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
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.
I don’t even remember the moment they drove away. I’m told it’s one of those instances you never forget, that second when you realize you’re finally on your own. But for me, it’s not there — perhaps because, when you’re the first in your family to go to college, you never truly feel like they’ve let you go.
Though I know there are actively racist teachers out there, most White teachers mean well and have no intention of being racist. Yet as people who are inscribed with Whiteness, it is possible for us to act in racist ways no matter our intentions. Uprooting racism from our daily actions takes a lifetime of work
I want my sweet girl to understand that she may not always be judged by her character, that so many have and will face unfair challenges for their ethnic background or skin color, and that conversely there may be times where she will be at an advantage vis-a-vis others because of those same perceptions. As her mother I want to save her from pain, to give her the tools I lacked as I encountered prejudice early on. She is noticing the world, and it is my job to teach her to discern between what feels right and wrong, and how to navigate the gray spaces in which she will often dwell.
“If we don’t deal with our trauma, our trauma begins to deal with us. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they have a habit of peeking around the corners of our lives, breaking in at the most inopportune moments.”
“The American evangelical subculture has created within itself a Christian lingo that is intelligible only among those who have shared in that culture. Because a top priority of evangelical subculture is to evangelize the gospel, it quite boggles my mind that there hasn’t been more care taken to learn how to communicate said gospel with what actually makes sense to those outside of evangelical culture.”
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
While my college friends’ daughter was dying, they started a fundraiser to raise money for another family who has three daughters with the same degenerative, fatal genetic illness. In the midst of their great grief, they live out hope.
For the better part of the last 20 years, this noble elephant named Kabu had been forced to slave away in chains — but now she’s finally free. And just as her body bears the scars of decades of mistreatment, her eyes are now shimmering with signs of hope.
As a culture that places high value on storytelling, I often wonder how the stories we tell reflect our overarching values. Certainly perfection, glamour, and adventure dominate the vast majority of the motives behind how many present their lives. But what gets lost when we hide mundane moments like when we’re stuck in bed with a cold, mildly depressed, and too worn-out to wash the piling dishes? Where’s the place to remember the late-night conversations about insecurities or worries or dreams? Who do we become when we photoshop blemishes out of our lives?
Kissing. It’s a relatively simple aspect of Latino cultures. When you say hello or good-bye, it’s customary to include a quick peck on the cheek. Naturally, this practice sends me into a spiral of what ifs, internal dialogues, and a general state of panic.
I know with each parting, that life will never be quite the same and I’m never quite sure I will be able to handle it. I’m never convinced that this time might be the time where I become undone, where I can no longer pick up the pieces of those left behind — move forward when those I love are gone. But each time I do. Each time I survive, and I smile and laugh again, and though it hurts, somehow it’s okay.
So in my imaginary world, family is right next door. This is one of the things that we who live a mobile life give up. We give up family. To be sure, family arises in different ways, community is born out of need and desperation and it’s good community. It’s necessary. But we give up extended family and that is not easy. We give up grandparents who speak regularly into our children’s lives and teach them what it is to grow old. We give up aunts and uncles who, crazy as they may be, each come with their particular gifts and idiosyncrasies; with a collective wisdom born of good and bad choices. We give up the spiritual dimensions of lives lived well in the realm of faith, we give up family dinners, we give up family fights and the subsequent forgiveness and making up. When we live a mobile life it is really easy to decide we won’t work through the hard, instead choosing to ignore people and not reconcile our differences and our hurts.
In the 21st century, most Americans marry for love. We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life. When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative, because parenthood has become our new priority and religion. We raise our children as best we can, and we know that we have succeeded if they leave us, going out into the world to find partners and have children of their own. Once our gods have left us, we try to pick up the pieces of our long neglected marriages and find new purpose.
You may be thinking “I’m smarter than that. I have a facebook and I watch my kids online.” You might have a Facebook. So do I. And so does my mom and my grandma and all of her friends. But you know who doesn’t have a Facebook? Your kid’s friends. I took an informal poll of my 150 students at the beginning of the year, and 60-80% of my students don’t even have a facebook. They connect with each other onKik, an app that allows users to text each other without exchanging phone numbers. They use Snapchat, an app that allows users to send pictures that supposedlydisappear forever after ten seconds. They use Whisper, an app that a user can “anonymously” tell their deepest secrets to a vast community of other secret sharers. They use Yik Yak, Vine, Tumblr, Twitter (do you know about subtweeting? you should.), Instagram, Oovoo, WhatsApp, Meerkat, and sometimes even dating apps, like Tinder.
