Of Outlet Malls and Angry Dogs

I think I found God in the suburbs.

*gasp*

For most who know me, it doesn’t come as a surprise that I dislike the suburbs. I moved to the (big) city within a week of graduating college and I haven’t looked back. I quickly became about as urban as I could become, not actually having grown up in a large metropolis. I came to crave the diversity and grit of city life, being drawn to the authenticity and beauty of it all. It was so different from the place from which I’d come, which both fascinated and beckoned me.

For nearly five years I worked for an urban missions agency that hosted mission teams year round, based out of Houston’s Third Ward (later we moved our base a bit more southeast). Youth groups from mostly suburban churches would work with us and in this time, I continued to build my case against the burbs. They were all so perfect, so homogeneous, so clueless when it came to real issues that real people were facing. It was a harsh judgement, but it was my judgement. After all, I was once one of them.

My sister and I made the trip to see our mother a couple of weekends ago. We drove through Dallas and kept heading north. Soon we could only see strip malls and box houses. “We must be close,” we said. In our time there, we admittedly enjoyed all the amenities of the suburbs – outlet malls, big roomy houses, and massive televisions with thousands of channels. I felt like I was on vacation.

One evening I went for a jog as the sun finally started to dip below the horizon. It’s the only time I can bear to run outdoors in the summer and I almost didn’t go. I’m glad I did, though. As I started along the perfectly manicured street, a sense of peace flooded over me that was palpable. As I listened to one of my favorite podcasts – Pray as you Go – I found myself in one of those quiet, sacred spaces that I love. The purple, blue, and pink sky was picture perfect and I knew that God was so very near. Peace, peace, peace as my rhythmic footsteps hit the perfect, straight sidewalk. I didn’t find myself despising the place, but rather loving it.

I think too often I’ve only allowed myself to encounter God in gritty, messy, harsh places. I’ve found him in personal crisis, in the face of an undocumented family, in the slums, the tears, and the pain. And he is most certainly there. I wonder, though, if I can’t also see his face in peaceful, quiet, “perfect” places. Perhaps it’s easy to grow accustomed to one season, one place, one rhythm, and forget that there are actually many. The world is so much bigger than what I see now, or even what I’ve seen in the past few years.

I’m back in the city now and my jogs are back to my normal route. I pass by angry dogs, overgrown lawns, and at-risk schools. I am comfortable here. As I look up at the same watercolor sky, though, I recall that night just a few weeks ago; I’m humbled and inspired, curious and glad. May I not only be comfortable here, but may I embrace the vastness of God’s heart and the richness of his presence at all times and in all places. May I search for him and expect to find him, even in the suburbs.

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Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

— St. Teresa of Avila

Those last two lines have circled around and around and around in my head and heart these days.

Nothing is lacking. God is enough. Amen.

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On Silence, Solitude, and Crashing Waves

Sometimes it feels as if the world around me has come to a fevered pitch of voices. They shout loudly, over the din, hear me! hear me!  I find myself tiring of social media perhaps for this very reason. There are so many voices calling out all at once that I don’t feel like I can hear anything.

(It might, then, seem silly that I’m posting something on the internet in the midst of the din. This little corner of web space feels more quiet, though.)

Do you see the photo at the top of this page? I loved that place. Surrounded by the noise of the sea crashing beneath my feet, I could hear my own heart beat wildly as God whispered in my ear. That was a holy place; a sacred moment. I find that more and more I’m looking for those places. I’m looking for holy moments, quiet spaces right smack in the middle of the noise.

The past couple of years I’ve been drawn to silence and solitude like never before. In the midst of an incredibly difficult season, a wise mentor told me that I would find what I was looking for there. She was right. She was absolutely right. Instead of finding a strange and lonely place, I found a place of healing and rest and new life. The fruit of my time there has been trust and intimacy. I run there now, ready to be alone (yet very much not alone), ready to hear the whispers, responding in joy, sometimes in tears, but knowing I’m right where I need to be: in the silence of the crashing waves.

