Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

Living deeply in a headline-driven world

Capture

It was the summer of 2001, and we had just returned from our first trip as a married couple to my husband’s home country of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was in the midst of a brutal civil war, and suicide bombings were a frequent tactic of the terrorist group seeking their own homeland in the north part of the country. Two days after we flew out of the country, the terrorists attacked the airport, destroying 3 airplanes and closing the airport for 14 hours. Out of the seven evenings that week, a member of my husband’s family was scheduled to fly in or out every night except for the day of the attack. We had narrowly escaped tragedy.

Because of our desire at the time to return to Sri Lanka to live and work, I had been praying for months that God would help learn what it might mean to live in a country at war. When the terrorist attack hit so close to my family, my first response was, “Not like this, Lord. My family? This is too close to home.”

Less than two month later, 9/11 shook the nation. We lived near Washington DC at the time, so close to the Pentagon that the windows of our apartment shook when the plane crashed into it. As the day progressed and we learned more details of the attack, I remembered my request that God would teach me what it might mean to live in a war-torn country. “But not like this, Lord,” I remembered pleading. “Please—not so close to home.”

In the midst of my pleas for safety, I was forced to reconcile the fact that not everyone had the privilege to be “introduced” to life-threatening danger. Many around the world had lived in the midst of a warzone for their entire lives. While friends in Sri Lanka reminisced fondly about the “sweet times together as a family” hiding under the dining room table during bombings, I would shake my head with amazement that they found light in the midst of such deep darkness.

Over the course of our 20-year interracial relationship, I have held growing anxiety within about racial tensions in our country. I’ve anticipated explosive race wars since for most of my adult life, and each headline of their growing intensity deepens the ache inside me for the future of my children. As I watched the White Nationalist rallies in Charlottesville last weekend, my prayer resurged once again, “Not like this, Lord.”

Indeed, we live in tumultuous times, but these are still the times God given us. The question is how we will live in them. Friends of color express increasing levels of stress and trauma while some white friends are just beginning to grasp that the unrest expressed in the civil rights movement that has been simmering for decades, that our country is nowhere near being “over this yet”. The Message’s version of Romans 12 offers guidance on how to place our lives before God in times of such weariness and tumult: 

Culture-blindness

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. (v1)

While some white people understand that expressing color-blindness is dismissive and patronizing to people of color, it’s harder for us to see how ‘well-adjusted’ we are to our own white culture. What do we speak about when we describe “the best” music, food, authors, TV shows, Christian figures? Do we notice when preferences we express as “normal” are really just normal to a white mainstream standard? Now is not a time to kick back and continue on as normal. We must ask difficult questions of both ourselves, our churches, and our culture.

 

Counter-cultural maturity

Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (v2)

Rather than knee-jerk defense of a specific politic, Christ followers need to pursue maturity that demonstrates values like love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and self-control. This does not necessarily mean we keep our opinions private, but rather that our actions and words are continually seasoned and influenced by these things when we do share or act.

 

Humble focus

If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face. (v6-8)

In a world where words are flung back and forth at each other like bombs, modeling humble and focused behavior stems from a steady and mature relationship with God. It means praying our way both through difficult headlines as well as through the stubborn and prideful attitudes we uncover in our own hearts. It could mean speaking truth in uncomfortable ways or listening to perspectives we have not considered before.

 

Deep friendship

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. (v9-10)

Now is the time extend a hand, to check-in with a friend, to pray fervently against the evil that unsettles our souls. For some, loving deeply may mean setting aside our own understanding so that we can listen to others’ pain while for others, it may mean fighting fiercely to protect and defend the injustices happening in their own communities.

 

Perseverant compassion

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” (v11-19)

Paul focuses on compassion for both ourselves as well as our enemies. “Don’t burn out,” he warns in tandem with “bless your enemies” and “laugh with your friends”. Profit-driven headlines fuel the temptation toward constant anger, and if we are to provide a counter narrative to the story of hate being consistently told, we cannot let the headlines dictate this story for our lives as well. This means stepping away at times to laugh with friends so that we have energy left to not curse our enemies, to not hit back, and to remember that there is beauty in everyone.

 

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Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation, Women

The spiraling nature of nose rings, motherhood, and professional growth

spiral

Seattle, 2007

Having just closed on a home in a tiny midwestern town, I boarded a plane for a professional conference in Seattle. A bustling city, intellectual conversations, and an unfettered schedule awaited me there, offering a much needed break from the everyday insanity of my toddler-saturated world. It would be a temporary refuge from the small town life I had just signed up for.

How would I survive in that isolated space that loved its own but stiff-armed the difference my family represented? The question echoed as I soaked in the balm of an urban environment that posed no expectations of who I was supposed to be. A few days in, I came to a sudden conclusion on how to make peace with my rural fate: I would pierce my nose. An external sign of an inward stance, it would be a daily reminder to be true to who I was – a mother, a professional, a misfit in an environment where belonging was prized. Silly as it sounds, it was a significant mental shift for me, one in which I accepted both my lot and my identity, and made space for the tension that existed between them.

Seattle, 2017

I used to think that life worked like a straight line in which we moved from point to point, learning from one place and moving on to the next without ever returning to the old ones. What I’ve learned instead is that life is more of a spiral in which we revisit the same spaces, each time at a different level with added wisdom and grace from what we’ve learned before.

My spiral-shaped nose ring and I are back in Seattle for the first time in 10 years. This time around, the small town life lies in the distant past. I now live in a metropolitan area, and just left sick teenagers at home with their superhero of a father. It strikes me that I am making my way back to a beginning of sorts. It’s the same thing all over again, but this time at a different level. I still work as an academic administrator, but this time with a whole new size and scope. I’m still entrenched in this mothering thing, but this time juggling the teenage dramas instead of the toddler ones. I’m still working out how to live into the whole of my identity, but this time with a bit more wisdom and grace for myself and those around me.

Over the course of the last decade, my spiral has corkscrewed all over the place, but returning to this space draws an instant connection from where I used to be to where I am now. I think of that moment when I suddenly thought, “I know! I’ll pierce my nose!”, of the lesson it taught me to embrace who I’m created to be instead of running away from it, and I grin at the gently spiraling repetition of it all. That lesson may never grow old.

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Formation

Onward through the fog: Practicing faith when you can’t see where you’re going

ONWARD

And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today – at the latest, tomorrow – we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.” 

