For the One Who’s Still a Long Way Off

photo credit: almost there via photopin (license)

photo credit: almost there via photopin (license)

“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son,
threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20

So you’re taking the long way back, hobbling along, still a little amazed, actually, to find yourself heading back to that place you left so long ago.

Back then, you were young and drunk on the idea of independence, on your plans, on your dreams — your inheritance burning a hole in your pocket. And, besides that, you were sick to death of the whole damned thing, not sure what you believed anymore or why you’d ever believed it. Not sure if you belonged anymore in that house, among those people, the ones bowing their heads in prayer one moment and whispering side-eyed in the foyer the next.

You weren’t sure, even, about Him. The Father whose love sometimes felt like it might crush you, flatten you into something smaller than you wanted to be. Love as familiar and bland to your tongue as the bread you’d eaten every day of your life. And from the threshold of that doorway between past and future, the world looked like a buffet…a hundred thousand things that you’d never had a chance to try. And you found yourself ravenous.

If you’re being honest, it’s not like you’re particularly ready to go back. This isn’t how you saw this playing out. You thought this would all work better, and who can imagine, at first, the fragile nature of success? Who would think that it’s just a soap bubble getting bigger and bigger until it could almost swallow you whole. And then. Pop.

You’re going back, frankly, because you’ve run out of options. Because you never could manage to outrun your past, because it kept creeping up on you as you lay in the hollow of your despair, wishing things had turned out differently.

Go home, go home, go home, the phantom lullaby sang in your ears, and it was so familiar and soothing, that eventually you found yourself thinking, What the hell. What else am I going to do?

And so here you are, taking the long way, dragging so much baggage that you can hardly keep going. Failure. Resentment. Pain. Anger. Doubt. Distrust. It feels like a long way from where you are to where He is, and you don’t even know what it’ll be like when you get there.

Is it as bad as you remember it? Is it as good?

What is waiting for you at the end of this grudging acceptance? And Who?

A hundred miles away. A thousand. It might as well be a million for all you can imagine, and each step feels hard as you lift your leaden, heavy feet and walk.

You are not as far away as you feel.

You have turned, barely, in the direction of home.

So little. The least and the most that you could possibly do.

It’s exactly enough.

Somewhere far away from where you think you are, the Father is waiting, watching. He sees you who are a long way off. He comes running.

And, after all, who can outrun that crushing Love that, in the end, makes us so much larger than we ever thought we could be? That Love that has been waiting, watching all this time for you to run to the edge of the world and then turn, finally around.

I’m not saying it’s not a long journey. Anyone who has ever run away knows this. Anyone whose heart has calcified from sadness to anger to cold, stony cynicism knows that it’s a hard road home. But also, it’s so much closer than you think.

Because the Father is running toward you, His eyes full of joy and tears and all the love that’s been yours all this time. He will walk you home to where that same bread will taste familiar in your mouth and fill up your emptiness. To where you will finally understand that it was always enough.

You are still a long way off, I know, but I want you to know that he is coming anyway. Maybe you can’t see him yet, but he is sprinting, laughing, calling your name across the void.

He is closing the gap with raucous, echoing grace.

The Transition Time

spring ducks

I’ve been home from Armenia long enough now that I should be over the bulk of the jet lag…but I still feel like I’m lagging. I can hardly stay awake past nine; I can’t get up early to write; I can’t manage to get much of anything checked off my to-do lists. I’m slogging through my days, staring off into space a lot, forgetting a lot of really basic things, like brushing my teeth.

A week and a half later, I’m still just a little out of step with my own life.

There is an entire gamut of emotions that I imagine I should probably feeling after a trip like this: guilt over our excess and our waste. Newly realized devotion to changing the world…or at least changing our spending patterns. Quiet wisdom gleaned from those heavy, precious moments in the homes of Amasia.

I feel none of that…which makes me feel like, possibly, I’ve done this whole thing wrong.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather.

Daylight Savings came and brought with it the dry, brown beginnings of something that we’re tentatively calling spring. 

The snow is gone, and it’s been warm enough to sit outside on the deck in just a sweatshirt. This weekend, Andrew dragged the patio furniture out of the shed, and a few brave-hearted ducks flew back in, even though the bulk of the pond is still ice.

I don’t know how to feel about this weather. The last two years, we’ve had blizzards well into April. Winter, that cruel tyrant, is notorious for letting the first little seeds of hope begin to sprout…and then quashing the whole thing with ice and swirling gray snowstorms.

