Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poverty, Privilege, and Such

(Editor's note: Please bear with the parts where I'm a bit reactionary in this post. I'm really passionate about this, so I may seem judgmental and soapbox-standing. I don't intend that, so I apologize in advance for the places where I suffer in translation. I don't apologize for the content, though. This topic disturbs me.)

"My dad always told me, 'Don't waste your money on people who are poor. They're poor because they chose to be.'"

I shot a covert glance at the speaker, horrified at her blatant lack of empathy. She sipped her coffee, young and designer, the brands of her clothes and the logo of one of the most expensive schools in the country on her bag all screaming "I didn't earn this myself", and I wanted to ask her if she understands what privilege is. 

Poverty. Those who don't know it do not understand it. And we do ourselves a huge favor if we just admit that aloud. More than needing to not appear offensive, we truly need redemption and softening... to be humble and loving. 

The kind of money that enables a person to live without any concern toward it is extremely rarely built up in one generation. And if a person doesn't have a role model to follow, making and saving money is a complex and constant problem. Or, if a person has health or emotional difficulties, they may appear able-bodied and still not be able to deal with the daily demands of a job. And that's just the beginning of the problems caused by a lack of the social and family structures so many of us take completely for granted. 

Let me quote an excellent Times article

"Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.
But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.
Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.
All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs."

It's poor taste, at the very best,  for those of us with a roof over our heads to lack empathy for those sleeping on concrete in the cold tonight, but it makes me cringe especially small when I hear such things from the church. I often think of people with names and faces whose stories are much harder than mine and haven't received all the help I have and wonder if the church would still be saying disparaging things if we knew faces and stories and names instead of statistics and dollar signs. We need to remember that we haven't earned much of what places us where we are on the socioeconomic hierarchy, and that our lack of desperate need does not mean we automatically have the answers for those we deem beneath us.

While I agree with some of the criticism often aimed at social welfare programs, saying they're sometimes mismanaged and in some cases ineffective in breaking the cycle of poverty, I wholeheartedly disagree with the often-selfish sentiment behind much of that criticism. Ending the cycle of poverty is as complex as the issues of its causation. Handing a large sum of money to someone whose drug abuse has rendered them homeless might not help them at all, and offering healing and community to that person is a long and sacrificial journey, but surely we can do better than (either to their faces or safely online) saying they should just get a job.

You may have ideas, good ones, about how to make good life changes. But may I ask you a favor? Unless you know what it's like to be completely alone in the world and trying to stay warm and fed, please respond with kindness instead of distaste and judgment. Surely we can do better than that.

Surely, especially because the Jesus we're celebrating this month was born, in today's lingo, on the street. As an adult, he was homeless. He depended on other people for meals. He knew need. By his life and words, He teaches us that God comes to us in the form of the needy, and how we treat them is how we treat Him.

Another excerpt from the Times piece:

"Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.
And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization."

As we receive grace from God for our sins, we know what need is. We understand that we are totally dependent upon what we don't deserve, and we know that compassion should not be merely a mark of civilization. Compassion is a mark of following Jesus.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hope is for the Foolish Ones

I lit the Advent candle by the lights of Joshua Tree. (I always name my tree Joshua. For Yeshua, our undying hope, and because of a certain favorite music album by a certain favorite band.) I read the day's prayer of longing and hope, and sat in the half dark, bringing to God the dark things waiting for His light to dawn. 

Waiting is hard and hope a reckless necessity when a bride is dying of cancer. I begged God to shine on my friends Josh and Jean, and still the updates of her battle were filled with anguish and little hope. 

That was last year.

Hope isn't for the blithe. Darkness and longing must be faced in order to know how to watch at the window for the first streaks of dawn. Only those whose eyes are trained to peer through the night will catch the moment it begins to pale.

Hope isn't for the times we feel we can control the ending of the page or the chapter, or even know the end of the book. We're allowed to seal our hearts against it, if we want. God lets us choose numbness and despair, in cowardice and pride refusing to open ourselves to the possibility that we do not know and do not rule. 

