Thursday, September 25, 2008

Red and Yellow, Black and White

Every night before I put my precious baby down to sleep we read Moo, Baa, LaLaLa and then we pray for all the babies in the world. We pray that they would have mommies and daddies to care for them, that they would have enough food to eat, a safe place to sleep, and most of all that they would know how much Jesus loves them. It’s a simple prayer, really. To one who overhears, it may strike him as cute or sweet. To a more critical listener, it may seem naïve and idealistic- as believable as a beauty pageant contestant sincerely declaring that her greatest wish is for “world peace.”

To me, there’s great irony in our prayer for the babies of this world. All that we ask for, Carter has. His every need, physical and emotional, is met. His world is simple and safe and beautiful right now. So, were he capable of understanding my words, he would think the prayer redundant. The reality is that as I breathe those words, holding him close to my chest, babies around the world aren’t doing too well. There are 6,200 babies in China that are hospitalized for kidney failure and liver damage. There are babies in Africa who are HIV positive. There are babies down the street whose siblings all have different last names and who will never know who Daddy is.

On January 9th, Carter’s birth date, I was stolen away from the superficial things of this world and entered the most peaceful chapter of my life yet. My soul is refreshed by Carter’s innocence and purity. I am renewed in my hope for things to change. And I am reminded of the way things should have been with the conception of mankind. When I pray with my son for the babies of this world, painfully aware that many lives are not like ours, I am not merely wishing. It’s not a Hail Mary pass, it’s not a tribute to John Lennon’s Imagine, it’s not due to a wistful imagination. Underneath each spoken word, I am asking that this unaware baby in my arms would grow up to conquer the giants of our time. Were I to be asked for my greatest wish, it would not be for the preservation of my son’s comfort and innocence. It would be that he’d engage with what is not and fight to return us to the place we have lost.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

This Beautiful Community

1143 Avenida de los Arboles, apt. 228. I wrote that address on the left hand corner of envelopes for 11 of my childhood years. While my mother loathed many aspects of apartment living, it was those very aspects that created the conditions for my imaginative childhood. I dreamt of mansions, Victorian ones, to be specific. I poured over my dad’s Architectural Digest magazines, clipping photos that would eventually become part of my designer home. I pleaded with my grandmother to describe for me, again, the New England estates in which she grew up. My fantasies consisted of spiral staircases, butler’s pantries and wrap-around sun porches. Two of my pre-adolescent birthdays were celebrated in renovated Victorian homes. The idea of a beautiful home had me captivated.

Years later, not much has changed. The aspirations have- I no longer dream to one day live in a Victorian mansion. The heart of the matter has not. I long for home. That yearning for comfort, to be settled somewhere familiar and safe- it is deep within me.

And I don’t think I’m alone. This idea of home is a defining factor in many people’s lives. It’s the reason my friend Katie quit after her freshman year at a great university that was 8 hours away from her mother. It’s why my former student’s mother, Shandann, couldn’t leave her destitute and dangerous ghetto to start over somewhere else. It’s why my cousin Tom will be stuck in the family business instead of truly excelling in his own passions. Comfort. Familiarity. Safety. It’s the default response to life.

The followers of The Way knew this yearning as well. Exciting things were happening in their day. Their Rabbi, who was crucified, had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Since then, his followers had a new boldness. Through their teaching and the subsequent community that sprung up, thousands were joining their ranks. They met in each others’ homes, they ate together, they worshipped together-- they did life together. No one had need- all were met through this new spiritual family.

My guess is that no one could have imagined that they were off by a degree or two. That sense of community felt too good, too right to be missing the mark. And yet, they were. Their Rabbi, Jesus, told them right before he left to expand this community. He didn’t want it to exist only in hometown Jerusalem. His dreams were bigger- “to the ends of earth”—he said. They hadn’t moved, though! Their holy huddle served them just fine right where they were. So, God broke up the party. Problems, big problems (think death, imprisonment) began to plague the Way. They finally dispersed and were scattered to neighboring countries and, eventually, to the ends of the earth. Their beautiful community was then extended to include people that were previously off the radar and beyond their scope of influence.

