It’s like trapping a rock. Like this little blue stone that I am now determined to wrap in dark blue wire and hang on a hemp necklace for my friend Ashley. The stories, the ideas and the opinions swirling around in my head are as smooth and as slippery as the stone, and I grasp at them for days before I’m able to properly express them. My dark blue wire had slipped off the stone while I was sitting on Ashley’s couch here in Houston, and I had given up. I placed the stone back in my leather pouch and decided to give it more time.
I learned how to wrap stones while we were in Atlanta, from a man appropriately nicknamed “Legend.” He created beautiful jewelry with copper wire and pretty rocks, and when Brittanie joined him on the sidewalk to create the hemp necklaces the stones would decorate, the duo had a happy little business plan. It was during our very first encounter when Legend gave me a necklace as a gift, after a long discussion about “The Alchemist” and our personal legends. The light that emanated from Legend’s face and the joy and freedom with which he gave his gift gave me hope and happiness, a spark of love in the midst of a few difficult days.
It’s hard to count how many weeks have gone by since that day with Legend. It’s impossible to express how much I’ve changed, and what I’ve learned. I was at Lori’s house a few weeks ago when the wire holding up one of the stones on my necklace snapped, and I picked up a pair of pliers to fix it. “This is a LOT harder than it looks!” I had told Rob as I struggled to rewrap the stone in copper. “I know, that’s why I haven’t tried it,” Rob laughed. My effort to express the evolution of my soul is like that. Holding the smooth stone in my hand and examining my length of copper, it doesn’t seem possible. As I sit here in front of a blank computer screen on a rainy day in Houston, a month and a half since Atlanta I think, and a week after leaving Lori’s house, I’m still struggling to type these paragraphs.
Rob pointed out that the rain dripping out of the gutter above us has slowly but surely been splitting the wood log surrounding our new friend’s landscaping in Houston. Like the raindrops, the sequence of events even in just the last few weeks has been slowly but surely splitting me into a new creation. The last 7 days have been an intense blur of culture, language and amazing food in the most diverse city in America. There have been days spent living in parking lots, sunburns and tan lines that look like a bad joke. Mosquito bites left over from Louisiana that seem like they will never quite go away. Memories that still make me laugh and cry and seem to be simultaneously too close and too far away. But when I reach for something tangible to write about, something keeps presenting itself onto the blank slate of my mind… I’m not sure why it matters. Maybe you’ll know.
Lori asked me on her back porch one night in Lafayette, “If God told you to stay somewhere, and build community in one place, would you do it?” The question caught me by surprise, despite the fact that another member of her community had asked me the same thing only a few hours before. I told her that I would, undoubtedly, do absolutely anything that God told me to do without question and without hesitation. And I have to trust Him completely, because as it stands, He will have to do a good work in me to make that happen. The very fact that I stayed at Lori’s house in Lafayette, Louisiana for nearly three weeks without having some sort of panic attack is nothing short of an absolute miracle.
It was incredible, really… to acknowledge that I haven’t stayed in one place for longer than 2 weeks in the last 2 and a half years. Why? I ask myself that question. What is it that perpetually propels me forward? Later that night, as Rob and I talked on the porch, we discussed the question again. I told him that I wanted to write about our time at Lori’s house, about her beautiful community and her amazing decisions to fulfill these dreams… dreams of Love and Kindness, forgiveness and compassion, inclusion and encouragement. I wanted to write about her spirit of worship, and the truth that she spends each morning having her coffee with God, and you can find her face-down in her bedroom, prostrate in worship sometime before noon. I wanted to talk about how you can see it in her face. There’s a certain wind that seems to follow her like a sweet perfume, a certain Love and happiness. I imagine that it comes from all that time she spends living with Him, and only Him. Shutting the bedroom door on the world and getting in deep with the Spirit… Living in the place that would be heaven, but eventually the world comes knocking. I often ask myself why it’s so hard to bring His eyes, His laugh, His hands, His hope out into the world with us.
But I told Rob that as much as I wanted to write about it, I just couldn’t. Not Yet. It’s as though I can’t seem to understand it, to grasp it, to trap all these thoughts onto a page while I’m still in their midst. If I’m still being stretched, still being grown, still learning from a person and a space and a time, then I won’t be able to express it in any sort of completion until it’s actually complete. And it seems as though it never is! Often I need to bring an experience with me into new context. Into a new place, a new situation with new teachers and new students, new fears and new comforts and new dreams… in the midst of new stories and new surroundings, these moments here in Louisiana will be given new life, new meanings… and so often they will finally come full circle! How can a seed grow if it is not given life?
