When You Vacation in a Town That’s Rebuilding

GulfportI felt like college students. One day before our spring break began last March, my husband asked, “Do you want to get out of town? To the beach?” Of course, I did.

Spring break has always meant creating space at home for sleeping in, extra cups of coffee, visits to new restaurants, and conversing with our kids. Sometimes it’s great to have nowhere to be for a week. But times have changed — there are new summer jobs and extra summer sports commitments and cool things like songwriting camps. And with our summer flexibility fading away, wanderlust seemed especially strong this past March.

We hit VRBO and searched for beach condos as close to St. Louis as we could find. We started with the Florida panhandle but then kept expanding our search west. When it was all said and done, we chose a cute, dog-friendly place in a town we had never heard of along the Gulf Coast — Gulfport, Mississippi. Our plan was to hang at the beach and venture over toward New Orleans. It would be our first time in Mississippi or Louisiana.

The night before we left, I went online and discovered Google Earth describes Gulfport as “… a town still recovering from Katrina…” Oh, wow. The cottage was already booked and paid for.

I thought quite a bit about hurricanes this past year. Fifth graders at my school raised money for a community ransacked by Harvey. And my brother’s job sent him to Puerto Rico to do hurricane-relief — also Harvey. These headlines always remind me of two seasons in my own life: When I was six years-old, thousands slept inside our mega-church until Hurricane David passed through Florida. And, almost twenty years later, Hurricane Bertha hit North Carolina and rolled up the coast to New Jersey on my wedding day.

But Katrina?! That was 2005… and Gulfport, Mississippi is still recovering? I’m quick to hurt for a community when it makes the headlines but my empathy sadly fades as the days progress. And with Katrina, we’re talking 13 years later. I remember we donated a mattress when someone was hauling supplies of used goods down to Louisiana. But I haven’t ached for those victims since then. I had two preschool-aged kids back in 2005, and my life was embarrassingly all about us.

As dawn broke, we drove south and settled into an adorable brick home that had been repurposed into a beach cottage. We noted the closest Starbucks and donut shops on our phones, unpacked, and walked to the beach.

Two things struck me about Gulfport: 1) Yes, Katrina’s footprints were all over, and 2) This was a working town. I’ve never vacationed at the beach while rubbing shoulders with as many locals as I did tourists. Gulfport is home to the Mississippi State Port, and its horizon is punctured with the most industrial complex ever. Rentals were sprinkled among real neighborhoods where people got up early and drove to work instead of packing up their beach bags for yet another day of play and rest. It was an experience like none other. I navigated guilt and pity and pride and privilege — all in a few days.

It’s quite fascinating to watch a community thrive and intersect with one another … especially a community that has suffered. I fell in love, really. I felt redemption pulsing through its streets and beaches and even through its coffee shop. I read numerous tourist magazines highlighting locals who rose above the odds while opening new businesses and restaurants to replace those that were destroyed.

Our first meal was artisan pizza at Tony’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, a place mentioned on the Food Network.
Tony's

Oven

Shaggy’s welcomed us the next night.

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And Coast Roast stole my heart with its industrial vibes, open air counter, and rich, deep coffee. I went there every day to order an Americano while my daughter, a bit more adventurous, tried something new each time. We saw a dog peering in from the outdoor counter with its owners sipping away. I loved this place so much I asked for a Coast Roast shirt for my birthday and asked my husband to paint our house the same color. (He said yes.)

Coast Roast Outdoors

Cocast Roast Indoors 2

Each of these restaurants’ websites told more than their business hours and menu items. Like many Gulfport establishments, their About Us pages referenced Katrina. When you’ve been hit hard, you view your story in two chapters: pre- and post-trauma. And while trials don’t define us, they impact our worldview. They deepen our understanding of ourselves, our faith, those around us — everything, really.

While we were in Gulfport, I happened to be reading Culture Making by Andy Crouch. He referenced how creatives and cultivators of culture adopt a posture of purposeful effort… how they do the painstaking work of preserving the best that those before them have done… how they dare to think and create something that’s never been thought of before… and how they steward culture, guarding what’s best in a neighborhood or field of practice. It’s a lot to navigate, really. I find it often easier to design something completely new than to rebuild what’s broken.

