Trying Not to Litter the World

A scene that describes my early mornings lately: waking up early to grab a cup of coffee and cast vision to bold ideas. Like, really bold ideas.

On Tuesdays that means teaching a class before my “real” job.

On Wednesdays it’s a Bible study.

On Thursdays it’s project planning.

I didn’t really set out to make this the summer of making important plans at 6 AM, but I’m glad for it. Tuesday is fun and Wednesday speaks to me, but today, let’s talk about everything that’s tied into Thursday.

Thursday is shaking my world right now. It’s a place of eager anticipation and preparation, where both hope and fear are equally woven together. It’s a morning of peacefulness and joy, but there’s also worry and confusion. Maybe the honest thing to say is this: On Thursdays I muddle through my thoughts, discerning what’s valuable and sifting through what isn’t, and attempt to tidy the ones worth saving.

And so I’m here – nestled in a coffee shop with my favorite pen and the hardcover green notebook I’ve been saving since Christmas for a special project. It’s freeing, really. I’m writing notes between sips, and not worrying about what will be scribbled out later. “Let’s give each wild, reasonable, lame, lovely idea its fair chance,” this fearful, perfectionist heart is learning to mutter. Sometimes the only voice an idea gets is a single line on the paper, and that’s plenty to show me its heart before striking through it and writing something better beneath it. I’m learning that.

This is scary though. No way I could do this alone though. 

But I’m with a friend who is already like a sister. We’re dreaming. Planning. Building off one another. Listening. Note taking. Making decisions and wondering what the Lord would have us do.

It’s a safe place where the conversation is easy and we both show up with cat hair on our shirts. We share even the least of our ideas, and there’s no shame or ridicule when we decide it won’t work. We just listen, hear it out, and let it take us to the next idea. When words start to fail us, we sit in quiet. Sometimes for several minutes, and I think I’ll never underestimate the power of simply sitting again.

We’re nothing special, she and I. We’ve got just enough courage to show up, wrestle with our ideas, sit in the quiet, and ask God for more. Some mornings that feels like all the courage I have.

And when the overwhelm of the task ahead starts to get to us, we reach across the table to grab hands and ask our Creator to help us create something meaningful. Let us not litter the world with more junk. Lord, help us to only add what will draw others and ourselves nearer to you.

And when our eyes open, the realization hits us – that this is a privilege that we get to share the heart of Jesus through our conversations with one another. No, we’re not perfect. Honestly, I’m not even sure if we’re qualified to do this. But, we’re going anyways because we’ve learned just enough to trust that sometimes the most inspiring work comes from the most common of people. Like us. We get to speak up about the beauty of life and humanity, process the lovely and meaningful things together. Not because we’ve done anything to earn this, but simply because we believe in this.

She and I. We’re just girls with cat hair on our shirts, sitting in a coffee shop with a dream to light the darkness with the kindness and hope in our words. Once we get that, there’s peace in the muddling.

So we pick up the pens again, and get back to work. We’re just out here, working through beautiful questions and ideas. Belonging in a space of intentional living means something to us, and we think it’s worth sharing. We want to do it well. And we certainly don’t want to keep it to ourselves.

If you need me on a Thursday morning, find me here: staying golden and daring to believe that today is the day to do something that scares the crap out of me.



			

I Try, I Try

We tightened the laces and practiced the art of walking on blades.

We probably looked like a mismatched group – a few white women with nearly 40 middle school students representing multiple countries around the world. Brown skin, black skin, white skin. Tall socks with athletic shorts covered some, and others had come in hoodies and gloves.

Despite whatever differences appeared on the outside, we had at least one thing in common: an hour of ice skating ahead of us. Just on the other side of the glass outstretched an empty rink, glowing bright white from the reflection of the lights above. And there we waited on that weird rubber-like floor, a buzz of eager anticipation filling our space.

When the gates opened, we took turns stepping out onto the ice. Most students entered with timidity holding on to the sides of the rink and reaching for stronger hands, but a few boldly set out and headed for the center of the smooth ice.

I clumsily moved across the ice, calling after students, offering encouragement and a hand along the way. As I went between students, I noticed the boy in the purple hoodie at the gate.

As I helped others, I kept glancing back at him. Watching, I realized that at the gate was a war between going and staying. Clutching the wall, he’d cross the threshold to put one skate on the ice just to quickly bring it back to the safety of the floor. This went on for nearly half an hour. He’d get tired, sit on the bench, and jump up just a couple minutes later to return to the war at the gate. Over and over. Classmates and friends came and went, but for the most part, he was alone.

He waited there.

I skated over to him, hoping I’d reach him before he left the gate for the bench outside again. I made it over to him in time to see his nervous routine up close. “No, no! It’s scary!” he’d say, as soon as the single blade hit the ice. There was no one else there to encourage that second blade to meet the other. Only the boy in the purple hoodie, who was both talking himself into and out of ice skating.

Much later in the day, long after we’d left, I would think about this moment. How many times have I battled with this tension of wanting yet not wanting? How often have I simultaneously danced with courage and fear? How familiar did this routine of flirting with leaving the safety of the gate look in my own life?

But in this moment, I thought only of convincing him to come. I knew he’d regret it later if he didn’t. “I’ll stay with you,” I promised him, as I led him to the wall. Getting his first foot on the ice was pretty easy, but it was the second foot that struggled.

“No, no! It’s too scary!” he repeated, clumsily turning around to meet the gate again. There he went with that dance again. He clutched the wall, and I reached out.

“Come on, I’ll go with you. The wall will be on your right, and I’ll be on your left. Let’s make it to that line. Then, if you don’t like it, we’ll turn around and come back,” I told him, pointing to a line on the ice just a couple yards away.

Hand still outstretched toward him, he took it after barely a single thought. And in that one moment, he made the choice to let his desire to try the new, hard thing; he overpowered the fear that told him to stay.

His hand squeezed mine and his eyes were fixed on his feet, we made it to that line slowly.

“Look, you did it! Do you think we can make it to there?” I said, pointing to a picture just a few yards further on the rink’s wall.

He nodded and we set off, again arriving within seconds.

Having left the dance at the gate, this is how we got around the entire rink: I’d point to a goal, he’d fix his gaze on it, and we’d go there together. Repeat.

Somewhere halfway around the rink, I challenged him to turn around to see how far we’d come. He cautiously turned, still gripping my hand and the wall, and let out a small shriek. “Oh my – no!” he groaned, a smile of accomplishment spreading over his apprehensive voice.

I smiled back, “You’re doing awesome. Do you want to keep going?”

“I try,” he said. Those words became his anthem during these laps around the rink. He repeated them over and over.

I try. Okay. I try.

We were on our second time around the rink when he fell for the first time. We were still moving slow, so he landed softly. He exclaimed, “OW! MY BUTT!”

I chuckled to myself and clapped for him, “Yay! You did it! You fell for the first time!” I reached out my hand to help lift him up. The same fear that held him at the gate threatened to keep his bottom sitting on the ice. But he made a statement to fear when he got back to his feet, dusted off, and set his focus toward the next goal.  

I stayed with him. We started making people our focus points. We’d fix our eyes on another teacher, and skate over to them to show them how much we had skated. Eventually, that led us to the center of the rink. Another friend had joined us by then, and the boys laughed and helped each other. But I kept to my promise, and I didn’t leave his side.

When the loud buzzer echoed loudly in the icy room and 00:00 flashed overhead, he looked up confused.

“Time to go?” he asked. I nodded, and we went to the gate together; he was one of the last kids to get off the ice. (A combination of being a very slow skater and being disappointed to leave so soon.)

But what my friend in the purple hoodie couldn’t see yet is how those few minutes changed him. A different kid came off the ice that morning. This wasn’t the same boy that had let fear make up his mind; he stood a little more courageous.

He could have stayed at the gate, and never come out on the ice.

In some ways, it would have been easier to say no. He didn’t have to keep going after that first goal was met – after all, we weren’t that far from the gate. Even when he fell, the pain of the moment wanted to keep him down. When we turned around that first time midway around the rink, fear wanted him to go back to the starting point and stay there.

But he didn’t listen. Instead, in brief moments of decision, he chose to keep going. Over and over.

In a hour of declaration led by a middle schooler set on being brave, perseverance rang victorious as we accomplished the hard task of successfully ice skating.

