Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Entitlement vs. Expectancy

In my job hunting, I've use all those tools like CareerBuilder, JobMonkey, NES Staffing... and sometimes I find legitimate leads. But all the more I'm noticing that there's an uncomfortable level of truth to the adage, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." I've already whined about the job market in my previous post, so I will try not to be repetitive. Sure, I work as many hours as I can get at my job, but it isn't one of those jobs that I can respect myself for as a college graduate. I am grateful for a job at all, but the hours are so few and the sense of purpose, virtually non-existent. Old customers come in and recognize me, we chat, and very quickly the conversation inevitably turns to this one question: "Why are you still here?"

I ask myself that question everyday. Every. Day. Not just at work, but in general. I came home for a job opportunity that fell through, so now I'm back in my hometown, struggling to reconnect with my old life when old friends are pretty much scattered to the four winds, going their various directions. I miss my college town in Southern California, a place that quickly became my home. I miss the beach, the friends that I have there, and the church that I loved so much. I hoped that those feelings would fade when I returned home, especially since I came back here out of a sincere sense of obedience. I set aside what I then thought to be immature and more immediate desires (friends, fun, community) and did what I thought God was leading me to do, and what I thought any responsible adult should do: go where the job is. Because job=future. Right?

But the job isn't here. Hiring freezes and budget cuts made sure of it.  And this place isn't home anymore; my family is here, but I feel like I'm trying to crawl back inside a cocoon that stopped fitting a long time ago. So I just look stupid. Perhaps the trouble is that I made up my mind that it wouldn't be home, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But now I'm floundering, wondering what God is up to. I try to formulate future plans, but in the meantime I just need a good real job. Yet that means some sort of anchoring to a place that I didn't want to be at in the first place. And I guess I've always assumed that God prefers us to work; it seems part of the natural order. So then I figure, God wants me to have a job, right? But does He want me to have a job here?

I wonder what response the Lord would have from me and people in similar circumstances; are we supposed to react to this situation (unemployment, discouraging job market) with optimism? Believing that the opportunity is there, and we have only to find it? Are we supposed to accept our current circumstance as God's will, or are we supposed to simply try harder? As Christians, we are supposed to be expectant of great things. Bill Johnson said "It is unnatural for a Christian not to have an appetite for the impossible."That rings true to me. The God of the universe loves us and adores us! He is earnestly invested in bringing about good from all circumstances! Jesus is alive and the Spirit is moving! Why shouldn't we expect every good and perfect gift? Why shouldn't we approach the throne expectantly? Aren't we supposed to expect His best?

Well good grief, what does that actually mean, practically speaking? What does the "best" look like? The more I think about it, the more I find difficulty in drawing the line between expectancy (knowing that God has good things for His children, and will provide for me) and entitlement (feeling like He owes me something because He loves me and has every resource at His disposal). I don't know where I end and He begins. How much of my future is in my hands? How much of it is up to me? My grandmother once said "It's easier for God to steer a moving ship than for Him to blow it out of the harbor." Obviously she couldn't have been giving me this advice, because I totally have a grip on this concept.... except for those times when I don't have a grip, and I get paralyzed by uncertainty. Naturally, then,  my thought is to make like a ship and get moving until I sense a shift in the wind, some kind of divine intervention. But then I wonder... is this the best direction? Is this what I should be doing? In my quest for God's will, I become paralyzed in my own indecision, frozen in my own mind. I don't want to be angry at God for not showing up where I thought He'd be (entitlement) but I don't want to just stop expecting Him to show up, merely to prevent disappointment.

Maybe His version of moving in my life doesn't match mine. That idea doesn't thrill me. It's like sitting at a bus stop, waiting for ten hours for the stupid bus to get there and take you to your aunts house in Duluth. You sit there, sweating, putting up with a bunch of bad weather and getting hit on by homeless people and truant high schoolers. Only the bus never comes, because what you thought was a bus stop was really just a park bench. Drat. Then you come to find out that your aunt wasn't in Duluth at all, because you'd gotten your dates confused. She was out of town, so you wouldn't have had any place to stay anyway. Oh, and her house got broken into while she was gone, and you narrowly avoided being smothered by a burglar. So in retrospect, you start thinking that maybe your ten hour bench warming sesh was a blessing in disguise. But was that really necessary? Couldn't that suffering be made simpler?! That isn't my idea of a good time.

