Category Archives: Belonging

it’s not even a competition.

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It’s a grey, wet Sunday evening in the Chicago suburbs. Somewhere close, someone’s gutter is overflowing, sounding strangely similar to the beloved creek outside my high school bedroom. The roommates are out doing something that probably involves watching football (is this even football season?), and I’m keeping company with music, tea, and a little N.T. Wright.

This week I spent three days “work nesting” as I added lamps and bookshelves and decorations to my new office. The first two days with my students were pretty much wonderful. I am grateful beyond words for everything about this job.

In the midst of it all I have continued to think about and be reminded of God’s love for me, sometimes in very odd ways. The other week, I watched my first ever episode of The Bachelorette. (Let’s ignore this.) (Seriously, I really don’t want to talk about it.) (Okay, fine. I was just so stinking curious.) It was what I can only describe as a train wreck: so gruesome that I couldn’t look away. Before I knew it I had watched three episodes! It’s like I lost all control! For those of you who care, it was the season with Emily. She’s a sugary sweet, beyond gorgeous, ridiculously skinny blonde from the South, and she’s wanting True Love. Anyway, she’s on this date with some personal trainer (I swear they’re all personal trainers), and they’re talking, and she says to him, “I really don’t want this to be a competition.” Um, really? You’re on The Bachelorette. And to the guy’s credit, he says, “Well, this is kind of a competition.” (Needless to say, she didn’t pick him.)

It’s such a crazy show. Several dozen men are vying for the attention and love of a single woman. The poor guys have no idea what she really thinks about them or how she feels about them in relation to the others. And it stands in such stark contrast with one of my favorite excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved: “It is impossible to compete for God’s love. God’s love is a love that includes all people . . . It is only when we have claimed our own place in God’s love that we can experience this all-embracing, non-comparing love and feel safe.”

It is impossible to compete for God’s love. We create so many competitions in life: with coworkers, with classmates, with siblings, with that friend who seems to have it all together or that neighbor with the perfect front yard, or basically every girl whose body type or sense of fashion makes me think I should change something about myself. Competition is everywhere. Competition is normal.

And competition is insidious. It creeps into every section of my heart, convincing me that I must somehow compete and perform for God’s love, too, that I’ve got to earn the status of The Beloved. It is fueled by insecurity and sustained by guilt. And it’s exhausting.

And you know what? It’s not even a competition. God has loved me with an everlasting love, and has drawn me with unfailing kindness (Jer. 31:3). He loved me first (1 John 4:19). His love is so wide and long and high and deep that it surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:18-19), and I can’t be separated from this love by anything in the world (Rom. 8:39).

I know it’s super weird to get all that from an episode of The Bachelorette. Thanks for humoring me, and I promise it won’t happen again. May my poorly drawn comparisons leave you with one more little reminder that you are so, so loved.

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running.

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I’ve been on a bit of a children’s lit kick lately. Oh wait, I’m always on a children’s lit kick. Well anyway, children’s lit is the perfect end-of-the-semester study break, because it’s easy and delightful and keeps me from crying into my laptop keyboard as I’m writing that fourth final paper.

So a week or two ago, I read Maniac Magee. (Where has this book been all my life?) It’s the story of a boy who runs and runs and runs, and whether he’s running away from something or searching for someone, well, that’s hard to say. He’s legendary and tough and good at everything, but he just wants a place to belong. I was struck by the following passage in which an old man named Grayson is trying to get him to go to school. Actually, it sort of reminded me of my dorm in high school. It was an overnight school where I could lay down my head at night and walk through the front door without knocking and everyone would be talking. That’s pretty magical when you’re fifteen years old. Or twenty six.

“But you gotta. Doncha? They’ll make ya.”
“Not if they don’t find me.”
The old man just looked at him for a while with a mixture of puzzlement and amazement…”Why?” he said.
Maniac felt why more than he knew why. It had to do with homes and families and schools, and how a school seems sort of like a big home, but only a day home, because then it empties out; and you can’t stay there at night because it’s not really a home, and you could never use it as your address, because an address is where you stay at night, where you walk right in the front door without knocking, where everybody talks to each other and uses the same toaster. So all the other kids would be heading for their homes, their night homes, each of them, hundreds, flocking from school like birds from a tree, scattering across town, each breaking off to his or her own place, each knowing exactly where to land. School. Home. No, he was not going to have one without the other.
“If you try and make me,” he said, “I’ll just start running.”

transparent communities

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One priceless element of being in a true community is that feeling of being at home. Have you ever felt the comfort and freedom that comes with belonging to a deep, genuine group of friends? People are real. Masks are checked at the door. Weakness is okay, because weakness is a part of life, and community is a place of life.

