Advent: week two

December 5, 2015 § 4 Comments

“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” ~ George Eliot


I have a confession to make: sometimes, I twist my prayers during Advent, which should concern the coming of the Lord, into my own personal appeal for the things I want which I don’t have yet.

Advent is supposed to be about anticipating God’s coming, His birth long ago, His return in the future, and His presence with us now. But because Advent is all about waiting for something desired, I tend to confuse waiting for God with waiting for all of those other things I want.

Some of those things are good, some of those things are bad, and some of those things can be good or bad, depending on the situation. Nevertheless, instead of praying, “come, Lord, come,” I find myself praying, “come, would you just give me at least a few of these things I want already?”

I know this isn’t what Advent is supposed to be about, but it has me thinking: when is it okay to say, “all right, God, I want You, I really do, but I’d rather like this other thing, too?”

Because that’s really what I want to pray, and am already praying, but I worry that’s rather like saying, “God, sorry to break it to You, but You’re just not enough.”

And that can’t be right, can it?

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I hear Christians say all of the time (and say it myself, on occasion), “God is enough.”

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Some days, I find it doesn’t mean anything. Those are the days when I’m not praying or listening or sitting in silence with God, when I’m distracted by my to-do list, by my worries, by my fears. Because after all, how can God be enough for me when I never think about Him, when I don’t invite Him into my sorrow, when I don’t ask Him for discernment navigating my life?

But even when I am in communion with God, there are still times when He feels distant, even nonexistent. And there are other times when the struggle I face isn’t eased or removed by His presence.

In other words, times when God doesn’t seem like enough.

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But then I remember something important. I remember that God is an infinite love, a love greater than anything I could ever imagine. And I remember that I am like an ever-emptying cup, longing to be filled.

My never-ending desire wants something that is infinitely satisfying. Anything less would prove disappointing in the end.

And though I don’t receive understanding and fulfillment all at once, through spiritual discipline, through prayer and longing and searching and listening, I draw near to Him, and He slowly, wonderfully fills me up.

Maybe our cups will never be full until the Kingdom of God appears. Maybe that’s why all of these other desires seem so appealing to us now. Maybe that’s why waiting for Him to come again during Advent is so important, because then, only then, God, revealed in His fullness, will finally be enough.

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But what about all of those other things I want? What about that fiery word, desire?

There are so many good and beautiful things in this world, and I would very much like to experience them all, or at least as many as I can.

And I think I should. I think you should too.

I think there are many desires laid in our hearts by God, and sometimes those desires become twisted with sin, and sometimes those desires drive us mad, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they weren’t exactly what we wanted after all, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they fill us up with more than we ever thought we could hold.

None of these desires need detract from our love of God. Many of them can even bring us closer to Him.

After all, He is not only infinite love, but infinite beauty and infinite goodness too, and we see glimpses of Him in the loving, beautiful, and good things of this world.

Perhaps, then, God is a lot more intwined in what we want than we might think. Perhaps, then, God is revealing Himself to us all of the time, even through the unfurling of our desires.

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Advent: week one

December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

As some of you may know, I rather like Advent.

Last year, on an impulsive whim, I wrote a blog post for each day of the season, a spiritual practice that proved healing and expansive for me.

This year, I’m not so ambitious. Instead of writing about Advent every day, I’m reading about Advent every day, using the wonderful book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

May I suggest it to you? It’s chalk full of great writers like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen and Madeleine L’Engle and so many many more. I’m only a day into the season, and I’m already smitten.

But despite my decision to read instead of write this go around, I can’t resist the urge to jot down a few minor thoughts about Advent, loving it as I do. So, here goes: a thought (or two) on Advent.

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During Advent, people talk a lot about waiting. That’s because Advent, which means “arrival”, is the season in which the people of God wait for the arrival of God, both the celebration of His birth long ago and the promise of His return in the future.

We are all familiar with waiting. In fact, waiting makes up a good portion of our lives. We wait in traffic, wait at the doctor’s office, wait for emails, wait for packages, wait for dreams to come true.

Implicit in the idea of waiting is the belief that something is coming.

One doesn’t sit around waiting for someone who doesn’t exist to pop over for dinner. One doesn’t sit around waiting for rain in the desert. One doesn’t sit around waiting for money to grow on trees.