That was a really mind numbing analogy. The point is, maybe God moves in mysterious ways (read: He is God of wonders, we are dust):

Isaiah 55:8-9 
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lorrd. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Now that, I believe. It's a relief to surrender to that sort of providence. The interim period, between vision and fruition... it still sucks. I sometimes get overwhelmed too easily, forgetting what I believe in (God is good, God is love, every good and perfect gift comes from Him) and why (because it's true... and its been demonstrated over and over! I'm just dense!). In spite of my frailty, I don't want to exchange expectancy for bitterness or cynicism, because the more I think about it, the more expectancy and faith look remarkably alike. Well, how do I feed childlike faith? For starters, believing that God is bigger than me. And if Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness... if God decided to use the quality of faith as a measurement of right standing with Him, pre-Covenant, then obviously faith is a big deal in His eyes! As an RA, my floor theme was Faith; for part of the deco, I mounted a mustard seed up on the wall for display in all the quads (Matthew 17:20).  It gives me hope... I mean, have you seen a mustard seed? They're impossibly small. I love that Jesus chose that rather than, say, a double coconut seed the size of my head. He understood exactly how discouraged and faithless we can be, and wanted to make sure we knew that there was no need for superstar Christianity. It's like lowering the bar in midget pole vaulting: just when you thought the bare minimum couldn't get anymore... minimal... there Jesus goes, building a handicap access ramp and giving us boosts.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nuns, Guppies, and the American McDream

So there are no misunderstandings later on, I just need to be straight forward about something: I'm not 100% in love with the economy right now. We are on the fritz. I'm serious. I want to kick the economy in the shins. I want to insult the economy's mother. I want to have a party and not invite the economy. If Kanye wants to interrupt the economy's acceptance speech for Suckfest of the Century, I'm okay with that. *steps off soap box*

I don't know about you, but I was pretty miffed when the market began to plummet at an accelerated pace last fall; not particularly anxious or fearful, but definitely annoyed. You were probably right there with me as we watched Wall Street nosedive like a drunken bungee jumper on spring break; we covered one eye and looked down the ravine with the other, muttering with bated breath, "Is it supposed to take this long? I can't see him. Did he fasten the little hooky belay thing?, Ponzi fastened it for him. Is he gonna come back up eventually? Has he hit the bottom yet?.... How long is this supposed to take, guys? .... Guys?" But honestly... who needs drunken demonstrations of awful when you have the likes of AIG, Bernie Madoff and the Fed teaching How to Destroy Everything You Touch 101. We all paid over $700 billion for this lesson so we'd better pay attention.

For those of you from the class of 2009... we've been let loose into a job market where we are competing with people twice our age, with twice our experience, for bottom rung entry-level positions typically reserved for inexperienced recent college grads. We're like guppies from a fish tank replete with the plastic trees and the treasure chests and the other fishes from Planet Pets, getting dumped into the Amazon River where there are no little plastic scuba divers or treasure chests... only other, bigger, more experienced, slightly strung out fishes that eat everything... food, boats, trash, you. People with Ph.D's are applying for MI's, for Pete's sake. I applied for an administrative assistant position- along with 800 other applicants. I also applied for a waitressing job at a restaurant that received 50 applications on one day for a single job opening that wasn't even advertised. A friend of mine who just finished his first year of law school last May was explaining the process of applying for internships; they made him jump through flaming hoops (literally... I know, freaky) and wanted everything but his spleen and firstborn. All this to be considered for an unpaid position. As he put it, "I've never had to work so hard to convince someone to let me work for them for free!" 

