{ Do Not Shun the Small Things }

SmallBlue

Often in community development work we focus on the big things – the massive ideas that will transform the local economy, the construction of classrooms or strategies for improving local human rights. The challenges are not small, so our work efforts expand to meet the needs – we make our best, biggest attempt, anyways.

Today I was thinking of the small things.

We started a school last year. It took the better part of the year to secure the land, design and build the school, decide on curriculum and recruit teachers. I got to make one small decision – the color of school uniforms. Most of the students in Burundi wear khaki uniforms, but technically olive green and blue are also acceptable options. Khaki – the color of the dry dirt that covers the hills of this community and a drab green were immediately ruled out. I wanted bright blue for these boys and girls, vibrant and saturated with life.

Bright blue uniforms for kids with bright futures. It’s a small decision, but not insignificant.

Read the rest over at A Life Overseas…

{ShePonders: My Present Embarrassment}

IceCreme

I got heartbreaking news recently. I’d seen it coming for weeks, but the audible words still knocked the wind out of me.

Disappointment came first, the sensation of stillbirth. My dream that I labored on for well over nine months was a casualty. I carried an almost immediate emptiness due to this incomplete creation, this conversation I’d not contribute to anytime soon. It’s sad to hold a dead dream in your hands.

But I was unprepared for what came next – stinging embarrassment.

I needed to report my loss, but when I went to make the call to my friends, my co-laborers, I stumbled over the searing embarrassment. I couldn’t get the words out. The weighty shame kept me silent; rendered me utterly speechless in the face of…friends.

Read the rest over at SheLoves Magazine… 

{ What I’m Into: August 2014 }

Great August read...

Great August read…

August was always meant to be a month of transition, starting with 30+ hours in transit from Burundi to Arizona. Once landed, there would be the move from summer into the school year routine and from hours spent reading to writing deadlines demanding personal discipline once again.

But August surprised me with more angst than anticipated, bringing me to the unexpected threshold of lament and liminal space.

Lament for the loss of children in Gaza, Jerusalem’s shadow still ignorant of what makes for peace. Still too many swords and not near enough plowshares, too many air strikes when we need to re-tool for airborne agriculture.

Lament for the death of Michael Brown and the systemic racism gripping our country, an original sin haunting some, out right oppressing others. And on the streets of Ferguson we see too many tanks and not enough tractors, flash bombs instead of disco balls – leaders resorting to violence because we lack ample imagination to forge peace by other means.

And I suffered my own loss, of sorts. I decided to table one project and opt for another. The new project is bright with hope and vibrating with potential – and I’m excited to start. Yet turning away from the former endeavor still makes me a bit sad, grieving the incompleteness of it for now. Alongside the grief there is trust – that nothing is wasted and this work will be good seed for the season ahead. But this has catapulted me into liminality, like a tight crawl space that hems me in on both sides right now. I’m in between and while that’s not all bad, it isn’t easy either. August has taken and given… opened a new door with a bold welcome matt but left me stymied at the same time.

So other than lament and liminality, what am I into?

Currently re-reading... first read in '92.

Currently re-reading… first read in ’92.

BOOKS! Always books!

In August I haven’t read tons, but I’ve read well:

A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine by Mark Braverman. This is a follow-up to hi stunning Fatal Embrace, which I read a couple of summers ago. In this more recent volume Braverman, an American Jew, speaks to the on-going pursuit of peace between these two peoples. He pulls from African American civil rights leaders, Jewish and Palestinian theologians and South African luminaries as he works to weave together another rich and generative conversation leading us toward peace.

Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. I find these kind of projects so energizing, bringing a practitioner and scholar together in joint reflection on one subject. Here we have Jean Vanier of L’Arche communities for the disabled in conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, a skilled theologian, to explore vulnerability, community and whatever else emerges from their interactions. A gentle and deep work and worthy read.

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. This was a small volume MLK kept with him as he traveled, which intrigued me. Published in 1949 by an African American theologian, activist, advocate and educator, this funded MLK’s imagination (alongside the Bible). Reading this in one hand and my Twitter feed in the other amid the critical week in Ferguson was surreal, with each illuminating the other. Sadly, not enough has changed since 1949.

Justice & Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation by Naim Stifan Ateek. I’ve been reading from the region diligently and deeply over the past 10+ years, but as I began the first chapter I realized this is the first time I’ve read from the perspective of a Palestinian Christian. What a stunning and penetrating book, to put it mildly. I read the final chapter in tears, knowing something in me had shifted in the reading. Yes, I learned new things about the regional dynamic and discovered new readings of well-known scriptures. But there’s something more – something I can’t articulate quite yet. This book changed me and right now I can only say thank you… and recommend others read it!

