Monday, December 8, 2014

An Open Letter to Brave New Englanders

Dear New Englanders,

We've had a tedious relationship, you and I.

Back in college, I prayed for you often.  I prayed that God would stir up your affections for Him, that He would send workers to the harvest. I did not want to be one of them.

But when I heard clearly the call to move to this strange land, I suspected it might be one of the most exciting adventures of my life. Even though I often felt scathed by your expert sarcasm {which, let's be honest, mostly goes over my head} and although I wasn't sure how to interpret your skepticism about the new girl who moved from Tennessee, some of you quickly became dear friends.  As for those of you who held me at arms' length, I found your aloofness oddly endearing. You played hard to get, made me work for your friendship. And I'm a firm believer that nothing good comes easy.

More than five years later, you have won me over. I love your smarts and your spunk, your quick wit and your killer work ethic.  I'm warmed by your love of the created world and of adventure.  In spite of my prepster sentiments (not that I'm alone in those here), I have even come to love your granola men with their burly beards and your earthy-crunchy women with their Nalgenes in tow. {Heck, I even bought one myself, and I'm happy to report that I drink more water, thanks to you.}

Most of all,

you have charmed me with your incredible resilience in the face of tragedy, storm, and unthinkable human suffering. 

There is an image of you emblazoned on my mind from the morning after the formidable October snowstorm of 2011: Trees were down everywhere and most of the roads were closed as I tried to make my way to church, which of course had not been canceled. All was eerily still, except for you, young and old, out shoveling your driveways. As if your lives depended on it.

That was when—finally—I think I really understood you:

You are fierce because you have to be here.  

You set your face to the elements and press on.  

And two years ago, when the brightest December morning turned to darkest night, you refused to be undone. In the harshest winter storm of all, you have held your ground. Like those brave souls out shoveling October snow, you are picking up the pieces of unimaginable pain in the midst of what ought not be. 

You inspire me to be braver, unflinching, able to withstand the cold.

I am forever grateful for the example of your unyielding hearts. You make me proud to live in this foreign land. And I trust that God is using even this to draw you closer to Himself.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An Open Letter to the Walnut Hill Class of 2014...and all my Connecticut kiddos

Just about month ago, as the loveliness and longing of Advent was unfolding almost too quickly for me to notice, I packed my bags and moved north. Leaving my students at Walnut Hill has just about torn my heart in in two. Oh how I have loved those precious, spunky, (sometimes prickly), wonderful ones! In this season of singleness, I can't begin to explain how much "mine" they have felt. The sweetest gift of grace from the very best Giver, so much more love than I could have ever asked or imagined. 

This post, originally penned sentimentally for my most recent grads, has become a note of deepest hope for them all--the several hundred students I've been honored to know and to lead these past five years, and especially the current high schoolers.

On our last meetings together, I reminded them of Paul's words to his beloved Timothy: "For I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that He is able to guard that which I have entrusted unto Him until that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12). And so I offer back those who were never truly mine, trusting that He is able to keep them steadfastly for His glory and their good.


Something about sending off the class of 2014 has messed me up. Maybe it's because they're the first class of students at Walnut Hill whom I've known since they were middle schoolers. Or maybe it's because my own ten-year high school reunion has just passed that I'm feeling extra sentimental. Maybe a little of both. As I think about their adventures in the coming years, I'm mindful that there's so much more I wish I could have taught them.

Dear Class of 2014,

As you make your way out in the wide world, I am so proud of you and so excited about all you will accomplish. There will be great temptation, however, to focus your life on lesser things: what you can do (success) or whom you're with (relationship). I'm most concerned with who you will be (character); this is what really counts for eternity. And the gospel says that you can't do it on your own. But there is One who lived a perfectly obedient life on your behalf so that you could inherit his own righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21)! Determine now the kind of man or woman you want to be, and then ask Jesus to help you to live in him, making decisions every day with that end in mind.