I had a conversation with someone recently about the nature of work, and how discouraging it can be... for many, it seems that no matter how lifeless and pointless our work might seem, it is necessary for survival. We slave away at seemingly menial tasks... filing paperwork, cleaning pools, parking cars, piloting commercial flights, de-paper jamming printers, drawing up contracts and lesson plans, selling, selling, selling... trying to convince everyone that they need what we've got. And if they don't need it... well, they should want it, and they shouldn't be happy until they have it. I quipped that in this light... the light that exposes us chasing after the carrot, baby-stepping to 5 o'clock so that we can go and do the things that we really enjoy but can't get paid to do... in this light, work is almost evil; a curse, the opposite of joy and prosperity and freedom, the abundant life's wicked stepmother. I was being facetious of course, but then I realized... it's kind of true. You know the curse I'm talking about: Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field."(Genesis 3:17-18) Certainly it's a bit metaphoric because few of us are working in an agricultural setting anymore (and don't you think that's a shame?), but you get the point. "Life and work are going to be a lot tougher. You'll work longer hours and get fewer returns. Your boss will hound you, you'll kill yourself trying to get that holiday bonus, and your kids will constantly complain that all their friends have Guitar Hero and they don't... and you're ruining their life-uh!" I think that's the Message version. 

Before I continue, I should clarify that this is not an indictment of our economic system, because despite current circumstances, the free market economy is the best system ever developed. Unlike Marxism, which is a joke, and mercantilism (think 18th century England and modern China... weighed, measured, and found wanting), capitalism works. Societies thrive because of it. In the best of circumstances - i.e., free of protectionism, interventionism, and alltheotherisms -  it benefits all parties involved. But it capitalizes on our wanting more; it is contingent upon our restlessness, our dissatisfaction, our malcontentment. Money isn't the problem...  if it were, redistribution would be sufficient. No- LOVE of money is the problem (duh, right?). But contrary to what utopian philosophizers and the communist manifesto would have us believe, no amount of government programs/programming can weed out the greed, because government can't better people. In dealing with the major root issues that actually plague us, people ultimately have only one hope- Jesus. But lets not make that into an argument for theocracy, because that's certainly not what I'm saying. And I'm also not saying that we're on a one way train to Doomsville; after all, necessity is the mother of invention. We are in need, and it is an exciting time to see what entrepreneurial methods of thriving people will come up with as a response to this adversity. But our current situation certainly makes you stop and think.

For my part, I do find that consumerism runs contrary to my intrinsic desire to live simply. Not that I want to be poor. Who wants to be poor? Nuns maybe. If I were to embrace a minimalist mentality, I might say something like "All you need is love"... or "All you need is good food, good music, and good company." I think there are many who feel the same way; certainly many from my generation. I recently had a discussion with a friend at a wedding about this very topic. About priorities and aspirations and the sorts of things that we might find fulfilling. And nothing that we came up with seems to fit the mold of anything that we've seen in contemporary society. We both had the sense that there is something more. Perhaps something previously dismissed as peripheral. I have many older friends and acquaintances who've lived long enough in the American McDream, and are no longer enticed by the house and 2 car garage, regardless of how low mortgage rates are. Now, this American Dream started out nobly enough... everyone with enough to support his family and live comfortably in freedom. That's honest! That's good! God bless those aspirations, for those who desire it. 

But I don't quite want that.  At least I don't think I do. I want to be unfettered; Suburbia scares me. Of course I'm young and unattached, so I don't have a family to think about; an older, married, mommy version of me might say "All you need is good food, good music, and good company.... and a house and a large savings account, just in case." All of it is intended to create a feeling of security... but security is a notion of human invention, anyway. It isn't found in nature! Of course there is wisdom in financial scrupulousness. But manmade security is a mirage. As the chimp from Babe, Pig in the City would put it: "Its illusory. It's ill, and its for losers." And on the topic of security, other hefty questions come into play. Am I so intently stalking security because I simply don't trust the Lord's provision? When does this fall into the realm of leaning on our my understanding? Someone once told me, "Fear is the antithesis of faith." Well, God went out of His way to say "fear not" 365 times in the Word. How can I help but see this financial meltdown as an opportunity!? An opportunity to approach the throne with more boldness? An opportunity for the Lord to do something big! If God is who I believe Him to be, there is a goldmine of untapped, unfamiliar providence awaiting me on the horizon. It might not be what I am expecting or looking for, (green papery stuff) but He hasn't forgotten me. Any of us. Blessed assurance.

