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 5.7 Billion Dollar Question (the one nobody is asking…)

IMG_5709 (1) When we were young – perhaps our early thirties – we had an excess of money and were picking up steam to make considerably more. Our trajectory was secure. We owned all the pretty things, had a solid retirement account, the kids’ college tuition neatly tucked away, and, should we have died, our offspring would have inherited a rather bulky birthright.

 

Isn’t that the dream? The holy grail for most Americans?

 

We thought so, anyway. We truly believed we were living the dream.

But then, one day we heard a sermon and it all came crashing down. It wasn’t like this was the ONLY thing that changed EVERYTHING for us, but it was certainly a catalyst. I don’t remember the sermon’s title or all the contents, but at one point our pastor asked a question that Paul and I had never been asked before:

“What might we have been blessed for?”

I initially felt outrage: What do you mean, pastor? Blessings tell us of God’s goodness and love toward us and they teach us thankfulness – that’s what they’re for! We’ve worked hard for this wealth and you’re not gonna make us feel guilty for being overly blessed! Every wealthy Christian knows money isn’t the root of all evil, but the LOVE of it! We don’t love it, pastor!

Christians, in general, like to talk about gratitude and its pivotal role in our faith walk. We like to say true joy is found when we learn to identify all the #blessings God has given us and then truly be thankful for them. We name it “contentment” and proceed to enjoy 80 or 90 years of thanking God for being so “loving” toward us.

But is all that just a smokescreen? Is the posture of thankfulness purely a panacea – a way to placate our fears? Are we maybe just afraid to take those blessings one click further…. to dig deep and take just one brave step beyond thankfulness? It’d be a brave step because we just might arrive at the scary question, “But what have we been given all these blessings FOR????”

When Paul and I started asking God that question and earnestly prayed, “Lord, what do you want us to do with this wealth? How now should we live?” the answer wasn’t exactly what young wealthy people want to hear, but we had no doubt we had heard from the Creator of the Universe. He simply told us: “Hold it loosely.” God didn’t tell us “Give it all away”, but simply to let go of our death grip on it.

Before you think we’re some wackadoos who think even the shape of our shower suds is a message from God, it’s not like that. His words to us were not written or spoken, it was just something we both knew – felt in our souls – after a devoted season of specifically asking God how we were to live in the midst of abundance.

Hang with me – this blog is not about me and my husband. Please don’t even glance our way. I only share our story because we HAVE learned that as soon as we “held our wealth loosely”, we were able to let it go. When we prayed for wealth accumulation to no longer be the summation of our lives, we were supernaturally given the courage to release it. We soon discovered we had an answer for that seemingly scary question:

What have we been blessed for? Well, for the sake of OTHERS, that’s what for.

It’s as simple as that.

For us, that revelation led us to flip our spending lives upside down in an attempt to put others before ourselves. We have a long way to go, but suffice to say the opening paragraph of this blog is no longer true.

 

My point, however, is not about personal wealth but how might the same scary question regarding blessings be applied to the wealth of a nation?

When I read Suzanne Collins’ book ‘The Hunger Games’, I was blown away at the resemblance of America to the “Capital” – the district from her dystopian novel which consumes and hoards all the wealth at the expense of all the other subservient districts. The Capital flaunts and celebrates and justifies their wealth with exaggerated exuberance. They make no concessions that they are the biggest, the best, the richest and most, well, #blessed in all the fair land. They do not mind that others are dying around them, as long as they are able to continue to live their opulent and indulgent lifestyle.

I was convicted to the point of tears when those books and the subsequent movie came out. I am convinced Collins intended the Capital to mirror America and, to be honest, I’m still extremely uncomfortable with the ongoing conviction. I don’t think any of us really want to acknowledge how much we have, especially in relation to those who have not. That would be painful and we don’t like pain. It’s better to not think about it – stay busy and preoccupied – we conclude. I know that’s how I keep the pain at bay, anyway.

But I think, if nothing else, ‘The Hunger Games’ should encourage those of us who can identify with the Capital (developed countries) to at least be contemplating:

“For what have we been blessed FOR?”