I hope you will be brave.
I am certain that courage will be called for in your generation more than ever before. And this passive, faint-hearted approach of those around you will not do. We need you to have guts, to take risks, to refuse to back down. I pray fierce prayers for you that the lessons you have learned in little Connecticut will make you steady in the midst of difficult times. You have nothing to fear in this life, friends, for the God of the universe goes before you! Be strong and courageous.

I hope you will stay tender.
Being brave doesn't mean being macho. So guys, I hope you will allow your hearts to be soft toward the weak and vulnerable, toward your sisters in Christ, and toward the love of God that pursues you forever. You were created to be both strong and merciful. Sometimes it's difficult to find the balance, I know. But a brave man without compassion will fail to be brave about the things that matter most.

And girls, this world can be unkind to women. It's easy to let your heart become stony, to build walls that would protect you from hurtful, catty words or from unkind men. In fact, society tells us that we should become just like men to avoid being hurt by them. But how Jesus longs to use your tenderness for his kingdom work if you will just let him be the one to hold your heart! You will have to be tough in some ways in order to stay tender in the most important ways. Finding the balance requires discernment and love. Don't let people abuse your heart, but please, don't harden it either.

I hope you will fight for honor.
The world is desperate for men and women who will take up the call to live with integrity. Does the idea of honor sound old-fashioned? It's not. It's desperately needed. Honor is gritting your teeth and doing the right thing. It's boldness to stand for what is pure and righteous and true. Honor is asking Jesus again and again for a heart like his own.

I hope you will keep asking good questions. 
I have learned so much from you about dealing honestly with doubt (you 2014 grads especially). Thank you for having the courage to tackle hard questions and to make our community a place of authenticity. You kept me on my toes in a way that has stretched my own faith, reminding me that the gospel is both simple and complex. As you make your way in the world, into classrooms where truth is antagonized, to parties where your morals are challenged, to boardrooms where ethics get hazy, I hope you will never be satisfied with a face-value faith. Don't get too comfortable. Wade out into the deep things of God and trust Him to lead you.

I hope you will choose church.
Not just to go to church, but to be the Church. The Church is people; it's not a building. And loving Jesus means loving that which he loves. On the cross, he proved his crazy, reckless love for the Church. So no, you can't claim Jesus as some revolutionary and then reject his Church.

The Church is people, and people are messy. They will hurt you at times and you'll wonder how this can be God's plan for humanity. Please stick it out. Find healthy leaders who are willing to admit when they're wrong. Commit to a body of believers. Devote yourself to serving God's people. Work toward unity. And remember that these are your brothers and sisters because of the blood of Jesus spilt for you.

I hope you will walk with Jesus. 
"What does that even mean?" I can hear some of you (recent grads) still asking. It's a good question, {{there you go again with those good questions!}} and I hope you'll keep on asking it as long as you live. I can't answer it perfectly, and I don't want to because then I would rob you of the journey.

But here's a start:
...It means holding onto the promises of God when you feel like your world is caving in.
...It means relentlessly pursuing a deeper understanding of God's character so that you will know Him as a Person.
...It means choosing to obey God's Word when everyone else is doing what feels good in the moment.
...It means taking huge, God-honoring risks, knowing that this world is not the final Answer.
...It means gut-wrenching sacrifice that demands all you've got and more because you know that in suffering you are truly identified with Jesus.

I hope you will take heart.
We live in a rapidly changing world, and perilous times no doubt lie ahead. How easy it would be for you to become discouraged and lose heart. But the kingdom is here! Aslan is on the move! Our good King Jesus is looking for radically joyful, obedient servants who will humbly obey Him in the midst of uncertainty. I long that when He says, "Who will go for us?" He might find each of you willing.

You make my heart burst with pride in who you are becoming. What a privilege it has been to be your leader.

Go love and serve the world in Jesus' name,

Saturday, August 2, 2014

in which we see our own poverty

As I near the five-year mark of my time at Walnut Hill, I have been contemplating a lot what these Connecticut years have meant and the gifts that have resulted. Among the sweetest of these is the little village in Nassau that is consuming more and more of my affection.