note: I really wanted a compelling image to be placed here... something that would convey fearlessness and faith and stuff. But when I googled "fearless," I was inundated with images of Taylor Swifts cover from her latest album... So for the record I just want to say that I think Beyonce's album cover was the best album cover, and it really deserved to be featured.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I found my dream job... kinda

I was in Borders a few weeks ago with my friend Alex, sitting in the cafe and reading on a Friday evening. There were lots of people around, even though the store was about to close. As we were heading for the door I noticed a little girl, who couldn't have been more than four, wandering around the cafe area. She was walking in little circles, biting her finger. I thought she looked a little out of place because aside from Alex and myself, there were no other white folks in sight, and none of the people there were watching her. Instinctively I stopped. She continued to trot around on her chubby little legs, looking more and more anxious; Alex and I looked at each other and I whispered, "Is she lost?" At that very moment, the little girl stopped dead in her tracks. Her legs bent at the knees, slightly inward, as though she were about to collapse; her hands dropped to her sides, her shoulders slumped, and although her back was to me, I heard her cry. It was heartbreaking.

I walked over to her, crouching down and reaching out to touch her little shoulder. As she turned to me, I asked her "Honey, are you lost?" I had barely gotten the words out when she leaned into me, collapsing into my arms as I reached out to scoop her up. She hid her face in my shoulder and sobbed "I don't know where she is... she said good-bye to meee..." and started to cry again. As I tried to soothe her, I asked her for her name. She hiccuped, "My name is Kira.... I don't know where my mommy is!" She clutched me tightly like a little monkey, wrapping her legs around my waist as if for dear life. Having worked at Borders before, I knew that they had a strict no-touch policy with lost children. I hated it because kids got lost in our megastore all the time, and I felt so cold and distant by refusing to hold them. I totally understand the policy, but it was awful anyway. I can only imagine how alone this little one could have felt had she been discovered by an employee, who then would have to coax her to the customer service desk when the poor thing was too frightened to move. I carried her down the aisles, thinking about what she was saying- her mother had said "good-bye" to her? Did I have an abandoned child on my hands? As I considered this, I panned the store for an appropriately panicked-looking parent and sure enough, a woman came running to me with that mixture of fear and anger on her face... the expression of a parent who is so relieved you're not dead that they're now ready to kill you for making them worry. Kira went right to her, crying "You said good-bye to me, mommy!" and the mother, thanking me and taking her little girl, said "No, you wandered away from me when I told you to be still." I'll be honest- I wanted to smack the woman for letting it happen, taking into account the size of the store (huge), the amount of time that had passed (enough to regret), and the little girls insistence that her mother had told her good-bye (wtf), but I simply smiled, said "You're welcome" and left.

As I recounted this story later on, I explained how relieved I was, in that moment of picking her up, to know that this little girl, while lost, would at least be safe with me. The relief in her eyes and her little body as she fell into my arms was so precious; I told my mom, "I just wish I could find lost children all the time..."  She looked at me and said with a little twinkle in her eye, "Now there's a career for you."

How amazing would that be? To find and comfort lost and frightened children, and bring them safely home? (I know, I know, it's been done. But don't act like Denzel's "Man on Fire" is more interesting than me. Psh) As I've mentioned before, seeing the films Changeling and Gone Baby Gone affected me pretty heavily because they opened my eyes to horrors that, for some reason, I didn't believe possible. I've always thought myself a realist, but apparently I was still too optimistic about humanity to believe that anyone could actually harm a child on purpose (Out of sheer wickedness, like the child rapist and murderer from Changeling... which is a true story, by the way).