You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. 

Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.”

James 4:13-15 (The Message)

As a privileged white college kid, I participated in an urban studies program on the south side of Chicago. Facing urban poverty and systemic racism for the first time was unnerving and disorienting; there was so much I couldn’t wrap my mind around because it didn’t fit my lived experience. Each day left me grappling with how to live better on the next one.

“Onward through the fog,” our program director would tell us as we struggled to understand the broken dynamics shaping the community around us. It’s a phrase I’ve lived ever since. In fact, fog has become one of my go-to analogies for understanding the liminal spaces of life—those thresholds in life when there’s not yet a clear answer. It’s a tangible reminder of how dimly we sometimes see, how hard it is to wait for answers, and how little we can do about it but proceed slowly through until clarity appears.

In spite of my best efforts to steer my life, it has been full of unexpected twists and turns. I put such stock in my well-laid plans and carefully plotted goals; but inevitably, I come up against situations which challenge me to move forward without knowing exactly which direction is right or wrong.

How much freedom do I give my growing children?

When do I speak truth in a hard conversation and when do I stay silent?

Do I endure through a less-than-ideal situation or pursue a new direction?

How tight do I hold to a friendship that may need to be released?

James’ words haunt me. I live-and-die by my Google calendar; but in truth, I don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. I don’t know what the Master will ask of me or if the fog will be thick or thin. I don’t know if I’ll be able to see the path ahead for an inch or a mile because—try as I might—I don’t control when the fog sets in. Most of the time, all I can do is put one foot in front of another until I catch a glimpse of the sun to know which direction to go.

While this murky reality makes the pessimist in me wont to despair, the contemplative within whispers to stay the course for some of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve known are the ones that have shone through the haze of a foggy cornfield. Whether the unknown of the future stems from internal or external circumstances, walking with wisdom and faith through the dark requires some special traits:

Adaptability. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,” observed Charles Darwin. People who adapt to change are also resilient, able to adjust unexpected plans in positive and meaningful ways. They are not afraid of taking risks, but don’t jump in without testing the waters first either.

Courage. Living requires determination to push through the tension of the unknown or misunderstood until we come out on a clearer side. Courage reminds us that it’s ok if our life looks different from those around us, as long as we’re following the path God has guided us to.

Joy. Cultivating lightness in the midst of heavy moments allows us to see the individual moments even when the big ones feel overwhelming. Sometimes this looks like simply being light-hearted and giggling at silly things. Other times, it means pausing to acknowledge gratefulness in the small moments.

Vulnerability. Every time I see a lone tree in a field, the poet in me wonders if it is lonely or strong. I have still not decided, but I do know one thing: its unique beauty stems from its uninhibited exposure. In appropriate times and places, sharing unguarded feelings about our experience in the dark brings healing and wholeness.

Willingness. Otherwise known as the dirty-little-word ‘submission’, willingness means we hold the people we love, choices we make, and circumstances we find ourselves in with open hands. It means we make space for the questions we need to ask and allow ourselves to wrestle with the answers that may or may not come, patiently waiting instead of controlling outcomes. It means that our steady prayer begins with an attitude of Lord, I offer myself to thee, to build with me and do with me as thou wilt*.

 

While it’s tempting to fall into despair over foggy days, their uncertainty develops a strength within that doesn’t grow on sunny days. If the pristine weather of southern California has taught me one thing, it’s that a cloudy day is a refreshing and cozy break from the blue skies. On grey days here, people don scarves and blankets and hoodies, snuggling into a cozier and slower pace. The sunshine is good for us, yes, but the fog holds gifts that we can learn to love as well. It reminds us that we see dimly now, only in part, and that our call is to just keeping walking—onward, through the fog.

 

*Alcoholics Anonymous 3rd Step Prayer

 

 

 

Belief, Spiritual Formation

When mountains loom large but faith trickles slow

Narnia

I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventuallyfall into place. – Kathleen Norris

swirl

Our Sunday began with a hike to a waterfall at the top of a local mountain. When we arrived at the base of the trail, we quickly realized we would be hiking straight uphill in a local wind tunnel with 50-60 mph winds. Like any sensible non-hiker, I immediately suggested we head back down, but all the other crazies (a.k.a. my family and best friends) thought it sounded like a memory-making experience, so away we went.

With hair flailing and dust in our face, we trod one foot in front of another up and up and up.

And up some more.

The younger kids wrapped arms around each other, shielding themselves from the dust walls while discussing which Hobbit character they were. We shared sunglasses to keep the dirt out of our eyes, tightened our hoods, and paused to catch our breath more than a few times. When we made finally it to the top, the waterfall did not disappoint. The trees provided a respite from the winds for the playful among us to climb on the rocks and jump in the stream. They became a momentary refuge under which we paused to speak the things that matter – sharing stories, perseverance in hard times, anticipating beauty even when we couldn’t quite see it yet.

Even though I never enjoy the active process of it, I learn a lot when I climb a mountain. Usually the last person huffing-and-puffing my way up the path, I’ve been known to feel slightly resentful toward the zippy people in the front of the pack who lead the way. It’s hard for me when their strength highlights my weakness. Yet this climb was different. I still brought up the rear, but with a different kind of fortitude than previous treks. At one point, I put my head down, leaned into the wind, and told myself, “Just keep going.”

It was like my own little sermon on that gusty Sunday morning.

I’m slow at faith, and the older I grow, the slower my faith sometimes seems. As a result, it can be easy for me to feel spiritually weak when compared to the faith-filled-but-overwhelming-Jesus enthusiasts whose faith drips off their chins. When I come to Jesus, I often bring equal parts of doubt and faith. Yet as I climb more of my own mountains of faith, I find a steadying strength in taking the journey one step at a time, especially in those moments when the wind feels it might blow me completely off the mountain.

 

Spiritual Formation

When what you thought would happen doesn’t, part 2

The last time I delved into this topic, it was mostly about when life doesn’t go according to plan in the disappointing-kinds-of-ways. When I wrote that post, it was at the beginning of a year that I desperately didn’t want to have – the kind where I’d opened my tightly clenched fists and reluctantly returned to a place I knew didn’t want to go: public school teaching.

I started the year teaching at a charter school that lived up to all the negative press you see about charter schools and, after only three weeks in, started applying for other jobs. Serendipitously, one of those jobs came through and I moved to a new school a few months into the year. It ended up being the kind of public school that give public schools a good name. I loved the staff, (most of) the students, and the administration. Grateful for an innovative (and sane) work environment with stellar colleagues, I set about convincing myself that I could make high school teaching work for awhile.

