I’m No Missionary: Letting God Wreck Our Life Anyway

I listened to a homily today while I faced off with one of the few things I can control: our family dishes.

Let’s have an aside before we begin, to high five all the priests across the land who can take us to hermeneutics of seminary, reveal something new about the Divine, and drive it to heart personally, all within twelve minutes or less. Listen and learn non-denominational microphone mackers to your liturgical brethren of the concise pulpit.

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The main point from the homily was that Mary, the mother of God-made-flesh, is an ultimate example of responding to God with a YES and becoming a part of that divine response. But even Mary wasn’t given the final game plan and had to live by faith as events unfolded.

In our circle there has been a lot of discussion and fumbling tries to understand what it means to be a current buzz-word – “family on mission” – and the practical ways this can play out for a typical Christian family in America where there is never enough time or money or energy or fill-in-the-blank with what your deficit mentality warns.

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There is a movement for our families to figure out how we allow our lives to be a yes here and now, with what we are already doing. This is clunky and full of half-starts, because changing culture is hard and when it comes down to it, we just don’t want the inconvenience of it all.

There is an ingrained sentimentality that if you do mission work “over there” then of course it will be uncomfy.

Of course there will be bugs.

Of course there will be physical, spiritual, and emotional opposition.

Of course I had day-visions of demons while living that summer in China.

Of course my husband almost died from malaria gone-too-far while we were missionaries in Malawi.

Of course our friend was stabbed for a cell phone and left to bleed out while his four boys watched when serving in Costa Rica.

Of course.

“These things happen,” we rationalize. It is all part of the missionary gig to expect risk. We have normalized this opposition so much we become blasé to the dangers.

But what about here?

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We want Divine yes-breath to warm and woosh over our life but we get irked when it frizzes our hair out a bit.

What is the disconnect to expect drama and sacrifice for the “over there” missionaries so much we anticipate it, and let’s face it, junkies for the high of those stories, but attempt to avoid risk and inconvenience at all cost as “families on mission” here?

You always tell us how brave we are to do foster care. We are and we are not. Mostly, we just told God we are okay with a messy life and we are figuring out the rest as we go.

You always widen your eyes and ask if teaching in an economically challenged middle school is something we always dreamed of. We laugh. After eight years of being in that community, my husband feels a responsibility to continue in those relationships, especially in this current political climate to be a person of kindness to his many teenage refugee students.

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We by no means have this figured out but we’re trying to be open and there is a cost. There is heartache and unknowing and measly paychecks to the way we are setting up our life here. Sometimes I find myself telling off God for messing with what could have been a very easy life.

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I am left to wonder how pushing away hardship from our lives all these years hardened our hearts to the plight of people over there and paved the way for fear to be weaponized legally and seemingly instantaneously.

I live from the gut so when you yell at me it is either the safety of my children or the safety of theirs, I have a moment of confusion and second guessing, because I am not addressing issues from a position of cerebral authority – which is the only position our culture upholds as true.

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I teeter for a moment before I remember that is a straw-man argument. I don’t buy into that. There is my family and there is their family and there is your family and there is enough for all.

We have fallen in love with our comfortable, un-inconvenienced lives more than our fellow man. Both within our own city, and certainly with those beyond our borders.

I consider Mary from my viewpoint of a mother who is obsessively in love with her kids. Even Mary had to watch her son be publicly humiliated and slowly murdered. Even she. Safety has never been the banner of living a life for others.

So people of the church. It is time to decide. How do we live now?

 

 

 

 

Why Fair Trade, Organic Clothes Matter.

No one wants to be the seven months pregnant lady, yelling at a Malawian sitting legless in a rusty wheelchair on the crumbling edge of a gas station triangled between a red dirt ditch, smoldering trash pile, and mango grove. But that lady, I was. Eyes fixated on the apple squishing at his lips.

Rain fell; water balloons bouncing off my own baby belly and bursting off my bony shoulder blades. Just me and this man, the boy and the apple, and the rain.

In my defense- if there can be a defense to this scene- I had just given that apple to the boy. The boy walked to the back and gave it to the man. The man held it up to his mouth and I lost mine at the confrontation this man had pimped out this boy for food and I was complicit in the scheme.

