A Thousand Hills to Heaven

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

by Josh Ruxin1000 hills to heaven

a book review

Word to the wise: don’t read books about Rwanda before bed. (It only took me two reads to realize this.) Even if the book isn’t “about” the genocide of 1994, it’s still “about” the genocide. That is, most unfortunately, as much the defining event of modern-day Rwanda as 9/11 is for contemporary America.

Still, A Thousand Hills to Heaven is the most genocide-light book I’ve read yet about this east central African nation, in preparation for my mission trip there in June. (Other reads: Broken Memory and Left to Tell: Finding God in the Midst of the Rwandan Holocaust.) The title is a double entendre – Rwanda’s geography has earned it the nickname “land of a thousand hills,” and Heaven is the name of the restaurant this author and his wife operate in the capital city of Kigali.

It’s a steady, interesting, heartwarming, heartbreaking, insightful, educational read. Josh Ruxin is an accomplished, successful veteran of the development world; his wife Alissa is a wellness expert and coach; both are foodies who’ve managed to birth and maintain a Michelin-star restaurant in a landlocked African capital.

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.

Some of the nuggets:

  • Josh’s “five finger rules of development”:
    • Rule one (the thumb): people who are starving cannot be asked to do more than eat. Translation: do the hunger relief first, then pursue development.
    • Rule two (the pointer finger): demand high standards where they improve performance and upgrade the institutions that serve people and help them have better lives.
      • “To see poor sanitation in a newborn nursery and to say, ‘Well, we’re not in the U.S., after all, and this is their way,’ is soft bigotry of the worst sort….We should not demand that developing nations find their own Louis Pasteurs and Jonas Salks. Our first charitable instinct should be to share what we know from our own history, and we should share it with confident determination, pushing aside unhealthy and cruel traditions where we find them….To equate [female genital mutilation] with our own culture’s male circumcision…is a failure of critical thinking and true helpfulness.” (p. 123)
      • “The most important reason to demand high performance standards in development work is that you should be able to leave someday…If you give out too many things for free, it is hard to make people feel industrious and entrepreneurial.” (p. 124)
    • Rule three (the middle finger – yes that one): you can’t do successful, sustainable development in hopelessly corrupt countries.
    • Rule four (the ring/wedding finger): we (the developing agencies, etc.) are not here as a lifelong commitment, not married to our programs.
      • “We should ultimately never be the essential party, even though we do have leadership responsibilities at the beginning. The better NGOs would nurture Rwandans to lead their efforts, and they would find ways to make the improvements sustainable, then they would leave.” (p. 174)
    • Rule five (the pinky finger): trust the market as the biggest player, even if the power of the market looks small now.
      • “Never be afraid of the profit model, as it can carry the heaviest load of long-term development. Profit brings sustainability, not to mention dignity.” (p. 202)
    • “Don’t start anything that won’t be sustainable after you leave – and do leave: that is the rule. There were no signs [on our health centers] announcing ‘Brought to you by foreign donors.’ When foreigners stay too long, they become a reason for people to doubt their own abilities. When foreigners come with unsustainable projects, they are often doing it for their own pleasure or as an excuse for fundraising and salaries, not for love.” (p. 175)
    • “Rwandans have a funny relationship with God, which they convey through a story anyone can tell you: ‘God worked very hard for six days creating the heavens and the earth. But on the seventh day, he needed a break, so he picked Rwanda as the place to take a much-needed sleep. God sleeps in Rwanda, then keeps busy at work everywhere else.” (p. 169) The negative takeaway from this is that God only shows up in Rwanda to take a nap, so you can’t count on Him to hear you there. The positive is that Rwanda is so cool and beautiful that naturally God comes here, when he’s not punching the clock, to rest.
    • “Rwanda may have its share of bureaucracy, but it is not a kleptocracy. It’s a place where a good program doesn’t die the death of a thousand bribes, a thousand misallocations, a thousand brothers-in-law who must have a piece of every pie.” (p. 156)
    • “If your town ran out of food, would you want someone from another nation handing out the food, or would you want your longtime neighbor to hand it to you?” (Take that, Operation Christmas Child!) “That way, your dignity would be intact. Your children would see neighbors doing something together to feed their families – they would not see their parents looking like helpless victims.” (p. 109)

And two last quotes, one for laughs:

“There is such a thing, by the way, as an Africanized vehicle. Land Rovers and Land Cruisers and a few other makes come to Africa with big running boards, safari-style cargo racks atop, tougher and higher suspensions, supplemental fuel tanks, and, most visibly, snorkel pipes that come from the engine, up alongside the passenger side of the window. That pipe allows the engine to keep going in waist-deep water, and it allows the engine to stay cleaner, gulping its air a few feet higher up from the surface of the roads, which are often traveled in fast, close, dusty caravans. I think the main reason you see such vehicles, however, is that they look very cool, and many of the charities operating them want badass vehicles pictured in their brochures and websites. Our vehicles were picked up on the cheap, however – no sexy snorkels.” (p. 96)

And this one which feels prophetic:

“When people leave here they perhaps want some sushi and Ben & Jerry’s first, but then they want to continue with meaningful endeavors. You cannot leave Africa and then expect to be satisfied in ordinary living. You will have to continue doing extraordinary things, because you know what can be done in the world, and you know what you are capable of doing, and you know that, wherever you go, many lives will depend on your willingness to exercise your privileges and skills on their behalf.” (p. 207)

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Published in: on April 27, 2017 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

A letter to Not Enough

Dear Not Enough,

I am done with you.

