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“Tattoos and no-tattoos can be friends,” my 5-year-old daughter interjects into our small group’s conversation about tattoos on a Tuesday evening.

Yes, I assure her, we can be friends with people who look different from us.

We live in divided and divisive times. We can categorize our neighbors into endless groups. Red states and blue states. Christians and “non-believers.” Protestant and Catholic. Evangelical and mainline Protestant. Blue collar and white collar. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

I met my childhood best friend when she invited me to her sixth birthday party, as we stood together on the steps outside our elementary school. She was friendly and open in that way that only young children can be. I eagerly accepted the invitation and began a friendship that would last through high school and into the early years of college.

She was brown-skinned and I was white. Race wasn’t something we ever talked about, unless she brought it up in a joking way. “I don’t like white people,” she sometimes said, “except you and my mom.” She called herself a Nigerian princess.

I remember lots of sleepovers, Michael Jackson dance contests, endless rounds of Monopoly. I remember playing soccer in the Oregon rain. I remember going to see the Dave Matthews Band play in the Gorge, and the time the WOW Hall advertised our theater troupe on the same poster as a Slick Rick show. I remember writing rap songs for the band we started in third grade, and in college when our drunk friend got locked in a dorm room stairwell overnight I remember never laughing so much as I did with her.

I don’t remember ever asking my best friend about race, about what it was like to be one of the only brown-skinned kids in our school. Was it hard for her? If it was, she never let me know. Our high school group was a microcosm of diversity for Eugene, with three of my closest friends being ethnic minorities with immigrant parents from Nigeria, Korea, and Mexico.

Our friendship ended as suddenly and inexplicably as it began, with her one day choosing to stop returning my calls without any falling out or slow drifting away.

In college and beyond, my friendships seem to have become more and more homogenous. We are a 99 percent white, upwardly mobile, advanced degree holding, NPR-listening group of folks. We like to talk about social justice. We have backyard chickens and drink kombucha. We go to church, or used to before becoming disillusioned with organized religion. If we do have tattoos, they are discrete.

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Backyard chickens are so trendy right now! Too bad they attract rats.

I tell myself that my friends are similar to me because I don’t have many opportunities to get to know people who are different. But is that entirely true?

“You are the light of the world — like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.” — Matthew 5:14-15 (NLT)

It’s certainly easier to be friends with people who share similar backgrounds and interests as ourselves. But Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, something I can’t do if I remain cloistered in my kombucha-drinking, NPR-listening corner of the church. For my part, I want to be more intentional about widening my circle of acquaintances to include more diversity of race, religion, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. Within the Church as a whole, we also need to do a better job of promoting dialogue between Christians with different political views and scriptural interpretations.

I wish I could go back to the openness of childhood, when it was so easy to make friends with anyone regardless of what they looked like or who their parents were. Fourteen years after my friendship with my Nigerian princess best friend ended, it still hurts to write about her. I wish we could go back to being friends like we used to be, but time has changed us, and we can’t ever go back to that place we stood, two first graders on the steps outside our elementary school, fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream without even knowing.

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I wrote this post as part of a series on “Seeing the Other,” for the CitySalt Church blog. 

photo credit: numstead rooster via photopin (license)

A few weeks ago my parents treated us to a family beach weekend. My husband works a lot and we don’t have extra money, so it’s rare to get away for a weekend. It was a gorgeous, sunny September weekend in Newport, Oregon. We walked along the edge of our continent, dined on corned beef and Scotch eggs at Nana’s Irish Pub, watched sea otters play at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and slept deeply and peacefully against the white noise of ocean waves out our window.

On Sunday morning, I felt the urge to visit the wax museum. I used to love visiting the wax museum as a kid, hadn’t been there in about 16 years, and wanted to check it out as an adult. I thought it might be a tiny bit scary but surely my brave 3-year-old could handle it.

We arrived and then as soon as my mom purchased tickets and it was time to go through the turnstile into the museum, MJ started to freak out. She noticed it was dark inside. I wanted to go in, so I told her that she could just wait outside with Grandma and we would see her in about half an hour when we got done. My husband and I (plus baby in Ergo carrier) entered the museum and I was quickly entranced by the American Idol exhibit which featured…karaoke! Much to Spencer’s chagrin, I began singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” on stage, and then moments later MJ and my mom arrived. Both my mom and daughter were thrilled to sing on stage with me.

What made MJ change her mind and be willing to enter the wax museum?

Light.