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That day was a blistering reminder we cannot remain blissfully ignorant of our transactions. What we do is part of a bigger picture.

That was almost ten years ago.

With the ubiquity of smart phones and simultaneous dawn of social media, immediate access to global information sits in our hand. As global consumers it feels either irresponsible or ignorant to pretend like we do not know how the way we spend our money ripples back to affect all those along the supply line.

I started an experiment in wardrobe purchases (because it was bothering me that I didn’t know if that clearance tank I got at the big box store was sewn by a woman fired for having a miscarriage on the job with working conditions that derived the death, or if those leggings sewn in Bangladesh were done by a man recently beaten for trying to unionize against false pay slips).

Sixth months ago, I began only buying clothes for myself second hand or from clothing companies that were forwardly embracing both rights of their workers and healthy environmental practices. (Finding things for the kids has been much harder, but that is a discussion for another time and we basically live off kid hand-me-downs anyway.)

No more snagging the dress in the fun print off the clearance rack, barely slowing my cart  before heading to the bread aisle.

Peace out, Urban.

Current fashion also aided my endeavors thanks to the snap-crotch leotard-as-shirt making it’s rounds back from the worst depths of the early 90’s to the women’s department. Befuddlingly, these are “in” again and I spent a good five minutes gawking at the absurdity while having a real Hamlet style existential soliloquy moment via one-sided text conversation to my best friend. How are these a thing (again)! Resist, dear women, resist!

Putting that $6 boho shirt back was easy when holding the hanger I heard the lamenting wail of factory women world-round.

I know that feels dramatic and ridiculous and not every article of cheap clothing we buy here bragging about the sale we scored comes at the cost of someone else’s humanity, but….this is the way my brain works and I’m still banking it does more than not.

Yes, the cost is the cost. Clothes made responsibly cost more money to purchase. It makes more sense to buy staples and signature clothing pieces that will withstand the passage of time.

At thirty-four I know what I’m about and my sense of fashion is a little “quirky”, so I also often use the KonMari method and purchase clothes that lift my spirits. The balance to this expense is the reality that my favorite purchase last year is the gray tank I practically stole from the thrift store for 75cents and wear at least twice a week.

Transparency is beginning to happen because you and I as consumers are saying this matters to us. Companies like Target are listening and are making new initiatives in their responsible sourcing processes all the way from the agriculture where the raw materials are produced, to the humanization of the workers and are trying to change their practices.

This Christmas my stocking was filled with organic cotton, fair-trade socks and big booty underwear. Nothing says “I REALLY love you” from my husband than generously gifting extra soft, extra wide panties because we all know that’s what he’s going to bed with until these lovelies disintegrate off my body from overuse because I also have a slight problem with throwing things away.

 

I leave you with a quote I have rubbed smooth like a worry stone this past decade lifted from the journal of a wise, wise man, Thomas Merton:

” Therefore, if I don’t pretend, like other people, to understand the war, I do know this much: that the knowledge of what is going on only makes it seem desperately important to be voluntarily poor, to get rid of all possessions this instant. I am scared, sometimes, to own anything, even a name, let alone a coin or shares in oil, the munitions, the airplane factories. I am scared to take a proprietary interest in anything for fear that my love of what I own may be killing somebody somewhere.” 

Purchasing responsibly resourced clothes is potentially another one of those annoying group projects from school days where I carry the load of work while apathetic partners do diddly- where I conscientiously change the entire mindset of our family’s consumer purchases for the benefit of people I will never know and a future of our planet I will never see.

I’m okay with that. But, I hope with time, you’ll join me.

 

 

My On-Again-Off-Again Relationship

I’ve been in an on-again-off-again relationship with various denominations over the span of my adult life. They have all helped me. The have all let me down. I am relieved to learn faith is not a denomination.

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Our communion bread was baked by local Carmelites. It was dense but soft and tasted like a thousand prayers sung before dawn.