And so I fill my life with motion. I’m provided with distance, and the ability to wake up to something new. As we eventually moved down the highway in the direction of Houston last Monday night, I burst into tears. What a miracle it was! Every day of more than two weeks in Lafayette I woke up excited to be awake! I woke up ready to improve myself and to offer the gift of my life to this backyard community at Lori’s house. I was never unsatisfied, I was never unhappy. I didn’t want to tear out my hair and climb the walls and run around the block. As I type that, I can remember a few frustrating moments that in all honesty left me wanting desperately to be alone… but those moments are easily forgotten and even despite that, I didn’t want to leave! As I fell asleep on the evening before Good Friday after a long game of Spades followed by a long game of Skip-Bo with the guys around the table, and while the mosquitos were flying through Jethro’s open window to devour me in the evening heat, I prayed and asked Him if we should stay for Easter.
The truck had been fixed that day, the loose ends were arguably tied up. We had planted flowers and herbs around a fountain full of goldfish in the backyard. The motorcycle was running again, Lori’s bike was fixed. I had made enough necklaces to give to all the girls. We had seen 2 Bible studies and 2 Saturday morning breakfasts. We had already said goodbye to Damla. I had used Lori’s paints and we had an outdoor art session with the guys at the table, and I was happy with the first painting I had created since grade school. The artistic part of my heart was being stirred and awakened. We had seen a concert at the park and eaten Boudin and made new life-long friends. My friend Ashley was in Houston and I was curious as to what Easter would be like in a Muslim community where she lives as a “Missionary” there. But if we stayed here we could color Easter eggs with the guys and experience the Cajun cooking that this place is famous for. I would never get tired of hearing Reagan’s accent and playing cards with Woody and Justin. I wanted more time with Katie and Dane, and deeper conversations with Rickey and Tony. But I also wanted the rush of the highway, new adventures, and new friendships that were waiting on the other side of tomorrow. God, I prayed. What do we do?
That night I had a dream of flashing yellow lights, like the ones that you see on top of a truck or on the side of road. But they were horizontal and all in a row, bright yellow and flashing. I often talk about the difference between fear and caution. Fear is human, and I respond to it by pushing through it, facing it, and discovering the blessings on the other side. But caution comes from the spirit. It’s an unexplainable gut feeling, an instinct, a feeling of danger or even a stirring of the mind that leads to one direction.
I woke up with the words I had told Lori bouncing back and forth in my brain. When God gives us option A and option B, I used to think that I could “miss it” and I could mess up. I could choose the wrong answer. But He says that all things will work together for good when we love Him. And I love Him! So I hear this: “Don’t be fooled into thinking that you ‘missed’ my direction for your life, or that you “could have been” happier than you are. There is nothing that will stop me from getting what I want. All I require is your willing heart, and your faithful obedience. Even if my will is option A, option B is just the longer road to option A. We’ll get there baby girl, just listen to your heart.”
This is trust.
Later that day we sat in the living room, and Shane told me that he’s battling over making the decision to stay or to go. “There is so much I still want to do, that I didn’t get done.” His voice was downtrodden and disappointed in himself. This struck me as ‘unfinished business’ which just doesn’t seem to happen when it’s time to go. It’s the little things that no one else would know of or be able to identify, but they suddenly become very important to us. This year, they seem to get wrapped up nicely before we leave each city. But Shane listed off a bunch of mechanical things he still wanted to do here, and I laughed. I had adopted Lori’s phrase: “It’s not that serious.” I smiled at him and grabbed his hand. My next sentence seemed to require absolutely no thought whatsoever. As if someone had shut off my brain, just for a moment, so that I couldn’t mess it up by saying anything other than “We can just stay!” His face turned into a smile. “Really? I know you want to get on the road,” he said, knowing all too well the way that the highway seems to call out to me, reach out to me, and almost lift me out of my chair some days. “Really, it’s okay Love. We can stay for Easter. You can get it all done this weekend.”
As I finished my sentence, Lori walked through the living room door and said “I just wanted y’all to know that Justin just threatened to nail Rob to the bench outside if you try to leave.” I laughed. Good choice.