These things just aren’t going to happen.

But one does sit around waiting for a friend who promises to stop by after work. One does sit around waiting for the first snowflakes to flurry in Michigan. One does sit around waiting for the cherry blossom trees to bloom in spring.

These things will happen in a matter of time.

But what about God? Was God really born to a virgin in a manger? Was it really true when God promised He would come again? Should we wait for these things, or is that just so much insanity?

Part of me says it is. Part of me, the lonely part of me that has known God’s absence, the cynical part of me that knows promises are broken all the time, the hard part of me that says this is silly and can’t be true, those parts of me say it’s insane.

But another part of me, the peaceful part of me that’s been filled with God’s love, the hopeful part of me that knows God doesn’t make promises He doesn’t plan to keep, the warm part of me that’s moved by the idea of God making His way to Earth, those parts of me say, okay, I’m ready, I’m waiting. I may not understand it fully, but God’s mysterious and ineffable – it would be trite if I did.

So, how is this waiting thing going to go?

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Small voices

October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Excuse me.”

I look up, drop the front flap of the newspaper, quite startled to hear the small voice so close to my ear. I am deep in a story about justice in America, settled comfortably in a squishy armchair in a crowded Starbucks in Dallas.

It is Sunday morning, and I have come from church to read the paper and pass the time before meeting up with a friend who’s visiting from out of town. I am wound in my own thoughts, thoughts of the story and thoughts of the day and thoughts of my friend, when I’m jolted by the sound of the voice. “Excuse me.”

I look up to find myself staring into the eyes of a young boy. He is around eight, skinny, with messy brown hair and dark eyes. All this I see in a flash because my eyes are drawn to the white notecard he holds in his hands. It is a note, directed to me or anyone else in that coffee shop, a plea for food, something about cancer, the mention of a little brother — I do not read it, really, the words simply blur on the page. But I get the gist.

He is asking for help.

“Where’s your mother?” I say instinctively. Then I wonder if that’s the right thing to say. What if he doesn’t have a mother? What if he can’t understand me at all?

But the boy does understand and he does have a mother, or at least it would seem, because he gestures at a woman, frail and hunched, lumbering between the shoulders of the people waiting in line for coffee. She holds an identical white notecard, and pauses in front of a middle-aged man who says he has no cash to give.

As I see the boy motioning to her, I freeze. Fear and an automatic response kick in.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t help you. I’m so sorry.”

And as quick as he appeared, he is gone, swept out of the glass doors onto the rain-streaked streets of Dallas.

I sit there, numb, aware of the crinkled dollar bills in my wallet and my church down the street and the story I’d been reading about justice in America. I want to rise and follow them, but I do not. I know, even as I want to, that I will not.

Because the thing is, I am suspicious of the boy and his mother. I remember the story a tour guide once told me about a little gypsy girl in Spain. She pick-pocketed him and the tour guide, aware of the probability of such a thing, grabbed her by the arm before she could escape. In a flash, the little girl took off all of her clothes and stood there screaming. What could he do but let her go, wallet and all, lest he himself be accused of a crime much worse than stealing.

This story and others make me wary, make me afraid of being taken advantage of, make me want to protect myself before helping another.

But I do not want to be suspicious when the face of someone in need appears before me. For even if the little boy and his mother were scheming to get my money, that in itself puts them in a place of trouble, of spiritual and moral despair.

Faced with these kinds of situations, I would rather be like a person I know who jumps into action when someone is distressed, without regard for himself but only for the other. This person stops to help when a stranger’s car breaks down and automatically buys dinner for homeless men, no questions asked. I know there is a body of literature out there providing economic reasons not to help the poor and needy, literature that references things like incentives and personal responsibility and empowerment, and I do think such literature offers a modicum of truth.

But the face of that small child and the sound of his quiet voice remain in my head, and a thing inside me — call it God, call it my conscious, call it a well-off woman’s guilt — never wants someone vulnerable to disappear unreceived into an overcast city again.

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Friday meditation

October 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

I will fold your heart gently in a white paper packet. I will crimp the edges to tuck you in. Like a child in bed, you’ll be safe, surrounded, encircled in smoothness, protected within.

With soft white sheets I will surround you, so fragile, in the palm of my hand. You’re my tiny walnut, my baby apple seed, my uncrackable lady, my Me more than Me.