Because hope is an admission that we are not in control.

It's foolishness to sit in darkness, asking God to rise like the sun, when you have said the same words over and over for endless weeks while the waiting grinds on and you have no proof God hears. Only a fool will stand in defiance against suffocating despair and proclaim, "Even if God isn't listening and these are only words, I WILL SAY THEM." 

And this is how hope redeems us of our pride.

Because hope is only for the foolish who gamble everything on God... The reckless ones who are brave enough to admit we can't see the end. And can't begin to control it. 

Hope is for the foolish ones who trust the One who knows what it is to be blood and bones and walk in dirt and cry over dying ones He loves... and wait long and hard until He shows up... whether in this age or in the next. 

(Thank you, God. Thank you that Josh still has Jean this year.)

Sunday, September 29, 2013


The good thing, the terrifying thing, about grief... It reduces me to "I don't know". 

How are you? What is going to happen? Are you okay? What do you need? 

I don't know. 

I guess I was a bit addicted to answers. To figuring things out. To working out the redemption and seeing the good and the end. It's an empty feeling, being devoid of any knowing of the way to walk through uncertainty and pain of this magnitude. 

I think maybe my answer-seeking cripples me sometimes. 

Yesterday, I sat cross-legged in the center of my favorite giant tree stump and tried to feel where God is in this whole thing. I followed the light filtering through the trees and all the shifting hues of color and all the other ways God usually finds me and my crashing dissonance starts to harmonize and I start to work out a sense of good in the world and balance it with the reasons my head aches from crying. I couldn't get anywhere.

I know the theology. I firmly believe that God is complete Love and Beauty and Life Abundant. I can see that all this suffering and chaos is not of His causing. It's clear to me that the enemy is stealing, killing, and destroying, using people and events to mar whatever good he can reach. I know and have seen that God has always been working overtime to restore and redeem, but none of this patched anything for me this time. I couldn't arrive at any conclusion I could rest in, knowing that THIS time, again, God can make something good. How can He do that when the last bits of good in an already-broken story are the bits being ground to dust? 

I don't know. 

And it scares me. 

I was looking at the light again, absently wondering why I felt so estranged from it and unable to reach it with my being, when I remembered telling Ryan all the things that had me tense and worried. How he repeated over and over until I relaxed and let it be my greater reality: I love you. 

And the color-tinted trees, the lines of the branches reaching their fingers to the bottomless blue, the evening light-beams reaching down to the green underneath, alive with whole communities of chipmunks, birds, and bugs... In ALL of it, I felt God say the same thing in a voice too deep for the ears.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

And that is my greatest reality. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

something wonderful

in the face of all that is twisted, broken, painful, and wrong,
the bravest act of worship is
of all that is right and good and wonderful and whole.

Something wonderful will happen today.
Look for it.
Smile in recognition.
Celebrate it with abandon.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thank God

A year ago, I marched right past this guy.

Stiffly ignored him, when he was standing inside the door of the otherwise-empty-except-for-my-cousin-and-I auditorium. Obviously wanting to meet me. Also obviously, I could go outside in the dark alone to investigate when a human prowler is spotted, but when hit with a tsunami realization that THIS GUY could very possibly topple my self-protective, self-sufficient little life... I was capable of no other response than clipping past him in my grey heels. Pretending I didn't see him at all.

Yeah. That happened. The first time we met in person.

Thank God he had the courage to chase me down, otherwise I know I would have barred any further interaction.

Disclaimer: I'm not a huge fan of the dramatic approach to guy/girl interactions. For instance, a girl purposely acts opposite of how she feels to gauge a guy's interest by his response. It may suit some people, but it's not really the way I operate. And I wasn't intending to. When I saw him waiting, I fully intended to meet him calmly and normally. But, when the shoes met the carpet, I was terrified. Apparently I'm rude when I'm terrified.

My dear Bekah was standing on the other side of the door. Safety! Until he addressed my turned back with a "Becca", silencing my frantic non-talk with Bekah.

I turned, shook his hand, and couldn't think of a word to say.

