’t kill you. It’s not that big a deal, really. If one attaches, you just tap it and it’ll drop off. You’ll lose some fluids (something clear, not even blood). Nothing to worry about. Oh, just don’t pull at them or they’ll rip off some skin, too.

I went to the room where I was staying. In the dream, I kept imagining spiders biting me. It felt like I was covered in them. And it definitely didn’t seem like no big deal. It seemed like it would hurt more than my friend was willing to admit.

Something terrifying and painful was being made normal, even trivial. They were just living with the spiders when they should been fighting them. How could they just let their kids get bitten all the time? Why were they content to be surrounded by these horrible things just because they weren’t deadly?

In my dream, I was a little troubled by this but nothing like I would be in real life. Even though I had this vague sense there was a problem, it was like everything was a little hazy. Like I (and everyone else) was a little drugged or something.

Lots of other things happened. An old woman dressed in pink came to see me for spiritual direction. She was lovely. That part was wonderful. It was a meandering kind of dream.

And then I woke up. And I couldn’t stop thinking about those terrible beautiful sugar skull spiders.

Oh, God. There have been so many spiders in my life. Terrible things that don’t look so horrifying on the surface. I have been lulled by darkness into not trusting my instincts. The evil and brokenness and pain have been real. There have been horrible things wearing terrible beautiful masks. And I’m scarred by them. And too many people in my life have told me–with words or with silence–to live with it. To call it small or unimportant.

I need Your help to call things by their true names. I need Your help to know when to fight and when to run. I need Your forgiveness for the times that I’ve been the one telling someone it’s no big deal. How could I? I’m so so sorry.

So, my prayer? It’s that You will help me and heal me. That You’ll love me and not ever leave me. That You’ll fight for me.

And please let me be a healer, too. Please show me how to fight for people in a way that sets them free.

Amen.

sunnybuick_rose_sugar_skull

{photo cred}

Time To Fly

I wrote this months ago but waited to post until Torey and Craig’s first anniversary…

I believe in serendipity, signs, synchronicity, providence. That’s why when I glanced out the kitchen window to see a bird’s nest on the grass the day before my daughter’s wedding, it didn’t seem like a coincidence to me. I walked outside to pick it up from where it had blown down, no longer needed. And I can see it from where I’m sitting now, a cozy and intricately made home sitting under a glass dome on a shelf. (Cheesy metaphor? Absolutely. But if you think parenthood doesn’t entail a significant amount of cheesiness, you haven’t been paying attention. I say embrace it.)

That mama bird (and probably daddy, too) gathered branches and leaves to make a home that was beautiful and safe. They made sure the eggs stayed warm and then kept the babies fed until they were old enough to take care of themselves. They taught them to fly and might have even pushed them out if they were scared. It was for the best. They needed to know what they could do.

Isn’t that exactly what being a parent is all about? It’s making a safe place as long as it’s needed and then, when the time is right, setting them free to fly. Why stay huddled among the sticks and dead leaves if the sky is your home?

That’s where I was on that sunny afternoon a year ago. Staring at a nest and knowing it was time to let my beautiful baby girl go and become a family with someone else. And I was hoping against hope that I was ready. That her dad was ready. Most of all, that she was ready.  Because it was time.

First it was finishing high school. Then it had been moving her into a series of dorm rooms and apartments, watching her become her own person, surrounded with friends and a life that suited her. Before I could blink, it was time for her to put on a cap and gown and become a college graduate. But this was different. Even her name was going to change.

I’ll always be her mother, of course. I’ll be there for her and she’ll never, ever stop being my daughter. Yet, as I watched her radiant face gaze up into Craig’s during the ceremony the next day, I knew this was an end of one thing even as it was the beginning of another. And I remembered all those years ago when I discovered I was expecting her. Something fundamental changed in me that day. In an instant, I knew that I’d give everything I had to help her become the woman she was meant to be.

I watched Torey and Craig laugh through the ceremony for pure joy with a deep peace of my own, knowing that she is more than I could have ever hoped. She is strong, confident, beautiful, and humble. She has an independent mind and a passionate heart. She knows what she believes but is willing to listen. She’s a wonderful friend and she loves to laugh.

Please don’t misunderstand me–God and Torey get all the credit for the incredible person she is. But Kyle and I did our best to make a safe place for her to become the best version of herself. We made lots of mistakes but we got some things right, too. I think she always knew she was safe and loved. That her life was infinitely valuable to us and that she’d never been unwanted for a single instant of her life.

And while it’s hard to imagine any man could ever be good enough for my precious girl, Craig is on the right track. He’s smart and a hard worker and a good friend. He’s humble and teachable and fun and kind. He’s a little bit crazy which will serve him well with my dynamic girl–his girl now. Best of all, he treasures her like I do. He sees how special she is. He gets her.

