Culture & Race, Social & Political Issues

Dear ‘Merica: a Lament

When the Coke commercial began to play on Sunday, our Superbowl party of chatty adults and raucous children instinctively grew quiet.  We watched the striking depiction of America the Beautiful unfold with tears in our eyes, mesmerized.

After halftime, I checked in on Twitter, and learned that not everyone in the country shared our sentiments.  I sighed at comments like “We speak English here” and “Nice to see that coke likes to sing an AMERICAN song in the terrorist’s language” and cringed at hashtags like #wespeakamerican and #boycottcoke.

Inside, I ached on so many levels.  (That seems to be happening a lot lately.)

I ached first because I spend my days teaching English to the very immigrants you suggest don’t belong in the country. They are among the hardest working, most generous and kindest people I have ever met.  Contrary to your belief, they desperately want to learn English.  However, this isn’t always as simple as it may appear.

If English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are offered in an area, there are often long waiting lists, the class times conflict with work schedules, parents don’t have child care, or work 3 jobs to make ends meet and simply don’t have time.  Some, like many of you, have never had access to education and find learning a new language just as challenging as you would.  Many didn’t have the opportunity to learn English before they arrived in the US because they fled their countries with only the clothes on their backs.

All my students speak English to some degree, but it’s also no secret that English is quite a challenging language to learn, and everyone (including yourselves, I might add) falls somewhere on a spectrum regarding a complete and accurate knowledge of the language itself.  The issue is far more complex than a simple command to “Learn English”.

The other elephant-issue in the room is that even if immigrants learn English, they still speak their native language.  Just because they speak English doesn’t mean they don’t still use their own language.  It’s as much a part of who they are as being American.  Multilingualism plays a significant role in our national history.  Spanish predates English in the US, and there were debates in our early years if English or German would be the language of the government.  Pretending that English is the only language spoken is inaccurate at best and dehumanizing at worst.

My students love America.  They love its diversity and opportunity and potential.  Read it in their own words:

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 5.39.13 AM

From their optimism, you’d have no idea how much they sacrifice because they believe in and love this country.  Their children don’t know their grandparents or aunties or uncles or cousins or beloved friends. Professionals with advanced degrees and impressive work histories accept menial jobs simply for the privilege of living here.  They work long hours to provide, and then share what they have with a generosity that puts most native-born Americans to shame.


The ache also struck another, more personal chord because both growing up and living as an adult in the rural Middle, I frequently encountered these types of perspectives. They didn’t come from everyone, mind you, and gratefully not from my own family, but they are certainly a familiar part of my background.

Part of my family had roots in Appalachia that transplanted themselves to the hills of Southern Indiana and the other part were Swedish immigrant famers.  We all grew into ‘good ole simple Midwesterners’. While I am not exactly one of those ‘liberal-coasters’ you like to rant about, I am a rural Indiana girl who frequently rubbed shoulders with you throughout a childhood that includes sweet memories of listening to country music in pickup trucks, riding in a tractor with my grandpa, devouring my grandma’s sweet rolls, rolling down hills, adventuring in cow-pastures and wading in creeks with my cousins. When I left home, I discovered a great big world that reflected so much of the goodness I had seen in my own little square of it; but it wasn’t scary like the tales I had so often heard – it was astoundingly beautiful.

So while I disagree wholeheartedly with your perspective that diversity in our country is not beautiful, I also know you.  I know your names and your faces and your homes.  I have played tag with you at recess and cheered with you at football games.  I have been your neighbor, your customer, your colleague, your student, your teacher.  For so many of these reasons, I know that these tweets don’t exactly give the rest of the country a complete picture of all that you are.

I know that you have families you love.  Like tight-knit immigrant communities, you care for each other, bringing casseroles for new babies and plowing driveways in snowstorms without being asked.  You visit hospitals and sit on porches and wave at neighbors and help out friends in need, even if you don’t really have enough for yourselves. Yes, there are ugly-racists among you, people who hate and spew all sorts of ignorance, but they do not tell your whole story for many of you disagree silently, but restrain from speaking for fear of rocking-the-boat, not knowing what to say or being told to ‘just take a joke’.  Some of you may speak like this because it’s how you were spoken to or because you’ve never known anything different or because you don’t know or love anyone who is different from you.  I know there are reasons for your words that go far deeper than the 140 characters you express them in.

But your words hurt.  They scar and they maim.  I know this, too.

I know firsthand that you don’t easily know what to do with people who are not like you. Our biracial and bicultural and multilingual-but-English-speaking family lived among you in a tiny little cornfield town for 8 long and painful years, enduring glares and scowls, holding hearts and sighing wearily with the very-few-others-like-us.  You love yourselves well, but you did not love us at all. You ignored us in restaurants, ran us off roads, made threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. You kept to yourselves when we reached out. You shrunk back in silence when the ugly-racists raised their loud voice.

There were some among you, however, who countered your iciness. They brought us casseroles, visited us when our young child was in the hospital, helped us build swingsets in our back yard, chatted with us in the schoolyard and invited us to their homes for dinner. Even if they didn’t always understand us, they offered their hands in friendship, listened and loved well.  I will forever cherish their efforts to welcome us ‘strangers’ into their world.

Looking back, however, I so wish it all could have been different, that everyone in the land that gave me such a warm and rich and connected childhood knew how to welcome outsiders like they welcome insiders, that they applied the same fierceness of love they show their families to the newcomers among them.


