Monday, July 30, 2012

Welcoming Guests

The Young Professionals Sunday School Room at Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas 

Being a church visitor is not a state I particularly enjoy, but it has some benefits. Chief among these is remembering how important it is to make people feel welcome.  Once I find a church in Alabama I intend to stay put--for decades, if possible--and then it will be my turn to watch for new faces and practice hospitality in whatever ways I can. This list is compiled from the ways I have been welcomed not only during my last four weeks of church visitation, but from my experience seeking a church in grad school and college. They are listed in no particular order.

1. Pay attention to names. Repeat the guest's name until you almost feel silly, and then make sure to call her by name if you see her after worship or next week.
2. Invite the guest to lunch. After-worship lunches are good, but setting a lunch date for later in the week can be even better, for this shows that your interest and memory extend beyond Sunday morning.
3. Send a deacon to the guest's house on Sunday afternoon with a warm loaf of French bread. (I'm still a little surprised I didn't join this church on the spot).
4. Make contact after Sunday. Look the guest up on Facebook, send a personal email, and, if you really want to shine, send a handwritten note of welcome. This sort of contact is often standard practice for pastors, but hearing from lay members of a Sunday School class or Bible study can be even more meaningful because it is not their "job" to welcome guests.
5. Ask the guest what she is hoping to find in a church, and suggest other churches in the area she might want to visit.
6. Invite the guest to some sort of small-group activity through the church--this could be as formal as a Bible study, or as casual as a gathering of church friends. If she declines, be persistent. It takes some people (like me) about three invitations to work up the courage to face a group of new people in an informal setting.
7. Share what you love about your church. Don't be shy about explaining why you show up each Sunday morning.
8. If you are a 90-something-year old man, shake the guest's hand each time the congregation stands to sing. At the end of the worship service, say, "I'm so sorry I keep forgetting your name, but I love you in Christ." Then give her a hug.

If you are an established member of a church, how do you welcome visitors? If you are a visitor, what makes you feel welcomed in a church?

Friday, July 27, 2012

A letter to someone who took me seriously

Dear Tiffany,
    I have never forgotten the words you gave me, but until today I had forgotten your name. It would be lost, except that I kept a startlingly detailed diary when I was in middle school. Most of what I recorded now seems painfully trivial, but your name was worth saving.

I never knew you well. You were a college student from another campus, and we met because my parents were taking their students to same tri-state conference your group was attending. I was thirteen, shy and self-conscious. You had quirky clothes and a ready laugh.

The conference was the sort I had attended all my life: a weekend-long retreat and revival for college students, featuring topical break-out sessions and daily worship services. I spent my childhood reading and playing through these conferences. The sessions didn't really interest me, and I was also terrified of people (and most other things). By the time we met, I was quite adept at entertaining myself and staying out of the way, and I spent most of that weekend doing homework in my parents' hotel room.

The only session I attended was the closing worship service on Sunday morning. I'm sure I paid at least moderate attention to the sermon, and I probably sang along with whatever praise choruses were popular in 1997. All I really remember from that morning, however, is you. The preacher had asked for all of the campus ministers to stand and receive prayers for their ministries. My parents stood, but I remained seated, edging away to make room for the students who were gathering and laying hands upon my mother and father. I intended to pray, too, but you interrupted me, walking right past my parents and sitting down next to me. "May I pray for you?" you asked. Bewildered, but too shy to refuse, I nodded.

This is what I recorded in my messy, eighth-grade cursive:
As [Tiffany] was praying, I nearly cried, I had never heard anyone pray so specifically for me. She said that my being here at ISU is no accident, and she prayed that God would give me strength to question tradition and seek the Lord. She prayed like she truly cared." 

You thanked God for making me my parents' daughter, and for giving me a role in their ministry to college students. You challenged me not to surrender to conventional roles for girls in life or in ministry. You asked God to fill me with love and to show me what work I was meant to do among college students. You showed that me that I did not need to wait--for college, for adulthood, for a more outgoing personality--before doing something with eternal value.

Looking back, it would be easy for me to say that your prayer helped prepare me for my career as a college professor. Like my parents, I have chosen to work in higher education because I want to help build God's kingdom on university campuses. And yet, when you prayed for me fifteen years ago, you didn't mention the future. You interceded in the present tense, and that was what really shocked me. I had never considered that there was already some good work (other than homework) that I could do, much less work among the college men and women I adored.