They still have a lot to learn about life and they’ll learn it together. Kyle and I, Earl and Denise, and other mentors are available for advice but they’re calling the shots. It’s okay—they were ready.

{Happy 1st Anniversary, Torey and Craig. I love you both big as a road.}

Image

Image

Torey+CraigWeddNegs-00492

Torey+CraigWeddNegs-01019

Torey+CraigWeddNegs-01020

Torey+CraigWeddNegs-01080

Guess What Didn’t Lead to a Perfect Life?

My wonderful daughter Torey wrote a guest post continuing the dialogue about modesty and sexuality. She is one smart woman and I’d be glad to be a part of her life even if we weren’t related. Check it out::

My life isn’t perfect because I didn’t have sex before marriage. Seems like a straightforward statement. One that most of us would proclaim we believe. However, many of us who grew up in evangelical churches might find ourselves counting purity before marriage as the only key to success. As look around to my peers, mentors, and the church as whole, I find this message running rampant through Christian culture and ideology. The fact that we don’t seem to recognize it is even more disconcerting. As someone who has experienced the pain that comes out of operating under this ideology, I owe it to myself and to you to dispel it.

Recently, my mom wrote an amazing piece on modern-day modesty in the Christian church and in it she discussed my experiences in a 21st century church youth group {Aw, thanks, Torey. Here’s that essay if you want to check it out.}. She described a culture and message that idealized sexual purity and “covering up” the parts of us only meant for our spouse. After consistently hearing this message, it became part of my theology without me realizing. My actions and daily thoughts began to form around this perceived truth. With my rebellious tendency towards rules I perceive as arbitrary (don’t get me started on the tax code), I started to toe the line instead of letting my actions being informed by the spirit of what Jesus wanted when he commanded us to be pure.  Even though I spent my high school career in a uniform, I rolled up my pleated khaki skirt as soon as I got to school to make it shorter. And even though I never had sex, I went farther with high school boyfriends than I wish.  That is my sin and mine alone. However, I’ve wondered if part of that rebellion was against the model Christian church’s culture which idealized purity.

As I went to college and met the man who is now my husband, I wanted to do things differently. Although we weren’t perfect, we waited. I remember thinking how much better off we would have it than friends who hadn’t waited to have sex or who had gotten closer to the line than we had.  We would enter our wedding night as God intended, and were therefore destined for marital bliss.

Those of you who are married know just how wrong I was. After the honeymoon, Craig and I had to face the harsh reality that our lives and our marriage we not perfect simply because of something we withheld from each other before it started. Don’t get me wrong–sex is awesome. It’s fulfilling and exciting.  But it isn’t even close to the majority of what our marriage is based on.

Marriage is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It requires a deep understanding of what the other’s needs are and fulfilling them to the best of your ability. Even though we have only been married for a year, I love Craig more every day. The sweet times we spend together in the evenings talking about our days over a glass of wine (or beer for my man) are the best part.  He consistently amazes me by the way he demonstrates Christ’s love in the way he serves me whether it be turning on Gilmore Girls for me to help me get through my most hated time of day (morning) or leaving me a sweet note in my purse. To me, those little acts of service and love are what have made our marriage great. I love Jesus more because of my marriage to him.  Craig is my partner and best friend and I am abundantly blessed.

Despite that I have been surprised by how normal life after marriage is. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and thus far, besides knowing Jesus, it is the best part of my life. My point is that the troubles and trials of the world do not go away because you enter marriage sexually pure. Jobs still sometimes suck, relationships are still hard, and money’s still tight.

I guess I’m saying all this to remind you that sexual purity and modesty cannot save or sanctify you. Only Jesus can. His grace is sufficient to cover a multitude of sins. He wants the best for you and remaining pure IS God’s best for you. It protects you from a world of hurt and pain that you weren’t meant to experience. Sex within a committed marital relationship is unparalleled.  But for those of you that struggle with purity or modesty, know that you aren’t alone. And that your sin isn’t worse than any other. You are not doomed to a failed marriage if you have made sexual mistakes before. Marriage and your walk with God are dependent on much more than what you have or have not done in the past. Fall into his abundant grace—knowing that it alone can save you. Speaking from experience, that is the most freeing feeling. I’ll say it again. My life isn’t perfect because I didn’t have sex before marriage.

Image

The Parisian Spirit

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I went to Paris expecting beautiful art, food, and history.  Of course, I wasn’t disappointed; Paris is a magical city and I love it.  I hope my visit was the first of many.

What I didn’t expect was a spiritual experience.  Everything I’ve read and heard prepared me for churches and cathedrals that were nothing more than museums. I know that statistically speaking Europe is more post-Christian than the US.  But many of the churches Jenny and I entered were far more than beautiful monuments to the past.  They may have been full of dead men’s bones (literally) but there was no denying the life there.