These days, I lament how frequently I hear this story of us vs. them – a story that says everyone needs to be just-like-us-or-get-the-hell-out; a story that forgets that most of us were immigrants-learning-English ourselves not too long ago; a story that demonizes the other side without ever actually getting to know them.  While it is not a new story, it is a broken strain of what has torn our country apart, not one that has united it.

This insularity and close-mindedness some of you wear like a badge really looks like an ugly-monster-mask to the rest of us.  It hides your true self, covering up the goodness and beauty that is in you, too.  By standing against the diversity represented in the #americaisbeautiful commercial, you are protesting some of the very ideals of family and virtue and community you value so deeply yourself (unless, of course, you side with the KKK. In that case, we have other issues to discuss.)

It reminds me of this peculiar name our forefathers gave us: the United States of America.  Just as our families hold individuals of every ilk, what makes our nation most beautiful is the diversity within.  Together, we’re attempting to tell a collective story to the world that echoes, ‘We’re better together.’  

The big cities and the tiny towns.
The crazy liberals and the staunch conservatives.
The blacks and the whites and the in-betweens.
The mono-linguals and the multi-linguals.
The fifth-generation descendants and the fresh-off-the-boats.
The cornfields and the coasts.

This is why it was so beautiful to hear America the Beautiful sung in so many languages, and why I long so fervently to see the love I first learned in ‘Merica open its arms and embrace everyone in their midst instead of just themselves.  

You are better than this, ‘Merica.

Embracing is something you do way better than the city-folk who won’t even look at each other on the street. The country has much to learn from you if you’d just drop your masks and share the beautiful parts of your lives instead of these ugly ones for you, too, are part of the America-that-is-beautiful. Please, help us keep it that way.

With love and hope for a new tomorrow,


Related posts

Social & Political Issues

The evils of blogging?

When people ask me what I do, I never say I write.  It’s a little secret I’ve kept mostly tucked away from those who know me because saying I’m a teacher draws fewer suspicious looks, and it’s easier to stick to the safe conversations.  In fact, if one of my posts hadn’t gone viral a few months ago, I’d still be quite contentedly writing in the shadows without anyone I know but my husband knowing about my words here.  (I even get all-worked-up when he tells people we know that I have a blog.)

It took a long time for me to come to grips with being a writer even though I have been writing nearly my entire life, won writing awards, served as a school newspaper and literary magazine editor and been published in a variety of publications. Somewhere in my adjustment to the adult world, I determined that ‘real adults’ are private, composed, and don’t put their thoughts out there for the world to critique.  As a result, I’ve got all the arguments against writing publicly on a blog down cold:

  • It’s egotistical to put your own thoughts out there.  Who really wants to read all about someone else’s life?
  • Why spend all that time in the virtual world when there are real people out there?
  • Self-promotion and ambition are obnoxious (especially for women).  Why not just live quietly and well without the pursuit of a ‘platform‘?
  • All anyone does is fling words at each other.  Everyone has an opinion and no one really listens to anyone else.

All these reasons make perfect sense to me, and I even agree with them on occasion.  One of my favorite authors, Jan Johnson, has written about how she doesn’t self-promote much as a spiritual discipline.  I totally get and even respect her thinking.  The expectations of self-promotion and slick-marketing tactics for writers in the current publishing market are downright ugly at times.  As a result, you rarely find her books in bookstores or libraries – not many people have heard of her.  It’s a sad reality of voice and power that the squeaky (or pretty or best-packaged or most-connected) wheel really does get the grease, one that tempts my typing fingers toward complete stillness.

However, when I found myself living lonely in the middle of a cornfield in an interracial/intercultural family, I desperately needed to find others in similar situations and started a blog just to remember that I wasn’t really alone.  Over the years, I’ve found a variety of others just like me, and their simple presence in the world gave me courage to live as I was created, even when it was so very different from those around me.

I first found Idelette in Vancouver in the early stages of SheLoves.  Then I found a like-minded TCK in Australia, Kathy in Chicago, and the ever-brilliant Rachel Held Evans in Tennesee.  I also stumbled upon a whole host of intercultural blogs through the DesiLink Blogs and Multicultural Bloggers networks.  Most recently, I’ve been learning from Marilyn in Boston and Christena in Minneapolis and Rachel in Djbouti.  Connecting to this virtual world was like someone entered a very dark room and turned on the light.

So in spite of my hesitancies, I’ve written here sporadically for over six years now, with a short shut down to contemplate if it was worth continuing at all.  (In the midst of processing some intense anger, I wasn’t sure it would be healthy to have access to a public outlet for my voice.) When a friend asked me to write for a new blog discussing women’s issues, a part of me awoke. Reluctantly, I reopened Between Worlds.  While the above critiques still hold regarding the blogging world, since I’ve been writing again, I’ve also discovered some positive surprises about this brave new digital arena.

Similar to Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire, practicing a craft that I was made for feels purposeful and right.  In short, I feel God’s pleasure when I write.  Liddell’s deeper explanation of his own purpose challenges me when I consider what to do with the skills God has given me:

You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you’re dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job.

So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.

His words force me to consider if a part of my ‘race’ might be writing – not for fame or riches or reputation, but for faithfulness.  For others, the race may be caring for a disabled child or researching or single-parenting or song-writing or dancing or coaching.  What more can any of us do ‘in the face of life’s realities’ except run the race we were given as straight as we can?

Brené Brown rocked all of our worlds with her research on vulnerability and shame.  A data driven researcher, she faced a personal breakdown when her data showed that “whole-hearted people” live well because of their ability to be vulnerable.  To be honest, there are more than a few moments when I sit behind the screen with shaking fingers, wondering if I should really hit ‘publish’ (especially the provocative viral post), but as I both share and listen to others, I learn time and again that vulnerability has a healing power.