So horribly frozen and strange, with this person I had connected with so well for the previous months! First by discovering and commenting on his blog because who would have guessed that another person would think and feel so many things I do? Then messaging about art, music, theology, books, and all the endless conversations I easily have with people I know well. Because I felt I did. Which was a bit strange, seeing as I didn't. But we have a lot of mutual friends and circulated in a few of the same Mennonite circles (or squares, as they've also been called). So, it didn't feel strange until I was faced with actually meeting him. And the niggling realization that I really could like this guy, which I'd conveniently discounted because I was still standing on my soapbox entitled "It's Impossible to Really Know Someone You Don't Know in Person", had mushroomed upon sight. Which, silly, doesn't actually happen to real people.

We made the smallest edition of small talk I've ever experienced. It didn't even occur to me to introduce Bekah, who was still standing in the very immediate vicinity. He left. I escaped to fresh air, maddened almost to tears with myself. And how is a person supposed to process happenings and emotions for which you simply don't have categories in which to put them? Categories are helpful for processing. And I just didn't have any.

After a week, sufficient equilibrium had returned for me to end the atypical silence with an apology for my awkwardness. And a thanks for taking the trouble to meet me.

Thank God I did, because (I discovered when we made fill-in-the-gap confessions after we started dating) he was prepared to let our friendship, which had felt so effortless and enjoyable, quietly fade. Because, obviously, it was more than a little strange to interact so easily with typed words... and then be so nearly incapable of conversation in person.

Thank God that was a year ago.
And we laugh at the memory.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Things I'm Learning

Truth isn't always found in the corners of logic, although truth contains logic. 

No matter the issue... political or non-... SOMEONE'S life, 

in very personal, 

very vulnerable ways, 

is labeled for other people to discuss with no regard for 

their experience or emotions. 

We learn best from people when we know we're equal to them 

and cared about by them. 

Even controversial conversations are important, 

but no one was ever argued into the Kingdom... or much else. 

Relationships are where the best, 

most important, 

and most life-giving conversations happen.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Became of Me

No, I didn't fall off the edge of the world. But, then, the world doesn't have edges. So you knew that. But, in case you wondered what became of me, that's what this post is about.

Ever wonder what would happen if you stopped... completely stopped? And how it would feel if the rest of the world went on turning while you stayed absolutely still? I'm not sure I wondered, but I discovered.

After three months of symptoms I partially ignored because I thought I was invincible (and also because I'm stubborn), I arrived home from work in late January and stood on my porch in a thick stupor. My brain seemed stuck. I couldn't figure out whether to first find the the house key or insert it into the lock. That inability to think sequentially was happening with regularity when I was tired, but never had so seriously impeded daily functioning. When I finally figured out how to get into my house, I collapsed into bed. Slept a few hours, then woke. A strange helplessness gripped me even before I tried to stand... and realized I couldn't.

The next few days are strange and blurry, even to memory. My friend Julie and her husband Laverne "happened" to be in the area for the weekend. Julie helped me navigate decisions. How do you orchestrate a radical life change when you're so weak you can't think? And have no idea what to expect of the future, as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome seems to impose different limitations on everyone? I'll tell you how. You rely on your people because you have no other choice. Carla brought food, which had suddenly become a matter of survival. I'd crawl to the kitchen, slowly make food, eat it, then feel more depleted than before. The expenditure of energy to make meals just seemed infinitely greater than the energy replaced by having ingested it. Julie sat with me in the doctor's office and let me lay my head on her shoulder because I didn't have the energy to hold my head up. Just having her there gave me strength. I hate doctors and avoid them at all costs. And I knew I had CFS and didn't want blood tests and scans for everything from brain tumors to ingrown toenails. I had to convince him to give me a physician's order for medical leave from work. So I wobbled back to the exam room, tense and determined.

He sat down across from me and asked in the kindest way, "What's wrong?" No clinical jargon, no "let me diagnose you because you have no idea what your body is doing". Everything came out in a rush. The insomnia, inability to focus, the body aches, then the sudden energy crash. "What are you, twenty-five? Yeah, that's when I crashed, too. I worked in mental health. It's a tough gig, and because you care so much, you wore yourself out. You need to stop."

