Thursday, September 13, 2012

Locked Living


The sign was dark and angry behind the screen door. We exchanged nervous glances, and I pressed the doorbell again. The invitations were in my hand; behind the closed front door, a television was droning loudly.

The lock on the front door clicked, and the door swung open just a crack. An old man voice barked, "No soliciting!" If the sign could have spoken, it would have sounded just like this voice: brittle with impatience and crackly with anger.

"We're not!" I blurted, trying not to show how taken aback we felt.

"We're your next-door neighbors," my husband added.

A pause. The front door creaked open a few more inches and the old man's head lightened the darkness behind the screen door like a round moon with spectacles.

I held out the invitations like a feeble white flag. "We're not selling anything," I said. "We just wanted to invite you over... a dessert open house... to get to know our neighbors...if you can come..." I trailed off.

"That's all," my husband finished gently.

It was too dark to see if the pale moon-faced man was surprised or suspicious. "Sorry about that," he said reluctantly, as if making a conscious effort to extract the gruff tone from his voice. "We just get'em ringing the doorbell all the time..."

"We've had them too," said my husband.

(Them. What a strange way to refer to people.)

I was still holding out the invitation as if it were a milkbone and I was trying to coax a puppy out from under a bed. "Can I give you this invitation?" I asked awkwardly.

He hesitated. "I already locked everything up... just tuck it in the screen door and we'll get it tomorrow."

I was too surprised to do anything but comply. I slid the piece of cardstock between the screen and on of the decorative iron scrolls.

"Well," we said lamely, "have a goodnight."

The old man seemed to relent a little as we turned back down the walk. "You too," he called. We didn't understand what he said next. Was his tongue confused by remorse? "Thanks– love you guys!" And then the door shut. The Pilot and I exchanged puzzled glances. Love us? And yet you couldn't unlock your door to let in an invitation?

That image haunted me the rest of the evening: the stern sign, the face peering suspiciously round the locked screen door... the barriers. The walls. The ways even next-door neighbors seal themselves off from each other, locked in our own little fortresses of comfort and autonomy, rebuffs of anger or annoyance when anyone might dare challenge our supreme solitude.

Perhaps it haunted me all the more because I was unnerved by the possibility that, if I looked closer, might I find myself in one of those fortresses? I do not tell this story from a place of superiority. The Pilot and I had to give ourselves several stern talking-tos before we collected the moral impetus and motivation to walk outside our front door and make the rounds of the cul-de-sac. We still both look like we're freshmen in college; we both wondered what our neighbors would think of us. How far, far easier it would be to stay in our comfortable solitude! We are both introverts. We don't innately enjoy meeting new people. Small-talk takes a lot of effort for us. Our desire for comfort and security would never lead us outside our own little circle of friends where all is familiar and safe.

But that's not the life we're called to live. Quite plainly, we are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that's rather difficult if we don't even know our neighbors' names! I'm aware, of course, that inviting a bunch of (literal) neighbors over to come eat brownies and lemon poppyseed cake is not some kind of extreme act of selflessness and love. Maybe, though, it's a baby-step– a tiny movement out of that secure, comfortable life that our selfishness wants so badly, and a tiny, tiny movement towards the life of radical generosity, selflessness, and love for others which Jesus quite plainly tells us is the kind of life we are supposed to lead if we are to be like Him. Tiny, almost microscopic baby-steps that felt like huge difficult steps. Seriously. How lame that it took us six weeks to finally step outside and ring doorbells– and we weren't even trying to sell anything!

Or... maybe we are. Part of the motivation behind this cul-de-sac dessert is to spread a vision of community– the kind of community that every single human being needs, whether we acknowledge it or not. Westernized culture is all about individualism and how we don't need each other, even as study after article shows us that yes, in fact we do, we do very much. The Pilot and I are blessed in already having found community here, the kind of friends among whom there is no locks, no doors, no barriers; we are all part of each other's lives. We realize, too, that is not the experience for so many people around us. Maybe this tiny baby step can "sell" a tiny baby picture of community to our real-life literal neighbors... and just maybe, they'll ask for more.

I don't know if our next door neighbor will come to our dessert on Saturday night. The selfish part of me is afraid he will– afraid of the awkwardness that could ensue. The gospel-heart in me hopes that he will come, that no matter how awkward it might be, he will come out from behind his locks and doors and let someone in, if only for a couple of hours. My prayer for the Pilot and me and our family is that the image we will leave with those around us is and always will be one of open doors and welcoming lives.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Doing Justice

Almost exactly two years ago, my heart began to be awakened to ugliness.

All my life I've been surrounded by beauty. Colorado streaks beauty in vibrant, vivid splashes from a palette as endless as God's ability; beauty was natural, beauty was real, beauty mattered. Art, music, creativity, invention, all indispensable hues, intertwining, dancing, marrying and begetting more beauty.

