Better Together

Community Splenda

We say we want community – then retreat onto the couch with Netflix programmed into the remote.

We spend 90 minutes on Facebook and call it “being social.”

We comment on social media, in real time, on the TV show or the game or the State of the Union address, and feel like we’ve engaged in a discussion – but all we’ve usually done is pass notes in an echo chamber. We certainly haven’t really talked.

It’s easier to elevate your own tribe up onto the pedestal and live in the illusion that the only family that really counts is your own.

It’s easier to jump on the hamster wheel known as the American Dream, and spin your soul and your days in the pursuit of busyness and material success….the twin demon gods of our culture.

Oh let’s be real: some hamster wheels are constructed by the church, which is too often only too happy for its members to spin their souls and days in pursuit of church agendas and calendars and good works and…well, budgets. (Idolatry takes many forms.)

Hunker in your bunker  

I understand some of the personal reasons for the isolation and retreat:

  • social anxiety (an all-too-real thing)
  • introverts drained from a day in an extrovert environment
  • physical limitations
  • busyness. Oh dear God so much busyness. I met a mom at the park last week who has three children; between the three of them they’re involved in a DOZEN after-school/extra-curricular activities. The mom freely admitted – it was more of a boast, actually – that they live in the minivan and she’s basically their chauffeur. They probably have a Google calendar to rival Bill Gates’. So, when these harried, hurried folks get home in the evening, they just collapse. Well. Yeah.
  • special needs of children or aging parents
  • exhaustion from parenting/job/school
  • lack of family support (lack of a spouse, lack of a supportive one, or presence of a controlling one)

There are other, cultural reasons for the isolation.

  • People just don’t know how to be together, because they’ve grown up, and live, in front of screens.
  • We don’t know how to agreeably disagree.
  • We’re increasingly from different backgrounds, and therefore don’t have a common base of values, experiences, expectations or even manners.
  • We don’t know how to deal with conflict or even “the different.”
  • We’re afraid of getting caught up in somebody else’s “mess” or neediness, that we can’t fix, or that would require sacrifice of us.

Besides, everybody else is staying at home.

So we stay home, too.

Never mind that you never know where you’ll meet your next best friend.

I can tell you this: you won’t meet her shopping at Amazon.

Gather the herd…if you have one

The problem is, when – not if – the crisis comes, we have almost no herd to form protective ranks around us.

Y’all. Even lions don’t go it alone.

And we need each other so desperately. One of the great myths of American individualism is that you don’t have to need anybody else. We pretend we’re self-made and self-sufficient and self-sustaining, but the more we press into those places the lonelier it actually gets. To quiet the simmering loneliness, we fill our calendars: if we run fast enough, maybe we can outrun the old aches and the new ones too.

Then the crises hit. Sometimes they come in waves. Then who gathers around us? Who do we call when we face:

  • the pink slip
  • the diagnosis
  • the failing parent(s)
  • the rebellious child(ren)
  • the betrayal
  • the severe blow to faith (from all kinds of quarters)
  • the medical bill

We need that community to listen to the tears and furies and worries. To remind us of God’s goodness even as they sit with us in sackcloth. To send encouraging texts and funny memes and flowers. To offer the wisdom of experience, and the comfort of hard-won empathy. To take care of the baby, do the laundry, shuttle the kids to practice, pay for the car repair and the therapy, bring us take-out, connect us with their mechanics and attorneys and specialists.

Community cannot be found  

There are times when we can’t build community, it’s too sadly true. (Crisis, or especially demanding seasons of life.) This is all the more reason to build it in the other times. Just as you study before the test, just as you save money before the plumbing catastrophe, just as you rehearse before the interview or the stage.

But a lot of the time, I think we just don’t build it. Because it’s too much stinking work.

We don’t live in villages. We don’t run into each other. We’re not enduring the same crisis together.

In the suburbs, we live in single-family homes with closed garage doors and empty sidewalks and cars to get us everywhere we need to go. Or we live in an apartment that functions with as much isolation as a single-family home.

In the cities we sit at bus stops and on subways and in the back seats of Ubers with our big fat “don’t talk to me” headphones on, glued to four-inch screens.

And in the countryside – well, at least we talk to the livestock and pets, so we have the decided advantage of good listeners. But we’re literally geographically removed from others.

So where are we going to find community?

Answer: We’re not.

We’re not going to find it. It’s not out there.

It’s not lurking at the cool coffee shop. It’s not strolling the streets of Disney World. It’s not in a special room at the church building. It’s not the luxury of the childless or empty nesters or retired or academics. Community isn’t in the dormitory, the corner office, or the gated neighborhood.

Community isn’t found.

It’s made.

And like all good things, especially homemade things, it is hard work.

Also like all good things, it has an enemy. He comes in the form of…well, see the list above of reasons we isolate.

We behave as though our Good Shepherd is going to bring green pasture to our back yard like squares of sod, drop it in, water it, protect it from the mean dogs, and lead us oh so gingerly out the back steps to partake.

Hello. No.

Jesus leads us to still waters and to green pastures, but we got to do some walking!

Want community?

Make it.

  • Make the phone call. Call to chat, to commiserate, to seek and to give counsel, to give cheer & courage. (Yes, texting can count.)
  • Do the invite. Don’t wait for it to come to you!
  • Have the coffee or the dinner or the tea.
  • Go on the walk.
  • Go see the movie.
  • Hang out at the park.
  • Go bike riding together. (Do a mud run, if that’s your kind of thing!)
  • Go camping together.
  • Go hear a mutual friend’s band.
  • Play the board games.
  • Take the meal over. Or just the cookies.
  • Read the books together.
  • Go to your friends’ kids’ things. Take your kids.
  • Drop the things that drain you!! For Pete’s sake, life is too damn short to shuttle from one dreary, unnecessary obligation to another.
  • Make the margin. Guard it jealously, zealously, as if your life depended on it. Because when the crisis comes, you will need the community you built in those margins.