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure. -Henri Nouwen

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Building

(I’m back. I’m not sure for how long, but I’m back. No promises.)

This morning as I was scrolling the BBC headlines as I do every morning, I found the most fascinating article. It was all about larger-than-life dream buildings that were never actually built. Architects throughout the ages have had big visions and less-than-big budgets, I suppose. Some of the buildings would have never probably been feasible and others were tossed to the wayside along with the political or cultural regime with which they were affiliated (ie: The Third Reich. We’re thankful on a number of levels that the monstrosity was never built).

Someone’s dream ended up in the trash heap.

Do you relate?

I’ve tossed a couple in that direction recently. Well, I would be lying if I said “tossed.” I’ve placed them there, intentionally, with a limping, bruised heart and a soul swirling about with dark clouds. I’ve placed them there because that’s the only place they fit now. Every step to the bin and every step away from it has been on purpose. Interesting how that works, isn’t it? We don’t typically throw something away and then stand there looking at it; we walk away from yesterday’s junk mail or the slimy banana peel. Dreams are tough, though. We want to look. We’re drawn to linger.

Walking away is good, though. It’s healthy. The air is more clear and there’s much to see. I continue to remember because I’m human, but I also find that other things begin to fill my mind and heart. The dark clouds that seemed to have taken up residence begin to shift and even if they’re not completely gone, they let beams of sunlight through that change my view. New vision, new colors, new day.

The old dreams were beautiful, but there are new dreams to be had. I can’t force them and I will wait patiently for them. I will look, especially when those sunbeams are bright, for shapes and ideas that I hadn’t previously known. I’ll let the sun warm me and prepare me for something new. Sometimes I might sing a little song while I look and sometimes I’ll be quiet.

The trash can is full if we’ve lived more than a few years on this earth. Big dreams, small dreams, they don’t all get framed and put on the wall. We keep making them, though. We remain open to inspiration and all the things that first taught us to dream. And the putting them away… it may never become easier, but we do begin to see a pattern of goodness and restoration when we’ve been brave enough to do it. We begin trusting and knowing that a dream gone away doesn’t mark the end of the story.

One day I’ll build a building and it will be grand. It might not look that way to any of you, but it will be built of hope and love and songs and all these things I’ve collected on my way. Those things will never go away and I believe that they just might make something beautiful after all.

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Ebenezer

A commemoration of divine assistance. In Hebrew: stone of help.

Today’s a day to raise my Ebenezer. (mine Ebenezer?)

One year ago today, I left Chile. On this very night 365 days ago, I was sitting in a Santiago airport completely exhausted and and overwhelmed. I had spent the months, weeks, and days prior to that preparing, planning, saying goodbyes, packing my life into three suitcases, job searching, job finishing, sorting out paperwork, donating, cleaning out, crying, laughing, hugging and memorizing sights, sounds and smells.

There I was, sitting in an airport, not sure how I had gotten there.

Three years were coming to an end. Actually, I would say six years. It had been six years since I first visited the fascinatingly long country that reaches all the way down to the bottom of the world. It started out as a crush and we ended up moving in together. I was in a long-term relationship with this country and when it was time to end it, I knew it was time. That’s not to say that it didn’t come with it’s mixed bag of emotions, but in the end all I could feel was tired. The next day I would step off of an airplane into a season that had no name (except summer in Texas, which needs no name – it’s known by reputation only). The Chile years were so distinct but now… now I was stepping into nothing. I was starting over. Again.

And so this has been a year of building… and I will admit that I’m not great with building seasons.