Hey, honestly. I needed that lesson as much as he did.

I needed to witness again what it looks like when courage speaks louder than fear, and the kind of good, faithful friend perseverance is to us. It molds and refines us, giving reward to our work and assuring us it’s not pointless. Without perseverance, giving up would be easy and we’d always be stuck with the feeling of regretting what we didn’t do.

So, here’s to another day of leaving the gate.

This is where we say yes to courage, silencing our fears long enough to take the first step on the ice. We’re afraid of falling and our clumsiness, yes, but not ruled by it. We do the difficult thing. We listen to the whisper. The whisper that tells us to do exactly what scares us the most in that moment, knowing that the whisper has more beautiful reasons for calling us out. We’d regret missing it.

The longer we practice listening to that voice, the more recognizable it becomes. Here’s where we set our eyes on a goal – no matter how small – and keep going. We stand up, dust off, and skate again believing that the ground hurts a little less with every fall.

No matter what your first (or even continuing) steps look like today, not one of them is without purpose. Even if the best thing they can offer is giving courage the louder voice, then it’s worth it. You are being refined. Just like my friend in the purple hoodie, you get to come back a little taller after it.

Swallowing the Bitter Tea

Arabic-tea
A green tea served by an Afghani student during Ramadan. Although it’s different from the tea mentioned in this story, it is still a reminder of the hospitality of the Middle Eastern people.

I showed up at the door of a Kurdish couple’s home on a Monday in September 2017.

They gave me Doritos and teas, and I “taught” them an English lesson about numbers they already knew. That’s when my Monday mornings changed for the better.  

Every week I come to their home. They usher me in gladly, and we sit down for English class. Nearly 100 Mondays of this routine of welcoming and learning, but we all knew this particular one was different.

We sat down. We reviewed our homework and chuckled over some of our mistakes. We laid out some work, and they listened as I asked questions. We played a game. We read some. They spoke. And the whole time, it just felt so normal.

It’s like we didn’t want to face that today would be our last day like this together. Without even agreeing to this, it was like we had decided to ignore it by going like normal. We were clutching these last minutes of our time together.

But at the end of our class, we moved slower. The clock neared 11:00. We knew it was coming. As we closed our full folders and packed pencils away, the woman spoke up. “Ms. Brianna, you coming next week?”

I’ve not mastered the art of saying goodbye yet. I hope this comes with age, because right now I am clumsy and awkward when I part. I knew this question would come, and I still wasn’t ready.

“No, I’m not. Today is the last Monday in May. This is our last class together,” I responded.

Even though we had talked about the ending of our class together weeks earlier, their faces dropped with disappointment. I wondered if they’d hoped I’d changed my mind. They didn’t need words to show me the forlorn looks on the faces, pulling down their mouths and lowering their eyes. 

Clinging to one more act of our routine together, they asked if I wanted tea – and don’t you know it’s impolite to refuse such an offer?

They had their daughter bring it for me within a couple minutes. Because they’re fasting, I prepared my cup alone as they sat with me. As I dipped the spoon into the dish of small white crystals, I explained to them what I’ve been praying for. I told them about how hours I’ve been working, and how I’ve been asking God for one job – not many, like I currently teach. I told them about how drastically my schedule is changing this summer, and how I wouldn’t have a pocket of time to teach their class anymore. They nodded in understanding.

I stirred the spoon in my cup as they asked me about my husband. “Ms. Brianna, now you are married. You cannot work so much. Now you have your husband. He need you,” they reminded me, and possibly themselves too. As much as they didn’t want this to be true because of the implications for our class’ ending, they understood.

Goodbyes hurt. And with that, I raised the tea cup to my mouth.

Immediately, I was surprised by the bitter taste. I quickly took the cup away, raising my eyebrows and reaching for my water bottle to wash it down. It only took a small sip for me to realize what had happened.

Thankfully, my expression had gone unnoticed. They continued talking. I thought to myself:

“This will be my final act of love for our class. I will finish this cup for the sake of not offending or hurting my friends’ feelings. I can finish a cup of bitter tea.”

I loathed the dish disguised as sugar next to my cup. I already despised the next sip I’d have to take.

The clock ticked as we continued talking, and my tea cup remain untouched. I watched it, and I knew I’d have to leave soon. The tea was getting colder; I knew I’d have to finish that soon too.

Preparing myself for the next sip, I resolved to just get it over with, and take a large gulp. I grabbed the cup’s handle and brought it to my lips. I braced myself for impact and… midway through the courageous gulp, my face puckered and I quickly removed the sour cup from my mouth.

In an ultimate act of failure, I refused to finish the disgusting cup of tea. I really couldn’t do it. No matter how much water I drank with it, the distinct taste of salt remained in my mouth, overpowering the tea leaves and tainting the entire cup.

I had to tell them. I couldn’t leave this nearly untouched tea on their table. That would be the ultimate offense.

Bracing myself once more, I knew I just needed to say it. I interrupted the silence in the room with a quiet, yet confident, “My friend, I think this is salt,” motioning toward the crystal dish.

My student’s brow furrowed, as she looked from my cup and back to the crystal dish beside it. She reached for the Kurdish word in her head. Salt. Salt. Salt. The silence lingered for only a second, and then the realization washed over her face as her eyes widened.

She found the word. She understood.

“Oh, Ms. Brianna! I’m so sorry!” she shouted, jumping up to remove the salt dish and tea away from me.

“My daughter, my daughter! She’s crazy!” my student continued, blaming her daughter for having served my tea mistakenly with salt.

Instantly, I laughed. I assured her it was okay, and she and her husband laughed too. They both rushed to the kitchen, hurriedly talking, and came back with a fresh cup of steaming hot tea and the sugar container. The metal lid that covered the small opening at the top of the dish was sticky with the remains of white crystals. I recognized this dish. This was the right one.

I didn’t want to watch the clock now. In our last few minutes together, we talked about all the feasts we could have and plans we could make together. We made plans to picnic and to text each other. With a cup of sweet, warm Arabic tea in hand, I promised them I’d come back.

When I sat the empty cup down on the table, I knew it was time to go now. We arose to say our final goodbyes, and I thanked them both for all their hard work. I hugged the woman, and she said, “Thank you for you,” as she had so many times before. I shook her husband’s hand, and with that, she quietly pushed me out the door. I turned for one last wave, but the tears in her eyes stopped her from returning the wave.

Then the door shut. It was really over.

As I walked down the steps and drove away, memories of our nearly 2 years together covered the pavement on the road and all the familiar buildings I drove past. This couple had been one of my first classes and my longest running one. It was hard to think it was over.

Nearly two years ago they had grace for me – a newbie ESL teacher, experimenting with her teaching style and methods. Even when my lessons sucked (and I know they did), they remained eager to learn. Again and again and again.

They celebrated with me when I got married, saying, “We are so happy. We cannot explain our happy.”

They came to my home, meeting friends from all over, on my birthday.

They invited me to their home for feasts when their fasting was over.

They showed me maps of their beloved country, describing the images of their past life in broken English.

They helped Travis and me move in the middle of the week last August, sweating and hustling to load a truck as fast as possible.

We exchanged gifts and cards, and they asked me to help them read their mail.

They fed me and welcomed me when I had nothing to offer them but more homework.

As images flashed in my mind, I smiled because I knew the thread in them all was this: we grew together. We settled in this corner of Southeast Nashville together. When I was new to this community of English learners and learning how to love across cultural borders, they welcomed me. When they sought to learn English, I praised them, remembering they once couldn’t make a phone call without help. Now they can and do.

I almost don’t even want to say this, but I’m going to: it’s good to say goodbye.

When you invest and pour your best into another person, things will change. I watched this couple grow from timid and nervous language learners, to people empowered to try. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but it does mean that they know the risk of their imperfection is worth it to be heard. They know now that their voice and actions matter.

They can make a difference, and I think they believe that now more than they did a couple Septembers ago.

How do I know? Because they did it for me. I became more accepting of differences and gracious toward mistakes. I learned to laugh more. I decided to be okay with deviating from the plan. I began the arduous task of refusing to freak out when the schedule gets off. I grew accustomed to sitting with a cup of tea without looking at the clock.

They helped me. They gave me the gift of presence and contentment when all I wanted was to run in my impatience. They showed me that sometimes sitting with tea is just as helpful as the work.