The woman at the front desk gave MJ a tiny flashlight to wear on her finger. “Will this help you go through?” she asked. “Yes,” my little daughter nodded and bravely ventured in holding Grandma’s hand.

Light makes things not so scary.

Our world is in a crisis. The refugee crisis, the climate crisis, the gun violence crisis. There are a lot of scary and dark things going on in the world. Politicians don’t seem to be helping much. Religious people don’t seem to be helping much either. It would be easy to get very discouraged by the darkness. But….

The light has already come into this world. Jesus is our light. He helps us to see in dark places. And he is always with us .

“In him was life, and that life was the light of man. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5

I don’t have to be afraid, because God is with me always. I can be thankful for that.

At Oregon Coast Aquarium with MJ, facing one of my big fears. Photo credit: Alice Evans

At Oregon Coast Aquarium with MJ, facing one of my big fears. Photo credit: Alice Evans

I’ve been reading the book The Power of a Praying Wife. I was initially a little skeptical about this book because I heard about it from a woman who said we needed to pray for our husbands because “they are our leaders in our homes and in our community.” Hmmm, really? The last I checked our mayor was a woman. I also know of many successful female teachers, principals, medical professionals, lawyers, pastors, etcetera. Yes, men can be good leaders, but so can women. Anyway, I chose not to bring this up at the time as I figured my minority opinion would be consider divisive in the women’s church meeting I was attending. Just because I disagree about something important doesn’t mean I need to get into an argument about it in every situation.

Another thing I initially disliked about this book was the the pink floral-patterned cover. Because, you know, women want to buy books that are pink and have flowers on them. Maybe they could also give away a free Barbie doll with each purchase of this book.

That being said, I picked up a free copy of this book at Bible study a few weeks ago and started reading it and praying through the chapters. I think it’s actually a great book for Christian women, though I may disagree slightly with a few of her comments. Her goal is to help people to improve marriages and prevent divorce, which is pretty important, considering the high divorce rate. Praying for your spouse and children is very important, in my opinion! The book covers prayer topics that I wouldn’t necessarily think of on my own — but now that they’ve come to mind, they seem like great things to pray about. If you can’t think of your own words to pray, you can just read the prayers aloud with your husband in mind. Easy!

We often undervalue prayer and think of it as something you do as a last resort. But truly I think it’s best if prayer is our first resort. Praying about problems before they occur can prevent them from happening in the first place. The further I go on my journey as a person of prayer, the more I believe in its power. It works, not in a God-vending-machine type of way, but prayer can change your heart and the heart of those you pray for and influence the outcome of events. This God-stuff is very mysterious.

I think more appropriate cover art for Power of a Praying Wife would be a picture of a woman running a marathon, or engaged in an intense wrestling match. Or perhaps a picture of a mother bear protecting her cubs. Yeah, that sounds about right. She’s ferocious, and willing to fight to protect what’s important.

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This is my first assignment for Writing 101: 20 minutes of free writing. So it’s not as polished as I would like, but here are my thoughts for today. And what about you? Do you believe that prayer works? Would you like to share an example of a time in your life when prayer has worked for you?

 

Jesus asks his followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds really nice. Everyone likes to love and be loved. But what does it look like in practice?

When my husband and I first got married, we moved into a large apartment complex in southeast Portland. We soon met our next-door neighbors, an 18-year-old girl and her 26-year-old boyfriend. My first encounter with the girl was when she asked me if she could borrow my bicycle to ride one block to 7-11. Caught off guard by her request, I offered to drive her the one block instead.

Of course, this set up a precedent wherein she would often knock on our door asking for a ride or to borrow money or use our phone. Usually I, being a love-your-neighbor Christian, would grant her requests. Except for the times that I would pull the blinds shut and pretend not to be home.

This girl had a baby from a different daddy than her current boyfriend. Her baby was in foster care and his father was in jail. She was still in high school. She wanted her baby back. She would get him back soon, she often told me.

Her world was new to me. None of my high school friends had had babies or 26-year-old boyfriends or exes who were in jail.

Her circumstances were new to me, but the dynamics of our relationship were not. She was a Needy Person. I’d had other friends who were needy too, friends who made bad choices about drugs and promiscuous sex again and again. Friends who complained about their lives and asked for my advice and then would not listen to it. Friends who took and took and did not give back. Friends whose lives were black holes into which I tried to shine the light of Jesus.

