Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review of The Year of Small Things

The older I get, the more I find myself hungry for a simple, downwardly-mobile, radical lifestyle, one that honors and cares for the least of these and the hurting, and one that finds my husband and me living in strong community with other people of faith. I also secretly wish to be the person who sold everything and moved to the inner city like the people who are my heroes. But my husband's job is out here in a Chicago suburb. We're planted here.

Then along comes Sarah Arthur's and Erin Wasinger's book, The Year of Small Things, telling how they worked to apply these very principals - the principals of new monasticism - while living in the suburbs.
New monasticism focuses on America’s forgotten urban centers while forming intentional Christian communities, as defined by the authors. The Arthurs came from a background of intentional living in North Carolina where they attended grad school at Duke. They spent years showing hospitality to the marginalized and the stranger in the inner city while sharing their meals, possessions and living space with others. After a move to the suburbs to answer a call to pastor a church, Sarah and her husband Tom struggled to apply their former lifestyle to their new living situation in a homogenous suburban neighborhood where the folks all seem to be fine. When they met the Wasingers, the families discovered their common passion and life philosophies. They decided to meet weekly, sharing their lives with brutal accountability, and creating a covenant to apply one principal a month of radical Christian living and new monasticism to their lives in that place where they lived.

 The result included some successes and some challenges. The authors offer much grace and much confession about their own awkward fits and starts on their journey, giving readers the same grace and permission to work through a new, simple lifestyle marked by generosity to others and hospitality, and care for the earth, all while  living in an accountable community.
Underneath many of our lives lies a hunger for this kind of radical call to shake up the status quo. The Year of Small Things could be transformative in so many ways, to so many people, in so many places despite just offering “small things” to do. The book is a great read for individuals, couples, or small groups interested in a life resembling the early church.
“We’re pretty sure we’re not changing the world. But we’re letting God change us, which in turn points us toward the change already happening in our church and city. One small thing at a time.”


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Well-Acquainted with Grief

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop on the heart until, against our will, in our own despair, comes wisdom from the awful grace of God.”   ~ Aeschylus

I collect certain people. Pack them into life’s travel bag, looking them up at the first sign of hardship and pain. I speed dial them in search of the comfort brought by their voices and presence.
These are my friends who are well-acquainted with grief.
 Grief tumbles off the page when I look at the assaults on their lives. Suicide of a parent. The death of a brother to AIDS.  Brain tumor in a grandson. Painful marriages and divorces. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Tragic death of a child. Painful betrayal by trusted people. But they have taken pain captive, these strong ones, looked it straight in the eyes, and gifted others with hard won comfort because grief talks to grief.
I seek out members of this tribe during my own seasons of struggle.
They display strength in the worst moments of life while remaining gentle and empathetic enough to respond to the pain they see in the rest of us. The hard moments leave a mark, but that mark isn’t named bitterness, or self-pity, or cold-heartedness.
Not everyone manages this feat.
One friend opened her farmhouse to strangers over the past year. The family of a man suffering from a brain aneurysm needed a place to stay while he received treatment in a nearby hospital far from their home. My friend soothed this frightened and hurting family, hosting them for two weeks during their season of turmoil, introducing them to horses, goats, chickens, and a paddle boat on the pond. Wonderful distractions from the worry.  
The visit would not end well.
The young mom would find herself an unexpected widow, and her children would find themselves fatherless. My friend offered all she had – her kindness and prayers and her home situated away from the sterile hospital environment. They fed the animals, paddle-boated on the pond, romped through the fields.
It’s messy to step into someone else’s loss. Words fail us, coming slowly. We feel awkward, unsure. But a person well-acquainted with grief knows what the hurting long to hear.
 Nearly 50 years ago when Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots erupted throughout the country. But one man, well-acquainted with grief himself, calmed an Indianapolis crowd in a poor section of the city. The crowd waited to hear Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, but they hadn’t heard yet about King’s assassination. Kennedy shared the news with them, connecting to the crowd by referencing his own pain experienced after the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Then he recited one of his favorite poems:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,

against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God. 
~ Aeschylus
Many other American cities burned that night after King was killed. But calm descended on Indianapolis. Kennedy's grief spoke to their grief, helping to usher in calm.
Eventually we all experience loss and grief. No one gets out of this life without scars. Some lives just seem more battered than others. But I love these battered people with all their beautiful wounds and scars and wide-open hearts that have eyes to see and ears to hear the sometimes unspoken pain in others.

“A man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.” My favorite description of the Incarnate God, unflinching in the face of hardship and death.  These folks emulate Him.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Broken Furnace Vs. Homelessness

Whine. Whine. Whine. My furnace went out this week. I woke up Monday, just as my husband’s car pulled away to take him to Southern California for five days, noticing the house was a bit chilly. And silent. The furnace wouldn’t come on.

No problem. I’d call our Heating and Air Conditioning service, and they’d have it fixed by lunchtime.

“I’m afraid this is going to be really expensive,” the repairman told me.

My roll-with-the-punches smile drooped. "Like how much?"

