Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.

 

 

Running Like an Inflated Drunkard

It is no secret that it is Tim Fall’s fault encouragement that got me blogging. I always enjoy Tim’s words, and am delighted to welcome him here today with his usual blend of funny, warm and robustly encouraging insight.

Running Like an Inflated Drunkard

Contrary to the impression I might have given with posts on running a 6 mile obstacle course and a half-marathon in the Happiest Place on Earth, I am not wont to join a few thousand strangers in order to traverse long distances in company.

But I did it again.

This time it was a 5K through a bunch of bounce houses. Three miles and a dozen inflatable obstacles made for a fun-run in the truest sense. It also made me feel like the folks in this verse:

They reeled and staggered like drunkards … . (Psalm 107:27.)

Tim Drunkard

Me reeling and staggering, but not falling down.

 

We signed up along with a bunch of people from the gym. As the day approached the young guy who owns the gym – and whom we looked to as our fearless leader for the race – went and blew his knee out and ended up having surgery.

That didn’t stop him from taking the course. He said he’d do it, and he did. And we did it with him. He couldn’t run so we all walked with him 3.1 miles from obstacle to obstacle. He hobbled through the obstacles along with the rest of us, laughing and joking around. It wasn’t the way the course was designed to be taken, perhaps, but it was the right way for us to go.

The Right Way to Go

Which reminds me of another verse:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
(Proverbs 18:24.)

This group of friends stuck together for the sake of the one who could not run full speed. It’s the same with the church, the people of God. We are called to come together, to be with one another, to love each other in the good times and the bad times. In fact, it’s this love for one another that shows people who we belong to.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35.)

How can you love one another so that people will see you belong to Jesus? Good question, and one I hope you’ll help answer in a comment. For me it often means encouraging people. I don’t restrict this to fellow Christians, of course. Jesus’ love is something I can share with everyone God puts in my life.

When we love those outside the body of Christ, we do it without expectation of reciprocation. When we do it with each other, though, it should be a mutual care and love for one another. It is this bond of love – the back and forth, the give and take whether everyone can run at the same speed or not – that shows people who we are.

That’s what Jesus said.


Tim Fall pointsTim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for over 28 years with two grown kids, his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California. He blogs, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook too.

 

 

10 Tips For Making The Most of Twitter

When I have a question about Twitter, I ask Aleah Marsden. As it turns out, I’m not alone with my questions about the why, how, and what-the-heck of Twitter, so I asked Aleah to please write us newbies a post. Enjoy, and tweet it to a friend!

Top 10 Twitter Tips

I get comments from people occasionally wondering why Twitter is my hands-down absolute favorite social media platform.

I tell them it’s because there are people there.

Real people with real lives who, if they are using it well, are also looking to interact. I don’t think any other social media platform offers that as simply and effectively as Twitter. Facebook comes with a lot baggage; some people would be better off limited to 140 magical characters. Instagram is visually stunning, though I find its lack of links and difficulty sharing stunt its ability for deeper connection. Pinterest—my least favorite platform—is just flat-out void of people. It feels like I’m walking into a museum alone and I’m looking for someone to discuss the art with and all I can find is more art.

Now, to be sure, being a writer and lover of words, I am biased. Still, wasn’t the original point of social media to connect with, well, people? My biggest writing opportunities have ALL been somehow related to Twitter. I have made friends and connections with people that, frankly, I shouldn’t even know.

As a means of publicly declaring my Twitter devotion (and having a convenient link to send to the person who weekly contacts me about my “Twitter strategy”), I’ve made a list of my Ten Twitter Tips for you to get the most out of this platform:

1. Don’t act like a celebrity. Stop and consider your motives. For many of us a reality of our Twitter use is to increase our social media presence for our platform. I do not have a problem with this, up to a point. However, a trap I fell in when I first began tweeting was being overly concerned with my follower ratio. I wanted to make sure I always had more followers than people I was following because I wanted to look popular. I was the queen of my tiny Twitter-kingdom, and you know what? It ended up stunting my overall growth. This is Twitter people, not prom.

