Thanks, Dad

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The Field of Honor flags hang still as I walk among them, their stripes melded together with not a hint of breeze to break the humid, stifling July early evening. Yesterday, they fluttered and flew. Today, nothing. I wish they would, walking between poles in the slightly curved display of hundreds of flags.

It would be a better photo op, at least.

A few years ago, I zip tied these flags to the poles, along with a couple dozen other volunteers in the VFW multi-purpose room. I purchased one for my dad. I thought he would be proud to have his name there, giving passing people the chance to thank him for what he had done long ago on a ship in the South Pacific.

I toured that ship last summer. I walked the same decks he had as a boy in 1944. Yes, a boy he certainly was. Sixteen year old—probably the age of one of the cafeteria servers in the black and white photos that hung in the bowels of the ship-turned-museum. For all I knew, that photo was my dad. I didn’t know what he looked like at sixteen. I didn’t know what he had done on that ship.

I don’t know how much of his choice to enlist resulted from patriotism and how much stemmed from a deep desire to get away from home. Regardless, for two years that teenaged boy who would be my father walked those decks, heard those guns, ducked enemy fire, and committed acts of both bravery and horror of which he never, ever spoke.

Maybe the flags hang silent for a reason.

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For the first time in the twenty-two years we’ve lived in our little community, I didn’t march in the July 4th parade. (Technically, it’s July 3rd here, but who wants to be technical?) I heard the celebration from my backyard, the usual pre-parade chaos of sirens and drums, not quite ready for prime time. I usually heard it from a much closer proximity.

I’ve walked that parade route as a 4H volunteer, a community theater board member, and, most recently, as a library participant. Possibly as a garden club member, too, tossed in one year for fun. I’ve walked it in rain and in scorching heat. Once, we walked it in a thunderstorm, but that disbanded quickly, and I spent a couple hours locating my children who had fled the 4H float and taken refuge in that same VFW hall.

It seems community can’t get rid of me here. Part of me missed the chaos and camaraderie; part of me appreciated the relative quiet and definitely the air conditioning.

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Seventy-five years ago, my dad stepped on a ship that must have been the largest structure that southern-Illinois-bred boy had ever seen, sporting a new buzz cut and a uniform doubtless too big. He fought a regime that only believed in human dignity insofar as the humans looked like white northern Europeans and thought like they were instructed. Which means, they didn’t think. They chose to look away. They chose to scapegoat their personal fears and woes. They chose to excavate multiple reasons why what was happening must be so. It had to be a deep dig.

There is nothing, nothing on the face of this earth or in heaven, that justifies treating an image of God as anything less than that. We must dig far to find those things, because they do not lie anywhere easy in God’s good world.

A few years ago, I bought that flag and its memorial, waterproof pouch for my dad, and they put his name on it. They printed the years he served the US Navy, 1944-46, and I remembered that pouch when I walked the metal stairs and touched the cold bunks of the USS Iowa. What he did there died with him, but I knew he had grown up quickly in those years, and I knew he understood why he had gone.

This year, I chose not to walk the parade, because I could not step in time to a theme of “Let Freedom Ring” when it does not and is not for so many. When boys my father’s age on that boat are in cages and babies have to defend themselves in court. When parents who only want their children to live have them stolen instead. When people die because they dreamed of freedom, and even to request it was denied.

I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

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I think that choice also honored my dad. Dad believed in fairness. He believed in treating humans as fellow humans. He believed in fighting evil and naming it for what it was, even if that fight for him began more as a way to leave his parents’ difficult home than as a declaration of human rights. He believed Teddy Roosevelt.

He had seen what happens when we look away.

When Following Your Passion Feels Like Failure

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I couldn’t explain the tug on my heart to work with refugees and immigrants. I just knew it was there, under the surface, staying strong through the years of raising kids and going to seminary.

But though I downloaded World Relief volunteer applications three times, I never filled them out.

I had those kids, after all. Three busy, zany little girls. Add part-time associate pastoring and a writing career, and – who had time?