“Like, you might as well buy a new one, because I’ll charge you $1000.000 to fix this and it might break down again in February. It’s 15-years old. But if you want a new one, furnaces are on backorder. It might be a week.”
“A week!” The forecast predicted temps below zero for the next couple of days. So much for heat by lunchtime. “How do I keep my pipes from freezing?”
“Electric heaters.”
Fears of a house fire danced through my head. I told him to order the furnace after consulting with my hubby. The Heating service found a non-emergency customer willing to let me have their slot on Wednesday. I could manage without warmth for several days.
For three days, I moved space heaters from room to room, stoked the fire in living room, and slept with a pile of blankets over me. The bone cold air clung to my clothes even when I went into work for a few hours. I wondered how people lived this way centuries ago. Not only was my body cold, but the walls exuded cold. The dishes were freezing when I went to make a cup of coffee. The shower tiles were frozen even after a hot shower. The floors were unspeakably cold. 
I wore a down vest over my clothes with a scarf around my neck and my bathrobe topping off that lovely ensemble. To comfortably read in front of the fire, I wrapped blankets around all those layers and still felt chilled.
Forty-six degrees, the thermostat on the space heater read in the mornings.
In addition to the cold, I continued to worry about burning down the house. Did I know how to use the fire extinguisher? Would we die in our sleep? So much to lose if the space heater shorted. Those senior pictures of my sons framed and hanging on the walls. All their sweet notes written to me over 25-30 years. The oil painting of my father when he was a handsome teenager. His wallet and watch in my top dresser drawer – the only possessions I hold of his. A lifetime worth of letters and cards stashed in the trunk at the foot of my bed. Souvenirs from my lifetime.
And then I worried about the paperwork. A fire would destroy all the important papers on file, the list of passwords that keep us running efficiently, the computers with so much stored information and writing projects. Possessions and information and data complicated our lives. Their destruction would complicate it even more.
The birds of the air do it without sowing or reaping or gathering into barns. No accumulated belongings piling up, at risk of destruction by fire. They depend on their Creator who provides for all their needs.
By Wednesday afternoon, the house was warm again, despite 10 degree weather outside. I gladly wrote out a check, and invited my son to a celebratory dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant in the next town. I parked the warm and toasty car, grateful for a parking space close to the entrance, providing a quick run to get inside the warm building.
Then I noticed the bundle of possessions on the sidewalk outside an empty storefront. A roller suitcase. A pile of bags and some blankets. And then the blankets moved.
 “Is someone in there?” I asked Kenzie.
Someone was camped on that freezing cold cement for the night, backed up against the frozen storefront walls. We walked to the restaurant, and tears warmed my cold cheeks. We ordered our dinner, and I ordered an extra pizza to go.
 “With lots of meat. Meat might keep them warm.”
“Hope they’re not a vegetarian,” Kenzie said, as new customers walked to their seat carrying the freezing cold outdoor air thick on their clothing.
On our way to our warm car, which would take us to our warm house, I stopped and greeted the bundle of blankets, offering them a pizza. “And here’s some napkins on top,” I said.
Eyes peered at me through goggles worn for protection from the cold wind. And then the bundle spoke.
A woman.
She expressed exuberant thanksgiving, and we left for our car. I drove away, watching her bury her head in the pizza box, wondering about the birds of the air, sowing and reaping and eating.  


Friday, January 1, 2016

Beautiful Mourning

The wife, children, and brother-in-law sang. The funeral visitors sang. Everyone but the man they came to honor sang, at least not on earth. But with all the joyful and exuberant celebration, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him sit up in his coffin and sing, too. As a man who loved music and composed his own praise and worship songs, he would've loved the service.

We were at the funeral of a beloved coworker and friend who recently passed away after a two-year struggle with brain cancer. Pastor Calvin Egler came from a family of Gospel singers, and, oh, did they all sing him out that day. Despite their grief and the painful goodbye, their ability to sing spoke of their mighty faith.
Even Calvin’s mother-in-law sang. A mother-in-law who loved Calvin like her own son. After her grandson helped her to the stage, she began to speak: “I’ve had some good days. I’ve had some hills to climb….” And then the band kicked in, and she belted out an unforgettable gospel song with her sister.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer had the same stirring experience when he visited Black churches in Harlem during a stay in America while Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s.  Eric Metaxas writes about the fervency of those churches in the biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The German pastor found a refreshing orthodoxy and passion in the Harlem church he attended, despite the wounds of racism evident in our country. And that power may have prepared Bonhoeffer for the rising struggles he would encounter when he returned to Germany. He watched church members face their struggles with strength, hope, and grace. Bonhoeffer would do the same when he was eventually arrested back in Europe and hung by the Nazis.
At the funeral, as Calvin’s children and wife (who leads the Wheaton College Gospel Choir) and family members and friends sang, I wept. Sitting in the back, moved by the music, I fondly remembered this humble and faithful man who exemplified what it meant to be a Christian.
Calvin worked part-time at the publishing house where I work, but not in the role of Associate Publisher or VP. Despite his degree from prestigious Wheaton College, he pastored a church and worked a very humble job with our company to supplement his income.
He emptied our trash in the evenings.
But as he walked from office to office collecting wastebaskets as people started to clear out for the day, he acted on his true calling. He would stop and inquire about people. No one was invisible to Calvin. If he found someone late in the evening crying after a bad day (which he did find), he would put aside his task to counsel and pray with that person, remembering his call to care for people.
And we remember him.
Pastor Calvin was faithful with the task given to him. And as his funeral demonstrated to the packed church of many hundreds of people, he had lived the most valuable of lives, putting people in a place of importance because he knew their importance to God. As his beautiful, articulate children expressed, they grew up with a father who daily made them feel loved and the source of his pride.
Watching others face their trials with singing transforms us all. I know I was transformed. I want my own time here to be marked with equal trust. This quiet, faithful man was a role model for many. And that’s his legacy.
Rest in peace, Pastor Calvin. Well done.
I've had some good days
I've had some hills to climb
I've had some weary days
I've had some sleepless nights
But when I look around
And I think things over
All of my good days
Outweigh my bad days

So I won't complain

~ Marvin Winans