And now, when the lessons have been learned and the seasons have moved, we say goodbye.

Knowing that we gave our all, and have outgrown what we offer to one another, we turn to leave. It’s not a forever goodbye. But, it is a recognition that this weekly routine of strictly English class is not working anymore. We’re stepping away to give each other space, knowing this is where we need to go in order to keep growing.

For them, it’s time to plug into a higher level class with more opportunities to connect with other language learners outside their home. For me, it’s time make more space for finding more sustainable ways to use my gifts. For our relationship, it’s time to deepen our friendship without the implications of our student-teacher relationship.

Saying goodbye is good, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I know that too. Really, it’s an act of humility to declare: I can no longer help you in the ways you have grown to be helped. It’s been an honor to walk with you, but I want you to keep growing. Don’t let me get in the way.

I’m grateful to have said goodbye to a space and place that has shaped me and my students tremendously over the last 21 months. Here’s to loving my students – now friends – enough to give them the space to keep growing. Here’s to uttering a clumsy goodbye, and admitting when I can’t drink the salty tea.

When Betty Humbled Me

Smells of meat and rice interlaced with turmeric, coriander, and cumin wafted from the kitchen. Folding chairs lined the walls of the living room, save for a corner where a table of desserts covered the surface. Music with beats and tones that blended in the Middle East saturated the air we mingled in.

Travis and I had been invited to a feast, and the celebration would not be taken lightly.

Marking the end of a month of fasting, this feast would be a time to gather and make up for all the food missed out on over the weeks. Students of mine for nearly 2 years, the hosts – a Kurdish husband and wife duo – had invited their American friends to the party.

I should say, they only invited their American friends to the party.

When I slipped my shoes off just past the threshold of the front door, my eyes adjusted quickly to the realization that I was with white strangers. There were about a dozen Americans – adults and kids – occupying the seats and sitting cross-legged on the large area rug.

I would later learn that some of these folks had been invited by the other Americans in the room, and not our Kurdish hosts. Yet, it would take me most of the night to realize that these were most likely all the Americans my friends knew – even the ones they were only on meeting this night.

But honestly, a dozen American friends is more than most refugees and immigrants with limited English have.

Betty was one of these white women I met that night as we held foam plates nearly overflowing with food. She was older and reminded me of someone who had seen Nashville before it was what it is today. The lines on her face spoke of wisdom and her white hair boasted of a lifetime of work. This woman came over to the loveseat I sat on, asking to take the seat next to me.

All it took was a simple question about how I knew the hosts to start the words falling out of my mouth. I started from the beginning. Before I could even stop them from tumbling, I boasted in the sequence of events, leaving out no major detail of how I got to where I am now. It was the story of my cross-cultural work in the community; a familiar story I had heard myself say a hundred times.

I don’t know what I expected. Maybe a “Wow” or a “That’s amazing.” Some follow up questions. A lot of others respond like that. Instead, she just nodded. When she asked who I worked for, I told her. To which she replied, “Hm. Never heard of it.” I described the office location to her, and she asked about its founding. Despite the effort, her answer remained. Nope. Never heard of it.

Just when I didn’t want to admit that I think some part of me was expecting a pat on the back, a voice within me prodded me to ask more questions. Turn it away from me. This work isn’t about me. What can she teach me?

And all it took was a fleeting humble thought and a couple open-ended questions to learn about Betty.

Betty has worked for this people group all my life and then some. In her life, she’s done incredible things like purchase real estate and rent to families in need. She’s taught English, helped people get important documentation figured out, and been a friend and a helping hand. She described the Kurdish weddings she’s been to and picnics she’s been invited to. Her name means something to this community of displaced people. Her legacy shouts of love and kindness.

She told her story – one I’m sure she’s told over a thousand times – and I was enthralled. Every time there was pause in the conversation, I asked her another question. I wasn’t thinking of my own story anymore. Hers was captivating. Hers spoke encouragement over this work, wonder in my mind, and gratefulness in my heart for a God who does this for us.

As she and I talked together, she helped me to see some things in a different light. They were simple truths, but I needed them to bring me back to earth that night.

We are the faithful planters.

All her years of laboring on the field, she had never been there when someone made a decision to believe in the story of Jesus. I was honestly surprised. She had been doing this for so long, all for the goal of witnessing lives be glorified. Surely at least one person had seen the light of Christ in Betty? I asked her how that felt.

Discouraging at times,” she said. Of course. What else?

But then she told me about the folks who called her months or years later. They reached out to her just to let her know that they’d discovered the Truth. They had decided to follow Jesus and wanted her to know. And even though she wasn’t there, she rejoiced with them.

“I realized how special it was that they felt it important to call me and tell me about their decision. I wasn’t there, and it took a long time, but they knew He was in my life. I got to help plant the seeds,” she described.

Where she could have felt sadness or felt that she missed those moments, she spoke this with joy and excitement. That’s when I realized she was genuinely doing this work for a purpose bigger than herself. That she knows this isn’t about her.

When the discouragement pressed in, she continued to show up for these people. Every day. What she thought was failure became a wellspring of hope.

She had worked laboriously for months and years, thinking it might all be a bust. When the discouragement pressed in, she continued to show up for these people. Every day. What she thought was failure became a wellspring of hope. She came to the field knowing her weaknesses, and that was plenty. Yes, even that was plenty. Her shortcomings were enough.

Because in the end, just by being a familiar face to this community of people, she had given them a glimpse of something bigger than themselves. And without her being there in those early days, they might never have opened their eyes to the Truth of the world around them later.

We work together.

Betty’s work caused people to wonder about life. The Light and the Love she carried with her every day sparked questions within the deepest parts of the people she served. And when they left Nashville or moved out of her rentals, the questions and wonderings her work began in them was completed by other believers.

She didn’t get to see the transformation of a person’s life; she only caught a glimpse of it over a phone call. The believers who got to witness it came to answer the questions that had started being asked, and they got to see the reward. They came to finish the work Betty had started. And they succeeded.    

The church is a team. We work together for the same goal. And the wonderful thing is it doesn’t matter who gets the glory because ultimately, it’s God’s to have.

Church, we are a team of imperfect people knowing we’re going to let each other down but come together anyways. We’re a group of people that forgive until we’ve forgotten the number of times we’ve forgiven. We come alongside people who are difficult and hurtful because we know they’re loved. Tremendously.

We can only handle so much before we tap out though. We can only keep up with our routines in this neighborhood at this job and with this exact circle of friends for so long. Our assignments are temporary. Eventually, things will change. Who will be there to tap us out when we’re worn thin? Who will come along to continue loving the difficult and the hurtful when it’s time for us to head toward the next place? Who will meet the ones we serve when they suddenly pack up and move states away?

I can’t always follow, and I can’t always stay. If I’m at this alone, I’m never going to make it. I need the church to help me. I need a community to fill in my weaknesses, serving and helping others in ways I can’t offer them.

I’m not responsible for saving the world. I’m barely responsible enough to save a single person. Maybe this is why we are called to live in community, and to labor alongside the likeminded. Because we pick up each other’s work. We work together, by whatever means necessary, to see a single soul purchased for heaven. Humbly, I admit that this is not up to me; it’s up to the work of God through His people. We can achieve far greater rewards together than we can in isolation.

We don’t give up.

I get bogged down when I don’t see progress in the day to day. Our modern-day culture has taught me to always feel satisfied, comfortable, happy. I’m expected to always feel like I’m getting something or going somewhere. If I’m not, I’m failing.

But what Betty’s story told me is that even when we feel like nothing is happening, we stay. We stick around. We’re faithful to the task ahead of us. It’s not always going to be easy or fun, but we stay. We have dinner with that family on our mind, knowing they won’t ask a single question about Jesus that night. We offer up our home to a woman in need, knowing she can’t pay it back what we think it’s worth. We do this all, and even more, walking in the confidence that God has brought us here and that changes everything. 

This is called discipline.

As long as God has assigned you to a place, the knowledge of having been called is all you need to keep going.

As long as God has assigned you to a place, the knowledge of having been called is all you need to keep going. It’s going to feel boring and sometimes you’re going to wonder if you’re making a difference; stay anyways. What we perceive as failure is often what God uses to changes lives. Don’t leave yet. If anything within your bones tells you to stay, listen. He’s still at work. And you can’t even put a number on the people you’re going to help by choosing to stick around. 