You hardly knew me, Tiffany, but you took me far more seriously than I took myself, and you radiated with a love for God's kingdom that I could hardly fathom.
The change was slow but real. In the years that followed I remained shy, but I grew discontent with my self-imposed forms of isolation. By the time I reached high school, your prayer had ruined me for youth groups. For the rest of my teen years, I had no patience for camp games or dating advice or "girls just want to have fun"-themed Bible studies; I craved mentorship and holy adventures and substance. Instead of playing the perpetual kid sister, I began to ask what it meant to befriend college students. Instead of assuming that all college kids were half rock-star, half-superhero, I started to watch the ways they grew or floundered into adulthood. I listened to the things that excited them, troubled them, challenged them, changed them.

The next time I went to a conference with my parents and their students, I left the hotel room. Thank you for pushing me out of that door.

Ever yours,


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Company of the Barren

The Old Testament readings in Common Prayer this week have followed the story of Hannah, a childless woman who prayed for a son, conceived, and then surrendered that son to the Lord (1 Samuel 1). I've known this story my entire life, but today Hannah's tale has turned my heart toward the company of the barren. I think about all the women in the Bible who wait for children--not only Hannah, but her sisters Sarah, Rachel, Ruth, Elizabeth. Again and again we see how God turns these long-expected children into prophets, patriarchs, and ancestors of the Messiah.

Is this only a pattern for Bible stories? How does God bless the company of the barren in an age where there are very few things that a young, educated, American woman cannot have if she wants it?

As a chaste person (can I say that without sounding affected?), questions about childbearing have long been distant from my concerns. Until I was nearly grown, I assumed that most people had children as my parents did: they planned a baby, had her, and then stopped. Only as I left college did I begin to hear snatches of the joy, uncertainty, serendipity, and agony that surrounds questions of having--or not having--children.

My own friends represent a variety of convictions and experiences. Some do not use birth control, others waited years before having children right on schedule. Some have given birth to a series of healthy, easy babies, others have miscarried year after year. Many have adopted. Some are still waiting to conceive.

These experiences concern me because I love my friends. I want to know how to pray for the couple who has miscarried, and to intercede for a man and woman who wait to adopt. Being in church has given some guidance for these prayers: I have heard prayers for healing, prayers that a woman might  carry her child to term, prays for funds for an adoption to go through.

But I have never heard a church pray that the child of a barren woman would become a prophet. That's no surprise, I suppose: prophecy doesn't look much like most Americans' idea of happiness. When I pray for my friends who wait for children, should I pray that they give birth to an Isaac, a Samuel, a wild Baptizer?

What should childless women learn from the fervor of Hannah or the cynicism of Sarah?

I ask these questions for my friends, but as I type it strikes me that I might also ask for myself. For I, too, am childless. Though not physically barren, I have no children, and I see no sign that I will soon. Some days I am thankful that I have no children to tend, and other days it grieves me. I don't know if I wait for a husband, or for the day when I have the resources to foster or adopt, or both.

In the meantime, or perhaps for all my earthly life, I am in the company of the barren. Tell me, church: tell me, Bride of Christ, what this means.

"He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!" (Psalm 113.9 ESV).

Monday, July 23, 2012

Freedom from, freedom for

Laura Ingalls Wilder was not allowed to sew clothes for her doll on Sunday. Reading this in the Little House books as a child, I realized that not everyone loved Sundays as much as I did.  Until I was in second or third grade, I was convinced that "Sunday" was so named because the sun was always bright on church days (this is a rather strange conclusion for a child of grey midwestern winters, but then, induction has never been my strength). As my parents and I would walk to church, I would imagine that the birds sitting on the telephone wires were arranging themselves upon avian pews in preparation for worship.

Not everyone who grows up in a Sabbath-keeping household has such fond memories of Sundays. I have a friend who is reluctant to call home on Sundays for fear that she might let slip that she did her laundry after church. Even as a grown woman, she fears the disapproval of her sabbatarian parents. Even without irksome memories of keeping a Sabbath, many Christians seem ready to dismiss the idea of sabbath-keeping without any discussion, much less any prayer.  "That's just legalism," I've heard more times than I can count. Or they will invoke Mark 2.27: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."  I don't contest that Jesus challenged many of his culture's rigid ideas about keeping the Sabbath holy, but I think it is worth considering Mark 2.28, as well: "So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath."