Consider this your “dear John” letter, and don’t hold your breath for any niceties. “It’s not you, it’s me”? Nope, that won’t cross my lips.

Because it is TOTALLY you.

And I am done with you.

You have stolen my Mother’s peace of mind for years – no, decades. You have dripped worry into her mind, like Chinese water torture, night upon night upon night. You have spawned countless evil offspring of fear and doubt and anxiety, and they grip her ankles like shackles. And she has fought you with a calculator held in clinched fists, fought you with her own iron will and inner strength.

And still you have stolen from her.

Not content to torment just one woman in the family, you’ve slithered into me and my sister, your kudzu tendrils of fear and worry encroaching into our plans, into our dreams, into our speech. Like weeds, you have choked our growth – we sprout hope and risk, only to wither from lack of Light.

Well no more.

It stops here, you. It stops here.

I will not fight you with a calculator. I will not fight you with my own strong will, much as that is a good gift from my father. I will not fight you with busyness, as if skittering from one task to another could keep you at bay. I will not fight you with countless hours of pipe dreaming, fantasizing about the if onlys.

In fact, this is the last conversation I ever wish to have with you at all. And no, you get no chance for rebuttal, no chance to rationalize with me or defend yourself.

I am done with you.

I know who I am, and I know Whose I am.

And let me tell you this, for the last freaking time – with the Great I Am in my corner, there is no room for you.

That’s what’s scarce – room for you, Not Enough.

Because here’s how I am fighting you: with Truth. It sets me free, and it wins. (Read the book.)

Here’s the truth I wield against you: My Jesus is always more than enough. There is no scarcity with him, and I am with him.

He is more than enough for my finances. He is more than enough for my loneliness. He is more than enough for my marriage. He is more than enough for my children and every need, every vacuum, every season of their lives. He is more than enough for my dear restless husband. He is more than enough for my little brother, for my wounded friends, for my bitter friends.

He is even more than enough for my Great Desires. In fact, he expands them in ways that make my breath come fast with anticipation, my heartbeat pulse like high tide upon rocks. Oh, yes. He gives me dreams, and he grows them like grass in an Alaska summer.

You tell me there’s never enough.

But you lie.

He tells me he is the Great I Am.

And his words – oh, the Truth of him – they ring out clarion in the night. His promises blur the pretentious finality of the bottom line, smearing those figures until all I see is an expanse of hillsides covered with my Father’s cattle.

His brilliant beauty casts your doom into the shadows, where you belong. He is bright blessed day; you are a dank cellar full of scurrying scavengers.

So I’m done with you, Not Enough. You are a liar from the father of lies.

All around me people submit to you. They build their bank accounts like the rich fool in Jesus’s parable. They hedge every bet and make every contingency plan. They play it safe even when you call them to risk.

They worry. They calculate. They fret. They press their palms into their foreheads and sigh deeply. They quiet their dreams and relegate them to the endearing but naïve realm of childhood.

And I have done it all, too. I thought there wasn’t enough – not enough money, not enough time, not enough energy, not enough intelligence or friends or connections. Most of all, I thought I wasn’t enough.

But I belong to the Great I Am, who is always more than enough.

Pack your bag of tricks, and hit the road, Jack. Take your low-grade fear – it’s just a dog who only looks big because all you show is its shadow. Take your niggling anxieties, those flitting biting insects at my ears. Take your gnawing worries and their destructive little mice teeth. Take your dirty currents of doubt.

I’m done with you.

I’m on Team Great I Am.

And he always wins.

Most assuredly not yours,

Amanda

Published in: on April 5, 2017 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  

“Why won’t you apologize?”

apologize-coverWhy Won’t You Apologize?   by Harriet Lerner

A review

Confession: Half the reason I gave this book a second look is because of the cover shout-out from my sociology heroine Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, one of the best books I’ve ever read. So, authors and would-be authors, take note: the cover endorsement makes a difference.

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.

Lerner, a therapist and “apology researcher” for 20-plus years, discusses what a meaningful apology is and isn’t, how to deliver one even when you’re the wronged party, how to receive one, how to live without one when you need it, and the role of forgiveness.