I’m really not as impressive as I think.

Here’s a humiliating thought: I’m not that impressive.

I’m going to type it one more time, because I really need this: I’m not that impressive.

When I’m tempted to think that I’ve made it and have it figured out, or that I’ve reached all that God has for me, I’m going to remember Betty. I’m going to remember the laborers I’m working alongside who have left more, sacrificed more, given more for the sake of our refugee friends. I’m going to hear their stories of leaving home, buying a home, doing something truly radical in order to make the gospel real to refugees in Nashville.

As long as there are people to help, my job is not finished. As long as I’m on this side of heaven, I’ve still got room for improvement. I believe this most when I meet people like Betty. It humbles me to realize that there are ideas and opportunities that I’ve not yet discovered and people I’ve not yet met. Slowing down now because I’ve “worked so hard to get here” would be detrimental to the completion of this task.

So, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get back out there. There’s still work to be done. 

As Betty and I looked away, staring at the Kurdish music video on the TV and our eyes seeing but not really watching, a flicker of hope came across me. My eyes scanned the room and a question whispered within me: do my Kurdish friends realize every person they invited here tonight is a believer?

Betty’s words were still ringing throughout my body, seeping their way deep down into the quietest parts of my soul. As I realized that I didn’t fight the battle for my hosts’ hearts alone, a burden was lifted. Burdens that told me everything was up to me and what I accomplished seemed less believable. Lies that told me I worked alone were called out. In the place came a joy that my team was here – even here in this room – and that they hadn’t given up. It wasn’t time for me to either.

When I’m down, I’m going to remember the faces that made that large living room feel more cozy last week. We’re a team of people, planting seeds with a stubbornness that refuses to give up. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, I’m going to choose to believe that everything I can give to my hosts while I’m here might actually make a difference.

Recommendations No. 1: Podcasts

There are a few things teaching me how to be more wise with my time right now:

  1. Sticking to my social media time limits (usually.)
  2. Writing down mostly reasonable goals with a box beside each one so I can feel the satisfaction of checking it off when I’m finished.
  3. Podcasts.

Let’s talk about number 3. Podcasts are helpful when I need to get fresh ideas, hear a different perspective, or be challenged to try something different. It’s like reading-ish while doing laundry. Feeding the cats. Driving to work.

Lately, before I reach for Spotify or turn to the next preset, I consider a podcast. I’ve been listening to several, trying to find what is adding value to my plans and dreams right now. So far, there are two specifically that have been a tremendous help to me. They’re very different, but hey, maybe you need that too.  


Work and Play with Nancy Ray

In a world that teaches me to want, the message of not wanting or comparing refreshes me. In a culture that makes me work until I’m burnt out, her ideas embolden me to do it a different way.

This podcast released on a Wednesday, and I listened to all 3 available episodes back to back on that Friday morning. The sun was rising, and I sat in my parents’ driveway scribbling notes in my journal as Nancy Ray led me through honest questions and wonderings. I don’t know how long I sat in silence after that, hands wide open to whatever Jesus needed to entrust or take away from me.

This vulnerability woven into her testimony – wow.  

Nancy steps into a place of gentleness, calm, and peace. When everything else is loud and vying for my attention, Nancy’s words are kind and patient. She’s not yelling at me and she’s not trying to make me change my mind. She’s not loudly boasting in herself. She’s not reprimanding me for living flawed. Actually, she’s encouraging me to be okay with the flaw and to discover something from it.

There are no bells and whistles or frills. Just the honest, kind, gentle truth. Nancy truly believes that we were made to live joyful and content lives. In a world that teaches me to want, the message of not wanting or comparing refreshes me. In a culture that makes me work until I’m burnt out, her ideas embolden me to do it a different way.

The premise of Work and Play is that our entire lives are split up into two main categories: work and play. And the hope of this podcast is that we could learn how to honor God and care for ourselves in both of those places by learning the balance.

One thing that Work and Play is helping me to consider is my “rhythm of life.” Nancy walked me through how to listen and know where and how to schedule times of rest – true, life giving rest – in my routine. My daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routine.

Actually, it’s because of that message that I started this blog post at the library on a Saturday morning. That’s one of my rhythms of life birthed out of her podcast: dedicating an entire morning to getting coffee by myself and nestling in at the library to write without a time limit. June will be the 3rd month that I’ve given this a try. I’m excited for that.  

That morning I listened to Nancy for the first time, I made a list of things I want to start prioritizing. I thought about what I need to listen to God and do my job well on a daily basis. I considered how I can make time in my marriage to be with Travis every week. I was challenged to think about what I can do every month to help me reach the goals God has for me, and to even consider what I’m doing every year to refresh my vision.

Nancy will tell you all about the story of God placing the Contentment Challenge, a commitment to not buy anything unneeded for 3 months, on her heart and how that changed her family’s life. She’ll open up about the story of choosing to close her business, and how some decisions are good for us but bring a great amount of hurt.

And as you listen, you’ll be inspired by this woman of faith who knows what it feels like to trust God to navigate the complexities of life. She’s a mom and a business owner, but even if those aren’t your titles, you’ll be encouraged that this message is for you too. If you want to live hard at work, but not compromising the rest in your soul, then this is for you.

Nancy Ray is a teacher and a curator. She navigates life questions and circumstances, gleans as much wisdom as she can, and compresses it in a way that a listener can relate to. Her heart is passionate for helping others walk through their situations. She goes ahead of us to do the work of finding reliable sources and ideas, and then brings them to us simplified and relevant to our conversation.

This one is for the weary and the hopeful, the dreamers and the goal-setters. This is for the ones who desire to work not for money and prestige, but for fruit; for the people who believe there is more to life than working tirelessly and that play is more meaningful than doing nothing.


The Moth

Maybe the only way we’re ever going to learn how to deal with people we’d rather turn away from is by being willing to sit long enough to hear them.

Would you believe me if I told you about a man who believed he would be the first black president? And then left that dream when he became a teacher and took in a homeless student?

Have you ever listened to an exoneree illustrate the scene when his daughter found him in prison, and worked to release him? Have you ever felt the pain of knowing she was a toddler when her father was wrongfully forced to walk in the guarded prison doors, and was a twenty-something when she finally saw his release?

What about a nurse who saved a man’s life when his guts started falling out of him – literally. Surely that’s a story you’ve not heard before?

This is only a glimpse of The Moth.

This podcast is dedicated to storytelling. People from all walks of life – rich and poor, old and young, funny and sad, gay and straight, hopeful and cynical – take a stage with nothing but their words. No notes. No outlines. No help. Just them retelling a true story from their life in front of a real audience.

I don’t know an exoneree, a man with a twisted colon, or a Korean adoptee. Nor am I any of those titles. But because of the stories people in those places have chosen to share, I understand a little better. When stories are told boundaries are tested, and differences dissipate. Titles and classes fall to the side. And suddenly, we’re humans together, experiencing heartache and sickness, love and joy together.

Storytelling captivates our senses and speaks a language that our humanity was made for. I know this because:

  • God created plot, and Jesus spoke to us in stories.
  • I feel different after hearing a well-told story.
  • Someone came up with the really cool idea to talk about what happens to us when we engage in stories.

Storytelling changes us. We’re wired for this. One valuable thing we can do for ourselves as we navigate our humanity is lean into the stories. Being willing to listen to others, and to feel something for them, cultivates a sense of wonder and admiration for people. It opens our eyes to our complexities. It prods us to make more room at the table.

And honestly, even if it’s not a story we’d agree with, it’s worth listening to. Maybe the only way we’re ever going to learn how to deal with people we’d rather turn away from is by being willing to sit long enough to hear them. If we can gather the courage and find the grace to sit through something we’d rather ignore just because of the title, we’ll come out richer for it.

Disclaimer: The Moth deals with some topics that I don’t believe in. I’ve not heard a single story that reflects my worldview. Also, the people cuss. I personally prefer not to use my words in that way.

Nuance: (n) a quality of something that is not easy to notice but may be important.

Example: The entire human experience.