Also, I realized in August that I take lots of pictures of books. My Instagram feed has almost as many pictures of books as my kids… seriously!

Here is a glamour shot of the books to be read sometime soon…

StackBooks

I’ve been into copious amounts of ice cream – Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey and Red Velvet Cake are my favorites.

I’ve been into skirts – simple A-line numbers that fit easy and keep me cool in the AZ heat.

I’ve also been into selfies, sort of. I find myself taking pictures of outfits and sharing them with a friend, just one friend. She gives me the thumbs up or thumbs down – and the girl is honest. Maybe with skirts being new and all I’m reaching out for assurance and a bit of guidance! Thank God for good friends to walk with you through the depths and the shallows of life… lol!

These just arrive via UPS today!

These just arrive via UPS today!

So that’s a sampling of what I’ve been into this August… what about you? (Link up with my friend Leigh to share what you’ve been into or to see what others were up to in August!)

 What I'm Into

cleaning my cup

cup

I find it interesting how text and context rub up against each other on common days. For instance, I went to mid-week Eucharist to retreat into the silence of sacred space, to look another person in the eyes and say “Peace be with you” and hear “…and also with you” in response. I entered thirsty, my cup empty but extended in expectation.

*****

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier things… You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup, but inside it is full of greed and self-indulgence… First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

A match struck across my graveled heart. Featherweight herbs, tiny gnats, the exterior surface of a cup…  A thought ignited. I need to clean the inside of my cup – do the internal work that justice requires.

If I spend all my energy calculating the tax rate for the herbs, I’ll be too exhausted for the heavy-lifting that just economics require. My focus on the minuscule gnat floating in my tea might divert my attention from the camel in my cup. And speaking of the cup, it’s possible I can be so fixated with a shiny exterior that I miss the unclean bits inside entirely. And it seems that the bigger deal is what happens inside that cup.

The admonition points toward doing the internal work, trusting that as I scrub the inside of the cup the outside will be cleaned in the process. And somehow the great work of justice requires clean cups, or clean hearts, able to move throughout the complexities of the world without the residue of bitterness, the debris left behind by hostility, hurt or hate. So If I clean the inside, or allow the inside to be washed by Another, then the exterior will not be my worry. But I will be clean(er) and more ready for service.

*****

I dip my fingers into the cool basin of holy water on my way out, a final blessing as I cross the threshold and dash toward my car. I check Twitter before I even leave the parking lot. Another match “I can’t clean my cup one tweet at a time. Cleaning my cup is off-line work…”

Here’s the thing… leaning into the weightier matters of justice involves some invisible work. I need to address my own prejudices, repent of my own judgments, pluck out the splinters obstructing my own vision – and the logs, too. I need the quiet places where I can sit, listen and maybe hear the Spirit blow by. The sight of my own complicity in systemic sins might make me weep. I may sit and read for long stretches, allowing old narratives and terrible lies believed about others to be unlearned. Maybe I need to confess my ignorance, listen to the story from a friend who knows better than I, ask questions or ask for forgiveness.

I remember Jesus talking about almsgiving, fasting and praying in private. He indicated that one hand ought not always know what the other is doing…maybe we ought to update that to say one thumb shouldn’t always know what the other thumb is texting. But privacy had some currency in spiritual formation according to Jesus, and I think it still must. I know it seems harder or counter-intuitive in this social media milieu where everything is tweeted or Instagrammed, but everything can’t be public or external.

My point is that off-line work is required. None of this is tweet-able; it’s invisible soul work. But this cup-cleaning work allows us to engage in the practice of justice with unblemished hearts and clear vision.

I am committed to pursuing justice, which means I plan to spend a lot of time at my proverbial kitchen sink of the soul cleaning cups from the inside out. It’s solitary work, often done in secret or without much fanfare. You might imagine I am ignoring the weightier things by my silence or absence, and I’ll understand the mistake. But I’m going to keep cleaning cups and try to avoid swallowing a camel. In God’s crazy upside down way – this is weightlifting. The more I do it, the more stamina I’ll have for moving mountains, enacting emancipation and participating in jubilee economics.

 

P.S. If you seem quiet about things, I’m going to guess that you are also cleaning some cups. Don’t tell me I’m the only one with a sink of dirty dishes in need of cleaning…

watching for missiles

 

 

This tweet from Gaza stopped me in my tracks this afternoon. For a moment, I put myself in this man’s shoes, standing on his street amid piles of rubble, watching for the missiles that will demolish my home. Waiting, watching… for weapons targeting my home.