Please do not pray for me unless you are willing to walk with me.
Know me. Hear the depths of my fear or anguish or whatever it might be and let it affect you.
Then let us bring our (not just my) most profound needs vulnerably before God. Please do not try to escape that vulnerability. Because if you do, you have left me, and that is not prayer. It is not communion with God through Christ by the spirit.
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
When you meet me for the first time, you read me as if I were a book. Every idea you have about me and every word I say is part of that book.
When you look at me, you will think I am white. I already know this. When you shake my hand and meet me for the first time, you always already read me as white. You will hear me speak English without an accent and think I am white. You will hear or read my last name and think I am white. You read me wrong.
So many people I talk to are trying to find language for what’s happening inside them, and often the closest they can get is that their faith has stopped working. For many of them, I think possibly what they mean is that the tools they’ve been using to experience a life of faith have stopped working.
Christian millennials seem to live in this multi-layered world of reading the bible on their iPhone and tweeting in church, while singing ancient plainsong and praying prayers spoken by saints of centuries past.
What can we do with all our soul trouble? Where can we take it?
The season of Lent says to God’s people: “Bring it.” Bring your dry bones, your numb hearts, and your wrecked and weary souls. Bring your shame and the sin that you can’t shake. Yes, it is too much for you, but it is not too much for God. Only He can create a clean heart and a renewed spirit within you.
I do not often feel full of faith. As a matter of fact, I am far more frequently filled with questions of hows and whys and whens and what ifs. I have known those who walk away from faith in the face of such seeming unbelief. I, too, have had my moments wondering if my lack of belief equated an insurmountable lack of faith. When I reflect on what I have found faith to be, however, I am astounded by how much more there is to being a faithful follower of Christ than merely belief.
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.
It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt. — Fyodor Dostoyevski
I do not often feel full of faith. As a matter of fact, I am far more frequently filled with questions of hows and whys and whens and what ifs. I have known those who walk away from faith in the face of such seeming unbelief. I, too, have had my moments wondering if my lack of belief equated an insurmountable lack of faith. When I reflect on what I have found faith to be, however, I am astounded by how much more there is to being a faithful follower of Christ than merely belief.
What creates a faithful follower? I ponder in the margins of my days. Is it unwavering belief? Unquenchable joy? Overwhelming emotion? While I have frequently seen these experiences defined as faith, none of them are especially familiar to the ever-so-rational-and-logical me. Some days, this leaves me concluding that surely I hold no faith within. Other days, however, I wonder at the full-bodied nature that this faith thing might actually entail.
Indeed, belief, joy, emotion are significant components of faith, ones that the rational-and-logical should not easily dismiss, but to view faith solely through these lenses is an incomplete understanding. When I consider how my faith has grown, there is wide array of lenses through which I see it in my life:
Steadiness. Musician Josh Garrel‘s song Farther Along explores the realities of doubt, belief, wonder and mystery:
Tempted and tried, I wondered why
The good man died, the bad man thrives
And Jesus cries because he loves em’ both
We’re all cast-aways in need of ropes
Hangin’ on by the last threads of our hope
In a house of mirrors full of smoke
Confusing illusions I’ve seen
As I listened one day, I noticed that the song begins with an organ chord that is sustained in the background – without ever resting – throughout the whole song. It struck me as the perfect metaphor for God’s constancy – always there, steadily playing in the background while we create all sorts of other noise in our attempts to understand. Listen for yourself:
God’s steady presence in life leaves me asking how my faith could mirror the same. How can I be a faithful friend? spouse? parent? colleague? Through pursuing such steadiness, I’m reminded how my faith flourishes.
Tolerance for ambiguity. Perhaps one of the most striking realizations I have had in life is that I am not God. I suspect some of you are now thinking, “Wow, she’s a little dense.” You’re probably right, but humor me while I explain further.
Hard things that I do not fully understand happen on a regular basis. They are large things – war, natural disaster, senseless violence, human corruption, destructive disease. But they are also small things that touch my life far more frequently than the large things – struggles finding a satisfying job, dear friends moving away, marriages fighting to thrive, children with hard-questions or strong-wills.
I struggle most with belief when I think that I’m actually capable of understanding completely. Recognizing that the ability to fully understand is beyond my mind’s grasp – in other words, accepting that I am not God – helps me trust a Creator who understands what I do not.
I saw this recently in a conversation with our 11 year old daughter. We were attempting to explain our reasoning on a certain decision that she disagreed with. Between adults, I’ll share that this decision was influenced by things adults understand far better than kids – sticky things like people being power-hungry, manipulative, and passive aggressive. However, we simply could not explain these things to her because she wouldn’t fully understand.