All I know is this: I long for meaningful community. Not a week goes by that I don’t internally lament the lack of it in my own life. I want it for my family, for my friends, for my church family, for all the corners of my world, near and far.

As a follower of Jesus, I will try to do my part to build it. Sometimes I’ll retreat, too – sometimes because it’s what my soul truly needs, sometimes because it’s just easier to do what everybody else is doing, and besides, there are always more books to read and shows to binge watch. But I hope I’ll do all my part.

It’s just – I can’t do it alone. Community takes more than one. Join me? For real?


Published in: on March 1, 2018 at 1:57 am  Comments (1)  

I was a refugee

I was a refugee.

I did not know the language of Love, the culture of heaven. I was not a citizen of the Kingdom, neither natural-born nor adopted. I was certainly not assimilated. I brought nothing, came with, at best, a tattered piece of luggage with ill-fitting hand-me-downs.

I, too, needed my hand held at every step of the journey to Belonging.

I still do.

Someone else bought my ticket to get here. He paid with his life, while I played in the sand, as careless as I was oblivious. I owe Him, beyond any earthly currency. I owe Him everything – and it is a happy debt to pay: love, gratitude, obedience, devotion, “yes.”

I was met at the Arrivals Gate by a host of rejoicing angels. I am quietly cheered each day by a great cloud of witnesses.

When I arrived in this Kingdom, I had some ideas of what it would be like, what I would do and not do, how easy or how hard it would be to adjust. I knew a few phrases of the language, I’d seen the TV shows, I’d heard rumors from others who went before.

But I knew so little, it turned out. The language of Love was way harder than I’d imagined. The culture turned out to be upside-down from every other culture in the world. Years in, I still need an Interpreter.

So before I extend my citizenship card proudly, look down upon those who weren’t born here, who came here with nothing and now live well on the benefits – let me remember, I came the same way.

I’m a sinner, like the rest of the world, as outcast as Eve herself on the day of banishment.

The only reason I’m a citizen now is the Father invited me here, paid my way (through his Son), and holds my foolish hands (through his Spirit) every. single. day.

I can never forget – without him, I’m a doomed wanderer, a helpless woman with no good country.

I got no room to gloat.

My job is to be as kind to the rest of the refugees as Jesus was to me. To love as unconditionally as he does. To welcome, to interpret, to teach, to serve, to graft into the Kingdom as he did me.

My job is to declare the praises of him who called me out of the state of darkness, into his wonderful light. My job is to declare the year of the Lord’s favor to those on the margins, where I, too, once lived – a sinking boat from which I was rescued.

“Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” – 1 Peter 2:10.



Published in: on January 22, 2018 at 3:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Books of 2017

Turns out I read a little more last year than I’d thought. Guess all those 40-60 minute “I’ll just read one more chapter” nights added up.

booksAs much for my own sake as anyone’s, here’s a round-up of 2017’s good reads (in alphabetical order), along with a short quote from several (a handful of books just didn’t warrant this list).

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus revolutionized the cosmos, by Dava Sobel

The story of dear old Copernicus, who had the gall to state that the sun was the center of our cosmos, not the Earth. I completely blame my 10-year-old for my even having interest in books like this. Well-written, not quite as thorough as her bestselling Longitude (about the search for accuracy in longitude), a little bit of creative, salacious, dramatic speculation included.

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, hope, and a restaurant in Rwanda, by Josh Ruxin

In telling the story of this restaurant, A Thousand Hills to Heaven dishes out plates full of wise and insightful nuggets about aid, development, horror, heroism, healing, and hope. Even when I thought I might put it down and not pick it back up again, I found myself returning to the book like I open newsletters from friends on the mission field.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery, by Eric Metaxas

Outstanding biography of this too-little-known hero of the faith, and basis of the movie “Amazing Grace.” Metaxas weaves detail and meticulous research into a well-paced, creative narrative. Highly recommend if you like biography, and even if you don’t.

“The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.”

Blink: The power of thinking without thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

My first read of a Gladwell book; won’t be my last. Love well-researched social scientists who can teach significant paradigm shifts through thorough and engaging story.

“A commander does not need to know the barometric pressure or the winds or even the temperature. He needs to know the forecast. If you get too caught up in the production of information, you drown in the data.”

The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan

A sweet, easy, entertaining read: Nina takes the plunge, drops the library job, converts an old bus to a mobile bookstore, and sets up shop in, of all places, Scotland. Antics and epiphanies and rural romances follow.

“There was a universe inside every human being every bit as big as the universe outside them. Books were the best way Nina knew – apart from, sometimes, music – to breach the barrier, to connect the internal universe with the external, the words acting merely as a conduit between the two worlds.”

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I’m usually averse to memoirs by celebrities, because I don’t find their lives any more riveting than the next person’s, but this was a really good one. Funny, insightful, poignant, well-written story of growing up the son of an African and a Swede (“born a crime”) in the last days of apartheid in South Africa. So good I have three pages of quotes. Here’s just one:

“We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.”

Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown

Love me some Brene! (Daring Greatly has pride of place on the mantel above the fireplace, like where you’d put the Oscar statue.) I’ve gotten to where I don’t want to read somebody’s opinions; give me solid research, solid data. And Brene delivers. Plus she’s snarky, shoots straight, encouraging, and above all kind. Which, as it turns out, is just about the most important trait in the world to me.

“Not enough of us know how to sit in pain with others. Worse, our discomfort shows up in ways that can hurt people and reinforce their own isolation. I have started to believe that crying with strangers in person could save the world.”

