What it Means to Church

When God dragged me kicking and screaming back to Charlotte, I began a new season of my life. The sun of that season, which warmed the ground and made things grow, was The Gathering–a nondenominational church meeting in an elementary school gym.

Until The Gathering, I had always attended church. It was as necessary as attending school. The Gathering, however, spurred me on to something more. It wasn’t just a corporate worship event. It was a community of friendly smiles that made me feel like Sunday morning was home–like I had friends even though I was new. They taught me that being a part of the church was so much more rewarding than being a member of a congregation. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to miss a Sunday because I didn’t want to miss the love and support of that relationship.

I can’t lie. I joined their children’s ministry because I thought it’d help me get a job. You know they say connections are key and volunteer work is what builds them. But all that changed in an instant when I showed up the first Sunday to work with kids. Before the service began, Pastor Derwin came back to pray with us. The head of the children’s ministry grabbed me and said, “Derwin! This is the one we have been praying for!” I knew then, that I wasn’t there for me. I can’t describe that feeling–to be needed that much, to be an answer to prayer. It was such a boost in confidence that it stirred a powerful sense of humility in me.

I was a part of the Gathering for eight years, working in the children’s ministry as much as I could. It was the longest I had ever attended a single church. And it was the first time I was really a part of a church.

Through them, I learned of One7 Ministries, which became my passion and the start of my teaching career. I gained invaluable friendships that have lasted through thick and thin. I found loving accountability and genuine connections. Through them, I found what it really meant to church.

The Gathering closed their doors this summer. It was the end of a season for all of us, and God is ushering us on to the next. He has sent us out to bear witness, and all the things we’ve gained from that community will be shared.

So we will “go out with joy and be lead forth with peace (Is 55:12).” …There’s not too many mountains around here, and far more buildings than trees, but… I think the sentiment is still there.

Thank you, Gathering, for your part in my life!

Jacob, Jonah and My One Word

I’m starting off the new year reading The Forgotten God by Francis Chan, and it has taken me all of 2 weeks t realize how terrified I am of the Holy Spirit.

forgottengodchan

Some people are afraid that if they call on the Holy Spirit, he won’t show up–that God will remain silent. I am afraid of the opposite. I’m afraid that he will show up. As soon as he does, I know there will be things in my sinful life that he will want to strip from me and there will be things he wants me to do that are not easy, comfortable, or pleasant (and all this coming from a missionary kid who grew up with spiders the size of my hand).

The topic has driven me to wrestle with God for all of January. I know that I can’t say “no” to the Holy Spirit. And I know that he should be the focus for My One Word this year. I can’t ignore him anymore. He’s too much of an integral part of the Bible, salvation, and relationship with God. Even Jesus said that it was better that he leaves us so that the Holy Spirit can come to us. How can I shrug that off?

So out of a sense of Christian duty, I started praying that God would help me want the Holy Spirit (because I was still at the point where I couldn’t just say I wanted him on my own). And then I took a walk to sort through my thoughts, to argue with myself, and wrestle with God about the fears I had for the future.

The truth is, I already know what it’s like to have God pull me into places I don’t want to go and situations I’m not comfortable with. I’ve been a Jonah several times. That’s how I ended up in Charlotte after asking God to send me anywhere in the world except Charlotte.

img_0046

I mean, it looks fine from a distance and all…

But after I got over myself, I found that God didn’t actually want me to be miserable. In fact, living in Charlotte was how God managed to give me exactly what I wanted all along, in ways that were far better than anything I had dreamed up for myself. God actually made me happy and gave me a chance to serve him joyfully in a place I never thought I could stand to be in. It was almost like… God was smarter than me or something. And he proved to be a good God. He made me a part of something awesome, gave me meaning, and used my gifts in ways I never thought possible. I helped start a school for God’s sake! (literally, for God’s sake. And at the age of 21, too).

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But being dragged into Nineveh (or Charlotte, or wherever I decide I don’t want to go) wasn’t my only fear when it came to following the Holy Spirit.

I have on my wrist a constant reminder of Christians around the world who were willing to follow the Holy Spirit boldly–even to death.

Coptic Cross tattoo

I keep this Coptic cross as a sign of solidarity with the persecuted church, but there are many times that I wonder if I have the courage to back up my tattoo with action.

It’s not that I’m afraid of death. It’s more a fear of everything that leads up to death. Physical pain, mostly. I’m a wimp. Hell, I whimpered just getting the tattoo!

But as I took my walk/wrestling match with God, he reminded me that suffering isn’t something he sends us through–it’s something he carries us through. Kind of like the famous poem about footprints in the sand, but instead of a peaceful walk on the beach, it’s more like hot coals and beds of nails. (Life is rarely a walk on the beach).

