We're a Mess and That's Okay.

“Can you guys believe that we’ve been doing this [Mission Year] for a year and a half?” This was the question that Cynthia (Alum Intern) asked a couple of weeks ago that has stopped me in my tracks as we end second trimester and head into a straight four months to finish off the year. I started second trimester with a lot of expectations and hopes. At first I gripped so tightly to those expectations – often falling into disappointment in myself and my community. My expectations said “I need you to love me unconditionally” and thus, did not provide room for the mess that needed to happen: the messy dishes, the messy debates, the messy “too-much-to-do-too-little-time” attitude I carried. It is because of the mess in these past couple of months, that I have grown to desire more reconciliation, vulnerability, and unity in diversity in my life. It is because of the mess that I have learned the importance of holding loosely of my expectations so that I may learn how to be a better leader.

With the end of this trimester, I’ve seen my team grow a lot in setting better boundaries and inviting others into their personal growth. Watching them grow, I’ve felt challenged to set better boundaries and expectations in my relationships. Exhibit A: the messy dishes.
The dirty dishes are something that we often talk about in our community. I hear questions in the house like “Who left their dirty dish in the sink?” “Can you put the dishes away?” “Whose turn is it to wash dishes?” [NOTE: I’m sure that if we had a dishwasher, it would be “Who didn’t load the dishes? Who didn’t unload the dishes?” and so forth. It could also be about other things that each person does differently. All that to say, no matter what, this messy (fill in the blank) thing we rely on each other to do would probably be a consistent topic of discussion]. A couple of weeks ago during the concerns part of our team meeting, one of my housemates noted that it seems like she is the only one who asks these questions that push others to uphold their end of the commitment we each have to helping our community flow. After a few seconds, I felt that I needed to confess (out loud) to the group that I was probably hindering others from holding their end of the commitment to keeping the kitchen clean by washing dirty dishes when they weren’t mine. Voicing this was an invitation to allow others to hold me accountable to not only leave other people’s dirty dishes alone, but also an acceptance of the needs I heard in my roommate’s concern to join her in the asking of others.

With these little tiny steps towards creating better boundaries in different aspects of my life, I realize that I’m becoming more at peace with what I offer to my housemates as a person and a leader. I’m beginning to give my time, emotions, friendship, and vulnerability out of my true self and avoiding burnout by giving out of what I assume others need from me. This helps me to create the space necessary in my heart to celebrate community; letting go of what is not and embracing the beauty of what is.

In a recent conversation, I was reminded to be of good cheer towards my intentional Mission Year community. It’s not too much longer, where the definition of intentional community will be transformed by the number of unshared meals, different churches, different work schedules, etc. Spring time is almost here and I sense a transition into a season of celebration and rejoicing over the work that God began in August of 2012. I will never get this beautiful, hard, and transformative season of my life back – and as much as I want to run away when the going gets tough, my commitment to myself and my community is to stop tip-toeing around the messy water, and jump fully into what is right in front of me.


Neighboring Is...

Neighboring is worth it.
Neighboring is worth it, but it is not easy.
Last year on Francis Street, neighboring was “easier.” But then again, it is always easier to look back and think of our past in an idealistic way. We lived in a neighborhood where many kids would ride their bikes through our yard, people would stop by to look at our garden, or watch us as we pushed the kids on the tire swing that the guys put up. Looking back, it seemed that neighbors were always available and in the neighborhood when it was most convenient for us and our schedule (so ideal, right?).
I’ve sat with this idea of neighboring for a couple of weeks – especially as I begin to reflect back on my first year experience - and wrestle through the differences we face in neighboring this year. 
This year, we live in an apartment complex owned by one of our service sites, Fifth Ward CRC. It’s not too often that we see families sitting outside on the porch, kids riding their bikes, and so forth. Every day we walk by several guys who sit under the tree or by the corner store. A couple blocks down the street, there is a water park and playground where we’ve met a couple of kids. My team walks to their service site every day and our church is walking distance as well. We are in the neighborhood every day, yet we’ve also struggled to build deeper relationships with those we see throughout the week.
Neighboring is not easy.
I’ve come to recognize that the act of neighboring is not easy. I can do all of the above and walk through the neighborhood every day and not really get to know people. I guess if you replace neighboring with relationships, we would all agree that relationships take a lot of work. So, when Jesus asked me to love my neighbors, I strongly believe that I'm not being asked to do something - but that I become someone who just loves people. It only gets complicated when I make it complicated and try to dissect what it means and how I should do this and....