I still go back to that sentence that I spoke so unwittingly: "I wish I could find lost children all the time." Can I have that job? Like a nonprofit bounty-hunter, but way, way different. It's like Derek Zoolander seeing his reflection in a spoon... suddenly everything becomes really clear and you think, "Wow, I'm (insert talent, obsession, or the one thing that you have going for you... ridiculously good-looking), maybe I should do that for a career!" Maybe not, but I just watched Zoolander so it's still right there at the front of my mind. Work with me.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Maternity Ward: Welcome to the World, Baby Girl

"I'd love to have children. It's what completes you." -Paris Hilton
You know those girls who talk about babies all the time? The ones for whom marriage is merely a means to a very particular end... children? Well, they freak me out. Seriously. I don't know if I can explain it exactly, it just seems so backward. They seem to gain their identity from their ovaries. They are ones who flip out when their children leave the home because for all the doting and care and attention they poured out on their children, it was somehow about them... the need to be needed. Think of Ray Romano's mom in Everybody Loves Raymond. C.S. Lewis says, "Controlling women are the sort of women who 'live for others.' You can tell the 'others' by their hunted expression." Preach it. We've all been around a person like this; the woman who toils away in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day and then blows a gasket because you didn't eat enough of the green bean casserole or cranberry sauce... never mind that you're allergic to cranberries. Or there's the woman who volunteers all the freaking time at church for various activities and makes you feel like dirt because you just don't have the time to make a brisket, much less coordinate the potluck. I get the sneaking suspicion that these women are modeling themselves after the Proverbs 31 woman. And can I be honest with you? Uncomfortably honest? I can't stand the Proverbs 31 woman. Sure, I love the idea of her... she's all handy and self-reliant, what with makin' all her own clothes and food and being a shrewd business woman. But come on. She doesn't sleep. Her children will arise and call her blessed because she's been baking bread since the crack of dawn. Sorry, I don't like bread that much. "She gets up while it is still early"... "her lamp doesn't go out at night." Glorified workaholic, is what that is. And, as Stasi Eldredge pointed out in her book Captivating -which I loved- she probably doesn't have time for sex, either. (*Gasp* "But Christian women aren't supposed to think about sex! They're not supposed to want to have sex!" Thats a whole 'nother blog entry right there, folks.) And if she's doing all of this out of anything but real, selfless love for her family and for her God, it's going to show.

Now you're probably wondering if I'm some sort of Ebenezer Scrooge... I must hate kids and want to devote all my time to a selfish hedonistic lifestyle, right?
Wrong. I adore kids. And its a risky thing for a 24 year old Christian single girl to talk about, because you automatically seem to get filed into a certain category... there's either "solid Christian girl with lots of marriage potential" if you get gaga over babies, or "nominal Christian girl with some serious worldy hangups and priority issues" if you aren't sure you want them just yet, if at all.

I'm neither one of those girls. I grew up with two younger brothers... and I was the go-to babysitter. So I didn't exactly leap at the nanny jobs that my friends had in high school and college. People assume that if your primary income isn't from babysitting, well then you must not really like children. But that isn't it either. Here's the deal: I happen to have an incredible mother (don't we all... but seriously she's phenomenal... you should meet her) who poured her life out to give her children all the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional sustenance she could possibly muster. Now, because I had an incredible model for what a mother can be, I frankly don't want to give anything less. I've been brought up to believe that children deserve all the love and nurturing they can possibly get from their parents, who are ideally (albeit feebly) supposed to be modeling the selfless love of God. Children are such incredibly beautiful little beings. Magical, in a way. They're fragile and at the same time, steady... simultaneously cantankerous and reverent to hilarious degrees, full of wonder and potential and covered with the fingerprints of our Abba Father. And I can't imagine not wanting to protect them and foster them and love them to life.

But wait... law school has been my goal since third grade. While my childhood friends were planning their weddings, I was planning my presidency. My grandfather recently asked me if I plan to get married and have children at some point. I told him I was certainly open to the idea... to which he responded "Well then what are you going to college for?"