I’ll open the cage of your heart oh so gently. I’ll hold your caked blood in the center of my hand. I’ll kiss it away sweetly, new warmth to be given. I’ll heal, I’ll straighten, every wrinkle within.

I’ll twine you up, like spun cotton candy. I’ll blow you away, like grass in the wind. I’ll fold you up in a white paper packet, set you inside, where no thing can get in.

Church beneath a tree

October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

A little while ago, I wrote about my experience attending a tree church in South Sudan over on Seed Effect’s blog. I’m finally getting around to posting it: you can read the story at this link or below.

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Sunday morning, we pile into two SUVs and drive down the bumpy dirt roads of Kajo Keji to attend a church beneath a tree.

The church is made out of a blue tarp hung over sticks. We sit on a combination of wooden pews and broken plastic lawn chairs. It is a small space, hot inside, but with the early morning sunlight shining through tears in the tarp, a slight breeze, and the sound of birds in the trees, it is peaceful.

Children dressed in colorful patterned clothes sit on the dirt floor. Some of the girls, as young as elementary school children, have babies swaddled on their backs.

The South Sudanese in this church worship by playing drums and colorful shakers, singing, dancing, and clapping. They immediately welcome us into the worship, some of the women clasping our hands and jumping up and down with us. The music changes, and they are singing slow and deep, “I surrender my problems. I surrender my sickness. I surrender my weakness.”

They begin to pray out loud. One young woman closes her eyes and tilts her head back, fervently whispering her petitions to the sky. I can’t understand her, or any of them, but as the praying ends I hear, “Thank you, Lord, thank you, my father,” and I think, whoever told me South Sudan was a place of suffering had it wrong. These people are filled with the Spirit. They are blessed.

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But after the service, when we are mulling about beneath the leafy tree, Rachel, one of our team members, relates a story: one of the churchgoers, a 19-year-old woman without a husband, has just asked Rachel to take her baby back to the United States.

Rachel suggests the mother would miss her daughter, but it is clear the mother realizes the life she can give her baby in South Sudan is not the life any mother would want for a child.

There is sickness here, and little medication. There is poverty. There is war. There is death.

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A man comes up to our group and asks for a Bible. He says his name is John. He’s already drunk two two-liter bottles of beer that day. He is barefooted, wearing torn and dirty clothes, his eyes red and bleary, his breath rank.

Before giving him a Bible, we ask why he wants it.

He says God told him to read Psalm 31. We ask him if he believes in God, in Jesus. He says he knows who Jesus is, but does not believe in Him. There is shame and hurt in his eyes.

John’s friend stands beside him, a friend who was formerly a drunk but changed after converting. This friend urges John to accept Christ, to give up drinking, but John does not want to. He says the drinking helps him forget his pain. When we ask what pain he wants to forget, he does not answer, but he does let us pray with him. He kneels on the ground as we place hands upon him.

All I can do is whisper, over and over, the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on this man, John, a sinner.” Why would John be so moved to speak with us, to ask for a Bible, to read a powerful verse like that? I am saddened at his state, the loneliness and hurt in his eyes, the inability to find peace.

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Before I came to South Sudan, many people who had been here before told me that South Sudan has the same darkness and light as the rest of the world, it is simply exaggerated. I think they are correct. There is joy and poverty in Dallas, too, but the joy of the South Sudanese against the stark poverty of their lives throws sin and grace in a bright light, revealing both our need for the Lord and His presence with us.

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Over the weekend

October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

I shared these on all of the usual social media sites this weekend, but in case you missed them, I had the privilege of writing two stories for The Dallas Morning News which appeared in Sunday’s paper.

The first was this profile of Missy Williams, cofounder of Seed Effect, the organization I traveled to South Sudan with last August (which, if you read this blog, you haven’t heard enough about lately!).

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Missy went from being an interior designer to cofounding this remarkable microfinance organization with her husband. I recommend Seed Effect to anyone looking for a charity in which to invest.

“Our hope would be that Seed Effect would be a light in South Sudan, a place of stability, as much as we can, in an unstable environment.”  – Missy Williams

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The second is this photo essay of 15 women facing breast cancer, which I worked on with one of The Dallas Morning News photographers.

