belonging to another

Jon and I have been reading the Tales of the Kingdom series to our children lately, a trilogy of books written by David & Karen Mains. We have been drawn into the allegory as much as our children have been! In addition to enjoying the stories and what they communicate about following Jesus with our lives, I have been pondering a recurring theme: that of belonging.

Early on in the series, an orphan hunter who works for the evil Enchanter, comes to Great Park where the King’s people live. She is hunting for two orphan brothers, to bring them back to the city to work for the Enchanter as slave labor. Mercie, who cares for the children of Great Park, tells the orphan hunter that there are no orphans… all children who live in Great Park belong to someone. The message is clear: it’s the belonging that makes them safe. To not belong is dangerous, makes one vulnerable– they call it being a “one only.”

I understand and value community. I understand the danger in alone-ness. And frankly, I do not like feeling lonely (who does?). But as I have contemplated this idea of belonging to another, something in me resists it. I am independent by nature. I need my space. At times I need to make a decision for me… on my own. How far does belonging go? Does it cross the lines I draw around my soul for privacy, dignity and sacred space? I have known belonging to create safety, but I have also known it to cause harm. Sometimes there is danger in belonging too much to another. We can lose ourselves.

After more than 12 years of marriage, I have learned something of what it means to belong to another… to lay down my rights, to make difficult decisions as a pair, to speak what I know to be true and then listen without jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. We are two very different people who have somehow created a loving life together. I belong to him as fully as I am able, yet I am still distinctly me… and he celebrates that. He belongs to me as fully as he is able, and yet he still uniquely him… and I celebrate that. It is a journey, though. It takes arduous inner work for me to hold on and let go. Then again, often it is a happy adventure!

In almost eight years of parenting, I have also learned about belonging. Giving my time, my full attention, my whole presence to them; does not come easily to me. I crave space and silence and stillness, as I get older. Yet I belong to them, at least in part… a very large part. And they teach me such wonderful things when I pay attention. Why do I fight that?

I have moved in and out of faith communities during the course of my life, and I wonder if I prefer that mode of belonging. If I can imagine a possible end to the belonging, I can stomach the sacrifices a bit easier– I am not saying this is right. I am simply wondering if it is true. Would I rather pop in and out of belonging (which is not really, truly belonging at all), so that I can keep my ideas my own and protect my rights… so that I can avoid true love and genuine transformation? Why am I afraid that truly belonging means losing myself, disappearing? I find I do not like this part of me, the fickle and uncommitted part who is distant, protective. But there is learning and growing to be done if I am patient with me and continue to choose belonging… and turn from being a “one only.”

Finding union in love

James Finley on Thomas Merton:

The Samaritan going from Jerusalem to Jericho found a man half dead who had been beaten by robbers. As the Samartian bound up his wounds, Christ met Christ. Weakness met strength and both found hope in life beyond division and fear. Love is the epiphany of God in our poverty.

I want this in my life. This is what matters.

observations of community

In the span of six days, I have had the opportunity to visit two different food establishments… and I had two very different experiences. My mind has been turning these things over and over ever since.

Last week, while my children were at school for the morning, I went to a fairly new local coffee shop to sip a warm drink and read a good book. I also happened to take notice of the space and the people around me. Scattered about the room at small tables, were people who had obviously come in together and were visiting over food and drink. There was a TV on the wall, with the volume turned low– some people were catching up on the news that was broadcast there. Others were alone, engrossed in a book like myself, or concentrating fiercely on their computer screens. The atmosphere was intimate, private, small, quiet… even the colors were earth-toned and added to the muted feeling in the room. I actually went there specifically because I wanted to “mute” my life a little bit, even just for an hour or two. I wanted to crawl into my own private space and have some reprieve from the chatter and activity of my daily life as mom. It was perfect for that.

This morning could not have been more different! Ben and I had spent an hour running some errands and I decided on a whim to treat him to a mother-son brunch date at a local restaurant. The place I happened to pick has a long history in our area. It has changed management a few times over the years, but remains one of the “places of choice” among the older generation… and it’s known for good food. When we walked up the ramp to the restaurant entrance, Ben remarked, “Wow, mom, this place is fancy. Look at the flowers on the carpet. Look at the lights, mom! Wow!” I smiled– this place is NOT fancy, but why not let him think so? It made him happy. We were seated and I began looking around myself. There was a lot of light, Ben was right. And the colors were bright– pale blues and off-whites and even some sprinkles of pink here and there. As I mentioned earlier, the clientele tended to be older although there were some young moms and dads with little ones in tow. Quite a few customers wanted to chat with myself and Ben, asked him his age and what special occasion had him out with his mom on a Tuesday morning. The folks who were leaving and arriving had lively and friendly conversations with many of the staff, especially one worker who was carefully sorting creamers and jellies for each of the tables. He had a 40th birthday coming up and was handing out flyers to that effect. He was getting more hugs, handshakes and smiles than I could count. His downs syndrome was all but invisible. As I observed the love in the room and felt it brushing up against even me, I let the busy errand-running morning float away and took a deep breath. This was family; maybe not biologically but certainly at heart.