In addition to vulnerability, I have a firm conviction that gut-level honesty must have a place in the church.  Somewhere along the way, we’ve adjusted the message that Jesus came to heal broken people to expecting perfection to walk through the church doors.  While some may criticize that it’s not attractive to air our dirty laundry, I have found it far more damaging to pretend I’m something that I’m not.  Perhaps my thoughts here aren’t perfect or spiritual or positive enough.  Perhaps there are times when I complain or whine or get too cynical.  If I do, please know that it’s somewhat intentional for the reality is that I am far more dirty-handkerchief than pristine-snowfall.  If mothering’s taught me anything, it’s that nothing comes clean if we simply pretend it’s not dirty.

I must admit that while I’ve never read Thomas Merton’s book No Man is an Island, the title alone haunts me.  I can be quite an independent soul, so that may explain why this phrase is jars me.  Writing in the public sphere forces me to walk boldly in the truth that I am not an island, that I need others to be part of my story.

Finally, one of the most fascinating outcomes of the always-connected technological revolution is the ability to form a collective voice without anyone’s express permission.  While this isn’t always a positive thing, there are times when it’s astoundingly moving.  The collective voice matters because it gives public voice to those who have traditionally not had access to one.  When large groups begin to voice dissent on an issue those in power have conveniently ignored, social norms change.  A few examples include the Arab Spring, the growing protest of patriarchal leadership models in the church, the reframing of stereotypes regarding sexuality, and the growing attention to global injustices like human trafficking and AIDs.

As we consider the impact of the ever-expanding world of social media and digital connectedness, we can either decry the shallowness, running the other way with the luddites or we can engage and push it to dig deeper.  Perhaps there’s some value in both responses to the megabytes, but for those of us wading in their fray, let’s lead the way with a few extra shovels.

Further Reading

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

Seeking the good of our neighbors


“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful.  “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.   Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.  I Corinthians 10:23

I once consulted at a school district in a rural Midwestern town that had seen its Latino population grow from roughly 5% in the spring to almost 30% in the fall.  The community was struggling with the rapid transition to say the least.  One man whispered to me that the local mayor had just won his election on the informal slogan, “Get ’em out of here,” and while everyone in the community surely wasn’t this hostile to their new neighbors, many were scrambling to understand and find effective ways to welcome the newcomers to their community.

In The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community, Mary Pipher details a similar experience in the process of a community coming to grips with its change in Lincoln, Nebraska.  In her observation of the shift occurring in many parts of our country, she poses some important questions about our ever-changing identity:

“Who are we when we don’t have a hometown, when we don’t know our neighbors or our kin?  Who are we when we don’t know the history of our land or the names of common plants or birds in our area? Or when our stories come from television sets instead of grandparents or village storytellers?  Who are we in a world where the universal language is, to quote Pico Iyer, ‘french fries’?

The french fry questions linger in my heart as I spend my days with the perseverant immigrants, in part because I know so well the quaint simplicity of hometowns and quiet cornfields.  While both immigrants and hometowns have their own measures of beauty and goodness, I often wonder how these worlds I live between will manage to sort each other out.

Why don’t they just go back where they came from?  I hear echo through the cornfields, as if any of the rest of us (minus the blessed Native Americans) did this very thing.  For better or for worse, immigration is the story of our country. It is the story of my great-grandparents crossing an ocean from Sweden and finding a big field under a cloudy sky to call home.  It is the story of my in-laws resettling in a new land both to serve in underserved areas and to provide their children with education and opportunity.  It is the story of my students who love the freedom and diversity of this country enough to make themselves an actual part of it. If we “just send them back”, we deny a significant part of our story.

They should just learn English, I hear more echoes. But they are, I want to shout back.  I watch them struggle to grasp a crazy-hard language, hear their mistakes, see their attempts and perseverance.  If we native speakers had to learn our complicated, many layered language, we would surely be slower to criticize.  Don’t believe me?  Read this and this and this and this and this.  Every immigrant I’ve ever met wants to learn English, knows it will increase their ability to be a part of this country, but they also are just like the rest of us – they have jobs and children and histories and all-sorts-of-complicated-realities that slow down the language learning process.

All illegal immigrants do is commit crime, I hear.  We don’t want those kind of people in our country.  And I wonder why the few bad eggs suddenly define the masses.  US Citizens have quite a few of our own bad eggs to speak of, like the continued existence of the KKK, the Minutemen, the abortion bombers, the horribly mean churches, but they are hopefully few and far between, certainly not defining the vast majority of us.  If we allow exceptions for ourselves, why don’t we apply the same parameters to others as well?

“We think the world apart,” wrote Parker Palmer. “What would it be like to think the world together?” Or, to put it another way, how do we spend our efforts welcoming the stranger and telling this story well rather than stomping around pretending we own the place?  Palmer’s question leaves me dreaming with Mary Pipher about how we might embrace the role of cultural brokers for the newcomers in our midst rather than playing cultural guards of something that doesn’t really belong to us anyway.

As an English language teacher, the role of cultural broker is naturally built into my profession.  We spend our days, the motley mix of us from so many countries and languages, taking a stab at understanding each other.  We share a love of food and laughter, a passion for children and celebration, a hope for peace and restoration.  The Mexican students shake their heads over the increasing drug wars in their homeland.  The Middle Eastern Christians’ eyes reflect both deep joy in Jesus and resounding sadness over the reality of persecution for following him.   The Chinese students echo a quiet focus and steadfastness to pursue excellence and value community.  We think the world together, learning these things slowly from each other, opening our eyes to realities far from our own.  But the ESL classroom isn’t the only place where such learning occurs.