We all know when someone’s apology is sincere and when it isn’t, even if we can’t articulate why; Lerner breaks it down. She also explains why some people over-apologize and why some won’t apologize under any circumstance. She delves into trickier territory in a chapter about apologizing “under fire” – when you’re being criticized, fairly or not. She then offers tips on apologizing to those “defensive” people.

The last third of the book deals with the topic of forgiveness, and here I had to demur, because our definitions of forgiveness are rather different. Lerner seems to believe that forgiveness is the equivalent of absolution; I do not. I can forgive someone but still hold him or her to consequences. I do this on a regular basis as a parent: I forgive Samuel for the red Sharpie on the piano keys, but he is still going to lose Minecraft privileges! Forgiveness is a gift; it’s trust that must be earned.

Lerner also teaches that forgiveness must be earned. If the wrongdoer does not apologize and change, forgiveness is impossible. But that’s a prison I’m unwilling to call home. I must have a means to get free of the wrongdoer’s hold on my life, and forgiveness is the tool. Forgiveness means I no longer dwell in the wrong done to me.

Lerner takes serious issue with those who tell the victim that he or she has to forgive the wrongdoer, thereby adding pressure and shame to the victim. I concede her point there. While forgiveness is always needed eventually, there is no prescribed timeline or even method for getting there. I would never tell my friends who’ve been abused that “it’s time to forgive now”; that would be unconscionably insensitive. What I will do is pray and be a friend and be a listener, and encourage them in the acts of forgiveness when their hearts are strong enough to start on that path. No whitewashing allowed, only real healing.

Notable passages:

“With my husband, Steve, for example, I like to apologize for exactly my share of the problem – as I calculate it, of course – and I expect him to apologize for his share, also as I calculate it. Needless to say, we don’t always do the same math.” – p. 2

Ouch. Painfully true.

“The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction.” – p. 15

“The higher the anxiety in any system, the more individuals are held responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior (‘Apologize to your dad for giving him a headache’) rather than for their own (‘Apologize to your dad for not turning the music down when you knew he had a headache’).” – p. 19

“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.” – p. 51

“Say it shorter. If you’re trying to get through to a non-apologizer – or any difficult or defensive person – keep in mind that overtalking on your part will lead to underlistening from the other. This is true whether the offense you’re addressing is large or small.” – p. 76

“We want change but don’t want to change first – a great recipe for relationship failure.” – p. 109

“The best apologies are offered by people who understand that it is important to be oneself, but equally as important to choose the self we want to be.” – p. 125

Published in: on March 2, 2017 at 1:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Bad Biblical Dads

Why were so many of God’s chosen men such terrible fathers?

Abraham, earthly father of three world faiths, banished his firstborn out into the desert with the unwanted concubine (Genesis 21:14).

Isaac, long-awaited & much-favored child of promise, couldn’t tell the difference between his own sons (Genesis 27:21-40).

Jacob, whose very name (Israel) represents God’s chosen nation, totally played favorites with Joseph (Genesis 37:3-4); he also let his trigger-happy sons annihilate an entire town for revenge (Genesis 34).

Moses, extraordinary leader of the most defining event of the Jewish people (the exodus) apparently didn’t circumcise his son, the most basic act of declaring who he was as a Hebrew (Exodus 4:24-25).

Eli, who raised the amazing last prophet Samuel, also raised sons so corrupt as priests that the Lord killed them (1 Samuel 2:12, 27-36).

Saul, Israel’s very first king, hated his son Jonathan’s excellent choice of friend (David) (1 Samuel 20:30-33); he also raised a snooty daughter (Michal) (2 Samuel 6:20).

David, the much-vaunted “man after God’s heart” and greatest king of Israel ever – oh, man, where do you even start??? With how he favored the child of adultery (2 Samuel 12:15-23)? With one of his children raping another (2 Samuel 13:1-21)? With turning a blind eye to sin upon rebellion upon sin on the part of his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14-18)?

Geez Louise. What gives?

On the one hand, it makes me scratch my head. These were God’s chosen men of Old Testament times, these losers? You could give a TED talk: “Don’t parent like an Old Testament Dad.”

On the other hand, I find I’m relieved. These were God’s chosen people? Aw, man, apparently I’m in good company, with my legion of sins and flaws and stupid moves. Apparently the point here is not how great God’s people are, but how amazing God himself is, that he can work in, through, and in spite of them…& us.

I am also grateful for holy Scriptures that are unvarnished, honest about the greatness and the depravity of even the chosen leaders. Such stories remind me first that there is only One worthy of worship, and second that he loves even we frail and fallen children of his.

Though I do hope to be a better parent than these guys. Please Jesus.

Published in: on February 23, 2017 at 3:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Grownups slow down

A sermon to myself…and whoever else needs it

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a gazillion times – every parent of an infant, toddler, or preschooler has: “Enjoy every minute.” “It goes so fast.” “Oh, don’t miss a thing, they grow up so fast.”

“They grow up so fast.”blur

“They grow up so fast.”

