Hang On, Heaven is Coming

We are told to be alone right now, and I keep thinking about heaven.

We are hunkered down at home. Some of us have finally gotten around to, and even finished, those projects we never thought we’d start. Others of us have given an embarrassing amount of time to Words With Friends; I somehow land in both categories.

We can’t go anywhere, and it’s not normal. Well, I suppose it’s our “new normal.”

The loss still feels strange. All the coffee dates that never happened, and the concerts and weddings that were cancelled. Everything we used to do and not think twice about is gone for now. Every plan we dragged our feet about making was postponed before it even made it on the calendar.

Perhaps for the first time in our Westernized lives, we are experiencing what it means to have our wants, comforts, and everyday routines removed from us. We’ve never really treaded these waters before. In our culture that prizes comfort, where even our poorest live in luxury compared to others in the world and throughout history, having anything taken from us is hard.

But it’s not just our favorite coffee houses or local shops that have been taken. Our entire sense of normalcy has been uprooted. And as we get honest with ourselves in these quiet moments, we’re realizing how people – friends, family, coworkers, strangers at the grocery store – play a vital role in our daily rhythm.

We are a people who are learning to look ahead to the right things now, and the more I think on this, the closer it brings me to heaven.


Of all the losses, not being at church has been the hardest.

We can’t gather in the sanctuary to worship God. No one is crowding in living rooms with Bibles open. There’s not a host welcoming you in for dinner right now. This isn’t time to pull a friend into a hug as you pray grace over her, or look into someone’s eyes to ask, and wait for the response, “How are you doing?”

In its place is a schedule of Zoom calls and livestreams, a never-ending stream of Marco Polos and text messages.

At first it was exciting. Oh, let’s gather in our neighbor’s home to watch the church service. We’ll cook breakfast, and it’ll be fun.

Then we said, Let’s watch the church service in our living room, snuggled with the cats with a cup of coffee in hand, fresh cinnamon rolls in front of me. We can get through this. This isn’t so bad.

Weeks in and the coffee seems to get cold a little faster. And the cinnamon rolls? Not as fresh.

This seeps into every aspect of community. I usually share an office space with some of the God-loving women I most admire, but for 5 weeks now, my “office space” has been a blue plastic tote next to my dining room table and my “work attire” has been chinos and house shoes.

The coffee just gets colder when we’re alone.


Even the most introverted, home-bodied of us all need to be near others.

As I’ve settled into self-isolation, there is an aching growing at the center of me. It’s this humble confession: I long to be in community again.

I’m restless to raise my hands in worship with the congregation, and to be with my brothers and sisters again. I want to hear a whole body of believers lifting their voices in adoration to the Lord, and to feel the friend beside me scripting notes as the pastor leads us through a passage.

There has to be something, someone, some group you miss too? Not one of us has walked this season without giving up something.

We were not meant to be alone. I am understanding that now – in these wild days of global pandemic – more than ever. As I look ahead to the day when I can be in community again, away from this exile on the Persinger’s carpeted island with the olive wreath on the door, it’s all I can do to think how tightly I’m going to hug some people.

I have a feeling that when we go back to church, when everything gets back to normal, we will love the people when we walk through the doors more honestly and openly than we ever have before.

Can you imagine how amazing those greetings are going to be?


Friends, we are getting ready for a glimpse of heaven.

I know we feel alone and disconnected right now. Even the most introverted of us; I know because I’m one of them. We long for hugs and to lock eyes with another person. My soul feels it – that need to pull another person in close, to hear the voice of a brother singing, to see a sister’s face light up and hands raised in worship.

At the end of these days await once-in-a-lifetime reunions. And these will be glimpses of heaven we’ve not ever seen before. I really believe this.

Because at the end of this isolation are restored greetings with brothers and sisters, people we have missed. And not just any reunion; it’s going to be a reunion of tears. Tight hugs. Laughter and wide smiles. Waiting for us around this corner is a renewed love for the gifts we have, starting with the congregation of God.

I don’t have answers for most things in this life, including the whys and hows of this pandemic we are living in. But if there is one thing I am certain of in this life it’s that God doesn’t waste. He’s going to use this, and is already, to tell us something.

I’m not the first person to think this. I’ve heard other believers, both friends and leaders alike, voice this too. But, what if just one way that God is speaking to us right now is by giving us a unique opportunity to savor this moment of looking forward to being with brothers and sisters again?

What if He’s allowing us to truly miss and appreciate the gift of friendship and camaraderie that we take for granted every week? What if we are being beckoned into a deeper love for the community He has given us?


So this is how, as I sit in the quiet of my home, busying myself with tasks and spending extra time FaceTiming, I can’t help but feel drawn toward heaven.

We are looking ahead to the most rich, genuine earthly reunions we’ve ever been a part of. Our arms will be stretched wider than ever before, and our joy will run in tears down our faces as we finally feel together again. Sometimes when I imagine that first Sunday back at church, in some future day, that hope is enough for the moment; it’s only a snapshot compared to the glorious reunions we’ll experience in heaven, and yet, it’s enough.

They say we’re living in unprecedented times, but I think the remarkable thing about it all is that when these days of heaviness are lifted, the joy and gratefulness to follow will be unlike anything we’ve experienced here before.

So when this is over, when we’re a little wiser and patient and quicker to show our love to others, just remember that this is our glimpse into the heavenlies.

We’re eager to greet one another at the end of this season. There’s another day we’re eager for: it’s the day when our mourning and sojourning on earth will finally be brought to an end, and we’ll make it the glory of heaven we were created for. We’ll see our beloved brothers and sisters in restored bodies, and meet our Savior face to face. There will no tears or fear, but we will only know how to love and live in community without any disease or fear; there will be no comparison to that joy.