Brookwood Road: Memories of a home, by Scott Vaughan

A memoir by a friend. Norman Rockwell, meet Jerry Clower. Reading Brookwood Road is like the catching up that happens at a wedding or funeral, after all the guests have left and all the family is sitting around with ties loosened and heels off and the leftovers long left on the kitchen counter. It’s comfortable, familiar, funny, poignant, filled with both laughter and easy silence.

Heaven in the Real World, Steven Curtis Chapman

What it sounds like: Chapman’s autobiography. A good read, a little long, and also inspiring. The man has been pointing millions to Jesus through his music for nearly 30 years, and still somehow has remained clean and above the fray of contemporary Christian music; that alone inspires my respect.

If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? (My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating), by Alan Alda

Alan Alda is a communications research expert? Who knew??? Could not get his voice out of my head as I read this, which made his humor throughout the book even better. A good read.

Is God a Mathematician?, by Mario Livio

I have NEVER read a book like this without compulsion (re: as an assignment). Apparently I’m turning into an ever greater nerd than I had realized.

This book is mostly accessible to a general, albeit adult, readership. Livio does not in fact really address the title of his book. He does address various philosophical aspects of mathematics, primarily the question of whether math is “discovered” or “invented” – a dichotomy that appears to have been a vexing question for centuries. And, like many academicians, he settles firmly….somewhere in the middle.

Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh

A novel of 18-year-old Rachel, who returns home to Africa after six years of exile in an English boarding school following the sudden death of her mother. It’s 1950. Rachel’s father has a new woman in her mother’s place. And Kenya is in its genesis days of the fight for independence from England.

A very well-written, enjoyable read.

My Italian Bulldozer, by Alexander McCall Smith

A one-off (not in a series) by one of my favourite (yes, with a “u”) authors. Entertaining, wry, witty, poignant without a touch of sentimentality, keenly observant and borderline happily cynical of human nature.

Paul Stuart’s girlfriend has left him. To soften the fallout, he goes to Tuscany for a month to finish his latest book. A series of unexpected events puts him at the wheel of a bulldozer, then in the company of a charming American woman, and a quaint crew of locals. Classic McCall Smith.

Not the Religious Type: confessions of a turncoat atheist, by Dave Schmelzer

An atheist-turned-pastor offers a non-angry apologetic for the Christian faith. Refreshing! And a really good read.

“…the religious response to modernity has felt so unsatisfying for so many. It puts faith into the category of ‘being right’ about something, about proving or disproving something. And as we’ve said, being right has fewer rewards than we might have supposed.”

Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton

Re-read this this year, with a friend, which made it way more fun. Chesterton is an absolute master at snark, wit, lyrical prose, and extraordinary philosophical, intellectual, & theological depth. This book, a well-deserved classic of Christian theology, is as rich and dense as a chocolate torte, and this time around I digested it right: slowly, deliberately, in the company of a friend.

“Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves.”

 The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, by Larry Alex Taunton

Provocative title, considering Christopher Hitchens was one of the bad hombres known as the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism. But apparently Christian apologist Taunton was friends with Hitchens, and offers this well-written, engaging, lively, and above all very personal biography of Hitchens. He shares a brief background of Hitchens’ journey to atheism, his change of at least some major thinking following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and especially their growing, deepening friendship – a thing that left Hitchens’ comrades in utter disbelief and dismay.

Did Hitchens go to meet his Maker a believer, or did he stand firm to the end in his disbelief? (Well I’m certainly not giving the book away.)

The Life & Times of Persimmon Wilson, by Nancy Peacock

Hands-down the best novel I read all year. The story of the life of one enslaved yet literate Persimmon Wilson, from antebellum Louisiana sugar plantation to post-Civil War Texas and life as a black Comanche warrior. Outstanding writing, historical accuracy, rich, nuanced, morally complex characters, a perfect blend of reflection and action throughout the plot.

“When we docked at New Orleans we were loaded off the ship and chained at the ankles. The air smelt of fried fish and was thick and heavy, like something that needed to be spooned instead of breathed.”

Why Won’t You Apologize?, by Harriet Lerner

Like many self-help titles, Why Won’t You Apologize is full of truths we already know but forget, or wish weren’t true, or just don’t feel like dealing with. But it articulates them in fresh, relatable, easily readable stories and counsel.

“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened well to the hurt party’s anger and pain.”


Published in: on January 13, 2018 at 4:54 am  Leave a Comment  

“The Lord gives, & the Lord takes away”

December. 2006.

The winter sun had already dipped behind the mountains, pulled down by the cold Pacific water. The only light in the room was the artificial glow of the laptop computer, frozen at a scene from the movie “Far From Heaven,” which I had been watching while the sun fell down in the December sky. When the phone rang I knew who it was, and I got up to close the blinds as I answered it.

Dr. W. was kind and warm and her sympathy was real, but the lab work was irrefutable. I laid the phone in its base and sat unmoving on the couch. Stared at the still scene from the movie, glimmering off my laptop. I closed the laptop without closing the program, and sat on the floor on my knees, waiting for the wave. And it came. I began crying. Of course I began crying. What else would I do? This child I had longed for, prayed for, begged for, pleaded for, for 5 years, had barely settled into reality into my brain, and now it was gone.

Gone. Never even existed or known to the world, except for the half-dozen people we’d told.

The waves came faster, and I was no longer on my knees, I was fully face down, nose pressed into the carpet, shoulders shaking, open palms beating the floor.

And I begin to say, out loud, through racking sobs, over and over and over and over again, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Over and over and over. Probably 300 times.

