For Those Who Can’t Speak

I can’t stop crying.

There’s so much grief in this world right now.  I am praying for friends who have lost fathers and mothers and siblings during this time and cannot even be there with them in their last moments or attend a funeral to honor their lives.  My heart breaks for a family I don’t even know who has two teenage sons in the hospital with COVID.  All I can picture each time I pray is my own two boys.  How does a mom deal with that much uncertainty and sorrow at once? But one of the biggest things my heart has been hurting over is the brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery.  Jogging, unarmed and unthreatening, but taken from this world simply because of the color of his skin.  I was agonizing at how far we still have to go when it comes to seeing everyone as an equal.  Then came Breonna Walker – shot eight times in her own house when police officers entered the wrong house.   And now another victim, George Floyd, has lost his life and we are mourning again the brokenness of a world where people can simply ignore a man saying, “I can’t breath.”

I hesitate to write this because I am a white woman – how can I speak to this?  I KNOW I have so much to learn.  I am thankful for my friends who have experienced this kind of racism first hand and are willing to listen to my ignorant questions and answer me in truthful ways.  I will never understand it by experience, but I can learn and empathize,  and speak the truth of it.  It is my responsibility to educate myself and learn these things – it is not the job of the black community to do this for me.

I will say this –  I didn’t understand white privilege was real until I moved to a place where I was the minority. Even then I experienced a tiny little glimpse of being singled out for my skin color, but often it opened doors and gave opportunities that the people I loved and served alongside didn’t have. I remember one situation in Malawi where a local family we worked with was in the public hospital.  My friend had gone in to have a baby.  The pregnancy had been complicated, but the baby was full term.  While she was in surgery because she was bleeding the baby was left in the nursery in care of the nurses.  He died because he choked on his own spit up.  He was healthy and doing well – but the lack of attention caused him to die before his mama even got to know him. The nurses denied it many times and then finally admitted to it but still said it wasn’t their fault because the mom should be watching the baby – even though she was in surgery.  Childless with no hope for a future child is a bleak place to be in that culture.   She went into severe depression.  Still the hospital refused to discharge her and kept charging money.  They wouldn’t get her the records so she could have them.  In despair her husband called and asked us to help.  I marched into the room, packed her things, went to the finance office to pay the bill but demanded the records first.  With a wad of cash in sight and an angry white American in front of them they handed the records over. I took her out of there and home where I tucked her into bed and wept with her.  She had missed the funeral of her son because they wouldn’t let her leave.  She didn’t even have a picture.

I did so many things that day I swore I would never do.  I played the “white card” to the full extent I knew how because I knew that my skin color and the money I carried meant power.  Though I “paid the bill” we all knew it was a bribe, so much more than the actual bill and especially under the circumstances.  Paying bribes was something I was fundamentally against, but I didn’t think twice about it in that situation.  I verbally ripped apart the people in charge and railed against the system in ways no missionary is supposed to do.  I demanded, yelled, threatened, and got my way. And I knew I would – I had the confidence to do it because I had the right skin color to get away with it.

Honestly, in that situation, I would do it again.

The truth is sometimes my skin color played against me in Africa, especially when it came to police corruption.  But in the current climate here I realize that even that was minimal.  I might have had to pay more for a bogus fine, but I was not worried about being physically harmed by the police.  Overall I started to really understand what the term “white privilege” meant.  I can’t tell you how many times I watched Kenyan friends get patted down and have to empty their bags while going through security at a mall, but I could give them a quick glance as I flashed open my bag and get a wave through. These things seem like little things – but it’s the compilation of these “little things” that chips away at a person’s dignity and honor.

As a woman I have experienced the feeling of being looked down upon – especially within the church around the world.  I’ve been told that the gifts and passions God has instilled in me should be toned down or somehow worked out through my husband. Isn’t is good enough to be the Pastor’s wife?  There have also been times in this world I felt powerless or threatened because of my gender.  When a catcall crosses lines or a man thinks he can comment on or touch your body without permission.  Every woman alive knows what it feels like to be made into an object somehow.   Again – very real and very wrong.  However, even this idea is changing in most developed countries.  Especially in America and in church, the thought has drastically changed from the idea that being a woman makes my life less valuable.  But what of the life of Breonna?  Does being a black woman mean you still need to fear for your safety no matter where you are or what time we are in?  Even in your own home?  How can we be so evolved in one sense, yet we still can’t see past color.

