Removing the Politics out of Loving my Neighbor

I think that one of the greatest disservices that we commit against one another is that of labeling each other. I understand that sometimes we need labels, especially in this culture we live in, but far too often those boxes that we label people into are boxes of judgment and stereotypes. I was born and raised as a Baptist, and up until a few years ago, I was content with that label of a Baptist. However, during that time if someone had labeled me into the same box as a Westboro Church Baptist, I would have been deeply offended, because not all Baptists wield picketing signs that read “God hates fags”.

I am guessing the same sentiment is true for my Muslim friends who are so often immediately labeled as a “Radical Islamic”, and yet we do it. Last week I saw a Facebook post that made a blanket and ugly statement about Muslim people, and I literally wept in horror. Later that evening I was talking to my husband about it, and I shared that I did not understand why I felt so much pain and responded with so much grief to what I had read. He answered, because when you read that, you picture all of your Muslim friends in Ethiopia, who you love and who you know fit none of those labels. He was right.  I think that what hurts most about labels is that they mostly happen outside of a relationship. We share posts on Facebook that box people into just one way of being – we judge the heck out of someone that we do not even know and we excuse ourself from the greatest command that we were given – love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Sometimes love looks as simple as thinking twice before we share something on social media that unjustly labels an entire group of people.

We use labels to determine who is worthy of our love and who is not – who is in and who is out. Inside the polarizing political climate that we find our country in, we are so quick to draw a box, a dividing line depending on what side we veer to. The political labels are especially divisive and hurtful, and can never really tell you the whole of a person’s heart, because labels never can. I fear that we have allowed our political leanings to give us permission to not love that neighbor. It is a sad commentary when we have reduced someone to a singular label that allows us to forget their belovedness and the fact that they were created in the image of God. It is a sad day when our politics have become our god, and the filter in which we view all of life is which political party we align with. Perhaps this generation’s biggest blindspots will trace back to our love for political labels over our love for our neighbors. I fear this as I look around me and into my own heart.

The same Jesus Who died to free us, died to free them, and loves them with the same love that He loves us. Honestly, I do not really line up anywhere on the political scale, and most days I feel like an outcast because of this. I have very swiftly been pigeon-holed into a side and labeled, but the reality is that I don’t fit on the right, and I don’t fit on the left. I am a mess of contradictions and all over the place as I try to navigate this life loving God and loving my neighbor, and maybe we were never created to be labeled into one box.

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I am guessing if the people who choose to label me would instead choose to sit down and share a pot of coffee while I share my heart, they just might walk away with a different label for me or none at all. They might see that I am apprehensive about the safety of my Black children, not because I am listening to the left and believing lies and fake news, but because of real life experiences that have happened to them here in America. They might see that I have a heart for Muslim people because of the community of Muslim friends whom we did life with in Ethiopia. They might see that I am tender toward refugees, because I am a bleeding heart who knows how hard it is to live inside of a foreign country and not speak the language or understand the culture. Maybe they would understand why I am so passionate about sanctity of life, and why that reaches farther than just the unborn lives. Maybe they would walk away agreeing with me, or maybe not, but it would certainly be a better start than just boxing me into a label without knowing me. The same is true for everybody.

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I believe a lot of the tension in this country could be relaxed, even just a little, over pots of coffee, steaming cups of tea and a cozy kitchen table. Maybe this will not fix everything, but it gives us a place to start.  When we step into the lives of people, it is so much harder to label them into a box. People are nuanced and contradictory and unique, and worthy of our time and our love and of our listening ear. Maybe loving our neighbor should stop being political and start being practical and relational. Love is always the best, first step. When we don’t know what to do, how to think, where to go, loving someone over a cup of coffee is never wrong.