I cannot claim to understand all of what Jesus means in Mark 2, but I do know that Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matt 5.17), and the command to keep the Sabbath holy is one of the central laws God gives to his people.  As I have tried to show in other posts (here and here, for example), keeping the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest is both discipline and liberation.

Because I know that Sabbath-keeping has a tendency to turn into rigid rule-keeping, I have not yet provided a list of practices for keeping Sundays as a holy day.  However, I want this to be a blog that integrates ideals and practices. What I offer here is not a prescription for a holy Sabbath, but a glimpse of my own small, evolving habits of consecrated rest. Next Monday, I will discuss habits that I do not yet practice, but which I hope to begin observing.

On Sundays, I free myself from....

Professional obligations
     I love my work, but come Saturday night, I set aside my lesson plans, my grading, my research, and my writing. During seasons when work is stressful, Sundays are days to have faith that "when God made time, he made enough of it." At times when work is satisfying and joyful, Sundays are days of release and humility: I remember  that all my work, no matter how eloquent or moving or lasting, will one day pass away.

Getting and spending
      Except in emergencies, I do not shop or spend on Sundays, nor do I research possible purchases nor update my budget spreadsheet. I let go of my instinct for gathering, focusing instead on contentment with what I have.
      I try to extend this practice to eating out, as well. Whether or not the employees at a restaurant are Christians, I don't want to support markets that thrive on Sundays. This can be tricky, since many people use Sunday lunch as a chance to build relationships with friends from church.  Once I am established in a church community, I try to suggest alternatives to eating out, such as a potluck in my home. However, of all my practices, this is probably the one I most often set aside.

Sometimes, I free myself from being awake.
     I dedicate time each Saturday night for cleaning house, not only because I don't want to do the very real work of scrubbing, washing, and arranging on Sunday, but because waking to a clean, tidy space on Sunday morning is one way I welcome the Sabbath as a treasured guest.

     Rarely do I listen to the news on Sunday, and I am careful not to watch movies or read books that will make me sad. This might seem like escapism, but it is not: it is my challenge to the hard news, shocking realities, and brutal facts I let break my heart six days a week. On those six days, I ask God to show me how I can fight the darkness, but on Sundays, I surrender my feeble weapons, trusting that it is God who truly gives victory.

On Sundays, I free myself for....

     As a Baptist girl, I did not grow up with any knowledge of fasting and feasting as spiritual practices, but as an adult, I use a number of weekly "fasts" to set Sunday apart as a holy, joyful day. On Sundays, I sweeten the hot tea that I have drunk plain all week. On Sundays, I often serve meat and make desserts. On Sundays, I wear my prettiest dresses and watch movies. During the winter, I end my Sundays with a long, soaking bath instead of a quick, conservation-conscious shower.

    I love the hymns, testimonies, and sermons that constitute most Baptist worship services, but after church, I try to set aside at least part of my Sunday for cultivating silence. Remembering the faithful patience of the Quakers, I turn off my music, shun my phone, and close my computer--sometimes for a quarter of an hour, sometimes longer. Sitting in my own home in such silence changes my perception: the light always looks a little different, and without the flow of sounds I have chosen (such as music), I hear new things--train whistles, children, neighbors, rain.

   During the week, my attention is almost always divided. Even as I focus on one task, the day's to-do list continues reeling across my mind's eye. I get distracted while reading by plans for the next day, or I forget something from my grocery list because the long-hunted word for my thesis interrupts my search for brown rice or tomatoes. On Sundays, I attend to one thing at a time. I don't plan for the week to come, even if the plans are happy ones. I exchange my computer, with its ever-alluring tabs and windows, for the relative austerity of a letter-paper. I go for a walk and pay attention to what I am seeing, rather than what I need to do when I return.