His staccato dispatches tell of a harrowing day thus far. The Al-Zafer Tower crumbled to the ground. This stood 7 meters from his tower. Neighbors got calls from Israel telling them their building was next. He evacuated – with only the clothes he was wearing. And then this tweet that arrested my attention… watching and waiting for the missiles.

I try to wrap my mind around the scene on his street. Two heavy airstrikes this morning. A residential tower (11+ stories by my count) demolished. Body count unclear as dust and debris still cling to the air. Little in the neighborhood looks familiar now.

And they’ve called you, or a handful of you, to say your next. Truth or threat? The effect is the same – you run out with your life and what bit of hope you can still muster. Now you watch and wait for those missiles. You most-likely will see your home destroyed before nightfall. If not, you sit and know that your sense of home as a safe place is already in the ash heap. Your one pair of clothes might as well be sack cloth.

Jehad Saftawi is a Palestinian photojournalist living in Gaza. Soon he might be homeless. It is only by a very thin thread of tweets and photographs that we are connected at all. But while he is standing on the street, I am standing in lament alongside him and his neighbors.

*****

Lament seems to be a perpetual posture these days. I bend under the weight of sadness, the sight of our brokeness. I cry tears for my children and the children of mothers I do not even know. I worry after the welfare of a photojournalist and his neighbors. In such moments I glimpse the deep fracture that I imagine cuts to the molten core of the earth… and I groan with all of creation.

This gut-wrenching groaning is the closest I come to feeling a kinship with nature, these times I sit on the earth’s floor and know we are shared substance in our anguish at the state of things. I’m learning what the earth knows – we are pulling this world apart with wars. I lay prostrate on the ground, mourning in tandem and waiting for redemption.

The longer we fight, the less we farm, the further off is The Feast. This, too, Creation knows.

I roll over onto my back and look beyond the clouds and field of blues. I dream of airstrikes averted because the jets have been converted into agricultural aircraft and are on a hydro-seeding run right now. I dream of useless missiles now only valuable for their metal, now melted and refashioned into shovels, quick hitches and rotary tillers. I dream of plantations of shalom as far as the eye can see… Creation redeemed.

Why is this the way for me? Lament and imagination connected like the inhale and exhale? But I cry and dream. I lament and imagine. I watch and wait for missiles even as I envision weapons transfigured mid-air.

We watch and wait for more than missiles. We watch and wait for transformation… though it feels a long way off on days like today.

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!

How like a widow she has become…

She weeps bitterly in the night…

But there are none to comfort, none to comfort, none to comfort.”

 

 

the scars of our sons

My son is dead on the street. A part of me lay dead, too. The whole of me crumples over with the weight of ‘Why?’

I look around at everyone watching and hope they do more, hope they witness to my irrevocable, unspeakable loss in broad daylight.

Don’t let me bury my son alone.

*****

Will you step in as a pallbearer for our dead? The mothers want to know – will you walk with us the final distance to the mouth of the grave?

All life is lost, whether to old age, sickness or the anxieties too heavy to shoulder with our frail human frame. We know that, really we do. But many of our sons go down fighting the color of their skin, brown puddles on the pavement. Mingled with their blood – splattered dreams and unknown possibilities staining their brand new Nike trainers.

So will you shoulder the weight of our sons, hoisted high in a coffin too soon? Will you sit graveside – so close that there’s no light between us?  And will you let us weep out of control, wrecking your best sweater set with our tears (we’ve been through all the tissue in the house already)?

Can you bring a homemade pecan pie to the wake? We can eat together, but forgive us if we just push the pie around our plate. Our appetite for sweetness is diminished these days. But you eat – and let us bring out the worn photo albums and show you the baby pictures, tell you our favorite stories of our beloved boys. “Gone too soon” we’ll say. (Just nod and agree with us, “yes, too soon.”)

Please stay when things turn dark. Share the quiet with us – the silence of our sons is the hardest to stomach. Sometimes people forget – the news trucks drive away and the media features other matters. But we never let go, we stand as living tribute to our boys. Will you stay?

If you are with us, healing might be near. We might dare to hope for resurrection.

*****

Don’t let me bury my son alone.

I don’t want the cameras, reporters, bloggers there. No tweets required.

But friends – come.

Peacemakers – come.

If you are sad and speechless like me – come.

If you’ve lost your son (or are afraid you might) – come.

There’s room at the graveside for all the mothers bereft of sons, there’s room enough for all who would mourn with me.