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Homesick

I think I could spend hours trying to chase words that would capture how I feel about seeing a dream that my husband and I dreamed years ago actually and finally coming true. Something that was once just captive in our imaginations has come to life, and that is beyond any words that I have right now. Jim just returned home from a quick trip to Ethiopia, and oh my was that trip productive, encouraging, and probably even healing for him. We finally have five boys, who have been selected by the government and our in-country director, enrolled in our program in Addis, and they are now beginning to receive care. These boys have no idea how long and hard we have prayed for them, and I am so excited for what is in store for their future lives. Jim came back home laden with goodies from the country that still holds our hearts – coffee, spices, incense, injera, our jobena, art, framed photos and mementos from our house in Ethiopia, and as he unpacked, the feelings of being surrounded by these familiar comforts soothed my aching soul.

But it also made me feel that familiar, and at this point unwelcome, searing pain that seems to have taken up permanent residence in my heart. Jim came home with stories, and I could picture every single one of them. I could close my eyes and know the smells, tastes, sights of everything that he shared. It was a paradox of comfort and torture mingled together. He stayed in our house in Ethiopia for the very last time, as we will rent a new location for our safe house very soon and give up renting our family’s house. The reality that our family would never, ever again be family in that home, that holds so many memories, hit me so hard. I knew that truth when we left in October, but now it seems actual, and it is hard to bear. The reality that my husband got one more time there, and I did not, makes me fight ugly bitterness. He hugged and kissed the people that I wake up daily missing. And on the very last day, he found my precious Muslim friend, Husain, and delivered love and warm wishes from me. I poured through photos of him with hot tears on my cheeks, both happy and so devastatingly sad. Jim went back to all of our old places and spaces, and I hung onto every one of his details. It was soothing, and it was torture.

It has taken me four months to really understand these emotions and this, at moments, unbearable grief  that I am feeling, and the darkness that it has brought into this season. I think I am finally able to name this, and it is so remarkably simple; I am homesick. What makes it so difficult is that this is truly the first time ever in my life that I have been homesick. I have never experienced this until now, and I was not prepared to handle it having never had to handle anything like it before. I am a grown adult, and there are moments that I am so intensely sick for my home that I cannot get out of my bed or function like a normal person. The way we moved back here, the reason, the rapidness, the lack of closure has all been overwhelming and exhausting. I miss the familiar, because for some reason here in this country now feels strange. I look around at this beautiful home that God so quickly provided for us, I go through the motions of life here most days – the motions that I am expected to go through, and yet this new life has left me feeling extremely empty and lifeless. I have felt numb and paralyzed and angry, and confused, and sad – just so absolutely sad. The acute emotional distress has taken a toll on me. It makes me question if I will ever ‘get over it’.

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But then Jim left for a week in Ethiopia, and I was forced to kind of take a deep introspective look into these feelings, and I think I have maybe finally realized that it is okay to be homesick. It is even understandable. I have felt guilt and shame over these sometimes consuming feelings, and I don’t need to feel that. But I am ready to try to work through it, to try to accept that the former life is over, but our dreams are far from over, and God has bigger things planned than we could imagine by bringing us back to the states. That Mercy Branch might look different than we had once thought, but oh my, it might look better! I dare hope that it may be beyond our wildest dreams.  I don’t want my homesickness to continue to prevent me from living this life that God is curating for me here and now. I don’t want to spend all my days wishing I was somewhere else. That is no way to live this life that I was given, and I will miss out on all that He has for me right here in this new adventure.

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I am so overwhelmed with gratitude to have lived and experienced life in a place that I truly loved with all of my heart. I am not foolish enough to think that everyone has this same experience. I am homesick, because I had something that was remarkable and special, and that is a blessing that I never would want to trade. Every part of me was attached to our life in Ethiopia, and I will always, always feel sentimental and nostalgic for that time in our lives. But I really hope and pray that someday soon, my heart can form new attachments, that the grief will fade, the memories will be less bitter and more sweet, and that someday I will feel like I have once again found home. Because I am finally in a place where I can at least say that I want this place to feel like home.

[To learn more about our NGO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, click here.]