2. Follow-back real people. My general rule: if they have less than five thousand followers and seem to be interested in interaction, or I perceive them as being in my target audience for my writing, then I follow back. There are always exceptions, but I’ve found this to be effective. This does take about half a minute of actual research; clicking on someone’s profile to see what they’re about. But if you’re here for connecting with people and not just looking like a celebrity, then it’s more than worth your time. Often, not always, I’ll use the first profile look to engage someone: I notice you have a lot of kids and like coffee: me too! Or, reading anything awesome right now? Following back is probably the number one way to show you value people above your platform. It says I see you and I care about what you have to say.

3. Invest in slow, sustainable growth. Yes, many of us are here to cultivate a platform. Personally, I do this by daily following a handful of people that I think would benefit from my message, instead of following a thousand people per week who are also just looking to gain followers. I do this by following people who follow people with similar interests. For example, I know that a lot of women who follow the Redbud Writers Guild account (@redbudwriters) are looking to connect with Christian women who are influencing culture. I fit that category, too. I know that women who follow Christianity Today’smeneutics blog (@CT_women) enjoy news and cultural analysis from a feminine evangelical perspective; I want to know what these women have to say. People who follow IF:Gathering (@IFgathering) or Propel (@PropelWomen) are looking to empower women in leadership; I’m interested in that, too. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to follow people, just be genuine in how you go about it. Your numbers will increase more slowly, but you’ll have built an affinity group that actually cares about your message.

4. Be genuine. You should be the same person offline that you are online, and that goes for any social media platform. This does not mean you need to tweet your deepest, most private thoughts. I think of Twitter as a virtual work cocktail party. Would you walk into the room and loudly begin reading your diary? Now, I think there is a place for transparency in any relationship, but I also think in our culture of praising the “brave” and “vulnerable” that we need to consider whether we are sharing to encourage others or to get attention. Figure out where you draw the line between being genuine and over-sharing.

5. Be quick to listen, slow to tweet. One of the coolest things about Twitter is that you can listen in on conversations people are having. I love watching people I admire interacting and engaging difficult topics. It’s not every day (or ever) that I can sit in on a conversation about current events with such a broad scope of voices represented. Twitter can be an excellent tool for better understanding where people are coming from on all sorts of issues. Here’s the thing: YOU DON’T HAVE TO INSERT YOUR OPINION. I mean, if you have something constructive worth mentioning, by all means jump in! Unfortunately, what I usually see happening is a lot of people who feel they need to declare what side they are on as if we’re choosing teams. Tweet-debate is not a team sport.

6. Don’t feed the trolls. There are always those people who struggle with number four. These people are not only looking to join a team, but they’re trying to become team captain. Your best strategy is to ignore them. If they’re particularly bothersome utilize the mute or, as a final resort, block feature. Be aware, though, that just because someone doesn’t agree with your opinion, this does not make them a troll. Twitter is a great place to gain a diverse understanding of issues, so follow people who don’t see the world as you do, but be humble enough to listen without provocation.

7. Love your Twitter neighbor as yourself. I have had numerous people ask me what the secret is to get people to interact with you. Well, if you want people to tweet you, why don’t you start by tweeting them? I set a goal of interacting with five people every time I log on. Do you want people to retweet your posts? Well, go ahead and do some reading and comment and retweet other people’s work. You want someone to tweet about your book? You get the picture.

8. Don’t be a link or retweet spammer. While I appreciate when people share their own or other people’s work, this should not make up the bulk of your tweets. I follow you because I genuinely want to know what you have to say. Please don’t add to my already congested feed by auto-tweeting a link to your most recent post hourly for a week. Certainly do not be one of those people who have a Twitter account for that sole purpose. If you want to promote your work without interaction a better platform choice would be Pinterest.