From rural to urban, coast to cornfield, immigrants are now living in nearly every community of the US.  While the actual numbers of immigrants are the highest in traditional states like New York, California, and Florida, the immigration growth rate is actually highest in the south and midwest, places where monoculturalism used to be the norm, where french fries (and occasionally donuts) still speak a universal language. If we want to think the world together, we must seriously consider if our communities will receive newcomers with open arms or if we will just squeeze our eyes tight and hope they go away.

If we pay attention, the church has the basis to lead the way on this one.  The issue of immigration reform in America is every bit as much an issue of human life as abortion, child slavery, and family values.  It is not about Republican or Democratic allegiances, but about families and children and hope and morality.  Given its global reputation of self-centeredness and cultural arrogance, I haven’t always liked the US much, but the immigrants are convincing me day-by-day what a unique potential this land offers, and it makes me want to be part of the solution that helps it live up to its potential.

So maybe you’re thinking, it’s easy for her, she gets paid to spend her days with the immigrants.  But me?  I don’t know any.  What can I possibly do?  I’ve got a few ideas for you:

  • Read.  I’ve listed two books below – Welcoming the Stranger and The Middle of Everywhere – that are by far some of the best I’ve ever read on any topic, let alone immigration.  They will open your eyes to the realities of the issue, and give you insight into the lives and strength of immigrants here in the US and how we might receive them with arms open.
  • Watch.  If you’re not a reader, movies can be a great way to understand the immigrant experience and see life through another’s eyes.  Some of my favorite movies about immigrant life are My Family, The Namesake, Bend it like Beckham, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  You can find even more recommendations of movies here and follow the news here.
  • Contact elected officials to urge them to support immigration reform.  The system is outdated and broken and is in desperate need of fixing.  You can learn more details and find ways to contact your representatives on sites like Evangelical Immigration Table and Church World Service.
  • Welcome your neighbor.  Keep your eyes open for newcomers in your community.  When you meet them, don’t just gawk at an ‘exotic’ being, offer a handshake and smile.  Look for ways to befriend them and find out what needs they might have.  One of the best examples I’ve seen of a church doing this is an outreach ESL program at Faith International Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.  When a few members of the church realized the apartment complex across the street had a small group of immigrants, they reached out and offered to teach them English.  Over the years, the program grew from a small group to two hundred students and a whole slew of volunteers teaching, babysitting, and welcoming the newcomers in their community.
  • Partner with organizations.  There are usually government or social service organizations in communities to help refugees settle in a new land.  World Relief, Catholic Charities, and Church World Service run such agencies in many places and are always in need of volunteers to teach English or sponsor new families.
  • Look for ways to provide employment opportunities.  I worked with the CEO of a factory in a very rural community who had hired a large population of Burmese people to work in his textile plant.  He then contacted me about offering English classes because he wanted his employees to have the opportunity to learn English while they worked for him.  It was a win-win situation because he cared well for his employees and they, in gratefulness for his value of them, were very committed to their employer.
  • Live with them.  Matt Soerens, the author of Welcoming the Stranger, developed an interest in immigration initially because he lived in an apartment complex called Parkside which was home to a high number of immigrant families.  When the city of Glen Ellyn wanted to redevelop the apartment complex, many raised their voices and knowledge of the system to protest the decision to displace an established community.  In addition to the residents, the larger community showed up as well, asking the council to allow them to keep their home.  And the council said yes.  They raised their voices together – the citizens and the immigrants – and they won.  This is literally seeking the good of our neighbors.  You can read the whole remarkable story here.

Our world is indeed changing, but it is no new story.  It is one that has been told throughout ages.  The question is how ours will be told.  Will it be a story of closed eyes, cold shoulders and us-vs-them rhetoric or will it be one of neighbors looking out for each other, of welcoming strangers and caring for the very world in our midst?  In our actions, may we live as people who are helpful and who build up those around us, regardless of the similarities we share or the differences we don’t fully understand.

When the village storytellers gather to remember us, let them not retell the oft-repeated story of violence and division, but instead let us leave them with stories of building communities, seeking understanding, and learning from each other.  Let them tell the story of us loving our neighbors.

Related Posts

Further Reading

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

Call me hope

Stephanie posted this video in her reflective post The State of Western Missions, Talking Donkeys, and a Video and it was so good it warranted its very own post.  This is a video produced by the organization MamaHope for their Stop the Pity: Unlock the Potential project.  I love how their videos challenge the portrayal perceptions of Africans.  

Seriously. You’ve gotta watch every single one.

They’ll capture your imagination and challenge your stereotypes.  You’ll walk away a little more thoughtful.

When I spent a summer in Burkina Faso, I lived with a Burkinabe family and saw this very strength.  Their home was full of such warmth, hospitality, generosity and relationship. Walking alongside their lives made me feel that if anyone should be pitied, it is the Westerners who live such disconnected, self-centered and fragmented lives. There, in one of the poorest countries in the world, I learned not how to barely survive, but how to really live.

Make time for each other.

Listen carefully.

Help out a neighbor.

Respect the elderly.

Don’t live life too quickly.

Dance your offering down the aisle.

Dance your head off to Michael Jackson.

(There was a lot of dancing, and even my frozen-chosen-little-former-baptist self couldn’t help but shake a hip every so often.)

But then again, no one is perfect.  