This loving people thing? Yes, i
t requires a lot of giving and receiving. Yes, it would be a lot easier if everyone in our neighborhood were doing Mission Year (another idealistic statement...). But, I think there is a discipline that we are learning as we walk around the neighborhood for hours on Saturday trying to be present and available for those relationships. It isn’t guaranteed that I’ll meet the entire block and have story after story on my blog of neighbors who’ve changed our lives. But, I think what is guaranteed is that as I continue to pursue the call I feel towards building relationships with great love, I’ll be changed.
 Neighboring (Relationships) requires making choices.
We have to choose to be present in the neighborhood. It may seem like a given in Mission Year, that being in the neighborhood comes easily for all of us who commit to being here. It doesn’t. It is my second year with Mission Year and I don’t have it all figured out. All I know is that I’ve come to the point where I desire to know the people that live in my neighborhood and I don’t desire to be a stranger to them or them to me.

Choosing to stop, be present and seek relationships with neighbors has been the most rewarding thing. God has shown me ways in which we are learning what it means to be a good neighbor and to allow our neighbors to be neighbors to us.
For example, the other day as I was taking out the trash, Mr. Bryan saw me struggle with the cup of water in one hand. Instead of just saying hello, he told me that he’ll take care of it and walked to open the dumpster for me. That wasn’t just a kind gesture that was an act of kindness from a good neighbor. I strongly believe that after the several months I’ve seen Mr. Bryan, this happened because I took the time a couple weeks ago to stop in my hurried state and shake his hand and introduce myself to him.
And there are several other examples in which my housemates are revealing that neighboring doesn’t have boundaries…Tarrin always sits with Ms. A in church. Kira is responsible for helping coordinate Feed the Hungry – where she interacts with a lot of our neighbors and has built relationships with them. Heather goes and picks up the kids in the neighborhood so they can attend youth group. Charlie has been teaching lessons at youth group. Caleb sits with the men in our neighborhood and has gotten to know them more. Taylor loves on the dogs in our neighborhood, which is noticeable and admired by a lot of the neighbors who love these stray dogs as well.
So, in my opinion, we’re neighboring…and you probably are too. But the one thing that we must never loose is that intentionality within our relationships. It looks different for all of us. It’ll look different for me once again after this year. The most important thing I’m learning to do is let go of expectations and just pursue relationships intentionally and in a way that restores my view of love and relationships.

Remember, there is no failing when you pursue relationships.
It'll be messy. It has to be messy. Let it be messy. Messy is not failing, it is a sign of the growth that is happening as you pursue loving people.


It is better to give than receive, they said...

It is better to give than to receive, they said. How many times have you heard that before?

During Mission Year, I’ve found that I have challenged myself to give more than I receive. Along the way, I realize that I’ve lost the ability to receive from others…essentially, not giving them the joy and blessings found in giving.

Last week I was on the 80 heading to work. It was the fullest that I have ever seen it. I approached the only seat I saw available and as I was sitting down, I mumbled hello and asked if I could sit next to her (not really giving her a choice of saying no). She scooted closer to the window. Oops, maybe she’s offended that I chose to sit next to her?

The bus finally started going and after a few minutes of coughing, she asked, “would you mind… a couple of dollars…coffee?” I was caught off guard and only heard bits of her request.