Remember, I see these habits in terms of freedom, not force.  As human practices, these observances are only holy insofar as they make me more like Jesus. I would not force them upon any brother or sister, but I have invited my friends to join me in seeking ways to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Will you join me in discussing and practicing what it means to follow "the lord of the Sabbath"? What, if anything, do you free yourself from or for on the Sabbath?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How to Feel at Home on the Gulf Coast

For a little more than a fortnight, Alabama has been my home. I spent a week unpacking, a week working, and then, a week entertaining guests. Last Sunday I took a two-hour Megabus ride from Mobile to New Orleans. There I met up with my aunt, uncle, and one of my cousins from Houston. We spent a few days exploring the Big Easy, including its abundance of beignets, pralines, and gumbo. We wandered the French Quarter, tried on Venetian masks, toured a plantation, and (my favorite) saw the sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Beignets at Cafe Du Monde

New Orleans Museum of Art

From New Orleans, we drove back to Mobile.  I was a little concerned about how comfortably four people could inhabit my wee flat, but having so many guests helped me feel at home in some surprising ways. Here are some things I learned--or was reminded--during their visit:

1. Taking the back roads is (almost) always better

Returning from New Orleans, we abandoned I-10 for Hwy 90, which runs within sight of the Gulf for most of its course through Mississippi. We stopped several times along this road, enjoying houses, train depots, and coffee shops that looked nothing like the shops and buildings I know from Indiana, Texas, or Tennessee. Old roads tend to go through the hearts of towns and cities, to challenge hurried and harried travel, to veer away from homogenous chains and obnoxious billboards.

Being touristy in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Within Mobile, we also ventured off the main roads several times.  Not all of these routes actually took us to our destinations, but they did give me glimpses of the city I might not otherwise have seen, such as the railroad yards and docks that help me see what it means to live in a true port city.

2. Wandering is wonderful

I prefer to do my wandering on foot, but my apartment location doesn't really allow that. However, my aunt and uncle were more than happy to drive all around my neighborhood and city to see what there is to see. Thanks to them, I discovered that the grocery store down the road sells boiled peanuts, a Southern treat I had never tried. We also found a little restaurant across the bay that serves delicious shrimp and grits, a dish I am now determined to learn to cook.

Enjoying "the South's favorite snack" with my uncle

3. Hospitality is home-making

My aunt kept saying, "We're making such a mess of your clean apartment!" but I was happy to see dishes in the sink, leftovers in the fridge, and unfamiliar shoes on the doormat. Of course I like to keep things clean, but hosting my family was my first chance to really use most of my space, cookware, towels, and more. Watching beloved people move through my rooms, I seemed to hear them say, "This is your place, your home. Otherwise, how could we be here with such ease?" I'm so thankful they came, and I cannot wait until my next guests arrive.  Could it be you?

How do you make yourself at home in a new place? And when are you coming to visit me in Mobile?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to receive a letter

In college, my friend Emily coined the phrase "postal elation" to describe the experience of receiving "real mail" in our campus boxes. Real mail had to be personal: most often it was a parcel, letter, or postcard from friends or family members back home. At first, postal elation was a by-product of novelty, for college was the first time most of us wrote and received real mail consistently. My parents were my first faithful correspondents, but Julianna became a witty pen pal after we served together at the Houston Baptist Mission Centers the summer after my freshman year. The next year, my brother* Lennon began to write me copious letters from bootcamp and, later, from Iraq, while Mr. H courted me through scores of finely-penned epistles. 

I cultivated my habits of letter-writing throughout college and graduate school, and I like to think I do pretty well as an author of mail-worthy words (for some ideas for writing your own letters, you can read this post from last year). Today, three wonderful letters in my still-new mailbox have prompted me to think about how to extend the elation of receiving.  Just as we should learn how to give gifts with joy, we should attend to the art of receiving a gift--even one as slim as a letter--with grace. 

* My reasons for calling Lennon my brother is a story for another day. He's one of my oldest and dearest friends, and during high school he lived with my family for a time. 

My first real mail in Alabama

How to Receive a Letter

- Enjoy your walk to the mailbox. Use checking the mail as a much-needed break from some kind of good work. Take a deep breath. Consider going barefoot.

- Don't open the letter immediately. Enjoy the anticipation of what will be inside. If you have deep pockets, slip the letter inside and let it travel with you through the rest of your day.