Throughout the year, our neighbors’ problems seemed to get worse. They got jobs and lost jobs. Their car was towed due to lack of insurance. They borrowed our vacuum cleaner and gave us fleas. When they asked us for money to buy a flea bomb, we said we didn’t have cash. They asked if we could go to the bank and withdraw money. We said no.

We moved out as soon as our lease was up, quickly and quietly, without saying goodbye to them. Sadly and predictably, in the following years, I’ve been hesitant to get to know my neighbors.

What did I learn from this? I learned that loving your neighbor can be inconvenient. Sometimes you may get fleas, even though you don’t have pets. I also learned that it’s important for me to set boundaries with people. For example, I do not need to give someone a ride to a place that is within easy walking distance. I do not need to give money to someone who recently quit his or her job.

I do need to seek God’s will in my day-to-day encounters. God’s quiet voice may ask me to buy a sandwich for this panhandler or go to coffee with that friend. Or it may ask me to spend a quiet morning recharging my spirit through prayer.

In the words of theologian Frederick Buechner, “The place where God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In order to love those around us, we first need God to fill us up with His deep gladness. The world may have an endless need for love, but thankfully God’s love is endless.

 

How do you find a balance between showing kindness to others and having boundaries?

When you look at a Pollock painting, do you see a mess that your toddler could have created? Or do you see a priceless work of art?

When you look at a Pollock painting, do you see a mess that your toddler could have created? Or do you see a priceless work of art?

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I originally wrote this as a guest post for the blog of my friend A.J. Swoboda (ajswoboda.com), pastor, theology professor and author of Messy: God Likes it That Way.

My daughter just had her second birthday. It’s been two years since I first held her tiny body in my arms, felt the gentle rise and fall of her breath. Two years since the timeline of my life split in half — before motherhood, after motherhood.

At two years old, my daughter explores the beach. Photo credit: Spencer Crawford

Celebrating my daughter’s second birthday with a trip to the beach. Photo credit: Spencer Crawford

How has motherhood changed me over these two years? Or rather, how is motherhood changing me?

It has given me a new and deeper understanding of what love is. Love is patient, love is kind. Love will let you wipe your snotty nose on its clean sleeve. Love will get up with you at 11 pm and 1 am and again at 3:30 because your teeth hurt and you can’t sleep. Love isn’t grossed out by spit-up or giant poop diapers. Well maybe just a little grossed out.

I had a thought a few weeks ago, perhaps a God-revealed thought: The purpose of life is love. (Ok, I admit this is not a very original idea). If we don’t love others, we are missing the purpose. What does it matter if we’re highly successful in our careers but our lives are devoid of love? Even if we devote our lives to something altruistic, like teaching middle school, but we don’t do it in love — our lives are empty.

So, if our whole purpose for being here on this earth is to learn how to love others — well, what better opportunity than being a wife and a mother? What an opportunity to humbly serve others in love. What a high calling. What a blessing that I have been entrusted with this.

And I’m struck by how much I’ve come to love this tiny person, my daughter. At first she was a stranger who had entered my life like a hurricane, leaving me injured and bewildered. I looked forward to the day when I could go back to an office job and my normal life. But now? I’m so grateful that I have the chance to work from home and spend each day with my daughter.

I’ve always been career-driven and I still would like to have a successful career. But I know now that being a mom is the most important job I will ever have. If you’re a mom – or a dad – I hope you feel the same way.

What have you learned since becoming a parent?

 

Even in the desert, life finds a way.

Even in the desert, life finds a way.

I was going to write a post about my anxiety over our financial situation. Tax season has drawn my focus to our finances and caused muscle tension from my eyebrows to my toes. But then I remembered the gratitude journaling I’ve been doing. Counting my one thousand gifts. And I remembered the sermon I listened to yesterday, from the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

And does this mean we should try to be last in an attempt to be first in God’s kingdom? No, the preacher says, that is not the point of this parable. The point is that there is no first and last in God’s kingdom. The point is that there is enough for all.

There is enough. There is enough for all. God’s abundant provision is enough. Our economy is based on the myth of scarcity, that there are only enough resources for a few and so we should buy more now and fill our large houses with possessions we don’t need.

What if we only took what we needed? What if instead of living in homes large enough to house an entire African village, we lived in tiny but functional homes? What if we lived simply so that others may simply live?

Over these last years of financial insecurity, God has been teaching me the importance of daily bread. We’re receiving enough for each day. We’re trying to make good choices with what we are given. We’re learning to trust. Our faith is being shaped.

