Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sitting in the Dust with the Disgraced American Church

In What's So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the true story of a prostitute who rented out her two-year-old daughter to men in order to fund her drug addiction. When asked why she didn't go to a church for help, she exclaimed: "Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse."  

Dreadfully ironic, isn't it? On one hand, there's the prostitute who is afraid to go to church because of the lack of grace offered her, while on the other hand, the deacon-turned-child-molester is offered a free pass in the name of "grace."

This is a humiliating time to be an American evangelical Christian. The disgraced missions agency. The disgraced mega-church pastor. The disgraced entire denomination. I'm afraid to read the news and see what's next. So much muck, covered up for so many years. 

Every time, my internal response is horrified disgust. How can people like that call themselves Christians? And I want to do everything I can to disassociate myself with that person or that group or that church. I want to shine up my shoes and put on my kind face and show the world that not all Christians are so reprehensible. Most of us are decent, moral, good people, right? So please, won't you like us again?

Then I wonder if that attitude is actually the elemental problem.

All my life I have struggled with the desire to be the good girl, to follow the good Christian rules of praying before meals and sticking a fish on my car and moving to deepest darkest Africa. There was this underlying current to the evangelical culture around me that if we all looked really nice and happy all the time, we would attract people to Jesus. So it makes sense that when we discovered that underneath that veneer was a lot of evil and depravity, we anxiously stuffed it under our perfectly vacuumed carpets. We felt a strong need to protect God's reputation.

It's ironic that God doesn't seem to care about his reputation nearly as much as we do. We paste the smiles on, but he has no problem flinging those carpets aside for the world to see. If we won't deal with our skeletons in the closet, then he'll let a major news outlet do it for us. Considering the danger of hidden sin, perhaps even the media is a form of his grace.

We are so quick to condemn the Prosperity Gospel--the notion that God wants his people to be continuously healthy and increasingly wealthy--but what if there was an even more sinister Prosperity Gospel infiltrating our churches? A Gospel that says that God's people would never abuse children, never be mentally ill, never struggle with gender or sexuality, never be narcissistic? Because we're too good for that. Those kind of problems wouldn't happen here.

So I'm asking myself this question: How do we, as the American Church, really, truly display God's glory and his grace? Because looking nice and shiny and perfect on the outside has obviously not worked. One, because those on the outside see right through to the pride that under-girds that image, and two, because (duh) we actually haven't been as nice and shiny and perfect as we thought we were. 

The dictionary defines "disgraced" as having fallen from favor or a position of power or honor; discredited. But what if being disgraced is actually God's conduit for us to fall into grace?

The answer is right there in front of our faces, and we just keep forgetting it. The gospel acknowledges both the depravity of sin and the riches of mercy. These disgraces in the American church show us how far away we are from understanding real grace. We have no reason to boast and nothing to hide; in the end we are all beggars. Ironically, not unlike the prostitute.

Barbara Duguid writes, “One reason God allows us to fall flat on our face is so we will not be people who stand before Him taking credit for His good work. We get confused about that. If we are strong and victorious in a certain area of our lives, we start writing books about how everybody can be as good as I am on this topic. But if God lets us fall flat on our face and we’re in the dust, we realize, 'That wasn’t me. That was God, and left to myself, I’ll be flat on my face.'”

I am a part of the American Church, so I sit here with her in the dust, my reputation tarnished, my deepest secrets laid bare, my good name dragged through the mud. My choice is simple: Will I be the Pharisee, the one who prides myself on not being anything like those terribly disgusting people, and belligerently disassociate myself from having anything to do with them? Or will I be the tax collector who beats his breast and cries, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?"

Only one went home justified that day. (Luke 18:9-14)

When Jesus faced a condemned prostitute, he got down in the dust with her. Maybe if we recognize that we deserve to be down in the dust too, Jesus will meet us there. And maybe, just maybe, the next time that prostitute needs a place of refuge, she'll come to us. And we can find grace together.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Big Bad Wolf

I keep a list of things that inspire me to write, but the list just keeps getting longer but the ideas don't get crossed off. My head is at HOPAC for nine hours a day and what's left goes to family and cooking and other exciting things like trying to navigate the US immigration system so that we can get Johnny his US citizenship.

I get brilliant flashes of inspiration but no time to work them out, and for a person who has grown accustomed to processing my thinking by writing, this has created a massive traffic jam in my head.