“We’re not telling you the whole story on purpose,” we told her. “It’s too much for you and would overwhelm you because you wouldn’t be able to understand it all. Just trust us – one day you will understand.”
I grinned to hear myself repeating the same exact conversation I’ve had so many times with my Father-in-heaven. Just wait, says the Father-God who knows I couldn’t possibly understand completely. It’s ok not to know everything right now. Trust me.
Humility. It is out of this tolerance for the unknown that humility grows in my life. I awake after a night of tossing and turning about those-freaking-teenagers and my heart says, “This is where you have placed me. I will lean into this because it is what you have given.”
I miss the immigrants, the college students, the big ideas, the stimulating conversations, the quiet offices of my former career, but it is not where I am. Humility sinks deep as I accept the reality that what-I-think-I-want may not be what-should-be. This, too, is faith.
Dignity. The internet has spent the week marveling at the final days of Kara Tippett, the 38-year-old mother of four who has taught us all remarkable lessons about joy in suffering. “The only way to ever really die with dignity,” wrote Ann Voskamp, “is to have lived with dignity. It’s our living well that determines our dying well.”
Tears slide at these words for I know this is my end goal in spite of all the distractions that get in the way – a life of quiet dignity, of loving well, of living deep, and of holding fiercely to hope that lies beyond the grave.
Connection to others. I just spent the weekend with deep-and-old friends, the kind who know you all the way back to your stupid-days and have loved you for decades anyway. We don’t see each other like we used to anymore – our lives are now filled-to-the-brim with studies and careers and families and dogs and neighbors. Yet we had the gift of pausing to sit with one other for a few days, to ask endless questions, to walk alongside one another by the sea and to listen intently to the ups and downs of the years.
While I mourn that we don’t share our daily lives anymore, I rejoice that the connection remains, that there are spaces in the world where I am known, and that who I am is valuable to others. Having moved 7 times in 14 years means that it takes some effort to make these connections, but I am reminded of the restoration they bring to my faith every time I do. Being with soul-friends reconnects me to faith because I am able to tell my whole story to them and they hold that naked soul with gentle hands.
Gratefulness. I paused in the shadow of the foothills this morning after dropping my kids to school. As the days go, there is always noise tumbling through my head – a worry-here and a to-do-list-there. The mountains though, they sit steady. I whisper a thank you for this steadiness before me and it calms my spirit. From there, I spend my morning noticing all the little moments I am grateful for – a walk with a friend, the warmth of home, a soft-hearted husband, curious kids, kind strangers, loving parents, a healthy body, food in my cupboards. When my eyes are turned toward goodness, the list never ends.
Living out faith through these lenses right sizes my doubts, allowing them to walk alongside each other rather than completely dismissing all the ways that I do practice faith. It leaves even the skeptic in me humming the quiet hosana of a faithful follower.
He leadeth me: O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught! Whate’er I do, where’er I be, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
Refrain: He leadeth me, he leadeth me; by his own hand he leadeth me: his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.
Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom, sometimes where Eden’s flowers bloom, by waters calm, o’er troubled sea, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
Lord, I would clasp thy hand in mine, nor ever murmur nor repine; content, whatever lot I see, since ’tis my God that leadeth me.
And when my task on earth is done, when, by thy grace, the victory’s won, e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee, since God through Jordan leadeth me.
“But I was exposed early to the real stuff – Top Shelf Christianity – Deep and Old Christianity. This kind is practiced by people who work until they stink and take life in great draughts. Their hands are as rough as their hides, and they DO their faith in secret, hiding their good works in obedience to Christ. They know how to love and be loved in return. Their laughter is loud and has its roots in joy.” – Gordon Atkinson
“There is no shortage of good days, it is good lives that are hard to come by.” – Annie Dillard
I’ve spent a great deal of time both in my writing and my personal life sorting out the ways that I’ve seen race & culture mishandled, especially by Christians & the Church. Sadly, it’s not a difficult experience to find – we are, undeniably, a broken people.
Recently, however, I’ve started reflecting on the ways that I’ve experienced healing and growth in the midst of the deeply broken places. As I ponder, I remember quiet lives of reconciliation lived with a steady faithfulness and unwavering commitment to heal this deeply broken piece of God’s kingdom. In honor of Martin Luther King’s legacy, I’m compelled to share about them today.