Tonight--a few weeks after returning with a team of fourteen students--my heart is bursting with love for the little ones we've come to call friends and swelling with pride in my students, these 17 and 18-year-old fearless ambassadors of peace and goodness.

It is the greatest privilege of my life to sit at the crux of discipleship and justice, 

...where students I love are being transformed as they meet God in the dingy, mired, beautiful
{Blessed am I among women!}

...where the lowest and the least are teaching us about things of true value. 

We have much still to learn, my students and I. We have much still to repent.

Together we set our faces, unflinching, to look upon suffering, injustice, and poverty that we cannot fix. We determine to be present in a place most would prefer to ignore.

We throw ourselves headlong into the darkness to find, amazingly, 
that the Light is already there. 

And so we offer all we have, really. We give ourselves to creative work that we hope will spark more creativity. We give the millionth piggyback ride and pray that a child will know she is valuable and loved. We share our stories and ask good questions. We play, we dance, we encourage. We leave behind pieces of our hearts in this place that is at once dark and beaming because that's what love does. We open our eyes, and as we do we begin to see things as they really are.

{{It's not enough. But it's far more valuable than I could have dreamed five years ago.}}

It strikes me again, as we try to offer something that will last beyond the short week and the soccer ball we brought, that these beautiful brown babies with their deep, knowing eyes are some of my best teachers. Our upside-down world with all its lies about power and beauty tells them that our milky white skin and our privileged citizenship mean we have more to offer.

But I know a more real Reality: That their voices and their presence are needed. That they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:4). That He is near to them. That they have infinite worth because they are His.

And I wonder if they know that they are changing me, revealing the depth of my own poverty and the reaches of a Love that finds me in it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Art of Waiting

I had a lovely breakfast date with a friend this morning, and as my mind lingered over our shared words about times of transition and being 20-somethings, I started to think about waiting.

Everyone I know is waiting for something.

Waiting to meet the right person.

Waiting to get engaged.

Waiting to have a baby.

Waiting to adopt a baby.

Waiting for a promotion, a raise, or the right job to begin with.

Waiting for clarity, direction, purpose, or fulfillment.

Our 20s, especially, are chock full of waiting and transition. But I also think there's something about waiting that is common to man.

A couple of months ago, as I was preparing to teach at our Sunday night service, I met with my friend and "coach" Mike for a pre-service pep talk. (You know, the kind of coach's talk that makes you more nervous, in the best way possible.) As we chatted about the passage at hand--Exodus 32 on the Golden Calf--Mike made a suggestion: Maybe the word for our people is about waiting. "It was while they were waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain that the people sinned," Mike pointed out.


It was a powerful word. Not the one God had given me to share that night, but a word from my pastor and friend, and one that was not only for me, I think. I've been chewing on it ever since.

Moses had hardly been gone a month when the people went the way of their pagan neighbors and erected the golden calf. Just like the Israelites, it is in these moments of waiting when we can become fretful and disheartened. In our impatience we go our own way, devise our own schemes, make idols for ourselves. We forget God's goodness and His words to us. We neglect the covenant. We compromise.

But there is one who perfectly trusted in the Father's timing.

In our John Manuscript study tonight, we dissected Chapter Seven, in which Jesus observes the Festival of Booths. One of the remarkable things that rose to the top of our rather clumsy interpretation was Jesus' repeated words about his time having "not yet come" (John 7:6, 8). Just as God sent His Son at just-the-right, appointed time, so would He send him to the cross at the exact moment He ordained. Jesus knew this, so there was no need for him to rush into things. The Father who sent him from heaven would cause His plans to unfold in perfect timing.

Interestingly, the Festival of Booths, or Sukkot, looks back to a season of waiting. The Israelites were nomads, wandering the desert, looking for the Promised Land. I don't think it's any coincidence that in this passage with so much to say about God's perfect timing, Jesus observes this feast of waiting outside in tents.

How much more joyful our experience of life would be if we learned the art of waiting! If we settled into uncertainty, refusing to compromise in the in-between times. If we asked God to still our hearts and willingly walked with Him into the unknown.