But It wasn’t until we made our way toward Houston on Monday night that the dream made sense. In the midst of my awe-struck tears at the glory of God’s provision over the holiday, a flash of yellow light caught my attention as it sweeped through the inside of the cab and lit up the dashboard. I glanced up through my blurry vision and noticed the horizontal flashing lights on a construction truck next to us, driving along in the left lane, slowly moving past Jethro and into the darkness. I don’t know why, but I was supposed to see those lights right then, in the midst of my deep loss at another “see you later” in life, to remind me that we had the best Easter… ever.
Lori had told me that she had been praying for crawfish, and that she had even called her friend Mandy and asked her to pray for crawfish for Easter. This is Louisiana after all, and a crawfish boil would be just too perfect for the holiday. I haven’t eaten crawfish since I was living in Mississippi years ago, and I put some good energy into that hope for a miracle. When Lori’s husband Israel’s phone rang while we were sitting at the table late in the afternoon, for some reason we all grew quiet while he was on the phone. It was like there was something in the air that made our ears perk up and everyone turn to stare at him. He had a huge smile on his face, and when he hung up the phone with a member of a local church, he laughed. “Looks like we’re getting crawfish for Easter!”
A crawfish boil is an all-day event, especially when you have 110 pounds of crawfish and 20 people slowly but surely trickling into the backyard. There were people there we had never seen before, that heard about Lori’s table in her backyard from word of mouth in the community. We had boiled Easter eggs the night before, and we colored them bright purple and yellow and baby blue. Rickey wrote everyone’s names on them, and Lori made eggs that looked like each band member of KISS, seeing as how her first date with Israel was at a KISS concert. One of the guys mentioned that he’d never colored Easter eggs in his life! I was surprised, as I thought back to this being my favorite part of Easter tradition at my house. I made tie-dyed eggs and splattered them with shimmery purple paint.
We sat in the shade on the swing that Shane and Nathan had hung from one of the large trees next to the trampoline, playing cards and making jewelry and enjoying the spicy steam coming from the pot on the other side of the yard. I rescued a crawfish and put him in the fountain along with the goldfish and all of my left over Marti Gras beads from New Orleans, but after the little crawfish caught one and ate it, I moved him to the next tier up. Lori had made everyone an Easter basket to share and we were periodically picking out shiny little foil covered chocolate eggs to tide us over until the crawfish were ready.
When Lori and Israel covered the table and began pouring buckets of crawfish out in a line, I was amazed at the provision of God. There was no fear that there wouldn’t be enough for everyone. It’s like magic when He does that. “You want crawfish? Okay, I can do that.” He must have said with a smile. It’s amazing how deeply He loves us; that He cares about the details, our little hearts desires. I know that Lori didn’t want the crawfish to soothe her appetite; she wanted them to bless her community. She wanted God to show off for us. It’s beautiful that when we get in deep with God, our desires become more like His desires, and we begin to see our prayers fulfilled. The love inside relationship. The blessings of a life lived for Him.
I sat on the little white porch swing tied to a tree and watched everyone eat, listened to the laughter, the chatter, and took in the joy of the moment. I looked around the sunny backyard, at the dogs begging for scraps and the fountain gurgling like a soothing soundtrack on a warm spring day. I looked up through the trees at the sunshine as it sparkled through the green leaves of the tree, and felt the motion of the breeze as the swing moved back and forth. I couldn’t help it, it was so perfect. The tears that fell were the happiest tears I’ve cried in a long time.
I remembered that moment as I watched the lines of the pavement outside the passenger window on Monday night, rolled the window down and stuck my arm out the window. I was done crying. It’s good that I felt the love that deeply, and in such a profound way that I grieved for the goodbye. There’s something about leaving that makes you fully appreciate being there, in a way that just doesn’t seem possible otherwise. My heart was filled with Love for them. All of them. I could name them all and put my heart and energy into typing it, but it would seem inadequate to sum up my family in a list of names. I love their hearts, their souls, their spirits. I love what they have to say and what they have to give. I even love the way that they take. I love the way that they sing, and play cards, and eat crawfish.
Shane cranked up the radio and I sank myself into worship. What a mighty, majestic, powerful God that answers my prayers and gives me a choice in the matter, a God that delights even in my questions, and responds each time I lay out the fleece like Gideon and ask Him to show me the truth.