I didn’t know what I was saying. Certainly had not planned on it. And certainly if someone had been sitting with me and offered that scripture, they would have been shown the door. But it came to my mind unbidden. And I found there were no other words. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Did I mean it? I cannot say. All I knew was that they were the only right words to say. What could my heart do except cry out in pain and loss and grief? And what could my lips do but call to mind the response of the man who lost absolutely everything, & lost it with the blessing of the Almighty? (And we know blessing is just another word for permission.) “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Over and over and over again. The words rising and falling, my lips moving while my heart raged unattached. Over and over and over again. Until eventually the crying subsided and I only whispered the words. And yet, and yet… “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Dimly, I recalled my father’s words. A few brave honest souls had asked him, after he was disabled for the rest of his life from a car accident at age 44, if he harbored any resentment or anger against God. His response? “God is God, I am just a man.” There was no bitterness or resignation or resentment in his voice, his body language, or his life and actions. There was no fatalism, no stoic resignation to the harshness of life. There wasn’t even a sense that he was putting himself down. He was simply recognizing that God is God, and Gary was not.

Now we can soften the blow of what I went through with that miscarriage. We can talk about how my body was doing what was best for her and for the child. We can talk about it being purely physiological. Or we can talk about how we just live in a sinful world, with the sinful nature, with sinfulness all around us. And sure, those things have truth to them.

But the equal yet raw, rough, and jagged truth is that the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and the name of the Lord is to be praised.

The sharp truth is that we do not understand God.

And sometimes, far more often than we would like to admit, he does things that seem just downright wrong to us. He does hard things. He says hard things.

And we turn away, or we smooth the rough edges of the hard things. We gasp and grasp, frantic for the Redemptions and the Happy Endings.

But valleys are made for walking through, with one Trusted Companion. They are not made for living in, or rocketing out of with self-propellant.

He is God. And we are not. And we can rant and rave and rail and rage against this truth, but it is as unshakable as the Cornerstone on which we build our faith. He is God. Shockingly, we are not.

Not only that, but sometimes he does terrible things in our lives. Are we so wise that we can recognize which difficulties are from our enemy’s hands, which are of our own making, and which are from the Lord himself? Can we even admit that he sends them? Though the Bible says so, repeatedly, we resist this thought.

Can we say, as Job did, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord”?

I did, that one time anyway. And nothing miraculous happened. I calmed down, but whether that was because the Lord’s spirit of peace soothed my soul, or because I had spent myself of all the sobs for that moment, I don’t know. I know I wept again the next day, and the next, and I weep every time I think of that afternoon, every time I think of that child.

All I know is those were the only right words to say. And so I said them. Over and over and over and over again.

Because they are true. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.

He is God, and I am not. And whatever he does, whatever I may think of it, he is right, he is just, he is good, he is Holy.

He is Other than me.

strawberry point I


Published in: on January 1, 2018 at 11:17 pm  Comments (1)  


The gist of this:

Dressember is an awareness-raising and fund-raising campaign that happens each December through the Dressember organization. Individuals, or teams, pledge to wear a dress (or a tie) every day in December, to raise public awareness of modern-day slavery, and to raise funds to combat it. Funds go primarily to International Justice Mission, an outstanding and internationally-recognized organization devoted to fighting injustice and eradicating poverty and slavery worldwide.

My goal is to raise $500 by December 31. This money goes to the modern-day abolitionist movement – can you believe such a thing is even necessary? But it is, and is desperately needed.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I am the last person to care for anything fashion-related. Even I think my wardrobe is boring (but that’s the way I want it – topic of another post, another time). In fact, I own precisely three long-sleeve dresses, not enough to go even a week without repeating them, much less a month.

Nonetheless, here’s why I’m participating in Dressember:

  • Because I’m sick and tired of reading about slavery and praying about slavery and not doing anything material to fight it. As Steve Trevor said to Diana (aka Wonder Woman), “My father told me once, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”
  • Because there are between 27 and 30 million slaves in the world today. That’s more than twice the total number of Africans enslaved in 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And it’s between 27 and 30 million more than is acceptable. Am I right?? Humans are Not For Sale.
  • Because “Whoever shuts their ears to the cries of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” – Proverbs 21:13. I will not close my ears, shut my eyes, turn away, and pretend that because my own little world is okay everything is okay.
  • Because I read the stories in the news from my own backyard – sex trafficking rings that catch minors in their snares. Yes, here in America, yes, here in South Carolina. If we open our eyes and look just a tiny bit closer, we will see The Slave Next Door.
  • Because millions around the world get no choice in what their day entails, much less any choice in what they wear. For one measly month I get one teeny tiny taste -almost a mockery – of a limit to my freedom: every time I leave my house, I’m wearing a dress. It’s a First World (minority world) problem, and already, 13 days in, I’m tired of wearing the same five things. I call this a sacrifice? Give me a break. I. Cannot. Fathom.

Why am I participating in Dressember? For the freedom of people like:

  • Maiamma & Shushil, a husband and wife rescued from slavery at a brick factory near Bangalore, India. The “better job” they’d been promised turned out to include abduction, regular beatings, starvation, sadistic torture, forced labor, and gang rapes. All at a temple construction site.
  • Maya, traveling from her brother’s home back to her parents’, in West Bengal, India, who met a familiar older couple who asked her to help them run an errand. Maya was tricked and turned over to a “forced prostitution” ring – a year of beatings & rapes before IJM and local trusted authorities were able to rescue her.
  • Ruth, who arrived in Washington, D.C., from West Africa, at age 52, speaking no English, but promised a car and house in return for working as a housekeeper and nanny for a man who worked at the World Bank. Instead she got 24/7 duties, beatings, no pay, isolation, terror, and a wrongful stint in a mental institution arranged by her “owners.” She was finally rescued, but returned to Africa traumatized and penniless, having known nothing of America but abuse.
  • The thousands of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, toiling in sun-burned tomato fields for 12 or 13 hours a day, averaging $7,000-10,000 per year for their trouble. With no benefits of any sort – no overtime, no health care, no insurance, no guarantee of work.

