still becoming: slums and suburbs

I have this distinct memory of myself when I was a teenager, probably fifteen or sixteen years old. I was sitting on the green couch at my grandmother’s house, flipping through an issue of National Geographic Magazine. My grandma always had stacks and stacks of Nat Geo’s sitting in little towers around her house.

That particular issue had a feature about neighborhoods from around the world: slums, suburbs, village huts, skyscraper apartments. The photos were stunning and colorful in the way that they have to be for Nat Geo, and the juxtaposition of shots was fascinating.

As I flipped through the pages, I came across a two-page spread of a photo from a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The photo, I remember, was taken from the middle of a dirt alleyway so that on either side of the pages, there were rows and rows of one-room houses. Made of tin and cardboard and sheets of plastic, the houses were squashed together in a jagged, uneven line. In the muddy walkways in front of them there ran a putrid looking trickle of water and sewage. Even with just a glance, one could clearly note the unsanitary and unstable environment of that neighborhood.

Fifteen-year-old me looked on with fascination, my hand stroking the picture as if touching the paper would transport me there. And I remember, very vividly, thinking: God, someday I would like to live in a place like that.

I turned the page and saw that the next two-page spread was one of an aerial view of the suburbs outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. The contrast was not lost on me. Ugh, I thought with distaste as I scanned the rows and rows of identical, beige colored houses. Freshly manicured lawns, smooth streets, all of it symmetrical and square. The tidiness of the scene was almost nauseating. Everything was in order though – clean, controlled, organized, expected.

And then, before I could think about it, before I could remember what I had JUST prayed, before I realized what I was evening thinking, I prayed, God, please don’t ever make me live in a place like that.

a suburb in which I currently do ministry

It may seem like a falsified story, but I swear to you that all these years later, I still remember that afternoon. I can still see those photos in my mind’s eye. I can still hear the words of those prayers echoing somewhere down in the caverns of my soul. And as I think about that, I realize that I started to become who I am today a long time ago.

Before I’d ever left America, before I’d ever been in a slum, before I had really any clue about what I wanted for my life, the Spirit was leading me to prayers like the ones I said on that afternoon. The Spirit was, without me knowing, shaping my heart and giving me passions.

From my seat on the green couch at my grandma’s house, I could not have imagined that one day I would in fact live and work in slums all over the world. I couldn’t have dreamed that seven years later, I would walk down the alleyways of slums in Nairobi even! I also could not have predicted that at some point, the Lord would lead me back from the slums to work in the suburbs. I certainly couldn’t have guessed that the suburbs would end up being exponentially more challenging to me that the slums ever were.

But that’s how things have gone. That’s how they’re still going.

And if it’s true that I started to become who I am a long time ago, then I suppose I’m probably still on my way. I am still becoming.

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celebration of busyness (or not)

Recently I overheard a conversation between two middle-aged men. As they greeted each other, one asked, “How have you been? I haven’t seen you around in a while.” The other responded, “I’ve been so busy. Work, man, it’s consuming.” The first replied, “That’s good though, that’s good. Busy is good!”

As they carried on in conversation, undeterred by the celebration of busyness, I on the other hand, found myself trapped in those words: busy is good.

How can it be?

In the past year, I have observed this celebration of busyness in the American culture. Perhaps I was particularly keen to notice it because I’d been removed from it for a year, or maybe it was more obvious because I joined the working force in my first year out of school. Either way, I’ve begun to observe this American obsessiveness with being overworked, overcommitted, and overrun. And it is unsettling.

At Rest

Busyness, I’m fairly certain, is not what the Lord had in mind for his people. He never encourages a lifestyle consumed by commitments, stressful deadlines, and running from one thing to the next. There is no commandment to spread oneself thin. There is never a promise from God that fulfillment will be achieved when we add one more obligation to the calendar, or neglect self-preservation for the illusion of productivity.

I believe the Lord certainly values and commands efficiency and hard work and fruit-bearing activities. But I’ve never read of a Biblical celebration of busyness.

I think this is probably because busyness negates and neglects restfulness. The two cannot coexist.

But rest is most certainly a Biblical command.

Rest Area?

Just think of it – after creating everything in the universe, the Lord himself rested. He then commanded – yes, commanded – that humans would also observe a whole day of intentional, active rest. The Lord insisted that this day would happen regularly, every week, because apparently it’s that important. Beyond this command, the Lord has also demonstrated his value of rest by creating restful patterns and rhythms all over creation:

the cocooning butterfly whose rest creates something new; the napping baby whose body and mind commands sleep in order to grow and develop; the way the moon takes her time to become full and then only stays that way for a moment as if to say, it took a lot of work to get here so I will rest for a moment before I begin again.