And I believe them, especially now that mine are the ripe old ages of 9 and 7. It IS true. They DO grow up like weeds, before your very eyes. They are swaddled in swaddles one day and sporting a varsity jacket the next, yes. They are toddling into your bed entirely too early one morning, then off on a honeymoon the next morning, it seems.

I get it.

I also get what an eye-roll this causes to the sleep-deprived parent, the one who can’t remember the last time they showered before 2 p.m. Or the mom with one child in the shopping cart, one in the papoose, and one over there next to the cash register, peeing on the floor. Or the terribly gray father who just hopes his little girl (who hasn’t been little since puberty struck three years ago) is safe with “those” friends, or that pimple-faced teenage boy with the weird t-shirts. Those folks are ready for this phase to be done already, for the love.

It’s both/and, as usual. The years go by so fast – even when the days are going by so slow. Both/and.

But I have a thought:

Maybe it’s the grownups who need to slow down.

Shrug. Sure, of course, we all know we’re just about all too rushed, and we all casually throw around the pat, expected phrases: “I just need to simplify my life.” “Oh, I’m just too busy.” “Well, I’m just slammed these days.” Blah blah blah.

But – and much has been written about this elsewhere, far more articulately than I could put it, and even with that all-important thing, DATA – we have elevated busyness to a most aspirational idol. We worship it. If you have time to sit and watch the river go by, you’re obviously not a very important person.

(Please hear the sarcasm in that last sentence. Ye gads.)

Here’s my point: I strongly suspect one of the reasons “they grow up so fast” is because we are simply moving so fast we don’t notice that time is passing.

We’re up at dawn so we can get in a workout before we have to take the kids to daycare/preschool/school. We rush to work, rush through lunch (eating it at our desk, if at all), rush to get the kids, rush home, rush to band or dance or karate or soccer or church or after-school job or the grocery store or out to eat or to “run a few errands.” We rush back home for dinner (maybe), homework, a little veggie-ing in front of Hulu or Netflix, a little laundry or yard work or straightening up the room formerly known as the dining room, and collapse, dear Lord, collapse into bed hoping we can carry it all off again tomorrow.

Throw a little grad school in for fun.

Or a crisis of any size – car in the shop, kid with a cast, teenager with mono, aging parents who can’t figure out how to operate the Tivo, a friend who’s child’s just been diagnosed.

The result?

We don’t have time to snuggle with the toddler – unless he’s going to sit still long enough for an Instagram photo.

We don’t have time to play with plastic horses and dollhouses – here, let’s invite a friend over to do that with you, honey.

We don’t have time to screw up the science fair project, so just let me do all the typing for you and the Internet research (because I don’t have time to teach you how to be safe online).

We don’t have time to watch her stumble through the dance steps – show me when you’ve learned it a little better, sweetie.

We don’t have time to sit and speculate on the “elevator to space” idea – well, we have about three minutes for that, no more.

We don’t have time to read his favorite parts of Robinson Crusoe again.

You’ve watched this movie before? Well, then enjoy, but I don’t have time to sit down and watch it with you again.

We certainly, we most certainly do not have more than one minute to sit outside and watch squirrels.

Or, when we do take those moments, the phone is in hand to capture it on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook/whatever. Must have proof that we sat on the couch playing with yarn; the memory of it is insufficient. (But is it possible what she remembers is that I spent most of our “yarn” time trying to get a good photo??)

Or, and this is the hardest: the phone is down, we’re physically engaged, but our minds are elsewhere: dinner. What we need from Lowe’s. That strained conversation at work. How much the car repair will cost. Whether or not the clothes dryer has been emptied. When to go visit Mom again.

Yikes and zoiks, Scooby-Doo.

We slow down enough to binge on Netflix. And we slow down enough to linger over the wine after supper. We slow down enough, maybe, to stay up a little longer reading a book.

But maybe part of the reason our children “grow up so fast” is because we are living our lives in an absolute whirlwind, a blur of tasks and trivialities. Our children are our little planets, and we are comets who complain that we never get to see the landscape – we fly high and fast and burning, but rarely land.

The solution?slow-down

Probably, actually slow down. Sit on the couch with the kids. Set down the phone at practice, at rehearsal, for God’s sake set it down during the game or performance. Forgo movie night; sit around the table and play games together. Take a road trip and leave all the handhelds (including yours!!) in the trunk, at least for the first half of the trip, right? Go on a walk and talk. Shell butterbeans or shovel snow together. Fold clothes together. Cook together. Eat together. Sit in the same room reading books. Look through old photos together. Build something together that won’t be graded.

What’s the common word there? Together.

Drop as much hurry as you can, widen the margins as much as you can, buy less presents but offer more presence.

Maybe if we slow down, the years will seem less frantic, more reasonable, more noticed, more enjoyed.

They do grow up too fast.

Don’t compound the speed by moving so fast yourself.