When I was in Ghana, a woman told me, “We are a hungry country.” It’s true. Many Ghanaians live in tin shacks with no access to clean water. These people know what it is to suffer. I thought of how much we have in America, and how we are hungry too. We’re hungry, but we think we are full. There’s a nagging emptiness inside that cannot be filled. We try to dull it with shopping. We try antidepressants. We try eating too much, or not enough. We try creating a Facebook profile that will make our friends jealous. But it doesn’t work.

It is only when we come to the place of brokenness that we can find fulfillment. When we discover that we cannot go another day without complete dependence on God’s grace, that we are not the ones earning our daily bread but it is God who gives it to us. I have been learning this lesson. In our brokenness we are made complete.

I can be grateful for that.

 

Books: I’m currently reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp and Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Meyer. Next up on my list are the YA novel  Looking for Alaska by John Green and Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath. 

Movies: Hmmm, I rarely have time to watch movies anymore. Marie is currently fixated on Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was really impressed with Hunchback, really a deep message for kids about inner beauty. In fact, I could probably write a whole essay about this film, but I’ll spare you that. We also watched Happy Feet last week, which is pretty cute.

Television: Downton Abbey is over and I’ve decided that Grimm is too creepy for me. So that just leaves Parks and Recreation. I like that it features strong female characters. Also I’ve been letting Marie watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a cartoon spin-off of Mr. Rogers. It’s pretty sweet, each episode has a little lesson that’s set to music. For example, “If you feel so mad that you want to roar, just take a deep breath and count to four.”

Music: I’m digging the Johnny Cash and Ella Fitzgerald children’s albums my mom recently gave us. Grandma Alice is helping Marie develop sophisticated musical tastes.

Project: Gratitude journaling.

Work: Writing a series of blog posts for accounting and finance professionals — here’s one. Haven’t subbed yet this month.

Gratitude: We just had our first vacation since 2011! A week in Palm Desert with my in-laws.

Sideview of the apparently famous Marilyn statue in downtown Palm Springs, where we encountered some colorful characters.

Sideview of the apparently famous Marilyn statue in downtown Palm Springs, where we encountered some, um, colorful characters. (Photo credit: Ursula Crawford)

 

Fear: Carcinogens in plastics.  

Developmental milestones: Marie swam on her own (with water wings) on the last day of our vacation! Also her vocabulary has me pretty impressed. She keeps creating verbs, saying things like, “I’m get upping,” or “I’m lay downing.” Or “Pocahontas, she troubling.” Did I mention she’s obsessed with Pocahontas? Might be awhile before we let her watch that again.

Looking forward to: Watching Marie continue to develop her personality. She’s almost two. I love kids in the two – five age range because the things they say are so funny.

Dear 60-year-old Ursula:

Well, how are things? It’s hard to imagine life 30 years in the future, so I won’t make predictions, but here are some things I’ll be praying for you about.

I hope you are healthy, both physically and mentally, that years of hiking, running and yoga have kept you fit. I hope you and Spencer are still happily married, and have recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of your first date on Valentine’s Day 2004. I hope you are able to see Marie (and your other children? grandchildren?) often. I hope you have a strong community of friends to share life with. I hope you sit in Bible study knitting hats for babies.

Ursula, I hope you feel beautiful, with white hair and a few wrinkles around your eyes. I hope your wrinkles are from smiling and not from frowning. I hope you really understand how much God loves you, that God’s love is as tangible as the slice of chocolate cake you just ate for dessert. I hope you wake up in the mornings laughing with joy. I hope that gratitude is your first instinct, that if any thought runs obsessively through your mind it is simply Thank you God.

I hope you see the good in people. I hope you’ve welcomed so many people into your home that you’ve entertained angels without knowing it. I hope you’ve given away enough money to save thousands of lives. I hope you’ve been the best mother and wife you could be, that you’ve put the needs of your family ahead of your own.

I hope that love is the verb that best defines you.

Love,

30-year-old Ursula

Dear 15-year-old Ursula:

Greetings from the future! It is the year 2014. You are a successful film and stage actress and drive a Mercedes hovercraft. Last year you made People’s Most Beautiful People list, and this year you’ve been nominated for an Academy Award.

Okay, just teasing you a little bit. I’m choosing to write to you at 15, because I’m now 30. I hope that in doubling my age I’ve learned a few things about life. Perhaps this means I can soon expect a letter from the 60-year-old me? Maybe by then they’ll have better technology for communicating across the space-time continuum.