Sometimes, there was too much chasing the wind, and the deep levels of poverty, colonization, and tribalism also created complex and difficult realities.  It certainly wasn’t all pretty.

Maybe we all just have a lot to learn from each other.

Related posts

Belief, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

Where my treasure is


Materialism is not a welcome subject to my ears. Ask my opinion on the matter, and I silently wish the word itself did not exist. It is a loaded subject for me – full of implications with which I would rather not deal. I am a product of the American dream. I work hard and “deserve” special treats on occasion.

So I attempt cover-ups, convincing myself that I am not materialistic, I am simply taking care of my well being (and my feet).  In spite of my best efforts to ignore my materialism, it is slowly (and by that, I mean s-l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-w-l-y) become something I protest within.  

On a global scale, modern protestors decry materialism because it reflects an imbalance of power existing in the world. While I don’t disagree with their arguments, my protests against this vice are more personal: the strangling grip it has on my soul.  

In spite of my best attempts to avoid acknowledging my own materialism, I battle it on a regular basis.

  • The homeless man on the corner holds a tattered sign that reads, “Hungry.  Will take anything,” and I clutch a little tighter to the granola bar in my purse before rolling down my window to give it to him.
  • Asylees who have fled their countries, leaving everything behind to relocate in a new country tell me their stories of separation and adjustment to a new life as  I battle the impact of how listening to their stories messes up my tightly arranged schedule.
  • I see photos of refugees posing with their most important thing and then head on over to Zappos to check out some new shoes.

I have no excuses for my actions.  I am a paradox.  I care, but I don’t.  My heart aches at poverty, but my actions value my own comfort more. The world’s need undoes me, but if it makes my life inconvenient, I blissfully ignore it.  

Sometimes, I white-knuckle my way past the lure of materialism by denying myself every slight pleasure. Other times, I throw my hands up in the air and go on a really great shopping spree. 


The shock sunk slowly in as I heard my husband’s voice on the cell, “The airport has been attacked.”

I was running errands, navigating the busy streets of our metropolitan home, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what airport he was talking about.

Then it hit me.  We had returned three days before from my husband’s home of the war torn island of Sri Lanka.

While there, we didn’t think of it as “war torn”, but “home”. Suddenly, though, “home” for me had become a war.

A short three days after our departure, terrorists had invaded the country’s only international airport and had incurred over $300 million damage. The attack commemorated the 1983 riots that had launched the beginning of a 25 year civil war.

The media reports such atrocities so often that it is easy to become calloused. Yet for me, this was different – it was up close and personal, a place I knew with my own heart and hands and feet. It held beloved family members, cherished memories, deep attachment. Having grown up in the relative stability of Midwestern America, facing the devastation of war was way outside of my frame of reference. While I have traveled in many developing countries, wrestled intellectually with issues of poverty and injustice; the ever-repeating story of violence, corruption, and fear had never crept so close to my own heart. 

Although many disturbing images surrounding the terrorist attack crept into my mind, the most personally convicting was that of my own struggle against materialism. A strange (and perhaps egocentric) connection, I know, but I’m no longer speaking solely of the materialism associated with houses, cars, clothes, and the like, but of those unseen things in the material world that I routinely place in the box of “fundamental rights” – conditions I deserve by very nature of being human. 

Personal safety, physical comfort, financial opportunity, and convenience rose quickly to the top of the pile as I examined what I feared losing had I been in the airport three days prior. Though physically intangible, these very material commodities are a large part of the world to which I am inextricably bound. I just happen to live in a place where I have the option to numb out such realities by buying a pair of shoes.

Certainly God does not ask everyone to live in a war torn country. Yet he does allow difficult circumstances in the lives of all his children at one point or another, whether they be facing the death of a loved one, coping with chronic illness, losing a job, moving to a different city, or dealing with a difficult family member. Perhaps one step toward surrendering materialism lies in our response when these difficulties arise. In my life, this surrender plays out by letting go of the notions of my “expected rights.”

I must ask, “Who am I, really? Who am I that I should not have to face the ravages of war (or illness or financial collapse or the loss of a home I love or a sick child)? God may not ask that of other people, but if God asks it of me, am I willing to face it and not run away?”


The ramifications of these questions run so deep that I shudder to imagine what the future might hold if God really asked such things of me. And yet, God asks these questions of each and every one of us – not always about such extremities as war, but about our own unique tragedies of life.


At times, much of the Western church reacts to materialism just like I do.

Run. Hide. Rationalize. Ignore. Spend money on myself.

Sadly, as we continue to order our world with more things and self-centered expectations, I fear these actions will only lead us toward more confusion, distraction and disillusionment. In sitting with the scriptures, I am confronted with three attitudes that often hinder my ability to confront materialism: greed, fear, and pride.  


“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus spoke emphatically against the greed of our hearts in this world, pushing us to examine what use it would be to gain a whole world of material possessions, and yet still lose our souls (Mark 8:36). He cautioned us to keep free from the love of money, and to be content with what we have (Hebrews 13:5).

Living in a wealthy society, it is easy for me to rationalize my materialistic habits. To many American eyes, I am not the poster child for materialism. I’ve stayed at home with our kids, sacrificing salary by working flexible, part-time jobs. My husband is a professor, and we live on a modest income. We rent a small house and drive practical cars far longer than we’d like to. We budget carefully, pay off credit cards, tithe regularly, and prioritize spending. 

Yet when I examine my life in light of global reality, I see how tightly I hold onto the material aspects of my life, meager that they are. I hang my head, ashamed of what resides within. Jesus’ words pierce my heart, and I am forced to reevaluate the conditions of the faith I offer Him.