But deep down, I longed to return to the university. I was tired of spending all-day-in-the-classroom feeling like a horse-and-pony show for 14 & 15 year olds. I craved a role where I could develop a program, foster one-to-one (instead of one-to-37) relationships, and engage in more intellectually complex work. As the year progressed, it became clear to me that my return to public education wasn’t a long term fit and that I wanted to pursue a return to higher education.

When a job at the local university posted at the end of the school year, friends who knew my story encouraged me to apply. At first I resisted, licking my wounds from previous rejections and lack of other job application responses. Slowly, though, my friends helped me see that this job might actually be a good fit, the thing I was looking for all along. I applied, and long story short, I started the position last week.

I don’t normally share such normal-details-of-life here on Between Worlds, but it felt pertinent to write about it this because this blog is one of the steps along the way that pointed me to this spot. When we moved to California and finding full time work was slow, I filled the empty spaces with writing. It helped me process and heal from the pain of our isolated life in the Midwest, connected me to likeminded people all over the world, and deepened my understanding of the craft. As all of these things happened, my identity as a writer sunk deep. My husband and I would talk about what it might look like to move from an education-focused career to a writing-focused one but couldn’t ever fully connect those dots – that is, until just recently when I accepted a position as the director of a university writing center.

It’s been one of those “when-what-I-thought-would-happen-didn’t” moments – except this time for the better instead of worse. Every so often I find myself feeling like an outsider, looking down just grinning at myself, wondering how all of this happened. While I wouldn’t have dared to dream it even a year ago, it’s a perfect fit for this phase of my life and career – one that I couldn’t have orchestrated myself.

swirl

In Madeline L’Engle’s novel Certain Women,  the characters grapple with the harsh realities of the death of a loved one. “The wise old woman said that one road led to a funeral and the other to a wedding,” remembers one woman as she reflects on an old friend’s ability to continually lean toward joy in spite of great tragedy.

The characters ponder the implications of the choice they’ve made more often: the wedding or the funeral. This inevitably leads them to grapple with the imminent death of the loved one that has brought them all together.

“But when Papa dies” – Louis’s voice was choked – “how can we choose the wedding?”

Sophie laughed. “By giving him an enormous great grand glorious funeral at the Cathedral, a real show for all his family and friends and fans. And by going on living, living better because we’ve been part of his life than if we’d never known him.”

swirl

In light of my current circumstances, their conversation reminds me that I far too often see my current realities as a funeral instead of a wedding. Those teenagers who made me so-very-tired? They weren’t an end, but merely a door through which I found the next step. The life-giving immigrants at the dysfunctional ESL program? Their perseverance in the throes of a new start shouted resilience amidst tragedy and whispered joy in small things. That blog I wrote when I was brand new and quietly healing? It wasn’t the end destination, but merely a bend in the path pointing me toward the next clearing.

While the clearing opened slowly (3 years, 5 jobs, 13+ interviews, too many tears, and who-knows-how-many-blog-posts later), the view is stunning for the moment and leaves me grateful for the unexpected beauty of the life-lessons that show up when what I thought would happen doesn’t.

Spiritual Formation, Travel

The puzzle of many homes

Photo by PeterDargatz, public domain
Photo by PeterDargatz, public domain

In honor of our dear friends on their return to the Midwestern home they left long ago. May the many gifts of a life lived between worlds be theirs in abundance.

I am not a Third Culture Kid. I have one home with deep roots and long histories and pictures-on-the-wall-for-decades. But I have left home, and sometimes it makes me wonder who I am now that I have parted ways with the place that cradled me as a child. It knows nothing of my new reality. It spins in place, repeating the same stories generation after generation.

My world is different now. It is filled with places my childhood mind could have never imagined. There are street tacos, saris, homeless people, loud music, dusty streets, freeways, endless plane rides and too many languages to count. It is not the big skies and broad cornfields I once knew.

I return to the cornfields one summer and a day after I arrive, I have a dream:

My husband and children are aboard a sinking ship. Anxiously awaiting their rescue, I am safe on shore. Finally rescued, they stagger off a lifeboat into my arms. My heart breathes deep relief at their presence with me.

As the dream replays in my mind, the painful reality dawns on me that my home was their sinking ship, and I am so-very-relieved they didn’t drown there. It is a conflicting reality I don’t always know how to navigate. The land that cradled me so gently had not done the same for them; it had nearly drowned them.

Who am I in this place? I wonder.

More than any other place, it has carved the majority of my days. It will always be home and yet it may never become home again. I am an outlier now. I live amongst the freeways, alongside the sea, in the shadow of the movie stars and the mountains. My family spans the whole-world-wide. My children’s friends are Chinese and Filipino and Caucasian and Vietnamese and African-American and Mexican and Chilean and too many blends to count. My students and my neighbors come from even more corners of the globe…Syria, Albania, Egypt, El Salvador, Samoa, Italy, Vietnam, Pakistan. In the space of just one week, we can eat Malaysian curry, Mexican tamales, Lebanese kabobs, Peruvian chicken, Japanese boba, Portuguese peri-peri, and an In-n-Out double double animal-style.

It is in this journey from a cornfield-mind to a global one that I taste the reality of those who have known many homes but belong to none. Tears brim as I mourn the loss of what once was, but beneath my sorrow simmers more. On this path of many homes, I am learning resilience, beauty, and humility in ways I have never before known. It teaches me to walk toward the unknown, to reach for a hand in the dark, to surrender my privilege.

By faith, Abraham left his home and went to a land he did not know. 

Me too, Abe.  Me too. 

I wonder how Abraham, Sarah, his sons and daughters felt when they left their own cornfield. Did tears brim for the loved ones they left behind, for the relationships that would never quite be the same again? Did they struggle to learn the language and navigate the foreign culture? Did they ever long for the familiar-that-once-was?

I am not a global nomad. Instead I am something of a global pioneer – the first-in-my-line making many corners of the earth my home while my roots remain buried deep in a soil far away.

swirl

Everything changes; everything stays the same.

It is a paradox I now know well.

I fit and I don’t fit.

I belong and I stick out.

I understand completely and I am utterly baffled.