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When God Doesn’t Feel Good

Everything was so very good. I remember thinking this very thought as the 6 AM sun welcomely warmed my face. We had worked hard for the life we were living. It was a simple life, with little electricity, water outages, and hard work. But it was filled with pleasures that we appreciated fully, like the brand new bright yellow couch set (our first ever new set)  that we had saved tax return money for, sitting in our living room. It had taken two years for me to put my mark on our house, and we really enjoyed slowly framing photos, decorating, and making this new life homey and a memorable place for our children to grow up in. No, it did not necessarily have eternal value, but in the middle of intense Kingdom work, having this cheery sanctuary was necessary, and God was evident in the beautiful details. This September we were at the point where we felt completely at home in Ethiopia. I rolled over that morning not long ago, and whispered to Jim, I don’t think we can ever move away from this place, and I felt contentment and such joy in the season we found ourself in. For those closest to knowing my heart, they understand this is rare, as I have always struggled to live in the present (I am a sentimental nostalgic fool), but I was living right there. And it was so very good.

And then only weeks later, our world rocIMG_0705ked out of our control and everything good seems gone somehow. I admitted out loud last night (in church even) that God doesn’t feel very good right now. In the brand of Christianity that I grew up in, this is a scary thing to think, let alone voice. I was taught that we cannot question God, and to do so is shameful and even blasphemous. Questioning targeted people as weak in their faith and was a sure sign of unbelief in God. There was the unspoken code of ‘protecting’ God, as if He needs our protecting. However, when I look closely at people who interacted at a deep level with God, I find at times they, too, questioned Him. Martha in John 11:21 asked Him why He could not have been there sooner in order to save her brother’s life. Moses questioned why God would choose him to  be a leader, and why He would bring the Israelites into the desert in Exodus 5:22-23. David often questioned and wrestled with God. Psalm 42:9-11 shows David asking God why He had forgotten him.

Intellectually I know God is good. I really do, and that knowledge is unshakeable. He is good all the time. He IS a good God. He is sovereign. But to be transparent my feelings just are not matching my intellect. I am a feeler. I feel everything deeply. This is a gift, and this is a curse. For so much of my life this was shamed, and I tried to not feel. But I was created to feel, and that is one of the things about me that makes me who I am. To deny this part of who I am is to not live an authentic life. I cannot compartmentalize myself; I am a whole person and cannot be split. I know full well that God can handle my feelings and my fragility, but in my life I have discovered that sometimes God’s people cannot. The truth is these feelings of mine do nothing to take away from Who He is. He does not need me to protect Him by disregarding  my feelings and faking righteousness in a season where I don’t feel very righteous, and I desperately need HIS righteousness.

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As I grow in my journey of faith with Jesus, and as I look back over other hard seasons that have come and gone, I am beginning to think that sometimes God desires this wrestling match with me. Maybe there is something inside of me that needs this season of questions and pain. Maybe I can only really appreciate the other side after painful wrestling, and honestly that does ring true with my personality. If you are familiar with Passenger’s song Let Her Go, well that is a song that resonates with my human nature. In the story of Jacob literally wrestling with God in Genesis, the wrestling ended with an identity change for Jacob. The wrestling turned into a gift – a gift of restoration. Maybe something similar will be done in me, or maybe I am on a different journey.

So, yes, I have questions. I am wrestling with God right now. But there is something so much bigger than myself going on as I wrestle. There is more to this story, and right now it is not for me to know or understand, but I want to, and I think that desire is okay. I think God can certainly handle that and is not apprehensive about it.  I am not afraid to be honest and vulnerable with God. He knows my every thought anyway. There is something after this season that God is preparing me for, and this season of dark wrestling is part of His preparation. I know God is pursuing me. That is the beautiful thing about my God, as I struggle and doubt and question, He draws me in closer and closer in hot pursuit. He is not fearful of my questions; I dare say He welcomes them. Even when it does not feel good, I know that He will always be right here inside my anguish, my tears, my questions. He meets me right here. And I echo Jacob, I am not letting You go until you bless me. I might end up with some battle wounds from the wrestling, and I may limp into the future, but I am holding out hope that one day the sun will kiss my face again, and I will feel that everything is so very good – whether on earth or in heaven. Let it be so.

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