Fear takes on many forms, some quite subtle. It drives me to surround myself with things and live in environments that protect my insecurities. By focusing excessively on the management of both my possessions and the comfort level of my life, I build a fortress around myself rooted in earthly things, not godly ones. 

This is why Paul challenges us to pursue godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6). By reminding us that we brought nothing into the world, and can take nothing out of it, he challenges us to pursue fulfillment in our Creator and not to use possessions to mask the fear that God alone cannot truly satisfy.

Another way I distinguish my fear of being unfulfilled is by examining my level of contentment. Whether I worry about how to pay the bills (and there has been plenty of that), if I look fashionista enough (or if the cellulite is taking over for good), or what kind of car I drive, each concern reflects a lack of contentment. And each lack of contentment reflects fear that God cannot, or will not, care for my needs. 

In reality, I do not deserve the safety or convenience or comfort of this country one ounce more than a Sri Lankan child caught in the middle of crossfire. While my intellect may agree with this statement, my materialistic mindset subtly convinces me that living in a physically safe environment will preserve not only my body, but also my soul.


Just as the Pharisees’ pride blinded them to the Messiah, so this same pride blinds me to the grip materialism has on my soul. When Paul writes that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he is, he speaks to being content both with humble means and in prosperity, both in being filled and going hungry, in having abundance and suffering need (Philippians 4:11-12).

In the frustration of combatting materialism, some may find it oddly tempting follow Jesus’ challenge to the rich man of selling everything we have and giving it to the poor (Luke 18:22-23). In such a vague issue, it can often feel easier to go to one extreme or the other rather than balance precariously in the middle.

While God legitimately asks such aestheticism of some people, for most of us the more difficult task lies in Paul’s lesson to the Philippians. He acknowledges his powerlessness to determine both the good and bad of life, and places himself in a position to trust God by seeking contentment regardless of his external circumstances. In a similar way, pride threatens contentment by creating either 1) a sense of entitlement to what we have or 2) a sense of superiority because of what we have given up.


Every era has a currency that buys souls,” writes sociologist Eric Hoffer. “In some the currency is pride, in others it is hope, in still others it is a holy cause. There are, of course, times when hard cash will buy souls, and the remarkable thing is that such times are marked by civility, tolerance, and the smooth working of everyday life.”

Upon close examination, what buys my soul and what buys the soul of a Sri Lankan suicide bomber may not differ as I much as I would like to imagine. In fact, my soul is probably bought with much less sacrifice.

Where does my treasure lie?”, I sheepishly ask myself, feet shuffling, eyes to the ground. If I am unwilling to face the answer to this question, I am equally unwilling to acknowledge where my heart and my soul lie as well.

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Further Reading

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

all the little stories

“Teacher,” she caught me in the hallway where I teach English as Second language to adult immigrants. “Can you help me today?  I need make phone call and my English no is good.  Can you make call for me?”

“Of course,” I told her, wondering what the phone call was about.  “Find me after class.”

After class, I learned more of her story.  An Egyptian asylee, she needed to call the immigration office to check on the status of her husband and son’s paperwork to join her here in America.  They’d been separated for a year – her in the US with their two-year-old son and her husband in Egypt with the five-year-old.

“He tell me I need to call very soon,” she grinned coyly. “You know men.  The children are hard for them sometimes.”

We chatted while waiting on hold for the government agent to answer.  She explained that she was a Christian asylee, that her husband had sent her to the US ahead of him because of high persecution of Coptic Christians in their region.

Then she apologized, “I’m so sorry to take your time, teacher.”

“It’s no problem,” I assured her.  Imagining myself in her shoes, I was struggling to maintain my composure.  There’s usually so little I can do to help in such situations that I was grateful to be able to help through something as simple as a phone call.

The government was predictably slow, so we chatted more about her life, her family, how to survive two-year-old drama.  An agent answered, but the details were complicated, so we had to call another number.  She apologized again.

“Really – it’s no problem,” I explained.  “I like to learn about immigration laws. This is interesting for me. I don’t mind.”

Still no answer on the other end of the phone.

“You know,” she said soberly. “This is a very sad day for your country. I so sad for America.”

I remembered the windows of my apartment shaking when the plane hit the Pentagon only minutes from our home 12 years ago.  “Yes,” I responded in equal seriousness. “It was a very sad day. I was scared.”

“Sad for all the world, teacher.  I remember still.  I cannot believe when I see the plane hit the building on TV.  I so sad for America.”

We recalled our reactions and shock, agreeing that 9/11 had forever changed the world we both knew.  The conversation shifted to middle eastern politics, the tragedy in Syria, Obama, the accuracy of news media and all sorts of topics far beyond my knowledge and her language capacity.  We agreed that war is terrible and that it’s often difficult to tell who’s right or wrong.  Finally, we both ran out of words and the conversation grew silent except for the bad telephone-hold music.

“You like this music, teacher?” she asked.

“Not really,” we both chuckled.

“I’m so sorry this take long time,” she apologized again.

“Really, it’s ok,” I responded, this time meeting her eyes.  “I’m a Christian, too.  We’re family.  I will help you.”

“Yes,” her shoulders relaxed in relief and her eyes lit up.  “We follow Jesus together.  We are family.”

“Do you have anyone here who can help you?” I inquired gently.

“No, teacher, I’m alone here,” she paused and added, “But Jesus – Jesus is here with me too.  He help me very much.”

It was a holy moment, a little story shared by two mother-hearts who understood.