When I was 11 years old, I had guns pointed at my head by a gang that threatened to kill my family and rape us. It was an experience that a lot of people would say they never want to risk going through. The kind that makes people like me (right now) say, “God better not put me in that situation because I can’t deal with that. I’m not ready to follow the Holy Spirit into that kind of thing.”

But I did go through it. It wasn’t easy, comfortable, or pleasant, but I didn’t suffer through it on my own, either. God carried me through. And looking back on it, I would never want that experience–painful as it was–to stop me from being there in Papua New Guinea where my family had the privilege of serving God in an awesome and exciting way.

Which means that these two big fears I have are both things that God has already answered with proof of his goodness. And in retrospect, I can’t be surprised. I already knew all along that God is good and that His ways are better than my ways. I just… forgot.

So with all that said,

Come, Holy Spirit, come.

My One Word for this year is Follow.

Confession of a Wrong

I must confess to a mental wrong doing: I am guilty of a hurtful and possibly harmful judgement made on a boy in my class. I am not telling this story to try to explain away my crime, or excuse myself. I am telling this story so that others might recognize their own symptoms of stereotyping others.

This young boy appeared on my classroom roster before school started, but he did not come to class the first day. His cousin did, though–a cleanly dress, tall girl with glasses and colorful school supplies. I asked her where her cousin was and she simply rolled her eyes and said, “he wants to pretend we aren’t related.”

He did come to school the second day. As soon as I saw him in the hallway, I took a breath and thought, “oh, boy.” He had a face that looked much more mature than an 11 year old should, but not in the “I know better than to cause problems” sort of maturity. His solid jawline and squarish features indicated that he was either older than the others in the grade, or that he simply matured, physically, much faster than everyone. Either way, it screamed trouble to me and gave me flashbacks to some of my most difficult students of previous years–the ones that ran gangs and got girls to do things that 11 year olds are much too young to be doing.

He smiled broadly at everyone–the kind of smile that was less friendly and more mischievous–and stepped into my classroom with a swagger that made  him look like he owned the room.

That smile never left his face as he squatted with his feet in his chair and raised his hand to volunteer to read out loud just before saying, “psych!” And pulling his hand down.

When I asked him to sit properly in his chair, he jokingly tried out several positions with his feet on the desk or wherever he knew would be bothersome.

His cousin sighed loudly across the room.

I wrote him off after only 2 attempts to call on him, deciding that he probably wouldn’t give a reasonable response to anything, regardless of the fact that he raised his hand constantly. I gave up on him before the first week of school had ended.

But I was wrong. And this isn’t a “people can change” story. No. This boy didn’t suddenly change his attitude. He is still the playful kid he always was.

But in an attempt to be “fair” I called on him the second week of school to answer questions. “Nah, I don’t want to answer,” he said with a smile and yanked his hand down. I gave an internal eye roll and looked to someone else to answer, but then he said, “I’m just kidding, I’ll answer.” The next string of words that came out of his mouth proved to me that everything I thought about him was exactly wrong. Not only had he been paying attention to our class discussion when I thought he had tuned out, but he had solid insights to offer.

I called on him more often after that and was greatly impressed with his level of positive participation. The one thing he still would not do was read out loud (though, he did manage to psych me out about it a few more times).

But even that barrier got crossed eventually and I realized why he was much more comfortable playing games instead of reading. Three syllable words were not easy for him. And as I listened to him struggle to read a few sentences out loud in front of the class, I realized that it took a lot of courage for him to go through with reading instead of psyching me out.

We’re into week 5 in school and he has become a lot more comfortable with trying, even when he sees those big words and knows he’ll stumble in front of everyone. He keeps that mischievous smile on his face and volunteers more than most students to do/answer/read anything. And I am so grateful that my first impressions of him and my reactions to him did not harm his desire to try, do, and learn.

Thank you, Michael, for teaching me a valuable lesson so early in the school year.