I could go on and on but my eyes are glazing already and my heart gets desensitized after just a few minutes of this. Does yours?

We care, but it hurts too much to care too much. It’s fatigue-inducing. The issues are so gargantuan, so overwhelming and so “too much,” and we sense whatever we do will hardly make a dent, so we do nothing.

I get it. Most days, I’m there too.

But praise be to Jesus he is not this way toward us. He is the God who sees, who cares, who came, who sacrificed, who loves fiercely, who rescues and redeems and restores even as his own heart breaks.

And so I have to care even though the knowledge of these things breaks my heart. I don’t have to give over my whole life and every waking moment to this just cause – but I do have to care.

So I wear a dress for the next 17 days, and ask my friends and family and acquaintances to join me in keeping our eyes and ears open, our hearts soft, our wallets generous.

“If you’re not using your comfort, position, influence, and privilege to advocate for those who have less of those things – you’re wasting them.” – John Pavlovitz

Blessed, in order to bless.

Give here:

* Statistics and stories from Not For Sale, The Slave Next Door, & The Locust Effect

** Related sites:


Published in: on December 14, 2017 at 6:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Apple pie & Persian music – Thanksgiving 2017

9 a.m. – 2 p.m.: I washed pots, pans, mixing bowls, beaters. I rinsed out the “used twice a year” crystal goblets. I swept the dining room, and set the table with a totally cheap, totally resourceful, totally appealing centerpiece: yellow pumpkin poked with plastic jewels, on a brown plaid cloth napkin, fall leaves scattered around it and multicolored popcorn kernels drizzled over it all. I cleaned the hall/guest bathroom, gathered all the children’s toys from the front of the house and flung them unceremoniously into their bedrooms, cleared off the school table, lit the scented candles in the living room and breakfast room, folded the throws on the couches.

And all the while I thought about the family of four Iranian refugees coming over for Thanksgiving dinner.20171123_152214_1511553933045_resized

Would they be intimidated? They’d spent I knew not how long in a refugee camp, under circumstances I knew absolutely nothing about except that they were dire enough they wanted to escape to “the Great Satan,” as the Iranian propaganda machine still refers to the United States.

Or for all I knew they came from wealth – an Iranian home with Persian rugs on every stone floor, marble top tables and fine china and crystal, house servants moving through quietly to maintain their peaceful home.

Either way, my American Southern brick ranch home with its “eclectic” style (that’s what my generous friends call it) would be different. Would they feel comfortable?

Would they balk at the traditional meal spread before them buffet style? Would everything look so foreign and confusing, smell so strange, that they would take a spoonful only to be polite? What could I make that might look familiar (without a trip to the grocery store)? (The tomato & mozzarella salad was probably as close as I got.)

Most of all, what would we talk about? How would we talk? Only one of them spoke marginally good English. Would it be uncomfortably quiet? Would we spend the evening trying to get Google translate to work? Would it be so awkward I’d take them home right after dinner?

So I prayed while I sliced celery and tomatoes and apples and pears. “Jesus make this evening a blessing for us and for them.”

Prayed while I chopped onions and water chestnuts and walnuts and cranberries. “Please give us things to talk about and help that one daughter have better English than I think.”

Prayed while I rolled balls of fresh mozzarella and rolled out pie dough and biscuit dough. “Help us help them feel comfortable. Let them leave feeling like they were welcomed like family.”

Prayed while I boiled bags of frozen lima beans, corn, & peas, then boiled a pound of macaroni. “Please let this smoked turkey actually taste good!” (My mother bought it from my nephew as a fund-raiser, so the meat was an unknown entity this year.)

Prayed while I squeezed lemons for fresh lemonade, and then tea bags for iced tea. “Let them feel at ease in this house, with my family, around our table.”

And before I knew it these women I barely knew, from a culture almost entirely different from mine in deep, subconscious ways, were sitting at my breakfast table.

Then the magic happened.

Phase 1: First, one of the girls offered to help me make the biscuits, and of course I said yes. Everyone needs to be needed, everyone wants to be involved, not just waited upon, and anyway I was glad for the help after five hours of solo cooking already.

So we’re at the counter whisking eggs and cream, kneading cheddar dill biscuit dough on the floured counter, getting the baking sheets prepped, using some English and a lot of gestures and body language. Her mother and sister are at the table with crayons, decorating the “coloring paper Thanksgiving tablecloth” I’d wisely spent $2 on at Wal-Mart.

We’re invoking the two basic ingredients of human fellowship: working side by side, and preparing a meal.

And then suddenly my Iranian friend’s face lights up and she says, “Persian music!”

Phase 2: Unprompted, my brother Seth had found a Persian music station on YouTube (God bless the internet, please and thank you) and was playing it on his phone. (Aside: this brother is in his element around people of other cultures.)

And just like that, the tone of the whole evening was set. The Persian music opened the door to smiles, ease, conversation, laughter. It was the blanket of comfort upon the shared meal.

Dinner with plenty of conversation and laughing (especially at our attempts at Farsi). Dessert with hot tea and coffee. Sitting around the firepit on the back deck for an hour, listening to Persian, then Afghan, then Saudi Arabian music. (Second aside: I like those genres – very cool!)

I still don’t really know their refugee story, nor do I need to, nor do they owe it to me. (Third aside: I won’t be posting a photo, because they expressed “security concerns” – and this makes me by turns angry and sad. What a world.)

Here’s what I know: cooking, food, music, a warm fire, curiosity, kindness, a willingness to try other languages and other ways of thinking, adjusting my speech for someone else – all these things stew and mix and combust and settle into the best kind of hospitality you could have at any table. The magic of kindness goes such a long way.