I suppose it shouldn't really be a difficult question to answer... these days, all mothers work. That seems like the obvious answer. But my mom didn't, and for that reason, I don't have a paradigm for that sort of lifestyle. I will always feel that staying home with them is the best alternative, at least until they're old enough to start elementary school. I can't imagine farming my kids out to daycare and letting the world get its greasy fingers all over them, when I know the sort of attention I received, and how I benefitted from it in those formative years. Believe me, I understand that not all families have the luxury of stay-at-home moms, and not all moms want to stay at home... although more often than not, I find new mothers willing to give up their job security for extended maternity leave. I'm guessing something instinctual kicks in. But often, necessity trumps desire and instinct. Financially struggling households are commonplace, as are single parents households (and my hat is off to them). But - and forgive me if this is too bold - it doesn't seem to be the ideal scenario, and I think they would tell you so.

I don't know why all of this is coming to mind recently. If I do indeed have a biological clock, it's definitely not ticking. I don't look at beautiful babies and think "I want one!" I think "Let me hold him! ... and then give him back." My best friend has a beautiful son that I adore (and don't see often enough, for the record... Courtney...) And I am excited to meet my children one day, if I have them. But I don't feel any urgency, whatsoever. It's a terribly complex question for women these days, women who feel as though their primary calling isn't solely motherhood. I don't understand the antiquated mentality that governed society for centuries... the notion that you have little girls and keep them only to be future breeders. The real focus was on growing the boys into confident, viable men. The girls were acceptable so long as they were reproductively mature. In Western society, it seems really passe to have this mentality. Paul addresses this matter in Galatians 3:28, saying we are neither male nor female... so we're people first, male/female second, right? (On a hefty side note- how much of our historical global trauma could've been avoided if we'd diligently applied that scripture to our lives?) Now, I hesitate to say this because I'm reluctant to be labeled a fembot, and I know that there are plenty of people who'd rather just not think about it, so they disavow anyone that does think about it. I'm not a second-wave feminist who applies Title 9 to life in general... my unquestioning allegiance to the feminist movement stopped around the first wave. But for as long as I can remember (no exaggeration) I've imagined myself having a fantastically purposeful and challenging job, borne of my love for God and my love for mankind, championing the defenseless and fighting injustice, giving a voice to the voiceless and rest for the weary. I feel a calling to live out Micah 6:8- not a calling to keep myself in a Mercedes-Benz and the ever-perfect mani/pedi. But what if this calling interferes with my idea of perfect motherhood?

Case in point: I know other professional women, women who've gone before me and attested to the fact that once they had a baby, they suddenly wanted nothing more than to quit their job and take care of it. Well, that seems natural and healthy and... holy. I truly believe that children, for those that have them, are to be their parents' primary ministry. It makes sense, right? We first learn of God as Father, so obviously the parental role (one of the most natural in the world) is divinely inspired. And I believe that parenthood is one of the most powerful ways to learn about the character of God. Here is the heart of it: I don't want my children to be casualties of my noble career pursuing justice and healing for other people. Chuck Colson pointed out in his book How Now Shall We Live? that fatherlessness seems to be at the heart of most major social problems. And spiritually, that makes perfect sense, what with our projecting our earthly father's issues onto our Heavenly Father and acting out accordingly. So it would seem that so many social ills are the result of parents who ultimately failed to make their children their priority, their first ministry. I've seen this happen so often with pastors kids... it's tragic. And I couldn't live with myself. I feel that you can do both... that is, have a rewarding personal career and be a devoted parent... and I was stoked to read an article in Surf magazine several years ago about Shayne and Shannon McIntyre, the surfer couple that had a baby and never missed a beat, simply including him in the ride, taking him with them everywhere. Now thats my kind of gig. Read more about the McIntyres, and Shannon in particular, here

Who knows why these questions are suddenly filling my head? I'm single, recently graduated, and virtually free to do as I please. Settling down isn't exactly on the top of my list, and I don't foresee children in my near future. I want adventure, I want to see the world, I want the Lord to incline my heart, and to take me where He goes. So now here I am, trying to navigate the path of a young, anxious, hopeful, discouraged, excited, frightened, confident, confused 24 year old without a road map, save for the Holy Spirit- who, frankly, doesn't audible as often as I'd like. As Fannie Flagg put it... Welcome to the world, baby girl.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Urban Wild West: From Fences to Saint Francis and back.