Rabbi Jesus has commanded all believers to extend this beautiful community. For some, that means a literal move to another country. For others, and I would wager, for most, that means living right where you are. But it’s a different kind of living. It’s bucking the default drive to create perpetual comfort and to preserve all things familiar. It’s celebrating community with other believers while being intentional to invite others into it at the same time. It’s risk-taking, it’s sacrifice-offering, it’s self-denying.

This beautiful community is as close to heaven as we get here on earth. The irony is that, while we must drink deeply of its comfort and draw from its safety, these gifts serve to strengthen us as we seek to extend the community beyond ourselves. Once we settle, once we mistake this place as home we’ve missed the meaning of it all. It’s as deluded as an 8 year old girl clipping magazine photos, convinced that those papers are the real thing.

Pottery Barn

The September installment of let's-get-our-covet-on has arrived in my mailbox and now sits, unsuspectingly, on my coffee table. The innocent passer-by may glance at the cover, peruse through the glossy pages for a moment and then set it back down. A more seasoned veteran of home decor might sit in our recliner, adjust the chair to more comfortable angle, and then really study the catalog. Both readers' experiences with the catalog render no harm- they can successfully reenter the world of my-home-will-never-look-like-that. I, however, am a recovering coveter. That Pottery Barn magazine on my coffee table is akin to a Penthouse magazine on the floor of a frat house. It inspires sin.

I used to really beat myself up over this. When visiting missionaries spoke at church, I was one of the few who prayed, "God, just send me to Africa right now." I figured that being confined to a one-room mud hut with two outfits to my name would solve my coveting problems. It probably would have. But, alas! God, in his drive to conform my character to his Son's, elected that the character would come through my having to tame the wild beast of want in the midst of a dizzying variety of choices and desires. I would have to learn to make choices without simply demonizing purchases that don't feed the hungry and without justifying them with "I'm just so blessed."

So, that leaves me with guidelines but no easy formula. There are times when God surprises me. Several years back, I had my eye on some wall sconces (just say the word sconce- it's fun) and then painstakingly let them go when I couldn't find them. Last November, my mom found the exact pair at a garage sale- super low price and and still in their original box. Other times, though, I have to mentally rehearse the line, "I just don't need that." In those instances, when I want an item and can afford it, I have to flex those muscles of restraint. I have to recalibrate my system to the command of contentedness. Jesus said, "a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

I have a feeling that my battle against covetousness will span the rest of my life, but at least I know how it ends. I get to join Jesus in a reality that far surpasses this fading world and all of its catalogs. Plus, doesn't scripture say that He's gone ahead to prepare for us mansions?

I wonder if we'll have any say over the decor...

Black T-Shirt

On Friday, August 29th, a baby girl was discovered wrapped in a black t-shirt, lying motionless in a pile of weeds in a vacant Syracuse lot. Umbilical cord still attached, investigators estimated that she was born only a couple hours before being discovered there.

As a recent convert to motherhood, I cannot conceive what possible circumstances influenced this mother to abandon her baby. Perhaps it was poverty, drugs, abusive relationships, or mental illness. Regardless, a newborn baby, the most profound expression of helplessness, was cast into the streets. Abandoned.

One of my favorite stories of the Bible is that of the allegory between God and Israel in Ezekiel 16. God chooses to describe Israel as a baby, abandoned in an open field. Her cord was not cut, nor was she washed or wrapped in cloths. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. God passes by, sees Israel writhing in her own blood, picks her up and commands, “live!”

I was born in a sterile hospital room to two married, loving parents. My cord was cut and I was washed and weighed and wrapped in cloths. My mother held and nursed me and I contentedly rested in her arms. Physically, my birth experience was the furthest it could be from Israel’s. As I grew, though, I became increasingly aware that something was broken. My life, from an outsider’s perspective, was perfect. On the inside, I began to sense that I was truly writhing in my own blood. I heard God whisper “live” to my spirit and I began to consciously experience His courtship.

I believe that God chose to describe His people as an abandoned baby because that is what we are. We are all born into sin—our own sin with its great pull on our souls and into a world of people who are sinning. We experience the results of their sin as well. We are truly helpless; we cannot life ourselves from this pile of weeds; we cannot wash ourselves clean; we cannot “save our souls.” It is God, in His infinite mercy, who passes by us in our state and whispers “live!” God is the one who picks us up, cleanses our sins and heals our wounds.

He is the rescuer of the abandoned.