“Your house is warm,” said my friend as we shivered in the cold car on the way back to their apartment.

Oh, I hope so. I sure hope so.


Published in: on November 24, 2017 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  


One of my favorite childhood memories is the day in early fall when Dad took me and my brothers to the woods to get firewood. We didn’t have land, ourselves, but Dad, being the unofficial community pastor for our rural farming county, had no shortage of farmer friends who had offered this or that grove of trees for our use, any time we had the need.

What we did have was a plain potbelly wood stove, protruding from the fireplace in the tongue-and-groove paneled den, and providing the primary source of heat for our 2,000-square-foot home. Mom and Dad had it installed a few years after we moved to Ehrhardt, when it was still just me and one brother.

That stove heated the combination den and kitchen, and while some of its heat drifted down the long hardwood hallway and through the doorways to the four bedrooms, one bathroom, and library – it was not enough to take the chill off the “back of the house,” where the thermostat for the central heat and air unit was set at a budget-friendly 65 degrees. The upshot was our family spent most of the winter evenings together in the den, as the alternative was to more or less bundle up in a bedroom. I see the beauty in this now, of course, all that family time together, luxuriating in the warm room, sans television most years. We talked or read books or folded laundry or listened to music or traipsed around the kitchen cooking, eating, cleaning, or scavenging, in vain, for snacks.

And that stove required a lot of wood. Dad would get the fire in it going about the time it got dark, and it would burn through the evening and simmer all night, stoked one more time before the last person went to bed, and in the morning he’d shovel out the ashes, stir the coals so they’d keep just a little warm during the day, and then leave it till dark again. In the South Carolina Low Country, even the coldest winter days didn’t require a full-blown fire till late afternoon.

But when suppertime rolled around, from the built-in half-oval kitchen table, Dad would look over at that stove, turn back to his plate, and say, calmly, every night of the winter, the words that my brother Garren dreaded, silently, every night of the winter:

“Son,” a pause to take a sip of sweet tea, “git wood.”

My brother swears that was his name those four months out of the school year: “Gitwood.”

Of course, he didn’t show any resistance or attitude toward Dad. He just grimaced to himself, nodded, and grudgingly went outside after supper to “git wood” from the wall of logs installed along the walkway between the back porch and the carport. He’d haul in two large or three medium logs, lay them like an offering on the hearth, and then venture back into the dimming winter evening for a handful of smaller logs and maybe one or two pieces of kindling (fat-lighter, y’all), if Dad required it or, in later years, as Garren learned the art himself, if he discerned the need for it.

He brought the wood for the altar – I mean, stove – with some resentment (the task was his alone, it seemed, and every single night) and with some trepidation: if his selection was not the right size, or not brought in a timely enough manner, or brought with a “sorry attitude,” Dad would deliver one of his characteristic stern looks or reprimands, and the simple “git wood” task would turn from merely annoying to possibly nerve-racking.

But before all the nights of “git wood,” we had to go “git wood” the first time. Dad, myself, my brother Garren, and my brother Seth. What Mom did while we were gone those three or so hours, I didn’t know, never occurred to me to wonder. She probably enjoyed the peace and quiet of the house.

We crammed, seat belts loose, into the truck – a Ford F150 with no such thought as an extended cab – and drove out to whoever’s field Dad had determined would provide us with this year’s haul. Somehow my brother Garren always seemed to know whose property we were on, and I never did – all those fields and clumps of trees and farm roads and even small creeks all looked the same to me. Heck, except for the pines, all the trees looked the same to me. But even at a young age Garren had paid more attention than me, and knew an oak from a maple from a sweet gum.

The truck careened painfully along the rutted farm road at the edge of the field. We rode in silence, mostly, as one always did with Dad at the wheel. Why fill the air with words when the dusty aroma of a Southern fall could suffice? Finally Dad would see what he wanted, some fallen tree that might as well have called his name for all I understood the draw, and he’d park the truck, get the chainsaw out of the bed of it, and begin walking, with never a word to the three of us. It was assumed – correctly – we’d just follow.

Follow we did – only to find ourselves soon bored, looking for a marginally comfortable place to plant ourselves while Dad applied his chainsaw to the branches and then trunk of the chosen arboreal fuel. Garren and Seth entertained themselves in the woods the way only boys seemed to know how to do, with sticks and pine cones and piles of leaves; I mostly sat and watched, waiting for my favorite part.

Which came soon enough. A nod and some pointing from Dad, and we three kids jumped to the task of loading all those logs into the bed of the F150. We worked more or less assembly style, accounting for Seth, the youngest, needing to take smaller logs, and Dad, obviously, hefting the heaviest. Though I never verbalized it, each year I inevitably silently competed with Garren to see who could lift the heaviest chunks of wood for the longest time. Something within me refused to admit that he was stronger simply because he was a boy. After all, he was my junior by two and a half years, and I was not going to be outmaneuvered by my punk brother. Even though, before too many winters of this chore passed, I assuredly was.

We worked with few words and a lot of grunts and not a few cries of pain as the rough bark scratched and splinters lodged and fingers got jammed. The air was cool, and we had inevitably started later in the day than we should have, and so dusk began tiptoeing out of the edge of the woods, shadowing the field, lending just a smidgeon of urgency to our task. We knew loading this truck was only the first step.

Back home, the cab quiet now with the satisfaction of hard work and the anticipation of round two.

Once home, we set up our assembly line again, two of us in the truck bed, two on the ground, steadily building a wall of firewood, each log placed just so, a good five feet high and 10 or 12 feet long. It was a wall of provision, quite literally. A wall of sacrifice for the well-being of our family. A wall of hard work, team work, bruised fingers and aching arms and deep, almost primeval satisfaction at the handiwork now bounding the side of the walkway.