But restoration, it’s the heartbeat of the gospel. It’s about a God who pursues those whom sin has fractured, relentlessly drawing us near as He holds us with one hand and points back to the cross with the other. It allows us to understand — and believe — how much our Maker loves us. The gospel impacts everything — allowing us to risk, speak honestly, ask for forgiveness. It gives us the courage to redeem friendships and keep finding our voice instead of withdrawing in shame. All the while, we’re pointing back to that cross, too, with our own fingers.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, keep rejoicing and repair whatever is broken. Encourage each other, think as one, and live at peace; and God, the Author of love and peace, will remain with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11

I think of my own brokenness that needs repairing everyday. I grow weary at my constant need for restoration, and I’m sure those around me tire of my fractured state, too. I think of the communities that I intersect with — and those I avoid — and how rebuilding and restoring is in my DNA as a Christ-follower. And that call to love people and be others-centered — it’s how we help tell the story of the Author of love and peace.

As Gulfport’s residents exercise persistence and resilience over a span of years, as they rise up stronger than before, we can’t ignore the call on our own lives to do the same. Where will we be in 13 years? Ignoring brokenness? Still stumbling over the rubble? Or building something beautiful and empowering others to do the same?


“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

3 Books to Read in Midlife

Midlife Books

I’ve been on a journey the past 12 months. Well, honestly, it’s been much longer than that, for hope and courage and fear and life circumstances from years gone by are woven into a web below the path I’ve walked recently. In recent months, these layers have all pointed to an intimacy I’d uncover with my Maker as my dreams became shards with edges sharp. Dramatic? Yes. When you’ve risked hope, and you find yourself with empty hands, it does feel quite dramatic.

I began to dance with midlife when I was 35, a bit early. Is this it? Is this really it? … and… I’ve given it my all, and it doesn’t quite feel like enough. I read a book and committed to find my identity in Christ, and that sustained me over the next several years.

But a shattered dream after months and months of hoping wakes you up to your frailty, and overnight you’re face to face with the truth that you’re really not in control — of your story, of what others think of you, of others’ behavior. At this breaking, midlife and its quiet doubt become harder to ignore.

I’ve written about my God who transcends time and prepares our hearts in advance for the pain of the now. It’s real, friends, it really is. That book I read on my own at 35? Well, a group of us read it together a few years ago. I never re-read books, but I thought it would be beneficial to open this one again because its words were so striking the first time. And my friends were reading it. Now I see God was preparing my heart for 2017. Oh, my God who transcends time and blurs the lines of present and past lessons to prepare me for tomorrow — I’m overwhelmed with His care.

So we begin here with that book — followed by two more. I can’t imagine all three will resonate with each of you, but they were part of the lifeline God held out when I felt myself sinking into my fallenness. I can’t say the order in which you read them will be magical for you, but they were for me. We’re so complex. Sometimes you need doctrine and a guidebook. Sometimes you need prose so beautiful you have to re-read its paragraphs a time or two to soak it all in. And sometimes you need a non-intimidating, friend-like writer who lays her soul out bare and gently pulls you out of yourself.

Lost in Middle
Lost in the Middle: Midlife and the Grace of God
 
by Paul David Tripp

I sum up this book in one sentence: “Midlife reveals your idols that have always been there.” It’s a scary thing when you discover things about yourself that you never saw before. On the margins of my book, you can see my pencil scribbles (because I’m too scared to write in pen):
– where is it that you’re looking to find your value?
– self-righteousness = when my obedience is prompted only by the amount of my blessings, the blessings I define
– did I want to travel so much to earn significance?
– disconnect — numbness — lost — apathy
I imagine Tripp’s words will evoke responses different than mine, but I promise he’ll lead you boldly towards self-discovery. And when we come face to face with truths we’ve tried to cover up for years with ambitions and affections, well, our Maker and His grace become all the more beautiful, all the more sustaining.