As my experience downtown continues, I find myself asking a lot more questions about the Lord, about people, about obedience and faith and what they look like when they're walked out. I was hoping to have more answers than questions, but no such luck... yet.

The questions that keep cropping up in my mind are always triggered by the inner city squalor that we deal with: prostitution, drug addiction, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, domestic violence... its like a microcosmic example of all the darkness and despair to which a human being is capable of giving himself. These problems are exactly what the Department has been trying to alleviate... but it's not something that a government can do. (The notion of the perfectability of the human race is a dangerous one that I reject as idealistic utopianism... and we can probably get into that later.) The best they can do is recognize a legitimate need and attempt to coordinate a sincere and concentrated solution. As a Christian, I serve a God whose very Existence and Presence restores and redeems and renews, whose mercy is the hope of the drug addict, the prostitute, the pimp, the gang members, the fatherless... how would the Lord have us engage in the dangerous world around us? Are we to put ourselves out there, trusting that He will protect us? Do we lead in the vanguard, knowing we have physical and spiritual adversaries that cannot be shut out forever? Do we face the danger that must be made to back down as we stand on the righteousness of our mighty God? Do we tear down our fences as an act of fearlessness, a refusal to be cowed by gangsters? When do we reach out to the aggressor with his knife to our throats, as David Wilkerson did when held up at knife point by Nicky Cruz? (he said, "You can cut me into a thousand pieces, and every piece will love you just the same"... Wow. I know myself, and I'm not quite there yet....) How do we speak to their broken humanity, offering love in the face of brutality, calling their souls out of darkness? When do we flee? When do we draw the line?

Mercy seasoned with justice seems to be the answer... but it's a frightening one. Evil exists, and sometimes humans give themselves over to it. How do we respond to blatant evil? Child molesters, pimps, rapists? Even then, those are just the ones whose hopelessness and depravity has gone public. How about those who keep their despair to themselves? Who self-medicate and merely survive every day? Living as shadows? These are the ones whose actions make community revitalization both necessary and incredibly difficult. I believe no one is too far gone to be reached by the mercy of Christ... to me, mercy is absolutely one of God's most beautiful and enthralling and glorious attributes. I'm captivated by this element of God's character. I can't adequately express how I love what it does to, and for, the human soul. It's restorative. It breathes life to dry bones. It is Christ! But after watching the films Changeling and Gone Baby Gone... which horrified me, and made me want to adopt every child in the foster care system as well as personally take out every child molester, Boondock Saints style... I can honestly say that my mercy has a very finite ending point. I simply don't have it in me to extend mercy to those who prey on the innocent and defenseless. And that is why God is God, and I am not.

Two passages come to mind as I wrestle with these questions. We all know Ephesians 6:12 "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." I try to remember this in times of anger, when I find myself furious with another human... which happens more frequently than I'd like to admit. Then there's the Prayer of St. Francis that I would do well to whisper (when I would like nothing more than to shout my vile frustrations):

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

What sort of boldness would we be walking in if we, as Christians, embraced this tender merciful righteousness? If we acted as true salt and light, how would the world heal? If we faced down evil, standing in the righteousness of the power of the Most High God rather than our own self righteousness, how fearfully would it retreat? What if we stopped living on the defensive, vaulted the fences, and started pressing forward into the Kingdom of God?

The Urban Wild West: Great Whites and Fences and Gangsters, Oh My!

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:`
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors?..."

"The Mending Wall" - Robert Frost

Most joking aside, I've actually quite enjoyed the last few weeks. The department is in transition, having been newly created in January; naturally there are lots of kinks to iron out. I am making friends, networking, and getting a great glimpse into the world of urban planning and neighborhood revitalization. There's much to learn, and as I round a corner I didn't know existed, I find more and more that I didn't know that I didn't know. It's dwarfing. I've spent hours researching everything from broadband grant initiatives to municipal codes for real property ordinances to fence height regulations to back alley dumping and graffiti "abatement." (I like that word. It sounds so much more professional than "stop it.")