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This is one of the more powerful stories I’ve worked on. I interviewed 12 of these women back-to-back, and hearing about their illness, how it’s affected their lives, how they’ve found peace and strength in the hardest of times, it was nothing short of remarkable.

“Breast cancer was honestly one of the best things that ever happened to me. Although I hate [that] it happened, I really am thankful for my perspective on life changing to where I don’t stress about the small things.  – Erika Young

Hoping you enjoy these stories and have a happy start to your week!

Looking for home

September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

For the last two months, I’ve lived, more or less, out of a suitcase.

I spent several weeks working with a nonprofit in South Sudan. I vacationed in North Carolina with a friend. Now I’m in Los Angeles, visiting my brother who’s on fall break from film school.

Living out of a suitcase is not a bad way to live. In fact, most of the time, I rather like it. I feel inspired and energized when I travel; I feel restless when I don’t.

But all of this packing and unpacking, taking off and landing, driving and stopping to fill the tank with gas, all of this leaving and returning and leaving again, all of it makes me rather desirous of home.

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I grew up in a military family, with a father in the Navy and a mother in the Air Force, so moving is second nature to me and home is a relative term. Growing up, I moved every year or two of my life until I turned 13. Even after living in Fort Worth all through high school, I attended college in Michigan, traveled during the summers, and have lived in three states in the two years since graduation.

My mom likes to tell this anecdote that explains how integral moving was (and still is) to my life:

When we settled in Fort Worth, I began attending a new school. At the start of the semester, the teachers gathered all of the eighth graders into the gymnasium to play a game that was supposed to help everyone get to know each other.

They passed out several rolls of toilet paper and instructed each student to tear off as many sheets as he or she liked. Some of us took one or two squares, several took half a dozen, a couple unrolled great swaths of white paper. When it came my turn, I unrolled a long strip, probably ten sheets long, and handed the roll to my neighbor.

Then, the teachers explained the game: we were to go around the room sharing one fact about ourselves per square of toilet paper. There I was with this long strip of paper, wracking my mind for interesting but not too weird facts about myself, wishing I’d been less ambitious and only taken one sheet like the girl sitting beside me.

I tend to freeze up in moments like this, and I was freezing up then when it hit me: there was something I had done at least ten times. Move.

After the girl beside me stated her single fact, I began tearing off square after square, listing place after place where I’d lived: Virginia, Washington, Germany, California, Boston, Washington, D.C., Virginia again…

The teachers thought it was funny. Several of the students’ eyes grew big. I felt slightly embarrassed for marking myself as different from my Texan peers, peers I was supposed to befriend, and was relieved when my last square of toilet paper somersaulted gracefully to the floor.

After attending that high school for two years, making some friends, going to the Valentine’s dance, acting in a Jane Austen play, I began to feel restless. I loved Fort Worth. I loved the sprawling grassland with its scraggly mesquite trees, I loved the pool in the hot Texas summer, I loved our neighbor’s horses, I loved skipping Friday night football games to hang out with my friends instead, but we’d been there for so long.

Wasn’t it time to move again?

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Since graduating from college, every place I’ve moved I’ve wanted to make my home.

When I moved to Washington, D.C. for a journalism internship, I wondered: could this be my home? I loved the history, the ornate buildings, the excitement of the metro, the museums on the National Mall, the tree-filled parks, my little room in the house with the dark green trim.

Yes, I thought, this could be my home.

When I moved to Santa Barbara to write for the city newspaper, I wondered: could this be my home? I loved the adobe red-roof buildings, the sparkling blue ocean, the palm trees, the craggy mountains, the dolphins swimming offshore.

Yes, I thought, this could be my home.

Now I live in Dallas, and sometimes I wonder: is this city my home?

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When I first moved to Dallas, I did not think it could ever be my home. Everywhere I looked I did not see Dallas. Instead, I saw what Dallas was not.

Dallas was not palm trees or ocean waves or coffee shops near the beach. Dallas was not hiking trails or wild bluffs or purple-tinged mountains. Dallas was not sunsets or seagulls or wineries in the hills.

Dallas was not California. Dallas could never be home.

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But I’ve lived in Dallas for over a year now and in many ways, it is my home.