9. For the love of hashtags. A lot of people hate on hashtags or the newly coined hashtag-activism. Hashtagtivism. Like all of Twitter, I think this has potential for good or evil Personally, I’m a fan of the witty hashtag at the end of a tweet. #thestruggleisreal #hatersgonnahate #procrastinatorsgonnaprocrastinate Some people find them annoying, especially long ones, so use them sparingly. #itshouldnotakeyoufiveminutestodecipherasinglehastagthatisridiculousyouonlyhaveonehundredandfortycharacters. In theory, the purpose of hastags are to gather like content into one place. An especially practical way I’ve seen this used if for book launches. A unique hashtag of your title can help create buzz. (Be sure to check your hashtag before using, though. You wouldn’t want to be linking your work to something sketchy). Also, there is something to be said for hashtagtivism getting a powerful message out, ex: #blacklivesmatter. This is also another way to find people of similar (or respectfully dissimilar) opinions. There are even some excellent communities that gather around hashtags, check out: #amwriting #wholemama #fmfparty.

10. NEVER EVER AUTO-DIRECT MESSAGE This is one of my biggest pet peeves. You follow someone and whatever app they use to manage their account automatically sends a generic direct message. This is a surefire way for me to immediately unfollow or mute you. I don’t know what social media guru teaches people this is the way to go, but if you want people to engage with you, act like a person and personally tweet them. To me this is akin to being handed a gospel-tract from a stranger. Sure, it can sometimes be effective, but I’m much more likely to take an interest in your message or ministry if I have a relationship with you.

Oh, Twitter.

How do I love you? Let me count the ways.

I love you on your very best,

And very worst of days.

This is a somewhat adapted version of one of my sons’ favorite board books How Do I Love You? By P.K. Hallinan. The premise is that a parent steadfastly loves his or her unruly son, no matter what he does; be it coloring on the walls or playing contentedly.

And that pretty much sums up my Twitter experience, as well. For everything wonderful and exciting about this platform, it certainly has its petulant toddlerish side as well, but, oh how I love it!

Yes, for every genuine connection there is an exponential number of trolls and bots, but I believe if you have a heart for connecting with people, then it’s well worth the investment.

Aleah Marsden is a writer, editor, and Social Media and Communications Manager for Redbud Writers Guild. She blogs at DepthoftheRiches.com about life, faith, and Bible study. Connect with her on Twitter: @marsdenmom

 

How To Host A Life-Changing Garage Sale

How to host a

There are a handful of items in my house which I found at garage sales: awesome things I picked up for an absolute bargain and which get daily use. I love finding treasures at garage sales. In the past, however, I have not loved throwing garage sales: they seemed like a lot of lonely work for relatively little reward, and I still landed up having to drive the “left overs” to the thrift store afterwards. It felt like a lose-lose situation for me, and a win only for the buyers.

However, in the last year we have held two garage sales which have been win-win situations for everyone. Here’s what made the difference. (And here’s the link to the “If you give a mouse a cookie” version of how we got started on this in the first place. It’s fun. You should read it :-))

Do it TOGETHER

In short: holding a garage sale became worth it when we teamed up with others to make it a community fund-raising event. Rather than doing all the work solo, a few friends agreed we would all like to declutter our houses and pool our things. That way, we could have enough things to make it a worthwhile event for shoppers, and we also had company along the way.

It took three of us. We picked a Saturday, and started to spread the word, giving people 3-4 weeks to start setting aside things they wanted to get rid of.

  • Win: an opportunity to spend time with friends.
  • Win: clear out some clutter.

Do it for CHARITY

One of the hardest things about holding garage sales before was the feeling that we were putting in all this work, and then selling items which had cost a pretty penny before for just a handful of grubby pennies now. If time is money, it felt like we were paying for those items twice.

The easiest way to overcome this was to do it all for charity. That way, all items we were getting rid of felt like a gift freely given. And every cent made at the garage sale felt like money freely donated to a good cause. (Also, shoppers were more generous when they knew where the money was going! It was amazing!)

We chose two worthwhile organizations: Courage Worldwide (who provide safe houses for girls rescued out of sex slavery here in the US), and International Justice Mission (who work to bring justice to oppressed people worldwide: addressing slavery, trafficking, police brutality etc by supporting and equipping local authorities to work on enforcing their own laws. They are combatting the Locust Effect., protecting the poor from violence). Last year, we supported Food for the Hungry, a fantastic community development and hunger relief program.

I made a rustic poster explaining where the money would be going, and we had some pamphlets available for shoppers to tell them about Courage and IJM: you know, raising both funds and awareness. 