The immigration agent never answered the phone.  We ran out of time to wait and parted ways to pick up our children.

9/11 has lingered quietly in my soul all day.  I didn’t bring it up at all in my class of so many cultures, languages, and religions mostly because I didn’t know what to say, how to speak of such complex tragedy in simple words among such diversity, but the gift of this unexpected interaction pushed that unspeakable day back to the forefront of my mind.

As I drove to my kids’ school, grateful for simple freedoms of togetherness and safety, I reflected on the hard, sad stories of this day – stories of unimaginable loss and painful separation.  With the Egyptian mother’s voice echoing in my heart, I realized slowly that such stories tell themselves every day, albeit on a much smaller scale.

All the little stories. 

They matter.

I could probably write a glimmer-of-hope stories like this almost every week, stories where hope sneaks in to overshadow despair, but I don’t always notice them.

we scatter light

“We scatter light”,  the motto of a Christian school in a predominately Buddhist country where my mother-in-law used to be principal, these words have been randomly inserting themselves into recent moments, whispering me toward small acts of kindness like letting people go in front of me in line, chatting with a store clerk, and today, waiting on hold to help out a mother longing to hold her child again.  The light might not always shine brightly in the face of the darkest moments, but scattered about, it may offer a much-needed glimpse of hope at just the right time.

Social & Political Issues, Women

Naked lies

I’ve been busy settling into life here on the West coast, processing and growing from and understanding all the new around me.  Hence, I haven’t had much to post here since I prefer to process things, then share them.  Clearly, I’m still processing!  Here’s one small thought I’ve been chewing on:

The half-naked image advertising liposuction on the billboard, unfortunately, did not escape my seven year old son’s gaze.

“Sheesh!” he exclaimed dramatically. Rather than commenting on the nakedness (as seven year old – well, actually, any boys – are prone to do), his next comment surprised me, “Why do women think they have to be so skinny all the time?!? They look fine the way they are.”

Damn you, Los Angeles.

Don’t you dare go ruining my little boy’s fine views of women.

I really like your beaches and mountains and weather and all, but this whole obsession with flat tummies is a bit much.  Apparently, Hollywood knows it’s a problem, it’s just not willing to change its image.  When Hunger Games lead Jennifer Lawrence says, “In Hollywood, I’m obese” and concludes that she’ll “be the only actress who doesn’t have anorexia rumors”, I think we can safely assume there are some misaligned priorities being paraded in mainstream culture. It’s not just about being a size two, looking sexy in a bikini, and having an enviable body. It’s about the souls of women, about us exchanging, as my cousin so powerfully explains, our lives for our bodies.

Ironically, the story wasn’t too different in the Midwest.  It was just told from the other extreme – obesity – people attempting to fill their souls by obsessing over food. Instead of not eating enough, they ate too much.  In DC, it was all about power. Worldwide, lust for both human bodies and material goods consumes a huge amount of our energy. Clearly, our problem is not about food, it’s about longing for more, whether it’s food or perfection or iphones, and living on the surface rather than digging deep. Instead of promoting the depth that wholeness brings, society parades the shallowness of its brokenness on billboards.

Living at the surface is tempting on so many levels…For one, it’s a whole lot easier to dress up our outsides than to clean up our insides. A close friend battling with anorexia recently sent me an email about her process of doing just this, “How do I sink this love that [God] has for me straight into the empty parts of my heart?” she asked. “All my life I’ve gone from god to god to try to fill that deep deep emptiness to no avail.  And I don’t know what the rest of this journey looks like but this I know… His truth will set me free.”

Wholeness begins with the willingness to boldly proclaim, “The emperor has no clothes!” because it’s true, instead of keeping our mouths shut because no one else is saying anything. Or, putting it in today’s terms, “Damn you, Los Angeles and your impossibly flat stomachs.  You don’t fool me with your lies,” and then letting that truth sink straight to the empty parts of our hearts.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

9/11, Jesus, and patriotism: My kids’ take on it all

When I picked my kids up from school yesterday, they were a bit amiss about the 9/11 ceremony at their school.  Apparently, everyone had cheered when the leader referenced killing ‘bad guys’ in Afghanistan.  I listened quietly to their conversation with each other, processing what had happened.

“I didn’t clap,” my daughter protested.  “I mean, it’s not like Americans are good all the time. We do bad things too.”

“Yeah,” my son added. “And children there affected by all this and they didn’t even do anything to deserve it. How would we feel if we were them?”

“I don’t understand why everyone cheered about killing someone else,” the chatter continued as they attempted to understand the perspectives they’d seen.

“I just kept thinking about Priyan Baapa,” my daughter commented, referring to her great uncle whose office had been in the World Trade Center, but who had left the building early that fateful day to pick up Starbucks on the way to a meeting.

They mutually agreed that the whole state of the world is unfortunate, that America isn’t above or below any of them, and that while we fix some problems in the world, we also create an equal number of them.

Out of a seeming nowhere, they determined a solution.  “It’s the church,” my daughter mused. “They’re the ones who can help fix all this.”

Now, if we talked about the church like this on a regular basis, I’d have seen this one having been coming.  But sadly, conversations in our house reflect deep disappointment with and brokenness over the church as much as they do over the hope its potential holds.  But even at 9, her little heart intuitively senses that, for as much as the governments try, they have it all messed up, and that more answers lie at the feet of Jesus than at the foot of the flag.

She gets it, that kid.  Perhaps more than her skeptic-of-a-mama.  One comment at a time, she’s building my faith that kingdom of God might actually be a part of the plan to bring peace on earth.