It is my home because it is the address I use when buying books from Amazon or signing up for a library card. It is my home because my grandmother lives there and (when I’m not living out of a suitcase) I live in her house. It is my home because I have friends in Dallas whom I love.

Despite all of this, I am still restless, I am still unsettled, I am still desirous of a more permanent home.

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 When I feel this way, I sometimes think of Parmenides, the Greek philosopher who was so disturbed by the constant flux in this world that he conjured the idea that while everything appears to be changing what exists is actually one unchangeable entity, what his successors have dubbed the Parmenidean One.

I think about the Parmenidean One because I think I get why that’s so appealing. How nice to think that all of this flux, this moving, this change, this restlessness is just an illusion, that what actually exists is something firm, something solid, something to rest upon. I think it’s that solidity, that firmness that we so desire when we think about home. That’s what home is. It’s the place that’s comfortable and safe, where one is provided for and loved and knows who he or she is.

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Through all of this moving and living out of suitcases, I think I’ve learned a few things about home.

One is that age-old cliché: home is where your heart is. This is true. Dallas is not my home because most of the things I own happen to be there. It is my home because so many people I love live there. Another city could easily be my home. Any place I go can feel like home for a week or a day, if there are people I love with me there.

Some places feel more like home than others, no matter how many people you love live or don’t live there. I am in California this week, visiting my brother, and I am remembering how much I love this place. The sun shining here makes it easier for me to stave off my proclivity toward moodiness. The easy, laid-back culture makes it easier for me to keep myself from spiraling into my usual self-perfecting anxiety. I always feel more at ease in Southern California, more comfortable, more myself, more at home.

Nevertheless, I am still restless, and I know this is a restlessness that cannot be cured. It is the deep desire, the insatiable hunger, the needy neediness of the soul for the real home, the true place where we are fulfilled. It’s a restlessness I will always feel, and so will you, no matter where you call your home. It’s a good restlessness because it moves us not to feel satisfied with what is here, but points us onward toward a more perfect and permanent place beyond.

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*Photos from my recent trip to Los Angeles.

Seed Effect in South Sudan

September 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

As if I haven’t written enough about my recent trip to South Sudan…here’s another post!

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This one’s a bit different than my usual reflective ramblings, however. I wrote this short piece for my church, All Saints Church Dallas (a church I love, for any Dallasites looking for a place to go). It’s a straightforward explanation of what Seed Effect is doing in South Sudan. You can read it on All Saints’ blog. I’ve also pasted it below.

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In August, I traveled to South Sudan on a mission trip with Seed Effect, a Christian microfinance nonprofit based in Dallas.

From what you might hear on the news, South Sudan is the last place in the world an American woman should go. Two tribes in the country’s oil-rich north are fighting. Recently, The New York Times reported such atrocities as gang-raping women, burning families in their huts, and kidnapping elementary-aged boys to train as child soldiers.

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Despite all of this, each of us who went felt a call from God, a call to go, a call to serve. After all, He calls us to make disciples everywhere, including the hardest of places, places like South Sudan.

So, we packed our bags and traveled the two-day journey to Kajo Keji, one of three towns in South Sudan where Seed Effect operates.

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Kajo Keji is a beautiful dirt road town in the southern part of South Sudan, where the violence in the north hasn’t reached. It is lush and green, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts with thatched roofs. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Women cook on clay stoves with babies strapped to their backs. Men ride motorcycles through the center of town.

Seed Effect is a microfinance organization, which provides low-interest loans of around $150 each to South Sudanese entrepreneurs to invest in their businesses. These businesses are rudimentary. Many consist of selling produce like dry beans, avocados, and cabbages on tarps in the market.IMG_0043

The loans provide capital for these entrepreneurs to purchase the goods they sell, empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty. As a Christian nonprofit, Seed Effect couples this with evangelism. Their clients hear the gospel every time they meet with a loan officer, which is about once a week. Through Seed Effect, many South Sudanese have come to know the Lord.

In Kajo Keji, we interviewed these clients and prayed with them. Their stories are incredible. The first woman we met had malaria; another had typhoid; another had a three-year-old granddaughter with malaria. Indeed, in South Sudan these diseases are rather like the common cold.

It’s hard to imagine extreme poverty, violence, and disease existing alongside strong faith, generosity, and joy, but that’s how the South Sudanese are. They are hardworking, and they love God. They praise Him and thank Him more than almost anyone I know, with fewer reasons than anyone I know.