When the priest set it on our palm, a moment of honeyed-lightness cleared the air before we were again submerged into the heady-safety-scent of incense. Years later I found myself in a parish youth group. We sang Beatles and Rent and post Vatican 2 hymns from the Spirit and Songbook. We played a lot of gotcha rounds in the gym and dated and undated each other and collected socks and soap for the poor with the Harley riding, habit wearing nun in charge of us.

Afterward, we’d drive to Denny’s with the windows down no matter the weather. Most would smoke, all would order milkshakes and quote movies until midnight. We were vagabonds and sloppy and I had a special tenderness toward this crew because I felt like they weren’t pretending and that was a faith I could get on board with.

But I saw the way our parents prostrated through mass in a familiar pew but were unchanged through the week and didn’t want any part of it. I was suspicious of the paternal wall constructed by the church. As a teen, I stared at the dried glue strands pulled between torn seem and sole on the bottom of the priest’s shoe while I confessed the sins of my body and mind to this man. Leaving the confessional in a splotchy purple of shame, I decided these are not my people after all and I broke up with Catholicism and it’s mystical traditions without experiential encounters of mystery.

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In college while I was busy pulling all nighters talking and kissing with my one-day husband, then pulling all nighters writing passable papers for courses that I should have written better in the time I was using to talk and kiss, I also fell in love with new ways of understanding God.

A campus fellowship taught me how to analyze passages of scripture finding historical context, Greek meaning in words, repetitive urgency in syntax, and Old Testament allusions. Defining the Greek felt like a good and grown up way to quantify God. Nothing feels more official than the heft of a lexicon.

“Non-denominational service” felt a whole lot like Protestant to me where the room was dark and the band was loud and our very bones conducted additional reverb for the amp. It felt wild. It felt good.

For a few summers I worked as a camp counselor for a high profile Christian sports camp in the south. We looped chapstick on our shoelaces with hairties and spontaneously and collectively burst into chant at nearly every phrase possible. We did ridiculous stunts for each other and the kids and Jesus. Kids leading kids.

Faith came in containers of goofy skits, tactile object lessons, poignant heroes of faith stories, and prayer of salvation folding puzzle cubes. It was wonderful but also a cult unto itself and no matter how many cheers I did, I never quite grafted into this cool-kid club.

(Side story:this is also the time period when the audaciously full-frontal platonic bearhug from a guy friend in the parking lot of a Shakey’s on our night off tipped me into tears because I realized it was the first time I had been touched caringly by someone beyond the needy grabs of my cabin kids in weeks. Thanks purity culture for dehumanizing us by demonizing our need for physicality. Glad we’re starting to deconstruct that one.Un-side story.)

My concerns about cleaning the lake slide with unmeasured amounts of bleach were listened to but unchanged. My suggestion we begin recycling was met with a logistic defense of why we don’t, and when I wondered aloud if perhaps the generic chief headdress and warpaint worn by Christian white boys crossed into offensive cultural appropriation, I was labelled “that liberal girl”.

Again, I decided these were not my people and I broke up with Protestantism and the being pushed and pulled by emotions. I didn’t want to be around people smiling and focusing so intensely in worship with their hands up and eyes closed they were left little peripheral reach to see or care for the people and environment around them.

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We walked down the diploma stage and directly to the marriage aisle before moving to another continent. My classroom was filled with collaborative projects, early literacy writings, big books, and equatorial heat. Our home was full of wall hangings and bugs and exhaustion and this felt right as I put on the title of missionary.

I followed the special rules given to us. On bad days, I became part of the problem of Western/African disconnect. On good days, even in the best of heart, it still felt that by simply being there we were perpetuating the harmful mentalities and practices of post-colonialism.

I slowly watched my husband of harmony harden and crumble while a power couple picked a fight with his character. Suddenly I understood the distrust others have for Christians based in the real pain of disappointing interactions with people in spiritual authority.

This didn’t feel like God, so I broke up with missionaries but kept the inspiration of faith from those I met from all over the globe during our time there as we came home to heal spiritual wounds and ideological rifts (and drink together while doing so).

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There is more to the story of returning to church, and working for church, then recovering from working for church and the need and motivation behind those seasons and what continues now. And there is so much more to each part of these spiritual timelines.

