A Home for the Holidays

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Some of us do a lot of preparing during the holidays.  You’ve got family coming into town at the end of the week and you’re hosting, so you take off work to tidy up the house.  You find out-of-sight homes for all the clutter that normally lays in plain sight; you put that enormous stack of papers in the bedroom; you stack a couple books you’ve never read on a corner table as decoration; you get on Pinterest and search “Christmas craft I can make in 5 minutes or less” so you have something cute to put on the mantel; you vacuum; you change the sheets on the guest beds… A lot of preparation goes into readying our homes to play host for the holidays.  In 1 Peter 2:4-5, the Apostle Peter says that as you come to Jesus you are being built into a spiritual home.  So, then, are you putting as much love and attention into preparing your spiritual house to host God as you put into preparing your homes to host family and friends this holiday season?

You belong to God’s household, and as God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.
— Ephesians 2:19b-22

I try to prepare for Christ to be born into my life, but there’s so much mystery wrapped up in Jesus’ arrival on earth.  It’s such an unfathomable gift that I sometimes wonder how I could ever be fully prepared.  And this is where Jesus’ grace enters the Christmas story. 

The world wasn’t ready for Jesus to come: King Herod tried to have him killed the moment he was born; the Pharisees and the Sadducees didn’t understand him; Jesus wasn’t even welcomed in his own hometown. The world was so unprepared for Jesus’ coming that the people’s response to his being here was “crucify him.”  But to this world that wasn’t ready for him, Jesus said, “I’m coming whether you’re ready or not.”  And then he broke into a world that so desperately needs him but can’t always recognize it.  There’s so much grace in that.

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The most remarkable part of the Christmas story—the part that overwhelms the heart—is that God chooses to break into the darkness of our lives and endure our struggles with us.  And this coming, this in-breaking, has the power to reinvigorate life in such a way that our life in Christ can never be extinguished.  John the evangelist says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  As we prepare our hearts and our homes for Jesus’ birth, may we be open to Christ igniting a light in us that can never be put out.  Happy Advent.

Loving Beyond Fear

We pulled into Durham around 6:45 PM, concluding a quick early-May weekend trip to the beach.  Stopping off at our apartment complex just long enough to empty the car and change clothes, we left to go hang out with our friend Tucker who was hosting a Cinco de Mayo party in his backyard at 7:00 PM. Luke and I were running a bit late, but not unreasonably so… just the kind of late that allows time for the burgers to finish cooking and be ready to eat by the time we got there.

As we turned onto Tucker’s street in East Durham, I found a parking place in front of the neighbor’s house.  I pulled into the spot, put the car in park, removed the keys from the ignition, and waited for Luke to wrap up a phone call with Mom and Dad.  While we were sitting there, I glanced in the driver’s side mirror and saw a man approaching the car from behind.  He passed my window and got all the way to the front bumper of the car before turning around and approaching my door.  Now, Luke and I lived in this part of East Durham for a year, and from that experience know neighbors can be pretty picky about where you park.  And I get it… the driveways in this neighborhood are small, and not every house has a driveway.  Just look at some of the “Rush Hour” style maneuvering we had to do to park at our house when we lived in East Durham.

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Back in our car outside Tucker’s house, Luke and I looked at one another with rolling eyes that communicated something like, “Great… he’s going to ask us to move our car.”  But his sudden shift in body language communicated something very different.  With a previously undetectable sense of urgency, the man flung the driver’s door open, drew a gun from his waistband, and pointed it at us.  “GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE AND GIVE ME YOUR KEYS,” he demanded. We got out of the vehicle, and as we backed away with hands raised, I tossed him the keys and he took off out of the neighborhood.

In the days that followed the incident, Tucker’s friendship was a refuge for us, a safe and sacred space where—after the shock had worn off—we could simply lament together the brokenness of a world where violence rather than love is instinctual.  But the responsibility for this violence doesn’t fall squarely on the one man who stole our car. He himself is a victim… a victim of broken communities… of impoverished neighborhoods where gang violence has been a way of life for decades.  He is victim to a set of circumstances that make him think violence is the only solution to whatever problem provoked his anger.

We have a responsibility as community to break the cycles of poverty and violence.  With God’s help, we—as a community—can transform brokenness into wholeness and abundant life.  But how do we do it?  How do we transform our communities?  How do we turn the world as it is into the world as God intends for it to be?

The Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham is a community that aims to do just that.  Founded in 1992, the coalition is a nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to “rectify and prevent violence through intentional relationships that facilitate both institutional reform and individual acts of compassion and reconciliation.”  The coalition supports a variety of ministries within the Durham community that invite neighbors to know one another in peaceful covenant, one of which is a prayer vigil ministry for homicide victims.  Together, members of the community step into spaces of brokenness and violence, and reclaim them as sites of hope and resurrection.