Published in: on February 16, 2017 at 2:26 am  Leave a Comment  

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens,” by Larry Taunton

A review

hitchensFew biographies are bona fide page-turners. This one is. Hitchens had a faith?? Really? Must read….

Confession: I never read the late celebrated atheist’s 2007 bestseller, god Is Not Great, much less his memoir, Hitch-22, which was published three years later.

More significant confession: It’s super-hard for me to pray for the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (bad hombres known as the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism). Like, it’s easier for me to pray for the militants of ISIS, because, you know, everybody outside of ISIS knows that ISIS is nuts. Pure-tee evil. They’re horrid, but they’re hardly subtle, and they’re not exactly winning hundreds of thousands to their cause. Whereas these “Four Horsemen” and their ilk use more formidable weapons against the cause of Christ – words, intellectualism (okay, pseudo, usually), bestselling books, debates and lectures to sold-out venues. They swing their sword of militant unbelief at any shadow of faith from any follower of any religion, but they do it behind shields of warped data and philosophical argument and sophisticated debate skills – and this makes them subtly appealing. They sound so….reasonable, often, and therein lies their danger.

And so, I’ve always had a hard time loving these particular enemies (their term for themselves, not mine).

Christian apologist Larry Taunton’s well-written, engaging, lively, and above all very personal biography of Hitchens has turned me completely around. 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.

Here is a reminder that the “evangelical” part of my evangelical faith is about sharing my personal relationship with Jesus through a personal relationship.

People matter. Even arrogant atheists. Before reading this book, I’d give easy lip service to this sentiment. Now, I mean it. Even the “Four Horsemen” are, at the end of every day, still human. Still important to God. Still able to be redeemed, however far gone from him they are, however many people they have led from him.

I found myself genuinely caring for Christopher Hitchens, Public Enemy Number One to Christians for decades…because Larry Taunton genuinely cared for him. Despite Hitchens’ arrogance, despite Hitchens’ public persona of unfiltered hatred for people of faith.

This book was a reminder to me that it always comes down to the person – the one sitting across the table from you with “enough Johnny Walker for a battalion,” the one who knows his diagnosis of esophageal cancer is “a death sentence,” the one who, after a lifetime of bashing believers, answers the question, “Believest thou this?” (re: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life) with, “I’ll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man.”

I found myself cheering inside for this man I’d previously found it difficult even to lift up a cursory prayer for.

Thank you, Larry Taunton, for making at least this one atheistic horseman human to me again. I needed the reminder, and it will hopefully stick with me and inform my current and future relationships with those who most assuredly do not believe.

A few noteworthy passages:

“Atheism does nothing to restrain our darker impulses. It does everything to exacerbate them…One is reminded of novelist Evelyn Waugh’s famous quip, made in response to someone pointing out his all-too-obvious faults, ‘You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.’” – p. 64

“[Hitchens] found himself liking evangelicals. they were eager to debate him and defend their beliefs, yes, but they were also inviting him out to dinner or a drink afterward. That’s what he really came to admire: the combination of deep and sincere convictions, which doctrine-waffling Liberal Christians had set aside, and a willingness to defend those convictions in polite debate wrapped in the warmth of ‘the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality.’ Declared Hitchens, ‘I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.’” – p. 88

Ouch on the waffles! Score one for the sincerely convicted!

“I cannot count the number of times that people have given me a note to pass on to Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens thinking that their argument would surely be the one to overcome their unbelief. The arrogance of this is astonishing. More than arrogant, however, this is also bad theology because it fails to understand the workings of the Holy Spirit and God’s sovereign role in salvation. It reduces evangelism to cheap Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People techniques. ‘It does not depend on us that [the Gospel] be believed,’ wrote the late theologian Etienne Gilson, ‘but there is very much we can do toward making it respected.’ Indeed.” – p. 132

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” on Amazon

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 2:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Fantasies worth having

“Break my heart for what breaks yours. Everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause.” – “Hosanna,” by Hillsong

Today I fantasized at some length about that amazing unique gorgeous huge beautiful house we walked through in January, down between USC and Rosewood. So lovely, so much character and beauty and potential and spaciousness. And probably $1.2 million once the extensive renovations are complete.

$1.2 million. For a house in, to me, one of the most unappealing cities to call home. $1.2 million. And you’d still have swarms of pesky mosquitoes from May to November, 20-plus consecutive days of triple digit heat in July and/or August, a culture of fanatical devotion to all things football, a state that went handily to Donald Trump in the last presidential election, and let’s not even get started on the prevailing acceptance of obesity, racism, and violence that pervade the Palmetto State.

Really? Is this what I want to spend time fantasizing about? A “really nice” house here?

Help me, Jesus: the American dream threatens to overtake my zeal for your Kingdom.

So no.