But, I’m not going to shy away. I can’t. Listening to even those stories – the stories I’d rather not hear or argue with – helps me tremendously. In this space, I don’t have to prove a point to them. I just need to come with open ears. And as they speak, I find commonalities. I hear their humanity in every word, and even though we are different, I see the art of God in them. Even if I think they are wrong, the way I feel about that is transformed when I hear the vulnerability of their words; suddenly they become someone that God created and knows even now. That changes everything.

Listening to someone doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with them too. What it does mean is that I’m respecting them, loving them, showing compassion, and humbling myself. And who in this world can’t stand to work on those areas of life?


What do Nancy Ray and The Moth have to do with my work of serving refugees?

Everything.

I’m working with tough, yet fragile, people. These people have been through a lot, and part of my role is to step in and be a safer place for them. When they’re having a breakdown, when they need a friend, when they just don’t know what to do next, my job is to be there.

But I cannot expect to do that job well if I’m not caring for myself. I have to recognize my limitations too. If my life is all work all the time, then I’m only training myself to be exhausted and worn thin. I’m not really ready to serve, because I could break at the drop of a pin. And I have before. Actually, just a few months ago, I cried on the job for the first time in my entire career. I was tired and emotionally raw. I hadn’t rested my soul and my work suffered.

On the other hand, if my life is only playing and taking breaks, then I’m going to be resentful when it is time to get to work. I’m going to miss out on the chance to achieve a job well done. I’m going to miss out on innumerable chances to make a difference. Those are risks I can’t take either.

So, I need balance. Work and Play is inspiring me to find that balance. It’s centering me back to the plans of God by showing me how to seek Him in my work and rest. Nancy’s experience with Jesus inspires me to know Him better too. And in a day when there is much to do, decisions to make, people to invest in, mistakes to be made, I need every calm reminder I can get to teach my soul to be at peace in the midst of the chaos.

And, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, this mantra of this blog is the belief that stories are powerful. Stories are what have shaped my entire career. Stories are what transformed my thinking about the refugee experience and moved me to empathy for this cause. I’ve needed The Moth to help me remember that.

Stories gave me heart for my work. I could do my job without heart, but I would suck at it. It’s taken years, and continuing, to learn how to listen a little better. But every time I do, I see more of God in this world. My heart grows a little more understanding of humanity, and a little more forgiving toward the mistakes. And suddenly, being a human is less right and wrong; it’s nuanced work of the complex soul that Jesus comes after.

Maybe you’re not a social worker or a teacher.

So what if you’re not in the trenches with local refugees and immigrants? May I be so bold to assert that wherever you’re at, this is relevant to you too?

Regardless of your assignment or worldview, you’re not exempt. You’re in need of true, life-giving rest so that you can show up ready to work. You’re in need of work because deep down, whether or not you feel it, you want to work. You want to make a difference and feel the fruit of accomplishment. You want to know your perseverance is for a purpose.

I think it’s possible you also want to understand people more. But it’s hard. Oh, today with all of our anger and picking sides, it’s so hard. Maybe our first step to learning how to disagree with respect and mindfulness is to simply learn how to listen to stories not our own. Not to pipe up, but to simply listen.

In these ways, and many more, our humanness makes us the same. There are stories to be told, voices to hear, people to befriend, and work made to help us bear the weight of the world a little more. Don’t hesitate. Listen. Rest. Play. Pray. A story could change you too.

You’ll be richer for it too.  


Podcast links below. Let me know what you think!

  1. Work and Play
  2. The Moth

Working With Humans

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I start my Wednesday mornings with an English class comprised of three Kurdish women, a Mexican woman, and an Egyptian woman.

More of us had been meeting, but since spring break, these are the women who have showed up to class faithfully every week. Although I love seeing people learn English, and welcome anyone willing to come, being in a small group presents more intimate opportunities to grow their skills and befriend them.

One of the Kurdish women is always 5 minutes late. Even when she’s not there, she is truly unforgettable. Everytime I help her in class, she puts her hand on her chest and looks up to the ceiling to say thank you. She’s more than once raised praise hands when she’s correctly answered a question. Then there was that time we were playing Concentration – you know, the card game where all the pictures go face down, and you have to choose two at a time and try to find a match? Well, in the middle of the game, she shuffled all the face down cards because she hadn’t realized yet the strategy to the game. And we all exclaimed, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!?”

She laughs a lot, smiles more than anyone else in the class, and is always the first to show me her homework. Although I have suspicions that her son does it for her. Her English isn’t great. But she’s funny and brings a tone that makes learning more grace-filled.

A couple Wednesdays ago, she came in late as usual. Her pace through the doorway was slower.

The small group and I sat at a conference table, reviewing homework over prepositions of time, and we shuffled our papers to make room for her. She settled in her seat – the one beside me- as we continued on to numbers 4, 5, and 6.

By the time we got to numbers 7, 8, and 9, I had noticed her from the corner of my eye. I looked over to see if she was following along with the class, but she didn’t have her homework in front of her. I thought back and remembered she had missed class last week.

“Oh. Were you here last week?” I asked her.

“No. Buffalo,” she said, “Cousin.”

The other women and I nodded. The Mexican woman spoke up, “Oh, she visit her cousin.”

They asked me where Buffalo was, and I told them. The friend beside me nodded. She could have stopped, she kept talking. I realize now it’s because she needed someone to know and feel with her.

“Cousin. Accident,” she continued. We all thought car accident, but when we asked her about that, she said it wasn’t. It took us several minutes to figure out what exactly this accident was about, but she didn’t stop helping us understand. She used her hands and broken English to continue her story. She was desperate for us to grasp it.

She pulled out her phone to show us a picture of a young boy in a suit. We asked again if it was a car accident, just to be certain we hadn’t misunderstood, and she said no. We asked if he was okay, and her “no” repeated.

Then she pointed to the window, and then her head. She poked her head with her pointer finger. And as she made these hand gestures, her words repeated: cousin. Shot. Window. Shot. Head. Watching TV. Shot. Died.

We pieced it together.

I almost wished we hadn’t because the image was horrific. The Mexican woman spoke up again, I thought with tears in her eyes, but I couldn’t be sure. She asked, “How old was he? Sixteen? Seventeen?”

“Twelve,” our friend said simply.

We let out small gasps, raising hands to chests and covering mouths. We stopped for a minute – all the asking, questioning, hand gestures stopped. In its place silence lingered.

As most, I think, would do in this situation, we finally broke the silence with an apology. Not that we had done anything wrong, but that we felt a deep sadness with her. We didn’t know her outside of an hourly English class every week, but we felt her sadness. Even just the image of her family couldn’t be erased from our minds now.

“It’s sad, so sad. I’m sorry,” the Mexican woman said again. I looked at her and saw that the tears that sat in her eyes were now falling down her cheeks. She reached for the box of tissues on the table, grabbing one for herself and one for our friend who had also begun to cry.

And we sat a little longer. We gave her space but didn’t leave. The other women mumbled apologies and restated how sad it was. Then the Mexican woman spoke up once more, “Maybe the God will give peace.”

Our friend stared with a blank look that told us she didn’t understand.

“You know, the God. The God in heaven,” the Mexican woman repeated with praying hands and pointing upward. She spoke with confidence. It was a confidence that told me she believed this God in heaven would give peace, regardless of whether or not our brokenhearted friend understood it.

Still no understanding. I thought hard to remember the word my Kurdish friend would remember for God in her Islam. As I type it now, it’s weird to think that I had forgotten it so easily.

“Allah,” I said to my friend. Immediate understanding washed over her face.

“Oh, yes. Allah!” she said, pointing upwards.

The silence stayed, and I looked around the room at the different women. The other Kurdish women who either whispered in Arabic or sat with thoughtful looks on their faces, the Mexican woman who reminds me of my own mother with her compassion and concern for others, and the brokenhearted Kurdish woman beside me. The humanity of the moment startled me.

I know I work with human beings.

But the vulnerability and honesty of the moment we’d just shared together made me truly feel it. Suddenly these women weren’t just voices practicing English, trying to not confuse cucumber and cauliflower. They were souls that hungered for something more. Their hearts mourned loss and knew what it felt like to live in the aftermath of something precious taken away. I wondered whose faces came to their mind, as we all feared together losing something. They sought peace, and they looked to God for help.