These patterns of restful rhythms indicate that God knows his creation needs not more to do, but instead needs the discipline of not-doing. The Lord who created and designed us to be creatures that, at our best, are productive and fruit-bearing, also knew that we would be prone to over-committing, over-working, and unhealthy busyness. And so the Lord told us we need to rest. We need not be caught up in the fallacy that rest=lazy. We need to join the rhythm of the moon and the butterflies and the growing child.

We need to revolt against the cultural norms that try to convince us we’re too busy to do what God told us to do. Because when the Church starts doing that, we know that things will get ugly fast.


Photos from Flikr Common Creative

 

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feeling known

I was flipping through my journal earlier, trying to find a note about a conversation I had a long time ago, and I came across this entry from December 2, 2013. It’s just so good, so poignant, that I wanted to share it:


[written from the Philippines, during the last week of the World Race]

Tonight after worship and squad time, I bought an ice cream coffee drink and walked out to the beach with Shannon, Christine, [Sydney], Freweini, Katrina, and Lisa. We all sat facing the ocean and talked amongst ourselves… Eventually everyone sort of bowed out to go in for the night. But Shannon and I were in a conversation about UHC (naturally), so we stayed seated as others got up. As our conversation naturally fizzled out, I almost asked if she wanted to head in. But I hesitated and so our conversation continued.

I told her about how I almost stepped down from UHC in Albania. We talked about leadership and how it’s allowed us to grow and develop. We talked for quite a while about becoming more self-aware and making discoveries of ourselves, especially in terms of how we relate to people, interact with them, work with or lead them. She and I relate a lot on this subject and I think that’s one reason why we get along and work together so well. 

We talked about re-entry and all the frightening and exciting things that involves. And we talked about how inexplicable this year is.

A picture (probably) taken earlier that night. Shannon on the left, Jah-Jah on the right :)

She described a moment she had with a street kid in the Philippines who was crazy high and how frightening and saddening that was. And as she told that story, I stared out at the sea and knew that I understood her more than anyone back home ever could, and yet I also have no clue what that memory feels like. 

I know there are so many memories like that in my own heart, but a lot of them won’t resurface right away. But one day, when I’m standing in line at HEB or idling at a stop light or going on a run, those memories will come rushing back to me in an unstoppable way. 

And those are the moments that cannot be easily shared with others. They’re too tender and sacred – too unspeakable. But maybe someday I’ll be sitting on a beach at night, talking with a dear friend, and one of those memories will slip its way into our conversation, and the sacrality of that memory will make us both feel so human that it hurts. And when I share it, they’ll know that they don’t really know at all what I feel, but they’ll also know me so much better because of it.


In life, it is so extremely important that we have these conversations and moments and memories that make us feel overwhelmingly, undeniably, altogether  k n o w n .

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one year later

Yesterday marked one year since I returned to America after the World Race.

Naturally, I can’t help but consider all that has happened since my plane landed at LAX. And as my mind floats in the bobbing waters of nostalgia, I find myself joining the ranks of many of my squadmates who are also saying: damn, it’s been a hard year.

I was under no disillusion that the year after the Race would be easy. I was fully prepared for reverse culture shock and anti-American sentiments. I knew I’d struggle with finding comparable community. I figured it’d take me a while to process through alllllll the memories of the Race, both good and bad, and that it would be a bumpy road of trying to apply what I’d learned.

Even though I anticipated the difficulty, I also tried my hardest to be optimistic, to seek out adventure and joy, to practice contentment and gratitude. I put one foot in front of another, kept reminding myself of the Truth I’ve come to know, and marched on with courage.

I feel like I’ve been hiking a steep mountainside for a while now, huffing and puffing and cursing a bit in between breaths. My muscles are sore and I am tired. But finally, I’m approaching the peak. The steepness is subsiding. I am almost to the top again.

I know that soon, when I finish this summit, I’ll be able to turn around and look back at the beautiful valley below. Though I could not appreciate her color and shape and allure as I hiked through her trails, from the peak I can see the fullness of her splendor. And I will also be able to see the many valleys and trails through which I hiked before this one, and they will also have a charm that can only be appreciated from this perspective. And as I cross over this peak into the next valley, I know that a new set of trails will be waiting for me with her own challenges and triumphs.

I suppose this is the rhythm of our existence.