It’s warmer now, but the grass is still brown and the trees are still bare, and it’s only March. These transitions between seasons tend to be complicated and drawn out and full of heartbreak in Minnesota… and I’ve been here for more than a third of my life now. I’m just too jaded to hope that the worst is truly behind us.

*

On my trip two weeks ago, I wrote a lot about Armenia’s beauty and poverty and glory. I told you a little bit about the genocide and about that old beautiful church. But I don’t think I conveyed fully how in transition it is — particularly in the Gyumri area, where we spent the bulk of our time.

It wasn’t all that long ago, really, that the 1988 earthquake crumbled so many lives, killing 25,000 and leaving another 50,000 without shelter. And then, just a few years later, communism fell, and Armenia found herself on her own in the rubble, without the support she had grown accustomed to.

Transition.

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t understand extreme poverty. I have no personal context through which to filter the experience of the family living in a shipping container, spending their days searching for twigs and branches to keep their home warm. (This is me, tuning out the story of the parents’ struggle, doing puzzles with the children. Kids, I understand. Puzzles, I understand. Poverty? Not at all.)

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

But I do understand transition. I know about how long it takes, how painfully slow it feels, how you alternate between hate and nostalgia for The Way Things Used to Be.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus is the Solid Rock when the world you’ve lived your whole life in has cracked beneath you into a thousand pieces. You can’t tell if everything is still half-broken or if it’s half-repaired, and hope is a scary concept when life has been full of false starts and crushing disappointments.

Is it clumsy and irreverent to make this about me? To draw upon the metaphor of this country’s journey as a mirror for my own? Or is it worth seeing how the same we all are? That underneath the reasons and the dressings and walls and curtains, our hearts are made of the same stuff?

It happens in different ways for each of us, but at some point or another, the world we know shatters beneath us, and we’re lost in the endless gray chasm between What Was and What Might Be.

Transition

*

On our second day in Amasia, we met an old couple with a young son. I was taken by them all, but especially by the father, Andranik, who reminded me so much of my Grandpa-in-Law that I had to physically restrain myself from looping my arm through his and snuggling in.

If it were still the old days, he’d be retiring now. Instead, he’s shuffling with his wife and son several miles each way to clean other people’s  barns. “Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, and what do we earn?” he asks. 600 dram  — about $1.40 a day — for the whole family.

In the interview that the staff wrote up for us the week before we came, Andranik said, “I have lost my faith. I cannot believe in anything.” He said, “It is our time to die, but we are still living.”

But that day when we visited, he seemed to fill up the small shack. We crammed inside, and cameras kept flashing, and he looked proud as he pointed to the things he had made — a church delicately crafted from paper, a wooden carving, some photo-shopped pictures of his grandchildren. He showed us his goats. He stood tall and he smiled. He seemed to me larger than life, even in the smallness of his situation.

I told him he reminded me of a favorite grandpa; he said that I was his favorite granddaughter. I got my hug.

“He seemed more hopeful today than he did in the interview you wrote up,” I told the translator as we walked the snowy path back to the bus.

“It was you guys,” she said. “I think he was honored that you came to see him.”

And it seemed stunningly simple, miraculous that it could be true.

Of course. 

We can’t always ease each other’s transitions, but we can enter in to that lonely, gray space. We can stand under the sagging roof. Smile and listen and see and do our very best to understand. And in doing so, we bestow worth and beauty and honor. In doing so we say, You are worth seeing. And in doing so, we remind one another that there is something to hang on to. Something to believe in. Something to hope for.

Photos by Laura Reinhardt

Photos by Laura Reinhardt

*

Today it’s gray and the wind is harsh and cold and keeps flipping the lid of the recycling bin open.

The winter is a tyrant, slow to leave, constantly overstaying its welcome, and who knows when spring will actually finally come? Who knows how much longer we can take it?

All we can do is sit together in the dwindling cold, pull our sweatshirts tighter, and help one another wait it out.

You Don’t Have to Care About Everything

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

I almost didn’t come to Armenia.

I spent a lot of years as that person who tries to Do Everything and Be Everything, and I know what it feels like to burn out. I know what it’s like to overcommit — to feel like you have to overcommit to the world in order to really love it like God does.

I spend a lot of time at work in the ethereal space of The Internet, and I know the weight of having the pain and tragedy of the world in your Twitter feed, in your Facebook feed, in your face all. the. time. 

I have become, over these past years, a big believer in finding your few things. The overcommitted, over-busy, fractured, distracted life is not one that I want to live, so I zero my energies in on the few things that I am doing. My family. My writing. My small, church women’s group. And within these three spaces, I’m focused almost completely on doing the quiet, intentional work of making others feel seen.