I’ve talked with a close friend about what it means to raise a young black male in this day and age, and I was so appalled to learn the things she understood she needed to teach her son – things I would not think twice about.  She lovingly yet firmly rebuked my initial, “That can’t be true” remark, and as I remembered she was a person who always spoke hard truth, I apologized and tried to reset my thought process.   As we talked more I asked, “How can I teach my children when it comes to this issue of race?  How can I raise them to be a part of the solution rather than feed into it more?”  The biggest answers were awareness, education, acknowledgment, and action.  Aware that their skin color brings them a privilege that others do not have.  Being educated in the things happening around them and speaking into that rather than putting their head in the sand because they don’t fully understand it or are nervous to speak to it. Acknowledgement that it is not fair, but that it is real.  Action to use their own voices and resources to stand with their friends who cannot do this without fear of retribution.  I’m proud of the kids I have raised as I watch them navigate this in a way of passion and boldness I never even understood needed to be there when I was their age.  I hear them stand up for friends and speak against the comments and actions of people that are suppose to be “harmless” because they understand that words are powerful and actions sometimes speak louder than words when it comes to shaping the way a person thinks and acts.

But we all still have a long, long way to go.

Church – what are we doing?  We should be leading the forefront of this battle – we have had the ultimate reconciliation with God! We should be truth-bearers of reconciliation with each other! But I fear that out of ignorance, unbelief, or our own selfish hearts that lean towards racism we are just fueling the flame.  I don’t have the answers.  But we need to start pleading for wisdom to the One who does.  We cannot bury our heads and ignore it because it “didn’t happen here” or “what can I do” or “who would listen to me?”  We can’t be afraid of finding those friends who HAVE experienced this and who are willing to let us ask them the hard questions.   We cannot shy away from the rebuke we may need as we start to have our eyes opened to the realities for so many.  As a church, and as brothers and sisters who love Jesus, we should be a safe place for all people – race, gender, age, sex, culture, economic status, immigration status.  We need to understand that when we see #blacklivesmatter it doesn’t go without saying and we downplay this message by adding anything else to that hashtag.  If we really think all lives matter, we should ask ourselves why the phrase “black lives matter” is such a trigger for us.  Pro-life is just as important after a person is born.

I don’t know the answers.  I am sure that even in these few paragraphs I have gotten something wrong.  I’ll be honest – I started this blog right after the news of Ahmaud broke, but then let it sit.  After a couple weeks I kept thinking, “I will say the wrong thing, there’s no point in bringing it up again.”  Then Breonna was killed.  Then George.  I can’t keep silent for fear of of saying it wrong or backlash. Well, I COULD – that’s my privilege within the skin I was born, as unfair as that is.  It is also a big part of the problem.  You’ve probably seen the quote by Benjamin Franklin that says, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are just as outraged as those who are.”   Though I’ve been sad, angry, even appalled, I’ve stayed quiet.  But I will not any longer, because my heart, my conscience, my soul will not allow it. Because I love many people who do not look like me.  Because it is my calling as a follower of Jesus.  It’s time.

“A scared world needs a fearless church.”  AW Tozer.  It’s time to be fearless.

 

 

My Pizza Oven

(Photo credit Scott and Jennifer Myhre)

Today I spent the day doing school with the boys, baking a bunch of cookies for upcoming events, decorating the porch with the boys after school, and raking leaves because they have finally all fallen off the trees.  As I was raking I was daydreaming about what the garden will look like in the spring, since we have not yet experienced that here.  I made plans in my mind about how Shawn could add so much beauty to a yard that needed a little TLC, but still had it’s own beauty.

Suddenly that sneaky little feeling of anxiety crept in.  “This isn’t really your house.  you have a two year lease is all.  Don’t invest too much – you never know when you will need to leave.”

