God of the City

IMG_6254Last week our car had its front window shot out (yes, as in, with a gun) while parked in the street in front of our house. At least 10 other neighbors had their cars hit as well and we had to call the police and fill out police reports and we were all late for our morning commitments.

No houses or people were hit, so that’s good. And just four hours and fifty dollars later, we had a new window put in.

It’s the city. These things happen.

 

What is God’s Country?

I grew up in rural west Michigan and figured I had no choice but to live in a rural setting forever. Afterall, everyone called it “God’s country” and I certainly didn’t want to live anywhere God wasn’t.

A thousand twists and turns later and Paul and I find ourselves living in the heart of Grand Rapids. Not the worst neighborhood of our city, but (clearly) not the best either.

I realize that if one has the resources to choose where they live, debating over which locale is best (city, suburbs, country) is completely arbitrary because it’s purely personal preference. We didn’t have to move to the city. We could have stayed in the burbs and we could have stayed at our “big dream house” that we had built in the country. We chose city life.

And now, we have found a spiritual-ness to city life that proves God dwells powerfully here, too.

 

10 Ways We See God in the City:

1 – In the city, we have met people from all kinds of different race, religion, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds from our own. Whenever I hear someone (usually caucasian) ranting about issues/problems with blacks, gays, Muslims, the poor, immigrants, pro-choice, pro-life, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, etc. I will ask them, “Do you know any? Like, do you HANG OUT with anyone from (that particular people group)?” If they reply “Well, not exactly”, I won’t listen any further. If we do not know people who are different from us, we do not have the right to talk about what “they” are like, what “they” do or think or feel. When we made close friends with many Muslims in Morocco, our entire view shifted from what we previously thought or believed about Islam. It is imperative to truly KNOW the “other” before commenting (or worse, ranting) about them and their perceived impact on your own existence. I believe we’re extremely misguided to derive our opinions from Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow.

 

2 – In the city, we drive down bumpy, neglected roads as we take in broken street lights, graffiti, and panhandlers. These serve as a constant reminder that the world is not a perfect place and no matter how hard we strive to curate perfection in our lives (whether by beautifully perfect homes, perfectly edited Instagram feeds, perfectly manicured lawns, etc. ) the truth is, PERFECTION is for heaven and this world is broken. Most of the world suffers unspeakable pain, hurt, loss and brokenness and we MUST NOT forget that truth. For me, I need the daily reminder the city offers.

 

3 – In the city, we see people. People are seen out walking, hanging out at bus stops or street corners, or just visiting one another on their front porches. People in the city don’t drive their cars into their houses (as once described to me by a little Moroccan boy who couldn’t fathom the phenomenon of “garages”), but instead, we park on the street and SEE one another with every coming and going. When Paul and I were younger we sought to escape others, now we seek them and the city just works better for that.

 

4 – We hear church bells in the city.

 

5 – I can hear my neighbors conversations if both our homes have the windows open. Living in the city means you watch your language more carefully. It’s like having a built-in accountability partner.

 

6 – We have nuns playing soccer with the students across the street during Catholic-school recess. I don’t care who you are – if you’re having a bad day, watching nuns play soccer with little kids will just make you happy. It’s like having Julie Andrews out your front window.

 

7 – We may get our cars shot at once and awhile, but you know what? It brought us all out onto the street that morning and we learned the names of a few neighbors we hadn’t met and we all banded together with common loss and concern and empathy. It’s through the hardships that we truly bond with one another. I don’t believe in seeking hardships, but I also don’t think cocooning ourselves in an attempt to avoid life’s hardships is the life God desires for us either.

 

8 – Living amongst those from a lower socio-economic status serves as a daily reminder to not become lovers of money. It’s so dang easy for us to believe we need more, more, more. But when I am surrounded by those who have less, I have to really wrestle with my spending habits and discern if I really need those new throw pillows more than Julie down the street needs diapers for her children.

 

9 – Living in the city you do not need to waste your money on marijuana. If the situation calls for it, you can just stroll over to the park and inhale a big enough whiff to get a little buzz for free.