There is no longer any box. Lines established long ago are blurred now. I am left in a world wide open with unclean boundaries and shadows in every shade of gray, no longer the clean blacks-and-whites of just one place.

And God saw all that he had made and it was good, the highways whisper softly as I traverse the country from coast to cornfield to coast. Surely God intended some of us to stay and some of us to go, some to plant and some to tend, some seeds to grow deep roots and others to float on the wind. It is a purpose that we struggle to accept when we leave behind loved ones and familiar lands. Yet with each new home, I can’t help but wonder if part of this plan is, in Parker Palmer’s words, “to think the world together”.

swirl

My feet have known the silky soil of a freshly plowed field, the dusty chaos of the developing world, the cement sterility of the city, the pristine lawns of the suburbs. These days, I am less perplexed by this world’s diversity and more fascinated by the beauty of its vast complexities. Clearly, this place is not an accident. We are pieces of a puzzle, meant to form a picture of a larger whole. 

The challenge to those-who-move-around is to understand how those pieces fit together to tell a bigger story. Some would say it’s mass chaos; and there are days we hopelessly agree. We have seen the differences mount like a giant brick wall in the middle of Berlin. Yet we’ve also seen mothers who love their children both in war and in peace, people who serve the needy in red states and blue ones, and tears in children’s eyes both rich and poor. We have lived the intensity of Willa Cather’s words that “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

When the last box has been packed and the goodbyes have all been said, we know far-too-well that the clashing realities of cornfields and freeways shape home for many hearts; and we embrace that sweet tension within. For while home may very well be where our story begins, it is far from where it ends. With each new step into the unknown, we cherish the gifts of the old and lean toward the hope of the new, our hearts irreversibly expanded by each of these places we’ve called home.

Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

Aching thoughts on Ferguson

It is the end of a long week with teenagers. #thankyouJesus

They are precious, those half-baked and hope-filled ones, but they are entirely exhausting. In quiet moments, my heart hangs heavy from hints of broken lives and battered souls. They try to hide it behind apathy or attitude, but still I see it for the deep-aching that it is.

My own soul has been deep-aching again. The current state of the country brings up conflicting sides of my identity: the “super-white” side of me that doesn’t inherently grasp the racial atrocities at hand and the “recovering racist” in me that knows they are very real and raw for many in our country. 

It shakes me that after all these years I still don’t always get it, that I still have to ask someone to explain to me the realities of pain they’ve known. It shakes me that I don’t know what-the-hell-to-say as the two sides shout it out between pain and pride. It shakes me that, in my teenager-induced exhaustion, I am afraid to say anything because I fear offending both sides with my own instability.

swirl

When I returned to the Midwest last summer, I had a haunting dream.

I am waiting on the shore, desperately anxious, torn-apart for my husband and children who I have just learned are on a sinking ship. I am standing on solid ground on the shore, powerless over their fate, watching the horizon for any sign of their lives.

Suddenly, they arrive together in a life boat. They stagger over its edge into my arms and my relief over their safety overwhelms me. I collapse in tears. 

They are alive. 

They didn’t sink with the ship. 

We are safe now, together.

There is no clearer symbol of our move from the rural midwest to Southern California. A few days later, I had another dream:

My family and I are huddled together behind a door, hiding from an angry man in dingy overalls with a sawed-off shotgun who is shouting racial slurs at us. I cower in fear.

Suddenly, my brother and his wife are there, standing firm between the man and the door hiding us, “You cannot go in!” they shout at him as they fight him off. “We won’t let you hurt them.” 

I awaken, shaken again by the depth of protection I felt because someone saw and acknowledged our pain, even if they did not fully understand it.

swirl

The dreams fade away and simmer deep under the layers of daily life. Months later, these headlines shake me back to reality and I cannot help but think of the many families who aren’t rescued from the sinking ships, who are torn apart by the raging waters of racial brokenness. I think of the relief that comes from knowing those who seek deeper understanding, and the pain of navigating those those who assume too much. I think of the weariness that sinks deep when we feel alone in the battle.

Slowly, a gratefulness arises for the shaking that these headlines bring. We’ve needed it for quite some time now, and the time has come for more of us to stand firm with a voice that shouts, “We won’t let them hurt you.” 

There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up,” wrote Jesuit priest Alfred Delp in his essay The Shaking of Advent. “Where life is firm we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it.”

This – both the firm and the unstable – is what the Ferguson headlines, the #blacklivesmatter statements, and yes, even my tiring-teens reveal. Some of us have been living unshaken for far too long. 

The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth,” challenged Delp from his cell in a Nazi prison. He was condemned as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler and hanged in 1945.

As the protests, hashtags, debates and dismissals abound, I’m spending my Advent asking the Lord to preserve us all in ways that help us listen to and value each other. I’m praying that this shaking will teach me how to be a defender of other weary souls who need it like my family once did. I’m praying for protection from weariness for those standing firm in the trenches to create something whole from this brokenness. I’m praying for an adolescent nation that needs to grow-up and come to terms with its broken reality. I’m praying we will all pause long enough to remember what is firm and holy and good.

It is this soul-remembering season of Advent that reminds the weary world to rejoice. May the wait for His Coming teach us how to love one another better in a shaking and shattered world.

Further Reading

Alfred Delp Quote from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 5.

Belief, Spiritual Formation

When what you thought would happen doesn’t

Holiness

One of the great joys of working with young people is hearing their dreams.

“I’m going to be an artist.”
“I’ll be a basketball star.”
“I want to travel the world.”
“I’ll be a famous musician.”

Youth can have such hope. The challenge for the older and wiser in their lives, however, is helping them develop the character to maintain their hope if their dreams don’t pan out. I’m forever grateful for the models in my own life who have helped me learn this lesson for it, too, has been a series of dreams, readjusted.

I went to the college of my dreams. I thought it would be the highlight of my life – four years rich with faith and fun in a thriving community. Instead, those years grew dark. Faith walked out the door and the “thriving community” felt a whole lot more like “brainless group-think” to my skeptical soul.

I married the man of my dreams. Deep down, I expected our marriage would be a candlelit-fairytale-just-like-the-movies. Instead, we stumbled over ourselves painfully in our early years of marriage.

We moved to the east coast when we got married. We thought we’d be there a year or two before heading overseas to live-and-save-the-world. Instead, those doors shut and we got a crash course in learning to save ourselves.

Dreams die hard, and even with doors clearly shut, we hoped and pursued overseas work again.  Instead, we landed in a Midwestern cornfield.