The Passion and the Fear (Not a Novel)

Plus, there were the fears. Introvert fears. Some of you understand. I can speak in front of 500 people and barely sweat, but make me do a one-on-one with a stranger? Terror level 5. I am Mrs. Awkward when it comes to thinking of something – anything – to say in conversation. Especially conversation with a stranger who doesn’t know English.

So I left the passion on low burner for years. 

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Until the photo that jarred so many people – the one of the little boy drowned trying to escape unimaginable horror – jarred me, too.

His parents were scared of bombs and gunmen at the door. Then the worst thing that can possibly happen had happened to them – they lost their dearly loved child. Suddenly, my fears seemed pretty feeble, even to my well-rationalized mind.

When I downloaded and filled out that application to volunteer with World Relief though, I found out that finally following my passion wasn’t the straight line I thought it would be.

Sometimes you don’t find your passion on the first try.

I agreed to be a friendship partner for a woman who had been in the US five months. She knew little English, and she rarely left her house except for working the night shift. I went to be her friend, to chat and to help her acclimate to her new normal.

But every week, the same reluctance dragged me down on the drive over. I didn’t love it. Every minute was hard. I was glad when she had to cancel. I tried to teach ESL to another woman. The same thing happened. I was absolutely committed to doing what they needed, but why did I not feel joy over finally following that passion?

Why was I failing at this thing I knew I was called to?

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It’s OK to get it wrong.

What I was doing wrong wasn’t the volunteering or the organization. It was trying to fit into molds that weren’t “me.” I assumed that if I got out there and did it, God would provide me with the love of the job. He’d work his magic and all my awkwardness would disappear. As it happens, God wasn’t really interested in “making” me do something I’m bad at.

I tell my kids there are only a couple decisions that are final: getting pregnant and jumping out of a plane. The rest you can mostly back out of, and it doesn’t make you a terrible person.

It’s so easy to think, “I’ve failed, so I’m done. I was wrong about my calling – the end.”

We convince ourselves that one failure means we won’t ever get it right. And I failed twice. What I found out was that one, or two, failures don’t mean I wasn’t called. It meant I was learning. When I stopped blaming myself for not being good enough or loving enough to make those partnerships work, I could recognize they just weren’t good fits for me.

Something else would be.

It’s OK – it’s imperative for your heart and soul – to try again.

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I found my passion with World Relief completely by accident. I had also signed up as a driver who could bring people to appointments, welcome them at the airport, or, in this case, transport students to and from homework club. The volunteer coordinator told me I could stay at the club and help out or I could go somewhere else until it was time to bring the kids home – my choice. Planning to go and get other work done, I unintentionally ended up staying.

I never left. That first day, I remembered how much I had loved teaching high school and how deeply I connected with teens. These teens were funny, silly, and ambitious, much like most American teens I’ve met. I got hooked on homework club, and it’s where I know now God had planned for me all along.

It’s so tempting to think, in those detours that look so much like absolute failures, we just aren’t in the right place. We were wrong about our passion. We didn’t really understand God’s voice. What I discovered was that sometimes, the failures prepare us for the place we will succeed.

I was learning, in those awkward one-on-one experiences with adult refugees, how to understand their cultures and how to act in a way that respected where they were from. By the time I got to the high school, I could start on easy footing with the kids, unworried that I would culturally misstep because I’d practiced for this, unknowingly. I understood some of their home dynamic because I’d seen it from the inside. My gifts and experience match their needs.

I don’t drive to the high school reluctantly. I go with joy. I found my passion. It just required a few detours first.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog

Where Is Your Brother?

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Siblings . . . 

Sibling rivalry was real in my house. We didn’t have arguments; we had wars. I remember frying pans to the face, doorknobs to the teeth, and golf balls to the head as things that actually happened between my siblings and me.

Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I met a Christian family who behaved very differently, I wanted to know what this Jesus thing was all about. I didn’t know people could act that way with their brothers and sisters.

I’m very grateful to say our kids never engaged in fisticuffs. (Grateful because they didn’t and also because I got to use that wonderful word.) Jesus made quite a difference in my outlook on appropriate sibling behavior.