It was a privilege to serve them, and let them serve us in return. I would recommend Seed Effect to anyone looking for a way to become involved in evangelism, feeding the hungry, and clothing the poor.

For more information, visit their website www.seedeffect.org.

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*Photos by fellow Seed Effect volunteers.

Reflections on South Sudan (III)

September 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Since returning from my trip to South Sudan several weeks ago, a number of people have asked me how visiting one of the poorest, most violent countries in the world has affected my belief in God. The question usually comes around to the problem of evil: if God is wholly good and wholly powerful, how could he allow so much suffering among so many innocent people, the people of South Sudan?

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That the people of South Sudan have suffered in ways unimaginable to most Westerners is undoubtably true. There are rampant diseases like malaria, typhoid, and cholera, and the South Sudanese have little access to affordable healthcare. Many of those living in villages in northern South Sudan have been raped, displaced, taken as child soldiers, or brutally murdered. There is not a South Sudanese person over the age of 30 who does not have a story to tell about the civil war that ravished their country in the 80s and 90s, forcing many of them to become refugees (for a look at the effects of this war, may I suggest Dave Eggers What is the What, which tells the story of one of the Lost Boys).

How can anyone possibly believe in a good and powerful God when evil like this happens? How can anyone believe in Providence, in God’s love and protection? How can anyone trust God for deliverance when He so clearly is not present in this place that needs Him most?

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I don’t claim to be an expert on the problem of evil, by any means. Nor have I experienced the kind of suffering the South Sudanese have. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely ignorant on the subject. Like all of us, I have suffered; I know what it’s like. And since I have always found the problem of evil to be the most powerful objection to belief in God, I’ve read a bit about it for myself (in fact, my senior thesis was going to be on the problem of evil until I decided senior year would be a lot more fun if I dropped the whole writing thirty pages of philosophy thing).

I’ve found the most powerful answer in a slim book by the philosopher Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (for another good book that I won’t talk about here, see C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain).

In it, Kreeft asks the essential question: how do we get God off the hook for all the evil in the world?

His answer: the only way for God to be off the hook is for him to hang on the hook. In other words, the answer is Christ’s death and ressurection.

I can’t address the entire problem of evil in a blog post, of course, but I think there are a few things that can be said here about Kreeft’s answer.

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Say a child is suffering. The suffering child looks up with tears in her eyes and asks God, “Why? Why me? Why are you not helping me, even when I cry out to you, even when I am faithful and brave?”

Sometimes, God does intervene, he plucks the child up out of harm’s way, He saves her from suffering.

Other times, He does not.

But when He does not, He is not laughing down at her pain. He is not ignorant or indifferent to it. No. Instead, He knows intimately what it feels like to be in the suffering child’s position because He knows what it was like to die on the cross. He cries with her because He knows her pain. He cries for her because He knows what it is like to suffer. In fact, He died on the cross because He does not want her to suffer so.

He went to the cross to be able to enter into her suffering with her, to take her suffering onto Himself, to let her participate more fully in His divine life.

As Kreeft writes:

Henceforth, when we feel the hammers of life beating on our heads or on our hearts, we can know — we must know — that he is here with us, taking our blows. Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but he makes them his. Would we rather have our own dry eyes, or his tear-filled ones? He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If he does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, he comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished.

I have come to think God does not merely give us what we want, He makes us holy, and suffering is one of the ways He works within us to make us more like Him, the holiest of all. When we suffer, we become more like Him, and when we are more like Him, we find joy.

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Suffering often appears senseless. I can’t count the number of times I have cried out to God to relieve me from my suffering. That is one reason I have always loved the Psalms: they are real cries by real people for real help. Perhaps sometimes suffering is senseless. Perhaps the suffering of the South Sudanese is.

Yet Christ’s death on the cross is what redeems their suffering and ours, letting us cry out and cling to Him as our tears mingle. This gives those who suffer strength and comfort in this life, and hope of peace in the life to come.

In South Sudan, I have witnessed great faith in God, greater than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. I can’t help but wonder if it is in some part due to the suffering they endure. Their faith is a gift of grace from God in a place where gifts (at least from an outsider’s perspective) seem few and far, a gift we Westerners might take into account.