I planned to stay home with our young kids. My own mom had been home when we were young and it seemed like a path I would enjoy. Instead, I nearly lost my mind from diapers and tantrums and I found a job-outside-the-house just to maintain some measure of sanity.

I grew to love my-job-outside-the-house. It was life-giving and perfect for me. I thought I’d found a lifelong career path. Instead, our family needs grew more important than my career ones and I walked away.

I wish I could say that each one of these changes-in-plan came with a steady faith and assurance of God’s guidance in my life. That is not, however, the case. With every instead also came moments of confused and desperate questions like Where are you, God? and Why me?  As time passed, I began to see a bigger picture, but in the midst of the little-moments, I could see nothing but the very next step.

During one of the more difficult insteads years ago, a soul-friend encouraged me to write a letter to God with my honest feelings, not the ones I thought I was supposed to have. After detailing the injustices I’d felt, I ended my letter with these words:

In Your mystery, You were gracious to me. At least, this is what I tell myself. But that’s not what I really feel. What I really feel is resentment toward you for what is happening. I’m angry that you didn’t lead me to a different way. I’m bitter that you let the water boil over to burn me, leaving my soul blistered and raw. I’m ashamed that I am not the perfect little child I’d chalked myself up to be. I’m grieving the life that I had so glorified and dreading the life that you are preparing for me.

I feel a little guilty that I don’t have the ‘right’ attitude about this. But I’ve spent far too long faking it, and can’t muster up even one more mask. I doubt it would do much good anyway. What I’m looking for now, father-god, is the real thing. I feel like I’ve been slowly shedding the fake stuff for years now, and am desperate for the real.

So here I am, my blistered, raw and aching soul ripped wide open.

Do with me as you will.

Through quiet tears, I read the letter aloud to my soul-friend. When I finished, she gave me words that I will carry in my heart forever, “I’ve just witnessed a holy moment.”

It was the breaking of the dam for me, the first moment when I saw that holiness is not merely doing-the-right-things but rather living-fully-into-what-is. I look back now and see that the insteads were deeply holy years, ripe with moments that stripped me of all notions of what I thought should be and gave me the gift of living into what actually is.

Truth is, the insteads will always be part of life. Whether dramatic-and-life-changing or small-and-seemingly-insignificant, my well-constructed plan may not always be the one that actually goes into effect.

The relationship will be hard.

The job will not go smoothly.

The dog will try to eat the tortoise.

The move will be lonely.

The children will make broken choices.

While these years don’t hold near the drama or angst of my twenties, I find them equally intense, filled to the brim with holy-and-breathtaking-moments that I don’t notice as often as I should. As life tumbles day after day into a series of completing to-do lists, pursuing long-term goals, navigating career choices, guiding little-souls and deepening friendships, the holy moments feel far more like holy days, holy weeks, holy years. And very few of those moments are happening exactly-how-I-thought-they-would, thank God. (Who knows where I’d be left entirely to my own devices?!?)

When what you thought would happen doesn’t, everything shifts. Questions surface. Anxieties bubble. Hope teeters. This is when the holy begins, for it is in the moments where our grip is loose enough for our fingers to actually let go that we begin to grasp the real meaning of faith. While the moments don’t feel particularly holy, they require a level of honesty, courage, hope, perseverance and wisdom that I had no idea how much I needed when I tearfully whispered those words that broke open the holy-moments, “Do with me as you will.”


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Belief, Spiritual Formation

Jesus is not a band-aid: Making life-giving decisions when God feels silent

Don’t brashly announce what you’re going to do tomorrow;
you don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.
Proverbs 27:1 (The Message)
 

Sometimes I think life would be a whole lot easier if God were more of a cosmic puppeteer who made our choices for us rather than leaving us to all of this unpredictable and overwhelming freedom.

Of course, I’m happy to be in control of the little decisions in life like if to buy ice cream, when to go to bed or which lane to drive on the freeway. But the big decisions – like living with integrity, raising healthy children, thriving relationally, navigating career steps, managing money – they’re freakin’ hard. The answers for these questions don’t always fall clearly at my feet and it sure would be helpful if someone just showed up and said, “Here is the path for your life! Take it!”

Some days, I scour my Bible for the verse that reads:

Thou shalt take the job that is offered to you on August 1, 2014 at 9:03 a.m., live in the brown house with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms on Main Street, buy a 20 gallon aquarium for your son with the next paycheck, and become best friends with the brown-haired lady in the polka-dot shirt who smiles at you in the hallway next week.
 

Instead, I find these words:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me besides still waters.
He restores my soul.   
 

Apparently, the Bible speaks more clearly to giving life than to dictating its specific terms. Not all decisions are clear-cut, and sometimes the only thing God promises is to walk with us through them, not to tell us which way to go. My struggle, however, with this promise has often been that I still have to make hard decisions. While God’s presence helps me put one foot in front of the other, it doesn’t tell me exactly what to do. It’s kind of like my dad used to tell me, “Jesus isn’t a band-aid* that we just slap on to fix every little problem.” 

Sometimes healing (and decision-making and life-skill building and relationships and parenting and professional expertise and personal awareness) takes time and energy to learn.  Sometimes we mess up and realize we don’t know that first thing about tomorrow or how to get there.

This is where wisdom and discernment enter the picture.  Years ago, I started a pile of 3×5 cards where I kept all sorts of pieces of life-giving wisdom that I discovered in the process of walking through life. Some came from Bible verses, others from books or quotes. On each card, I’d designate a topic that the words applied to in my life. Themes like courage, insecurity, risk-taking, judgmentalism, and hope began to appear that reflected my life situations. Here are a few examples:

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When I reach those moments where God’s presence feels far-away because I’m so overwhelmed by life’s details, I grab my Life-giver cards, find the topics pertinent to the day, and sneak to the back patio (followed invariably by the kids, the dog and the tortoise) to sit with wisdom compiled over the years. Occasionally the kids get too loud or the dog tries to eat the tortoise, but overall, the practice of sitting with wise words – even when chaos surrounds me – keeps me honest, recenters my perspective and calms my anxieties.

These calm-in-the-storm moments are far more than a band-aid… They are a balm, handlebars for life on the days when I feel wildly out-of-control and uncertain about tomorrow. I love that they’re low-tech (no social media connections to distract me), consistent and portable. I love that they’re starting to yellow and show the years because each time I revisit them, I’m reminded of the many timeless truths that have given me so much life.