We didn’t need to say it, but we all desired together for our friend to be healed and her family to grow from tragedy. It’s arrogant for me to assume I’m the only one who can feel this. They’re people. They feel it too. In our class, I’m not the only one with feelings and hopes deep within me. All the stuff that makes me human makes them human too. It just took this moment to make that believable for me.

There’s something to be said about the empathy that stopped time that day. Our hour together always ticks too fast as we rush through material and practice. But today it didn’t matter so we forgot about the ticking of the clock for the sake of hearing and sitting with someone who needed that.

What if empathy only works because we’re people? What if people are truly the most beautiful and wonderful beings ever created?

These women are not only mothers or English language learners.

I am not only a teacher and a wife.

You are not only a reader.

We’re more than that. We are people first and foremost. That’s no small title. This presents a whole set of things to learn and understand about us. We can’t be summed up in a word.

I look at my hands sometimes, tracing the lines and watching the way my fingers move even when I’m still. And I say to myself, “I’m a person. I am made for wonderful purposes. I can live in peace, love, write, cry, speak, empathize, and move like no other creature can. Me and everyone other person on earth. That’s amazing.”

This means the person who cut you off in traffic? A person made for wonderful purposes.

The grumpy customer who came to your restaurant and gave you a hard time? A person designed to want more out of life.

The Instagram influencer who perfectly curates and designs their feed? A person who has cried and lost too.

When I began going to church as a junior in high school, everything that I heard dripped like honey. It was wisdom and grace I’d never heard. Actually, I didn’t know words could communicate the power of all I was hearing, and I soaked it in. Every last drop. One of the things I most remember clearly from those early days is a C.S. Lewis quote. He says, “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul; you have a body.”

We live in a world with  billions of people.

We’ll only ever see a fraction of those. And when we do see them, we see faces. But the physical is only a vessel used to magnify the spiritual. The spiritual is everything on the inside. All your questions and wonderings, thoughts and ideas are not on accident. They are what make you, you. Your body is only part of that. The soul is where the heart of the matter is.

I know this. I deeply believe in it. And yet, somehow, I forget to view the ones I pass as people, literally living souls in my midst. I see faces and call it a person. I’m keener on knowing titles and names, but that barely scratches the surface. No matter the situation or the title, every person you meet is complex, housing a library of hopes, worries, dreams, failings, prayers, ideas, desires. We are intricately, wonderfully made and that’s beautiful.

I turned to our friend beside me, and in my slowest and clearest English teacher voice, I thanked her for telling us and promised to pray for her. Even though half of our class time had already gone by, we picked up again and moved on to learning about vegetables.

When I left class that day, I remembered the way the box of tissues was passed around the table. I wondered if, maybe, I have so much more in common with the Kurdish woman mourning a loss and the Mexican woman offering hope. They’re more than students; they’re people first and foremost. So am I.

Come and Have Breakfast

The Next Friday: a reflection on Easter

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Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” John 21:12

Last week I shared some Good Friday thoughts with you. It was cold and rainy, and taking on the task of recounting the reasons and ways Jesus died was heavy. Nothing about death, or being wrong, is easy or appealing. Even the God of the universe knows that and is deeply saddened when we get there. He feels the pain because death wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

But today is sunny, casting light on every leaf and blade of grass outside.  I came today to tell you that we don’t have to stay there in the darkness and mess I wrote about last week.

So here’s what happened next.

After Jesus died, the world was dark. Literally, the sky darkened. The entire earth shook. The veils that separated common people from entering holy places of worship were torn. Everything in existence felt the weight of Jesus’ last humanly breath.

And then the waiting. Travis and I were trying to remember what the day after Jesus’ death is called. Sad Saturday? Sucky Saturday? Shabby Saturday?

Actually, it’s Holy Saturday. I don’t know why, but if I had to speculate, it’d have everything to do with Jesus and something to do with people in waiting: the people Jesus had touched and looked on with love, the ones who had followed Him, those who had chosen to hear His message and let it seep deep down in the roots of their heart. People trusted in Him. But because of what they had been taught for generations, they thought Jesus was going to be a warrior coming in to sweep all of humanity off its feet by triumphal force. He was supposed to rule the world by making everyone bow to him. He was going to take over. That’s what they had been waiting for, right?

I can’t imagine the betrayal they felt as they saw the man who was supposed to save them in this way was sealed away in a tomb. Everything was wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Where was the victory in this? He’d come as a gentle baby and left as hated man.

They sat there in mourning. It was holy because God was at work – even if they couldn’t see it yet. And yet, everything was changing, but they felt like it was over. If we’re honest together, I think some of the greatest struggles we face in our humanity are the unknowns. All of the waiting and not knowing is exhausting. To realize there’s nothing you can do about it is heavy. If ever there was a day in human history of feeling the weight of that kind of dark, it was this day when we felt lost and without a savior.

But the world kept spinning.

When the sun came up on Sunday morning, one of the women Jesus had befriended went to His tomb and discovered His body was gone. She wept, and then who else could come to comfort a deep sadness like that? Jesus stood beside her. As her shoulders heaved in crying and as her eyes blurred from the nonstop flow of tears, He spoke to her. It wasn’t until He said her name that she realized it was Jesus.

He stood without grave clothes. The crown of thorns no longer sat on His head and the nails were no longer driven in His hands and feet. He was just… there. Alive and well. I asked Travis why she didn’t recognize Him until He said her name. His guess is that she just wasn’t expecting to see Him and was so distraught in her mourning. My guess is that He was in His perfect, beautiful heavenly body wholly pieced together and undisturbed by the pains of the world. It probably was unrecognizable next to the brokenness of the world.

Jesus empathized in our human weakness by becoming human, and He proved that He was human in His earthly death. But Jesus didn’t just come to walk with us and then die. He came to make us alive in God. And the only way He could do that was to come alive after death too.

Over the next few weeks, this risen Lord stayed with people.

He kept finding those who He’d known in His earthly ministry just to talk with them. These were the same people who had promised to stay at His side no matter what. They had committed to following Him anywhere, and to do whatever He’d ask of them. These were the people who loved and intimately knew Jesus on earth.

But remember: they were the same people who had broken their promise, and either watched Him die at the cross or handed Him over to the officers. When strangers asked if these friends knew Him in His final hours, they stumbled and ran, fearing for their own safety.

They abandoned Him. They left Him to die.

It would have been easy for Jesus to use His divinity to return and send those folks straight to the flames. He could have abandoned them, told them everything they did wrong, yelled at them, and despised them back. From our perspective, He had every right to mock and hate them too. Serve it right back.

But you know what gets me caught up about this whole story? It’s not even the fact that I believe in my heart of hearts that this man died and came back to life after 3 days. I can believe that. And I do.

What causes me to stumble is His response when He returns.

In one of the conversations He had during these days of being with with people on earth, He simply invited others to come and have breakfast.

That’s it. Come and have breakfast.

When they were worried about measuring up and what they’d eat, He told them to come. These were the same people who had abandoned Him and ignored Him when He felt most alone. They had to have felt weary of His presence among them again, just waiting for the scolding. And He invited them to come and eat.

We need that invitation. We’re going to walk through this life hungry. Hungry for food, water, clothes – yes. But above all, we’re going to be hungry for life itself. We’re going to feel battered by the lies and judgements thrown at us, and we’re going to feel empty when the people we invested all we had into leave. When the day is over, and the dark settles around us, we’re going to feel like we’re missing something. This time on earth is going to feel burdensome, and we might even come to resent it.

But Jesus shook off His grave clothes to tell us that we can too.

He came back to invite us to feel worthy and whole. To be full and satisfied. To know that we have a purpose, and that we don’t have to walk it alone. This man is unlike any other, in that He is not only able to offer us all the peace, love, compassion, grace, forgiveness, joy, community, and courage that our souls want. But He follows through on it.

When I mess up, He gives me the liberty to say, “It’s okay. I’m in process.”

When I’m mad that others mess up, He reminds me they’re in process too.

When I worry I’m wasting these fleeting days, He shows me how to make the most of them.

When I’m just stretched and worn thin from feeling the weight of this world, He tells me to rest in Him and reminds me of hope.

When I just can’t stop thinking about the wrong, stupid stuff I’ve done, He speaks forgiveness.

All that just because He came back to life and invited me to breakfast.

When I came to the table with nothing, He didn’t withhold any of the portions He served me. I came empty and left full. Now I can live.

