On being all there

I can smell the woodpile outside our house burning. The accumulation of dried brush, old leaves, and a tree felled a few months ago. The bonfire crackles in the smoky, damp evening, and suddenly, my stomach lurches, and I’m flung back across the ocean, across time, to Indiana cornfields. To pumpkins and to leaves so flaming bright it turns everyone giddy, as they decorate themselves in scarves and their front porches in scarecrows and ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. There are no real autumn colors here in South Africa, where I live. There is a difference in the air, though, come fall. It turns crisp; there’s twinkling frost some mornings, and the beginning of bright, blinding blue sky days. And just like that, I’m lurched back to the present, to the bonfire and my two children running back and forth to toss new twigs onto the blaze.

This happens to me often, having grown up between two countries in two different hemispheres. Christmas memories of snow and jingle bells. Christmas memories of sprinklers and watermelon. Christmas memories of laying in swimming pools while dreaming of ice skating and snowmen. It all reminds me of Christmas. 

And because it was my childhood, it’s mine. I’ve always had the blessing of experiencing both realities, and always had the accompanying ache for whichever world I’d left. Laughing at a Thanksgiving full of friends and roast chicken in South Africa one minute, then pausing at the hitch in my throat, thinking about real turkeys and all my scattered extended family gathered in the U.S. without me. Feeling nostalgic at Easter for the three-day long isiZulu services full of music that were my childhood, while also feeling relieved that our American church services only last an hour before the egg hunts for Reese’s peanut butter cups. 

I remember a saying, growing up: “Wherever you are, be all there,” attributed to Jim Eliot, Patron Saint of Intense Missionaries. It was said to the new arrivals, as a way to help them accept their reality. Build new relationships. Practice gratitude. Cut the never-ending, whiny comparisons. And there was a bit of self-righteous holiness to it, as well. The good missionaries sacrificially adapt, giving up the familiar world for the new one. Pack your clothes in your coffin. Burn the bridge between your world and this one.

Turns out, I am not a good missionary. I am just a missionary’s kid. Growing up in the 90’s in South Africa, we had pen-pals, expensive international phone calls, and even more expensive screeching dial-up internet. I left for the States right as video calls began, and by the time I returned to South Africa with my Minnesota husband four years later, we all had smartphones. The internet in our pockets, the promise of a permanent bridge between the worlds.

This bridge holds so much potential to connect us. But over time, we’ve found that it also divides. My grandmother knows how to Skype, so my kids know who she is. But my husband’s grandmother, Renee (Nay Nay), wasn’t as capable with technology, so she remained a photo in a photo book. When interacting with screens, my kids still prefer Youtube videos of trucks and pressing the shiny, red “hang-up” button more than they enjoy talking with their overseas family. 

And then: a global pandemic. Suddenly, the bridge between the worlds looked different. My parents who live four minutes down the road were now locked-down and on a screen just like Minnesota Grandma. My son baked cookies each week with his cousin and Gran: one was in Indiana, the other right down the street. In lockdown, technology tethered us together, and suddenly it didn’t matter how many kilometers apart we were. Churches closed, and my scattered family could all stream the same service. At pandemic Thanksgiving, instead of gathered relatives passing our virtual faces on the phone right alongside the turkey, we each ate alone then had a massive group call with everyone’s virtual faces. We enjoyed this new level of connection, and yet we all thought it wasn’t enough. It didn’t replace a real touch, or the actual smell of Grandmom’s pecan pie, or the inside jokes and sarcasm that repeat themselves over a weekend spent together. This ache is familiar for me, but now I find myself with millions of other people all across the world, who have been shoved into dislocated pandemic bubbles, socially distant from the ones they love, all longing to hold, or taste, or gather. We’re all clutching this disembodied rope called the internet, homesick for something real. 

One night in early January, I was putting the kids to bed when my sister-in-law, Ann, called my husband in tears. With sobs catching in her throat, Ann told my husband that she had just watched their grandmother Nay Nay pass away over a video call. Nay Nay hadn’t seen the family except through the window of her nursing home since March. She was weeks away from receiving her second dose of the vaccine, and getting a real hug. The nurses had called my mother-in-law down to the hospital, but she didn’t get there in time. 

Ann had started a video call when the nurse told her things were looking bad. She had been sent to the ER for a complicated infection, not related to COVID. Reassuringly, the nurse thought she saw Nay Nay respond when Ann and her son started singing hymns and playing instruments, but minutes later she passed away peacefully. 