Tripp’s guidance is rooted firmly in Scripture, and I’m amazed how he ties ancient stories I’ve heard countless times to the doubt and insecurity I’m feeling today. Over 300 pages, Lost in the Middle presents you with themes of the invincibility lie, feeling exposed, trying to make a name for yourself, suffering, identity crisis, and yes, idolatry.

I’m so glad this was the book I read first about midlife. Twice.

Falling Upward
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
 by Richard Rohr

She stopped by with a treat for my family and a book for me before I had started healing. Grief has its stages, and I was feeling all of them — except acceptance. My friend entered my home and stepped right into my range of emotions, right into the awkwardness, armed with Falling Upward.

Richard Rohr is one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read. He writes of the paradox, the irony, of your faith in Christ maturing (“upward”) as a result of failing or stumbling into humility (“falling”). He speaks of our two stages of life and the rhythm of coming to terms with our own brokenness which launches us into the second half. Rohr challenges the reader to face the truth and fall well.

Hear his words:
“In most all legends and literature, sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost always the pattern. Some kind of falling or “necessary suffering” is always programmed into the journey. It creates the whole storyline inside of which we can find ourselves. Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences — all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. How often did Jesus tell stories where the character does his life totally right and is, in fact, wrong; and the other who does it totally wrong ends up God’s beloved? We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

A Million Little Ways
A Million Little Ways
by Emily P. Freeman

Self-discovery, for me, revealed a lack of humility, and it surprised me. Entitlement is hard to see in yourself. And while it’s good to face the truth, my new discoveries paralyzed me. I didn’t trust myself, my heart, my motives — so I stopped dancing — even when the rhythm begged to pulse out of me. I stopped using my voice, questioned my passion, and doubted my purpose while embracing shame.  I feared the critic, and silence seemed like a more favorable option than risk-taking.

A Million Little Ways wooed me back into community. Believing I reflect the Master Artist and bear His image is an invitation to come alive despite the truth of what I’ve come through. Freeman beckons the reader to live from our facets of wholeness instead of our remnants of dysfunction. She tenderly dares, “The world needs you to come alive right where you are and not where you wish you were.”

Chasing your crazy ideas, validating the dream you just can’t shake, remembering your belovedness — Freeman calls out your art and boldly puts you back in front of the canvas. And I love her for it.


Are you waking up asking, “It this it?” Are you aching at how life has (or has not) turned out? Are you hiding in shame over how little you’ve accomplished all these years?

Or are you facing a season of suffering, desperately longing to know there’s purpose that will unfold from it?

Friend, you are so not alone. You are seen and loved and known.

Where as Lost in the Middle speaks truth boldly and helps you recalibrate your thinking, Falling Upward is like a tender song that helps you interpret your heart. And A Million Little Ways beckons you and gives you permission to find God-sustaining courage to respond to your story for the benefit of others.

I needed all three.

12 Advent Devotionals

Advent Series

Are you feeling unsettled by the expectations and urgency of the season?

Let’s challenge each other to not detach this Christmas, but rather, go deeper.

I dug into the archives and will be posting 12 devotionals I wrote a couple years ago to help you navigate the contrast of your heart’s longing with the whirling of culture right now. Be watching your inbox daily through December 23.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. xo

A Lesson Before Going on the Air: Regret, Empathy, and Rescue

STL Public RadioIt was already a busy week, but this was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

Through her school, my daughter submitted a story last year to The Grannie Annie, a foundation that inspires students to give their family stories a voice. Her great-grandfather rode the Orphan Train from New York City to a Kansas farm, and Kharis had recorded the loneliness and fear of what a child might have felt on that ride. “Abandoned” was selected to be published in Grannie Annie, Volume 12, and we went to cheer her on when she read it at the 2017 Family Stories Festival held at the Missouri History Museum.

It was quite an experience for Kharis in June of 2017, but the opportunity grew even larger last week — Thanksgiving week. We would be hosting 10 relatives and three dogs for a few nights, but when I got a phone call last Monday inviting Kharis and I to appear on St. Louis Public Radio with a co-founder of the Grannie Annie, of course I said, “yes.”