I’d love to hear from you… What are your handlebars when band-aids fail to heal? How do you walk through life’s big decisions and unknown outcomes with courage and hope?

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* As it turns out, my dad was kind of wrong. Jesus is actually a band-aid and you can buy him here…sigh.

** I’d like to also take the opportunity to give a shout-out to Jan Johnson, the author who should receive credit for the cards above referencing fear, community, and anger. If you haven’t read her books, you should.


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Belief, Spiritual Formation

When practicing creativity doesn’t feel much like creating art

It is finally Saturday, and in the slow, I sit with these long-loved questions from Annie Dillard’s classic Holy the Firm:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

I don’t feel much like an artist anymore – this quiet soul returning to the noise of the teenagers and desks and hallways and lunch periods. My feet feel like clay. My voice rasps. My back begs for relief.

Where is the art in the nitty-gritty day-to-day of the classroom? I wonder. The materials I’m working with are attitudes and hormones and distractedness and way-too-much-chatting. It feels reminiscent to the first time I threw clay on a wheel, feebly attempting to shape it into something useful. It had a mind of its own and my hands had no clue how to shape it. Returning to the adolescent classroom after a decade away feels much the same way.

I come back to sit again with Annie’s words:

[The artists’s] face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap, from here to eternity, home.

My life – it is aflame, I muse. It is certainly ‘up in the works’. This artist’s waxen and oh-so-flawed feet are on the move once again, stumbling over themselves as they learn a new way. I miss my kind and grateful immigrant-students. I do not yet understand these loud teenager-ones.

I breathe deep and slow, knowing that these steps, too, are holy and firm, spanning long gaps filled with depths of flawed, broken, but redeemed love. This, too, in all of its gritty mundane, is the kingdom of God, needing lit for the people to see. The raw material in this new phase is no less than any other path I have walked. It may, in fact, be even more given the nature of adolescents.

“You’re better than this,” I say to the boy-too-cool-for-school quietly in the hall. “I see so much more than what you let on. You’re a leader, talented and overflowing with potential. Don’t hide it just to impress others. That’s no way to live.”

I know he hears me. I don’t know if it will change him for today, but I can only hope it sinks in by tomorrow. I realize as I speak to him that he’s not the only raw material I’m working with.

The creativity needed to span the gap of my own flaws shows up far more than I’d like in times of transition. It calls me to be an artist with my own self, to bring my thin and desolate places to the altar and lay them down, trusting that even in the gaps, there is a holy and firm place to stand.


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Spiritual Formation

The difference between oak trees and freeways

It was a simple statement, created in the moment by one of my Syrian students attempting to form a dependent phrase, but it stopped us all in our tracks. Everyone else in the class (teacher included!) had created much lazier sentences:

  • “When I’m bored, I watch TV.”
  • “When I’m bored, I go to sleep.”
  • “When I’m bored, I use the computer.”

But none of us had considered offering this depth of insight when tackling grammatical structures in English sentences: “When I’m bored, I ask my heart what it needs.” The simple phrasing of his words lingered with me. How often do I ignore what my heart needs by calling it boredom?  I wondered silently, the teacher-in-me suddenly becoming a student.

These students.  Though they may use broken words at times, they have so much wisdom to share.  Perhaps we’d all be a little better off asking what our heart needs before we speak flippantly about our moods.

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I spent some time recently chatting with a group of women about what makes us flourish, what makes us feel most alive in the midst of the flurry of jobs and families and ambitions and responsibilities. We had lots of great ideas from the superficial and fun like pedicures and ice cream to the rich and meaningful like chats-with-friends over coffee and quiet-time-away-from-it-all to restore our souls.  Some of us cried. All of us laughed. A few of us ached. Others of us shared grateful moments of fulfillment.

I shed a few tears over some breaking dreams and a friend reached to hold my hand. I squeezed back tight. Sometimes in the midst of falling apart, presence speaks so much louder than words.

What I heard most frequently expressed among these women was the same exact sentiment my student had just expressed that very morning: ask your heart what it needs.

Reflect.

Slow down.

Ponder.

Be a friend.

Read a book.

Watch a silly TV show.

Take a walk.

Listen.

Notice.

Contrary to the story of the freeways, we are not meant to live at break-neck speed every minute of the day. Unless we build barriers around and stoplights into our lives, we might hurtle ourselves right over the edge without even noticing.

Though we’d much prefer to speed right through them, even dark and barren days hold deep value for our souls, for what is day without night or a field without fallowness? For our roots to grow deep, we must attend to all the realities of life, not just the easiest ones.

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While much in our current culture facilitates a shallow and superficial path, we must dig deeper if we believe faith is more than mere entertainment. “Remind me each day that the race is not always to the swift; that there is more to life than increasing its speed,” writes Orin Crain. “Let me look upward into the towering oak and know that it grew great and strong because it grew slowly and well.”

It’s a bit like asking my soul not what it wants – things to numb or entertain or distract it – but simply what it needs and then working those very things into the daily mundane. 

Sometimes it’s the quiet of a walk in the early hours of the morning with a friend or the steady beauty of the mountains at sunset. It can be a slow cup of coffee with my husband, cuddles on the couch with my kids or the hand of a friend reaching out. Sometimes it is letting the tears fall while other times it is letting laughter carve my wrinkles deep.

In his accidental eloquence, my student had captured a truth that we fluent speakers so frequently stumble over: paying attention to our souls gives us life. Living slowly and well shapes our days into flourishing and full lives that paint a backdrop of strength to those living in our shade.

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Spiritual Formation

Dreams, readjusted.

I’m in the midst of some dream readjusting right now, and my mind wandered back to this post I wrote several years ago.  I had a nice little chuckle at myself because even though I now live in a ‘cool place’ and actually work with some refugees, I’m still facing the realities of readjusting dreams.  Since my time to write has been a bit limited recently, I thought it would be an appropriate throwback post to share for all the other dream readjusters out there.

If I had my druthers, I would have picked a really cool place to live – you know, like New York City, Seattle, or at least Chicago.  Then, when I met people from my past and they asked where I lived, I could suavely reply, “New York,” to be inevitably met by an impressive, “Wow.”