Although I’m not an experienced outdoors-woman, I went on a camping trip this past November in order to be with friends and breathe fresh air for 24 hours. When we arrived, some of our group who had gone ahead were already putting up the tents. I loved sitting in my canvas folding chair, watching them put all those poles and things in some type of order that eventually held up vinyl walls and kept us safe from mosquitoes and grizzly bears. I realize that life isn’t like that camping trip, though; I don’t get to sit in a folding chair while someone else puts it all together. I have to figure out where all those weird-shaped things go and how they fit together, and that takes time.

There are some odd pieces that I picked up in Chile – where will they fit? What about these that I’ve had for a long time? And the new pieces? The ones that I don’t even have yet? I suppose this is not a quick project. *sigh* I guess I’ll commit to it.

I don’t feel like I’ve built much, but if I step back and take a look I must say that there’s been progress. I’m not where I was a year ago and I’m thankful for that (although I do love airports – they make for the best people watching). I’m not sure I see a shape yet, but I’m trying different fits and putting pieces together. I’m sure when it does take on more form it will surprise me. With each passing year of life, I tend to be more amazed at how things haven’t ended up as I imagined they would. Perhaps that’s part of it all, though. Unlike the tents, there’s no sketch showing me what it’s all supposed to look like. Maybe the magic is in the dreaming it up. Perhaps I should start dreaming a little more.

So here’s what I know after a year: I haven’t even scratched the surface of this new and yet-to-be-named season. God is still good. Houston summers are hot. Old friends are wonderful. New friends are wonderful. Sisters are great on Skype but exponentially better under the same roof. Good neighbors are a gift. Some pieces may not ever fit and I’ve got to be okay with that. Grace, grace, heaps of grace. I’m not patient but I’m working on it. Mexican food really is as good as I remembered it. There’s hope at the end of the day.

I think this is worth remembering… and even celebrating. One year. We made it!

Samuel took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer—”the stone of help”—for he said, “Up to this point the Lord has helped us!”

—1 Samuel 7:12

He has. And he will. Amen.

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Extraordinary

If I’m honest, I would have to say that sometimes it hits me just how “normal” my life has become and it frightens me. I wake up at the same time, I go to work, I come home at five… it’s all very predictable. At least when I was living in Chile an ordinary day was somewhat extraordinary because I was in SOUTH AMERICA for crying out loud. An ordinary day in Houston is just ordinary.

I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m not the first person to say this and I’m sure I won’t be the last, but I suppose that most of life is the regular, day-to-day stuff. It’s the coming and going and grocery shopping and jogging and friend time on the porch that makes up most of my time. I struggle, though, because I’ve always had this idea that my life was supposed to be something grander. I was going to change the world and do something significant… it’s just in my bones.

Perhaps I’ve done a few significant things and perhaps I’ll do a few more, but perhaps I also need to shift my perspective just a bit. If I wait too long for the big moments, I might miss out on an awful lot of small ones that add up to be just as important. Even if I don’t feel the significance in the day-to-day, it might help if I was looking for it a bit more. Striving, straining, craning my neck to see what’s ahead… may I not miss what’s before me now.

May I also not lose the hunger for extraordinary, though. I don’t think it’s all bad.

No, it’s not all bad.

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Neighborhood ramblings

Pretty much every afternoon I take a jog or walk or some combination of the two. As much as I don’t enjoy working in a structured “box,” the routine that it affords has probably been quite good for me. Also, because I’m sitting at a desk all day in a room with no windows, the last thing I want to do when I come home is sit or stare at a screen.

And so I hit the pavement as soon as I can get out of my work clothes. There’s something about starting that playlist and taking those first few steps that seems to bring a little life back into my body.

There are certain things that I have come to enjoy each evening, seeing as even though I have the whole wonderful Houston Heights at my fingertips, I generally take the same route day in and day out.

I go by one house with two very scary dogs. It took me a while to learn (and even now I forget) that their chains allow them to go only to the edge of the grass, but not the sidewalk. They bark and run at me with all the madness that two chained up dogs might have, but they can’t reach me. I practically jump out of my skin every time, though.