For now I want to apologize for being that girl during each of these spiritual seasons. I was learning. I was trying to be the best at each one. They gave me guidelines to understand myself and the world and what I could cling to of God. I know I was annoying sometimes.

And for now I want to honor myself for being that girl during each of these spiritual seasons. I was allowing Spirit to breathe through soul and teach me truths in spite of all the brokenness in these spiritual sectors.

The cost might be a spiritual homelessness and a continual longing for both the bread and the incense, the perky cheers and feeling the bass drum in our chest, but the gain is no longer needing defined outlines.

The gain is being assured that knowing less for sure about God at thirty than at twenty is growth in a humbly truthful direction.

The gain is recognizing that when my faith needs space, I create a wider boundary for spirituality to take root in all areas.

I don’t have to continue breaking up with denominations anymore. It turns out they never were the keepers of my faith anyway.

 

 


Since sending this post into the world many of you have messaged or texted your concerns and questions. So why stay? We stay at our church because of the people. Although they are imperfect, I’ve seen their hearts, particularly the hearts of those in leadership. They are for others. They are tiptoeing toward riskier conversations and allow difference of opinion, journey, and unanswered questions stand. 

 

 

 

 

 

A Discourse Against Short Term Missions

So dear church friend, you’ve signed up for a two week trip to the Southern Hemisphere this summer. You invite me to squeal in delight and chat over coffee but are dampened by my (unpopular) thoughts about this.

You want to travel. Travel. You want adventure. Seek it. You want to serve. Serve. But please don’t confuse your short term mission trip as the holy trifecta of these desires.

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A hairbrush – long strands of auburn entangled.

Used deodorant.

Toothbrush.

You left these with a “thought you’d enjoy!” card on the back of the toilet. We did not.

You came. You gawked at the difference in culture and scenery. You danced with the people and couldn’t get over how happy the poor are. You left just as your bodies were adjusting to the time change, to the sun.

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I have issues with the term “missionary” but for lack of better verbiage, I will say we lived as international missionaries for three years. In that time we were galvanized, softened, strengthened, reformed. It was excruciating at times. It was living fully. It was lonely at times. It was always good.

I cannot, all these years later, understand what impact was made for the unseen greater good of humanity other than it changed me.

 

The realities:

In the Majority World, the axis is relationships and relationships take longevity. We lived on $10,000 a year. Add your team’s plane tickets up. Gasp. Could you give that money to sponsor a long-term friend instead? That is an unfun sacrifice no one wants to hear. There is zero in it for you.

Being a year-round missionary is physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, everything-ally exhausting. I guarantee they are shouldering so much. And now they are hosting you. Taking you to the best strawberry vendors. Driving you to the orphanage. Running interference at the roundabout. And happy to do so. But is your presence life-giving to their spirit or a distraction from their work?

Please start saying thank you and stop leaving them your used toiletries for which they should be grateful.

Clearly, I am not ambivalent to this subject being a receiver of a great many half-filled travel shampoo bottles myself. (Please hold the hate mail about this post.)

So you want to go to Africa for two weeks, four weeks, a year? What I ask you is this.

Can you serve faithfully, without a backslap of affirmation right where you are?

Could you come in before sunrise to set up church and leave before anyone notices. every. Sunday?

Can you move the conversation at the check-out line from rote script into reflecting that person’s worthiness and beauty back toward them?

Can you see the bend of justice in the arc of time in this fleeting little moment now and draw others into its delicate shimmer?

Can you make one more dinner the kids complain about? 

If you can’t do these, don’t go to Africa.

If you do go to Africa, know it is mostly for your transformation. This is okay. Just be honest. Go to listen. Not to fix. Go without a watch. Without expectation. Let yourself be changed.

If you do go, please don’t leave your used toiletries. Unloading your unwanted is not a sacrificial blessing.

If you do leave your things, leave your best perfume on the dresser, your newest jeans in the closet, your stories on the coffee table.

Leave changed and prepared to give freely in your everyday life. This transformation is the long-term return of your short-term trip. Please, make it worth the energy and resources invested.