I also would have picked a really cool job – like resettling refugees, working in a soup kitchen, being an artist, or something a bit ‘edgy’ like that.  Then, when I met new people and they asked what I did, I could respond (with all humility, of course), “Oh, I work in a homeless shelter,” to be met by an even bigger “Wow.”

Then, surely I would be able to saunter down the street in my funky attire and be known as someone who ‘does something worthwhile’.  I also am a bit partial to being known as ‘one tough cookie’, but that doesn’t sound nearly as humble.

But, alas, the plan didn’t work.

I live in rural Indiana, drive my kids around in a mini-van, and teach part time at a Christian college – none of which have ever made my ‘cool’ list.  I used to live in Washington,, DC, where my husband and I enjoyed spending warm afternoons on the National Mall or hiking around the Potomac River.  When I first moved to Indiana, I desperately missed the ‘coolness’ factor of being able to tell far away friends that I’d walked by the White House or attended a peaceful protest/prayer walk past the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Capital Building.  I mean, it doesn’t pack near the punch to say that you drove by a barn/tractor/cornfield or attended a hymn sing at church on Sunday night.  While cornfields in early summer are indeed a sight to behold, they simply lack the impressive aura of the Atlantic coast or the inspiring beauty of the Smokey Mountains.

Everything here is just quieter.

Instead of car horns and sirens, there are birdsongs and rustling branches.  Our only version of a traffic jam is getting stuck behind a tractor on a country road, and stop signs are relevant only when a police car is present (because there are rarely other cars at intersections).  If you don’t count my neighbor who tests the engine on his race car every day in the summer, life around here is a gentle conversation between two old ladies on a front porch.

I don’t mean to insinuate anything about the folks who actually live in these places or do my definition of ‘cool’ things.  I know many of them, and the ones who have settled into these vocations maintain a humility and passion that extends far beyond my egotistical motivations to do such work.  It’s more about the gap between my own expectations of what meaningful life would look like, and what meaningful life actually is.

My evangelical brothers and sisters would speak of the grace and truth of Christ as the most meaningful component of their lives.  My liturgical brothers and sisters would highlight the mystery and majesty of God.  My charismatic siblings would claim joy and redemption.  I’m glad they’re all spot-on in their own ways, but also like to think the tangible ways meaning shows up, especially on a day like today (MLK day).

  • Brave people – this week highlighted several of them for me.  First, 37-year-old father, husband, brother, friend, actor lost his 3 month battle with an aggressive form of colon cancer this week.  His friends gathered round to hold him up while he walked toward the world where dying is no more.  Second, some friends of friends who are missionaries in Haiti.  In the midst of surreal tragedy, a mother packed up five of her 7 children and sent them to safety in the States while she stayed to start clinics for the injured.  And that’s not even to mention Martin Luther King Jr. and the faithful who carry his dream forward.
  • Listening people – With my husband in his second year of a PhD program, this is our “long year” where we’re tying a bunch of knots and holding on for dear life.  Over some tasty burritos last night, our weary souls were soothed by the listening ears and compassionate hearts of dear friends.
  • Veiled beauty – even in spite of fog smothering our area for four days straight, I caught glimpse of a beautiful tree while driving home the other day.  I wanted to take a picture, but didn’t, and the image has lingered in my mind since.  Thankfully, lots of other people think things like this are pretty too, and I found some great photos online just like the scene I saw.  Somehow, it reminds me of the aforementioned Brave People.
  • Quietness – being a holiday, the kids and I are off and home relaxing.  The kids are busy imagining some great quest, and in my own little quiet space, I’m grateful to ponder everyone else’s great quests, including my own, unexpected as it may be.  Sometimes, even though they can grow a bit repetitive, the quietness of these cornfields is terribly good for my soul.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!  But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.

1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (The Message)

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Spiritual Formation

Survival tactics for truth-tellers, hole-pokers, and skeptics

survival tactics

Tired and grumpy, I got a bit harsh with my slightly lazy eight-year-old son about his messy-room-that-never-seems-to-actually-get-cleaned the other night.  As the words came out, I knew instinctively that I’d crossed the mean-mama line, so I returned awhile later to apologize for my tone, “I’m sorry I snipped at you about your room, buddy.”

His grinning response didn’t miss a beat, “Snipped?!?  You didn’t snip at me – you lashed me – with whips and chains!”

He’s a truth-teller, that kid . . . and there’s nothing like being reminded that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.  Some days, I’m a bit of a truth-teller myself, and I’ve learned it’s not always the most popular trait in a person.  Truth-tellers are wired to poke holes, ask questions, point out inconsistencies, question accepted norms – often for the value of the greater-good, but usually at the cost of keeping-the-peace.

I have an on-going internal conversation about the value of being a truth-teller, of saying the things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.  On one hand, there’s an internal sigh of relief when somebody finally comments that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes but on the other hand, people don’t always take kindly to the reality that they’ve been playing along with a lie.  It’s a tricky line to walk, one I haven’t always known how to balance along well. While it’s easy to communicate dissent in angry, frustrated and polarizing ways, it’s not always the most effective manner of helping the truth actually be listened to and considered.

Thankfully, the years are slowly teaching me how to straddle the tensions of being a truth-teller, and through the gifts of the spiritual disciplines and faithful friends, I’ve developed a few guidelines for better managing this innate part of myself.

Be gentle.  Sometimes provocative statements are useful to highlight a hard truth, but only when used sparingly.  Even though I personally enjoy people who tell it like it is, even I begin to dismiss a person who makes frequent inciting statements because it seems like all they care about is stirring the pot instead of letting the flavors simmer together so they actually taste good.  When I write about divisive issues, I often sit on potentially controversial phrases for a while to evaluate whether they’re helpful or harmful for the larger conversation at hand.  My go-to question is often, “How can I tell the truth boldly and gently?”

Check ulterior motives.  It’s easy to subconsciously enjoy the attention that comes with telling the truth.  Sometimes such boldness brings a silent pause, focusing the attention for a moment on the giver.  Being a teacher and a writer means that I’m accustomed to a good measure of attention focused on me, so it’s always wise for me to consider if my motives are self-seeking or truly a voice for greater good. If I can’t determine my motives, it’s likely a sign I need to remain quiet.

Speak slowly.  James’ words say it well: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”  While this is much easier said than done, there are no exemptions given.  Sadly, some use this passage to stifle truth-tellers completely, but it’s still important to remember that some who see themselves as truth-tellers speak and grow angry far too quickly.  Quite frankly, this is counter-productive and harmful to the conversations in which we participate.  If we can’t speak the truth slowly and patiently (sometimes over years), we need to spend time pondering if we should even be speaking at all.