When we left for the car, the contrast popped into my mind. These two places– both serve coffee and food, both employ servers and cooks, both have tables and chairs where people gather for conversation, both had lights and doors and bathrooms and paint on their walls, cash registers, kitchens, you name it. There was even a sense of community at both places, certainly so (and I do not mean to sound critical of the first establishment- I love it there!). But it was different at the second restaurant… so obviously different. It’s almost beyond my ability to describe in words, but I’ll say this: if I was lonely or feeling unsafe or needing some grounding in the middle of a chaotic life, I’d go to the second restaurant. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it was like a reunion in there, almost like the church pot-lucks I grew up attending. Is it just that there were some older folks in there, is that why I feel this way? Or is it that the folks who go to this place, regardless of their age, hold some secret to grounded and family-like community that the folks at the newer hip coffee shops know nothing about yet? Is technology the difference– there was no TV and I didn’t see anyone with laptops at the second place? I’m not sure. But I know that when I need a mute-button for my life, I’ll visit the first. When I need family, I’ll go to the second. Just my observation of community.

to the 10-acre wood

For the last month or so, we’ve been living a curious journey. I wanted to write about this sooner because it has been the source of some profound reflection for me… but it includes news that my husband and I wanted to share personally with some people before I shot it out through cyberspace.

For many reasons, my husband and I had decided that this house we presently live in would be our permanent home. It’s not perfect. The location isn’t perfect for a family that loves the mountains as much as we do… but it’s home. It’s where we dove into ministry together; it’s where my mother died and my father spent two years living with us; it’s the home we brought our babies to after they were born; it’s where we’ve learned the art of hospitality, of sharing our home with others because this home belongs to God. Not to mention (and this is really the kicker), both of us despise– and I do mean utterly despise– moving. So we took on the stress of a major project, revamping the backyard to our liking, and we were at peace. Well, peace is relative, isn’t it? This past summer was not easy for either myself or my husband. The exhaustion and mess and busyness of adding the pool project on top of everything else took its toll (and it still is… we’re not done yet).

But… then God spoke. Do you know what’s coming? You got it. Something new is being born.

Out of clear blue sky, we were given an opportunity to buy 10 acres not that far from here. 10 beautiful acres in the woods with a babbling creek and all the wildlife and spaciousness we could want. Even though I verbally said “no way” as soon as the opportunity presented itself, somewhere deep inside I felt the urge to see it. I felt a drawing.

But it didn’t make sense. We love our neighborhood. We love our house. We’re creating a whole new living space in our backyard. Our roots are here. And what about our strong calling to hospitality and missional living among our neighbors? How are we being Jesus if we’re hiding out in the woods? Yet… God was drawing me… He was there as I walked the grounds, speaking to a deep place in me… Interesting, as I thought of grieving the loss of the place where I spent the last days with my mother, I felt her walking with me by the creek in the 10-acre wood, bird-watching and noticing beauty everywhere.

Small steps. We started exploring the possibility more and more– crunching numbers, making inquiries, talking about all the issues involved. I kept whispering a prayer, “close the doors, God, if this isn’t you. make it clear, please. make this clear.” Dreams. I started day-dreaming about ministry possibilities. What would it look like to be hospitable here? What could ministry look like here? I thought about all the monasteries and convents that invite people to come away and be with God. A retreat place. Yes… maybe a small retreat…

I spoke with my spiritual director not long ago about all of this and how crazy it seems. She said, “But Kris Anne, all I see on your face and all I hear in your voice is anticipation. You feel it, that God is, in this very paradoxical circumstance, calling you to another conversion. The extrovert called to the woods! Conversion of your known way of being and known way of living into a new way! You’re already open to the possibilities, aren’t you? Embrace the surprise and the unexpected, Kris Anne. Hear the call, whether or not it works out with this property.” Embrace the crazy? Ok… I might learn something, and it might be joy!