“Oh, excuse me? I didn’t hear that,” I replied.

“It’s really cold out and I have this cough…would you mind sparing change for coffee?”

Then my reasoning started having a conversation with me in my head. If I give her money, would she actually use it for coffee? What if she doesn’t? Why do I care so much on what she will use a couple dollars for? She’s right, it is really cold out and if I didn’t have money for coffee, I’d really hope someone would buy me a cup. Remember the solitude retreat when you asked people for a cup of coffee and you got rejected? Ouch.

“Ma’am, I really don’t feel comfortable giving money out, but I’ll buy you that cup of coffee if you go to the coffee shop with me.”

“Well, I can’t walk far, so would you get off here with me to the corner store?” she replied.

Okay, this is getting a little complicated. I’m running late to the meeting. She told me where the store is and that it only costs $1 at the corner store for a cup of coffee. Maybe she’s not lying.

“Ma’am, I’m running late to a meeting. I feel comfortable about giving you a dollar for that coffee.”

She was thankful for the dollar. Then we exchange names and I begin to hear her story.

Ms. Pat was on her way back to downtown from Fifth Ward. She has been trying to get a job for a while but her history prevents her from getting a job. When she was 19 she got into some trouble and was locked up for a long time. Her past has followed her. Once she got out from prison, she became addicted to crack and has been trying her best to get clean.

“Things are hard these days, but I keep trying,” she said.

As I heard her story, my heart went out to her. It seems like she’s been stuck in a cycle within the system and no matter how hard she tries, things end up back to the starting position. That’s discouraging and that’s the story of injustice for a lot of my neighbors here.

I reach for my backpack and realize that I also had some candy and Nutella packets in there. I offered them to her and her face lit up…way more than when I gave her a dollar for the cup of coffee…way more than my face when my roommate, Kira, chose to share the candy and Nutella that she got in her care package.

Then Ms. Pat leaned over to reach into her pocket. “I have something that I want to give you, too,” she said. Oh, no. What could she give me? She doesn’t seem to have much. She brought out a pocket sized NIV booklet of the book of John. I glanced at it, didn’t hear what she had to say about it and made my petition to give it back to her.

“This is so nice, but I already have a bible. Maybe you should hold on to it? I really don’t need this.”

After a while, I realized that she really wanted me to have this as a gift. She had so much joy in wanting to give and my pushback showed me how much I struggled to receive things, often robbing others the joy of giving. I eventually took the book as I listened to her blessings over me.

If I’ve been learning one thing from my neighbors here in Houston, it is the importance that learning to receive well has as much value as learning to give well. I think that is what generosity. This is the person that I am becoming. I am learning to allow others to provide for me uniquely as I do my best to provide for them. In that process, there’s a sweet spiritual growth spurt that occurs in my faith as I commit to living this out intentionally.


Our Commitment to Community

The Fifth Family Covenant

As followers of Jesus and participants in community life, Kira, Caleb, Rediet, Heather, Taylor, Charlie and Tarrin make the following commitments to one another, our community, our immediate neighbors, and all people we come in contact with on a daily basis. We will live into this commitment with grace for ourselves and grace for one another, putting these commitments into practice to the best of our ability.

“God called me to be faithful, not successful.” – Mother Teresa

We commit to love

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

I will choose to love in every situation, cultivating thankfulness despite my circumstances.

We commit to the practice of listening

“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)

I will ask questions in order to really understand others’ views, and I will invite questions in order for others to understand my views. I will seek to empower those around me to ensure their voice is heard and valued. I will be quick to identify the thoughts, assumptions, and judgments I am making in my head, and replace them with edifying thoughts, making space for others to truly be heard.