  • Win: being able to do some good in the world.

Do it WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR HOUSE

The advent of the internet made this possible to organize after hours and from home.

Getting the word out: I made a simple ad with the date and address, and posted it on Facebook a few weeks before. I asked friends to share it.We put an ad for it in our church bulletin. We invited people to bring their donations to my house any time the week before the event, and stashed them in the garage (more about that later).

Then, on the week of the event, I posted an ad for the event on Craigslist, which has a category for garage sales, as well as in a few neighborhood Facebook groups which buy-and-sell kids stuff and house wares.

TIP: when posting ads on craigslist for garage sales, list the items you have in as much detail as possible, as there are many people looking for particular items. We specifically mentioned some of the items we knew people regularly looked for (radio flyer tricycles, specific appliances, specific furniture items). I also took photos of a few items to put on the ad.

  • Win: do it all wearing pajamas
  • Win: Social Media really can get the word out better than posters can

Arranging to have it cleaned up: I also called the Salvation Army several weeks in advance, and scheduled a pick-up for all the items remaining from the garage sale. This was a deal-breaker for me: I could not have cleared out the remaining items by myself – so if Salvation Army hadn’t been able to come, I might have called around to find a charity which solicited donations.

  • Win: we got to do a second round of donating… to another worthwhile cause!

CREATE A SPACE to stash the goods (Logistics)

We decided to park our car outside for the week, and I cleared a large space on the garage floor. This year, I got a bit more organized and put painters tape on the floor, demarcating different areas for clothes, toys, books, sports goods etc, so that as donations came in, people could put them in the appropriate areas.

I’ll be honest: for a week, my garage looked like a zoo. But, the clutter wasn’t in my house… so that made a difference.

  • Win: a reason to clear out my garage. And, a working space which didn’t cramp our lifestyle while we were arranging.

Getting ready

Before the day, we also:

1) got some petty cash from the bank. I turned $50 into quarters, $1 and $5 bills. We needed the change for the early-bird bargain hunters.

2) arranged a place to keep the money on the day. Last year, I borrowed a cash box from our church, and we had a table set out where people could pay. This year, a crafty friend made us two adorable aprons out of repurposed jeans, and we used the pockets.   Look how cute my husband and I look in the aprons:

IMG_3196

3) We also borrowed a couple of fold-up tables (because items at eye-height are easier to buy than items on the ground), and pulled out a couple of camping tarps to lay toys and clothing items on.

4) We kept the boxes and bags which people had brought donations in to one side, and offered them to shoppers on the morning.

Have a WORK PARTY the night before

I had 5 friends stop over the day before. We used the trusty roll of tape and used a sharpie to price items (and priced them cheaply – better 25c for our cause than nothing, right?)

  • Win: a few hours to chat and work alongside friends. It felt good!

Sell, sell, sell!!

On the morning of the sale, we had 2-3 friends come 2 hours early to help us set out the tables and move everything from the garage out on to the tables. We had hardly begun moving stuff out when the early bird shoppers arrived. (Our start time was 9am. The first shopper arrived at 7:25!! I told them, as I had said in our Craigslist ad, that they were welcome to shop early – but that before 9am everything sold had a $30 surcharge. For charity, of course. They all went away and came back later.)

IMG_3195

It was a fun morning! We had a HUGE amount of people, and we raised a ton of money (last year, $900, this year – $1300!) We chose not to haggle over price too much, but rather to see each purchase as a donation, and to thank them for it accordingly.

Win: All the shoppers got a bargain, and they felt that they were doing good in the world too!

All in all, it was a little more effort than doing a garage sale by myself, but it was so worth it: we connected with friends, we got to support justice in the world, we built community and enlisted our family’s help in doing so (both our kids, and our church)… and at the end of it all, we had a cleaner house and a big fat check to send off to change lives.

Win win, right?

 

 

That Time My Pot Got Me In Trouble

That Time My Pot Got Me In Trouble

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.*” We pulled over at the side of the road to admire the handmade pottery of a Zulu craftswoman. Her earthenware was rough: clay scooped by the handful from the earth, shaped into a rustic earthenware pot with a sturdy swell at the base tapering into a gorgeous, distinguished neck. I knew we were flying half way around the world just a few days later and that our luggage allowance was limited, but I had to have it.  It was all the rough beauty of Africa in a single urn.