- Make sure your house (or at least a corner of it) is clean and ordered before you open the letter. Prepare your house or room as though the author of the letter were actually coming to visit you. Or, if you don't want to clean, take the letter to a special place -- your porch, a tree, a favorite coffee shop -- and read it there.

- Savor the physicality of the letter before you open it. Pay attention to its weight in your hand, stroke the texture of the paper, note the curves and quirks of the handwriting. You might even smell it, especially if it is a billet-doux. 

I use a ledger book I found at a yard sale.

- Record the letter in a correspondence log. Note the date received, author, and location. Look back over this log periodically and enjoy seeing the names and places. (I also log letters that I send in the same way).

- If you are alone, read the letter, or at least part of it, aloud. Imagine the voice of the writer reading it to you.

- Don't rush. Pause, ponder, and consider after each paragraph.

- Read the letter again after a few hours or a few days.

- Be intentional with what you do with the letter after enjoying it. Some people keep all the letters they receive, some people don't. But whether you store it in a box, save it in an album, burn it or recycle it, make sure you have replied thoughtfully and carefully with a letter of your own.

How do you receive letters? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I've been so preoccupied with moving over the last few weeks, that I've hardly written anything about my four days at the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, North Carolina. According to their website, the festival strives to be a celebration "at the intersection of justice, spirituality and art." This means the festival included many things, from talks on Christian activism to workshops on dance as a form of prayer. Additionally, for the duration of the festival, you could not walk far without hearing live music come from one of the many pavilions scattered across the wooded campus.

For the time that Shakori Hills was home, this music was in the air. Sometimes, the music was less than welcome: I learned, for example, that I am apparently too old to enjoy midnight percussion concerts that start just behind my tent.

Most of the music, however was wonderful. When you are hot, sweaty, and mostly unwashed, the clarity and jubilation of music can have a unusual power. My favorite group at the festival was called Aradhna, and they create songs of Christian devotion in Hindi and Sanskrit.

Here they are singing a song called "Gaao Re."  The name means "Sing, O Sky," and the song calls all creation to praise God. This video is not from Wild Goose, but it gives a sense of the joy I heard in the singing there.

I also bought three of Aradhna's cds, and those albums were among the first I played in my new Alabama home. The sound is much less raw, more contemplative, than the wood-born music I heard last month. But both are good. Both are becoming part of the sounds of my home. (I especially like "River")

Have you discovered any new music this summer? 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Finding a Church

Looking for a Baptist church in Alabama feels a lot like buying cereal at Wal-Mart: no matter what you desire regarding flavor, texture, price, nutritional value, or packaging, you will still have more choices than space in your pantry.

That analogy, however, points to the root of the difficulty I already feel as I look for a church home in Mobile: I don't want my experience finding a church here to look anything like shopping, and yet I find myself approaching the churches here with a rubric that differs only in content, not in design, from my grocery list:

Do they sing the hymns I love?
Do they have stained glass?
Do they have programs designed for my stage of life?
Will I find friends here?

All these questions assume that my own satisfaction is the telos of participation in a church. My very practical carnal self demands that in exchange for my time and tithes, I should expect to receive beautiful windows and a thriving social life. I don't mean to exclude my own happiness, but it ought to be a by-product, not the goal, of participation in a church. God's glory and the communion of saints and the proclamation of good news to the poor seems to be much more important, if I read the Bible rightly.

Introducing new members was one of my favorite tasks as a deacon.
As a person with strong opinions about nearly everything, I can make a fairly detailed list regarding my ideal congregation. I don't think it is wrong for me to have a list, but I'm not sure how much authority this list should have as I visit churches because I've never had to use it before.  I grew up attending the church my parents attended, a church that supported their ministry to college students and was only two blocks away from our home. In college, since I didn't have a car, I attended the Baptist church I could most easily walk to, and I found a loving and challenging community there. In Waco, I visited Calvary upon the recommendation of a friend, and I stayed because people looked me in the eye, called me by name, and said, "God is moving here, and you have work to do." I never even had a chance to make a list before I had fallen in love with that congregation.