My husband, 8900 miles away, was the first one Ann called once she was certain her mother and aunts had heard the news. We continued singing hymns while waiting for my husband’s mom to arrive at the hospital, and then kept singing as we waited for different family members to join the call, the normally off-putting asynchronous zoom singing comforting everyone. My husband played guitar while we waited for the funeral home staff to arrive. Whether minutes away from each other in Minnesota, or time zones away on the other side of the world, the whole family was equally isolated and equally together due to the pandemic. It was an odd, precious gift, getting to be as present as everyone else, even though we were so far away. 

But it was not enough. 

I used to think that this feeling of homesickness I constantly carried could be conquered, silenced by being perfectly present in one place and shutting out the other. It doesn’t work that way. I used to think this feeling was unique. But now I know it’s not. Whether or not we live in a pandemic, in our own culture or as a guest in someone else’s, we all feel it, even when things are most perfect. 

The taste of Grandma’s sugar cookies welcoming me after stepping off a 23-hour plane ride, the joy of splashing in their backyard fire-hydrant as a child, the complicated secret language we created with our cousins, the baptisms, the weddings, the hugs, the road-trips with my siblings, catching glorious sunsets and armfuls of memories at the same time –shimmering just on the other side of these moments of deep connection is the spectre of grief. Time runs out, death still comes, reminding us  these things are “only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as CS Lewis said. 

We’re all lurching back and forth between worlds. We are all homesick and unsatisfied, clinging to technology to cable us together, while longing for something permanent, something real: true communion, unending joy and connection. 

It’s never enough. It never will be. Not until every last one is gathered around a table as long as the outstretched arms of Christ, our bridge between the worlds.

Eastertide: The way is made by walking


It was on Maundy Thursday that my husband and I began our pilgrimage in the south of France. Our walk on El Camino –the way. It was night, we were in an old stone church, hearing the readings about the children of Israel walking out of Egypt, and slavery, and starting their long walk to freedom.  Continue reading “Eastertide: The way is made by walking”

A Psalm of Petition (a poem)

What I’m asking, the thing I seek,

Is that you’d pitch a tent in my wilderness, please.

Not the solid, brooding stone of Elijah’s cave.

Not the haunting bird calls and thundering waterfalls

Of David’s wild places.

A space, a pause,

Just a tent.

And not the wilderness of solitude and temptation,

But the one in the midst of the brood of children

Demanding water and quail and peanut butter sandwiches.

That wilderness.

A fragile, fabric flap, which lets in the sounds

Of laughter and tears and questions

But is somehow strong enough to shield the peace.

Not high up, on some mighty, manly temple mount,

But here in my kitchen, or possibly the laundry room.

I want to know if you will make a table for me in the presence of–

If not my enemies, then at least my own children–

If my prayers for parking places, snotty noses

lost toys, lost patience

Are still precious.

If you will still meet me,

still make my face glow.

I want to know

If the apron flung over my head

Can become a tabernacle.

On Comfort (Or, the Holy Spirit as doula).

So, in the social justice internet circles and books I read, “comfortable” is usually a dirty word. “Comfortable” is a sign you’ve sold out, you’ve bought into the American Dream, you’re valuing your own comfort over the justice that is required for the broader community. “Comfort” is right there next to “Convenient” and these are behind all the air conditioning, global warming, pre-packaged food, slave-labour priced clothes and CEO wages that lead to inequality. Comfort is bad*.

But this week I’ve been thinking about comfort. And how necessary it is.

person holding mug
Photo by Kate Amos on Pexels.com

Continue reading “On Comfort (Or, the Holy Spirit as doula).”

Blessed are the efficient?

My view these days

Blessed are the efficient, for theirs is the Kingdom.

If you can’t tell, I’ve been wondering about this idea lately.

First, Jesus never said that. I think maybe he said several things to the opposite- things like the Kingdom is as small as a mustard seed, we cannot take the Kingdom by force… also he tended to say crazy things that scared lots of followers away, (like sell all your possessions, or embrace suffering). He took time for children, the ill, the social outcasts…generally not a very efficient guy. Continue reading “Blessed are the efficient?”

Jesus Sad: Things my 2 year old is teaching me about lent

the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones and Jago. Picture source.

“Sad. Ouchies. Crying. Jesus sad. Pushing him. Ochies. Sad. Broken. Sad.” 