When we treat Him like crap and hate His guts, His love doesn’t change. His purpose for us remains the same: to live in the work of His love. To give us what our soul needs. To forgive in abundance and without condition.

Well, the one condition is that we believe He’s able. That’s it.

So, this is how that story from last week ends and begins all at once. Today is not a day that death and war won. We’re not defeated. Actually, today we’re victorious because Jesus did that for us. And when the sun rises over the hill, casting light on all we’d thought we’d lost and emptied, Jesus will be there to welcome us back with outstretched arms. And if we’re courageous enough to move closer and to believe that there is no hatred in His feelings toward us, we’ll hear the invitation of a lifetime to live in the knowledge that this was all for us.

Come and have breakfast, friends.

Sitting on a Sidewalk

Friday: a reflection on Easter

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Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied, by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Isaiah 53:11 

She ran out of the gym, screaming and crying. Not having time to back track to the gym to find out what had happened immediately, I followed her. She kept running down the hallway, turned outside, before plopping down with her back against the brick wall and her bottom on the sidewalk. Her arms wrapped her legs, pulling her knees close to her face. Her shoulders shook as she tried to bury the sounds of her crying.

I sat in front of her, repeating the same calm things to her over and over. I know she probably wasn’t listening, but I hoped the sound of a gentle voice could bring her back.

“My friend, you’re safe. You’re outside. Ms. Brianna is with you. We’re safe. You don’t have to be scared. I’ve got you. I’m not leaving. Just breath. Breath in, and breath out. Remember how much fun we had today? We hunted for Easter eggs, did lots of star jumps, made beautiful masks. And guess what? We get to take lots of candy home today too.”

After several minutes of saying these things over and over, I watched her shoulders softened. Her yelling ended. And after a few more moments, her head raised. My eyes were the first thing she saw when her eyes opened to the world again. She looked at me for barely a second before shifting her eyes to the scene of cars, trees, and people walking behind us.

“My friend, do you want to hold my hand?” I asked. Which might sound really creepy, but this kind of language speaks to a 2nd grader. Some kids need a hand to hold to feel connected, loved, protected. But it’s not my right to be that person for them. I ask for permission every time.

She nodded and reached for my hands. As we sat on that sidewalk, I repeated the truths over to her again. I hoped she heard both my words and tone this time.

“My friend, do you want to wait for your class on the bus?” I asked. Her tears had dried, but her voice remained silent. I knew she wasn’t in a place to rejoin her laughing classmates in the gym.

Her nod was so subtle, I could have missed it if I wasn’t fully present with her.

“Okay. Let’s go get a teacher so you’re not alone,” I told her.

I helped her up, still hand in hand, and we took the short walk down the sidewalk, turned the corner to get through the door, and stopped at the gym door. My arm was outstretched behind me, as her hand held onto mine. With my other hand, I opened the door. My head followed my other arm, looking and reaching into the gym, motioning for an adult to step out.

She got on the bus, waited in quiet for just a couple minutes as the rest of our after-school kids packed up and lined up.

This happened yesterday, on a Thursday.

Today is Friday. Good Friday, actually. And I have been asking the Lord all day why this scene continues to play in my mind.

Good Friday is the day we remember Jesus’ death. On a random Thursday a couple thousand years later I helped a crying African girl. Why does it matter?

It matters because Jesus gave His life for moments like this.

My imagination stretches back to the timing of His life on earth. I picture His calloused and dirt-stained feet walking rough roads. I see the gentleness in His eyes when He comes to the sick. The lowly. The poor. The hungry. The dead. I feel the gaze of His eyes on them, looking at them with love and pity, and feeling the weight of sin in this world.

And His voice – when I hear the sound of His voice calling out, I hear love and hope. I hear a voice unafraid to speak the truth to a generation whose ears are deafened by lies. The truth was almost unrecognizable. But even when we were nearly incapable of differentiating a true voice from a false one, He spoke over us.

I wonder if there were times when He spoke, knowing those He spoke to weren’t listening, in hopes that even the tone of His voice would be enough to bring someone back to a place where they could understand His words.

When every second of the day drug on with inescapable sadness, when we were called unimportant or unworthy, when our souls longed for something we couldn’t quite name yet, He walked with us.

What’s even more mind-blowing is that even when I was the one name-calling, hurting, kicking, hating, and doing anything I pleased without regard for how much it could hurt another living being – He walked with me then. Even then too.

He proved Himself to be the One we’d been waiting for to save us from ourselves. And then, here’s the crazy thing, we rejected Him for it. Rejected is a mild way to put it.

We hated Him.

When He offered us everything we’d ever wanted – love, joy, peace, forgiveness, community, belonging – we spit at Him. We called Him a liar and a lunatic. We mocked Him for even trying. And then we relentlessly shouted crucify!

When we hated His guts, and He full well knew we’d put His earthly body to death, He came. Maybe the only thing we’ve ever remained true to is the inclination to hate first.

We tried with everything within us to remove His message far from us. We ignored. We argued. We ran. We lashed out in anger. We shot back sarcastic comments. But still, He came to us in humility, knowing His message was honest and real. It answered a lot of questions, and held true to hopes and prophecies of the past.

He knew that that the words of his message, the tone of his voice, the movements of his actions, the look in eyes were all held together with integrity. He loved us enough to tell us the truth. There wasn’t an inkling of doubt or façade in His demeanor.

All He ever wanted to do was know us, and all we wanted was to kill Him.

And we did. Given the choice to believe or hand Him over, we gave Him up. The only One who ever really loved us, saw us, cared for us, protected us, and knew us the deepest was the One we couldn’t stand.

He believed in what He proclaimed so deeply, that He was willing to die for it. Not just willing. Even desiring. Not desiring to endure that suffering, but desiring to do whatever it took to prove He was the real deal to us.

In the Bible, it talks about Jesus being handed over like a silent sheep. When we sought to disprove Him, he exemplified His message in peace. He was led to a brutal, excruciating death only reserved for the vilest of people. But He didn’t fight it. Everything in His existence led up to this day. He took it as graciously as the dull-teethed, soft haired animal that only ever harmed blades of grass.

When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,
he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience,
my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
for he will bear all their sins.

Isaiah 53:11 NLT

So why am I thinking so much about my friend today?

No one is exempt from the hurt of this world. That’s the truest thing about thing my 8-year-old friend and me: she was hurting because something was taken from her, I was hurting watching her hurt. Sin robbed this moment, and Jesus just wanted to be with us. I can hear my friend asking in her native tongue, unspoken and kept in her mind:

Why did that person want to hurt me? Why did she hit me? Why did she take that soccer ball away from me? Why did she yell? Why did she make me feel small? Why didn’t she care about my feelings? Why did I feel alone? Why do we do this?

And in my heart, the one that remembers the death of Jesus and the anguish He feels for my friend too, I think:

We don’t know how else to live. Hurting others is what we’re best at. And, Lord, as I sit with this precious child – what can I say? What can I do? But to attempt to speak and love with the same gentleness and kindness as You?

Sin has battered us terribly, and we can’t restore ourselves on our own. Even in my best intentions, when I come to sit with a friend, I am not a Savior. Jesus Christ – the man who lived and died for us – is the only One capable of making us complete.

Jesus knew that from the beginning. That’s why He was content to step onto this earth, with all its cracks and faults, and to grit His teeth under our cruelty for Him. He didn’t only see that Good Friday so long ago. He was looking back and looking ahead.

As the minutes passed and the blood flowed down the wood, as His final breath on earth drew nearer, I have no doubt He thought of my friend and me. Just two girls sitting on a sidewalk, fighting tears and sadness at the hand of sin, thousands of years later. And He stayed to the finish.

Exhaustion and These Late Nights

You don’t realize how late you work until you schedule a meeting an hour after you’re supposed to be off. But that’s the time that the mother you need to meet with comes home from her 12 hour shift, so you commit. Not necessarily because you want to, but because it’s the only way to step into the lives of these people you want to know.

Even so, it doesn’t stop you from soaking up the way the light of the setting sun makes everything golden as you’re walking to that meeting, knowing it’ll be dark when you trace this sidewalk and pass these cars again.

I knocked on the door at the top of the stairs at least 3 different times before it opened. One thing I’ve learned in this line of work is the necessity of patience and persistence. That’s what I need most day in and day out.