The architecture of a cathedral does its work well.  Entering from the bright and noisy streets, the churches are dark and cool and quiet. The church leaders clearly take maintaining a sense of separateness seriously even when they sometimes resort to having attendants whisper ‘Shhhh!’ like grumpy librarians.  But I got the feeling it’s because they know their churches are more than landmarks to check off from a travel guide.  The good news is that the reminders turn out to be mostly superfluous; the experience of entering such ancient places of worship naturally evoked a sense of reverence from most.

Everything seems to whisper, ‘holy’ as you enter.  The stained glass transforms sunlight into breathtaking colors and patterns.  The soaring walls invite your gaze up.  The metaphor is simple and it works—thoughts that were focused on tired feet or the next delicious meal or problems from home seem to turn heavenward of their own accord.  The idea of generations of worshippers over countless centuries combined with a sense of God’s Spirit brought me to tears in nearly every church we entered.  Talk about a cloud of witnesses.  I felt like I could almost touch them.

And the people weren’t simply there to either curate/maintain or tour a historical site.  In every single church, we encountered genuine worshippers.  They had to tune out picture snapping tourists like me.  Sadly, they sometimes had to navigate around keepsake vending machines that pressed pennies into likenesses of the church (who decided those were ok?!).  And at the Sacre Coeur, they had to run the gauntlet of tourist shops, street performers, overflowing trash cans, and guys aggressively trying to sell woven bracelets or bottles of Heineken.  But the sacred somehow peacefully lived among the daily.

On Palm Sunday, the three men who entered the Eglise Saint Germain des Prés (the oldest church in Paris) with me held their branches and knelt in worship as they passed the threshold.  There was something really right about the ceremony of it.  It made me feel kind of homesick.  I loved that for the rest of the day, I passed people in cafes or soaking up the sun parks whose bundle of branches signified they’d been to worship that morning.  In that same church, a very old woman—in her 80s I’d guess—sat praying before a statue of Jesus holding rosary beads for the entire time I was there.  I found myself wishing I could sit at her feet and soak up her wisdom.  If only I spoke French.  And in every church it was like this.  Visitors swirled around people who were there to pray or serve.  Behind glass enclosed meeting rooms, priests counseled parishioners—latticed confession booths gathered dust in the corners or had been removed.  Posters announced service and mission projects both locally and abroad.  And others encouraged locals to gather in community. Maybe things were different because we were there during the Lent season.  Whatever the reason, I had the sense I was connecting with something missing.

These were the last things I expected—signs of living, breathing places of worship.  And all in churches and cathedrals built by who knows how many people working together often over hundreds of years.  It was overwhelming.  Can you imagine giving the best of your life’s energy to create something you’d never enjoy?

I left Paris with a deep sense of thanksgiving for generations that gave more than I can imagine to preserve the faith for me and every worshipper I know.  I am glad God called them and I’m more convinced than ever that I want to learn from the faith practices of the past rather than reject them unexamined.  I think this experience was one more way God is underscoring the lesson in humility and teachability he’s been guiding me in.  It makes me blush to think that I actually believed I didn’t need anything much beyond my Bible and my own discernment to figure out how to live a life for God, live in community, and guide a church in ways that honored him.  How arrogant to think I didn’t have much to learn from those who had gone before me.  That isn’t Christian theology but it is very American thinking.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I want to undo the reformation (at least not most of it).  But I am left more committed than ever to learn as much as I can from those who went before me.  And I know that’s a good thing.

Check out an iphone video of some beautiful church music here.

[PS I have lots more to tell you about Paris.  Stuff like a champagne tour led by a guy named Trong, dancing in a WWII jazz club in a cave, jumping out of a metro car and traipsing through a dirty tunnel back to the station, and frites—lots and lots of frites.]

A Belated Goodbye

In early 2003, Kyle and I met with the leadership of a new church.  We talked with them about our mutual love for Jesus and convictions about what a local body of Christ should be.  Soon after that night, we were thrilled to begin pouring into The Austin Stone.  Kyle began serving as an elder, I was teaching, mentoring, and working on the website, and Torey was graciously filling the role of the only ‘youth’ in the church with as much of the requisite middle school awkwardness as she could manage.  We had a lot of fun especially in those crazy earliest days.

There are many things to love about The Stone.  The worship draws people to honor Christ.  The Word is passionately preached and a sincere desire to faithfully convey its teachings is evident.  People are being sent to proclaim the Gospel all over the world.  Others are reaching out to the city by mentoring, serving, and living among the needy.  We were honored to be a part of what God was doing during our time there and know His work continues in our absence.

