Anne Dahlhauser

When loving your neighbor means doing hard things [or, the best Christmas card ever]

Recently, we received a Christmas card in the mail stamped with: "NOTICE! This correspondence was mailed from an institution operated by the Dept of Corrections. The contents are uncensored.” I recognized the name immediately. It was a card from jail, from an individual who is sitting there because of calls we made and things we testified and evidence we handed over.

Being a good neighbor doesn't feel good at all sometimes.

Sometimes, it hurts deep and leaves questions in our minds about if we did the right thing or not. Sometimes, it makes us lose sleep, tossing and turning over the implications of what we have to do with what we know.

Sometimes loving people well requires drawing lines in the sand.

Painful lines. Hard lines. Because sometimes “adults making bad choices” are just little kids inside who never had the breaks or positive role models that you did or we did. Too often, they are adults who want better and know better but are surviving in the best way they know to survive.

And, some have trusted us to the point of making us accomplices.

Have you been close enough to become the bad guy? Because that’s when getting close enough to love starts getting real. That’s when our hearts gets torn in two, one side determined to not destroy trust and the other unable to ignore the very things that are destroying the individual we care about.

There is no superiority in pointing out another’s weakness. No victory in making those phone calls. No fulfillment in confrontations. Over the past years, we’ve been on the front lines of getting kids removed from abusive homes, sending individuals to jail, filing numerous files at child protection services. And it hurts every single time.

But Friends, here's the one thing I've learned about drawing lines in the sand:

Drawing lines in the sand is not to be done from a distance. That's when souls get hurt, relationships break, wounds rip open. Because without the warmth of a relationship, those lines just become walls. And walls isolate hearts that need Love.

But this Christmas card writer? He knows we care. We've told him. We've been here, and we've been in it with him week after week, month after month. And we didn't go away. And we tried to explain, tried to tell him about God's love and his potential. Tried to empower him toward better choices. Tried. Tried.

I suppose that's why I cried when I read his card. Then, I left it on the kitchen counter for days so I could reread it.

He has forgiven us for turning him in.

Praise God - relationships create a gentle, safe foundation in which those lines painfully drawn actually become arrows, arrows pointing to the One who embodies justice and mercy.

Friends, God can transform what could've been bitter walls into beautiful arrows when we choose to get closer, to mix up our messy life with the pain and hurt of those around us.

Maybe someday a Christmas card will come from a kid behind bars. And maybe it will say things like “I’m sorry” and “if you guys wouldn’t done that, then I wouldn’t have gotten my life straightened out” and "I forgive you" and "I hope you can forgive me."

Or, maybe that card will never come. Because honestly, many more haven’t shown up in our mailbox - yet.

But, I’ll keep holding out for Hope and keep getting close enough that my heart breaks. Because I believe in arrows, and I believe in the One to which they point.

on rolling out welcome mats for divine work

She sat across the table from me, reminding me a lot of my younger self. Her pen was poised over a notebook, and I could see she’d already been making notes and plans. And so, this was it. After seven years of founding and developing The Bridge of Storm Lake ministry, I was handing over the position of Communications Director, a role embedded into my heart - and the role to which I knew she was called. Although the past months had been an awkward scene of passing the baton, it would be official now, I told her.

Of course, it would sound nice to say “it’s always been God’s ministry” and “He can do with it as He pleases,” as if my feelings were exempt. But the reality for this mama was that it felt like my baby. I had dreamed of it and named it. I had labored over it, drawing up plans and tucking away dreams in drawers, like neatly folded onesies and receiving blankets. Eventually, the vision was birthed into reality. I cleaned it up and swaddled it with human words, making it presentable to onlookers who received and celebrated it. Together, Jay and I loved this vision-baby, amazed at what God had laid in our arms. We held on through disappointments and failures because we shared this passion to see it grow and develop and be all that God had intended. We cared for it, nurtured it, protected it, sacrificed for it, as any parents would do, through long days and sleepless nights.

Sometimes Sacrifice calls us to hang on. But, other times it calls us to let go. Only Faith can explain to us the difference.

That day over coffee, I was compelled to let go. It was time, as every parent knows when its time to encourage babies take steps, head to kindergarten, go to a sleepover, stay home with babysitters. Wings must be given and maturity means gaining independence.

And trusting God means entrusting plans and people to His capable hands.

Maybe, like me, you've hesitated over letting go. But, it's not because we don't trust others, is it? It's because we don't always trust ourselves without that baby on our hip. Because we resist the murky question of what could be next.  Because the next step hasn't yet been revealed in clarity. So, if it's not this, then what? If I'm not doing that, then what will I do? Who will I be?