 

This fall, my husband and I drove across America to bring a car to our daughter in Los Angeles. Something like 2,100 miles. Sometimes we drove nearly 3 or 4 hours without seeing a single building, city, or person. We drove through countless stretches of fields, forests, and mountains – over rivers and around lakes – and couldn’t get over the expansiveness of this country. We are a land and people so rich in resources: fields, food, forests, water, beauty, unoccupied space, strong military, hard-working people, medicine, health and healthcare, research, energy, strength, education, innovation, creativity, and – most importantly – we are predominantly influenced by a faith that teaches selflessness and generosity. We, as a country, have far more resources, I believe, than we could ever expend entirely on ourselves.

If you’ve ever traveled to the third world, you know what I’m getting at. You understand the comparison without me pointing it out. If you’ve been to those places, you’ve seen the other “districts”. You know the atrocity of our wealthy and wasteful ways as those just outside our borders would be thrilled to simply eat from our dog’s dish.

America, WE are like a wealthy relative – perhaps a ridiculously rich, young uncle – who observes his poorer relatives starving, dying of preventable diseases, suffering from lack of clean water, fleeing homes to escape violence or gangs or a dictator who would rather behead a dissenter than being seen as weak, and yet, he mostly looks the other way. We are, indeed, THAT relative (who’s been specifically instructed by his Father to take care of his oppressed and suffering family members) – who finds out a cousin sent their 11 year-old daughter into the sex trade in Mumbai out of desperation to feed his starving family, who knows of a sister in Pakistan enslaved to a lifetime of hard labor for simply borrowing money for her daughter’s medical expenses, who discovers a Honduran niece was forced to flee the country after the small pillow factory she owns was targeted by gangs threatening to kill her if she didn’t pay an impossibly high bribe.

But the wealthy young uncle decides that instead of helping those relatives, he will build a wall around his abundance and choose the culturally acceptable posture of thankfulness. The rich uncle sits in his air-conditioned vacation home sipping fine wine and declares, “I’m so unbelievably blessed. I feel so very safe and comfortable. With all the walls around me, I have no worries, no fears, no suffering. And I’m so glad that I recognize just how thankful I am because that makes the enjoyment of all my blessings okay. Thank-you God for all these #blessings.”

America, there is NO doubt – WE ARE that wealthy young uncle. We can say all we want that it’s not our responsibility to care for the poor and hurting in this world and that they’re really not “our family” or “our problem”, but then we’d simply be skipping right over the question:

What might we have been blessed for?”

Lord, help us all.

 

Ignorance is bliss, but knowing is better.

 

