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.”

 

 

 

 

The Tale of Two Porches

The Impressive White Wrap-Around Porch:

I was thrilled when I was dreamed into life. Every component of the home knows there are two of us that carry the most weight and significance: the kitchen table – where our people gather to share, grow, and learn to love; and the front porch – where our people interact and love on the world around them.

Being an exceptionally beautiful, deep, wrap-around porch, I had some serious expectations from my family. Since they had four children, I envisioned them using me for playing games on summer evenings, for catching fireflies, for playing guitar and singing songs, and rocking their babies to sleep on my rocking chairs. But they never did any of those things.

The Mrs. decorated me for every season and for every holiday. I was a stunner. She spared no expense. I didn’t mind – but it’s not what I was made for. It was like being all dressed up with nowhere to go. With each passing year, I hoped the family would slow down enough to enjoy me. I hoped they would see how vital it is to be out in the front of the home, to wave to cars passing by, to chat with the neighbors, and to just sit for a spell and enjoy each other. But they never did.

My Mr. and Mrs. were busy people. Their cars flew up and down the driveway many, many times a day. I never understood what they were so busy chasing, but they were chasing something for sure. I thought the kids looked tired, but Mr. and Mrs. kept a fast pace nevertheless. I never knew where the kids were much of the time – but I often saw the Mr. and Mrs. working hard in their yard. They mowed that huge lawn every few days – hours and hours and hours of mowing. They were always vacuuming the pool, tending the landscaping, washing cars, waxing the boat, etc. The kids had four-wheelers, bikes, golf carts, motorcycles – basically anything they asked for. But to me, it just seemed like the more things they bought, the more they had to take care of and the less time they had to relax and enjoy me. I thought they’d eventually exhaust themselves and sit on my rockers for a moment with a cold lemonade or beer. But they never did.

My owners lived in my big white house for nine years and I don’t ever remember them enjoying my beautiful view and just relaxing with me. Not ever. Not once.

One day, an old college friend stopped by to see my Mr. and Mrs. Immediately upon exiting his car, he condescendingly said, “Wow, now that’s an impressive home!” The Mrs., completely oblivious to his patronizing tone, said, “It is pretty, isn’t it?”

Suddenly I knew. She didn’t get it. She never did. The Mrs. never wanted a big wrap-around porch like me for the vital role I’m supposed to play in the home. She wanted me because I’d be impressive. That, I suppose, I did fairly well, too.

 

* * * * * *

 

The Old Rickety Porch:

I am over a hundred years old and I am tired. I am sagging on one end and many of the brick pavers of my floor are missing. The siding around my front door is peeled back and flaps in the wind. But I do not care about any of that and I will not complain – because I am a porch and I am doing the thing I was created for! I am the bridge between the inside of the home and the world outside. My owners LOVE to spend time out on their porch rockers and watch the world – the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world of the west side of Grand Rapids. It’s like they’ve never had a porch before – they can’t get enough of me! Even though they’re incredibly busy with careers and kids and aging parents and sickness and death, they come out here almost every evening, weather permitting.

Being a porch, I am privy to many interesting conversations. My Mr. and Mrs. have chatted out here with people from all over the world, discussing everything from immigration to gun violence to Jesus to the best wine. They must have lived in different countries, too, because they also talk about how stubborn they must be that in order to truly understand that people are more important than things God had to yank them half-way around the globe. They talk about how they used to live compared to how they live now and how they’ll never go back, even though they could easily afford it. I’ve overheard their remorseful accounts of all the years they wasted mowing lawns, vacuuming pools, washing cars and cleaning boats. I don’t know what they’re talking about – because they don’t do any of those things now.

Their kids – the marrieds and the singles – love to hang out with me, too. Sometimes, they’ll all reminisce about the “old days” when they had a great big wrap-around porch they never used. They’re able to laugh about it now. I’ve heard the Mr. and Mrs. thank God that their kids didn’t give up on them. I’ve heard them say how grateful they are to have learned before it was too late that spending time with their kids was more important than giving them stuff.

As soon as the snow disappeared, my Mr. and Mrs. were back out on my rocking chairs. Some evenings, the laughter from the high-spirited rugby game in the park across the street beckons them outside (even though they clearly cannot figure out rugby rules to save their lives). They love to talk to ALL the passersby – to pet the dogs, talk to the babies in strollers, or just offer a friendly “Hello – Have a great day!” They’ve befriended the college kids up the street, the older, slower gentleman who collects empty pop cans so he can buy Legos, the politician on the corner, and the homeless guy on his bike. They love to sit out here and talk to other neighbors sitting out on their porches; and because our homes are so close, it’s like we’re one big block-long porch anyway.

I’m thankful my Mr. and Mrs. get it. They understand the two most important parts of any home are the table for gathering the family to teach it how to grow in love; and the front porch, where the family extends that love to the world.

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Jesus Ain’t Your Sexy Valentine

 

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Clean water crisis. Human-Trafficking. Immigration. Orphan care. Affordable Housing. Failing Education Systems. Gun Violence. Teen-age pregnancy.

Sitting in this hip coffee shop I can hear twenty-somethings all around me talking about what’s wrong with humanity and how they aim to fix it. Millennials are raising the bar for the rest of us. They’re hyper-aware of societies ailments and far more actively involved in finding solutions than previous generations.

