I Invite Myself to My Own Dinner

Preemptive parenting is my strategy. I have a running schedule and clock in my mind at almost all times because either it’s how God made me, or I’m a catastrophizer. I dislike being late, being complained to, and being under pressure so much, I will put the 6-year-old down for a nap, I will start Operation Shoes and Socks 15 minutes before we actually need to leave, and I will pack back-up Goldfish, gum, diapers and wipes in the car because so often in Los Angeles, we are without access to food, other people and stores.

Preemptive work in relationships requires a lot more vigilance and gumption. While a Christian woman might be affirmed for being prepared with a kids travel game or for bringing snacks, she is not usually applauded for boundaries, saying no, or sharing her expectations for an event in advance. Those are typically assigned negative hues of guardedness, selfishness, being a control-freak, anal retentive or other suspect characterizations (I have heard…).  We are trained to defer, accommodate, submit, overlook, and serve. While at times these actions can be great strengths and hold within themselves a powerful freedom and love when chosen, they can also enable the entitlement of other people to the diminishment of our own personhood. We are not destined to become smaller; it is not our job to disappear. 

Going into the weekend, my spouse and I often have expectations for the precious 48 hours. They are generally competing.  Going into the holidays, we may all be facing the same dilemma, only with the added help of multiple-day road trips, long-distance family suddenly sleeping in the next room, candied children, and, if we’re lucky, bacterial infections. Nothing says joy and peace like spilled juice in the car, sliding around snowy passes next to semis, mysterious and constant appearances of glitter and snot, and off-colored jokes from the uncles, ammiright?

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I’m just here to say, if you can pack a diaper bag in your sleep, or have thus far managed to feed, clothe, and bandaid actual living people, including your self, you are allowed to say “no,” or “I want,” or “we will.” Merry Christmas. The safety and intimacy of our relationships relies upon our exercising agency and boundaries. Particularly for those of us who struggle with anxiety, depression or addiction.

It’s not about controlling others or being rigidly closed off. It’s about self-awareness and working from the best part of your self and not the worst, or fastest, or most sensitive. Preemptively making a plan to cut off chaos at the pass.

This may look like extending a request along with an invitation: would you be willing to not discuss ______, or isolate anyone in conversation regarding that topic? (And if this does happen, my family and I will be taking a walk.) It may mean saying ahead of time that you will be leaving by 9, when things really get boozy. It may look like staying at a hotel instead of your childhood bedroom, with the nephews and the giftwrap. It may mean scheduling alone time, and letting your host know you won’t be around Friday afternoon. It may mean using paper plates no matter what your mom thinks.

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What are your expectations for the rest of this year, which, for the most part, has been really challenging? What concerns do you have going into group gatherings and which of them are valid, addressable, and likely shared (ie: managing uncle bob’s anger, not addressable; making a plan for when it is triggered, absolutely)? What would it mean to experience the holidays with freedom and presence rather than anxiety and reactions? (“While we love traditions, we won’t be squeezing in the movie this year between presents and dinner; we’ll see you when you get back!”) What preparation and communication would help these times be building rather than destructive? Who are the safe people who can help you stick with the plan?

I encourage you in your preemptive policies. I cheer you on as you exercise agency, take your heart and brain seriously, and invite others to do the same. It will be a gift to the people ready for better relationships; it will be a model for our sons and daughters.

When I think about it, my relationships and the way I enter 2018 are at least as important as how many snacks I’ve packed. It’s time to get planning.

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My Brother and Me

It is an angry time and anger is my signature vice, according to the enneagram, and, maybe everyone, so I’m kind of in Anger TAG. Nbd.

I’m finding it is not an opportune time to be a Christian, a proponent of power/class/race reconciliation and civil discourse, and an outspoken woman because, aside from the obvious perils, there are many opportunities to just fall flat on my face in a puddle of hypocrisy and/or feel like I’m dying trying every. single. day. And I am likely judging people as I go down, disappointed, but I’m on the top of my own list. It’s not opportune because it’s excessively challenging, but maybe easy was never the point.

It’s not an opportune time to preach grace when there are so many landmines, mistakes, envelopes pushed and lines in the sand. I’m praying that in the midst of all this reckoning, we will regain our souls, our North, and forge a new identity as Christ followers. It hurts, like tearing off a bandage of superglue, but necessary for healing.

But in the meantime, we are human, and he is wrong, and I am hurt, and many of us are all doing it as openly as possible because we care and push has come to shove.

My brother and I have one of the most infamous and observably difficult familial relationships on Facebook that I know of. We have had periods where we decide it’s best to not be connected on that medium, present included. We have had other seasons where we respect one another’s corners and pay each other no mind…but there is a tipping point and undoubtedly we strike up a “conversation” for all to eavesdrop and weigh in on. We do this knowingly. Our dear parents try to busy themselves elsewhere, like kids do when the parents fight. Our conflict-avoidant family members grimace. Our younger siblings, who often have stakes, watch quietly. Our respective fan clubs help. It’s all very beautiful and sagely and calm, in the way mud wrestling or Black Friday doorbuster shoppers really just uplift the senses.

I have a point.