In my old life, the one where I would sit at my computer and contemplate the intersection of my American-ness with Tanzanian culture to the soundtrack of Dora the Explorer, I used to get sleepy all the time. I would constantly find myself nodding off, and it didn't matter how much sleep I had gotten the night before. I think I was bored. I know I was bored. Bored and restless. But I also had time to bring meals to new moms and bake 100 cupcakes at a time and have people over for dinner every weekend. And I had time to write.

And now I am often exhausted but I don't get sleepy, even when I am supposed to, because my mind is so full of so many bazillions of details that I can't shut it off. I feel like a kid digging a hole in wet sand right where the waves stretch, the kind of hole where no matter how much sand you pull out of it, the hole never gets deeper. You can even have a giant pile of wet sand next to that hole--sitting there as a monument of all you think you have accomplished--but the hole never gets dug. I keep waiting for the day when I will finally feel like I am on top of everything, but I've been at this job for 19 months now, and that hole still has just as much sand in it.

My eye started twitching the other day, which is always a sure sign of stress, which I'm pretty sure was instigated by the United States Department of Immigration, which has, I believe, a secret plan to drive me over the edge. All I'm trying to do is complete the process of getting citizenship for my son who has been in our legal custody for well over three years now, which seems like it should be simple (since it was relatively so for our other three children), but as any good American knows, immigration to America is no longer simple. These days I'm picturing US immigration as a doorless, windowless, impenetrable bunker that refuses to give anyone any shred of useful information other than one guy who growls through a peephole, "You want information? Use your children's college fund to hire an immigration lawyer! Now go away!" and maybe "Not by the hairs of my chinny chin chin!" just for good measure.

There goes my twitching eye again.

Maybe this is why I was the Big Bad Wolf for Book Character Day last week. I huffed and I puffed, but in the end I ended up roasted in a pot.

Your hunch is probably right. I am losing it. You might want to just walk away slowly at this point.

What I really want to do is sit here and write a good long essay exploring the role of stress in a Christian's life. When is it good? When is it burnout? When was my life more glorifying to God--during those days when I made people happy with my cupcakes, or these days when I spend most of my days writing people emails that I know will make them unhappy?

That's an exaggeration, of course. Not all of my emails make people unhappy. But I can think of at least a dozen this week that did. There's a reason why principals have a bad reputation. (Like I said, Big Bad Wolf.)

But the problem is that I am too stressed and my brain is too full to be able to do any evaluating; all I can do is hang on for dear life and keep frantically scooping sand out of that hole.

I know I need to actively search for more rest and I know that after one more week, I'll have a break from school, so things will look different at this time a week from now. But I also want to somehow figure out how to live fully and gloriously and fearlessly in the middle of the stress, because this is where I think I'm supposed to be. If I'm looking around and it really seems, from all I can tell, that I'm living in the will of God, then there's got to be a way to do it without eye twitching. So if you've got that figured out, can you let me know? Because I don't have time to think about it.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Josiah Went to the Amani Rainforest

(So did Gil, who took all these wonderful pictures.)

Going to Amani in fifth grade is the highlight of the year, and since that tradition started way back when I taught fifth grade at HOPAC, it's especially fun to see my own kids go. In fact, one of my first posts on this blog was from an Amani trip!

African violets are native to the Amani Rainforest.

So are chameleons of all shapes and sizes.

These guys are much more interesting in the forest than in my bathroom.

Friday, March 1, 2019

What Have I Done to My Children?

My family's front porch in Liberia faced the ocean. A dirt road and a lagoon separated our house from where the sand began and the waves crashed, but it was enough of a beach house that the fridge rusted and my mom had to mop the salt off the floors every day.

Many hours would find me on the hammock on that front porch, one of the few places where my introverted tween awkwardness felt at home. It was a rough rope hammock, and I would sit sideways on it like a swing, my legs pushing against the cement railing on the porch. Liberian sunsets on that ocean, complete with silhouetted coconut palms, were as post-cardish as any honeymooner could ask for, but my clearest memories are of the rain.

Liberian rain was never some mamsy-pamsy sprinkling; it was a waterfall from the sky. The smell of that rain would engulf me, full of sea salt and warmth and growing things. And I would swing on my hammock, dreaming my young-girl dreams, and watch the lightning crack out of a dark sky and strike the expanse of my ocean.