All of us who were part of the foundation of The Stone wanted God to form a different kind of church through us.  We were committed to things like all believers being equipped and empowered to use their gifts, to being a church planting church, to having elders as shepherds rather than being staff led, and to living in community because we saw these things in the Scriptures.  We also valued plurality in leadership and shared servanthood among staff and laity, men and women, married and unmarried, young and old, seminary trained and self-taught.  We wanted God to build a church that looked more like a family. Over the years, we realized that while everyone agreed on these values, we had a very different vision of what the result should look like.  And we also saw some of those values drift and be replaced by other goals in the face of the very rapid growth that God allowed.  Some of this drift was necessary and helpful and some has been less so.

It is hard to believe it was two years ago that Kyle resigned from service on our family’s behalf.  It was a decision made with heavy hearts but with confidence and peace that it was the right thing to do.  But one thing that has always saddened me is that I didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye myself to the many people I loved and served alongside during our time at The Stone. I have had a few years now to think and pray and process while living through the season of storms God has allowed.  And while I have more peace and a little more understanding, that sadness remains.

And that’s why I’m writing–to extend a belated and heartfelt farewell.  Please know that my family and I loved you all as well as we could but certainly not as well as was possible.  Speaking for myself, I know I have a lot of growing left to do.  There are many things I would do differently if I could go back in time with more grace and maturity and truth.

I bless my brothers and sisters at the Austin Stone and pray that God will move in greater and deeper ways within you and among the Body of Christ at large in this city. I pray that we will all be able to echo Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians to one another, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel…” (Philippians 1:27).

With great love,
terra

Being In India

India is stark contrast. New Delhi is magical and peaceful and funny and deeply sad all at the same time. I loved it and I couldn’t wait to leave.

I’ve never seen anything like it but it was familiar.  My friend Robyn who spent several years as principal of a school in the Dominican Republic said it well: poverty looks the same wherever it is.  There are similar ingenious ways of making things work when you can’t buy something new.  There are similar smells where running water and garbage collection systems are rare extravagances.  Where electricity for things like refrigerating food is a luxury.

Ash from garbage fires covered every surface and left the air with a constant haze.  Standing outside one of the Good Samaritan campuses (Madanpur Khadar), there were two huge smoke stacks pumping more pollution into the air every day.  We learned near the end of the week it was smoke from a gas factory.  Most floors are tile for the very practical purpose of allowing the constantly accumulating dust and dirt to be more easily swept clean.  There were stray dogs with mournful eyes and beggars with blank ones everywhere.

And yet India is a wonderful place.  The color and life are hauntingly beautiful–the flowers and fabrics are gorgeous and the food is spicy and interesting and delicious.  The people are lovely.  Most have honey colored skin, dark eyes, and glossy hair.  I love their manner of greeting with its small bow and hands clasped in prayer.  I love the meaning behind Namaste—the divine in me honors the divine in you.  I love the respect of the other and the hint of understanding that we are all made in God’s image contained in that simple word.  Such a great sentiment, isn’t it?  What if, instead of a curt ‘hey,’ we westerners had such a ubiquitous way of remembering every single person we encounter is a precious and eternal being?  Of course, Indians don’t seem to have an easier time actually living out that understanding than we do.

It is heartbreakingly understandable that some are mistrustful or angered at the sight of Westerners like me parading through their poor communities.  I wish I could tell them in perfect Hindi, “It’s ok.  We’re not like the rest.”  And I hope to God it’s true.  I hope we are not there—I hope I am not there—to do ‘poverty tourism’ or put a spiritual or philanthropic stamp on a narcissistic desire to see new places and feel better about our own lives.

It was such a joy to be serving with a part of the Body of Christ again after being disconnected for so long.  I had the chance to pray with Laura and others over a woman oppressed by a demon.  Later that week, she found us to tell us she’d eaten and slept well for the first time in ages.  I got to tell a little of my story to a group of staff at the school as they sat neatly separated by gender.  At the invitation of the school’s founder, I got to tell students and parents (separately) about the importance of waiting until they have finished growing and completed their education to get married and begin having children.  I got to tell them about how daughters are just as valuable as sons.  I got to tell parents about how important it is to talk with their kids about sex and intimacy and marriage.  If you know me I hope you’re smiling.  I was actually asked to talk with them about these things by people who had no idea how passionate I am about health and wholeness in these areas.  God is generous.  Best of all, I got to see others use their gifts and talents and skills.  There is such beauty in watching people show love and compassion in the unique ways they are meant to do.

I am unspeakably grateful I got to be there.  I am glad to see the hope and future being offered to kids like Asha and Nikhil and Ashish through Auntie’s legacy.  It was a joy to witness and I look forward to doing my part to see it continue.  In the meantime, I hope to keep learning the lessons India and the people of the Good Samaritan School have to offer me.

ImageImageImage