That’s it. With two young kids at home and a book deadline, that’s all I can handle right now.

And it means saying no to things that are really good and beautiful and necessary. Volunteering at the local junior high with at-risk youth. Working with the Breaking Free organization in our area to help end human trafficking. Sorting things from the lost-and-found at Dane’s kindergarten. Writing compelling pieces about hot-button issues. Organizing food drives or clothing drives or serving in the church nursery. These are all things that I say no to so that I can say yes to my few things. The ones I feel like, right now, are what I’m meant to do.

Armenia wasn’t one of my few things.

I’ve never had a “heart for missions,” though for a long time, I pretended I did to impress that one boyfriend. And though I feel the weight of world hunger and extreme poverty, I am not the strategic thinker who can implement change. I am not a social worker or a teacher or a doctor. I’m a chronic homebody who struggles in other cultures. I’m not even a people-person.

But World Vision didn’t ask me to build wells or houses or do street evangelism or fix a broken system.

They asked me to see. They asked me to write. They asked me to do my few things in this new and far away place, and so even though everything in me was screaming, Stay home! Stay home! Stay home!, I got on that plane and I came.

*

I know what it feels like to be a Christian in a land of privilege. I know the constant pound of guilt that well-meaning organizations tend to drive into your heart. Give more! Do more! Be more! There is so much need! You have so much wealth! Care more! Care more! Care more!

I feel it too — like my heart is already holding as much as it can. Like it’s already broken, like it’s falling apart because there is so much to care about it and, if I’m honest, there’s only so much I can care.

After the first few days here in Armenia, this is how I felt: numb. Defeated. Discouraged. There was so much need in that mountainous Amasia area, where World Vision projects were just getting started…and I felt my heart closing up, steeling itself against my own powerlessness.

But today.

Today we sat in a room of bright-eyed Gyumri youth while they told us about the projects that they have been implementing in their city and its surrounding villages in the past couple of years. School supply collections. Puppet theater. Easter food baskets for needy families. They built a library where there had not been one. They built an ice skating rink so that kids would have something to do in winter. One day, they all went out on roller skates and traded apples for cigarettes across the city, trying to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

And it occurred to me as I sat there in the room: I don’t have to care about this.

They don’t need me to take this on. They don’t need me to make Armenian poverty one of my few things. It’s okay that I’m not passionate about building an ice skating rink or roller-skating for cigarettes or puppet theatre. Because these are their few things. They are passionate about this. They are passionate about their city and their country and their people. I watched them, these beautiful kids with fire in their eyes, and I felt the most freeing sense of peace.

youth

What World Vision has been doing all these years in Gyumri through the child sponsorship program is helping people take back control of their own lives. And they don’t need me to care in that exhausting way that I’m used to having to care about things. They just need me to see them. They need my $35 a month so that they can make those Easter food baskets and run their health care seminars and buy school supplies and take back their city.

I always suspected that giving money was somehow less noble, less spiritual, less holy than being there. Than really caring. Than offering my sweat, blood, and tears to a particular problem or issue or crisis.

But what if, in some cases, it’s exactly enough?

Maybe I can release myself from the pressure to feel everything, and instead send my money off each month with a prayer and a blessing, full of gratitude for the power and creativity and passion of the people already working here.

Maybe part of the work of community is affirming and supporting each other’s few things while reserving our limited energy for our own.

*

This morning, I stood in the home of a local family whom World Vision has helped to transition from extreme poverty to total self-sufficiency. Their little boy stood in the middle of their newly built living room and sang us a song. It was gorgeous and haunting and wild and brave.

I sat there, listening with tears in my eyes, and I recognized something new: I don’t have to be a voice for Armenia. Armenia has her own strong, beautiful voice. She always has.

I am here, and it is not my thing, but I get to be part of it in a very small way. It’s a privilege to sit very still and listen to this sad, hopeful, beautiful song. It’s a privilege to clap madly and blink back tears.

And then, it’s okay — it’s right — to go home, to keep doing my few things, sending my small token of love across the sprawling ocean, one month at a time.

On Letting Go of Our Poverty Myths

Most of what I know about poverty are myths.

What I know about poverty is wide-angles and broad strokes. It’s filtered and fictionalized. I know the story of the good, hard-working, honorable poor, against whom the deck has been stacked. I know, too, the story of the ignoble poor — alcoholics who can’t keep jobs, drug addicts and prostitutes, high-school drop-outs who keep getting knocked up.