My brother-in-law constructed a custom box for it: repurposing old computer boxes with tape and tenacity. We stuffed its graceful neck with strips of raggedy, old newspaper. I remember brushing away mouse droppings and wondering if they would cause the sniffer dogs at customs any alarm: animal products, and all that. I found the biggest red marker possible, and stenciled FRAGILE! THIS WAY UP!! in alarmist lettering on every side.

I checked my bags through one, two and then three flights, but kept my cardboard box with me on each. I cradled it baby-like through each security checkpoint; held my breath through every bumpy landing. 11,000 miles later, I exhaled slowly as we taxied down the final runway. I was nearly home.

A long, snaking line at Passport Control. Arrivals forms efficiently scanned. A scurry through baggage claim. And finally: the last stop at customs and excise duty – a checkpoint which had only ever required a polite nod and a wave before the blessed reunions of the arrivals hall.

But not this time.

A man in uniform politely waved me to a counter, where I dutifully unpacked all my belongings and watched in fascination as my underwear and toiletries appeared in ghostly X-ray outlines on the screen. My polite chit-chat was interrupted by the customs official.

“What’s in the box?” she asked.

“It’s my pot,” I answered proudly, ready to tell her of the lovely road running from Ixopo into the hills. The expression on her face stopped me short.

What is it?” she snapped.

I pointed to the screen where the graceful outline was clearly visible. “It’s my p…… ”

In slow motion, I realized how incriminating my South African noun sounded to her Californian ears. My scalp prickled.

“It’s my vase! It’s my vase!” I sputtered. “I promise! There is absolutely NO pot in there whatsoever. Just a vase. Made of clay. Nothing else.”

*******

It’s not the only time my words have raised eyebrows. Our first year in the States was replete with moments of social humiliation and hilarity, but slowly our comfort with the local language grew. Our settling into life and community was matched (and facilitated) by a settling into the language of the community. A growing sense of belonging wasn’t just about getting to know people, or being known by them. Grafting into our community included grafting the vernacular into our conversation: once we talked like locals, we began to earn street cred. All our words were still said in a South African accent, but the actual words themselves changed too: diaper, not nappy. Faucet, not tap. Gas, not petrol. Oh for the love: eraser, not rubber.

Accidentally choosing my native words in conversation was like waving an “outsider” flag. Conversation would stall while we awkwardly stumbled to translate our intention. An offer to “fetch someone on my way” was met with suspicion and a shudder of offense. “Fetch” is a verb used for dogs chasing sticks. The more appropriate word here was “to give someone a ride”, or to “pick them up”. We made dozens of these adjustments: taking down linguistic barriers so we could reach across to form deeper friendships.

*******

I noticed it in the church most of all, probably because it was the place I needed to belong most keenly.

The cultural phenomenon of figuring out “who belongs” as defined by their language is a heightened reality within the evangelical church. Aware of theological threats on every side, we parse our words carefully. Some of Christendom’s deepest divides have been chiseled by disagreements over words. Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom parted ways over precise words, because of course it wasn’t just about the words – but rather that the particular words represented very nuanced (and divergent) theological views. Church history is littered with word-wars.

And the church today is no different. We think carefully about whether we describe ourselves as reformed, or evangelical. As a Christian, or a Jesus-follower. We choose those terms because they represent something significant about the way we understand our faith. It means something to be a Baptist rather than a Presbyterian. To be an Anglican rather than an Episcopalian.

Beneath the layer of formal Christian titles, there is the second tier of language, in the way we talk about everyday things. Do we talk about being “born again”, or having “come to Christ”, or “becoming a believer”. To move from a culture where people are “born again” into a culture where people “come to Christ” presents some challenges. When you tell the new group that you were “born again” – instead of initially seeing a similarity (yes! you are one of us! you belong to Christ!), the hearers might at first hear difference (that’s not how I would have put it. I wonder if she’s one of those hellfire and damnation folks. They talk about born again a lot. If she says “the blood of the lamb” in the next sentence, I’m outta here.)