“…we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

We commit to the practice of humility

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…” (Philippians 2:3)

I will be sensitive to what is important to others, releasing my sense of entitlement, and putting others ahead of myself. I will look beyond my own concerns to find blessings in every person and situation. I will celebrate and embrace differences in others, seeking to understand and love rather than conforming that person to my ideas and perceptions. I will be quick to ask forgiveness, even when it is difficult and won’t be reciprocated. I will be quick to offer forgiveness and work through relationship struggles.

“I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)

We commit to the practice of valuing others

I will practice recognizing and bringing light to the God given dignity and value inherent in each person. I will recognize my own inherent God given value, and aspire to affirm and restore dignity in others. I will intentionally build relationships, using people’s names to affirm their dignity, treating people the way I would want to be treated.

We commit to community

I will be willing to laugh! I will have grace with others and myself. I will be patient with others and myself, allowing space for growth. I will be willing to dialogue and have one-on-one conversations to work through problems even when it is really difficult and uncomfortable. I will dedicate myself to growing my own gifts and talents, and encouraging those of others, through artistic expression for God’s glory. I will cultivate a heart for prayer, seeking to pray constantly on my own and with my household for the betterment of the community both inside and outside my home. I will strive to use technology in edifying and life giving ways and not as an escape from relationship and community. I will make a conscious effort to seek opportunities in which I can build relationships, being willing to prioritize people over technology. 

Photo Credit: Taylor Burch


Getting My Groove Back...

Well, it's been (more than) a couple of months back in Houston with Mission Year.

Since my return, there were so many moments where I stopped and thought..."oh, this would be a good blog post." Those moments were definitely ones that caused character, spiritual, and emotional growth and understanding. All were blog post worthy, but they never happened...oh, life.

Busy is a word I'm trying not to use...I'm treating it like a bad word. Instead of using the B-word, I prefer to say that my schedule has been full and alive. It has been alive with people, reading and reflecting.

This mentality has helped me to learn how to be in the here and now, enjoy my community, and prioritize my time for the "high priority" things. It's helped me learn to love and enjoy every quality time I have with my 6 friends instead of rushing the process of community.

The laughter and joy we share in this video is real. Behind the laughter and joy are hard moments that we've experienced in the first couple of months that have helped us genuinely grow.

The Fifth Family: Kira Echeandia, Taylor Burch, Tarrin McDonald, Charles O'Connor, Caleb Groth, and Heather Chappelle


Dear Transition...

I wear my heart on my sleeve. A lot of times I see that as a curse, but in this season of transition I realize it's a blessing. I'm thankful that I am in a community that embraces my shaky voice as I express myself with tears ready to roll down my face and streams of snot ready to be wiped away. In this community, I've been encouraged with conversation, togetherness, and space to explore my heart and try to understand why transition is difficult.

I've concluded recently that a lot of coffee, slow and thoughtful conversations, team dinners, ice cream and cookies will help with this transition. I've also written a letter to transition and it goes like this...

Dear Transition,
You smell like rain.
You taste like a cold crisp cup of filtered water.
You sound like the crackling of the coffee pot brewing good coffee in the morning.
You look ambiguous, unplanned, but hopeful.
You feel like a pair of new sandals.
Love, Red
But this letter keeps changing day by day...

Dear Transition,
You smell like dirt.
You taste like SunnyD.
You sound like loud voices too early in the morning or too late at night.
You look like a spider.
You feel like an itchy wool sweater.
So, the most consistent thing in transition is....God's promises for my life. Throughout my life, Christ has revealed again and again that the plans He has for me is hopeful and full of good things. I've learned that the good things don't always mean fun. In fact, this year in community has revealed that good also means challenging, mundane, and painful. It is in this challenging, mundane, and painful blended with fun that growth happens.

A lot of growth has happened in the past 11 months. As I prepare to clearly articulate my goodbyes and write my "you've helped me grow in these ways..." notes, I realize that I possibly have overlooked the impact that my commitment alone has had on my community. I've simply drawn this conclusion from the ways in which my team's commitment alone has impacted me. The end means we did our best, we stayed even when we wanted to run away, and we grew together.