The 2am Man

Pretty much everywhere I’ve lived has been a thin line between “ghetto” and “acceptably safe and comfortable.” Sometimes I’m dealing with persistent cockroaches, and sometimes I’m dealing with random cars blowing up in the parking lot. But wherever I live, I go to sleep knowing that
Unless God watches over the apartment, 
The locks are locked in vain. 
Unless God builds my protection,
The walls are there for nothing.
Psalm 127:1 (my translation)
That sentiment has kept me through many questionable events and strange occurrences, which I hold onto as proof that God is good. He protects me when no one else is around and gives me opportunities to be a beacon of his love when no one else will.
Back in college, I worked restaurant jobs. I never kept them for very long–I bounced from one to the next out of boredom or stress or my flippant feelings of the place. One such job had me working the closing shift on Friday nights, which meant I didn’t get home until around 2am. It didn’t bother me, really. Everything was quiet and peaceful at 2am. And if it wasn’t for all the lights in my parking lot, I’d get to see the stars.
But one night, I came home to a lot more commotion than usual. Some guy was trying to get a car to stop for him as they drove through the parking lot. They stopped for a brief moment, but drove off while he tried to talk to them through the window.
I watched the car leave and the man collapse on the sidewalk–most likely drunk. He happened to be sitting right in front of my building and there was no way to get to my apartment without passing him, so I made a bit of a wide circle around him as I headed for the door.
The man looked up at me and raised a hand like he was reaching for me. “Help me!” he said. “Please. Just let me use your phone. I just got jumped and I need to call my girlfriend. I just need to call her.”
I stopped in my tracks. He didn’t sound drunk. He sounded desperate. The man tried to get up to walk toward me, but I could tell the effort was painful and he ended up crawling more than walking.
I couldn’t just leave him there. But I recognized that I was alone in the parking lot at 2am with a strange man. So instead of showing him immediate pity, I decided to be “smart” about the situation and get another set of eyes on me. So I lied. “My phone is in my apartment,” I said. “Let me go get it.”
My plan was to get one of my roommates to watch me from the window and call the police if anything went wrong. Usually at least one of them was awake watching some late night TV. But when I opened my apartment door, there was no one and nothing but darkness.
I took a moment to think about my options and decided to call a friend of mine in the same apartment complex. He usually stayed up all night playing video games, so I was sure I could get him to help. But he didn’t pick up his phone.
Looking out my bedroom window, I could see the poor man on the sidewalk, groaning in pain and trying to crawl his way down the sidewalk until he could find someone else to help him. But there was no one else out there. No one else saw him at all. Even the men that drove off didn’t really see him.
“God,” I prayed in the darkness of my room. “You’re the only one that’s watching me now. There’s no one else. So keep me safe.”
Then I took my cell phone out of my pocket and went down to help the man. He had crawled to the other side of the parking lot by that point and was sitting by some bushes, crying. “Here,” I said, “You can use my phone.”
He called his girlfriend and asked for her to come get him, but before she would, he had to resolve a bit of a fight that they had had earlier. I felt a little bad listening in on their relationship problems, but I couldn’t just walk away while he had my phone.
After he hung up, I sat and waited with him for his girlfriend to arrive. It seemed wrong to just leave him there on his own. “What happened?” I asked.
“I got jumped,” he said. “They beat me up and took my wallet…” it sounded like there should have been more to that, but he just stopped and shook his head.
“Do you want me to call the police?”
“No! No, I just need to go home to my girlfriend and get some rest. She lives in one of these…”
Now that I was close to him, I could see the bruises all over his face, arms, and legs. Even though we sat well away from the light, his bruises were deep purple stains on his skin.
We sat in silence a while longer. I wanted to reach out and put an arm around him, but I was afraid that it’d only hurt him more. In that moment, he didn’t feel like some strange guy in the parking lot. I may not have known his name, but after sitting with him on the curb and listening to him sob, he felt more like a friend that I was trying to comfort.
…A friend that didn’t want me to call the police… as suspicious as that was, I didn’t think on it too long. Shortly after that, his girlfriend came running from the apartment building right next to mine.
“Oh, baby, what happened!?” she ran up to us in a dress that was too tight to really run in, and bent down to put her face in his. “Let’s get you home,” she said, completely ignoring my presence.
I got up and walked back to my apartment building, turning to see them hobble back to hers.
That night has taught me that fear should not stop me from doing the right thing. God watches over me, even when no one else does. He saw what happened to that man, and he put me in a position to help him–to be a friend to him in the darkness of the night.

 

Original post: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/27030/posts/1081513397

I Survived!

When I first started this school year in my new school, I was warned by all that it was not going to be easy. I had blindly signed up to teach the hardest class of students who had run off so many teachers before me that they didn’t even know what it was like to learn.

The few teachers that stayed for more than a year were called survivors. The ones that fled before Christmas break were called normal or sane.

Even with all the warnings, I could have never been prepared for what I walked into on that first day and every day after. Between the verbal abuse of the students trying their best to make me cry and the constant threat of physical fights breaking out in my classroom, it was hard for me to maintain order well enough to teach.

But I am happy to say that I am a survivor! I went through the fire of October, February, May, and everything in between, and came out on the other side–alive, exhausted, and maybe just a little more refined… or at least in some ways. My awareness of new profanity has certainly increased as well as my understanding of colloquial terms for topics I have never wished to discuss with anyone. Ever. But in terms of my perseverance and abilities in the classroom, I have become refined.