The director of the department, Greg, is one of those dynamic people that you can't help but like, even when you disagree about everything. He's outgoing, funny, and an absolute genius. All in a very understated way, which is, I think, one of the most admirable of human qualities. We went to lunch the other day (He pays this unpaid intern with mexican food, which is glorious); over a bowl of throat-excoriating caldo, we discussed the recent municipal code violation citations that had been issued within a particular downtown neighborhood. The issue is this:
Chain link fences aren't supposed to exceed 3 feet tall. The purpose in regulating fences is actually to discourage fences in general. But everyone in the neighborhood has a fence. So what? The problem with the prevalence of fences is this: there are so many subconscious, subtle messages that a fence may send to the community. Think about it... are there fences in your neighborhood? Why or why not? Do fences enhance the aesthetics of a community? Even the most ornate and majestic wrought iron fences communicate a clear message: keep out. In the case of the neighborhoods in question, there are fences beautiful and ugly, solid and dilapidated, but they are all fences. These people erect them to keep their families in, and their surroundings out. This poses a problem for neighborhood revitalization; if we want to bring people into the area to live and raise their families, we want the streets to send a message that says "Come on in. Relax. No one is going to carjack you." Fences don't exactly put off the "relax, stay a while" vibe. But for some neighborhoods, it's not so simplistic.

This was the point of contention that Greg and I reached: He argues that the residents should be required to bring their fences down to regulation size because the presence of high fences sends a message of insecurity to prospective buyers, driving down property values and discouraging young professionals from relocating. This contributes to a desolate vibe and a generally ominous, off-putting community demeanor. His argument struck me as eerily similar to a scene from the movie Jaws:

 If you recall, the town of Amity's 4th of July celebration is just around the corner when an awful, grisly shark attack occurs off the coastline. Because Amity's summer tourism generates so much vital revenue, the mayor decides that he can't afford to close the beaches because of one shark attack, no matter how deadly. In order to coax the public to enter into the festivities (and the water), he convinces some of the locals to set an example by going swimming, knowing that the town risks losing a substantial amount of money if the tourists don't have a greater sense of well-being. By pressuring the hesitant and nervous locals (who know better) into sacrificing their better judgment for the sake of economic profit, he endangers lives.
In this neighborhood analogy, the shark is replaced by the prevalence of gangs. There are single houses inhabited by gang members who terrorize entire neighborhoods of law abiding citizens, citizens who are too afraid of retaliation to do anything about the bullies. I asked Greg what he suggests these people do? He answered by giving an analogy. He asked what sort of characteristics set apart the settlers of the 'wild west,' making them capable of pioneering when others failed. I replied that they were hardy and ready to fight, not easily intimidated, and determined to survive. I asked him if he would have the residents sit out on their porches at night with shotguns (I personally like that approach)? Thats the Davy Crockett thing to do. Well, he was surprisingly open to the idea. But we don't live in the Wild West. There aren't supposed to be marauders roaming around terrorizing the womenfolk and shooting up the saloons. We live in cities with police forces that are supposed to deal with the bad guys so we don't have to do it.

And so my issue is this: Why is it that the City whose police force fails to adequately protect them from aggressors, is the same City that penalizes them for fencing them out?

In this specific instance, the city appears to be fining residents and forcing them to lower their fences because it is simpler, and more financially lucrative, than eliminating the need for fences in the first place (i.e., cracking down on crime) which is also the city's job. In this case, I say they owe it to the residents to make the neighborhoods safe before they penalize them for protecting themselves.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the fencey type. I don't like the idea of merely keeping corruption at bay. I loved the movie "Gran Torino" (am I the only one who thought it was pretty hilarious except for the ending?). It illustrates the problem perfectly; sometimes corruption comes right into your yard and picks a fight, demanding to be addressed. Without getting into the conversation about just war, pacifism, and hawkishness (another topic for another time), when do you say enough is enough? A defensive battle is, tactically speaking, often easier to fight, but is it always the most conclusive? When do you tear down your fence and take on the encroaching neighborhood bully, reclaiming your territory? How does a Christian approach it, when faced with obvious evil and injustice? I don't know the best way to handle it... but I do know that the worst thing we can do in the face of injustice and evil is to look the other way out of indifference or fear.