The next night I was sitting in my friend Ashley’s living room, trying to trap that blue rock with dark blue wire and talking to her about life on the road. Ashley had just told me that she is resigning from her staff position as a “missionary” in the Muslim community with the organization she has worked with for the last 2 years. I asked her why, and she told me that she is the only member of her organization that actually lives here, in this low income housing complex as the only American, and that this experience radically changed her heart for her neighbors. Too often she felt, people get used along the way, in our efforts to mobilize the church. She’s not changing the way that she does life, where she lives, or what she does to spread the love. She’s simply resigning from her job title.
Her decision struck a chord with me about my own process. For the longest time, I saw organizations that help the homeless as these divinely inspired business plans, in which people can make money and help people at the same time. Best of both worlds! Right? Except that Jesus said that we can’t serve two masters, so the whole idea of having one foot in each world started to sound treacherous. But it wasn’t until I was the one sitting on the sidewalk, over and over, having people come up to me and try to “save my soul” in exchange for a sack lunch, or toss me a bottle of water without ever asking me my name, or give me a card and invite me to church without noticing that it’s raining, and I could use that umbrella that you’re holding… It wasn’t until I was the one who needed to come inside to warm up, but I couldn’t do that until I filled out all the paperwork, so that I could become a “client” and be counted in the reports that are submitted for more government funding. It wasn’t until I was the one that was hungry, but I had to hand over my social security number and be issued a “homeless ID card” with a bar code that can be scanned into the state data base before I could receive a meal. It wasn’t until I was the one that needed shelter, but I couldn’t get a bed until I listened to the sermon. It wasn’t until then that I began to look at things differently. How often do we use people, especially poor people, to serve some sort of selfish purpose? Even if it’s just so that we can feel good about ourselves, cross off our Sunday school checklist, or tell our friends that we volunteered this weekend? How much of the good that we do is actually for the sake of service, let alone for God?
I told Ashley what my friend Julia told me. “You’re not a missionary. Because a missionary has an agenda.” I had thought about that when Julia told me this, and it stung with truth that I can’t deny. When I asked her what she would call me, she told me she would call me an Ally. I asked her what that means, and she said “an ally is someone who comes into a community to walk with them, to join them, and to offer whatever resources they have to the furtherance of a collective objective.”
I can appreciate that and I’ll adopt that term much faster than I will the term “advocate” or even a Christian in some cases. The associations of those two terms are incredibly negative. The church is known for judging, not joining, and an advocate is more likely to document and exploit than offer their resources. I still say call me whatever you want, I’ll always introduce myself as just Shay.
Right after I got frustrated with my ability to capture the blue stone in dark blue wire, threw it back in my gypsy basket full of art supplies and resettled myself on the cushions of the couch, Ashley asked me another question.
“How do you know that you’re supposed to leave? Like why do you keep moving all the time? I would think that it’s hard to build relationships and community in such a short stay somewhere… maybe that’s just me…” her voice trailed off as if she regretted asking the question. I began to answer but Rob interrupted and I realized I was curious to see what he would have to say about this. What was the deal with this question anyway? It just keeps popping up.
“We move because God tells us to move. And it’s GOD, so… yeah. Plus I’ve always wanted to travel and see the world and all that good stuff. So this is where I get to live the dream and help people at the same time.”
“Well, that makes sense,” Ashley responded after a moment. “You’ve got to listen to God, I mean… but like how do you know when it’s time to go? How long do you think you’ll keep doing this, or do you know?”
Ashley was looking at me but I looked at Rob to see what he would say. He looked sheepish when he said “Shay?”
I told him I wanted to hear his thoughts. He said “I don’t know. I mean, we just all seem to know when it’s time to move, and besides I want to see the west. I’ve never been out there before, so…”
He got up and left the house to go check on his dog in one hurried motion and left me to attempt an answer.
I took a deep breath and looked at the space on the couch across from us where Rob had been sitting. “I used to feel like that; that all I wanted was to travel, and that this project was the way that my dreams would meet the needs of the people. I guess a part of me still does feel that way… but this stopped being a project a long time ago. It’s just my life now. I’ve seen the whole US twice already, every major city and lots of small towns. I have enough memories that I could go be a hermit and occupy myself trying to write them all down or even just contemplate them, keep learning from them, for the rest of my life. I’m super satisfied with that. Or I could go overseas! Get an international perspective on poverty that would probably change my mind about all sorts of things going on here. I could go to Africa…” I said with a smile because Ashley was preparing to leave for Africa in just two days to do life with the people of Senegal.