This is what I don’t want, I told Daniel on our afternoon-long “strategy” date. I don’t want the majority of my time, energy, effort, or even thinking devoted to such temporal meaningless things. I live in the American Southern suburban evangelical subculture. (God help me.) But I do not want to pursue what that culture urges me to chase.

Fulfillment will not be found in the next vacation…the next party…the next (newer, bigger, fancier) house…the next (higher-paying, more prestigious) job…the next vehicle…the next (coolest, fastest, trendiest) gadget.

Oh and we all say this, don’t we? We pay generous lip service to the notion that what really matters most to us is our family, our faith, our friends. And in times of crisis this generally proves to be the case: introduce cancer into our circumstance and we’ll quickly coalesce around the truly important.

I’d like to live out Matthew 6:33 a little more in my daydreams.

That is, I’d like to daydream a little more about the things I suspect God dreams of. (Does God dream? Hm.) I suspect he dreams of things related to his kingdom, his people, his glory. The sale at Kohl’s or what kind of car we rent on vacation or whether or not the Gamecocks won yesterday – I doubt he gives a rat’s behind about those things, really.

Here are the things I suspect God actually cares about, that I would like to devote a little more time, energy, thought, and effort towards:

  • who I prayed for today (or if I prayed for anyone besides myself and my own peeps)
  • my children’s knowledge and love of Scripture
  • the fate of all those Syrian children forced and wandering from their ruined homes
  • the souls of the death row inmates
  • the lost dignity of the embarrassed woman ahead of me at Bi-Lo paying with government-issued checks
  • my friends whose hearts are broken by others, and/or by their own poor decisions
  • the millions who have never heard the true gospel
  • the hungry children (nearly 2 in 5) in the five public schools within two miles of my house
  • my missionary friends and those they’re sharing Jesus with
  • whether or not I am taking good care of the one body the Lord has given me
  • my relationships with my co-workers
  • whether I am harboring unforgiveness or walking in the light grace of forgiveness such as I have received thanks to Jesus
  • my level of honesty with myself, & my teachability
  • my stewardship of every gift he’s given me (time, money, network, talent, education, experience, influence)

What are these things? Well duh: they are “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and they are what I’d like to seek a great deal more.

So sure, I can take advantage of Amazon Prime, get the window treatment that makes me smile, practice due diligence when putting together my vacation (but please recognize I’m not entitled to a vacation; it’s a luxurious gift), watch the YouTube episode on how to install a water fountain in my yard, troll Facebook and comment on the Star Wars movie or the Sherlock episode.

Just don’t live there.

I don’t want to live there, anyway. We have to work, pay the bills, get the groceries, take the kids to the dentist, get new tires for the car, meet with the teacher, manage our money and home and calendar and daily schedule. But can my mind not be consumed with those things? Can I just do them, and move on to what matters?

Can I get the grocery shopping done, with good stewardship of my time and my budget and care of my one body, and then look forward to story time and prayer time with my children? ‘Cuz I’m pretty confident which of those activities has the most eternal impact.

Can I approach my conversations with co-workers with more of an eye to hearing and caring for their heart, and less of an eye toward grousing about whatever or making sure I get the proper credit (“annual review,” anyone?)?

Can I daydream about restored relationships – mine, and my friends’? Can I sit in the car line or in the DMV waiting area and find that my mind imagines my friend, who is new to faith, taking a major step of obedience?

Can I read the news with my Bible glasses on instead of my own opinions, fears, or desires? Can I read with a view to how Scripture says to think and respond? Oh I hope so.

I dunno, friends. This is hard. Nothing – nothing – in this world encourages this line of fantasy life. We live on Madison Avenue, next door to Walter Mitty, broadcasting our personal highlight reels on social media.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTYBut Matthew 6 tells me I’m not the hero, not the Author, not the Finisher, but only the seeker…and the only thing worth seeking, the only thing worth fantasizing about, imagining, daydreaming, longing to see fulfilled – is the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. People, not things. (And not just the people I know & love. All people.)

Or as Switchfoot put it, “I want out of this machine. It doesn’t feel like freedom. This ain’t my American dream. I want to live and die for bigger things. I’m tired of fighting for just me. This ain’t my American dream.”

Published in: on February 2, 2017 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  

A tree grows in…

The magnolia tree in the corner of the side yard, right at the intersection of two wide quiet streets. Lowest limbs a convenient three feet off the ground, all others alternating in perfect rhythm on either side of the tough leathery trunk. Large green oval leaves – fuzzy brown on their backsides – year round.

So you could hide in any season.magnolia-tree

You could feel the stretching of your own limbs as you monkeyed to the slender limbs near the top, in the thickest refuge of branches. The big sturdy leaves, pointy at the ends, bent but didn’t break when you brushed against them. They sat spaced apart enough for you to follow the world below, but not enough for you to be viewed by any but those on a quest. The bark was rough, sometimes you scraped your palm against it and the redness lingered for hours. But the rough was reassuring, like Grandpa’s jaws before he shaved in the morning. The limbs were perfectly splayed for climbing, but unfriendly to sprawling. You sat in them for hours anyway. You were a kid, looked down on or looked over, but in here, among the impartial fractals of limb and leaf and fist-sized seeds, you were a powerful kind of near-invisible.

