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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)

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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?

Disclaimer: This post contains information about my personal beliefs! If you are offending by hearing about other people’s beliefs that may be different from your own, feel free to stop reading now. No hard feelings.

Throughout human history, people have been pondering the meaning of life. Of course some take a different view —  as one dear friend once said, “I’m not interested in being deep.” I’m amazed at those who don’t seem to give much thought to finding meaning in their lives, as it’s always been kind of important to me.

Well if you know me, you may know that it’s actually super important. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. And I am about to turn 30, so perhaps I am old and wise enough for my thoughts to be of value.

In the simplest of terms, I’ve found that life is about this: Love God and love people. In the Christian co-op that I lived in during college we had a huge art piece on the wall that said, “Love God with all you’ve got and love people with all He gives you.” This does come from the Bible, when Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39).

Then you ask, but what does this mean practically in my life? What specifically am I supposed to do each day? Because the meaning of life is really more of an essay question than a multiple choice test.

I think it’s important to make the best possible decisions with the choices we are faced with, in light of the goals of loving God and loving people. We do not have total control over our lives, we can only make choices based on the circumstances we find ourselves in.

I choose to be a part of a church because it helps me with both of these goals. It helps me to worship and learn more about God, and to be a part of a community where I can love and serve other people.

I’m also a wife and a mother. Being a stay-at-home mother to a toddler is a 24-7 job. Being the best wife and mother I can be is my main purpose right now during my daughter’s formative years. Sometimes I get discouraged because I think I should be doing more. I used to be a teacher and I think, perhaps I should be teaching. Perhaps I should be writing books. Perhaps this or that. But prayer has given me the perspective that being a good mother is the most important thing I can be doing right now.

I could go into a long diatribe about my meandering career path, but I will just say that circumstances have led me to surrender to God’s will again and again. I have aspired to great success in terms of this or that career but now I feel at peace just being a mom. It is well with my soul. I am also a writer and am enjoying writing for the sake of writing. Writing is one of the things that brings meaning into my life.

As for you, if you are grappling with this question I would encourage you to pray. Ask God to give you purpose and direction for your life, and opportunities to love others. Then watch for those opportunities. Make the best choices you can with the circumstances you have.

Also, do this: Dare greatly.  If you’re really into this guy and you’re pretty sure he’s into you, but he won’t say it, then ask him what’s going on. You might find that ten years later, you’re married, with a beautiful daughter. Or not. But at least you’ll have tried. Audition for the choir. Apply to graduate school. Call that acquaintance and ask them to have coffee with you. Don’t let fear hold you back.

Maybe this post is overly cheese-ball and cliche. I get like that sometimes, late at night. But this meaning of life stuff really matters.

“But now, this is what the Lord says – He who created you Jacob, He who formed you Israel. Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” – Isaiah 43: 1

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For further, better edited writing regarding the meaning of life check out the following:

-Storyline by Donald Miller (a workbook to help you find meaning in your life, by one of my celebrity crushes)

-The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

– the Bible

– T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets

 

 

View of Seattle from Elliot Bay.

View of the Emerald City from Elliot Bay.

Fall term of my freshman year of college, my literature professor expressed her disdain for the Italian film Life is Beautiful. “No serious Holocaust scholar liked that film,” she said spitefully. “Life is not beautiful during the Holocaust.”

I think perhaps she missed the point of this highly acclaimed film. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but I believe the general idea is that love can still be found in the midst of tragedy, that God never abandons us, and that in the end good triumphs over evil.

She obviously didn’t agree with those ideas.

Why then did I go to this professor for advice when I was feeling lost and directionless as to my major and career path? I sat in her office and told her I wanted to major in creative writing.

“No,” she said, “you need a career.”

“I could always go to law school later,” I said.

“No. Lawyers are the most unhappy people I know,” she offered.

With that our meeting was over, leaving me more confused than before. I had hoped for some comfort, some direction, some mom-like advice from my only female professor. Is it a surprise that I found myself dropping out of college several months later?

That was such a hard and unhappy year in my life. But looking back on it 11 years later, I know that many of the decisions I made were right ones.

I was right to start my college years off in Seattle. I needed to get away from home, to find a new perspective and gain distance from old relationships. And I was right to leave Seattle and transfer back to the University of Oregon, my hometown school. Seattle was only a brief stopping point on my journey, a place to learn a few lessons and move on.

At the U of O I would reconnect deeply with my faith, meet my now husband, find a major I enjoyed, and make many long term friends. But that was sophomore year.

Freshman year began with me in my glamorous big city dorm, with its 8th story view looking out over the lights of downtown Seattle. There, in my favorite city, I was lonelier than ever before. I felt like I’d jumped into an ice cold river and was struggling to catch my breath. It was too hard, transitioning from my senior year of high school with lots of best friends, to a school where I didn’t know anyone.

And so after fall term I left. And I found that it’s true what they say. You can never go home again once you leave. Nothing was the same. Many of my friends had moved away for college, and those who had stayed were different. Or was I the one who’d changed?

I tried to reconnect with my friends, and ended up moving in with them briefly in a horrible apartment in a west campus alley. It was a bad situation, and it didn’t last long.

It was such an awful, painful year in my life. And yet I know now – God was there with me the whole time.

Sometimes we need to go through painful times in order to get where God wants us to go.

Last week I had the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak at the University of Oregon campus. I was thrilled to have this chance, and it was evident from the sold-out crowd packing the basketball arena that others felt the same. Although I am a devout Christian, I have been interested in the Dalai Lama since reading The Art of Happiness as a teenager. Maybe I’m weird — I recently told my pastor that I had been “very concerned about the meaning of life” as a middle school student, and he thought that was pretty funny. I’ve just always been more spiritually-inclined than your average person.

Sold-out crowd to hear Dalai Lama speak at UO.

Sold-out crowd to hear Dalai Lama speak at UO.

During his speech, the Dalai Lama spent a good amount of time emphasizing the oneness of humanity and said that “extreme selfishness closes our inner door and causes more loneliness and anxiety.”

He said that although he prays as part of his religious practice, he believes that “action is more important than prayer.” I certainly agree with this, although I also believe that prayer is more important than most people give it credit for. In my experience, prayer can lead to real changes. But what is prayer without action?

We must be willing to pray with our feet.

Most relevant to me, he emphasized the importance of mothers. He said, “the real source of compassion is our mother.” We learn to love by the love that our mothers give us as infants. He advised us to “provide the maximum compassion to your children and to spend more time with your children.” It felt so good to hear that. There have been times this past year when I felt like I was not contributing enough to the world by being a stay-at-home mom. But then — shazam — the Dalai Lama informs me that being a mom is the most important job of all.

I probably should have figured that out sooner.

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Yes

i’ve heard it said
refusing to forgive
is like swallowing poison
and waiting
for the other person to die

and yet, if we’re honest
forgiving
isn’t something we feel like doing
not really

i mean, i remember
all the ways people have failed me
and when, and i’m ready
to bring it up
at just the right moment

but, well
i don’t think corrie ten boom
felt like forgiving either
after years in a nazi death camp
when she met her captor face-to-face
and he asked
sister, can you forgive me?

but she reached out,
grasped his hand in hers
and said,
yes.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/bamboo-adventure/3530133273/”>Richard.Asia</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Dream Big

When God lights you up,
pray big prayers.
Imagine what God can do,
as He illuminates the darkness
through your life.
God and His kingdom are here
and they’re breaking in.

 

This is a found poem, based on my notes from a sermon podcast I listened to this morning by Imago Dei’s Rick McKinley. I opened my journal to start working on today’s poem, and then I saw these notes and it seemed that the poem had written itself!