*****

I’ve been told that even if you don’t come, I won’t stand by his grave alone. The Mother and her Son will be with me. I will hold her hand, squeeze it so tight, and we will remember the scars of our sons.

{ A Life Overseas: Coming Home }

With Batwa friends in Burundi // Photo Credit: Tina Francis

With Batwa friends in Burundi // Photo Credit: Tina Francis

Two weeks ago I was in transit from Burundi (East Africa) to the United States. The news flashing across multiple media outlets – CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, the New York Times – highlighted the Israeli incursion into Gaza, the advancing of ISIS in Iraq, the confusion around the downed Malaysian airline in Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

I boarded my plane aware of other passengers, hoping none were travelers from West Africa. I reminded my daughter to keep her hands to herself, the transmission of Ebola on my mind. As I watched the interactive map in flight, I prayed about the outbreak of violence in Libya and Gaza while we split the difference and flew through Egyptian airspace. I moved through the skies with awareness we dodged war zones on our way home after our Burundian summer.

I’d only be home for a set of days before I’d be reminded of the systemic injustice and racism that still resides in my homeland.

Read the rest over at A Life Overseas…

His life matters – world peace may hang in the balance

justin:faceofhope

This is my son. He’s ten years old.

His life matters.

How sad that I feel the need to document the obvious. But the last set of days this thought has permeated my thinking. In the months prior, I’ve been grateful he is currently living overseas where his color isn’t a factor in how his neighbors perceive him. I seldom say this out loud because people, mostly white people, accuse me of over-reacting or misreading the context or being too liberal in my reaction. But as a mother to this stunning ebony-skinned boy, I cannot ignore how other such sons are treated in my homeland.

My son’s heart and countenance are bright. He possesses a deep well of compassion for others – family, friends, the Batwa people of Burundi, the Palestinian people of Gaza. Under his smooth skin and banana-shaped dimples beats a tender heart, uncalloused by hate, hurt or racism. He is, as his favorite dancer Michael Jackson said, a lover not a fighter. “I love you, mama” he volunteers nightly.

His life matters.

When we go out for our dates, just the two of us cloistered at a table in a favorite restaurant, he gets to set the agenda with questions. And he gives me a glimpse into his heart – and he never disappoints.

The first time, over burgers and fries at In & Out Burger, he asked about the plight of the Batwa people in Burundi. “Why are they mistreated and forced to live in bad places?” he inquired with his characteristic intensity. We spoke of human rights, identity cards, tribalism and marginalization. That’s when he learned God transforms land and lives – and was already at work among our Batwa friends. “I’m glad they are our friends, mama.”

His life matters.

Another date, this time feasting on beef brochette, brought out his creative and curious side. “Mama, let’s dream about inventions to solve big problems.” I envisioned a cure to AIDS. (I had to explain what HIV/AIDS was, first.)

He imagined a car that traveled at the speed of light so that we could be together whenever we wanted, despite the distance that we endure as a bi-cultural family. We decided to call it the SOL car. He giggled at the thought of such a car, designed like a Ferrari with race car stripes, that would allow him to come over for dinner (especially on nights I made his favorite mac n’ cheese or pesto, he noted). I told him I’d use the SOL car on nights he wanted to talk about his birth mom or hear another Jesus story before bedtime. The SOL car would bridge the distance between mother and son…

His life matters.

Just last month we enjoyed our most recent date at our favorite bakery in Burundi. Over mango smoothies and chocolate croissants we talked about his chosen topic – Palestine. For two and a half hours we retraced the history – the 1947 UN Partition decision, the creation of the state of Israel, the 6 Day War and the intafada(s)… and the current blockade and incursions he witnessed on the news. His vocabulary grew to include Shoah  and Nakba. We talked about the God who is on the side of the oppressed and near to the broken-hearted, the God who does not allow us to hate enemies, and God’s image in the face of each Israeli, each Palestinian.

He peppered me with questions: Is the Israel of the Bible the same as the Israel country? Is America using it’s most powerful military to help the people in Gaza? Why is there an actual wall around parts of Palestine? Were the people of Palestine invited to the meeting about the UN Partition? Can we go there and help?

Finally he declared, as he slurped the last of his smoothie, “Once I’m done being a soccer star like Messi, I think I’ll go to Palestine and help bring peace like Jesus does.”

His life matters.

My son stretches his imagination toward peace, toward innovating solutions, toward brokering friendships. He dreams of playing soccer for Liverpool and inventing the SOL car and, as if in his spare time, bringing a lasting peace to Palestine and Israel.