I've only visited two churches so far, so perhaps that immediate love and certainty is still waiting for me.  In the meantime, since I can't really escape my need for a list, I am trying to fill it with better questions:

* How involved is the congregation in local and global missions?
* What does their budget say about their understanding of stewardship and justice?
* How do they use their buildings on days other than Sunday? 
* How much Scripture do I hear during worship?
* Is the full congregation involved in leading worship and ministries, or does a small group of ministers run most aspects of church life?
* To what extent does the preaching, teaching, and music balance intellectual and emotional approaches to God?
* Do I want to grow more like the people I meet here?
* What evidence is there of the members' love for one another?
* What sort of language do the ministers and members use about people who do not agree with them on points of doctrine?

What would you add to (or remove from)  my list? How do you keep the quest for a church home from turning into "church shopping"?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Verie Olde Oake

My new home is in a complex called "Olde Oak Apartments." Initially, I rolled my eyes at this name, thinking the extra "e" rather pretentious. However, then I learned that there is a 900-year-old oak on the apartment campus. This news tempered my judgment: 900 years ago English spelling was far more variable than it is today, so I suppose an oak could be "olde" if the writer wished it.

Really, this place does quite well with trees. The complex is only two years old, so most of the trees are quite new, but I enjoy being able to walk outside and find magnolias, crepe myrtles, palms, willows, and several evergreens I can't yet name. I trust places that value trees.

The myrtles are merry, the magnolias elegant, but the willows are my favorite.
 Yesterday evening I took my first proper ramble over the grounds, and at the back of the property, I found the oak. It stands at the top of a steep hill, and I cannot imagine how extensive its roots must be. I've been re-reading The Lord of the Rings this summer, and this oak made me think of Tolkien's Ents, enormous and ancient "tree-herders" who tend the forests of Middle Earth.

After so many years, I think this "olde oak" has earned its extra "e." The tree is magnificent, and I will imagine that it keeps a watchful eye over high little chapel-room of mine.

What kinds of trees grow near your home?

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Grand Tour

I had a friend who used to say of her city, "It's where my stuff is." Having her "stuff" present, she implied, hardly made the place home. It is true that having one's material goods in a place is not sufficient to make a place home. However, when you don't yet have work and friendships and memories to consecrate a place, it can be good to have things that remind you of all the homes you have created from scratch and from community.

Good words to bless a new home thanks to Common Prayer and Kt Ruth.
In the same way, putting rooms in order releases a powerful domestic magic. Home is a place where I have the authority to arrange spaces for eating, for sleeping, for washing, talking, and more. Whenever I set up housekeeping in a new place, I remember the words of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane: "to organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods." In a very small way, arranging my rooms reminds me of the One who created and organized the heavens, the earth, and all they contain.

Yesterday I finally finished putting these little rooms in order. With things in their places, I feel ready to explore the rest of this brave new world, knowing I have a sweet and ordered home waiting for me.

The door. The willow sculpture on the wall first hung in the kitchen at my apartment on the Brazos River.

Sitting room

My grandfather built this shelf from old thread spools.
The loveseat came from my aunt, and the picture above it from a yard sale I walked to in college

I try to hang my walls with wise words.

My 1970s stereo rests on a 1930s sewing machine.

The leaves on this tree are the fingerprints of my friends.
The view from the sitting room window.

Looking from the sitting room toward the kitchen.
The Book of Kells covers the fuse box, while a gift from my first landlady reminds me to trust in God's promises to his people.

My parents gave me this map of Narnia when I moved into my first on-my-own apartment six years ago.


Send me postcards! I left room for new ones :-)


My attempt to make this new apartment seem a little more seasoned.



Bedroom, as viewed from the bed

Ready to write lots of letters

Sewing machine

Bedroom closet and door to the bathroom

For a 579 square-foot apartment, the bathroom is enormous.

The back side of my building.

One of several picnic tables and grills on the grounds.

Rocking chairs behind the club house (my building is in the background)

Trees around the swimming pool

Thanks for coming along on the first tour of my Alabama home.  There will be much to come as I venture out of the door to explore churches, communities, campuses, and more.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Home Unexpected Home

For a person who cares deeply about the spiritual and material aspects of being at home, a month of homelessness can be salutary. A month on the road and a few days of upheaval can teach such a person not to hold too tightly to her own precious notions about home-making.