I think first of my father-in-law, a humble and unassuming man who surrendered a successful medical career in the US to return to his war-torn home and serve as a government doctor in the rural areas that were suffering greatly from the violence. The war was ethnic, and my father-in-law was often the only ethnic majority person living in areas dominated by the country’s minority group. There were long days with no electricity or water at times and resources were severely lacking. In spite of this, he worked hard to provide the best medical care he could in an area of significant deprivation for years. His work broke down ethnic lines and over time, he became beloved in this community. It wasn’t safe or comfortable or even ‘wise’ at times, but the reconciliation story it tells is striking.
I think next of my brother-in-law, an African-American man currently serving as a public defender in Amish country. A graduate of the East’s most prestigious schools, he could have pursued a far more lucrative path, but instead chooses to work in the broken places and genuinely enjoys his work. Over the course of our lives, we have spent hours in conversation working out life’s details, many of which inevitably include racial issues. While I cringe when I remember questions about race I’ve asked him over the years, he never has. Instead, he’s patiently and kindly shared the reality he has walked for a lifetime. He regularly extends kindness to those with whom he has little in common – mennonite theologians, criminal clients, pig farmers, neighbors in the midst of very difficult lives – and spends hours listening to their stories so that he can learn from them. His consistent honesty and commitment to providing justice in the midst of broken places brings healing to our world one small step at a time.
I think of the white history professor at the small university in the midwestern cornfield, a man fiercely-but-gently committed to educating a predominantly white campus about the history of the civil rights movement. His understanding of racial brokenness ran deep, and he was masterful at helping privileged and often ignorant people engage in realities they had not ever known. When we announced our departure from those very cornfields, he and his wife overflowed with joy for us, for they understood the deep strain the environment had held for our family. We felt the hands of God upholding us through their joy for us in those moments as we hobbled out of town.
I think of another white man of deep kindness in that same small cornfield town. He loved rhododendrons, his wife, and generally everyone around him. His kindness alone created safety for sharing brokenness, and so we spoke quietly at his dining room table about the reality we knew that was so-very-different-than-his. While he may not have fully understood our reality, his willingness to say-so and then to listen and even admit ignorance was a breath of fresh air in a place where so many assumed everyone was just-like-them.
I think of the elderly African-American academic who has mentored my professor-husband in Christian higher ed for most of his adult life. While their relationship is not frequent, it is potent and life-giving, helping my husband navigate the maze of often being-the-only-one with boldness, grace and dignity.
I think of the countless women of color who have modeled such grace and dignity for me. Their lives of fierce honesty and intense pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation remind me that this path is not always smooth, quiet, or simple. When I pause to remember what is good, their stories of perseverance and wisdom linger long in my story.
I think of the handful of dear-friends who have walked alongside us – celebrating with us when we rejoice and listening to us when we ache. They know our whole-story and still, they remain, sometimes in moments far-too-spaced-out, but ever-present, always steady.
The cacophony of the masses fade when I pause to remember the quiet and steady faithfulness of individual lives pursuing the reconciliation of all things. They are not merely ‘good people’ but rather quite normal people whose choices and life direction stem deeply from their Christian faith, from their belief in what the church should be and the role they are to play in it regardless of how flawed it actually is.
They are my “Top-shelf Christians”, these secret, hidden, and unadvertised lives, never to be known widely beyond their own social spheres. Christian magazines will not feature them in headlines nor will they boast of their own initiatives on social media. They don’t wear Christian t-shirts or boast fish bumper stickers; they just do their best to follow Christ’s example of loving the other and tending to brokenness. They are no Barack Obamas, Mother Teresas, or Martin Luther Kings, but their lives of steady faithfulness serve the same purpose. There are so many more just like them, and these well-livedlives offer glimpses of hope into what could be were we all to follow their example.
If you are so inclined, I’d love to hear stories of the Top-Shelf Christians in your lives who model this same faithfulness. This reconciliation-business is a complicated tasks, and the more examples we have, the better we learn how to go about actually living it out. Share your own stories or links to other examples in the comments below!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fewof 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.”
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:
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?
* 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.
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.
We were sitting outside the frozen yogurt shop when my husband interrupted my yogurt-induced-heaven with a passionate “Did you see that!?!”
“What?” I looked around but didn’t see anything unusual. I’d been a little spaced out in a blissful yogurt coma and was, as usual, less-than-aware of my surroundings.
“That Asian lady in the yogurt store! She and her daughter were just standing there, waiting in line for the restroom and this white guy came in and walked right in front of her.”
He paused, shaking his head in angry disbelief, “And she just let him go. She put her head down and let him push his way past her,”
He paused, processing the interaction, “That’s just so privileged. And he probably doesn’t even recognize it. The problem with us is that we get all submissive and let people walk all over us.”