“But something… you know, it’s weird… in 2009 when God told me to do this project, it was the first time that God had literally told me to do anything in that undeniable, awe-inspiring way… in that ‘vision from the future, blow your mind, make you laugh out loud’ kind of way. Like “you’re going to do THIS.” That’s what happened. And given where I was in my life at the time, and in my relationship with Him, it’s pretty graceful that He chose to tell me anything at all. I’m still amazed. And it happened exactly like He said it would. After 2010, I found myself grasping for another experience like that. This massive epiphany that would dictate my future and lay it all out for me like a yellow brick road or something. But that didn’t happen. I went out on the road again because I wanted to share my experiences with my husband. I’m glad we did that, and I wouldn’t change it. But this year, with Rob, I find myself asking the question, ‘why am I still doing this?’ all the time.”
Ashley was smiling at me in this kind of knowing way, as though she understood completely.
“I know that I’m building a community. A nomadic, intentional community… but I have no idea what that looks like. So I don’t have this definitive vision. And that’s frustrating. We’ve slowed down, so there’s no calendar or schedule to follow… just this undeniable sense of urgency that I can’t seem to shake. This feeling like we’re going somewhere, like we’re moving toward something that is going to be completely revealed when the time is right. Maybe not until we get there. But when we do, we’ll know that we know that we know. And until then, this isn’t about the destination… It’s definitely about the journey. It’s about submitting the daily decisions to God. Giving Him the big and the tiny parts of my life, and letting Him create the whole picture however He wants.”
It was interesting in that moment, as I said the words out loud, I knew I was going to catch that pretty blue stone with a little piece of wire, and that I was going to send it to Ashley on a necklace. I smiled to myself before I continued.
“Now I would be lying to you if I told you that every decision that we make is easy. Or that I don’t have all these moments where I’m like ‘what am I supposed to do God?’ Just so you know, I ‘lay out the fleece’ and ask God for confirmations, discernment, signs, whatever… all the time. I mean I’m constantly in the midst of another decision and I can never see what’s coming around the next corner. It can feel like a coin toss sometimes. But I’m learning the difference between faith and trust. Everyone talks about faith. Maybe I even have a false sense of faith. I mean, I do live in America. I can eat out of dumpsters. It’s easy to have faith that I won’t go hungry. I have a truck, so it’s easy to have faith that I won’t get rained on tonight. I do things specifically to test that faith even, like self-deprivation and stuff. Like a juice fast. It’s like a challenge. ‘So, if I only eat fruits and vegetables, will you still provide, God?’” I was smiling and Ashley was laughing and nodding. “But the crazy thing is that He does! Over and over and over. So now I’m learning to trust. And that’s a little different than faith. Trust is about knowing that it’s all going to be GOOD. That He knows better than I do. Not just that the food will be there, but that it will be exactly the food that I need. Not just that I will find the road to travel, but that it will be exactly the RIGHT road. Because He knows me better than I know myself. The spirit lives inside me! He has literally seen my entire life through my eyes, through my mother’s eyes, my brothers eyes, my father’s eyes, even your eyes. Every person I’ve hurt and every person I’ve helped, God has experienced that in His total omniscience. I almost can’t get through that thought. Pretty awesome. So that means that when He doesn’t provide things, when He tells me ‘no’ and when things get hard… when I have to hear ‘goodbye’ and ‘move along’ even when I don’t want to… when I hear ‘let it go’ and ‘give it to me’ and even just a big loud, silent ‘NO’… that means it’s time to trust. He knows me better. He knows what is going to make me the happiest, what is going to fulfill my need for purpose in this life. He knows better.”
After Ashley went to bed I sat up late and thought about Lori and our family in Lafayette. I thought about how much I missed them already and I thought about how strange it was for Ashley and Lori and Woody to have all asked me that question in the last few days. Something is stirring in me… and I’m not sure what it is. God is having me put my finger on something for a reason. I pay attention to repetition because it usually finds meaning in my life. And a few other topics keep being repeated, but they haven’t come full circle yet. The necklace that was created with that blue stone and that dark blue wire was perfect. I wore it for 3 days before I sent it along to Ashley. Maybe this process of trapping and catching rocks will help my mind catch and trap the past few years, and process them into something I can someday explain. Maybe not. Either way, I’m already grateful for whatever comes next…