 

10 – In the city, you can get REAL tacos from little hole-in-the-wall taco stands that serve REAL corn-flour tortilla shells. You’ll never be able to eat a flour tortilla shell again (Gross. Just gross.)

 

But is it SAFE?

 

I don’t particularly care for people driving down my street shooting at our cars (or shooting at anything, for that matter), but I LOVE what Mrs. Beaver said to Lucy in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when Lucy asked if Aslan was safe:

 

She said, “Of course He isn’t safe, child, but He is good.”

 

 

 

 

A One Take Wonder

imagesMy last birthday was a total bust. My gift was fever, shakes, pukes, body aches and diarrhea at 30,000 feet in the air on a transatlantic flight from hell. Barfing into an airplane toilet takes “gross” to a whole new level…

The next three days were a blur where reality and dreams blended like a thick cloud hovering over my sweaty sheets. I felt incredibly sorry for myself and my poor family could do nothing right and it didn’t seem like they were doing enough to save my life (which, to me, was clearly hanging in the balance…)

My sweet daughter came up with a brilliant idea to try and make amends: she bought our family tickets to a Ben Rector concert hoping to redeem the birthday that had gone down the toilet (pun intended).

After waiting in line for two hours at the concert venue, we were finally able to race to our “spots” on the floor and landed a coveted position in the “second row” (if there IS such a thing as rows in a mosh-pit). This was a standing-up kind of concert where old people like me should have known better and paid the extra hundred bucks for a seat. But I wanted to be cool like my daughters and all the other millennials so I insisted I’d have no problem standing up for 7 hours straight and wouldn’t be bothered in the least to have multiple 20-year old drunk guys rubbing up against me.

Rather than bury my head in my phone while we waited (like the millennials), I chose to people watch. I got an interesting little life lesson from the two girls in front of us. After all, we were so close I could have licked their necks if I’d wanted to. So you can’t really call it eavesdropping, I just wasn’t closing my ears.

The girls began their wait by taking a selfie. I get it. That’s what we all do in these GRAND situations – we let the world know how GRAND our life is. We did it, too. Of course I wanted all my middle-aged friends to see how cool I was – at a Ben Rector concert – standing-freakin’-up –surrounded by drunk millennials!!!
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But the two girls encroaching my personal space didn’t take just ONE selfie, they took at least 50. No joke. They took one from every angle, then switched p, then fixed their hair and took some more, then took their cool flannel shirts off and tied them around their waists and took some more.

 

What happened next is the part I’ll never forget: the editing.

 

With their new phones and latest apps, they whitened their teeth, trimmed their inner-thighs and lightened their hair. They brightened the yellow in their shirts and softened the grey. They smoothed down the fly-aways in their hair and made their skin look silky. One said their teeth looked unnaturally white, so they dialed that back a little. Then they switched it back again. On and on and on this went – perfecting perfection. Believe me – I had nothing else to do but watch the two of them as I waited for my man, Ben.

And it all made me long for the days when we put ACTUAL FILM in our cameras and simply took ONE PICTURE in a grand situation and then prayed that when we brought the film to the local Walgreens to be developed we wouldn’t all have our heads cut off or red-devil eyes.

I think by now everyone knows that social media can’t be trusted. It’s actually quite a lie, isn’t it? The carefully curated images and the subtly blissful-nuanced stories we share on social media – simply because we can edit – are not the true us. When we only post a picture that took us 50 tries to get a “good one” and only post the content that makes us look thin, rich, fun, smart, courageous, exploring, and ridiculously busy, then we’re not sharing the REAL us.

 

You know it. I know it.

 

But we all keep doing it anyway. It’s a serious cultural problem and it’s filling up my psych hospital with all kinds of people feeling “less-than” and suicidal.

And I don’t think anyone really knows what to do about it.

If an old school film-camera took a snap-shot of our lives I’m betting it would look more like a morning fight with the spouse over the credit card bill, a child getting a detention for forgetting her French horn for the twelfth time, sitting with a loved one receiving chemo at the cancer center, a broken washing machine during a season with three kids in sports, a friend who’s drifting away, family feuds over where your mother with dementia should live, or burning dinner for the fifth night in a row.

So why don’t we see or hear more of these stories?