Confession Time: In my head, I started listing all the reasons why what he just said happened couldn’t have actually happened. Maybe he saw things wrong. Maybe the guy had to puke. Maybe he left his cell phone in the bathroom. Surely what my husband saw wasn’t what actually happened.
Privilege runs deep, and as I continue to ponder the ideas of humility, I keep running smack into its gritty realities. They’re not pretty, but ignoring them won’t make them go away either. Here are a few truths I’ve learned along the way:
1. Privilege is hard to see if you have it, but easy to see if you don’t
I often don’t see the privilege my husband or my friends of color see, but not because it doesn’t exist. I don’t see it because I don’t have to see it. I live in a world where people who look like me are the norm, so the world-at-large adjusts to me, not the other way around. I can walk into a restaurant without heads turning in curiosity. I’ve never encountered a situation where people define my personal qualifications by my physical appearance. People rarely make comments – ignorant or informed – about my race or ethic background.
It’s kind of like the emporer who wasn’t wearing any clothes – everyone but the stubborn king himself sees the truth. If I could get into the mind of that classic fairytale character as he walked naked down the street when the little boy called his bluff, I can almost hear him thinking to himself, “That crazy boy! Who does he think he is? He doesn’t know anything. I’m the Emporer, after all. What I say goes!”
It’s not so different from the knee jerk reaction that many white people have when white privilege comes up. Who do they think they are? we think about the people of color who suggest perspectives that upturn our understanding of the world.
What do they know? we dismiss the realities they experience. When history is written by the winners, our story is the one with the power, and until we learn other sides of the story, it’s nearly impossible to understand why some might question our interpretation of it.
If I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve done the same thing as the privileged white guy at the yogurt shop and never even noticed. Privilege just doesn’t feel the same to those who benefit from it like it does to those who get run over by it.
2. Privilege feels great and horrible all at the same time
When I travel, I am nearly always treated better than my non-white family. I get higher quality service, more attention and courtesy. I get less attention at airport security lines and from police men. Even if I personally benefit from this treatment, the fact that my family faces its fallout sours any positives it holds for me.
If people only knew how much more humble and sacrificial and generous they were than me, I think, my brown family would be the ones given elevated status, not me. But the history of white skin tells a different story, so we walk instead through a broken and unequal reality.
3. Privilege creates guilt which creates shame which creates denial
Brene Brown has shed an immense amount of light on how shame impacts our ability to be vulnerable, and it’s easily applicable when considering privilege. She writes,
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
When I don’t initially understand a situation like the yogurt shop, it can take me weeks to admit it. My guilt kicks in…how many years I have been married interracially? How many conversations have I had and books have I read about race and privilege?
Will I ever learn?
The shame lingers so subtly that I don’t even notice it until my denial eventually slips out and I’m forced to face my privilege once again.
4. Privilege isn’t about individuals, it’s about systems
What lacks acknowledgement in conversations about privilege is that it’s not necessarily applicable to individuals. When racial microagressions play out on an individual level, the reason they trigger reactions is because of the history such interactions carry with them.
In other words, when the white guy marches past the Asian lady in the restroom line, the history of white-dominant/Asian-submissive interaction plops down right in the center of things. As much as we’d like to believe it, the world is not only made up of individuals, it’s also composed of groups who represent ideas and create realities beyond individuals’ control.
5. Privilege isn’t only about race
As I grow in my understanding of privilege, I see how it extends far beyond the context of race. Privilege comes in many packages and shapes how we view and interact with the world.
“I am unlearning the ways I perceive my own areas of privilege as ‘normal’,” writes Austin Channing. “I can smell when patriarchy is leaking all over a man as he interacts with me. But there are plenty of other ways that that I engage in oppression, ignorance, avoidance, and all kinds of crazy.”
I think of all the times I fail to consider other realities and subconsciously operate as though mine is the norm regardless of things like disability, education level, language ability, religious views, or sexual orientation. We saw it happen yet again last week with nationalities when Twitter called the spelling bee ‘Unamerican’ for its lack of white participants. Clearly, there is no end to how we exclude each other when we see ourselves as the ones who belong and everyone else as the other.
As a result, unpacking how we engage with people of different backgrounds than our own is critical to development the model of humility we see in Phillipians 2:
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message)
Christ’s example stands in stark contrast to the pundits and pontificators who insist nothing-is-wrong-with-me in response to the racial struggles of our world. It sheds new light on the pushy white guy’s behavior in the yogurt line. It opens the heart’s door of this stubbornly-skeptical wife just a teeny-bit wider.