If you read my previous blog you know what a gift this house is to us.  I love everything about it.  But while it is our home right now, it belongs to someone else who will eventually call it home again.  Though we would love to be in DC until we retire, this house will probably not be our home that whole time.  And suddenly that feeling of anxiety about not having a place to claim as mine started to overtake.

I never wanted to buy a house.  I never felt the need.  I liked the idea of being able to pick up and go whenever I needed or wanted to.  We have learned in our crazy life how to make a home pretty quickly.  But I’ll be honest, all of that has changed in me since coming back to the States.  I want roots and home and a place that my kids will know is always there for them even as they all enter into adulthood and make their own homes.

Most of the time I am content with giving that to God and letting him take care of it for me.  But today I felt the stress that happens when I am not consciously doing that, and I started to feel panicky for no real reason.

Suddenly I heard the Spirit say, “Heather, build your pizza oven.”

No, I am not going to literally build a pizza oven – I am not even sure I could legally do that here! But this statement brought me back to solid ground and a trust in God’s plan for us.  A few years back I wrote a blog about how friends of ours and missionaries extraordinaire who had lived around East Africa in some hard places for the last few decades chose to mark their places as home.  No matter where they lived, even if they knew it was not long term, they chose to put roots down and make a life.  One way they did that was to build an outside pizza oven of stone and brick.  They’ve done this at places on the equator as well as in their home in the States.  There are many people who have benefited from this tangible way of saying, “We are home.  This is home.  The Lord has provided.”  Though I knew that an outdoor pizza oven would not be my marker, I also knew I had to figure out what was.  What are those things we do as a family, those things we put in place, no matter where we go?

As God brought things to mind about how we are making this place home for us and our kids (what a blessing to hear Anna say this was like coming home when she was here from college for Thanksgiving break), I knew that no matter what house we live in we will make it home.  We will open it up to friends, family, and strangers  – who usually become friends!  We will always have food and drink for people along with a place on the couch to talk and pray.  We will put up some of the same decorations and do some of the same things at the same time each year.  We will pray together at night on our bed as a family before everyone goes to sleep.  We will try to remember to speak thankfulness at dinner times together in the evenings.

In other words, we have our own pizza ovens.  I am so grateful for these friends who spoke this into our lives.

What are some of your “Pizza ovens?”

The Ram in the Thicket

I admit, I have always hated the story of Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain.  I know that it’s always taught that Abraham believed God would provide, and we know the truth is that he did!  There was a ram in thicket.

But let’s just be honest here.  I am a mom.  I have watched my kids go through some pretty hard things and wondered if I had scarred them for life.  My first thought every time I read about Isaac asking where the lamb was and Abraham saying,”The Lord will provide” is the therapy bill that would be in the future for that child!  Abraham actually binds Isaac up before God intervenes and stops him.  The whole story has always felt so manipulative to me, and most of the time I teach it or read it as fast as I can and move on so I din’t have to think about what I would call the “practical” implications of it.  Does Isaac fight back?  Is there ever a moment of doubt for Abraham?  What is the conversation like going back down the mountain?

I am doing the Ann Voskamp advent devotional “The Greatest Gift,” and when I opened for today this story was there.  My first instinct was to skip the Bible reading part – I know this story.  I don’t like it.  (And isn’t that how we are supposed to read the Bible – only the parts we like? *Note the sarcasm.)

So I started reading only the part that Ann wrote about the story.  And my heart just broke.  She writes, “It is a thing to call a place ‘The Lord Will Provide.’ It is a thing to name where you live as provision, to name the place you call home ‘The Lord Will Provide.'”

My heart.

This house, since the day we first saw it, has been God’s gift to me.  I don’t know if you ever heard my “wish list” when we were first talking about moving back to the States.  As we sat with the boys and talked about what we wanted in whatever our new home would be we made a list.  At first it was practical – enough bedrooms to host people, a dining room big enough for a table to seat many.  Then I felt the Spirit prompting us to name “extras.”  As a family we named things that we really wanted, even if they seemed silly and definitely weren’t necessities.  A front porch, a back yard, a gas stove, lots of windows, off street parking, bright colors, within walking distance of the church, an extra room where I could do art and create without having to always pick everything up midway.