It is not official yet, but it looks like we will be living in the wonder of the 10-acre wood come this spring… maybe not until summer. The next few months will not be easy. We’ll be in the middle of more projects and preparations… but it’s a beautiful paradox to me. What a wonder it is!

a small attempt at missional

I dropped off eleven of these letters today. It was nothing profound or amazing. It may have made very little difference in our community… but I wanted to do it, to make contact and acknowledge that what our family does also affects the other families nearby.

the beginning

the beginning

Dear neighbors,
We wanted to take a few moments to thank you for bearing with us over these months, as we have worked on our backyard. You have been so patient through all the dirt, machinery, noise and activity… and mess. Many of you have stopped by to offer encouragement and check out the progress. We feel blessed to live int his neighborhood, among such gracious people. We hope, as we finish up all the work and the decks are finally built, to invite all of you to stop by some evening for food and fun in the new backyard. That might not be until spring, but it will happen (this can’t last forever, right??)! Thanks again for your patience during this huge undertaking. Blessings, the Swartleys.

the middle

the middle

Struggling with mission

One of my new responsibilities at Highland Park Community Church is to prayerfully shape our identity as a people “on mission with God.” The church is not the church unless it’s a sent people… just as Jesus was sent and the Holy Spirit was sent– we also are sent. It is our privilege and our burden to be part of God’s reconciling work in the world, reconciling all things to Himself through Jesus. God, your Kingdom come, your will be done here!

As well as I can articulate these things, still I have been struggling through this. Our little congregation is still a fledging faith community in so many ways. In our thoughts and “church habits” we are still steeped in the old ways of being church, doing church. There is a strong temptation to become the social club– you know, the men’s club, women’s club, children’s clubs, teen club. Our resources are few, and we could so easily end up dumping them into the clubs, with little if anything left to spend on our community.

I have talked to a few people who seem to want to convince me that the clubs are good and actually can be a ministry to our community… but I have grown up in that world… and it’s just not so. I apologize if that sounds overly critical. Add to that the facts of church work, that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, and I cannot in good conscience spend time and resources on the things that only serve to make us ingrown. Is Bible study a waste? No. Are small groups bad? No, of course not. Is Christian education for our children without purpose? No, I believe in solid Christian education for my own kids. I want them to know the Bible stories, to know how to connect with God.

However… (you knew that was coming, right?)… I have a strong conviction that we spend so much on these things, in an effort to build community in our churches, that we neglect our actual physical community, our neighborhoods and neighbors. We become a social club, a christian clique. So the question I am struggling with now is this: how do we build community at HPCC, this infant church, while also being on mission with God in our community? No Christian bubble, but authentic relationships that are outward focused, pouring our limited resources into our neighbors– spending our money and time and energy and talents on those alienated from God’s Love, Justice and Mercy. Is it possible that we will stumble upon authentic community while we work together on mission with God? Will it happen unintentionally, as we labor, shoulder to shoulder?

God is among the poor and oppressed (see Matthew 25). Where are they in Highland Park and how can we bring Good News to them? How do we, at the same time, bond with one another on the journey and form honest, loving relationships? It’s a conundrum… but one I’m glad to be in the middle of… I’d hate to be trying to “undo” the social club right now.

Community art?

For all those who were wondering, yes I’m still alive and I have returned from Italy! I hope to blog some thoughts and reflections, maybe even some pictures, in the near future.

But for now, some thoughts on art… which I feel a bit strange writing about, because when it comes to visual arts, I have very little (if any) talent. I was reminded of that today as I attempted to finish a few pages in my son’s baby scrapbook. It’s a good thing I only committed to doing baby scrapbooks for my children, and not one for each year of their life.

Back to the topic at hand, though– the pastor who I work with at Highland Park Community Church has a vision for using art in worship, and I have been intrigued and inspired by the idea. Drawing, painting, dancing, photography, etc. all seem like wonderful ways to express love and connection to God. And it also seems like something that may draw people from the community into a building they would not normally enter… a church building.

These thoughts came back to me as I happened to be reading an old issue of Reader’s Digest (from August 2003). There is an article by Kathryn Renner on p. 211, having to do with a community art piece that had a powerful impact on one neighborhood:

Jan, a self-taught artist, decided to ask each person in her neighborhood to paint his or her face on one big canvas… first, she painted a grid on the canvas and propped it up on an easel in the garage, next to a table of paints. Then whenever Jan was home, the ‘art room’ door was up, with an open invitation for enighbors to paint on a square. the first to stop in were kids riding by on theri bikes… But the adults weren’t so eager. ‘Most said they hadn’t picked up a brush since kindergarten,’ Jan says. ‘They were afraid they’d mess it up.’ But as word slowly spread, they came, some using their driver’s license photos as models. Then something started to happen. They came back– to see who had painted, or if they could recognize who was who. While in Jan’s garage, they began to chat about re-modeling projects, schools, jobs, and families. Wendy, who lived across the street and was fighting breast cancer, came in her wheelchair to watch the fun every day. When the worst happened and Wendy died, they stood by her husband, Bill, and invited him over for meals… This summer has been different in Jan’s neighborhood. Famlies take turns hosting happy hours. They share birthdays and swim in each other’s pools. ‘We’re watching over each other now, just like in the painting,’ says Jan.