When we edit every part of our lives to be lovely and perfect – even if it is primarily to impress others – it feels like real life is no longer allowed to exist. Those of us stuck in “real life” soon feel like failures.

I’m not suggesting bearing our souls on social media is going to fix this, but I do believe that more often than not, it IS okay to share your burdens with a few TRUSTED souls. Not only is it okay, I believe it’s necessary. Maybe we NEED to hear that our kids aren’t the only ones who are bullied. Maybe I NEED to see your chunky inner thighs. Maybe you NEED to see that I burn dinner almost every night.

Paul and I once left a church we loved dearly because it felt like we were the only ones in the whole congregation who messed up the gift of sex. We felt so isolated in our pain. We had confessed and been forgiven by both God and each other, but we never dared to share our story at church – it just seemed like no one there could have possibly understood. They all seemed so perfect. No one ever talked about issues or problems at that church, so our (wrong) assumption was they didn’t have any.

Maybe, as much as anything, we need to feel safe to share when we’ve screwed up. Maybe, if we knew our messes would be met with the knowing nod of our friends and neighbors saying to us, “Yes, my dear, I hear you and I see you. And just like God, I forgive you, too. Let it go and let me share with you my own broken story, my dear…” maybe then we’d be more likely to share.

 

Because in real life, you don’t get to edit.

In real life, you only get one take.

Six Critical Life Lessons Learned from a Hacker

I was furiously typing away – hoping to complete another chapter of my book in the two hours I’d managed to wrangle free. Suddenly, a warning popped up on my screen, “CAUTION! You have a virus attacking your computer! Stop immediately and call Apple: 555-5555” (the title of this blog should let you know why I’m not sharing the actual number…)

I’ve heard of these scams. I wasn’t born yesterday or over fifty years ago (okay – a tiny white lie with that one…). But I did know enough to be skeptical. I tried to exit out of the pop-up. No luck – it wouldn’t close. I tried to close all my windows and the Apple wheel of death appeared refusing to budge. So I decided to just shut my computer down (my go-to solution for techy issues). But the computer had totally froze and when I hit the off key it started screaming at me – an unearthly, loud and high-pitched alarm. I frantically tried to stop it by pushing every key on the keypad. Nothing. Totally frozen keyboard and a shrieking computer that hurt my ears.

It felt like satan himself was communicating to me from my computer. (Hmmm…. Now there’s a thought!)

I asked my daughter to quickly access her own device and ask Google if this was a legitimate warning and if I should call the “Rescue” number flashing across my screen. Google isn’t so smart after all: the first thing to appear in her search was an affirmative – Yes, indeed, sometimes Apple will alert you to viruses that are attacking in real time.

So I hurriedly called the number and talked to Rashid. (I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking… the fact that Rashid could barely speak English should have, possibly, been my first clue….) But at first, Rashid was super sweet and helpful. He calmly walked me through the steps necessary to stop the screaming alarm. Then he explained a few more steps that would allow him to interface with my computer, which, he said, was necessary to diagnose the problem. I watched, helplessly, as he navigated the cursor on my screen and moved quickly in and out of windows and in and out of my settings. Then he confirmed my computer had, indeed, been attacked by a wicked virus. The very worst, he said. He pulled up graphs on my screen depicting the damage and just how much of my data had been infiltrated. He said to remove all the infectious material would take about 24 hours and all I had to do was pay $79 and he would fix the whole darn thing.

What a doll, that Rachid.

I may look old and stupid, but I tell you what, once in a while, when the thing is wretchedly stinky, I’m able to smell a rat.

I hung up on Rachid as fast as you can say “India” and slammed my computer shut. I set it in the corner like a bad child and didn’t open it again for 24 hours. The truly honest and genius boy-child at my local computer store fixed everything the next morning in mere minutes. He felt pity for such an old, helpless lady like me to be taken so badly by a hacker that he didn’t even charge me for his services.