This is the litany I have listened to for the past month every morning as my almost-two-year-old son sits with me to read the Jesus Storybook Bible.

It started about two months ago. We had a book about a bear and pig who were friends, and the pig was sad and missed the bear when he left. My son was obsessed with the last page, where the pig forlornly sits alone, missing the bear. I, being the emotionally intelligent parent that I am, thought I handled it pretty well, letting him talk about the page as much as he wanted. All emotions are okay. Some things in life are sad. Plus, this is just a phase. 

But then when he discovered the “Jesus dying on the cross” story in his picture Bible and every morning began flipping to that one page, I could feel my frustration mounting. Continue reading “Jesus Sad: Things my 2 year old is teaching me about lent”

Parks as protest

image: playgroundworld.co.za

There’s some anxiety in South Africa right now about land reform — in a country with extreme inequality, questions about how we provide restitution for historical wrongs, and what political action needs to be taken in order to encourage more equality can be come charged and fierce. (Especially when you throw a nice dose of corruption into the mix).

In uncertain times, the temptation is to hunker down and hoard. The temptation is to huddle off, build a little fortress for yourself, and make sure that at least you and your own are protected.

Which is why I am very excited about the timing of the opening of our church’s public access community park. Continue reading “Parks as protest”

We can’t be defensive about this one

Lately I’ve seen a lot of Christian friends sharing John MacArthur’s response to what happened in Charlottesville. (The video has been shared 42 thousand+ times on Facebook and viewed 30 thousand+ times on Youtube). The question MacArthur was asked was, “What is a biblical, Christ-focused response to what’s happening in Charlottesville?”

John MacArthur gave a little speech, but he did not answer the question. I was disappointed. MacArthur has helped many Christians over the years have a better understanding of the Bible, of sin, and of grace. There are some people that think in order to care about social justice, you have to throw out the Bible (or just follow the most liberal interpretations of it); however, I think a conservative reading of scripture makes us even stronger advocates for things like racial justice. Which is why I think MacArthur totally missed the point in his answer. Continue reading “We can’t be defensive about this one”

A letter to my white son

I started writing this letter to you just after Mother’s day. And suddenly three months have gone by and you’re almost sitting up and rolling over. That’s just how things go, I guess. Somehow, too, in the same space of time we’ve gone from a police shooting to white supremacists marching in public. That’s also how things go, I guess. 

You arrived just in time to make me a mother for Mother’s Day.

Scrolling through twitter on the Thursday before Mother’s Day, and wondering when you would decide to be born, I saw an announcement for a Mother’s Day March to the Dallas County Courthouse, organized by Mothers Against Police Brutality.

I didn’t go to the march, because you were born the next day. About the time the mothers were marching up the courthouse steps, demanding justice for  15 year old Jordan Edwards, who had been killed by a police officer in Dallas the week before, we were walking down the steps of a Texas hospital to take you home. Continue reading “A letter to my white son”

When you pray, move your feet

John Lewis marching in Selma prior to being attacked by state troopers

They say it’s an African proverb (who knows if it actually is):

When you pray, move your feet.

The reason I know this phrase is not because I grew up in South Africa, but because it is a favorite saying of John Lewis, one of the key leaders of the USA Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Lewis was responsible for helping to lead a lot of the grassroots college protests in the 60’s– the Freedom Rides, lunch-counter sit-ins, and also led the famous march in Selma for voting rights.

In other news, we just finished a small group study of the book Generous Justice with some people from our church. The book systematically goes through the Bible and shows how justice is central to God’s character, and to the way he expects his people to live. One of the most interesting things Keller brings up is the term righteousness in the Bible doesn’t mainly refer to private personal morality, but rather refers to the individual’s role in bringing social justice. Throughout scripture (but especially in the book of Job), we see the definition of an unrighteous person is one who advantages himself at the expense of the community, while the righteous man disadvantages himself for the sake of his neighbour. Whether that is clothes, food, legal counsel, or paying a fair wage–righteous people actively seek justice for their neighbours, even at cost to themselves.

I’ve been thinking about prayer, and justice, and what it means to pray while moving your feet this week, because South Africa just had possibly its largest ever prayer meeting. Thousands of people gathered to pray for our country, and for just leadership in our nation. I believe the work of justice is spiritual work, and so I was encouraged to see so many people willing to travel for hours in order to pray for just leadership. Continue reading “When you pray, move your feet”