First, I will encourage you to enjoy high school for what it is. A time to learn and make friends. Thank you for not caring about being accepted by the “popular” group. That’s very wise and admirable! You’re choosing instead just to make friends with people that you like. This will be a blessing to you during your high school years. Most of these friendships will fade after high school as people move away, so enjoy the time you have with these fun friends. I know you want all your close friendships to be lifelong and some will — but not all. Life is filled with surprises, including the surprises of which classroom acquaintances bloom into long-term friendships, and which BFFs fade into the memory banks.

This is also the year that you’ve started going to church and chosen to get baptized. Thank you also for making these wise choices! Seeking to know and follow God is, in my opinion, the most important thing you can do in your life. Your faith will bring you peace and joy and will ultimately lead to you meet your husband and develop many significant friendships. As a sidenote that is perhaps related, thank you also for not being interested in drinking and partying — you will need all the brain cells you can get to help you through the sleep-deprived early parenting years.

Do not be afraid to try some new things and meet new people. I know you’re shy and afraid that new people won’t like you. Don’t let that stop you from participating in activities you want to participate in. Be nice to people and they will like you. Except when they don’t, because sometimes they won’t. (Well, those people are jerks, so you shouldn’t pay them any mind). Also don’t let your fear that you might not be good at something prevent you from trying it. If you want to run on the track team, then run on the track team. Maybe you won’t be very good, but you won’t know unless you try. Likewise, if you want to join the choir or start a photography club — you should do those things! You won’t have as much time and energy when you’re in college and beyond.

Lastly, don’t worry so much about academic success and getting into an elite college. I mean you should do your best in school, but don’t give yourself a heart attack. You don’t really want to go to an elite college anyway — it’s just not your destiny. You’ll get a good education and meet your husband at the University of Oregon. But maybe you should reconsider the journalism degree? Marketing perhaps, or something else with the potential for good pay?

Love,

30-year-old Ursula (wife, mother, freelance writer, substitute teacher, world traveler, ice cream enthusiast)

 

I hope there will be cake and puppy hats in heaven.

I hope there will be cake and puppy hats in heaven.

Throughout my life I’ve often felt like an outsider, as if I could never be part of the in-crowd. Maybe you can relate to that, and then again maybe you can’t. Since we’ve just moved to a new town, we’re outsiders now because we don’t know many people. At our last church, even though we’d been a part of it for years, I felt like an outsider after my daughter was born because the church was mostly made up of younger people without children. In grad school, I was one of the few married people. In college, I didn’t feel like I quite fit in with the Christians because I was too liberal, and I didn’t quite fit in with anyone else because I was too Christian. Likewise, when I worked at Christian schools, I always felt I had to keep my liberal political leanings under wraps, so I couldn’t really be myself. As a kid, I didn’t know how to make friends, had uneven bangs and snaggle teeth, and was occasionally ostracized by the popular girls.

I assume that everyone feels like this at one time or another, that the sense of not quite fitting in is part of the human condition. Though maybe there are some attractive, outgoing, charismatic people who truly have never felt this way. There have been times in my life when I have fit in and it felt pretty great. In fourth grade, I attended a spring break sports camp where I somehow managed to be extremely popular — everyone wanted to be my friend. (I guess because I used to be good at sports? Or maybe I dressed well that week?). In high school, although not part of the “popular” clique, I did have a big group of nice and fun friends. And most shockingly in college my future husband (who when I’d met, I’d immediately dismissed as too good-looking and popular for me), wanted to date me. Thanks, but I don’t want to be a part of any club that would accept me as a member….(ha!)

The good news for those of us who don’t quite fit in is that Jesus didn’t fit in either. Jesus hung out with social outcasts and as a result was ostracized by the religious leaders of his day. Basically, if Jesus had gone to your high school, he would have been a friend to all those kids who didn’t have friends. He wouldn’t have worn the cool clothes or listened to the cool music. The popular kids would have teased him mercilessly and never invited him to their parties. And yet, Jesus forgives again and again.

The moments in my life when I do fit in and feel well loved are small glimpses of heaven. When my daughter wants to “nuggle,” when my husband asks me about my day, when we share dinner and laughs with friends we’ve known for years. In my mind, heaven is like a huge dinner party with all our best friends, and everyone is invited. And that’s good news.

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What about you? Can you relate to being an outsider? And what’s your idea of heaven?