Social & Political Issues

Timeless wisdom from the FDR Memorial

Ten years ago today, I was sitting scared in my apartment 5 minutes away from the Pentagon, waiting to hear if a family member who worked in the Twin Towers had made it out (he did).  The explosion of the plane shook our windows and rattled my soul.  No one really knew what was happening, but everyone knew that it wasn’t good.

After 9/11, I had friends who did not leave the house for weeks.  Tempted as I was to do the same, living with someone who grew up in the country which invented suicide bombers taught me a little something about fear.  Having never encountered such fear, my initial response was to retreat. On that day, I called my husband at work, pleading with him to come home so he would “be safe” and hide with me. He knew better.

As a teenager, when a bomb went off just blocks from his house, his mom sent him out on his bike to see what had happened.  He recounts the incident like that was the most normal maternal response in the world!  “They’ve already set off the bomb,” he rationalizes. “It’s not like anyone is going to stick around to be caught.”

There were also periods of curfew (when the government declared the country so unsafe that no one could circulate freely), where school was cancelled and people stayed in for weeks or months at a time.  He speaks fondly of the games he played with his friends and family during this time, and how he was glad to have gotten out of school.

Those days of uncertainty and chaos instilled in him a deep thirst for justice, redemption, and restoration.  When he came to the US, he pursued two degrees in social work and is now sweating his way through a PhD in Community Economic Development (think: microfinance, development and the like, or check out his blog).   Out of the ashes of his country grew a deep understanding that days of difficulty call for people to step up to, not away from, the plate.

May the ashes of this painful day remind us, like FDR’s words, to do the same.

Families, Children & Marriage, Social & Political Issues, Travel

Bright smiles and marker caps

I wrote this years ago reflecting on time I spent teaching English in Burkina Faso, West Africa.  Thanks to these children, hardly a week passes that I do think of the realities of children living in poverty.

“Nasara! Nasara!” the children shouted as my moped puttered down their street. I may have been the first white person they had ever seen. “Goo morneen!” they waved. Some wore tattered clothes. Some wore none at all. None wore shoes. Bright smiles dominated their tiny faces.

I arrived at school where I was met by my students, “Goo morneen, Meess. How are you today?” they inquired, taking my books and bag.

“Fine, thanks,” I was overjoyed, actually. Having taught in American public schools, the Burkinabé students continually amazed me with their respect and kindness. Together, we crossed the dusty school yard toward the classroom, dodging an occasional pothole, curious child or stray pig. One florescent light bulb provided light to the classroom. To turn it on, you had to precariously maneuver the wires until sparks flew and the bulb flickered on. Thankfully, my students were more adept at hotwiring light bulbs than I. They had already swept the dust from the room and arranged the desks. Covered in a mix of sweat and red dust, I opened the metal slatted windows to let in a breeze. Four grinning faces stared back at me, eager to catch a glimpse of the nasara. Continue reading “Bright smiles and marker caps”

Social & Political Issues

The Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays Dilemma

This time of year, i end up shaking my head at all the breath wasted over this perspective.  If you’re a Christian, I certainly wish you a very merry Christmas.  If you’re not, or I don’t know, you get a Happy Holidays.  Eugene Cho, one of my favorite bloggers, just shared an insightful reflection worth sharing…  Here’s another as well.

Social & Political Issues

How can Christians be so clueless?!?

Zondervan has just released a book called “Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership” that left me nearly speechless, in a bad way.  The racism and stereotyping is so palpable I am embarrassed that it is even associated with Christianity (though sadly, not surprised).  Check out more info here, on the book’s website and on their FB Site (the video called “Deadly Viper Series Promo for Central” left my jaw on the ground).

Of course, my first reaction is anger.  Then, sadness.  How can the authors even begin to speak of integrity when the whole premise of the book is making fun of an ethnic group?  Where is the integrity here?

Books, Social & Political Issues

BOOK REVIEW: Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate

The short story:

1. This is the clearest, most concise, and irenic book on a political issue that I have ever read. (And I don’t say that about many books, feel free to peruse my other reviews).

2. All Christians should read this book. This is an issue about which we cannot remain ignorant and silent. In fact, read it and buy an extra copy for your pastor.

The long(er) story:

I still can’t quite grasp what made a book about immigration so riveting and spiritual, and yet those are the two words I feel most accurately describe this book. While it’s not a page turner a-la-John-Grisham, I found myself chewing on ideas the authors had expressed and longing to know more. Combining the basic Biblical value of care for one another with the need for Christian involvement in immigration support and reform, Matt Soerens and Jenny Hwang lay out a clear, well-documented, and compelling examination of the state of immigration in America.

While keeping the value of the individual at the forefront, they examine the complex dynamics of undocumented workers, the history of immigration in the US, and legal components of our modern day immigration policy. While addressing concerns regarding immigration, they also present the positive effects that immigration has on a society. Finally, they close the book with a call to the church to embrace the ‘stranger among us’. Spiritually, I appreciated most their commitment to integrate justice, compassion, and truth by presenting both individual stories and national responsibilities. Their ultimate perspective seems well summarized through what Intervarsity pastor Bill Nelson says, “Whenever there is opportunity for the church to reach out to people in our communities, we must consider what it will take to further the kingdom. If it means putting down the American flag and raising the kingdom flag, that is what we should do.”

I’ve tried reading other books on immigration, but none of them have been so clear in connecting all the dots between history, policy, and Biblical mandates. Thank you, Matthew & Jenny. You’ve given us all a great gift. I’ll be passing my copy along to as many people as possible!