We were to be in the studio at noon on Wednesday but were told a breaking news story could possibly delay our segment until 12:20pm. News story? I search my memory but couldn’t think of any possible breaking stories in St. Louis. I was quickly consumed again with cooking and prepping and making our house feel like a home for out-of-town family members.

On Wednesday morning, the station informed me they would indeed be delaying our interview due to covering the Ratko Mladic conviction. Ratko Mladic? I quickly googled the name and discovered he was a general responsible for the genocide in Bosnia back in the 90’s. The ethnically rooted war spanned almost three years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former republic of Yugoslavia with a multiethnic population comprising Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, and Croats. Mladic, the “Butcher of Bosnia”, was responsible for the deaths of 7,000-8,000 male Bosniaks in two days, and on November 22, 2017, he was convicted over twenty years later.

Bosnian Cemetary editedOf course our interview would be delayed — St. Louis is home to the highest population of Bosnians outside of Bosnia. After living in South St. Louis during 2001-2005, I experienced this melting pot first hand. Our neighbors across the street were Bosnian, and their preschool-age girls would interpret for us. My hairstylist was Bosnian, too. She had given my now teenage son his first haircut as a toddler.

I was in my late-twenties, and I was consumed with being first-time homeowners and starting our family. Both of our kids were born when we were living in that adorable brick house with the arched front door. I was trying my best to be an incredible mom, leaving only enough energy and passion to be an adequate neighbor. I remember being so tired those years as I cared for my baby and toddler. My fatigue brought self-absorption, for I interacted with my neighbors — American, Bosnian, Albanian, and more — only when it was convenient for me. I even later carried this worldview and lifestyle to the suburbs.

If you’ve read Repurposed for a while or know me personally, you know I choke on regret often. I surrender this pattern to the Lord over and over, and I promise, I really do believe the Holy Spirit brings healing as He reminds us “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1 NIV) But the Lord does convict also, sometimes gently, and my heart began to break as “breaking news” surfaced.

We arrived at St. Louis Public Radio and were escorted to a small waiting room, separated from the actual studio by a glass wall. A woman was seated and smiled ever so slightly before we were introduced. As she spoke, it was obvious — she was from Bosnia and would be soon reliving her family’s trauma to thousands of listeners. Yes, she was there to respond to Mladic’s conviction and the genocide that stole her cousin’s life. Her studio companion revealed on the air he had lost his dad, grandpa, uncle, and cousin to Mladic.

Just moments ago, I was reminding my daughter to speak in complete sentences while on the air. And now I was silent.

We heard everything the listeners heard that day, but we could see the guests in front of their microphones through the glass. They spoke of the pain that lingered despite Mladic’s conviction. They referenced an entire population of Bosnians suffering with PTSD and the impact it’s having on a younger generation being raised by those parents. They spoke of trauma and mental illness and coping mechanisms like keeping busy.

They were right there across the street, and I shut myself in my Tudor bungalow with my babies…

Did my neighbors sleep at night?

Who had my stylist lost in the war? When our chit-chat paused, what was she thinking about as she cut my hair in that salon?

Just recently, I wrote about the importance of looking around instead of gazing ahead. Oh, to go back fifteen years and look beyond my four walls and around at my world — oh, to have engaged with that community of Bosnians. I knew about a war. I knew about their ravaged cities. I was kind, but I lacked empathy. I was consumed with stretching our one income, and getting my son and daughter on sleep schedules, and introducing the right baby foods to my kids at just the right time. I ignored the battle of my neighbors’ hearts and failed to reflect on their ravaged lives.

And there they were behind that glass, speaking of brokenness but sounding so strong. Alluding honestly to pain while attesting to moving forward. Referencing loss and grief and wrapping themselves in a vulnerability that was beyond anything I had ever dared.


I think of my King, my Protector, who Himself became a refugee at the age of two while fleeing from a ruler’s massacre. He escaped Herod’s insane wrath only to hang on a cross 31 years later. He’s the One who wrapped Himself in my shame and desolation and sacrificed Himself to rescue me.