And the truth is, when God closes doors, He doesn’t always open a window. At least not right way, and not always the ones we keep staring at. Sometimes, mercifully, He just lets us sit in that quiet room and breathe His peace amid the questions.

He reminds us our work is not our identity.

Maybe He wants us to step away before we step up again.

Our maybe it’s not about stepping up or stepping out at all. Maybe it’s about Who we step into more fully.

And, maybe it's about how letting go invites us to open up spaces that our arms have been wrapped tight around. It makes us available for new seasons, allows others to experience God in new ways, and rolls out welcome mats for divine work we’ve not yet imagined.

We must release to receive.

We must let go to let in.

We must face closed doors to come closer to God's next door.

Today, let's know this without doubt:

Letting go doesn't leave us void; it frees up spaces and souls for the Spirit's filling.

Lord Jesus, we sit in the temporary, in the now of life. We can't always make sense of what You're forming on the horizon. But, we trust You, and we entrust to You the people and plans around us for Your glory. Would You come today and rule with Your peace? Thank You for guiding us with closed doors and closed windows. Help us to settle back into Your ways and to trust You with every change. Amen.

On being a bridge-builder [introducing a new series]

“When you take the leap, we will be there to catch you,” he said, his palms faced up and arms opened wide. I stood in the silence, no words came to mind. The leap was terrifying, even foolish. And these smiling people said they’d be there for us, that they’d catch us.

I knew full well that they had no clue what they were promising. They knew nothing of the shunning. They could only wince with compassion at the emotional pain we had and would continue to feel as we turned to walk away from everything we had ever known. The threats, the letters promising our eternal condemnation, the phone calls, the loss of family, friends, home, job, identity, future - these people knew nothing of the cost.

And how could they? They were elders in a nearby church, but they had little experience with loving a young, vulnerable family whose ground beneath them had just given way - the ground they thought was solid and truth and right, maybe even the only right in the world.

But I believed them. I remember longing for someone to tell us it would all be OK, and that the longing was filled, even just for a second, with his words. Someone would stand in it with us. Someone was going to catch us.

Of course, I knew enough of God and His Word to trust that it was ultimately He who would sustain us and care for us. Yet, in that basement meeting, where we offered up our story, I needed humans with audible words and warm hugs to meet us where we were. Desperately.

I don’t tell our story often. It doesn’t go down well over coffee. It’s too much to drop into casual conversation. So, it’s reduced to lines like, “Jay and I were raised in a religious group, kind of like the Amish, and then we left.” Those who’ve been raised in such groups, get it without me saying another word - while those who haven’t, never will, despite a world full of words. And, for years, I’ve left it as that.

Lately, however, I’m seeing the full circle, squinting hard and making out the form of what was and how Divine hands used it to lay a foundation of what is and what will be. Our stories provide the shape of our todays and our tomorrows. And so, our story, our foundation, includes bricks of toxic religion and pain. Yet, it's on that structure that Redemption shows up best and brings our purpose to life:

Because we needed be excommunicated in order to understand outsiders.

We needed to be rejected by family and friends in order to understand God’s ideal for family.

We needed to be steeped in our own religious subculture and then try to enter mainstream society in order to understand what it means to cross cultures.

We needed to leave our spiritual homeland and start over with nothing in order to understand the narrative of refugees and immigrants.

We needed to be desperate and alone in order to experience love, real and incarnational love that reached into our world and built a bridge out of it.

We needed to be the recipients of someone’s ministry and prayers in order to know how it feels to be the outreach focus.

We needed to be cut off in order to be grafted in.

We needed to be the damned, the lost cause in order to ever understand why the Gospel is good news.

We needed to need a bridge in order to be the ones who’d eventually start the ministry of The Bridge.

This series is on being a bridge-builder. In short, it’s about how to be like those individuals eleven years ago who let God show up in their words and deeds and forever changed our little family. But, it's not a series about our story; it's a series about how Redemption made our story useful, even valuable, in a greater story. If Jay and I know anything about being a bridge-builder, it's because we were the ones stuck on an island. If we understand anything about the power of meeting people where they are and standing in the gap, it's because that's how we were rescued - by God, through average people.

It’s a series about how to rethink everyday relationships and their divine purpose.

And, it's about knowing with such certainty that the Gospel is good news for outsiders, that the way in which we relate and interact is forever changed.

I hope you'll join me for the next 31 days of Being a Bridge-Builder.