Our world is sorely in need of people who follow Christ before they follow political figures and tribe leaders. When we fight against the privilege discussion because it’s too painful to face the reality of the broken history and systems of our world, we end up perpetuating the exact same legacy.
Instead, may our humility grow deep enough that we have the courage to walk through the painful realities privilege carries. May we, like Christ, live selflessly and obediently rather than clinging to privilege and status. If we want to see change the world, truly, it must first begin with ourselves.
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.
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.
Be a friend.
Read a book.
Watch a silly TV show.
Take a walk.
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.
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.
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.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” the concern in the doctor’s eyes told my mother-heart that this wasn’t a good thing. Our 1-year-old daughter had spiked at a fever of over 105 for over a week without any other symptoms. Cautiously, the doctor explained his concern over the lack of additional symptoms because this could indicate a more chronic illness like leukemia or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis or all sorts of other options a mother should not be left to wonder about.
We were completely in the dark, with no answers and no light at the end of the tunnel.
Gratefully, a few days later, my daughter’s tiny neck swelled, indicating a localized infection, and the light flickered on. “Wow, that’s just great!” the doctor exclaimed with relief when we showed him. I didn’t feel quite as relieved as he seemed, but I also knew that it meant there was a symptom to treat rather than more dark tunnels. She ended up with a 2 week hospital stay and surgery at a children’s hospital, but once we found the source of the problem, it was ultimately treatable and relatively short-lived.
My daughter’s hospitalization was neither the first nor last time I have felt lost in such a visionless tunnel. There have been years of questions without answers:
I’ve waited on pins and needles for results of job interviews, medical tests, bank account balances and academic examinations – some with great results and others not-so-much. In every situation, the waiting-in-the-dark is by far the hardest part.
Once there is an answer – good or bad – at least I can begin to deal with it. But darkness? No response? Endless waiting? Unguaranteed outcomes?
This does me in.
I rant to myself or those close enough to me who won’t think worse of me for it. I lose myself online, wasting hours with mind-numbing and meaningless activity. I’m not much of a cryer, but sometimes, when the darkness has threatened to consume everything, the tears have slipped down my cheeks in quiet angst. Other times, in uncharacteristic anger, I have beat my fists on a steering wheel, protected by the privacy of my car, pleading with God to catch some faint glimmer of hope.
There’s plenty of light – both figuratively and literally – where I live now. The sun shines almost 300 days a year, and blue skies are the norm. Life these days offers a buffer that allows me to step back for the moment and ponder the darker days I’ve walked.
What were those years for? I’ve often wondered, or as it sometimes comes out, What-the-hell were you thinking, God?
The answers come slowly – I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand every dark path I’ve walked. But as my soul rests in the light of these days, one of the truths I consistently see about the dark days is how closely God walks alongside those who don’t know where they are.
I couldn’t see it at the time, but with space to look back, what I remember most vividly are the times when God heard. At the time, of course, it felt like thin air to me, but hindsight paints a different picture:
My shouts ofwhere ARE You?fell onto the pages of Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and the Psalms in good company with a whole variety of other hopeless followers.
My fears of what happens if it all falls apart?unraveled in the safety and faithfulness of loved ones who knew listening hearts and open arms were as valuable as answered questions and systematically constructed theologies.
My questions of will I make it?sunk deep and forced me to grapple with where my strength and hope really lay.
My whispers of are You good?echoed beneath every denouncement of pain-in-the-world that I didn’t understand.
It was not the ‘unshakable faith’ I’d learned as a young believer. This faith-in-the-dark was one that shook to the core. It was, however, surprisingly stronger. Like so many cantankerous souls in the Bible, it left me unafraid to bring my questions to God – both faith-filled and faithless. It blew my faith open wide to allow the possibility for answers to be beyond myself and my control. Ultimately, it brought me to my knees in surrender of all that I held dear – even my own faith.
The lessons aren’t over, I’m sure. The dark days will most certainly come again. While I can’t quite say that I welcome them, neither can I deny the ways they have shaped me. My world would be a very different place without the darkness of the days I’ve known. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, they’ve taught me some invaluable lessons that I carry with me through these brighter days:
Lament. As a young believer, I learned a lot about the value of joy. To my understanding, followers of Christ were happy, well-adjusted, and optimistic. But when those values seemed unreachable, I found all sorts of other stories in the Bible about people who followed God fiercely and yet also raged, lost perspective, and doubted. As they lamented the brokenness within and around them, it changed who they were, how they saw the world and interacted with the people in it. Lamenting created an insatiable thirst for the restoration of the broken, and it often compelled them to pursue healing for the very sorrows they lamented.