I argued. Once I had physical energy again, I would be fine. I can deal with the emotional intensity. I love my job. It's rewarding. And I'm good at it. And could he please just give me three weeks off? Then I'd be fine again. I just need sleep.

He sighed and looked at me sidelong. "You crying?" And he wiped my eye with his thumb, and it wasn't even strange.

"I'm sorry! I'm not a public crier!"

"Oh, don't worry about it. I was crying everywhere. At the grocery store. Everywhere. And I'm not going to give your three weeks off work, because you'll feel a little better, and you'll go right back to it. I'm not going to let you get as low as I did. You have other interests, right? Get better, then go do them."

How did this doctor know me? And know what I needed to hear?

"You gave everything you had," he kept repeating. "Now stop."

And so I did. Quit my job. Just like that, quit what had been nearly my entire world for almost three years. I hung up from telling my boss and sobbed. Julie hugged me until I stopped.

Art and Lisa took care of my next month's rent so, suddenly without income, I didn't have to make the moving decision for another month. Geryll and Carla offered their home to me if I needed it. Julie's parents told her and Laverne to not leave without bringing me back to recover at their place.

I felt like Frodo, going to stay with the Elves.

In a matter of days, what could have been cataclysmic was just... taken care of. And I didn't have to do anything but rest. I couldn't do anything but rest. Before, being needy and not tending my own affairs was nearly impossible for me to handle. When I didn't have another choice but accepting help, I learned something: it's a precious thing, being part of the Body of Christ. What else would make friends treat you like family? What do people do without it? Become homeless, maybe. We're all just fragile. That is all. So little stands between us and utter vulnerability. And those of us who know people who act like Jesus have a network of support that catches us and holds us up. And by this all people know we are disciples...

Let me tell you, being in bed nearly 24/7 for almost a month isn't a picnic, even though there appear to be a few similarities. You know, quilts and things. Few things are more demoralizing than a constant bedhead. But realizing how much of your self-worth is entangled in being happy, active, useful, and moderately intelligent is definitely one of those things. In one fell swoop, I was left without all the things that defined me. I couldn't focus enough to read. Creeping to the bathroom a few times a day was my daily feat. I felt so utterly useless.

But here's the thing about loss. And suffering. It not only refines us... It redefines us. That's the redemption. Not even having anything interesting to say anymore laid bare my constant earning. From God. From people. I loved the things I did because I loved them, but if I was honest with myself, I would have admitted I thought my worth was earned.

After three weeks, and I was only capable of two hours of activity... and dear Mimi and Julie were still serving me meals in bed, I was reduced to absolute honesty. I had to let go of the old definition of myself and what made me feel valuable. I had to trust that my worth is intrinsic... that being made by God and being loved by Him gives me worth I can't earn or diminish. So simple, in mere print. So absolutely massive to believe. Thus began a seismic shift that continues... continues to liberate me.

I'm learning a new way to live. To rest when I'm tired. To accept that some days I simply don't have the energy to do everything I want to do. To trust that reading to kids and listening to friends is important and valuable work that God is using to bring His Kingdom. Some days, when walking across town leaves me tired and I just desperately want to run again, I'm impatient and petulant. And then I remember how it feels to be pushed in a wheelchair because my legs wobbled too much to walk, and I am grateful. So grateful to be recovering as quickly as I am...


There is no end to redemption.

Or the way God gives in return far more than we lose.

Here's some proof.

The guy who had been such a good friend for the previous year and a half asked me to be his best friend. And I have time to enjoy him. But that's a whole other story...

Until I tell a synopsis, you really should read Ryan's blog. I think you'll agree that I'm completely objective in stating that he's pretty amazing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

art giveaway

I know. I promised not to do any art hawking on this site, but for those of you who aren't on facebook or twitter, or checking my art site regularly... I thought you might want to know that I'm doing an art giveaway. Want a chance to win this original?

Yes? Head over to my art blog to find out how.