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*Photos by fellow Seed Effect volunteers.

Reflections on South Sudan (II)

August 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Last week, a friend of mine invited me over for tea, wanting to hear all about my recent trip to South Sudan with Seed Effect.

I expected her to ask me what it was like in South Sudan, what kind of work we did, whether we had running water (which, we did, on occasion). I did not expect her to pause between bites of scone, look me in the eyes, and say, “So, what insights did you have on this trip?”

Usually, I bristle away from any suggestion that I volunteered in a third world country for myself.

“It’s about the people we serve!” I want to say, “It’s not about me!”

The truth is, more often than not, the people we serve actually serve us instead. And I did have a great insight during my trip to South Sudan, though I only realized it when my friend asked, providing me with the space to think and answer.

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After tossing back two cups of tea and four adorable cucumber sandwiches, this is what I said:

For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and nothing else. I began writing stories when I was about eight years old as a way to pass the time during my brother’s piano lessons, and I’ve been writing stories ever since.

As I got older, I stopped wanting to be any old writer. I wanted to be a Capital W. Writer. A writer who wrote for famous publications. A writer whose books appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. I loved writing, that was true, but even more than writing, I loved the idea of being a writer, and I only wanted to write if it meant I was the best.

When I graduated college, I began working toward that goal. I got a job writing for a small newspaper, and immediately began looking for a better job at a more prestigious publication. I got a fellowship at a big newspaper, and immediately began making plans to leave and publish my soon-to-be-bestselling novel.

If only people could see what a great writer I am, I thought. If only my book were published.

Then I would be happy. Then I would be fulfilled.

Of course, this writing for the sake of publication and praise, this requiring my work to make me happy, to save me from despair, it’s the quickest way to kill any joy and creativity in it.

As Anne Lamott writes wonderfully in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people [we writers, that is] want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get where you want to be that way.”

She’s quite right. Writing for the point of publication, which, at its root, is writing for the point of praise (which, at its root, is writing out of a deep desire to be loved), will never satisfy anyone, no matter how great a writer he or she may be.

I have known this for some time, I probably could have articulated it to you, but I didn’t believe it, not really, until I traveled to South Sudan.

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In South Sudan, I had the opportunity to interview dozens of South Sudanese. Their stories are incredible. They are stories of violence, sickness, and poverty; they are stories of generosity, healing, and faith. Listening to them speak, watching their lips move and their hands gesture, I lost myself. I wanted to capture each and every word they spoke, not for myself, not for my byline, but for them, because their stories moved me, because they were stories that needed to be heard.

And, as I began to let go of myself and listen, I began to rekindle a joy for powerful stories and writing them down, not publishing them, but writing them and sharing them with whoever might listen.

I began to understand, really understand, why so many people say joy doesn’t come from achievement. No matter how much we achieve, none of it will fulfill us in the way we want to be fulfilled. I began to think, yes, I love writing, yes, I am a writer, but writing isn’t a strong enough vessel to contain all of my hopes and fears and shortcomings; it will crack under the pressure of all that weight.

Real fulfillment is found in God, or, as I like to think of God, the deep mysterious being which is never-ending love.

Once we have learned this, we are free to look at ourselves, see the gifts and desires placed in our hearts, and act boldly upon them. We can be unafraid of appearing egotistical because the gifts we’re given are meant to be used. We can be unafraid of failing because our ultimate joy does not reside in our success (indeed, it may reside in its failure, as another writer put it recently).

By the time I’d finally found my way through this realization, my tea was cold. I spread a thick layer of fig jam on a cookie and slipped another cucumber sandwich onto my plate. My friend opened up an old red book she’d been reading, My Utmost for His Highest, a daily devotional by the early twentieth century Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers.

“I think this applies to you,” she said, and began reading an excerpt from Aug. 5.

“If we are in communion with God and recognize that He is taking us into His purposes, we shall no longer try to find out what His purposes are. As we go on in the Christian life it gets simpler, because we are less inclined to say — Now why did God allow this and that? Behind the whole thing lies the compelling of God.”

How freeing to be able to let go of oneself and trust that one’s fulfillment lies not in what one does, but in the sturdy love of God. It’s a powerful realization. Something worth writing down, I think.

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