It took nearly a year in the US for me to feel I could really trust my new church theologically. They spoke a different dialect of Christianese: similar enough to mine to understand it, but just different enough for me to be on guard. Just in case. Like the maps of yore, the edges of my theological map contains seas marked “here be dragons”. After a year, I had learned enough to know that even though the expressions of faith were phrased a little differently to where I’d come from – we were still kin, and the bedrock of our faith was common after all.

******

Every new believer we meet, whether we intend it or not, faces new customs when they visit our churches, and not unlike the Customs Official I met, we find ourselves wondering: what’s in your box?

Let’s not be alarmed if the answer comes out as something like ‘pot’.  It may well be that they really do love Jesus,  but they speak a slightly different Christian dialect. We have eternity to figure out the details – but for now, let’s give some grace to those who speak with a different faith ‘accent’ before we jump to conclusions.

  • The opening lines from Alan Paton’s most beautiful book, Cry, The Beloved Country.

She Dared Me – a guest post by Tifani Oaks

Friends: I am excited to introduce you to Tifani Oaks, who sent me this post as part of the Words That Changed my World series. I am so grateful she chose to share her story of daring greatly with us.

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Toward the end of my senior year of college, a very wise woman uttered something that turned my world upside-down. She charged me with a task of sorts: to some, it may have seemed simple; to others, it may have seemed almost second nature; but to me, it seemed impossible.

It was crazy. It was far outside my comfort zone. And it was risky.

There’s no way on earth I would actually consider it, I reasoned. She’s out of her mind if she really thinks I’m going to do something like that.

She doesn’t know me: she doesn’t know my story; she doesn’t know what I’ve been through.

And I was right. She didn’t. She didn’t know me at all.

In fact, I had met her just days before: she had humbly offered up her driving services to those of us college students who were interested in attending a book signing event in Palo Alto. And I, somewhat on a whim, had decided to join.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I felt anxious—uncertain about whether my sudden burst of spontaneity was such a good idea after all.

But after spending no more than a couple of hours with her, squashed between children’s car seats and several mounds of Cheerio’s stashed strategically beneath the crevices of the back seat of her minivan, I found myself utterly drawn to her.

It wasn’t because of anything she said, really; it was just her: her passion, her wisdom, her demeanor.

So I shot her a rather lengthy message after the event, hoping my honest [albeit somewhat forward] words would elicit a favorable response.

The following evening, I found myself seated comfortably on her couch, surrounded by a trove of children’s toys, an expansive collection of coffee mugs, and an inexplicable feeling of warmth and acceptance.

There was a genuineness about her: a transparency that I longed to understand.

There in her living room, I began to share a piece of my story with her.

I told her about the breakup, about last summer, and about my honest desire to have and maintain spiritual friendships.

She sat quietly for a moment, as if she were taking everything in.

“I dare you…” she began.

My heart began to race. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I was eager to hear what she had to say.

“I dare you…to be vulnerable with them.”

My heart sank. I hadn’t anticipated that one.

Instead of the usual feelings of eagerness and zeal that would typically accompany the almost-immediate acceptance of such a challenge, her call to action was met only with silence and timidity.

With them? I thought. She was referring to the women in my Growth Group, or small-group Bible Study: the women I admired; the women I wanted to impress; the women with whom I longed to develop lasting relationships.

Impossible, I thought. I could never do that.

Sure, I could be vulnerable with her.

But that was in the safety of her home. She was an adult, a mother, a mentor.

She wasn’t a college student, a rival, a peer.

She had been through all of these things once before: she could provide me with insight and guidance, not judgment or rejection.

That was what they would offer me, I was certain—like the others before them.

It was easier to hide.

Easier to hide behind my walls of insecurity and self-doubt: behind perfect makeup and plastic smiles; behind red lipstick and inside jokes; behind sparkling shoes and busy schedules.

“I—I don’t know if I can do that,” I managed to stammer after several moments.

“I’m not forcing you to,” she responded. “Just mull it over—give it some thought.”

And “give it some thought” I did.

For the next 24 hours, doubts about what might await me if I accepted her challenge consumed me.