Yet increased awareness presents a serious problem that’s pervasive in “woke” people of ALL ages: It has become the “in” thing to do. Buying TOMS shoes, a week at an orphanage in Central America, sending bottled water to Flint, Michigan, and filling food baskets at Thanksgiving – all such Facebook-worthy ways of serving Jesus. I can’t even count the times I’ve seen a Facebook or Insta post with a white, middle-class high-schooler/college kid surrounded by raggedy-clothed, dirty-faced black/Asian/Indian/Hispanic orphans from their recent short-term “missions” trip abroad.

But if we engage in something that’s uber trendy, we must stop and ask ourselves: What’s my motive?

Write a check. Angel tree. Annual service day at a soup kitchen. Donate clothes. “Like” all the posts by the latest hip justice organization. Put said organization’s sticker on our computer. Run a 5k for awareness. GoFundMe pages. Youth groups spending a day in the inner city. Wear a trendy justice t-shirt. Carry a cool mug inscribed #endhumantrafficking.

And why? Why is there such a BOOM in this movement?

I’d like to suggest we’re crazy about this movement of increasing awareness because it’s easy.

Easy. Appealing. Quick. Non-habit forming. No sacrifice.

One could even say these approaches to following the way of Jesus are somewhat “sexy”: We are seen. We are heard. We look good and feel good with our “service”. Others think we’re incredible. Sexy, right? In fact, we could post any of those hot service opportunities on Valentine’s day with #mytruelove and everyone will think we’re holy.

I’m not bashing those experiences or remotely suggesting they be stopped. I most definitely feel there is a place and a time for such things. The problem, as I see it, is that we (Christians) are mostly looking for a quick, non-painful way to appease our Jesus-driven consciences and we’re much too quick to flaunt it for our own acclaim.

We Christians are FAR less likely to do the long, hard, costly, sacrificial and unnoticeable work that is the backbone of the Christian calling.

But Jesus said:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14.

He straight-up told us: It ain’t supposed to be easy, friends!!!

Jesus did all kinds of hard, subversive, and not very Facebook worthy things. He hung out with those marginalized by society. He touched people that nobody else would touch. He shared meals with those no one else would. He went to places nobody else would go. Jesus didn’t do sexy things.

If Jesus had a Facebook page, we’d probably scroll right through his posts. It is THAT mundane. THAT uncomfortable. THAT un-sexy.

To go all-in for Christ will most likely lead you to hard, toilsome work with basically no recognition. It’ll be costly and time-consuming. It sometimes costs money, but can also cost friends, reputations, and safety. It’s not usually quick and easy and it’s not usually comfortable.

When I think of the un-sexy way of Jesus, I think of some of these people:

  • A neighbor who has invested YEARS into the life of a troubled, fatherless, high-schooler who doesn’t appreciate it and throws away every opportunity provided for him. But our neighbor refuses to give up and pursues him with relentless love and care. Not sexy.
  • My friend who has visited her father, uncle, and aunt, twice a week, every single week at the local nursing home for over 10 years! As their ONLY living relative, they wouldn’t get a single visitor if it weren’t for her. Not sexy.
  • We know a guy who after Hurricane Katrina sold everything and MOVED to New Orleans. A lot of us did sexy things for Katrina-victims and pasted it all over social media. Our friend LIVED there for two years. Not sexy.
  • We have friends who live in Honduras. They run an organization that works to abolish corruption within the extremely corrupt Honduran government. The work is dangerous – an attorney from their organization was shot and killed in broad daylight by gang members. This work is COURAGEOUS, costly, takes decades, slow progress, and sometimes exasperating. Not sexy.
  • There are many schoolteachers who CHOOSE to work in some of the poorest districts in our city. The pay is poor, their resumes won’t ever be impressive (failing students make teachers look bad – no matter how awesome they really are) but they believe in making a difference in the lives of kids who just maybe need a break in life. They will do this for 20, 30 maybe 40 years and they may never see the fruit of their labor. Not sexy.

The un-sexy work Jesus invites us into may be long-suffering, toilsome, tiring and expensive, but we’re not doing it for ourselves – it’s UNTO HIM!

  • What if we mentored troubled kids – any age – and stuck with them through ALL THEIR GROWING years?
  • What if we volunteered with Kids Hope and actually gave a kid hope?
  • What if we joined a refugee/immigration settlement organization and spent the next FIVE years mentoring a new family?
  • What if we talked to our neighbors, learned of their suffering, and prayed with them weekly?
  • What if we made homemade casseroles and brought them to the homeless camps (trust me, they exist) every week?
  • What if we enter in to the roller-coaster life of the mentally unstable – the bi-polar friend, the depressed sister-in-law, the suicidal teen, the homicidal neighbor?
  • What if we mentored those in troubled pregnancies?
  • What if we helped pay the heat bill every winter for a family who heats their home with the stove?
  • What if we gave up eating out for six months just so another family could EAT?

You know what I think would happen if we did some of these things? We’d be tired. We’d be involved with these issues for a really long time and get frustrated with the slow pace of change. We might even get angry at those we are serving. We’d want to give up and quit over and over and over.

But we’d be doing the work of Jesus, for HIM, and for His glory. Not ours.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Jesus Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24

This is the way of Jesus. And it ain’t sexy.

Don’t make Jesus your sexy Valentine.