After all, the Apostle Peter reminds us that our waiting is not just for a new job or a baby. Ultimately, we are waiting for the return of our King:

But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Peter 3:13-14).

Your waiting will not end a moment later than God intends. He has designed it to bring you closer to Him, and also to bless you with a thousand graces that remain yet unseen. Will you trust Him?

Friday, May 9, 2014

things I've learned lately

I was a schemer from the beginning, always trying to make my own way, to "arrange for my own happiness," (to quote Eldredge).  It's a an old identity I've crucified time and again.

I remember when a college friend laughingly calling me that (a schemer) during our freshman Bible study. He said it teasingly and with and brotherly affection; I received it in jest and maybe even with a little pride in my knack for making things happen. In the next moment, God used it to cut me to the
heart.  I am a schemer, I thought. As many times as I'd already put to death that sin, it persisted.

And so today. The combination of my fierce determination and insatiable optimism is a force to be reckoned with when it's tempered with the Holy Spirit's grace and authority.  God often uses it to get things done. But leaning on my own strength, those two attributes together become my Achilles heal. The gift of faith turned inward on oneself is a detestable thing unto God, and a sin I continue to tangle with, I'm ashamed to say.

I don't know quite how to describe it, but God is doing something so sweet in my life recently. He has been wooing me in this area once again, reminding me how perfectly trustworthy He is, and how capable to get things done with or without me.

Anticipating our trip to Nassau this April, I had wrestled with how to bring a couple of additional teammates along. Not wanting students on the Summer Trips team ever to feel left out or as though I'm playing favorites, I really struggled to know how to choose who to invite. As I prayed about it though, God was faithful to make it clear which student and which adult male leader were the right fit for the project. The finances, however, remained in question.

True to form, I furiously set to work surveying all possible fundraising options, evaluating my own finances, and putting out feelers for spare flyer miles. When nothing panned out, I found myself having to surrender again and again my desire to control the situation. The sense that the two guys were supposed to join us lingered, and I schemed and then gave the whole thing back to God every day for weeks.

On the Tuesday before our departure, a friend handed me a check and said, "We don't have flyer miles, but that's for your flights next week." In the chaos of some middle school drama that night at youth group, I went home having forgotten to look at the check. When I arrived in the office the next morning, I found that it was in nearly the exact amount for the two flights, and by 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, just four days before our departure, we had booked two more tickets. How fun to see God at work on our behalf! And how much more precious as Kim and I realized throughout the week how faithfully God had provided for us thorough the presence of the two guys, a needed thing in the rough neighborhood where we work. As I wait for His provision in other areas of my life, I'm reminded that I can count on it from my Good Shepherd.  Often it's in the eleventh hour, but always it's in His perfect timing.

In the chaos of this past year of splitting my time between Connecticut and Boston's North Shore, of working at capacity and then some at Walnut Hill while tackling an unadvisable course load, of navigating difficult relationships and waiting out uncertainty in a whole host of ways, He has proven Himself anew as my Advocate and generous Benefactor. In the tenderness of His presence with me, He has revealed His work righting wrongs, redeeming past hurts, and defending my cause.
Sometimes I feel as though I've lost months of my life in this manic season of juggling too much, and yet there's just this richness to the things He is showing me about His own character.

It's as though He is fortifying my walls--maybe preparing me for something hard, even. I'm not afraid, as long as the Cloud of His presence goes with me (it does), and as long as He's holding my little life and all the plates I work so hard to keep spinning easily in the palm of His hand (He is).

I'm remembering that I can trust Him with my future: Ministry, singleness, location, even my biggest dreams. He can have it all.

Lord, You are my portion
and my cup of blessing;
You hold my future.
The boundary lines have fallen for me
in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Psalm 16:5-6

Friday, April 25, 2014

Beauty and Affliction

"But two things pierce the human soul," wrote Simone Weil, "beauty and affliction."

Sweet friends at Anna's
The words of the Christian mystic ring especially true in Nassau, where we experience such humbling beauty and such immense pain--all in concentrated time and space. Our hearts are pricked, and we are not the same again.