Then ugliness came and ravaged a ragged gash in the landscape.

I wasn't completely unaware of ugliness. Even the most sheltered child in America has to be blind and deaf not to know that it exists, that in dark corners and questionable districts, the ugliness is lurking. The question is not whether it exists; rather, it is that when we leave childhood behind, do we choose to acknowledge the ugliness, or do we go on pretending that it doesn't exist, or ignoring its existence?

I did not choose, because, thankfully, two years ago, God did not leave choice up to me. He took the ugliness and with it He broke my heart. At the same time I was learning how to love the man who would become my husband, I began to learn how to care about a world that is systematically destroying itself with ugliness.

(It might be good to note that the word I am using, ugliness, is simply a metaphor for a concept that is considered very out-of-date in our culture: sin. I believe all forms of ugliness, both literal and metaphorical, to be a result of the effects of sin in the world. If you want to know where I believe sin came from, read Genesis 3.)

The ugly manifests itself in ways antithetical to the beauty, for its goal is to stamp out beauty, to consume it. Selfishness destroys love. Corruption and greed undermine honest work. Indulgence stifles gratitude. Abuse and violence shatter relationships, communities, countries. Indifference enables all the ugliness to continue unabated.

I think God is systematically destroying my indifference.

The first real sign was two years ago, when I started learning the statistics and stories of sex-trafficking around the world and in this country. Some of you may have read the posts in my old blog about this. Some of you may have noticed when I stopped writing about it. The fire flamed up, and then burnt low.   Thank God– He did not allow it to go out. At first the ugliness was all I could think of, but then I learned how to compartmentalize it. I never forgot, but the first glimpse lost its power. I don't know if my circumstantial excuses were valid or not: working, schooling, getting engaged, planning a wedding. Perhaps they were not valid.

After the Pilot got his assignment and I found out we'd be spending a year in Phoenix, I remembered the organization I had discovered in my initial burst of enthusiastic research: a Christian ministry called Streetlight USA, which is unique in that one of its main focuses is to provide long term care, healing, and complete rehabilitation for girls rescued out of sex slavery in the United States. Their campus is in Phoenix. I started wondering.

Last February, my heart broke again, but this time more easily, because the divinely-placed fault line was already there. I read an article about the increase in sex-trafficking because of the Super Bowl, and the Pilot found me in tears. I wrote this post because I wanted to write something, to do something. I didn't know what else to do. Life was busy. I had a new marriage and I was finishing school. We were going to move.

Then we moved here, and God started bombarding me with messages. My friend, challenging me to find out what my time in Phoenix is going to be about. Multiple sermons, speaking of putting hands and feet to what I say I believe is the truth, and taking the sacrificial love of Jesus to a world which is starving for it even as it tries to feed itself in the ugliness. The book that my friend and I are reading, Generous Justice, in which Tim Keller tells me that the extent to which I understand grace is the extent to which my life will overflow with acts of mercy and justice towards the poor of the world– the forgotten, the downtrodden, the hopeless, the weary. Conversation after conversation. Sometimes God speaks clearly and I knew that this wasn't going to stop.

It has become clear to me that girls in sex slavery are my burden. My heart is growing tender to many different types of the ravagings of sin in the world, but sex slavery stops me dead in my tracks, turns my thoughts off myself and my own comfort, and throws the gauntlet at my feet. Perhaps my motivation has only increased as a new wife, as I explore in wide-eyed wonder the garden of intimacy unlocked for me by marriage, and I am filled with wide-eyed horror that so many little girls have that ripped away from them, that what should be precious and beautiful becomes an instrument of torture in the hands of the men who violate them.

In my last post I wrote about living in the present, living intentionally. I realized, afterwards, that in this new season that the Pilot and I are entering, I am in a situation uncommon for people my age– I have only one class left in school, I do not have to work to support myself, and thus time and resources are there for me to serve in ways that other stages of life would not allow. With my husband's often-time ten to twelve hour workdays, I will have an abundance of days where I'll be by myself, with minimal responsibilities. I have realized that this stage is an opportunity which I do not want to waste.

So take these ramblings for what they are– a shy, nervous introduction to a new chapter in a life which is making the first halting attempt to reflect a Biblical picture of what the lives of Jesus-freaks like me should be: "He has told you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). 

This issue is not all I intend to blog about. Life and faith still constantly tumble out new ideas for writing, ideas that are less sober, not heart-breaking. Sometimes, though, our hearts need to be broken, and then broken again. I invite you– I ask you, don't look away. Perhaps we can look together at the evils which are easier to ignore– look long, look hard, look honestly. And then maybe we can turn our looking into acting, our thinking into doing.

In my second post on this blog, I asked myself: "Can I listen to grace?"

Now I ask myself: "When Grace speaks, will I have the courage and obedience to act on what I hear?"