Transparency is humbling and liberating, embarrassing and empowering. Transparency is necessary to being genuine. It also seems elusive; it can’t be manufactured, and it seems to appear when I least expect it. I have a beautiful friend who was part of a community I lived in and loved during college. She has always been an example of transparency to me, and several of her recent posts have made me realize that I took this honesty for granted. This honesty is a gift. Thank you, friend.

Heidi, Do you know why we’re friends? I remember walking into your room on our hall freshman year. I had a question about some US Government assignment. I didn’t know you at all, and never envisioned that one day we would actually be friends. I might have alluded to the difficulty of the assignment; I don’t remember. I only remember that you came out and bluntly said that it was a tough assignment and you were struggling through it. You were the first person at Wheaton who manned up and said something was difficult. The rest of us were still trying to be our high school perfectionist selves. You really surprised me, and I was immediately drawn to you.

And that was the beginning of some very great and powerful moments in my life. Times of laughter, baldly candid and vulnerable conversations, crossword puzzles, coffee dates. Living a bit of life together (when we could fit it into our ridiculously swamped schedules).

So, thank you, friend. I hope I become more like you as I keep growing up.

whatever happened to the front porch?

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As a little girl, I used to daydream the usual little-girl-daydreams: about my future husband, my wedding, my children, and my house. I could never really picture what my husband would look like; I didn’t really care about my wedding; I was pretty flexible regarding the kids (though I admit I wanted twelve after reading Cheaper By the Dozen…); but my house! My house had some very specific requirements. It needed a bay window, because that would be my reading spot. I needed my own bathroom (well, I’d let my husband use it), because I’d never had my own bathroom before. It needed multiple fireplaces, because no winter evening is complete without one, and certainly no Christmas morning. And it absolutely had to have a wraparound front porch, complete with hanging potted plants and rocking chairs like the ones at Cracker Barrel.

I have to admit I’ve altered my expectations a bit. I don’t think that, as a child, I took into account the fact that houses cost money. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever be a homeowner, or if I really want to deal with that responsibility. I’ve also realized that my tastes have changed a bit since I moved to the Midwest. (I was SHOCKED the day that I realized my favorite house on my drive to church is one that is shaped kind of like a barn.) I wouldn’t need a bay window or a private bath. But deep inside my little girl heart, I still want that front porch with its flowers and rocking chairs.

Ironically, my deeply rooted dream of front porch life might be the most difficult to grasp. Front porches are a thing of the past; they’ve been disappearing for years, and now most houses have a nice, screened in back porch and a tiny front stoop that serves no other purpose than to help frame a front door that is more decorative than functional. Most people go from work to car to garage to interior entrance, and if they venture outside it’s to their screened in back porch or fenced in backyard.

I was talking to a friend at church last night who told me that fenced in yards were barely in existence when he was growing up in the 60s. Communities formed and grew and thrived on front porches. I feel the loss of this even while I’ve never really known it. This poignant column recalls the days of the front porch community in his home town. While he believes his town is truly better now than it was when he was a boy, the absence of front porches (“this row of naked homes”) exemplifies a loss of trust and loving one’s neighbor. I think that communal trust and relationships are really what I want when I dream about that front porch of mine. So, friends, you’re invited (who knows how many years in advance) to enjoy friendship and breezes and iced tea on my front porch. I hope you’re build them, too. And I hope we’ll all learn how to be better neighbors.

my world is too small. and too big.

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“Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” I don’t know what descriptors you would choose to describe this young adult generation, but a recently published study by the Pew Research Center lauds current 18- to 29-year-olds for optimism and adaptability in an age of economic uncertainty. I don’t know how much I agree with those labels; I certainly felt more pegged by Christian Smith‘s sociological observations of this generation as wandering and noncommittal. I was, however, very intrigued by the study’s comparisons of the Millennial Generation with preceding generations — in particular, what makes us, well, us. The study outlined a number of our generation’s distinguishing trademarks, including religious conviction, education, employment, political identity, and social values.

But our generation’s #1 self-professed distinguishing characteristic? Our use of technology.