A million what ifs penetrated my thoughts: What if they hate me? What if they think I’m crazy? What if they don’t understand? What if… What if… What if…

So I prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

It took time and discipline. It took faith and hope. Most of all, it took trust—lots and lots of trust.

Every time a doubt entered my mind, I resolved to give it over, give it up, and trust [and beg and hope and plead] that God would know what to do with it.

And each time I relinquished these doubts, these fears, these anxieties, they were exchanged for peace: peace about my task, peace about my fears, peace about the outcome.

Because no matter how terrifying it seemed and no matter how insecure I felt, God was showing me that He was trustworthy and that He would be there every step of the way.

I wouldn’t be alone: I had a partner, a friend, a Savior.

It’s only been a few months since I accepted her challenge; but the benefits of accepting that challenge have been impressively, surprisingly, astonishingly rewarding.

I have never felt more free, more at peace, more at ease with who I am in Christ.

And I have never been more excited to begin so many new relationships.

Her challenge has truly sparked a desire within me to be real with people: to be open, honest, genuine.

Because my shortcomings, my failures, my misgivings do not define me; my identity is found in Him who is immutable, Him who is immovable. And he will be there through it all.

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photo-18As a recent graduate of UC Davis, Tifani spent the majority of her academic career in exploration: her interests are vast and diverse, making her decision to finally settle down in the philosophy department a difficult one. In her spare time, she enjoys spontaneous trips to the countryside and practicing yoga. She has a profound appreciation for hazelnut iced coffee, C.S. Lewis, and driving with the windows down. She will also never pass up an opportunity to dance or to talk about her Jesus of the Gospels.

A Salute to the Flag House

There is a house on 8th street which is very special to me. It was the very first house I was invited to dinner in when we moved to this little college town ten years ago. It was the house where I got involved with College Life, the ministry I served with until my children were born. It was the house where I made many precious friends.

The pastor who lived there moved away and sold that house over 7 years ago. But the house is still very special to me, even though I haven’t ever met the owner, and I haven’t set foot in their home in as long.

I first loved the house because of the warm community I met indoors there. But now, I love the house because of the community the owner has created outdoors. They have put in an exquisite garden, and in honor of our cycling community they mounted bicycle sculptures as decorations on their fence, and painted them beautiful colors. In the spring, there are flowers blooming from the baskets on those pastel pedalled-pedestals. They are beautiful: a celebration of the fun of living in a biking town.

But mostly, I love the community the owners have created by choosing to fly a different flag from their flag pole every day. They must have over a hundred, and every time I drive past, I see a vibrant, visual salute to somewhere far away: someone else’s country, someone else’s homeland, and as an immigrant living in this city I call home – it makes me feel at home like nothing else does. We’re in the USA, but the world out there is honored, named, recognized, celebrated. Last week, I choked up when I drove by and realized they were flying the South African flag at half mast in honor of Nelson Mandela. My home country’s flag in a suburban American garden brought a release of tears I had been holding onto for days.

The vast variety of flags also make me realize how weak my Geography is, since I recognize only a small fraction of those flapping flags. I guess I must not have been the only one, because some time after the owners began hoisting flags, they added a small white board posted at the base of the flag pole, letting passers by know which country’s pride is being celebrated that day. Maybe one too many curious people knocked on their door and they needed to make a plan…

And so I’m learning about the world. Thanks to the flag house, I would have an answer if I find myself in a grueling round of “Who wants to be a millionaire” and were faced with the question: “Which of these is not a real country?”

a. French Guiana
b. British Indonesia
c. French Polynesia
d. British Virgin Isles

britishVI flagI would have had to avail myself of the 50/50 lifeline, eliminating the French options, but then – thanks to the Flag House displaying this flag last week – would have known that the British Virgin Isles WERE in fact a real country, making the answer b: British Indonesia. (Random aside: the wiki article on British Indonesia is very entertaining.)

I love that house. It epitomizes so much of what I hope for in our home: a place welcoming, respectful, international, creative and fun. It is a landmark in our community. It is a beacon in our city.

This is my salute to the Flag House. Thank you for all you bring to our community.