I pass by another house that is a magical work in progress. There’s a beautiful tree house in the side yard that I want very badly to have as my own. The side of the main house has been spray painted with children’s names and drawings. It looks as though they might be adding a room or other addition, but I suppose we shall have to wait and see what develops.

There’s another house that doesn’t seem to belong at all. Surrounded by vintage-looking bungalows and mismatched colors, this house looks like it was transplanted from a suburb in the mid-90’s. I often think that the two story brick dwelling looks uptight and somewhat uncomfortable in its own skin.

On Thursday evenings there’s a ballet class in the community center by the park. Little ladies of all shapes and sizes point their toes and twirl around as I catch a peek through the window.

Stray cats stare me down and challenge me to tread on their precious territory.

Gardens full of color and life practically sing to me as I bid them good evening.

I love my regular jaunts through the neighborhood. I love my neighborhood. I’m convinced that it’s quite good for my soul.

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Song of the week

This has been it.

(I was looking for a non-cheesy video. This one fits the bill.)

 

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All will be well

To anyone who reads my sweet little blog: thanks. I know I’ve been remiss. I’m also okay with that.

There’s been so much swirling around in my head lately that I find it hard to separate off little chunks for blogging. That would probably be a good exercise for me, though… and excellent reading for you, I’m sure!

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. – Julian of Norwich

Her words have been swimming around in my head this week. What kind of revelation is that? All will be well? When we’re sitting on our cotton candy clouds playing harps? Because it sure doesn’t seem like all is well right now. None of us have to look too far to find pain, messiness and all manner of un-wellness.

And sure, maybe she speaks of the great beyond. I’d also like to think, though, that she speaks of a wellness that comes when our hearts are at rest in the midst of the mess. Things are never tied up with a neat little bow, but even as I sort through piles of pain, uncertainty or disappointment, I find myself laughing and enjoying life and friends and lovely things. All will be well, but I also get glimpses of it now and that’s a gift.

These little glimpses are fuel for days when well doesn’t seem too close at hand. We’re tasting it now, but someday there will indeed be a feast. What a day that will be.

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O come lent us adore him…

How does Ash Wednesday always arrive in such a flash? It seems like I’m still finding Christmas tree needles around and enjoying birthday party decorations… (Why am I saying seems? It’s actually true!)

I’ve come to value Lent more and more as the years go by and I find that I tend to crave the discipline that often comes with the season. Of course I could be a disciplined person all the time, but what fun would that be? As we give things up and take on other things to replace them, there have been years in which it’s been glaringly obvious what to give up.

This year not so much.

I’ve felt a little tired and fuzzy-brained this week which could have something to do with it. It could also just be the season. Maybe there’s not one obvious thing to give up this year. That doesn’t mean I’m skipping Lent, though. On the contrary! Wednesday evening our pastor talked about leaning in during the next 40 days. Just as he had encouraged us at Advent to step back and not engage in Christmas “stuff” to the point of overwhelming and missing the point, he encouraged us to press in, to engage with the cross as we journey to the resurrection.

I dig it.

What does it look like? Well, it might be a bit more vague than in years past, but I’ve been thinking these last couple of days about how I can lean in. I’ve found that it’s easy at work to get bored and distract myself – check facebook, play with my colorful pens, text a hilarious (or mildly funny) tidbit to someone… I can kill time with the best of them. Maybe the challenge this year will be to lean in when the temptation is to distract. Now this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up facebook and purple pens and texting and peanut M&M’s and walking down the hall to my funny co-worker’s office… but when I have a moment in the day, what does it look like to engage rather than space out? What does that look like at home? On the weekend?

So that’s what I’ve been considering this week. Instead of going in with a set plan, I am, in a sense, allowing Lent to form itself as I go this year. I’m wanting to take on some Lenten disciplines that have been good for me these past few years, but we’re keeping it loose. It’s not exactly an orthodox strategy, but we’ll see what the next 37 days hold.
I think I’m ready.

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