Having just returned from the second annual April edition of the Nassau trip, my heart is full and also achy this morning. It gets harder to leave that place each time. And although I'm so proud of our little team and what we accomplished in only three full days on the worksite, the time flew by too quickly. I find myself wishing that today could be another day for piggyback rides and plaiting hair and sharing our peanut butter.

All of life to me is generally a bold and joy-filled adventure, with the difficult stuff inspiring as much wonder as the fun. But there's something about returning from Nassau that makes the breakneck pace of my cushy Connecticut life feel a little numb--and after this trip especially, in which the company was so sweet, the work so satisfying, and the experiences so rich with meaning.
The best little team--what a privilege to serve alongside these three!
(Photo creds to our dear friend Mindy Seeley at the ALC.)
The Project
It was a joyful encounter with God this past week to watch my three teammates create.  In their own unique ways, they are each desperately creative: Kim with her big ideas and her paint, Steve with his words (which I know are always taking shape in his head, even when he's not putting pen to paper), and Jon from behind the lens of his camera.

In a place that is characterized by rubble and trash, I am inspired by the way God has been inviting us to image forth His creative presence: first with Will's garden project last year, and now with Kim's project to invite the kids to help paint the classrooms at Carmichael Church.  As our relationships in the Carmichael neighborhood continue to blossom and flourish through the years, I pray that these creative marks left on their places will shape and empower the community.  Love creates, and creativity inspires courage.  Such is our ongoing calling in Nassau, I'm learning.

My girl Kiddi washing up.

Watching excited Haitian kids sponge paint flowers on the walls of their now canary-yellow Sunday school classroom, so giddy to participate in this work, to leave their imprint on a building where the entire community gathers, my heart could have burst.  We say with God that it is good (Genesis 1:24).

The All-Saints Visit
There were so many sweet moments with the team this past week, but one I will never forget is our brief visit to the All Saints Camp. I had not been back since Ms. Moxey's passing more than a year ago. I avoided a visit last April, and was ashamed at my relief when it wasn't feasible for me to go with the students this past July. It felt scary and hard to return to this place that I love, having lost our matriarch.

But as I prepared for last week's trip, I had the feeling that maybe it was time. And how appropriately timed with Easter because Ms. Moxey lived the resurrection life more fully than anyone I have ever known. True to her nickname, which means "force of character or determination," her contagious joy, reckless love for others, and inexplicable courage displayed the presence of God with her. Tim Keller writes, "The difference between knowing Christ and knowing the power of his resurrection is the difference between knowing a person and resembling a person." Ms. Moxey not only knew but closely resembled Jesus.  And as Keller goes on to say, "Death actually moves this process on to perfection." Standing at her memorial, thinking of her influence and the power of Christ in her, a flood of emotion washed over my aching heart.

I'm forever grateful to these three compassionate souls for their grace in going with me on that first dreaded pilgrimage back, and for giving me a few tearful moments to revel in the tension of pain and beauty, the longing for Ms. Moxey in this life and the joy at knowing she is with our Lord forever. Thank you, friends!

The Sunrise
Earlier that same morning we had one of the most transcendent experiences I can remember, a stolen sunrise on Cabbage Beach that sums up the trip for me. We awoke at 5:00 a.m., eager to make the most of our last few hours on the island and jealous for one last glimpse of sun and sea. In the foggy stillness of those last minutes before first light, we made our way ungraciously to Paradise Island, racing the clock to find the perfect spot.

Cloud cover made the sunrise slow in coming. So after Jon shot the first blushed hues, we all got in the water to watch the rays unfurl their magic.

Just thinking about it still takes my breath away: The peaceful calm of the deserted beach. The perfect chill of the water and the subtle fierceness of its enveloping waves. The clouds becoming pinker and more saturated with each untainted moment. The quiet conversation about Jesus and life and beauty. And finally, the magnificent tangerine sun coming up giant and full, so compelling we couldn't take our eyes away. It was all so beautiful, it made my heart hurt.