We would be warm, again, this winter, our little tribe in our cozy den with the thin dark-red carpet and the books crammed onto the built-in shelves and the yellow glow of the table lamps.


Published in: on November 15, 2017 at 2:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Why my family won’t be filling a shoebox

From the official website: “Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. Our mission is to provide local partners around the world with shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items, and school supplies as a means of reaching out to children in their own communities with the Good News of Jesus Christ. We ship these simple gifts outside the United States to children affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine, and disease; and to children living on Native American reservations in the U.S.”

 (Caveat: I’ve packed a shoebox before.)

The Phifers will not be participating. However outcast or party pooper that may brand us. We’re gonna send a goat and/or some chickens and/or a microloan to some people in the developing world (through World Vision), but no box of goodies.

I have so many problems with this program I don’t even know where to start. But here goes:

  1. We tell our children that Christmas is simply about the birth of Jesus, God’s greatest gift to the world.

But then we get broken-hearted at the thought that children around the world “don’t get to experience the joy of Christmas,” meaning….what, exactly? That they don’t wake up to a room full of wrapped gifts under a lit and decorated Christmas tree?

In practice, we export our real, unspoken definition of Christmas to children in 100-plus countries every December: Christmas = presents.

  1. What is the long-term sustainable difference these shoeboxes make in the lives of the children who receive them? What does a child in a refugee camp in Tanzania need? What does a child in the favelas of Rio or the slums of Nairobi or the slums of Mumbai need?

Nutritious food. Clean water. Sanitation. Vaccinations. Education. Adequate shelter. Adequate clothing. Loving family. Opportunity. Safety from the everyday predatory violence that plagues the poor worldwide.

Even the more thoughtful gifts – the clothes or shoes or hygiene items – are short-term fixes to long-term needs. We are providing aid; what’s needed is development.

  1. Then there’s the amount of money American Christians spend on Operation Christmas Child each year. We’re talking 150,000+ volunteers for an untold accumulation of hours, packing 9.1 million shoeboxes (plus a $9 shipping donation per box).

This is money that could build wells, clinics, schools. Pay the salaries of national doctors and nurses and teachers for years. Pay local construction workers to build locally-suitable, sustainable, safe housing. Pay for microloans to the thousands of people who would seize the dignity and opportunity of working to provide for their families. Fund hundreds, probably thousands, of multi-year child sponsorships through worthy organizations that actually do community development year-round.

And, even more long-term and systemic – money enough to sustainably speak to the apathy and corruption of those in power, to change systems of education, public justice, law enforcement, political structures. Money to change the rules of the horrid games of violence and oppression that are the root of so much of the poverty these children endure.

But no. We’d rather spend our collective millions on “fun” toys that, like most of those we get our own children, will break tomorrow.

  1. When a child in the developing world receives a box of Christmas presents from America, think about the unintended messages. To the children: “We want you to experience the joy of Christmas – so here are some material things. And a tract. Also, your parents, your family, your community cannot provide for you the way we in the States can.”

To the parents: “Don’t worry; we’ve got your kids covered. We know you don’t have the means to provide a joyful Christmas, so we’ll take care of it.”

The result? The kids see the Minority World (what we call “First World”), again, as the rich savior bearing material gifts, and their own families and communities as inadequate. The adults are robbed of the dignity of caring for their children, and of the respect of their children.

  1. Then there’s the cost to local economies: local toy makers and toy sellers (who don’t have a lot of business to begin with)…local clothing vendors or seamstresses….local vendors of hygiene items (the kind that are actually familiar to and used by locals).

And while “free” is great for the individual children, it deals a blow to local businesses – who, by and large, are small business owners striving to make a sustainable living, maybe even the parents and aunts and uncles and school teachers of these children.

So why do we do it?

  1. It’s easy. Easy charity, easy missions, easy “discipleship.” We’ll pray for the kid our box is going to, because we’re sincere. But still, filling a shoebox mostly comes down to shopping. Which Americans are great at.
  2. It’s cheap. For $30-40 we can “send Christmas” to a child in poverty.
  3. It makes us feel good. Our hearts ache at the thought of poor children around the world not “having Christmas,” and we want to do something, and this fits the bill. For one hour of shopping and $30-40 of expense, we can make a “life-changing” difference in the life of one child on the other side of the world. Bonus: our children see generosity and they get so excited to be part of it, and all the warm fuzzies….well, they’re great.
  4. We’ve bought into the myth of consumerism as activism – the idea that buying things, consuming more, is a sufficient and effective means of affecting change in the world. (See pink pizza boxes during breast cancer awareness month…Ethos bottled water…Toms shoes…etc.)

Some other options I’d like to propose:

  1. Invest in long-term programs focused on community development: World Vision, Compassion International, Heifer International, International Justice Mission. And by “invest,” I mean, “invest.” Where our treasure is, there ours heart will be also.
  2. Be generous to the boots on the ground. If you know missionaries – be generous. If you know Jesus-loving people doing humanitarian work, social justice work, etc. – be generous, with your encouragement and your money. Especially encourage those who live in these developing nations incarnationally sharing the gift of the Good News – most especially, national believers.
  3. Do good locally. Let’s help the public school teachers. And the community leaders. And the local organizations that make a sustainable difference in the lives of the poor where we live.

Man oh man, I get the desire involved in Operation Christmas Child: the desire to improve the lot of poor children around the world, to bring moments of fun to them, to share the Good News of Jesus, to expand the horizons and interests of ourselves and especially our children.

But good intentions are only a good start; genuine care requires putting the receiver’s needs before the giver’s emotions.

Let’s serve the materially poor children of the world wisely. Let’s meet real, felt needs. Let’s take the Good News of Jesus to them, unencumbered by our cultural props. Let’s make sure what we do is what’s actually needed, actually holistic, actually long-term & sustainable after the Americans have left and the dust from their Land Rovers has settled.