During the month of June, I was displaced in several ways: some expected, some surprising. My wordly goods stayed boxed and stacked in Texas, while I roamed through Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Those were happy weeks: I spent time with my parents, attended the amazing Wild Goose Festival with several college friends, and spent a night here and there with many other friends along the way. I could tell about all these visits, and I would probably draw some sweet-sounding conclusions about how home is more about the people you are with than it is about having a physical place to call your own.

I might attempt that theme in a later post, but now there is News To Tell, and at first, it seems to have more to do with displacement than with feeling at home.

When my mother and I visited Mobile a month ago (here), I decided that instead of buying a house on my rather short timetable, I would rent a house belonging to another faculty member at my new university.  Miss A is a dear lady, older than my parents, and she has been a widow for some years. She lives on the far side of the Bay, but she still owns a home in midtown Mobile, and this house has been rented or empty since her husband died. The house is really much too big for me alone, but Miss A had a wonderful idea: to save time on her long daily commute, she would stay in the two downstairs bedrooms during the week. The spacious upstairs bedrooms and bath would be mine.
Miss A's house. Isn't it adorable?
This plan pleased me in so many ways: the house itself is beautiful, with an easy, old South sort of charm, and the neighborhood also looks lovely. Even more, the idea of living with Miss A seemed like the first page of a Very Good Story. I had not planned on finding a roommate during my first year here, but after a year living with Grant and Jenn, it felt holy-right to make my housing decision based on the possibility of communion with another person. I also liked the idea of giving rent money each month to a person I knew and respected.

All the way back to Indiana, Mama and I made Plans -- plans for curtains, plans for furniture, plans for church visitation, plans for serving tea, plans for carpools. All these plans gave me the sense of authority and security that I associated with home.

Happy to have my housing finally settled, I set off for a week at the Wild Goose Festival. I was to drive back from Tennessee on Tuesday, and then on Thursday my parents and I were going to drive back to Texas, pack up my things into a UHaul on Friday, and drive to move me to Mobile on Saturday.  However on Sunday night, while I was out of cell-phone reception, worshiping with Gungor and David Crowder, Miss A called my mother. She had already moved a good deal of furniture into the house, but within that week the house had been robbed three times. The police were unhelpful and pessimistic, and Miss A decided, wisely, I'm sure, that the house was not a safe place for either of us to live.

And so, a few days before I was supposed to move, I discovered that I was homeless in a very urgent sort of way. While I drove back to Indiana on Monday and Tuesday, my amazing mother was on the phone with a score of rental agencies.

She found a place that was willing to work with us, so I was still able to move on schedule. However, the place is not what I had planned. While I had my heart set on an old house -- hardwood floors, eccentric bathrooms, ramshackle neighborhoods -- here I am in a sparkling new apartment, with a fancy pool and a gated entrance.

I was (and remain) incredibly thankful that the property manager was able to accommodate my rushed application. (The entire staff, in fact, has been overwhelmingly kind and helpful). However, I mourned the loss of my first plan, not only because I love my plans, but because my arrangement with Miss A seemed liked such a good tale, a happy little chapter between "Graduate School" and "Buying a House at Some Point in the Not-So-Distant-Future."  This new arrangement seemed to lack all that charm. As my parents and I drove back to Waco, I was prepared to do little more than "settle" for this last-minute apartment. I was resigned, but not joyful.

I am still very sorry, especially for Miss A's sake, that her house was robbed. However,  since moving in on Saturday, I have realized that this place is more than an emergency way station. It will be a good home in its own right.  Already grace and joy have surprised me in several ways. The apartment itself, though undeniably new, is full of light, with high, sloping ceilings that make me feel as though I am in a little chapel. From my third-story window I can see crepe myrtles, oleander, palms, willows, oaks, and evergreens. Best of all, several of my future students live here, and they not only helped me move in, but stopped by to say hello in the days since. Indeed, I am much, much closer to campus here than I would have been in midtown, and if living here will make me accessible to students, I will surrender all my other regrets. 

There will be more to tell in the days to come, but tonight, I am will simply say that I am thankful to be here. Listen: children are laughing outside. Someone says there is a 900-year-old oak behind Building 6. Storms may roll in. I spent the afternoon walking from room to room, blessing the guests and strangers I might host here.

Maybe this fancy apartment will be the right setting for a Very Good Story, after all.

Home unexpected home.
Come back tomorrow for the grand tour!