And I am the one trying to hold together brokenness, but He’s holding out strength. I’m the one with pain unspoken, but He beckons me on and reaches for me, lifting me out of myself when I just can’t move forward. I’m the one replaying loss and grief, but He bottles up my tears and washes me into wholeness. (2 Cor 12:9, Ps 40:1-2, Ps 56:8)

All of it — it all lays in the shadow of the One who offers abundance.

      The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that
     they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. John 10:10 NKJV

God, open my eyes to the fullness You’re holding out. And open my heart to the stories that come with the people I interact with every day. Send grace to me, the one who follows You but fails to mirror You so often.

I love how He works. The last-minute invitation to be interviewed on the air, the re-lived joy over my daughter’s published article — my Maker’s story for me that day was so much bigger than our own experiences. He does it for all of us — He invites us all into a something bigger than ourselves and our own dramas. He sends perspective just when we get a bit too inward, calling us to more.

He rescues us from ourselves.

Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff via WikiTribune

 

Thanksgiving: How Are You Shaping the Next Generation?

diverse hands original
In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. – Abraham Maslow


They faced the horizon and watched a tiny vessel grow large until it finally docked on their shoreline. Coughing and unsteady, pale refugees emerged from the ship who would forever redefine their society.

The Wampanoag tribe leaned into the unknown, expanding their understanding of the world instead of hiding. They stepped toward growth as the immigrants stepped away from religious persecution in Europe.

The first Thanksgiving offers a lesson in risk and community that reached across racial and cultural comforts. They celebrated together after months of hard work and sacrifice as cultures and worldviews rubbed against each other.


“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” said Neale Donald Walsch, and I can’t ignore what I need to learn from the Wampanoags. They ran toward the mystery, risking and throwing themselves into the the unknown. They gave in order to sustain a foreign culture. Gave to sustain lives not their own.

Authentic, racial integration not only reflects God’s kingdom, but it serves as my textbook into greater facets of God’s character. Diversity is more than living among those who look different from me. No, it involves admitting my need for others, as I see and study and welcome the culture that comes with the person. It respects and acknowledges how much other image-bearers of God can teach me. Really, true diversity involves heaps of humility.


But just one generation later exercised a radically different worldview. Just one.

Ironically, the children of those who bravely ran from religious persecution oppressed the Native Americans, oppressed those who were the very reason for their parents’ survival. And somewhere, woven throughout their lust to make people just like them came the insatiable need for power and control. The root of so many sins reared its ugly head even in the late seventeenth century.  


Do I really need more power? Am I so insecure, forgetting my identity is in what Christ did for me on the cross, that I need the validation that others are like me?


Maybe some of the Pilgrims were too busy surviving to share their worldview and convictions with their kids. Maybe their deep loss and grief silenced their mouths as their hearts broke over and over again.  


And lest I appear woefully judgmental, I sit here today wondering how clear my deepest passions are to my children. With the sports schedules… and the homework… and the play rehearsals… and the reminders to clean rooms — Are my son and daughter absolutely certain of my deepest convictions? Tragically, I have to ask if what I’m portraying in my home (and in the car) as I hurry about speaks a different philosophy than what I truly cling to in my heart. Is my heart repurposed enough to speak boldly amidst the scurrying? Is the Gospel woven so deeply into my life that my actions speak my thoughts?

I will sing of Your unfailing love, Eternal One, forever.
     I will speak of Your faithfulness to all generations.
     I will tell how Your unfailing love will always stand strong;
     and how Your faithfulness is established in the heavens above. Psalm 89:1-2

God, help me. Life is too short. Their childhood is racing by.

Later this week my U.S. friends and I will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. But regardless of where you are in the world, may we impart to the youth in our lives what is truly important to us. May we help them see God’s goodness from the beginning of time. May we risk, despite the mystery and the unknown, and may we point the next generation to a God who radically pursues us.

As we point to Him, may His gospel infuse our worldview, infuse our everyday routines. And may we recklessly love each other well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Photo by Han Kim