Traveling home from Africa this time was the most hellish trip ever.  It wasn’t for the fact there was a crying baby on every single flight.  It wasn’t for the fact my daughter accidentally packed her shampoo in her carry-on creating a long delay for us during security checks.  It also wasn’t for the fact that her “slip up” must have, apparently, created terrorist suspicion of me, so the Frenchy she-man, who knew we were dangerously close to missing our flight, proceeded to slowly comb through my carry-on with microscopic detail – making me open up all our Moroccan gifts of nuts and dates then sniffing and fingering them, then sifting through each tile of our Bananagrams and Pairs of Pears games, followed by unwrapping our bubble-wrapped Moroccan pottery, and even frisking all my dirty underwear (seriously?) – causing us to sprint to our gate to catch our connection to London.  It wasn’t for the fact that the video system was broke on our long flight so we couldn’t watch any movies, or that the 8 hour flight was extended to 9 from poor weather, or that even my African-mutt street dog would have pulled up her nose at the in-flight food.  And it wasn’t even made hellish because we landed in Chicago in the middle of a “Polar Vortex”, where much of the city was paralyzed from arctic temperatures hovering at -25F keeping us stranded in Chicago for a night.
No, it was none of those reasons that made this the worst trip ever.  It was because we were suffering from a bad case of “knowing”.  Knowing means you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, ignore the problems anymore.  We have always told our kids, “With knowledge comes responsibility.” This plane ride was painful simply because we had been reminded once again of our responsibilities to those that are struggling in the world and we were forced to confront the truth that we had grown dispassionate.
Spending this past week in Morocco was like peeking our heads out from under the covers of our warm, comfortable bed.  We smelled, tasted, felt and experienced life outside of our peaceful, safe, suburban-middle-class, American slumber.  When you peek your head outside the covers the immediate frigid cold blast that slaps your face is the realization that much of the world is suffering.  It suffers from the relentless grip of poverty, it suffers under the tyrannical rule of dictators, it suffers as children are forced into slavery and to be soldiers in a war they don’t want or understand, it suffers as girls (even as young as 6 yrs.) are chained to beds naked and forced to have sex as often as 20 times a day, it suffers as families who fear genocide must flee from the only home they’ve known and move to another country to live in a tent and squalor for decades, and it suffers when all these things and so many, many more are taking place this very moment and we refuse to do our part.  If I am honest, I must admit that our 2 ½ years back in the states has slowly induced a state of drowsiness, where we were sheltered from the world’s problems and were focusing more on ourselves and our stupid little first-world problems.  It happened insidiously, but we had begun caring too much about things like finding all the right Christmas presents, our kids’ getting enough playing time in their sports activities, our favorite collegiate teams winning in sports, having the right outfit to wear to parties, redecorating our house, or planning our next vacation.  Do not misunderstand me here:  none of those things are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  But if we allow these things to define our existence, then we may need to stick our heads out from under the covers.  The world is huge, the needs of this world are catastrophic, and I believe we are NOT supposed to live in a myopic, self-serving slumber, but that we have been called by the Creator of this Universe to engage somehow, some way, to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.  To do that, we must be informed of the great needs of our day, whether in some far-off land, our own city, or our own backyard.  And then, with palms open heavenward, dare to ask of God, “What about me, Lord?  How do you want to use me?”
I have often wondered if the reason our Lord has tarried so long in returning is because He was waiting for the information age.  He knew that there would come a day whereby the click of a button would give us access to information regarding the human condition everywhere else in the world.  Before the internet, I’m not sure we would have been held accountable for understanding and responding to the suffering in the world.  Now, we have no excuse.  We all know.  Or do we?  We also can choose to not click that button and not look at what is happening outside the warmth and comfort of our plush, 400-count, down-filled duvet covers.  We can keep our heads buried if we want to.  We can choose ignorance – and maybe that feels good for a time because we don’t have to own the pain of the world’s suffering.  I will agree – it is painful to stick your face out of the covers and experience that cold blast wake-up call.  But as we flew home on that treacherous, hellish flight, and as I wrestled with the pain of “re-awakening” to the suffering in Morocco, I decided ignorance might be bliss, but knowing is better.  I refuse to live my life choosing to ignore that which I believe God has called us to engage.
When I didn’t know I had this incurable lung disease, I was blissfully ignorant.  Those cysts have been on my lungs for many months, probably even years, I just didn’t know it and I lived my life as if they were NOT there.  I was aimlessly meandering through life almost as if I were immortal – believing there would always be time later to get my life in order and do the really important stuff.  When I first received my diagnosis I was devastated – furious with God to the point of giving Him the silent treatment (27 years of marriage and resorting to the silent treatment in our big fights and I still haven’t learned that it is childish and entirely useless…).  Yet, I now see that God was lovingly allowing me to come to terms with my mortality.  And it is because of that diagnosis that I re-evaluated everything and am choosing a more pointed, focused and engaged life.  It was nice when I didn’t know about the disease because I could ignorantly live my life under the warm and comfortable covers and believe everything to be just fine.  Yet, my lungs were being invaded by disease!  Everything was not fine at all!  Even though I’m now aware this disease may take my life, and it was pure pain getting that news, I still believe knowing is better.
One day, after I had received my diagnosis, I was sitting in our comfy chair facing out to our wooded backyard.  I sat in silence with God and felt a chill down my spine as I took in the view.  Everything appeared incredibly spectacular:   the sun seemed brighter than ever before, the snow seemed whiter, a cardinal perched on a low-hanging tree branch seemed redder, and the sky seemed bluer.  I soaked it all in and found myself acutely aware of every single gifted breath I was taking.  I knew I’d been given new eyes – and I saw that all things had become more remarkable and noteworthy and magical – and I don’t think I would have taken back my old eyes even if God had offered.
Ignorance is bliss, but knowing is better.