This house checked every single box.  Every. Single. One.  In a place where we should never be able to have a house like this.

I almost cried when they showed it to us.  Everyone was nervous and reiterating that we could change the paint or do what we needed to make it our own home – but it felt like “me” the moment I walked in.  (I later met our landlord, a dear sister from the church, and instantly found a kindred spirit – just an extra blessing!)

I know this house is not ours – we are merely renting and using it while we can.  When the time comes that we need to move, God will provide the next right place for that time of life.  But in the moment, the now, this is HOME and I am so overwhelmed with thankfulness for it.

When I read those words that Ann wrote, I knew I had to go back and read the story of Abraham and Isaac again.  And my gratefulness started to deepen from the physical aspect of providing a home, which is temporary no matter how long we live here, to the spiritual aspect of knowing I have a home in my God, who’s name is Jehova Jireh.

The Lord Will Provide.

He is my provision.  In this advent season he is the hope, the peace. He gave himself as the ram in the thicket, and continues to be my provision as he gives me access to everything in the heavenly storehouses.  I am free because of him.  He gave this prisoner of anxiety and anger the gift of breaking those bonds and letting my heart know freedom and peace.

As I thought through these things and tears freely flowed, I was sitting and looking at my Christmas tree all lit up.  My eyes fell on the ornament with RJ’s name and the year he was born and my heart broke again for my baby.  Born with two holes in his heart, yet is strong and whole today.  I saw my “ugly Santa” ornament from Uganda and remembered the way God provided times of laughter and relief from the hardships of life in South Sudan with teammates that I loved completely.  The beautiful bulb of beads made in Bosnia that represented one of the many church families that have prayed us through the last 10 years of missions prep and work.  One after another I saw physical reminders of God’s provisions – and those were just some of the obvious ones!

This advent I encourage you to take time to notice.  Ann writes, “Worry is belief gone wrong because you don’t believe that God will get it right.  Peace is belief that exhales.  Because you believe that God’s provision is everywhere – like air.”  God always has a ram in the thicket, friends.

Now I’m off to paint a new sign for my home, as I have decided it needs to be announced that this place has a name – “The Lord Will Provide.”

Staying

Today was the mass exodus.  After a fun friend and family filled week, both of my older kids and my in-laws went back to their normal lives today.  As Anna walked out the door I felt that familiar feeling of “something is missing” creep in, and after dropping John off I heard a song that inevitably reminds me of him and I cried.  Moms, you get me.

But I am also learning in this stage to be all-in while we have those times – and not just with my kids.  As we continue pushing into friendships here in church and this community I want to make sure that I don’t take those for granted.  We have chosen a life here in DC where we get to stay this time around for the long haul, but many others leave.  Around our Thanksgiving table this year were several young adults who will most likely not be in this part of the world next year for the holidays.  This is a new dynamic for us – being the “stayers” is much different than being the ones leaving.

But if ex-pat life taught me anything, it is to jump in feet first and go deep.  Don’t waste time on conversations and activities that keep things at the surface.  Instead pull out the games where you laugh together and get to accuse each other of silly things all the while figuring out personalities, reactions, and what makes a person feel most comfortable and loved.  Try activities that are new to you or everyone around you and document it with pictures so in the years to come you can share and reminisce about being brave together.  Learn to say someone’s given name in their heart language rather than their English version and watch their faces light up even when you completely mess it up.  Ask what you can be praying for – and then actually do it.  In other words, be a place of stability for those people who lives are transient and ever-changing.  We have had those people in our lives and now it’s our turn to give this back.

I am very content to be in this new role of staying.  I can’t wait to not be the newbie, but even as we wade through our first year here we learn how to love our new home and family well so that we can offer that to each person as they come (and sometimes go) in our lives.  Though the holes will always be present as people we love leave, there never seems to be more empty space than the space that is filled.  For that I am thankful.