Upon learning a member of the Durham community has been murdered, members of the coalition go to the site of the incident and invite family, friends, neighbors, pastors, and caring citizens to gather for a vigil to mourn, to acknowledge the dignity and worth of the victim, to recognize the traumatic loss for the victim’s loved ones, and to simply exist together.  The beauty of committing to just being there on the street together is that coexistence can reknit—even if only in part—a community that has been torn apart by violence. As Marcia Owen, former Director of the coalition puts it, “being with” is the opposite of violence.

 Prayer vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

Prayer vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

To stand at the site of a homicide—a place that reminds witnesses of the brokenness of the world—while participating in a prayer vigil with victims, gang members, relatives of victims, and relatives of the accused alike is to work toward repairing some of the damage of the community.  On street corners around Durham, community members are sharing memories of loved children of God lost to gun violence, and in their sharing, they are brought into the ongoing work of making creation whole. Most simply, it’s Communion—a shalom-making communion that starts with brokenness and transforms it into abundant life... into God’s peaceable kingdom.

Christ invites each to come to the Table as they are: violent, addicted, hung over, poor, judgmental, exclusive, and hungry.  Author and minister Sara Miles reflects, “Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected for being too young, too poor, too queer, too old, too crazy or difficult or sick; in one way or another, cracked, broken, not right.  But gathered around the Table, we [become] right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God [is] building” (Take This Bread, 139).  Spaces shaped by violence and brokenness are the sites of God’s creative activity.  These very spaces are the arenas wherein God plays out God’s redemptive work; where Christ transforms brokenness into wholeness and mourning into dancing. These are the very places where God unleashes God’s love.  These are the very streets Christ—as God’s love incarnate—walks… to communicate to anyone who thinks he is beyond the reach of God’s love that communion and divine love is for him.

 Prayer Vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

Prayer Vigil in East Durham at the site of a homicide victim's death.

But how do we live without enemies in a world where violence is as prominent as it is?  We do so by loving beyond fear; by committing to care for others’ wellbeing, even when those others have wronged us.  In the words of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Jesus is in East Durham. I know because I’ve seen him in the streets at the vigils and in the eyes of a man who was desperate for communion one night in early May. And Jesus is in the broken spaces of your life too, working to reunite God’s people in love and peace.

A Mourning Meal

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Wow, two years already.  On the evening of August 20, 2016, my 23-year-old cousin, Brett Andrew Neal, died when a truck ran a stop sign crossing a county highway in Iowa.  The truck hit Brett’s car in the driver-side door, tossing him and his car end-over-end into an unharvested cornfield seventy-five miles northwest of our hometown.  I remember the moment I received the news in the entryway of my aunt and uncle’s dimly lit house that night.  Without notice, the pain overtook my body as I collapsed to the hardwood floor: a heavy lump in my throat and a punch to my gut that, at once, made me lose my strength, my breath, and my appetite.  There is something disturbingly visceral about the shock of losing a loved one unexpectedly.  For the rest of that dreadful night, I had a deeply embodied sense that life just got emptier and no amount of time or justice or food could fill it back up.  And so, unable to fall asleep after returning home, I lay awake in bed until morning, famished but not hungry, parched but not thirsty.

The next morning, as news spread of Brett’s tragic death, people near and far began expressing their sympathy in a variety of ways.  From cards to Facebook messages, flowers to monetary donations, people who knew Brett—and many who didn’t—found ways to support our family in our time of grief.  Among the most common, however, was people’s impulse to give food in the immediate aftermath of the incident.  Within twenty-four hours, food donations and “sympathy meals” began to accumulate until the fridge, freezer, and counters in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen overflowed with enough food to feed the whole neighborhood.  It has always been a curious thing to me that people give one another food in times of loss and grief.  Perhaps people give food to the bereaved because words escape them.  More practically, perhaps the intent is to free the family from having to overcome their sadness to cook themselves a meal.  Or, maybe we turn to eating because in our encounters with death we have an instinctive urge to exaggerate our aliveness in embodied ways (e.g. yelling, crying, eating or drinking in excess, engaging in dangerous activities, etc.).  Whatever the case, a smorgasbord amassed so quickly that my Uncle Les suggested our family come over to help get through all of the food.  The way he presented the offer, it seemed a practical matter: there was too much food, so we should come over to eat so it would not go to waste.  But below the practical veneer, amidst his feelings of loss and helplessness, it seemed he was also saying, “I need us to share a meal together.”

And so we gathered the day after the accident—Uncle Les, Aunt Sheryl, Cousin Jared, Grandma Norma, Mom, Dad, Mark and I—standing around the kitchen island overflowing with lasagna and mashed potatoes; store-bought French bread and homemade yeast rolls; green beans, carrots, broccoli, and tomatoes; deli meats, cheeses, and crackers; enchiladas and rice; an assortment of salads and casseroles; cookies and muffins and brownies and lemon bars and cinnamon rolls… such a mountainous cornucopia of mostly homemade foods prepared and shared to be vessels of love.  With mindfulness we received.  Hands joined, encircling the bounty before us, we wept and gave thanks to God for this overwhelming outpouring of love and for the familiar comfort of sharing a meal together.  What followed the prayer can only be described as Eucharist.  Like never before, I saw the body of Christ in the food before me—broken and shared in love so that in the face of death we might know with abundance what a gift life is.  In that moment, the food was much more than a mere reminder of God’s love; it was God’s love incarnate... God's love made tactile and delicious.  [For more on this theology, see Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith].  Suddenly, then, partaking together seemed a sacred act.