Because grownups never looked up.

In late spring – early May, here – the decadent, intense, sweet smell of the blooms was overwhelming, you were dizzy with their fecundity. Those massive pearly white petals were an exultation of overpowering beauty and delicacy; they exclaimed glory even as they wilted, browned, collapsed at the finest brush of your fingers. Forever and mortality lived in the curves of every brilliant bloom.

From here you could see the remains of the house across the corner, burned years ago, dusty black sentinel towers of char, random, defiant pillars of red brick, here and there some stubborn shrubbery: Burn all you want, here I stay planted, here I will bloom red berries every December.

Here on the caddy-corner sat the two-story wood frame house, a bona fide Sears & Roebuck catalog home. Your knowing eyes inevitably drawn to the second-story, on the right, above the double front screened door – and what you see is that humming, droning, terrifying, fascinating swarm of bees electrifying the air, the air alive and winged, the bees as furious and frantic in their efforts to save their home, long in the uninsulated wall of that room, as those firefighters were across the street those years ago.

It was all years ago, really. These always solitary and sometimes lonely hours up in the rough green refuge…They were before the church people installed the green-astroturf-carpeted ramp at the front door of the church across the street (the last corner left to see from your leafy, limby perch). They were before that unmentionable happened at the neighbor’s. They were before the Great Christmas Snow – or were they?

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway. Visits back home spur shock at places that seem to have shrunk in size even while they magnified in significance, as if time were some magical two-sided lens. Here, on this street, me and my friends and our bikes and our dogs, with our squeals and our youth-sure immortality, and on the heels of it, Surely this driveway was longer?

Too many people have died too many years after you knew what they really meant. So much loss, beyond bricks and mortar and honeycombs. And yet too much has stayed the same. Why does change thaw with the speed of a glacier here?

Yet you see the steadfastness of a pilgrim too, in the committed rhythms of church and home and work. You see the freedom of a child who climbs trees and sits in them for hours, unmolested by adult worry or interference. You see the seasons observed and accepted and fully lived – sowing, harvesting, lying fallow…sunrise, sunset, moonrise.

Now, solitary hours are harder to find; lonely ones are infrequent, but sting deeper. Life hasn’t gotten easier. It’s richer with strength and peace, poorer with worry and loss. There are mountains to climb now, not trees: higher, more treacherous, some of them oxygen-deficient, but grand and expansive.

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway – until you close your eyes. Close your eyes, take a breath, feel the bark and the leaves and the velvet petals, see the corners, your own brick home behind you, the world below you, the promise ahead of you…the Home that calls you in for supper.

 

 

Published in: on January 27, 2017 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The Gift of Failure”

The Gift of Failure

by Jessica Lahey

A review

Last April during spring break I took the kids to Sesquicentennial State Park to spend the afternoon – feeding ducks & geese, climbing trees, playing on the playground, having a picnic followed by an Easter egg hunt…and some paddle boating on the quiet lake.

We got in the boat, I installed one child at each pedal, I sat on the back bench, and then I was hands off and the kids were instruction free.

I told them nothing – not how to pedal, or how to use the “steering wheel,” or where to paddle us, or how to go backwards, or how fast or slow to go. I didn’t even make suggestions. I just sat there and let them figure it all out. I mean, it was a paddle boat, people, and my children were wearing life jackets – the risks were pretty darn low.

Why not let them figure out how to maneuver a paddle boat? It isn’t rocket science and there aren’t any dangerous parts (unlike a boat with oars or, heavens, a motor).

Why not let them have total control over where we went and how fast or slow we got there? What did I care, really? Why not be content to simply ride and enjoy the sunshine and the water and my beautiful healthy children in such bliss? Why ruin that with helicopter parenting?

And when they disagree, but have not yet come to blows, must I referee? Could I just pay attention and only intercede when truly necessary? Could I keep my mouth shut long enough for them to figure out how to give & take, how to compromise, or how to persuade the other?

I must say, both they and I had a stupendous time on that paddle boat ride. I intervened twice – once because the geese on the island where we’d stopped appeared to be getting feisty and territorial, and a second time when the kids’ disagreement threatened to get physical.

Otherwise, they just explored.

I was consciously following the advice of author Jessica Lahey in this book The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed.

Lahey, a middle school teacher, journalist, and parent, submits that modern parents “helicopter parent” at unprecedented levels. The result: stressed out parents raising stressed out kids who lack independence, competence, motivation, and the ability to persevere.

So, she says, “LET. GO.”

Let your children fail while the stakes are only as high as an untied shoelace or a sandbox disagreement. This can create in your children the resilience to overcome higher obstacles like failing to turn in homework or dealing with the “mean girls.” This in turn gives them the ability to persevere through ever more significant challenges: college roommates, ex-boyfriends, job interviews.