There has been a lot of learning and teaching and learning even more–on my part, I mean. The students have been fighting against learning all the way. But I have been picking up all kinds of little pieces about their life and culture. Little phrases that they say a hundred times a day have become ingrained in my brain. Things like:

Triflin’ “you’re triflin'” “that’s triflin'” or “they be triflin'”
Petty (used in the same way as triflin’)
“That’s doin’ too much” (meaning I don’t like what you’re doing)
“Why are you wri’in’ so disrespectfully” (meaning sloppy) “That’s just extra” (meaning unnecessary, or more accurately, I don’t want to do this)
Fleek (beautiful)
“Look how you feel!” (You should be embarrassed)
“Rachet”
“Rusty/dusty”
“Turnt up”

One line I really like is when a kid asked me, “Why are we called colored when you guys turn all different colors? You’re red and blue and purple…” as someone who turns splotchy red when emotional, I couldn’t disagree. We’re pretty colorful people. Of course, I tried to tell him that the term refers to the amount of melanin in the skin, but that doesn’t really negate his point.

Most interesting insults that a student has thrown at me all year-
First place: voodoo doll
Second place: cracker star

Best compliment from a student:
weirdest teacher

Best critique from a colleague:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re like a Mary Poppins. And I like Mary Poppins. But a spoon full of sugar isn’t going to fix these kids.”

I have come a long way since my first day of teaching in the ghetto of Charlotte. My understanding of the kids, of their culture and upbringing, of the most unfortunate circumstances that affect them all, has grown exponentially. As dark as some of those fall months were and as much as I dreaded some mornings, I know that God had me go through it all for a reason. It was His strength that got me through every day. And now that the year is done, I am stoked for my next year teaching in the same school.

Because I am a survivor. I didn’t run away and I have signed on for another year. The same God that gave David his fearless courage to go against a giant has given me the courage to teach the most difficult student (even if I have to do it from a bit of a distance because he likes to pickpocket me.)

I learned so much this year on the west side of Charlotte, but I still have a lot to learn. I think another year is what I need for some more refining. Bring on the fire!

“To Pray is to Change”

My year's reading on the discipline of prayer.

“Of all the Spiritual Disciplines prayer is the most central because it ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father,” Richard Foster said, it’s “the central avenue God uses to transform us.” My One Word for 2013 was “Pray.” I wanted to learn how to pray the way that God wanted me to pray. So with a small token carved with two memory verses and a short reading list, I spent the year studying prayer.

A number of books have helped me along the way. Becoming an Answer to Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne taught me that God has already provided the avenues to answer prayers in the communities around us. As he said, “Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.”

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (also by Shane Claiborne) gave me a daily structure, routine, and model for praying. It also highlighted Christians throughout the ages who exemplified God’s love and forgiveness and offered Bible readings and hymns for each day. This book was most helpful in prompting me to act out the discipline of prayer.

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster  filled me in on different kinds of prayer such as prayer of guidance and prayer of faith and gave me a wide variety of methods to help me pray. It gave me the tools to  “learn to pray so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conform to my impoverished experience.”

And most recently, With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray gave me a detailed look at what the Bible says about prayer; teaching me not just the attitude of prayer, but the way prayer is interwoven with our obedience to God’s word, Bible Study, and acts of sacrifice such as fasting. “He that would do the works of Jesus must pray in His Name. He that would pray in His Name must work in His Name.”

I have learned and grown a lot in my prayer life this year, but I’m not done learning how to pray. As much knowledge as I’ve gained in my year of study, I still have a long way to go in acting out what I’ve learned. I look forward to the changes God will be forming in me as I continue to meet with Him in a quiet place.

Last poem for NaPoWriMo

When You give the butterfly its wings,
does it say “thank you?”
What does that sound like?
Is it more beautiful than English?
Is it the sound of their whispering wing beats
As they go from petal to leaf?
 
When You give the fish it’s gills to breathe,
Does it say “thank you?”
Does it sound like silvery bubbles,
Or currents running through the ocean depths?
 
I thought that “thank you”s were said with tongues,
But my tongue can’t wrap words around the thought.
 
I thought I was lacking vocabulary.
I’ve searched for better words–
Scouring the limits of English.
 
But “thank you” isn’t found in any words.
Nothing matches the sound of leaves saying “Thank you” for the sun.
Or the sound of whales saying “Thank you” for the strength in their tales.
 
And written, it isn’t any better.
The letters are stiff and stagnant on a page.
Even when I try to bend them and make the tale curl like a butterfly’s proboscis,
It’s not a pretty “thank you.”
Not like the sky blushing in red and pink when it says “thank you.”
Or the peony’s feathery petals that spell out Your name.
 
“Thank you” falls flat from my lips
And dies on a page.
 
“Thank you” needs movement to live.
The wind calls such a beautiful “thank you” as it runs across the earth–
Brushing leaves that tickle and giggle,
Pushing clouds and forming storms.
It could never say it standing still.
 
So I have to learn to say “thank you” with more than words.
With my work
With my action
With every blink and breath and goose bump.
With every kind thing I do
And every answer to You
I say “thank you.”

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