With calm, easy strokes, our two bold swimmers made their way back to the beach to snap some photos and then out to us again in the water, laughing and carefree.  As I watched Kim and Stephen swim in the glow of that sparkling light, I couldn't help but think of the limitless possibility their young lives hold. Their college choices may still be uncertain--but they will change the world, those two. Kim with her diligence and organization and her ability to make plans come together so effortlessly. And Stephen, like his namesake the martyr, with his inspiring words and boldness to speak about God's goodness.  I'm so proud of them and so thankful for the ways in which their hearts have been pierced for the things of God: His creation, His people, His beauty, His participation in suffering.

Fortunately for us, and for our Haitian friends with all their suffering and all their joy, the sunrise reminds us: "His mercies are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness!" (Lamentations 3:23).

We do not want merely to see beauty... we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. 
- C.S. Lewis

Our good friend and member of the ALC family, Kevin, was a godsend to us! He also painted the dove on the wall.

Monday, January 20, 2014

So close, so far away

This week marks the first time I've vacationed with my family in the Caymans since I began visiting the Caribbean for a different reason three years ago: to spend time in the little Haitian village on Carmichael Road. Since that time, I have made five trips and it has become a place as dear to me as these beloved islands I've been visiting my whole life. I've needed this time away for rest and respite and reflection after a daunting season of ministry and study. But I have been missing Carmichael especially this week.

When I first started going to Nassau, telling the kids, "We love you; see you in a year" seemed a little flat, but it was all I had and so in my quivering heart, I let it be enough. I shrank back from the overwhelming need because there wasn't space in my heart yet, space carved out by the years and the gut-wrenching stories and the deepening of friendships, for anything more. But as the trips and the years have gone by those words taste sickening coming out of my mouth. They are bile on a hot Bahamian day. I can no longer say them.

"See you next year...."

When I'll bring you a few measly snack crackers and teach you a Bible story.

When I'll come knock on your door to play for a few hours, carry you on my shoulders.

How insufficient in the face of death and rape and hunger and deportations that rip apart families.

How insufficient when my big brother, Jesus, left his perfect Home to drag me out of my brokenness. When he came to our impoverished neighborhood and paid the debt to give me a new inheritance.

How can I claim him and do nothing in the face of the brokenness I see in the little Haitian slum in Nassau?

No, these friends have become too dear only to say "See you next year."  Now I know their names, one by one. I have listened to their stories. I have been asked to take them home with me. I have seen their hell, and it demands a more valiant response. I may be small, but I have power and wealth beyond what they can dream. And I walk with a Big God.

My God says that He is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). That He rescues the oppressed (Psalm 103:6).

When I used to read these verses in Scripture, I don't think I understood. Not really, not in any way that mattered. I never lost sleep over whether my little friends had enough to eat, or wondering if the Bahamian government had made them orphans.

But as my heart has been enlarged little by little through their suffering, I think I am finally beginning to see. Jesus knows firsthand what it feels like to be broken, oppressed. He has absorbed the smack of cursing words spoken to a foreigner; he knows how it smarts to be rejected and despised.  He has borne for us the sting of death, has become an orphan on our behalf.

It's a profound mystery that they know Him in a way foreign to me--I with all my theology and books and lofty ideas. I am spiritually obese, feasting on the rich things of God with all too little action. He nourishes them day by day in a way they probably do not understand, but they expend every ounce, every droplet of His nearness for their survival in a harsh world. As they share their food with one another, take care of the little babies, dream of a better future, they display His nearness.

So how can I be near to Him without drawing near to these little ones He holds so dear?  These precious gems with whom he willingly identified? His Word is clear: to be made like him I must become like the least.

That directive seems hazy in a twenty-first century world, especially one in which I have such tremendous resources. How obscure that Jesus would invite me to make myself small! As I write this, I am enjoying the little luxuries of diving and rest and fish tacos and rum punch on an island not so very far from Nassau.  These are good gifts from God to rejuvenate a weary soul, not to be disdained or ashamed of. But when I let them cloud my vision and cheer my heart to the point there is no room for the suffering of the poor, I have taken giant steps away from Jesus.