I am a white, middle-class girl from an affluent Chicago suburb. I live now in another suburb near Minneapolis, and though my husband and I have, at times, struggled to make ends meet, we’ve never known poverty. The shades of it. The nuances of it. All the secret and hidden feelings; the way it bleeds through all the lines and fictions we use to define it.

I came to Armenia thinking that I understood. I came with my glossy photo of my sponsored child, and I had invented a story of mythic proportions of what all this would be like. The details were fuzzy, but I knew that my fictional sponsor child would be sweet, grateful and a little dirty around the ears. He will love me immediately, I thought. He will be speechlessly grateful over the gifts I’ve brought him. He will crawl in my lap, and I won’t miss my boys so much.

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

My real sponsor child, Aleksandr, is five years old — dark haired, dark eyed, and beautiful.

He is also kind of a rascal.

He spends the first fifteen minutes of our lunch meeting on Saturday with his face hidden in his vest, ignoring me in spite of his fathers pleas. When he comes out at last, he is sassy and wild-hearted and not about to snuggle up his brand new World Vision sponsor for a cute photo op.

Aleksandr prefers to bond over faux karate chops, and it does not surprise me to learn that his favorite show is Power Rangers. What does surprise me is to learn that his father spends several months every year in Russia — the only place he can find work — and only sees Aleksandr and his mother for a few months every winter.

I give Aleksandr the soccer ball I brought him, and he kicks it across the restaurant and laughs loudly when it glides behind the bar. “He’s a little bit naughty,” his father says with a shrug and a wistful smile. “My boys too,” I say with a grin.

Aleksandr roundly ignores the plate full of food in front of him. “My children are picky eaters too,” I tell the father, and he shakes his head and gives Aleksandr a woeful look. “Now that Alie’s father is back for a little while, they cannot be parted from each other,” the translator tells me. Every now and then, Aleksandr father shovels a spoonful of something into his mouth, and he sighs and accepts it.

Along with the soccer ball, I give Aleksandr a set of paints and paintbrushes and suggest that he share it with his friends. “ALL IS MINE!” he says, then he does that crazy laugh again. The translator whispers to me. “Aleksandr is an only child. He is still…learning…to share.”

He never does give me a hug, but we karate chop at one another for a while, and he tells the translator that he plans to break my airplane so I can’t leave…so I think that means he likes me?

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Today is Sunday. I spent the afternoon wandering around the city of Gyumri, thinking about myths and poverty and beauty and reality. It’s the first day of Spring here, and the snow is starting to melt, leaving the streets wet and muddy under my boots.

We pass the blown-out windows of an old textile factory, and there are snow pants hanging from a ledge. I wonder if someone lives there, in that crumbling place. On that same street, there is a gaggle of Armenian teenage girls in high-heeled boots and blown out hair. In the park, young boys play soccer, and old men play backgammon on benches, and the lines that define “poverty” for me are washing out, changing, becoming indistinct in this broken, beautiful old city.

The truth is, poverty not a myth, and it’s not a stereotype. It is not the primary definer of a life — or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s not just a backdrop of some heroic tale. It’s not a personality trait.

This is not some story about “The Westerners” coming to help “The Poor.” This is a hundred thousand different stories. This is about Andranik and Janet and Nikol and Ani. It’s about Anahit and Vahan and Mariam and Margarita.

This is about beautiful, broken people who are happy and sad and noble and petty. This is about real people who get grumpy and frustrated and ecstatic and sleepy. Who make mistakes. Who spoil their children sometimes. Who give up every now and then…and then get back up and try again. It’s about the ways that the community is learning to come around each other, and the ways that organizations like World Vision are helping with that.

It’s about Aleksandr, who is not a caricature of my imagined version of “poverty” — but a regular, wild, five-year-old boy. He likes Power Rangers and he misses his Dad and he’s going to school for the first time this fall. He doesn’t really know what to say about any of this. A few years from now after a couple dozen sponsor letters from our family, maybe he’ll understand what this day was about and why we were there. But for now, he he karate chops me in the arm and grins and impish grin…and for a moment I am part of his complicated, beautiful, many-faceted story.

It’s a story of poverty and joy and love and hope and life, and my heart fills up with it all as I watch him put on his hat and gloves and walk out the door.

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

I’m so thankful to be part of the real, beautiful story of Aleksandr and his family. I’d love for you to join us. There are currently 1500 registered children in the Amasia area, where Aleksandr lives, and right now, only 543 are sponsored. Click here to sponsor a child there and join in this beautiful work!