Published in: on November 10, 2017 at 8:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

School lunch

Every once in a while someone will labor one of the double doors open, and in the few squeaky seconds before it latches shut she can hear a snippet of the lunch crowd aimless at the back side of the school grounds. Voices, sometimes yells, cars in the distance, other exterior doors crashing shut, the screech of a trash bin gorging on uneaten cafeteria food. There’s a whiff of French fries, the dry smell of scuffed dirt, wisps of smoke from the other end of the school, where all the cool kids and teachers are smoking under the end zone bleachers. Heat waves in, too, disturbing the stale cool of the short hallway.

Whoever has opened the door takes a glance at her and breezes on, unconcerned and uncurious. They clang through another set of interior doors, and she can hear their footsteps echo away down the bare floor of the main hallway.

The girl cross-legged alone on the wafer-thin carpet doesn’t even lift her eyes off the book in her lap.

Her rectangular, divided, green cafeteria tray cradles food mostly untouched, the fork forlorn to the side, though a wadded plastic wrapper that once held peanut butter crackers is lying across the top like a shroud. A nearly empty can of Coke presides over the tray.

All the other juniors – and seniors, and sophomores, and freshmen, and teachers, and staff – are scattered with their mini-tribes around the campus. And she knows them.

She knows the inside of the teachers’ lounge, its mimeograph table commanding one entire corner, its vending machine, its mail cubbies, the nose-wrinkling testimony of burned popcorn from the microwave, the teachers and staff in their grownup versions of cliques.

Outside, boys, lurching their way to being men, sit man-spreaded on picnic tables, girlfriends locked and leaning in on them. She has a loose idea who is paired with whom, but neither can nor wishes to follow the daily, overly dramatic musical chairs of that game.

She knows the numbing din of the cafeteria, the gaggle of girls that gathers beneath the big oak tree on the front lawn, the motley crew of bad kids that lingers around the door to the shop class, which Coke machine is most likely to eat your quarters, which sidewalks have the biggest fire ant beds.

She knows the noise, the warm sun, the rank smell at the cafeteria loading dock, the sharp splinters of the picnic tables, the bounded sets of every high school there ever was.

She also knows the price of getting inside one of those bounded sets. And is unwilling to pay it.

Besides – there are books, which have all the friends, the drama, the romance, the strivings, the agony and glory that are all in the hungry eyes of the teenagers and adults all around her.

There is the heart-soothing, soul quiet of this hallway during the lunch hour.

She leans against the hard library door – locked during lunch, tragic – and closes her eyes, mulling the novel, feeling the carbonated burn of the digesting Coke and the beginnings of a cramp in her bent left leg.

volkwagen rabbit

In the afternoon, the hot May sun of South Carolina will pour out like warm syrup through the rattling windows of the 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit. Her mother, in the passenger seat now that the reading girl can drive, will query in a fake-casual voice, “Honey is there anybody at Barnwell High School you would…date?” The girl will devote several minutes of thought to the question (she is her deliberate thinking father’s daughter) while the mother waits. “No ma’am,” she will finally say, and no more.

Right now, though, she is alone but not a whit lonely. She’s outcast by her own choosing, content enough in her own skin, aware of her world but engaged only on her own terms.

Which, right now, these noon hours, these last two years of high school, are exactly this scene.

Published in: on September 27, 2017 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Valley walkin’

“We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage” – Rich Mullins.

It seems the hardest thing about walking through the valley is holding on to what you saw on the mountaintop…or, if you’ve not been to the mountaintop yet, what you’ve been told awaits there. There’s a line in the movie “The Shack,” where God (Papa) tells Mack, “When you’re surrounded by nothing but your own pain it’s hard to see Me.” So very true.

This isn’t a novel concept, of course; through millennia people have struggled to see and remember that they are not alone when walking through the valleys.

What’s hard to me is to speak, maybe even speak with faith, the promises I think are true but can’t see for the fog right now. It’s hard to sing, hard to read Scripture (except for some Psalms maybe), hard to pray. I do those things because they’re habits, thank God, but as the hours of the day pass burdened with worry and anxiety and fear and uncertainty, I feel my heart straying, inch by foot by mile, into the Land of No Trust, the Land of Amanda Takes Charge Now. (It’s not a pleasant country, believe me. Full of potholes. And dead ends.)

My heart is like a dog on one of those retractable leashes, and I keep having to yank her back, out of the thorn bushes, away from the pile of poop on the sidewalk, back to the road that must be walked in order to reach Home.

I say the lines, I quote the Scripture, I check my attitude, I sing the songs, I keep going to church on Sunday, I go through the spiritual discipline motions, I ask trusted friends to pray for me. And still my heart wanders like one of those sweet but stupid sheep Jesus talked about. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”

It’s the living sacrifice of faith: clinging to promises, constantly urging your mind and heart to believe the Scriptures. The living sacrifice of praise is the singing and worship, raising my hands in adoration of the Father, when I really just want to prop up in bed with a bowl of popcorn and a Downton Abbey binge.








(What doesn’t help: clichés, truisms, pat answers and well-meaning but condescending pats on the head. Anybody who’s ever walked through a valley will tell you the most helpful thing is having someone walk through it with you, even sit down in the muck with you for a little while if needed.)

So press on, sweet stupid sheep heart. Hold on to that rope that goes to the top of the well you’re in. There IS Someone holding the other end, and He will lift you up and set your feet upon a rock (Psalm 40). He will set you in a spacious place (Psalm 18). He will work all this nastiness for good (Romans 8). Hold on. Hold on.

And when you can’t hold on to Him, He’ll hold on to you.

Pinky promise.

Published in: on September 14, 2017 at 1:40 am  Leave a Comment