The end also makes me know that God is real - because how in the world would 6 random and unlikely people be united and committed to love and serve one another?

Embracing change is very difficult when it means embracing the end of something really good that went way too fast. In this embrace, I have a growing fear of the pain in saying see you later to friends and neighbors, not knowing when that later will come around. In this embrace, I have a growing hope of a future not my own; a future filled with more growth not for my sake, but for God's great purposes I trust in, but don't always fully understand.

What lessons are you learning or have you learned when you've made a big transition in life? What's helped you embrace transition?


Lessons in Compassion: It's hard!

It was an [internally] scary moment when I recognized that my heart didn't feel much when we heard heartbreaking news about one of our neighbors. They've found themselves in unfortunate circumstances within the past couple of months, causing them to move from place to place and one job after the other. With just the brief contact I've had with this family throughout the year, it was enough time for all of us to enjoy their company - especially their kids. I was at a loss for words about their situation and began to question God on what I've done to get to the point where I wasn't moved to tears for this family. Soon enough, the tears that blurred my vision for a second came only when I recognized that I may have hardened my heart over the past couple of months in the ways I felt for my neighbors.

I've focused more on myself recently, overlooking those in my surroundings. It even became harder for me to recognize moments where my friends (my team) were hurting or being neglected. I also began to compromise time to color with a sweet neighbor with my need for rest after work. And when in fact I should be slowing down and diving deeper into my commitment to invest, I've found myself doing things faster as if this was a race and not real life.

The conversations with God have been the hardest in the past couple of weeks - they are the ones where I recognize the cracks (actually, holes) in my faith. I've noticed that my tendencies are to look at what God is doing in and through others and doubting the work that He has been doing in and through me. Praises from near and afar have become unsatisfying.

But then, there is the quiet, soft whisper deep down in my soul that tells me to keep going when my deceptive heart wants to give up. Finally, the only thing that satisfies is the encouragement and truth that comes from my Maker. My hope is not found in what I could possibly do to stop the hurting that my neighbors experience. I haven't committed to this lifestyle of simplicity and intentionality to recognize my strengths (in fact, I often forget my strengths and rely on my team to remind me). What we do - living a transparent life in community - doesn't always feel so great. It turns out that having my heart break over what breaks God's doesn’t always feel good.

Yep, living in a community that strives to be intentional, vulnerable, and justice seeking doesn’t always feel good. Being a person of great compassion doesn't feel good. And if it ever does, I find that feeling in me goes away fast with the reality of how big and vast justice issues are in our neighborhood and world. So, why in the world would I desire to continue to live in this way (not just this year or next, but for the rest of my life)?

Simply because as I continue to live in this roller coaster of a journey, I'm constantly finding myself begging God to restore and replenish what has been hurting and broken. I find that where I am weak, He really is strong. I hope and pray for the future of these kids (their education, their surroundings, future mentors) in my neighborhood is one that will not cause them to run away, but stay and build up this community.

But, when I don't have the ability to feel compassion and shed a tear over the things that are broken over all of our [my neighbors, my team, my life, our world] lives, I just have to simply ask Jesus to teach me again. At the end of the day, “It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.” (A Step Along the Way by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw).
This blog post is not an answer, but my personal reflection and a work in progress. Here are some quotes that have been challenging me to continue to dive and wrestle in thought on what it means to be compassionate and loving…

"Compassion happens as an act because in community, suffering with others tests the cords that bind communities together. If a community is unable to suffer together, it is unable to suffer with those who are poor. Therefore, by its mere nature, community produces compassion." Christopher Heuertz (Simple Spirituality)

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” Mother Teresa

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“A truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively or hurt you.” Dalai Lama XIV

“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.” Maya Angelou

“Give, but give until it hurts.” Mother Teresa

Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Frederick Buechner

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to a place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” Henri Nouwen