One of the daughters greeted me, and in typical African fashion, motioned for me to come in. “Welcome,” she said, opening the door wider as she announced my arrival to the others in the room.

I stepped in and sat on the seat the family motioned toward. As I found my place, I locked eyes with the one I’d come to see. I put my hand out toward her, the mother.  “I’m happy to meet you,” I told her, asking for her name and sharing mine too.

I felt bad. Honestly. This was the first time I’d ever met this woman, and I had come to tell her about her daughter’s difficulties in our after school program. But, I stepped in with the gentlest smile and voice I could offer. I’m getting better at these conversations, but I haven’t quite mastered how to not have an awkward start to bad news. The start feels so awkward.

I thanked her for letting me come over after a long day of work, and asked her about her job. She told me she does housekeeping for a local hotel. I told her my brother works at a hotel too. She brightened some and said, “Oh. Housekeeping too?”

I stumbled and told her no. In some weird way, I wanted her to be encouraged that there’s no shame in working at a hotel. Many people – African or American – do this, and do it well. But as I started talking, I realized how insensitive I sounded by telling her that he’s actually the boss of the housekeepers. I let that topic quieten, wishing I hadn’t brought it up in the first place.

Immediately I knew she was a gracious woman and that despite the weird start, talking to her was easy. She turned off the TV, and leaned closer on the couch to listen. I spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating words I don’t usually. She listened and nodded her head as I told her about some of the habits and concerns I had seen. I told her about a specific incident that had caused me to ask her daughter to take a break from the program for a few days.

When I finished, she looked toward her daughter reflectively. There was a pause, and I broke it by asking her what she thought. She turned back to me briefly to tell me she was going to talk to her daughter, before looking toward her again and speaking in their native tongue. She spoke quietly, slowly, gently. Her daughter sat, eyes on her hands as she picked at her nails.

This reminded me of my own mother, as I listened to the tone of voice and watched the way the woman gently reprimanded her child. Sure, I hadn’t a clue what was being said as these two shared an intimate moment together. But it sounded like a familiar voice I’d heard before – not in Swahili, but in English. I remembered back to when I was much younger, and I heard my mom’s own voice as she called me out, teaching me better ways. It was never easy, and it took me years to understand the why behind some of those talks.

As strange as it sounds, witnessing this conversation between this mother and daughter pair gave me comfort. I think in some ways, being reminded of my own mother filled me with memories that I never thought I could look on with warmth.

I waited for them in my own quiet, resting in the reminiscing. I’ve seen this in my own life, in my own mother. We had these conversations 8, 10, 12 years ago. Times are different, and my mother and I and this woman and her daughter all bear different skin colors, names, and stories. But the piece that makes us human – the need to love and be loved, to teach and be taught – outruns differences we thought we could pick from the outside.  

“But the piece that makes us human– the need to love and be loved, to teach and be taught– outruns differences we thought we could pick from the outside.”

When it was quiet again, the mother thanked me several times. She even went so far as to ask me to bring my other staff members to her home, so she and her daughter could apologize to them too. The concern and thankfulness in her eyes was understood without words.

This student had a bad day, but she’s going to make it. As long as her mother is there to unashamedly call her out and lead her out of wrongs, she’s going to be fine.

From the time I stepped through the doorway to the end of our conversation, barely 40 minutes passed. I was ready to go home, and was just about to rise from my seat when I was stopped by another question.

“You need food?” the mother asked me.

“Please,” I told her. Culturally speaking, I didn’t want to run the risk of my “no” being misunderstood, nor did I want her to think I wasn’t grateful for the offer. In times like these, I just say yes. Yes to all the food. Even if I need to go quickly, I’ve learned that it’s better to eat fast than to decline an invitation like this. It’s easier to scarf down food and pay thanks to the cook, than it is to leap across cultural and language barriers to try to explain your “no.”

And that’s how I came to accept that it would be longer before I got home, and found a seat at the wooden kitchen table.

She offered me different juices to drink, and set a steaming bowl in front of me. She came and sat beside at the table too, but I was the only one with food. She filled our juice glasses as I immediately started eating, and we spent the first few minutes of my meal trying to figure out what I was eating.

“This is a green banana,” she said, “Not a yellow banana. We cook green bananas. We eat yellow bananas.”

I think it was a plantain. We never quite figured out the meat. The mother went through great lengths and arm motions to show me that it wasn’t ground meat, like we eat in America. This was straight off the bone, and definitely not pork or beef.

As I continued eating, I asked questions. She returned her own answers and questions back to me. She wouldn’t admit it, but her English was very good. Imperfect, yes. But possible for the most impatient speaker to follow.

“Did you study English in Africa?” I asked her.

“No. Only in America,” she said. I followed up with asking when her family came to the States. She pinpointed an exact date in summer 2017. I stared in amazement at her at the realization that she had taught herself enough English to carry on a wonderful conversation in barely 2 years.

“Learning English is hard. We need to learn, but there is no time. I work 6 AM to 6 PM. There is no time to learn,” she said. I understood more why she was so adamant in helping her daughter straighten up. She knows what her 10-year-old daughter can’t fully grasp right now: that she has an opportunity to structured education and a support team of people to help her succeed even beyond her school day. She gets to practice and learn English. It’s her only job right now, and it’s free to her. That’s a huge deal to a refugee family rebuilding.

We kept talking. I learned that her husband was a school principal in Africa, and now works at a factory. She told me about how she came from the Congo, but it was a country of war. She told me about how her family sought a country of peace and made their way to a camp in Tanzania.

“When did you leave your country?” I asked.

“1996,” she said simply. It was over two decades ago, but I heard the way she talked about her home – the place where was born, was raised for a few short years, and still thinks about today. I heard her voice when she called the Congo her home. She had left when she was 8 years old, but I knew she remembered it every day.  

When my own mom called me while I was still eating, I silenced the call and explained that my family is on vacation right now. The mother I shared the table with praised God when I told her about my parents’ wedding last weekend, and I wish you could have heard all her questions about the engagement and marriage traditions in America. She listened intently, laughed and said wow. I understood her surprise more when she told me about how African marriage traditions are very different.

“How much does a man pay a woman’s father to marry her?” she asked me. Her jaw dropped when I told her nothing. He just asks for permission.

“That’s it? And what if the father says no?” she continued.

“Hm, I don’t know. I guess the man probably just marries the girl anyway,” I told her. We laughed more, recognizing how different both of our cultures are. And we just kept talking until the clock neared 9:00.

“My friend, thank you for dinner,” I told her as I got up to leave. My purse sat on my shoulder, and I carried a sandwich bag of my leftover food. I always think that stepping into these homes is the most awkward part, but actually, I think leaving is. It’s hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to leave, knowing that you might be the only American to sit and talk with them all week.

“It’s hard to leave, knowing that you might be the only American to sit and talk with them all week.”

I’m always the one to pipe up and say it’s time to leave. None of the families I’ve ever sat with have told me it’s time to leave. I’m always the one who says it, and every time, I catch a glimpse of their eyes shifting. To disappointment? To sadness? To feeling lonely again? I can’t name it, but I can see it and feel it. And every time, I feel a twinge of guilt for leaving.

My prediction was right. As I waved goodbye and stepped back over the threshold, I was met by darkness. I walked to my car under the streetlights, feeling the weight of exhaustion compound with every step I took. I sent my usual message to let Travis know I was coming home to him and had some food. I sent my boss a quick update text regarding the conversation with the family, assuring her it had been successful. Then I put the car in reverse, backed out, and started for home.

Sometimes I get tired of these late nights. Leaving most mornings knowing you’ll be ready for bed when you get back is hard. Honestly, even missing the little things feels like a sacrifice. Like watching the golden glow from the back porch, listening from your kitchen to the slow traffic on I-24 and hearing it gradually speed up as the evening gets later, and greeting Travis at the front door.

I miss those moments when I don’t have them, but hold them close when I do get them. I’m always grateful for the times I get to rest and be at home. I’m an introvert, and that’s what we do. But for today, I’m okay with holding onto what I get to do instead. The conversations and the people are worth my time – anyone’s time, for that matter.

Missing sunsets is a small cost compared to the worth of listening to their stories and getting to be the one to tell them, “You are strong and you are loved.”