Once I calmed down from the debacle, I realized I was actually thankful for everything I learned from Rachid:

1.  We are not in control of squat. As I watched Rachid guiding my cursor all over the screen and clicking away to “convince” me of my desperate need of his services, I felt incredibly helpless. I didn’t know if I should trust him or not – all I knew is this: “I have no control anymore.” It reminded me of how often that is true in life. We want to believe we can control things – but when our child rebels and runs away from home, or our best friend betrays our trust, or we lose our job, or we get the “cancer” call, or we lay our parents down for their eternal rest, or we find out we have a stupid lung disease that’s robbing us of steady breathing and a long life – well, all those moments serve to remind us that we don’t control SQUAT. We are wasting our time and energy trying to control that which we were never meant to have reign over.

2.  Satan is real. A while ago a well-meaning friend told me I look for satan under every bush. She was suggesting that perhaps I give the enemy of our souls more credence than I should. I don’t know, maybe I do. Sometimes I think I just watched too many horror movies in junior high…

But what I know for sure is this: That old Liar roams to and fro looking for ways to steal our joy and wreck our faith in Christ – but the sooner we recognize his schemes the sooner we can put a stop to it! Don’t be afraid to ascribe evil to he who authors it!

3.  We never make good decisions when in the midst of a crisis. When we find ourselves in a crisis, we need to, if possible, BACK AWAY! Give the thing time to simmer down. We need to give ourselves some space to slow our breathing, gain composure, pray, and THEN process the crisis thoughtfully. Only then can we gingerly step forward into finding a solution.

4.  Real, authentic, caring help truly does exist in this world. Go seek it.

5.  Never think too highly of yourself. I was devastated thinking that while Rachid had access to my computer for those 24 hours he was probably reading and stealing all of my information on my computer. My wise, gentle hubby had to (carefully) remind me that I’m not THAT special. We don’t work for the government, we’re not made of millions, and we’re not famous – so what could a hacker really “steal” from my computer that would matter? A blog on how we renovated a crack house??? The little circular I wrote on how to deal with menopause??? The poem I wrote for my dying dad??? Did I really think some hacker from India would steal my Christian memoir book and somehow get publishers to do what I have been unable to do and publish my book under his pseudonym??? Rachid becomes Rachelle and suddenly he is the next Anne Lamott???

 I had to admit, Paul had a point…

6.  If you have nothing to hide, it doesn’t matter who looks at your stuff. Without a single incriminating photo, without essays bashing high-profile people, without massive wealth, and without anything to share except the gospel of Jesus Christ, I should have had NO FEAR of someone stealing my content. In fact, I should have HOPED they would!

My prayer for us today is to not fear the hacker – or anything or anyone set on destroying us. May we be a people unafraid or unashamed of someone looking at our computer content or our browsing history. May we recognize those who are bent on causing pain, hurt and chaos in our lives and STEP AWAY from them whenever possible. And may we not think so much of ourselves or our work that our computer carries more importance than it should.

And may we never forget that when a TRUE crisis arises (and they will, brothers and sisters, they ALWAYS do….) help is only a shout away:

“Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” Psalm 61:1-8

 

On Dying Slowly

IMG_4907.jpgOne of the lowest, crappiest things well-intentioned people say to you when they find out you have a terminal illness is this: “Well, you know, we’re all dying really.”

Of course we are. Nobody believes these bodies will last forever. But sometimes it just stinks to be me because someone gave me a TIME LINE. I feel like I have an expiration date written on my forehead of which healthy people know nothing about. When we’re healthy (I still remember those days fondly) we don’t really think about dying. In fact, we live as if we’re immortal. While disease free, I’m not sure it’s even possible to wrap our minds around the fact that someday IT will happen to ME…

At least I didn’t. I was living like I’d live forever. Eating shit. Wasting time. Worrying about stupid stuff. Having petty fights. Chasing things. Praying only when life got hard.

These were all things I was going to work on, “Someday”.

“Someday” came crashing down hard on me when “Someone” gave me that lifetime-timeline with an “approximate” end-date. Of course, no one knows EXACTLY when that end-date will be. But, more than likely, my life will be truncated dramatically by this stupid disease.

 

HOWEVER….

 

(In any story worth telling, there should always be a big HOWEVER, right?)

HOWEVER…. With only a few years since my diagnosis and the subsequent slowing down of my life, I’ve learned about a million new things that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

 

1) Dying slowly provides opportunities to do some life editing.