I’m wondering, could we do something like this for our communities, as congregations? …use art to build relationships and connection with one another, to break down barriers and welcome one another into our lives? What do you think?

A conversation with my unchurched neighbor

The phone rings.

“Kris Anne, it’s Jill. I just wanted to apologize again for not making it to your graduation party. I really wanted to be there, but I was still so sick. I hope it went well.”

“Oh my goodness, don’t even worry about it. I just hope you feel better soon! Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No… and I don’t even want you to pray for me. You know, I have this really religious friend who says we can ask God for anything because he’s our Father and we should be able to ask our fathers for anything no matter how trivial because they love and care for us. But I don’t buy that.”

“Hmmm…. why is that?”

“Well, if I’m sitting at the Black Jack table praying that I will win, that’s not right. That’s disrespectful to God. I only think it’s right to pray about severe health issues… not the little ones, but the big ones. You know, when I broke my foot and I was lying on the ground, I didn’t pray that God would heal it. I prayed that he would help me get through the pain. I don’t think life is supposed to be comfortable or easy. I believe God does miracles and can heal, but to ask him to help me get rich or relieve a little pain… it doesn’t seem right. You just got your MDiv, what do you think about all that?”

“I think your friend is right that God loves us like a Father and cares about our lives. But I also agree with you that praying to win at the gambling table isn’t right. And I think you are right on that life is not about our comfort or wealth… you’re amazing… I don’t know that I always remember that. But I’ve actually been stumped lately about praying over health issues. I prayed for my mom to be healed of cancer and to live, and God didn’t heal her on this side of heaven. For whatever reason, He didn’t do a miracle. I guess lately, I’ve been praying that whatever happens, God will shape me and mold me into a more godly woman. And when it comes to praying for others, I pray that whatever happens to them, God will give them inner peace and strength and reveal His Love to them… and that’s about as far as I get. I know God loves us and wants what is best for us, but He doesn’t always say yes to our prayers… and that’s difficult for me. I sometimes feel like, if He is just going to do what He’s going to, then why ask. I don’t know, Jill. I certainly don’t have all the answers.”

“Yeah. Would you pray for my sister, though? We don’t speak to each other, but I found out she has six nodes on her throat. They are testing them to see if they’re cancerous. Her life is so messed up; I don’t want her to die.”

“I’ll pray, Jill. I’ll certainly pray that God will show up with all His Fatherly love and surround all of you with grace. You’ve got a beautiful spirit, Jill. Let me know if you need anything else, ok?”

“I will.”
And now, I wonder how to pray… perhaps Jill knows better than I…

Post ReLaunch…

I think I have written here before about the six-month project at the church where I am serving (Highland Park Community Church). We’ve been praying, preparing the building and worship space, praying, studying about service and ministry and leadership, praying…. doing Outrageous Acts of Kindness in the community and marketing the church… and praying.

Yesterday was the big day– the Grand ReOpening (or ReLaunch) of this community of faith.

…and God was there! We planned for about 75 people and served close to 100. Everything went smoothly and I sensed people were connecting with the message and with God. We’ve been told by church planting consultants that week two can see a drop-off of at least half the number that came on Launch day… so we will see… our hope is to retain around 20 new people over the coming year.

Thank you so much for your prayers and support during this time! Continue to pray that HPCC will be a light in the community and will find many ways to serve where there are needs. Pray that people will find many ways to connect with Jesus through our ministries. And pray that our core group will have healthy relationships with one another and with God as we move forward with this work.

God is good! God is faithful! We belong to Him!

New Website

Since November, we at Highland Park Community Church have been working with our hands and hearts in preparation for reLaunching (or a grand reOpening) on Easter Sunday (April 12, 2009).

We have been painting, cleaning, buffing floors, replacing windows, reconfiguring pews in a circular formation, purchasing new equipment… we have been studying the book of Philippians, discussing vision and mission, doing various OAKS in our community (Outrageous Acts of Kindness)… we have been praying for specific families in our community and for the larger community in general….

It’s been hard, at times exhausting work (I’m sure even more so for our pastor and her husband). And we have no idea what God is going to do on Easter Sunday. Will there be 30 people? 60? 100? 200? The theme of surrender has been on my heart the past few weeks. This is not truly “our” work. We’re participating with God in what He’s up to in Levittown. This is His… all of it… all the people…

I’m writing about this today because recently our website has gone LIVE. Check it out here:

Please pray that we will be faithful in being God’s instruments during reLaunch and beyond. Pray that we will be sensitive to the Spirit’s movement and release our dreams and hopes to God. Pray for strength and perseverance for our core group. Pray that God will prepare the community, the hearts of people, to receive His Love through us. Thank you!!!!

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