In fact, no other generation came close to giving a unified response to their generation’s calling card compared with ours. Nearly 1 in 4 Millennials claimed our use of technology as our standout quality. “It’s not just their gadgets — it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them,” says the site’s executive summary of the report. We sleep next to our phones, use social media sites, text while driving — and are more likely to do these if we have a college education (see page 25). In addition, more Millennials than not think that our use of technology integrates people rather than isolating them.

I think such ubiquitous technological connectivity creates a complex problem for our self-identities. If the use of technology really is a distinguishing element for our generation — and the statistics in this study indicate that it is — then we won’t fit into our own worlds. Think about social media. Facebook and chat rooms and even blogs remove spatial barriers and connect us with people around the globe. My cell phone means that friends around the country are just a quick text away. And yet as connected as I am, my world becomes ridiculously small — about the size of my cell phone or my laptop.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve been recognizing a lack of community in my life. I have been a part of some unbelievably close communities in the past, which can make the absence of a strong community even more difficult. My beautiful friend Heidi wrote about this recently. And I’ve realized that, for me anyway, social media gives an illusion of community that isn’t really there. I LOVE connecting with old friends on facebook. I appreciate the photos of new babies and weddings. But if these things distract me from investing in the living, breathing human beings around me, then it’s to my detriment. You might be thinking, “Duh,” (or something much more intellectual) but here’s the problem: most of my best friends in the world are accessible only through these mediums. And that’s where social media can become an attractive, seemingly viable way of maintaining some semblance of community.

But it occurred to me today that the deep communities in my life have always been just the right size. Somehow these crazy inventions called cell phones and laptops make my world both incredibly big and incredibly small. But my past communities — 14 girls in a dorm, 10 students in Gulfport, 7 friends in an apartment commune — have never been under or oversized. And I think that God fits those people around us. I’m not sure where he’ll bring them from this time — but I know they’ll be the perfect fit.

on being an exile

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I am currently reading the autobiography of Mosab Hassan Yousef. Otherwise known as the Green Prince, this son of a Hamas founder (and now resident of California) recently revealed that he is a two-fold traitor to his family: he served as a double-agent for the Israeli secret service, and he converted to Christianity. The story was broken by the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, and within a week Yousef was publicly disowned by his family.

Within a week, this man became the ultimate exile: he cannot return to Palestine, and he does not have a family. These are the two associations that most people make with the word “home.” Most people have hometowns. We have home countries (also known a Mother Country, which is a striking intersection of place and familial relationship). I live in a house that may be a home, but I return “home for the holidays,” wherever that other home may be. At the very least, isn’t home an address? The homeless don’t have addresses; isn’t that why they are considered homeless?

A friend recently shared an Economist article with me that fits this subject. The article, titled “Being Foreign: The Others,” addresses the difference between foreigners and exiles. To be a foreigner is to choose a life in a foreign country; choice is intrinsic to this article’s definition. Being foreign is characterized by feelings of novelty, surprise, anxiety, frustration, irresponsibility. It is an act of disloyalty to one’s own country that a century ago was not always acceptable, but is becoming increasingly fashionable and even desirable. By contrast, to be an exile is to be banished, to have lost something forever, to be unable to return home in any sense of the word.

The article concludes with something akin to a warning for foreigners: it won’t be long before they begin to feel like exiles. “Going home” becomes “visiting home.” Home changes. And what was once a choice to be a foreigner has become an unasked-for loss of home.

On Saturday, I had coffee with a woman whose definition of home completely surprised me. This woman likened home with the sky. Home is the future, the next phase of life, an adventure to be had. Home is the horizon with all its possibilities and potential. I felt vapid and small-minded for having assumed home was limited to a piece of land or the face of a person. I had abridged home and thus stripped it of its potential creativity and beauty.

Perhaps that is why I was actually astonished by this passage from the Bible. I appreciate the New Living Translation of this verse:

Lord, through all the generations you have been our home! (A prayer of Moses, Psalm 90:1)

This makes more sense the older I get. As I slowly learn about God, I slowly realize that I have no idea how deep and vast God is. He is creativity and beauty. He creates horizons, he gives real hope, he offers second and third and fourth chances, he rewrites stories, he renews. He is a refuge and a Father. He embodies my trite connotations with home and my friend’s grander understanding of the word. God won’t be abridged, and he also won’t change. Sometimes I feel like I am an exile, without a home and without the option of returning there, if I knew where it was. But I’m realizing that I am only an exile in relation to this world, and not in relation to God. What a spectacular thing.