We often miss the beauty of our childhoods while we are in the midst of it, much too focused on interpreting those best-friend-comments and science-project-scores to pay much attention, but the rain and the lightning and the swinging hammock was such a large, enveloping beauty that even in my twelve-year-old self-centeredness, I was able to feel something like awe.

Across that dirt road, in a house that was even closer to the ocean, lived friends. Their kids were around the same ages as my brother and I, and we spent many an afternoon canoeing on the swamp or trying to make a clubhouse in their attic, but it was so hot we could only each spend a few minutes in there at a time before we climbed down, gasping for breath. I practiced piano in their house every day, since they had a piano and we didn't, and one at a time, we borrowed all of their Asterix and Tin Tin comics. "Bock, Bock!" I would holler at their screen door, because that's what you said in Liberia when you came to someone's door. They would always let me in.

We made a teepee out of palm branches and their daughter and me created fantasy lands for our Barbie dolls in the sand and the swamp and the forest around our homes. They were from Arizona, so at Christmas they introduced us to the tradition of paper bag lanterns--luminarias--which filled the humid night air with magic.

My third-culture-kid childhood was filled with so much beauty--both in the land itself, and in so many people who loved me and became like family, because that's what happens when you find yourself thrust into a land with other foreigners who, like you, have no idea what they are doing.

I always wanted my own children to have a childhood like that.

Remarkably, they have. They already have more stamps in their passports than most people get in a lifetime. They've stood in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and visited the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. They've fed giraffes in Kenya and watched baby sea turtles hatch and spent hundreds of hours in warm tropical oceans. And they have been deeply loved by Zimbabweans and Brits and Americans and Tanzanians who have enriched their lives with accents and cultures and family-bonds.

But as I dreamed that life for my kids, I failed to remember the grief.

It is easy to remember all the great stuff but naively think I would be able to protect my kids from all the hard stuff. Changing schools and relationships and countries and cultures several times in the course of a childhood--as extraordinary as it all sounds--is also excruciating.

Grace came home with a large drawing board in a plastic artist's folder last week.

"It's from my art teacher," she said proudly. "He's starting me on advanced art. He says that he's going to give me a head's start for IGCSE Art in 9th grade. I mean, if I'm here in 9th grade."

If I'm here. Because we don't know.

We had lunch with friends the other day, the ones who have felt like family for ten years. But they are leaving Tanzania this summer, and their daughter and Grace are an unbeatable duo--truly a sight to behold--on their basketball team. "You've got to come move near us and go to my school, and we can play basketball together!" she pleaded with Grace. Because it's unthinkable to imagine living apart.

That same day we got more news: Another family we know and love will be leaving even sooner. I told the kids in the car; I didn't want to look them in the eyes. Everyone was silent.

They are getting used to this.

And I wonder, What have I done to my children?

I remember how I wept when I found out that we wouldn't be able to return to Liberia; wept for the loss of my home, wept for the country that was being destroyed by war. That family who lived on the other side of the road--after two years of water balloon fights and piano practices and luminarias and sharing every part of life--we separated into different worlds and we never saw them again.

I look into my children's stony faces, steeling themselves against another loss; I hear the if I'm here in their voices and I remember my own childhood--the part I don't like to remember. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," I'll say without a moment's hesitation. But is it fair to impose on them the pain that goes with it? Do I have the right to say to them, "This is going to hurt a whole lot, but it will be worth it?"

I guess that's the thing about parenting--we make all these choices for these small people under our care, and they don't get any say in it. We choose where they will live, how they will be educated, how many siblings they will have, who they will be friends with. None of this seems like a big deal when they are little and an extension of us, but then they get bigger and smarter and they start to realize that some of the choices we made for them have difficult repercussions. Our enthusiastic, It will be worth it! starts to sound more hollow, to them and to us, because the truth is, we really don't know if it will be.

I'm realizing that as much as I want (and try) to write my kids' stories for them, I really only get to make the basic outline. I can create the setting and even write in a bunch of the characters, but they control the perspective, which is really what makes or breaks a story. And ultimately, I must trust that there's an Author who's a whole lot bigger than I am, and who loves them a whole lot more than I do, who is doing most of the writing behind the scenes.