But he is, after all, ten years old. He is given to fits of silliness and immaturity as any boy his age. He has more energy than his slender frame can really contain and an impulsive streak you don’t see coming. Growth spurts in rapid succession ensure he is taller every time I look his direction, but maturing happens in more subtle and slow movements. And I cannot afford to have his immaturity, impulsivity or silliness let loose on American streets – because  those very things can endanger his life. And I don’t want to become the next bereaved mother clutching a picture of her son in the middle of the street.

But he has something amazing to contribute to this world and…

His life matters.

It might even matter to world peace – if his heart for the dispossessed is any indication. So label me if you must. But include in that moniker “a mother who believes in the potential of her son and the value of all the other sons of other mothers like me.”

 

 

{ Spirit of the Poor: The Big Rest }

bigrest

Recently I’ve been considering the poverty of our discipleship. It all began when I stumbled over the word discipleship in my Twitter feed one afternoon. I recognized the word, of course. But what came to mind was how little I ever use it anymore, though I remain an ardent follower of Jesus.

This wasn’t always the case. In my youth discipleship functioned as load-bearing word in my vocabulary. This word held pride of place in youth group conversations and on into discussions in my college years. My bookshelf teemed with books on discipleship – how to be the best Christian I could be by various authors taking a variety of approaches. In my early years, it would be fair to say discipleship was a preoccupation of mine.

So how is it, all these years later that I stare at the word as a relic from my past instead of common currency?

//

Weeks later I recognized that my practice of Sabbath might be the holy culprit gradually undercutting my preoccupation with discipleship, as I’d come to know it. 

***

Today Esther Emery, curator of The Spirit of the Poor link up, is hosting me on her site. Click here to read the rest on sabbath + discipleship and… add your own reflections!

Summer Lessons

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

My summer is nearly done. In a matter of days I’ll pack suitcases, gather passports and make my way home in time for the first day of school. Glancing through the photo album of summer days, trying to discern if he hit a growth spurt between my arrival and departure, I realized another kind of growth.

These are some of the things my son learned this summer…

1. You can talk to Papa about anything new or curious happening to your body. Without going into unnecessary detail, my son is heading into those pre-teen years when bodies change. New sensations and new questions arise. What he now knows, after a candid conversation one night with both his father and I, is that he doesn’t need to be scared or embarrassed to talk to Papa about his body and its growth. Our impromptu conversation broke the ice, making future discussions more likely to happen as he reaches new heights, his voice reaches new depths. He knows Papa understands, has been through it, and will listen to him anytime.

2. God stands alongside the oppressed, ever close to the broken-hearted of the world. Multiple times this summer we landed on this truth amid our conversations. The first time, early in the season, we talked about the story of the Exodus. I told him how God heard the cry of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt – then God acted, God delivered. Whenever and wherever people are oppressed, on the underside of justice, God stands alongside them. This came up again in the many talks we had about the conflict between Israel and Gaza – who is oppressed, and where do we find God?

3. God loves our enemies as much as He loves us. As often as we talked about Israel and Gaza, which was plenty during our final weeks, we talked about God’s sweeping call to love everyone involved in the conflict. “Why do we love every person in Gaza and Israel?” I asked. “Because God’s image is in each one of them,” he responded. Indeed, in the words of Desmond Tutu, God loves those we call enemies as much as he loves us! God doesn’t give us permission to hate, but to always work toward love of the oppressed, the neighbor and even (maybe especially) our enemy. “Jesus asks a very hard thing, mom.” “Yes, but did you think transforming the world would be easy?” I asked.

4. You get to have both your mothers; you don’t have to choose between us. This year we celebrated our 9th Adoption Day, saw the neighborhood where he was found by a farmer on the way to market and talked a bit more about our birth moms. At one point, over pane chocolate and mango smoothies, I told him he gets to have both his mothers. He doesn’t have to choose between his dreams, thoughts and feelings for his birth mom and his love for me – he can have both. “Thank you, mom,” he said, wiping away a tear or two.

5. Be like Messi, not Renaldo. For my son, everything comes back to soccer. His favorite player is Messi, and he regaled me at length with his virtues as a player and a person. One of the sterling qualities – he does not let insults provoke him to unsportsmanlike behavior. This in contrast to his rival, Renaldo, known for arrogance and aggression. So when he’s insulted on the field or at school, the new rule? Be like Messi, not Renaldo!

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

I think our summer lessons will serve both of us well in the season ahead. And as he grows out of his shoes and shirts, I pray he will grow into a young man capable of deep compassion and complex conversations. I hope he will, with each day and each choice, become a peacemaker that will make big (and small) contributions to the world God so loves.