Connect. Because modern society is increasingly fragmented and isolated, connecting in meaningful ways with others will be a pivotal component of how we develop in healthy ways. While it’s certainly true that it’s hardest to find another person in the dark, it’s equally true that when we do, we feel much less alone. Sitting in a corner waiting for someone to find us doesn’t work nearly as well as shouting out, “Is anyone out there?” and listening for a response. Sometimes, all we need is to know we’re not alone and the burden instantly becomes more bearable. Even in the darkest moments, being able to share vulnerably in a safe space can create lasting and permanent change within.
Hope. I must admit that in dark days, hope is one of the last things on my mind. And yet hindsight reminds me that it was the darkness of the days that compelled me most strongly toward hope. In my agnostic days, I often commented I didn’t pray at all. In retrospect, I see now that every breath I took was a prayer. I was notat all apathetic about my belief in God, (or in the term my rector Michael Swanson so brilliantly coined, an “apa-theist”), because it shook my soul to imagine that I was left to fend for myself on this chaotic mess of a planet. Even in my greatest moments of angst, my ultimate hope was for hope to actually be possible and not pointless.
If the light of my current days has taught me one thing, it’s that stars shine brightest in the darkest places. As much as I love living closer to a city, I will also admit that the dark and empty places I’ve lived have also offered far more beautiful glimpses of the stars precisely because they taught me how to lament, to connect in vulnerable ways to others, and to hope in spite of the brokenness. As the wounded parts heal, I feel a bit like one of those resilient little flowers pushing its way up through a crack in the concrete, a brief glimmer of beauty blossoming from what once felt so very empty and alone.
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.Romans 5:3-4
When my nieces were little, I once watched from the corner as scheming-older-sister tormented innocent-baby-sister when Mom wasn’t looking. Older-sister would lean hard on baby-sister’s back, bending her little body in two, forcing her forehead as close to the ground as she could get. Baby-sister fought back fiercely – I watched her little face turn red in silent effort to withstand her sister’s pressure – until her nose was barely an inch from the ground and she let out a shriek that made big-sister relent and quickly attempted to tell angry-mom that she hadn’t “do-ed anything” to make baby-sister cry.
I spent most of my twenties feeling a lot like baby-sister. They were a decade when I learned the harsh reality of theory-meeting-practice, and the times in life Paul refers to as ‘suffering’. There was a lot of fierce and silent enduring, being bent in half until I just couldn’t take it anymore and let out a shriek to the sky, hoping someone would come to my rescue.
As I approach my 40s, I’m starting to see the benefits that the fierce bending of my 20s forged. I remember reading Romans 3 as though it were a linear process with a definite end point – suffering formed endurance which created character which turned into hope. At the time, I estimated I was firmly rooted in the suffering stage. Over the course of a few years, I noticed that the ‘suffering’ seemed to be subsiding and life seemed to require more endurance.
Aha! I thought. I’ve moved to the next step. Suffering: check. Good thing I’m done with that. On to endurance!
Predictably, endurance showed up as a main act in my life. My early thirties brought stubborn toddlers, a husband entrenched in a PhD program, and an isolated life in the middle of a cornfield that was exactly the opposite of everything I had ever dreamt for myself. Every day required the drudge of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Endurance became my tried and true friend.
In spite of this drudging-reality, many pieces of life were rich and good. Though they threw temper tantrums and reeked havoc on my value of a good night’s sleep, I loved my toddlers in a way I had never loved before. Though my husband both worked and studied full time, he remained a faithful friend and loving father. Though I struggled to walk a different way in a world of sameness, slowly, I found my voice. Though the cornfields often felt silent and empty, my soul reaped the benefits of living in a world without much noise. While the suffering of my twenties had quieted, endurance sang its steady song.
As I walked alongside endurance, I learned some helpful life-skills like ignoring the Jones, practicing the spiritual disciplines, and living my own story faithfully. A square peg in a round hole, I found ample opportunity to practice both kindness toward others and compassion with myself. I didn’t always make it to either one of those goals, but I did get plenty of practice. Eventually, I completely gave up trying to fit in, pierced my nose and leaned hard on endurance to help me seek out the other tender-hearted souls who lived in the margins as well. Sometimes, I wondered if the enduring years would ever end.