But hang on, because pretty soon, we’ll return to the sanctuary on earth and we’ll get to peer into the heavenlies disguised as long-missed earthly gatherings.

Let’s sit in the presence of this season, yes, but let’s also look ahead. Let’s not miss the opportunity to catch a glimpse of glory, even here.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan: a Noble, Ordinary Hero

“They shared a long silence. ‘What do we do, Father?’

‘We have faith, Pino. We have faith and continue to do what is right.’”

Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I’m deeply indebted to historical fiction as an entire genre, and owe a hearty thanks to some of these books that have reintroduced me to the wonder of storytelling this last year.

Among these more recent, great historical-fiction reads is Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Set in Italy near the end of World War II, this tale sends readers on a journey through the eyes of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager.

Pino. The boy who led a Jewish underground railroad movement and acted as a spy for Allied forces. Pino, the unsung hero who helped end a World War and lived most his life after quiet about it.

The Story

Pino Lella is only a teenager when Nazis overtake his home Milan. As the hand of the German forces grows stronger in his community, Pino is sent to live at a Catholic convent in the mountains.

Just after arriving to the convent, Pino is asked to lead Jewish refugees on secretive, strenuous hikes through the dangerous passes over the Alps and into the safe zone of Switzerland. For months, all though the winter and beyond, Pino operates this underground railroad leading dozens of people to safety over the treacherous passes of the mountains.

When Pino is summoned back home to be drafted for service, his family forces him to join German efforts in order to ride out the nearing end of the War. He protests at first, but what he soon discovers is an opportunity to serve as a spy for Allied forces as Pino becomes a personal driver for a Nazi general.

In this remarkable journey of courage and hope, Pino Lella affects the entire trajectory of the War by daily putting his life on the line for a cause bigger than himself. He falls in love, fiercely protects, and never gives up on the good that can be found in the world.

Here’s the Wild Thing: It’s a True Story

Beneath a Scarlet Sky was born after 11 years of extensive research by author Mark Sullivan, who estimates that 80%-90% of the story true. Over a decade of study, interviews, and simply being in Pino Lella’s presence culminated into this book. This is a treasure for us as there is a not a lot of written documentation of World War II in Italy. Who knows how many stories we’ve missed; even for Mr. Lella, his story had gone untold for decades.

This is Why I Love Historical Fiction

We can pick up a history textbook if we want to learn about WWII. But, there is something about storytelling that affects our brains in totally different ways. Suddenly we’re not just reading facts and summaries crammed on a few pages, but we’re in the story too.

We’re on our way to the market, walking past Nazi generals with guns in hands and swastikas banded. We’re knocked to the ground, covering our ears at the ear-splitting sound of explosion around us. We’re hiking snow trails across the Alps, leading refugees to safety. Suddenly, we are the refugee, fleeing for safety while wearing a target on our back.

I gained more empathy for the effects of WWII in this book than I ever did reading countless textbook pages. By delving into Pino’s story, I met Nazis and Jewish refugees. My tears fell at the weight of it all, and I rejoiced at the victories. No longer was WWII a black and white stain on our world’s story, but it became this nuanced tapestry made up of real people who fought for its end in indescribable ways.

You can’t learn that in a textbook. It takes the patience of hearing a story to gain that sort of understanding.

“But we can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost.”

Mark Sullivan

Retracing the Steps: a Guide for Reading

As I read, I retraced the steps of Pino by looking at maps and searching photos. I found what I believe is the Catholic convent he lived in (or dang close to it). I saw the lake he led his underground railroad around. I saw his home city, and the cathedral that represented hope and safety for him. I saw the same streets where Pino Lella fell in love, wept, witnessed atrocities, and fought for restoration.

With each discovery, as I looked at each picture and Google earth image, I thought, “He was there. He stood there. He stood up for his country and for peace there.”

This is another beautiful opportunity historical fiction grants us. I created a Pinterest board of photos and links that I found helpful while reading. For me, it made the reading so much richer as I really delved into Italy in WWII. If that sounds fun and nerdy to you too, check out the board to see some of the sights referenced in the story.

Final Word: an Excellent Five Stars

If you look for them, you’ll certainly find the critics of this book. But as far as I’m concerned, this was an excellent read and I plan to keep it on my shelf and recommend to others for years to come. Mark Sullivan honored the story of Pino Lella with his careful crafting of this quiet hero’s journey; he did the world a service by sharing it.

I will admit: it wasn’t Sullivan’s writing style that captivated me. I wasn’t drawn to this book because it boasts incredible dialogue or beautifully moving poetic style. Actually, what drew me in was the unavoidable message at the center of every page that every breathe we have left is a breath of purpose.

Even the ordinary breaths.

Pino Lella thought his story was ordinary. Plain. Not worth rehashing. But here is the truth: there are no ordinary days that don’t make a difference. He showed us that the most remarkable stories happen by taking one step after another, making decisions one at a time. We could be living in the middle of a World War, saving lives and communicating critical information, and never realize the impact we’re making.

Pino Lella’s story promises us that even in the darkest of days love is there. His story is evidence that there is more good at work than bad. Don’t get me wrong – times are tough. But, we have a choice to make. We can either be victimized by it, or fight courageously to see the good.

Every step we walk has the power to change the entire trajectory of someone’s future. Let’s dare believe that. And as we take our steps, one after the other, we follow that young Italian’s example. We continue –

to have faith,

to do what is right,

and above all,

find the strength to believe there is good woven in every day

“You know, my young friend, I will be ninety years old next year, and life is still a constant surprise to me. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed.”

Pino Lella

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.



			

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.