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the weekend

This weekend:

 

high school football; baby shower for an old friend; a reunion with another old friend; Longhorn football at the Wesley House; driving home at 6am;

As soon as I entered the valley into the hill country, a thick fog settled over the road but by the time I made it into the suburbs, the sun was peaking her head over the strip malls.

It was a relatively simple weekend, and yet the fullness in my heart tells me that it was much-needed.

xoxo

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how it feels being a missionary to your old high school

I was one of those people who graduated high school and decided to never go back again. It’s not that I had a miserable experience there. I actually enjoyed it. But there’s something about growing up in a small town that never really fit well with my personality.

I always felt like the county lines were too constricting, like the fields were never big enough to hold all my dreams, the roads never long enough for me to catch any momentum. It was as though the horizon itself was slowly drawing me out, beyond Bulverde, to other adventures.

So away I went. Off to college in a big, bright city. Never at home during the summer. And then eventually out into the world, hardly glancing back, developing a stronger affection for living in slums instead of suburbs.

Along the way, in between the moments in the slums and jungles and underground churches and isolated villages, I occasionally remembered my roots. I remembered the mission field that I’d left behind. A mission field that was bursting with ripeness but was just too familiar for me to approach.

It wasn’t my mission field, I convinced myself. That’s a job for someone else. If I ever do return, I’ll only just be passing through.

Image from the watercolor collection at: http://www.harusaki-suisai.com

Last week I returned to my old high school.

As soon as I rounded the curve and approached the school, nostalgia swept over me and demanded to be felt. It was irresistible.

I wandered through the familiar maze of empty hallways, past classrooms filled with students I didn’t know, retracing the steps of fifteen-year-old Emily.

The entire place echoed with old conversations.

Memories began sprouting up all around me, like little flowers poking their heads out of the soil.

That’s where Mrs. I’s classroom used to be. Remember all the times I thought she was crazy and weird and annoying? It turns out that the lessons she taught me have long outlasted the lessons I read in any textbook.

Oh, now this is the hallway where I’d always stand with C before class started. I remember one time we were standing there talking. He was going to be late to his class but swore he didn’t care because we were discussing something apparently important. What were we arguing about again? I just remember standing there, arms crossed, staring at him and feeling so confused by the conflicting emotions of a teenage girl who wondered if this boy could love her when really neither of us knew what something like that even meant.

That’s my old Physics classroom. I remember exactly which seat I used to sit in, right behind T. He always asked me about Jesus in some way or another, feigning disinterest but clearly still intrigued.

And this is the part of the school that didn’t use to be here. I remember when they first started building it. A few of us snuck into the construction site one night and we climbed up to the roof. We sat there in silence and looked out at the stars and the hills and the empty parking lot below and it was as if the whole world went quiet and sat with us and we thought about all the things that happened in those four years at that school and what it could mean about all the years that were yet to come. 

Walking through those old familiar hallways, past those classrooms that bore witness to my adolescence, I realized that I wasn’t just passing through again. It wasn’t just some casual reencounter with the memories of my teenage years.

I was visiting my new mission field.

What an interesting route the Lord has marked out for me on the Map of Life. That he would take me across the world, literally as far as one can get from Texas, only to bring me back again and say, “Now, be here.

I’m still charting out this territory, which is altogether well-known and completely undiscovered. The juxtaposition of emotions that occur is a bit inexplicable.

I may recognize those hallways, but I don’t think they recognize me. I’ve seen and learned a hell of a lot in the last few years, and now I’ve been brought all the way back to where I started, at least for a while.

But this time, I have a new song to sing.

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threads

I find myself once again in free fall.

Not yet here, but not yet fully there either. Betwixt and between. Scattered across the floor, like the beads of a cheap necklace whose string snapped under tension.

I feel like I’m flailing through the sky, eyeballing the water below me and wondering if I’ll slam down against it in a painful bellyflop, or if I’ll have time to gather my thoughts and compose my body into a smooth shape so that I’ll slide gracefully into the water upon impact.

My threads are bare and fringed and unraveled.

This is how my mind feels when I think too long about my life as of late. One of my jobs has ended, leaving me with less than half of my usual income and an unnatural amount of open spaces on my planner. I have no idea how long this transition will last, and surely it won’t be long, but my how I forgot this feeling of liminality.

Not yet here, not yet fully there.

I’m finding that places in-between are the uncharted, unknown places that determine one’s course more than any other marked destination on the map.

 

This would be amazing as wallpaper for inside a closet, in a small bathroom, etc...

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