Amidst my sadness, the act of eating itself brought life.  The food—God’s love made physical—slowly enlivened me from the inside out, providing some of the first real pleasure I had felt since Brett’s death.  Never before had my eating been so mindful, so unhurried, so deliberate, so purposeful.  For, each food item carried with it a name, a love, and—in some cases—a memory that transcended what any written or spoken condolences could express.  Two examples deserve mentioning.  First: of all the desserts scattered throughout the kitchen, there was one batch of particularly gifted cookies that stood out among the rest…  The sort of hearty oatmeal-butterscotch cookie that was undoubtedly the pride of the donor’s recipe box.  Each time we gathered that week, my aunt, uncle, brother, and I teased each other by hiding the bag of quickly vanishing cookies somewhere deep among the pile of desserts, joking that there were none left so we might save more for ourselves.  These delicious cookies were a respite, an excuse to trade in our solemn tears for teasing smiles, if only for a moment.

Second: when Mark and I were young, we spent a day each year at the house of our family friend, Jan, baking cinnamon rolls and fruit pies together around the holidays.  For us it was a play day in the kitchen; for our parents a much needed break; for Jan a labor of love.  Ever since our annual bake days came to an end, Jan has continued to make cinnamon rolls for our family on special occasions.  So I have always known this is her way of showing love.  And, oh, are these rolls heavenly… Pillowy sweet dough swirled with a generous helping of cinnamon, topped with a cloud of cream cheese frosting so smooth it cascades down the soft edges of the roll when melted.  Needless to say, it is no mystery—to myself or my loved ones—that these rolls are a true labor of love, the result of a full day spent in the kitchen.  And so, when I first caught a glimpse of Jan’s cinnamon rolls buried deep, barely visible beneath the mound of food donated after Brett’s death, a reassuring peace came over me… “Of course they are here,” I told myself.  In that moment I could imagine no greater sign of God’s love, no clearer display of God’s comfort and nearness.  So, rather than hiding them like the oatmeal-butterscotch cookies, we were intentional about dividing the four dozen cinnamon rolls evenly among each family unit; for, this love offering was too generous, too heartfelt, too special not to share.

These foods were much more than sustenance, much more than delicious; as manifestations of God’s love, they were avenues for healing.  Baked deep into their savory sauces and sweet, yeasty centers was an earnest love that held for my family a much-needed reminder: we are not alone in our grief.  A professor of mine at Duke Divinity School, Dr. Norman Wirzba, shared in lecture, “Food is the daily exhibition of the nearness of God’s love,” ...and God’s nearness was so evident to me in this gift of food that I could feel its texture, smell its aroma, and taste its goodness.  For an entire week we returned to Les and Sheryl’s house for every meal, as together we slowly ate our way through the food gifts.  At the family’s invitation, guests came to the house to be filled with food and left having been filled with the Provider’s bounty and healing.  Our mealtime together became a sacred pause in the midst of chaotic days, an intentional time for sharing memories and resting in God’s presence instead of worrying about funeral logistics.  By the time Mark and I left for Durham to start school a week after the incident, those meals were host to smiles in addition to the tears.

Before Mark and I left town, though, my family and I drove to the site of the crash.  Gathered on the side of Highway 169 south of Fort Dodge, we stared into the corn field where Brett’s car had flown one week prior.  Busted headlights, shards of broken glass, and crumpled metal still lay among the broken cornstalks, once seven feet in height but now matted down by the car’s violent entry into the field.  In that moment, the cornfield was a place of violence for me: the ground where my cousin died, alone.  I watched my uncle pound a cross bearing Brett’s name into the same soil that nurtured a healthy crop of corn.  Beyond that, any recognition of the connectedness between corn and car, soil and Brett, life and death escaped me, and I returned to Durham stricken by the violence of it all.

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My understanding of Brett’s death evolved, however, as a result of my participation in Norman Wirzba’s Agrarian Theology course that Fall.  Soil, I came to understand, is the site of God’s creative activity in the world.  Yes, it is a site of death and violence, but it is also a site of new life, redemption, and resurrection.  I carried this new insight with me on the plane from Durham to Des Moines during the Thanksgiving Break of 2016, suspecting I might see the cornfield in a new way.  Returning to the crash site for the first time since August, Mark and I expected the flowers to have withered and the cross to have been battered by the elements.  But as we approached the country crossroads, we were humbled by the scene before us.  For three months the farmer had maintained the makeshift memorial, mowing the grass around the plot, tending to the cross, and replacing the old withered flowers with fresh ones.  I got out of the car and stared across the open field of dry soil, once teeming with sturdy cornstalks but now made bare by the early onset of winter.

God breathed.

The cold wind blew across the open plain.

Creation sighed.

The food, the field, the farmer… all of it God’s work of resurrection.

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