God’s children do not, however, always follow this pattern. Almost the second question in the Bible, after God asks the leaf-clad Adam and Eve where they are and why they’re hiding, comes the question he addresses to their oldest offspring.

It’s a pretty serious question.

Where is your brother?

When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.

Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” (Genesis 4. 2-9)

Spoiler: God knows the answer.

Cain must know God knows, so why he gives this patently flippant answer is anyone’s guess. Although, I suspect we know too well why all of us give God absurd answers to things we don’t want to look at too closely.

I don’t know. Am I supposed to be looking out for my brother?

Apparently, we were still pondering it in Jesus’ time, because someone had to ask Jesus exactly who his neighbor was, and Jesus had to tell another story that asked the same question God starts the whole human race with here—Where is your brother/neighbor?

Everywhere.

That was Jesus’ reply. Are you your brother’s guardian, Cain? Why yes. Yes, you are. I’m surprised you didn’t know that. It’s the way I made people to be.

In his new book Everybody, Always, Bob Goff suggests that God created us as one big neighborhood on this earth–all made for one another no matter where or how.

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God decided it wasn’t good for people to be alone, so he made us for one another. Then he made it clear right after the first sin that we were going to have to take that very seriously, because the world was going to get a lot harder. We would need to be one another’s guardians, or no one would make it out alive.

That’s one of the scariest parts of our current obsession with tribalism. When we start to form our groups, deciding who’s in and who’s not, denying brotherhood to those who are outside our boundaries, we become cadres of Cains, denying to God that we have any responsibility in the welfare of anyone beyond what we’ve declared are our lines.

Even when our brothers’ blood cries out from the ground.

To make this easier, we find reasons they don’t deserve our attention. That’s why Cains find it easy to believe sensational news stories with questionable data. If we can make it Abel’s fault, our hands are clean. Humans, and by humans I mean me, will do just about anything to avoid guilt.

“I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?”

I think we’re helped in our answer by the words just before this story. Eve gives birth, and she also gives thanks to God. Remember, the birth process was going to be rough, and Eve not only accepts this part of the curse but gives gratitude to God for bringing her through it and giving her a child.

Gratitude

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Eve’s approach too life oozes gratitude. She chooses to live, after her first unfortunate choice, with constant thanks to God for his provision of everything she needs.

Cain, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have inherited this attitude. We don’t know why God chose to accept his brother’s offering and not his, but he responds with anger. He feels cheated. He wants what he thinks he deserves. He chooses resentment rather than gratitude.

Interesting studies into the attitudes that have created our tribalism in the US point to the same conclusion. Those who choose resentment also choose to close themselves off to their brothers. One study reported by the Washington Post reveals that, 

 Economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety. Racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials. Economic variables like education, income  and employment made a negligible difference. When white millennials scored high on racial resentment they were 42 percentage points more likely to indicate feelings of vulnerability than those who scored low.

People who would prefer to blame and resent rather than open their arms and hearts in gratitude for their lives are the people who refuse to see “brother” in the refugee, immigrant, person of color, or sister.

Interestingly, this is true regardless of the person’s actual economic or physical circumstances. The well off are just as likely to shut out their nonwhite, non-American-born brothers as the poor if they are already inclined to resent others for what they think they don’t have.

It’s as old as Cain. And as devastating.

The answer isn’t anything complicated. It’s gratitude. Choosing to be thankful for everything God provides to children of Adam and Eve who don’t really deserve anything at all but who are granted so much.

It’s utterly impossible to take the attitude of Eve and have the heart of Cain. We can’t revel in the undeserved graciousness of the Lord and refuse to invite your brother into the circle.

If we live consistently grateful, humble lives, we will always know exactly where our brother is. He’s all around us. He’s everyone. And we are his keeper.

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*I’ve signed up for the Human Race again, raising money for World Relief and refugee resettlement. These wonderful people I have come to know and love as I work with them more and more are certainly those God calls our brothers and sisters. With God’s help, I’m going to walk it and meet my fundraising goal! If you’d like to donate to my walk, please follow the link. I and the amazing refugee population I know and love would appreciate it greatly!