To my great surprise, they did. I find myself now in a place where there’s space for someone-like-me. I have friends. My work is meaningful and life giving. I delight in my children and thoroughly enjoy my role as their mother. My husband and I sit on our front porch, drink coffee, and chat again like old friends while the kids ride their scooters down the street to the neighbor’s house. No one looks at us like we’re aliens anymore – we blend in just fine. Our community is growing, and daily life feels rich and meaningful and connected. I am happy – perhaps the happiest I’ve ever been in my adult life.
I’d be foolish, however, to somehow assume that happiness equates the-next-Romans-step of character. The happiness is merely a gift-for-the-day – one that I treasure mightily – but one that also has the potential of slipping through my fingers at any given moment. The gift-for-the-lifetime is the character that has been growing beneath it all through the suffering-and-enduring years.
I feel it sometimes, like when I walk down the street and breathe in the mountains, the palm trees and the blue skies, grateful for both the moment-at-hand and all the moments that have been and will be, suffering, enduring and all. I feel it when I want to throw an all-out-internal-temper-tantrum but instead pause and pray simply, Lord, have mercy – on me and all the other crazies out there. I feel it when the day doesn’t go my way and I retreat silently in the evening to rest and refocus rather than sulk and pout. I feel it when my hips round and my body ages and I know there is more to life than bikini worthy figures and wrinkle free faces. I feel it when the character growing slowly within starts to feel a whole lot like hope.
It’s not all perfect, but it’s changing one slow day at a time. I used to think life was a straight slant upward – once I learned one thing, it would be done for good and time to move onto the next. I now know it’s more like a spiral where we hit the same vertical points that tell the same stories time and again, but at different levels with new skills and deeper levels of maturity and faith. The gift of the Romans 5 spiral of suffer-endure-character-hope is that as it repeats itself in my life, each time carries a bit more faith, hope and love than the one before.
While ultimately my faith sits at the feet of Christ, the steps that got me there were ‘friends’ who took the time to sort out their faith on paper: Phil Yancey, Cornel West, Frederick Buechner, CS Lewis, Anne Lamott, NT Wright. My heart holds Annie Dillard in a special little corner though, for she was the one who broke the final straw of my resistance to faith.
In her essay The Book of Luke, Annie Dillard captured my reconversion perfectly. To this day, I cannot read it with dry eyes. She draws her observations on Luke to a close by describing how it ends with the disciples enthusiastically ‘praising and blessing God,’ moving the fledging church forward. A skeptic reading her words, I rejoiced at her unexpected critique of the developments that followed Christ’s crucifixion:
“What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians. There is no breather. The disciples turn into early Christians between one rushed verse and another. What a dismaying pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance.“
Internally, I cheered her on, “Yeah! Those Christians…crazy, arrogant, obsessed.” She continued her rant:
For who can believe in the Christians? They are, we know by hindsight, suddenly not at all peripheral. They set out immediately to take over the world, and they pretty much did it. They converted emperors, raised armies, lined their pockets with real money, and did evil things large and small, in century after century, including this one. They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them? They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester. Who could believe salvation is for these rogues? That God is for these rogues.
I’d now climbed right up on my own soapbox behind Annie, fully entrenched in my private choruses of “You go, girl!” She’d hit the nail on the head. These rogues – they were crazy. They converted unethically, didn’t think about anything critically, and threw their Bibles around carelessly defending their narrow-minded political causes.
But then – unexpectedly – she inserted the words
Unless, of course –
I paused my internal pep rally and furrowed my brow, feeling the winds shift slightly,
Unless Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture.
Tears brimmed. I was human, wasn’t I? I was not merely brain or body or achievement-after-achievement. Sometimes I stumbled and didn’t know how to get back up. Sometimes I failed to love those who I claimed I would give my life for. Sometimes I failed to love myself.
She wasn’t just talking about them; she was talking about me, too.The breeze shifted again and I read on:
Unless those colorful scamps and scalawags who populate Jesus’ parables were just as evil as we are, and evil in the same lazy, cowardly, and scheming ways. Unless those pure disicples themselves and those watercolor women – who so disconcertingly turned themselves into The Christians overnight – were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences. If they were just like us, then Christ’s words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge – and we are lost. There is no place to hide.
We are lost. There is no place to hide.
Those last words, they undid me permanently for they exposed the truth that every one of us tries to hide from our humanity with our adherence to traditions or non-traditions or skepticisms or fanaticisms. Plain and simple, we’re not all that different from one another when you strip us straight-down to our skivvies. Underneath the masks we don, we’re all just broken, bumbling, and beautiful creatures, a-little-found and a whole-lot-lost, sitting broken and bare at the feet of the One who made us, whether we know it or not.