When people die suddenly (at least those who are past their prime) we humans like to console one another and say stupid stuff like: “Well, at least he didn’t have to suffer”, or “What a wonderful way to go –one moment on earth, the next moment with Jesus.”

I get why they say that stuff. Truth is, no one knows what to say to the dying or the grieving. We all just clamor for a few words and they always come out sounding stupid.

What I do know from my own experience is that when you find out your life may be cut short by an illness, but not immediately, you are left with a lot of time to think.

Some people, upon learning their days are numbered, might run out and get busy, busy, busy – doing all the things they’ve always wanted to do and seeing all the people they’ve ever known. Not me. I’ve SLOWED way down. I’m sleeping more (a holy activity, if you ask me), I’m praying more, watching nature more, sitting quietly on my porch and just thinking more, and doing LESS of the things that people generally ascribe importance to in their lives: work, entertainment, social engagements, etc.

Some days, every breath feels so incredibly holy that I just want to sit in silence and savor it. I want to thank God for every inhale and exhale and I don’t want to miss that opportunity by being busy. Dying has put God right in my face and being busy makes me feel like a shmuck because I can so easily ignore Him.

And so I think God gave me the opportunity to die slowly in order to ditch some baggage and edit my life down to a quieter, slower, better version of myself.

 

2) Dying slowly gave me new eyes to see things I’d previously overlook.

The tree outside my office window (the reclaimed crack-room) had small buds for leaves one day, and on the VERY NEXT DAY they grew an INCH! Yes, I measured!!! An INCH, my friends, in less than 24 hours!!! Do not tell me there is no God.

Squirrels can actually mate on the run. It’s true. I watch them do it on the regular from my little crack-room-office.

Whenever Yulisa is excited or has exciting news to share with me her right eyebrow pops up just a little higher than her left one. If her emotion is better described as happiness, then her eyebrows stay even.

There is a very disheveled man who meanders through the parking ramp of my downtown market every Tuesday and begs people for money. Only on Tuesdays. And he smells like homelessness and his shoes have holes in them. The first time I stopped, looked him in the eye, and told him I’d buy him some bread and apples, he looked directly back and me and said, “Thank-you. And Thank-you for noticing me.”

 

3) Dying slowly gives you time to say all the things you’ve meant to say, or should have said, or simply haven’t said well in the past, to all the people you love the most. 

I’ve got some work to do on this yet – but I’m glad I still have more time to do it. I’ve tried to reach out to all the people I knew I had hurt or at least fell short on my end of the relationship responsibilities and I’ve asked for forgiveness. I know there’s more out there, and I hope I can talk to them all eventually.

My sister Heidi had 13 months from diagnosis ‘til heaven – and she was very sick and battling fiercely the entire time. She was robbed of the chance to leave much of a written “love letter” for her family regarding their futures. I’m still mad at God for that. So I’m trying to write down all the things I’d most likely say to my kids when I’m in my 60’s, 70’s, 80’s – just in case I don’t see those decades. I also want to address my future sons-in-law and future grandchildren in case I never get to meet them.

 

 

I think if I spent a little more time on my porch quietly thinking I could expand this list to at least 25 things – because OF COURSE there are more than THREE things that dying slowly has taught me. But they say blogs should never be more than 1000 words…. Whoever “they” are must know that you, the reader, are losing interest right about now….

I’ll just say this: Dying sucks always. Dying immediately like my cousin Zac at 23 in a tragic car accident, or my friend’s father by heart attack, or the lady down the street who’s husband passed in his sleep leaving her with 10 kids – those situations suck WAY worse than mine. I have found some solace in dying slowly and I’m trying to make the most of it. 

Do not feel sorry for me. But instead, thank God for all the ways He uses evil in this world to draw others toward HIM!!! I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it possible that snow in April, stupid lung diseases, and other atrocities could be good for us?

IMG_3843.jpgWe lived in the most glorious, sunny, mountainous and palm-treed locations both times that we lived abroad. Aix-en-Provence, France and Casablanca, Morocco are two dreamy places to have once been called “home”.

While living abroad, we met people from all over the states, as well as from around the world. Then we all moved on and returned to our “homeland” which means we now have friends scattered around the globe.