She addresses, practically, homework, report cards, social dynamics, sports, and household chores – viewing them all through the lenses of the long-term goal: well-adjusted, capable, independent adults.

It was an excellent read.

And now Samuel (9) and Hannah (7) do their own laundry. Okay, okay, I still measure out the detergent, and do the folding (their folding is of the sort a pupgift-of-failure-coverpy might do).

Some passages I dog-eared:

“Despite the wealth of evidence revealing the folly of these methods [rewards and incentives], we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well….Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.” – p. xix

Well Jesus may not give me a regular performance review, per se, but he definitely qualifies as MY higher authority.

And I would submit that we appropriate our children’s successes or failures as our own because we are a society of adults with an extraordinarily low sense of self-worth. We cannot stand comfortably in our own skin. How our children do is indeed how we do. We are not our own person.

Also, we’re a culture that judges by the externals. And we reward externals, whether they took great character or not. Modern-day parenting is not immune to this.

“History is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventers and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amid the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans….the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ.” – p. xxi

I once heard of a female CEO, daughter of Indian immigrants to America, say that every single night at the dinner table her father would ask his children, one by one, to name something they had failed at that day.

A failure, not a success.

His theory was that if you had not failed at trying something, you weren’t trying enough. He wasn’t celebrating failure so much as he was promoting effort and resilience.

“When a teacher moves around the room, praising each kid, ‘Great job! You are so smart!’ the students figure out pretty quickly that someone is being lied to. They know they can’t all be geniuses, and they begin to doubt our honesty – or at the very least, our judgment…The truth I try to impart to every single one of my students is this: it all gets hard eventually, even the stuff you have a talent for.” – pp. 64-65

Yes, Samuel, my little mathematical brain, it will get hard for you too.

So my kids get a lot less help from me these days on things that, honestly, kids their age should know (and things that I have taught them already) – how to tie a shoelace, how to make a PB&J, how to pack their own clothes (last spring they learned the hard way that when Mom says “pack some socks” they should pack some socks – those were cold feet on that camping trip!), how to remember what’s needed at a dance rehearsal or a Cub Scout meeting or a road trip.

I’m always there to kiss boo-boos. But I’m going to stop trying to prevent them all.

Let these failures teach them now, while the stakes are low, in hopes and prayers and practice of competence, motivation, resilience, and grit when the stakes are high.

Lord willing.

 

Published in: on January 8, 2017 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

“A Year in Posts” challenge

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is arguably the most introspective week in Western culture. These few days spawn Top 10 lists like rabbits: books, movies, celebrity deaths, headlines, discoveries, “moments in sports,” even the Top 10 best performing penny stocks, for Pete’s sake.

Herewith, my own Top 10 list: the “Your year in posts challenge.”

I think it bears reflection, who we are in this public space. It matters. Paradoxically, our social media persona affects both fewer people than we think (we just aren’t that important, really), and more than we think (you never know who’s reading, who’s desperate for a word of Truth or a blessing or a laugh).

So here’s the challenge: let’s take a stroll through our 2016 social media posts and ask ourselves a few introspective questions. (Warning: navel-gazing about to commence, get your lint roller ready….)

1. Do my social media posts bless others? Or burden them?

2. Do they encourage a greater attitude of gratitude, or entitled resentment?

3. Do they lift up or tear down?

4. Do they promote peace or inflame negativity?

5. Do my posts reflect a pursuit of truth? Or do I propagate whatever strikes my fancy without bothering to conduct any due diligence?

6. How do I respond to threads on my post? With respect, or with dismissal? Do I listen to understand, or do I see “my” profile as an unquestionable platform for whatever soapbox (or business endeavor?) I fancy? Am I on this social media platform for dialogue, or for preaching?

7. Do my posts actually reflect what I claim matters most to me? (Here that “Your Year in Words” thing may or may not come in handy.) If I say “faith and family” are the most valuable elements of my life, is that what I talk about in this public sphere? Or is my profile a place to share meaningless dribble?

8. Am I honest, part I: Is my social media profile a place to practice subtle, sophisticated passive aggressiveness?

9. Am I honest, part II: What percentage of my posts are a smooth massage of my reputation? Or am I playing only the highlight reel because it feels like it will help me keep up with the Joneses? (Only the one asking this question of him or herself knows the answer, by the way.)

10. Would I say in person (and to that person) what I say here?

Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader. These are difficult questions for me, too (especially # 9). And I don’t offer them as a tool to heap guilt or regret; most of us got enough of those poisons in our system already.

It’s simply a list to help me think, critically, and hopefully help me better grow into, well, the person my (hypothetical) dog thinks I am. I hope it helps you too – what would you add to this list?

Happy New Year.

top-10-list

 

Published in: on December 29, 2016 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment