What I Learned as a Child in my Back Country Church

When I was a child, my family attended a church in the wooded hills that line Lancaster and Chester counties in central Pennsylvania. I haven’t been there for 25 years, but I could still tell you the details of the drive from my house to church. And that shouldn’t surprise you – we were there at least once on Sunday mornings, every Sunday night, and every Wednesday night. It was a well-worn route from the farmhouse where we lived, over country roads, through tiny, middle-of-nowhere villages, past farms and creeks, and finally around the last bend and up the hill to the church driveway.

When I was little, and the church was young, our Sunday School class met in the basement. I remember the dark trek down the stairway lined with wood paneling, into the wide, low-ceilinged basement and then dashing to the room where our class met off to one side. I loved that church more than anything. All my best friends went there. Eventually, my father would be the associate pastor, so it felt like everyone knew me. I was at home there. I felt loved, which is no small thing for a child.

What I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are the Sunday School lessons I learned in that tiny basement room. I remember my teachers, and in those days we had the high-tech flannel boards with the flannel figures that only occasionally stuck. And lately I’ve been thinking about one lesson in particular, the lesson that begins with a religious leader trying to justify himself by asking, “And who is my neighbor?”

And who is my neighbor?

It’s hard to ask that question in the context without sounding self-righteous. Come on, Jesus. I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor – that’s clear in scripture. But I need a definition so that I can follow the letter of the law. Surely there are limits to such a command.

I remember Jesus’ response. I remember my teacher putting the flannel characters up on the board, the Jewish man beaten by thieves and left dying on the side of the road. I remember the tenderness of my teacher, explaining how first a priest passed him by, and then a Levite, both experts in religious law, both too concerned with other things, both justifying their actions in various ways. And then, the Samaritan came along, a man who had no reason to stop in that dangerous territory and help a Jew. Yet he did.

I remember finding the story almost comical, too far-fetched. None of the religious leaders I knew in my church would ever walk by someone who needed help! After all, we served the homeless and the poor. We visited people who were sick. We gave money to anyone who needed it. What kind of crazy story was Jesus telling?

I no longer attend that church, but I find myself thinking back to the adults there who formed my faith, as well as the other kids in my class, now grown with families of their own. I see the news and wonder if they remember that story. I hear statistics that say nearly 80% of Evangelicals think we have no responsibility to help the world-wide population of refugees. I watch as people I went to church with argue that it is no bad thing for immigrant children to be separated from their parents.

We grow up, and we so easily forget the simplicity with which we heard the gospel as children.

Who is my neighbor?

The question echoes in my mind. How quickly this life can make us cynical and hard. How quickly painful life experiences lead us to forget the simplest and most straightforward commands of Christ. Our idolization of nationalism, or strength, or security, help us rationalize what is good, what is acceptable. And years pass. And we find ourselves so far from the path we set out on, tangled in the woods of a life dedicated to our own well-being.

Who is my neighbor?

I see the news and I wonder. I wonder what actions and opinions are now practiced by the beautiful people I grew up going to church with. I wonder if, in a complex and changing world, any of us can find our way back to the simplest commands of Christ.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s really so simple. Who is a neighbor? The one who practices mercy. Mercy. Go and do likewise.

My Question for 2018

Photo by Roberto Tumini via Unsplash
Photo by Roberto Tumini via Unsplash

I’m entering 2018, not with a word, but with a question.

* * * * *

Leo is three years old. We walk into his room at bedtime. The city is cold outside his window, and the radiator at the foot of his bed is hot to the touch. I hope he never has to know the cold of those streets on a winter night having nowhere else to go. We draw a little closer to each other in the dark.

He wants to go to bed in a “fort,” so I tuck a blanket in the top bunk, draping it down over the bottom bunk where he sleeps. I turn off the light.

He is a creature of habit, although I haven’t yet figured out if this is due to age or personality. We sing the same songs every night. We pray the same prayers.

“Daddy,” he asks. “Will you stay with me?”

“Daddy,” he asks. “Will there be storms or fireworks tonight?”

“Daddy, will you lay beside me?”

So, I climb into the bed like a giant and he moves over and we lay there quietly in the dark. Sometimes, I start to drift off, and I turn over on my side. My eyelids are heavy. The warmth from the radiator slips into his bed. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. But he is not a fan of when I turn my back towards him.

“Daddy,” he says quietly. “I want to see your face.”

* * * * *

Many wise people throughout the ages have written about seeking the face of God, and at the beginning of this new year, I’m wondering more and more what that means. Crack open that phrase and what will I find? This force that moves the universe, that keeps everything racing away from everything else, that wakes up the maple trees in the spring and circulates the air in the atmosphere and reminds the fish and birds how to get home…what does the face of that force look like? And what could it possibly mean, seeking the face of that incredible force?

I don’t know about all of that, and I’m not sure exactly what it means to seek God’s face, but I know what Leo wants when he wants to see my face. He wants to know that I’m aware of him. He wants to know he is not alone in the world. He wants to know that even when he falls asleep, even when he is at his most vulnerable, even when the scariest things in the entire world have a tendency of turning up, that I’ll be there, eyes on him.

Is this what it means to seek the face of God?

I confess: I don’t know. But it seems a compelling question to unpack this year.

* * * * *

In his book, The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton writes,

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front…”

Could that be it? In seeking the face of God, are we actually seeking something in the world that is not brutal, but instead something in the world that is the kindest and gentlest and best thing we could ever find?

How does that change the way I live, if my main motivation in living is to find the beautiful things in the world? How does that change every interaction I have with someone else? How does that change the way I think about myself?

* * * * *

Daddy, I want to see your face.

In about a week, I start work on my next novel. I’ll be journaling before each day’s writing session, and you can receive those journal entries, a sort of look inside the writing of a novel, in your inbox by signing up here: http://eepurl.com/dfxFoP

My Most Frequent Prayer These Days

Photo by Matthew Henry via Unsplash
Photo by Matthew Henry via Unsplash

*This is your regularly scheduled, completely honest post about the ups and downs of freelance writing and self-employment. If you have had your fill of these posts from me, feel free to move on, nothing to see here. Tomorrow, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming*

A week ago, in all of my optimistic glory, I nearly wrote a blog post about how much better I’ve become in regards to waiting. Imagine that! I felt like Mario at the end of the level, hanging onto the flagpole, trotting gamely towards the next challenge. I was all set to write about how I’ve got that old anxiety about waiting under control so bring it, God, I’m up for whatever the next challenge is.

Yesterday, for some reason, my optimism came crashing down:

Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 12.12.26 PM
There is a silence in these post-Thanksgiving days, these almost-winter days, these early-Advent days, that can be enough to squelch hope in most of its forms. It is a natural season of waiting, in so many ways, a season in which there seems to be so little response, that it should not surprise me, it should not catch me off guard, yet nearly every year it does.

* * * * *

In desperation, I turn again to the Advent readings from this last Sunday, and the first was from Isaiah.

Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him.

The second from 1 Corinthians:

He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful,
and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

The third from Mark:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.

* * * * *

Wait, the readings implore. Wait, but not with your own strength. With mine.

Also, Be watchful! Be alert!, as if to remind us our waiting is not in vain. Our waiting will be rewarded. Sometime. Somehow.


On Mutual Fear, and Veiled Women Telling Their Stories: The Iraq Journals, Part 2

The road in Jordan.
The road in Jordan.

The drive from Amman, Jordan, north to the city of Mafraq (also in Jordan) is a journey from the (vaguely) familiar into the foreign. Amman, at first glance, is a modern city, but as you drive north, the streets begin to fade, turning gradually into wilderness. Soon, the highway is the only man-made thing for as far as the eye can see, splitting a white-tan horizon blurred by distance. On either side, the occasional shepherd wanders with his flock over the rocky hills, though it is impossible to see how anything could survive for long in that landscape.

After a few hours’ drive, the city of Mafraq rises up out of the wilderness, the buildings the same color as the pale rock. Initially, Mafraq opened the door to a small amount of fear in the back of my mind. It came to me in the narrow, back streets, the hard stares, and the impenetrable dark eyes. I had to calmly talk the fear down.

But then I met the people.

There is a pastor in Mafraq whose church is a magnet for volunteers. Over 1,200 people come through his church every year from all over the world, looking to serve the people of the city as well as the refugees who have ended up there. The city’s population of 80,000 has been joined by 100,000 refugees spilling across the Syrian border, yet this church welcomes them. They distribute food and heaters and blankets to the new arrivals. They even started a school that now holds nearly 120 Syrian refugee students who would otherwise receive no education. One of Reload Loves playgrounds is at the school, and we were able to speak to, and play with, the children there.

Back at the pastor’s church, we were invited to attend one of the many women’s classes they offer to the city. This one was heavily attended by Muslim refugees, mostly from Syria. It was a class on forgiveness.

I walked in, and even though I was with the pastor, I felt very out of place. The women quickly scrambled to put up the head coverings of their burqas, and soon all that was visible through the slit was their kind eyes. A teacher spoke to them in Arabic about forgiveness, with the pastor whispering the interpretation into my ear. Many of the 25 women nodded as they listened. A few of them cried quietly.

Lenya was given the opportunity to speak. She thanked them for welcoming us. She asked if they would mind sharing their stories so that we could go back to the United States and bear witness to all that is going on.

One woman raised her hand. She wore a covering that draped down over her head and came up tight under her chin, but her face was visible. When she spoke, it was in a quiet voice, with very little emotion. The interpreter told us what she had said.

“My son can no longer walk. He was shot in the legs by a sniper. My brother was tortured for many weeks, and he can no longer function.”

All the while she spoke, small children played under the tables and in the corners. Sometimes they crawled up into their mother’s laps while they spoke, pulling at their veils for attention. But many of their children played outside on a playground supplied by Reload Love. The Pastor told us it was a blessing to the mothers, who could leave their children in a safe, gated space while they listened to the teaching. Some of them stood in the playground afterwards while their children played, and the mothers became friends with each other in this way.

One by one, the women told us their stories.

“My husband was killed,” another woman said, tilting her head to the side as if to ask us how this could be true. “And I have five children.”

“My husband went back to Syria three months ago to try to find some important things we left behind,” another woman said, “but he has not returned. I tell the children he will be home soon.”

She stared down at her folded hands.

* * * * *

We stood on top of the school building and the call to prayer went out over the city. A small truck approached the school, and a man shouted from it into a megaphone in Arabic. His voice sounded scary, as if he was rounding up the entire neighborhood to hunt us down.

“What’s he saying?” Lenya asked one of our hosts.

The man smiled.

“He’s selling vegetables from his truck.”

I stared out over the city. I wondered how much of our mutual fears came simply from a complete lack of understanding. I could see Syria from that rooftop, its mountains rising. I wondered how this little church in Mafraq could be so welcoming and courageous and generous, while so many of us comfortable brothers and sisters in America can be so afraid, so focused on self-preservation.

I wonder, what will we do with all of our stuff when we are dead?

* * * * *

We returned to our hotel, and a security guard walked around our van with a mirror attached to a pole so that he could examine the underside of our vehicle for explosives before letting us back into the parking lot. We had only a few hours to sleep before we boarded our 2am flight to Iraq.

* * * * *

I traveled to Northern Iraq with a group called Reload Love. They take spent bullet casings, melt them down, and turn them into jewelry to raise awareness and money to support children impacted by terror. They send aid to in-country partners that have expertise in rescuing children from harm’s way and provide much needed assistance, including relief supplies, children’s programs, and safe spaces such as playgrounds. Reload Love is doing incredible work. You can find out more about them, as well as check out their beautiful line of jewelry, here.

Further Thoughts on Going to Iraq (or, God is not Here)

Poppy at her first Maundy Thursday service, her sisters washing her feet.
Poppy at her first Maundy Thursday service, her sisters washing her feet.

We walked the six blocks to Saint James on Good Friday, the sun shining, a spring breeze chasing us along the sidewalks. I pushed the double-stroller – occupants varying in combination between Poppy, Leo, Sam, and Abra – and sometimes Maile would come up beside me, quietly, nestling her hand in under my arm. We walked long stretches without saying anything. She sometimes looked up at me with tears in her eyes.

The knowledge of my upcoming trip to Iraq came to us during Lent, just before Holy Week. Everything about Easter week felt heavier to me after my trip details were finalized. Everything felt pregnant with undelivered meaning.

* * * * *

Two-year-old Leo did remarkably well during the Good Friday service, but towards the end, he got antsy, and I took him out into the courtyard. He played in the fountain, carefully picking up tiny pieces of gravel and making small piles, or squatting over the meandering movement of an ant, or eyeing the flowers blooming off to the side.

But he wanted to walk, he wanted to run, and around the corner of the church he fled. I followed him through the arches, past the climbing tree (as our middle son Sam calls it), and back, back, back into the church yard. The cemetery.

Two days later, two days after Leo and I wandered among the stones, our church would hold its annual egg hunt there, and children would scramble over the graves, trampling the grass and hugging the trees and walking over all those bones. They would laugh and call out to each other, their new voices filtered by standing reminders of death.

So, Leo and I walked through the stones. He climbed on the graves’ edges, balancing like a man on a cliff. He jumped into the green grass. Would that we all saw death as our playground! We made our way to the far, back corner. There is a memorial stone there, and large granite slabs. While there are no more free spaces in the church’s cemetery, this is where our saints are now remembered. Flowers reached up around the edges.

I saw my friend’s name there on one of the slabs: Nelson Keener. He died one year ago. I sat with my back against the hard stone and watched Leo, now swinging a stick. This is life. This is death. And so it goes.

* * * * *

Planning a trip to Iraq during Holy Week is a wonderful way to come face to face with your mortality. I know the odds are in my favor of returning, perhaps not unscathed emotionally, but at least in one piece physically. It’s the unknown, I suppose. I will be there for a little over a week. If I spent that time here, at home, that week would probably pass by like most other weeks I have come to know. But now, thousands of miles away, in a place decimated by war and conflict, in a place so full of hurting people, that week will be different. Life will be different, measured as happening either before or after my trip to Iraq. This is only a sense that I have. Time will tell.

* * * * *

Can I take a moment and tell you all you need to know about our wonderful priest, Father David? Stay with me. This will all come together in the end.

Imagine this: Easter morning. The church is packed. The choir has made their way to the front, and Father David stands at the front beside Father Rob. The church is ringing with the sound of saints singing, the sound of a trumpet peeling against the beautiful morning light streaming through stained-glass windows. And suddenly, Father David is walking towards me where our family sits in the front row. We are not normally front row people, but on Easter morning the church was full, and we were two minutes late, so there we were.

Anyway, Father David walks down the stairs, comes over to me, and leans in close.

“I think your wife is looking for you,” he whispers, smiling before he turns and walks back to his place. I look around, locate and make eye contact with Mai, and wave her to the front. But it struck me, the fact that my priest would, in the middle of the service, take the time to come down to where I sat and let me know my wife couldn’t find where I was sitting.

This may seem like a small thing to you. I have never seen a pastor do such a thing before, not during such an important service. This is not a small thing.

Nine months in the womb, and now almost nine months out. Poppy has been the icing on our cake.
Nine months in the womb, and now almost nine months out. Poppy has been the icing on our cake.

* * * * *

Father David spoke on Easter morning about those four powerful words the angel uttered to the women at the grave, when they came to see Jesus.

“He is not here.”

Father David went on to say that, basically, it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? I look around at this world I live in, and it’s easy to wonder if God is here or not. And it’s easy to conclude, when you see Syrian children being gassed or pulled out from under the rubble, when you see Iraqi children dying in the wilderness, when you hear of aid workers being killed by ISIS sniper fire, when you hear a woman across your very own street screaming at, and hitting, her child, when you lose yet another friend to cancer…and on and on.

“He is not here.”

And yet. The angel goes on to say, “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him.”

He is going ahead of you.

There, you will see him.

* * * * *

The unasked question I see in many friends’ and relatives’ eyes when I tell them I am going to Iraq is not difficult to recognize. They have, every one, remained verbally positive, but eyes ask questions mouths will not utter.

“You have a family and you’re risking your life on a trip to the Middle East? For what?”

My only answer is that I was asked to do something that fits entirely within the realm of our family’s mission and way of life. But as I think more about it, I realize there is another answer, a truer answer. The true answer to why I am going to Iraq is that God is not here. He is there. He has gone ahead of me.

There, I will see him.

* * * * *

I think we all have an Iraq to go to. God is not here anymore. Do you realize that? He has gone ahead of you. Go! There, you will see him.

* * * * *

If you want to read about someone who is going, who is following the call to wherever there might be, someone who inspires me to stay open to where the spirit might lead, check out my friend Tsh Oxenreider’s beautiful new book, At Home in the World, releasing today! It’s the story of her family of five’s journey around the world. Yes, around the world. Tsh is insightful, funny, adventurous, and you will love this book. I promise.

I’ve never met Tsh or her husband, Kyle, but we’ve become online friends. If you’re intrigued by people who do not allow themselves to be tied down by conventional commitments, people who want to live fresh, meaningful lives, Tsh and Kyle are your kind of people. Here’s a snippet about her newest book:

What would you say if your spouse suggested selling the house, putting the furniture in storage, and taking your three kids under age ten on a nine-month trip around the world? Tsh Oxenreider said, “Thank you for bringing it up first.”

At Home in the World follows their journey from China to New Zealand, Ethiopia to England, and more. They traverse bumpy roads, stand in awe before a waterfall that feels like the edge of the earth, and chase each other through three-foot-wide passageways in Venice. And all the while Tsh grapples with the concept of home, as she learns what it means to be lost—yet at home—in the world.

Check it out HERE or wherever books are sold. Buy it. Trust me.

Keeping My Eyes Open

I'm not sure why I went with this photo, other than it's one of the few recent photos of all of us.
I’m not sure why I went with this photo, other than it’s one of the few recent photos of all of us, from Mardi Gras, and I’ve been wanting to work it in anyway.

Eight years ago, when Maile and I were at the bottom financially (or the lowest bottom we’ve been at so far because I guess you never know), I applied for a very well-paying job doing something I probably would have marginally enjoyed. Okay, barely enjoyed. Or not really enjoyed at all. It’s hard to say if I would have enjoyed it for very long. Due to some extenuating circumstances that I won’t go into, I did not get the job. I was furious. Writing work was sparse, and I was tired of living month-to-month. I craved the security of a 9 to 5.

A few months later, I landed a book-writing project. Soon after that, another. For the next eight years, albeit on a financial roller coaster, I went on to write over 20 books and finally, last year, tricked a publisher into signing me to a three-book deal to write fiction. Well, maybe there wasn’t any trickery. The publisher seems to be going into it rather enthusiastically.

None of this would have happened if I would have landed that job. That’s a fact. It was a demanding, hours-heavy position that would have left little time for writing. Most of the progress I’ve made as a writer during the last eight years has come out of desperation as much as anything else. With that job I would have had less desperation, and without that, I would have written a fraction of the words I’ve written.

I’ve thought about that a lot during the last eight years, how sometimes it feels like things are going to hell in a handbasket and then, out of nowhere, the very thing that seems worst about a situation starts to makes sense. It’s happened numerous times. One project will vanish only to make room for an even better one. One opportunity slips away and something else even more intriguing fills the gap.

Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, and by that I mean, the rotten things that happen don’t always make sense. There are not-so-great things that have happened recently for which I have not received a decent explanation from God. Sometimes, I fall into the cosmic trap of thinking it’s God’s duty to explain or justify or clarify everything that happens in my life that I don’t agree with or understand.

Yet, God keeps on handing me good things and bad things for which there is no rational explanation. Which gets me to the point of this whole thing, which is not that everything makes sense. I’m not here to tell you that if you wait long enough, that hard thing in your life will turn to good or lead to you picking the right Powerball numbers.

But after eight years of being self-employed, after many heartaches and disappointments, after Maile’s two miscarriages, nearly facing bankruptcy, and even after our bus’s brakes went out as we went down the Teton Pass, I can tell you this: continually searching for meaning in the madness is sometimes the meaning itself. In other words, it’s the looking for meaning that has sometimes kept me sane, the asking and doubting, the questions and silence, the searching and searching. And searching.

* * * * *

When things looked like they might slow down back in November, I started driving for Uber and Lyft. It’s a flexible way to add some income when I’m in between projects. The things is, if I was busy, I probably wouldn’t have ever done any ride-sharing, but here we are.

Like I said, now that I’m eight years into this self-employed writing thing, I try to keep my eyes open for what I might find, even in places or times that aren’t exactly of my own choosing. And what do you know! I found stories hidden there in the hundreds of rides I’ve given with Uber and Lyft. Every single fare I’ve taken has been a real, live person with real, live problems and dreams and jobs and hopes and disappointments. I’ve driven immigration lawyers and transgender sex workers, mall employees and high-powered business people, students on their way to school and students who were absolutely hammered. Granted, not everyone wants to talk about their lives – Lord knows, I only feel like talking to people about 50% of the time – but the ones who do want to talk always seem relieved to have spoken, to have had someone listen to them even for just ten minutes.

So here it is again: a difficult thing ends up shining a light on something new, some kind of fresh story, some kind of glimpse of God in these people all around me.

* * * * *

Not every bad thing in your life will come with a ready-made tag explaining or pointing out the redemptive work that has happened or is happening through it. But searching for that redemption – in other words, giving yourself the permission to hope in even the direst of circumstances – is not a terrible way to live a life, even when the question goes unanswered.