Remember the human.  In sharp disagreement, it’s easy to turn people into ideas. When a person ceases to exist, we tend to hear only their words and not their hearts.  My mom used to say that occasionally when they struggled to love someone in their world, they’d invite them for dinner to hear their stories.  She found that it’s a whole lot harder to see someone solely as an ideology when you know their personal story. In all of our worlds – work, church, family, friends, online – we must first remember the people we speak of and with are humans worthy of respect simply because they are created in the image of Christ.

Learn from those with opposite strengths.  Being a former skeptic, faith is not one of my stronger spiritual gifts.  However, I once heard a friend share her story of struggle, and it was laced with a fierce type of faith I had never known myself.  While the skeptic in me wanted to dismiss what I didn’t understand, I instead allowed myself to admire something in her that I didn’t see in myself and to be grateful for it.  It was astonishingly freeing to allow myself the luxury to learn from someone different than me, instead of mentally critiquing them.

Step away.  Because I write about the controversial topic of race, every so often I’ll get a cutting tweet or comment.  While I can rationally tell myself that these comments come from just a few people who may-or-may-not-be-sane, I still find myself distracted by them on occasion.  When their words grow too loud in my head, I know I need to step away for a bit, sit with the Lord, and give myself some space to remember why I speak and who I speak for.  Angry conversations rarely prove to be productive, and if my purpose is to foster productive conversations about difficult topics, I’m not helping matters if I can’t stay calm and focused on bringing light, not heat, to the issues at hand.

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Society desperately needs truth-tellers who have the boldness, wisdom and maturity to use their gifts responsibly for the greater good – not to wield power for their own gain.  While the faith-gifted folks may get a better wrap, without the truth-tellers there would be no Dietrich Bonhoffers or Mother Teresas or Cornel Wests to guide us toward a better way of living together.  Whatever your gifts, may you lean into them with courage, faithfulness and humility so that together we might all learn to walk alongside one another in a better way.

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Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Rethinking how we speak about American blessings

“We’re so blessed to live in this country.”

I cringe a little when I hear a statement along these lines, wondering about the sentiments that lie beneath the actual words.  I usually hear people respond this way in response to conversations about difficult realities like poverty or hunger or lack of sanitation or war.

Statements like this unsettle me for a variety of reasons.  When people say, “We’re blessed to live in the US,” sometimes I hear an assumption of superiority behind their words that portrays an attitude of we’re-so-much-better-than-those-poor-folks-in-the-poor-world.  It makes me wonder if focusing on our assumed ‘blessings’ of comfort, prosperity and sanitation allows us to numb out the feelings of horror, responsibility, and generosity we might feel if we actually let those realities of global poverty sink in.

Another reason these words unsettle me is because they passively imply that those in other countries aren’t equally blessed to live where they live. There’s a sense that we live in the promised land, and those poor folks – well, sucks to be them, eh?  On one level, I follow the idea that a developed and civil society is a more comfortable environment to live in.  Cleanliness, prosperity, order, and efficiency are good ideals that benefit society as a whole.  However, they certainly aren’t the only qualities by which the value of a place should be judged.

While I know a lot of people who’ve sacrificed immensely to move to the US, I also know quite a few who would never want to live here.  They don’t hate it, it’s just not home.  They feel blessed to live in their homes, with their food and their loved ones and their dirty streets and inefficient systems. They’re also horrified by our violence, materialism, sexual ethics, and isolation from each other.

A friend of my husband’s from Sri Lanka who’d lived in Singapore for several years recently told him, “Everything there is soooo clean and efficient and productive, sometimes you just need to get out to get a break or you go crazy.”  I chuckled when I heard this, for at the time, I was in Sri Lanka missing those very qualities about my American home.  Sometimes, it’s all about what you’re used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my homeland.  It’s taken nearly three decades, but I can even say that I love living here (California has helped this process quite a lot).  Driving across the country a few years ago gave me a whole new appreciation for its vastness, diversity, and beauty.  I love that the freedom here allows for a global mosaic like Los Angeles.  I love the sense of community the lingers in my heart from my small Midwestern home town.  I love the hustle and bustle of New York City, and the never-ending quietness of Kansas.  It really is a unique, diverse, and beautiful country.  

But there are a lot of such places around the world that people call home.  From the outside, we might perceive some of these places as destitute or hopeless, but this is not their only story.  I spent a summer once in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world at that time.  The capital city, Ouagadougou, had two paved roads.  Disease and hunger were rampant.  At first glance, the people were destitute.  But then I looked again.

I saw old women with their heads wrapped in vibrant scarves dancing down the church aisles to give away the little money they had.

I saw bright eyes, curious to learn, fascinated by color, eager to smile at passersby.

I saw people sharing meals with each other, spending long hours together, warmed by each others’ presence.

I saw a generous hospitality that gave up beds, welcomed strangers, and cared for the sick and the poor.

I saw eager minds, grateful for the opportunity to learn and hopeful for the gift of an education.

There was so much good there that I would have never seen from a picture in a magazine of a bloated baby with flies in her eyes.  While their good didn’t look like my good, it was still very real.  They were blessed beyond measure, and I had so much to learn from them.  

When we hear about the hard-things-of-the-world, what would happen if we refocused our response away from our own comfort, safety and prosperity?

  • Issues of poverty seem so devastating, are there ways I could help alleviate it with the resources I have access to?
  • So many people go without, how could I simplify so I have more resources to share?
  • While it may look like a desperate situation, what is the strength of the people in it?  How can I learn from them rather than pity them?
  • If I live in comfort, are there people near me who don’t?  Do I see them?  How might they perceive the country I say I’m blessed to live in?

If we ask these questions first in our hearts, maybe our words would start to change too. Instead of responding that I’m so blessed to live in the US, maybe we’ll start saying, I love my home, and I have much to learn about how to see the blessings in the rest of the world.    And while we’re talking about it, maybe we’ll actually start doing it as well.

Let’s brainstorm new ways of speaking about where and how we live that honors the whole world, not just the US or the West. Have you found words/ways to do this?  I’d love to learn from how others speak about such things.  

Also, be sure to check out this post from Communicating Across BoundariesThe Problem with Blessing, to ponder the idea of blessing even further.  

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