Visiting some of our friends in Southern California for the first time changed everything for me and my “Best Places In the World to Live” list. To be honest, my first thought when I encountered the beauty of southern California was not that I wished to live there, but one of feeling sorry for my Californian friends. Let me explain:

To me, the south of France and Morocco were these magical, breathtakingly beautiful holy sites where God revealed Himself to me. I cried the first time I saw the French Alps, the Mediterranean Sea, the palm-tree lined streets of Casablanca, and the Sahara Desert (to be fair, I do cry a lot…) Every time I encountered new beauty my Michigan-eyes had never known, I was left speechless, breathless, and entered a holy state of worship for a God who could (and would) create such beauty. My Michigan-eyes had beheld a LOT of glorious things in our mitten state, but just nothing like mountains, ocean, desert, palm trees, oh – and that elusive SUNSHINE!!! (Today, on April 11, it snowed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Need I say more???)

So when on my inaugural trip to California I discovered identical beauty – mountains, ocean, desert, palm trees, sunshine (which can all be seen AT THE SAME TIME, for heavens sake!) – I realized that there was NO WAY my Californian friends could have felt the same depth, love, and appreciation that I did while we all lived in France and Morocco. There is no way that they woke up every day and said, “Lord have mercy! Another sunny day!” (as I did). There is no way they took endless pictures of palm trees (as I did). There is no way they walked the beaches every day and said, “God in heaven, help me to carry this moment with me forever – even into the polar vortex that is bound to hit in the middle of my future Michigan winters” (as I did).

I was CAPTIVATED by the weather and the landscape of those two countries – but only because I come from a backdrop of cold, snowy, and relatively flat Michigan. My California friends who also lived in France and Morocco with us must have greeted each new day with “Just another day in paradise.”

And that difference in our two experiences is such a CRUCIAL thing for us to remember when life gets hard, ugly, disappointing or blizzard-y.

A light shines brighter against a backdrop of darkness.

Comfort is only as comfortable to the degree of discomfort it relieves.

Joy is only as joyful as the sorrow from which it rescues.

Pain relief is only helpful to the degree of suffering it relieves.

God is only as good as to the depth of which we recognize our sin and need of a Savior.

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When we meet people who (seem) to come from a very “charmed” life – who basically seem to escape all suffering in this life (they are smart, rich, thin, never struggled with teenage acne, their kids all make good choices, no cancer, disease, or disorders, no bad hair days, and their dog never poops on the living room rug… Kind of like the sun is always shining in their lives. You know the type…) well, it is tempting for us to wish we were them. It seems like THAT would be the life we all want and should strive (pray) for.

But I wonder…. I wonder if we’d be missing out on some very important things God wants to show us if our lives were void of the pain, the messy, the heartache (the snow?) I wonder if there are actually parts of GOD we would not know if we never knew pain, suffering, hurt and loss.

Why are we given so many different names for God if we’d never need them? If we all pursued and achieved the “charmed” life without any pain and suffering, certainly there are attributes of God we would never know.

 

How can we know God as our DELIVERER if we’re never in a horrible place from which we need delivering?

How can we know God as our COMFORTER if we’ve never been uncomfortable?

How can we know God as our HEALER and GREAT PHYSICIAN if we’ve never known illness or disease or suffered emotional/spiritual brokenness?

How can we know God as our PROVIDER if we’ve never ached for provision?

How can we know our God, the PRINCE OF PEACE if we’ve spent our whole lives avoiding conflict, running from adversity, never challenged?

How can we know our God, the SANCTUARY, if we’ve never been in a place of needing protection?

How can we know God as a REFUGE FROM THE STORM if our lives are always “sunny”?

How can we know God as the BREATH OF LIFE if we never recognize our desperate need for Him in ALL things?

How can we know God as our SHEPHERD if we never see ourselves as lowly sheep?

 

I’m not in any way suggesting we shouldn’t live in California! Nor am I saying God gives suffering – I believe HE IS PERFECT and would never author pain, loss, and suffering. But I do believe, with all my heart, that through the suffering we discover a God we hadn’t previously known – and we come to experience Him and love Him more fully, deeper and truer.

And, after all, isn’t that what He wants most from us???