My brother and I have a tremendous amount in common. What we lack in shared DNA, we make up for in common experiences such as being adopted from South Korea as babies, living in Montana and Oregon, and then moving as pre-adolescents to equatorial Nairobi. After some international travel and a revival of sorts in our parents’ faith, we found ourselves in the low-key church public eye as missionary kids. We went to every sort of school, and ended up attending an international Christian school in Kenya, he for 7 years, me for 4. We were joined by three significantly younger siblings there, and watched the news of 9/11 from BBC reports and Kenyan news in a not entirely sympathetic student body. We’ve walked the sewered paths in urban slums; we’ve ridden through the savannah on roof racks, facing a herd of elephants. We’ve also both had the unique experience of moving back to the west coast of the US, attending private colleges and re-connecting with extended family, sending churches, and one another, while our parents and younger sibling remained overseas. Growing up we couldn’t agree on how to fold a shirt, or what should be packed to Kenya or where to go out for dinner, but no one has charted the same path we have traveled but for one another. And that has been a good gift and a wonder as we consider our unconventional stories thus far. It’s good capital to have in the bank as we navigate relating in our present political tumult.

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As adults, our experiences have diverged. He’s rural, I’m urban; he’s Air Force, I’m non-profit. He’s Wyoming, I’m California. We have spouses, kids, bills, wrinkles, and Facebook now. And we’re still growing up.

After a week of recent conflict, which first occurred on Facebook (as we do) and then behind the scenes through texting, my brother called me–aggressively. Like actually wanting to speak aloud. The typing interactions were not ugly but they weren’t exactly congenial. I had called (and by called, I mean I stated via text) for another Facebook break up, and he apparently doesn’t try to avoid the phone as a talking device like I do. I groaned as I answered.

He pursued. We talked and had a productive conversation. He understood more. I understood more. Fists were not raised. There were no one-twos or referees. There was a brother and a sister, who online, and in many other regards (for example, folding a shirt like a nincompoop or not), are opposites. In practice though, we both care an awful lot. I remembered his caring, loyal self. His investment and sympathy towards his community; his sacrificial work for a few, who’ve had a rough go. His reactions are mirroring my own undying commitment to a few, who’ve had a rough go. I told him I didn’t like his sources. He told me he doesn’t see the problems I do. We talked about Christmas.

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It reminded me of a recent Bible study I was a part of. The Sheep and Goats parable was discussed and one person had a different understanding of the passage than I have carried; the feeding, the visiting, the inviting, wasn’t as much a social and determining instructive to this man’s understanding as much as a natural fall out of being sheep already, and first and foremost the movement was towards those in the flock, the “brothers” of the ESV. This person is learned and wise, and while I differ from his interpretation, I let the tension be. I know the habits of this man. He is loving, sacrificial, and spends extra time in prisons, with the least of these, opening his door to the poor in spirit. Truly, naturally, he is practicing in the way of the sheep of this parable, of those who the Lord recognizes as His. By word, I may feel more comfortable with twenty other Christians’ read but their actions may show nothing. I’d prefer the first arrangement.

Like him, my brother’s life, in practice, is not opposite in character than my own. We have seemingly opposing environments, lifestyles, and definitely opposing media images but I am comforted by his love for others. For all that is behind the scenes, for all the similar that no sharing of articles can confirm nor deny. And not because he’s more like me than I thought, but simply because he’s striving to be loving to his people, including me. And in doing so, he helped me develop better empathy and understanding. And gave me the opportunity to do the same. Cheyenne to Los Angeles. Seoul to Nairobi. Who knows what the future holds.

The truth is tangled. Our anger gets misrouted. People are usually much different than in the 2-dimensional spaces we observe them, and this is generally a good thing. Our relationships are really at risk. I wanted to share these stories with you because I can talk in broad strokes about faith, and loving others. I can champion the underdog in my way, promote civil discourse, and preach giving the mic to those with less power… but I’m in the trenches of this too. If I lose the ability to relate with people closest to me in the midst of activism, I have missed the mark.

In case it wasn’t clear: I mess up all the time. I’m still writing midway. I’m making mistakes, I need grace, and I am learning and falling, and learning too. Despite all the errors of the past couple weeks, heck hours, there are good things about push coming to shove. Anger and discourse are necessary for there are a lot of things to be vigilant about if our faith matters a bit. In the midst of the fight, pushing in, like my brother did, is better than writing off. Pushing in will help us get there, without losing each other.

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(This was posted with my brother’s blessing.)

My Unbecoming

Women are unbecoming.

They are unbecoming the silenced one, the interrupt-able, the indirect object, the first apologizer, and the compromised.

This is not a scary thing if we believe that success and shalom for women are not inherently threatening to the success and shalom for men. And other women. And everyone. What if we did not assess humans competitively?

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I am only 33 but I am unbecoming. I’m unbecoming my childhood shame and guilt that made me nearly perfect, as I examine and re-examine the unkind behaviors of my child. I’m telling her she’ll be okay as we take the time to look at his heart, behind the cutting words and punishable arrows. Behind the performance and the pains.

I am unbecoming the self-righteous sensitivity that, like a clam shell, seemed to protect me, but then, turned out to isolate me instead. No pearl was forming, only imagined; all orthodoxy, no generosity. Like Beth Moore recently said, liking fewer people and calling it sanctification. No clarity maintained, eyes closed. In my fear of worldliness, I blocked human goodness; in my disdain for darkness, I blocked the light. I am unbecoming the closing.

I am unbecoming the reluctancy to say I was wronged, or hurt, or impacted. I am unbecoming a stoicism that the clam took well to and the patriarchy approved. I am undoing the dishonesty that other people’s comfort demanded; I am recovering from my own learned deafness to my needs, hurt, and worth. I am unlearning the lie that looking at something gives it infallible power.

I’m only 33 so I have only started to see the things God’s inviting me to unbecome. The undoing is not as a sweater unraveled, a heap of chaos and wonky, but as a first shoot from a bulb, headed up, having a taste for light. A mystery, a toil, to be sure, but a gift in this gift of time. Unbecoming into who I am better being.

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Also there is becoming. Women are also becoming. Definers. Decision-makers. Comfortable. Singular. Pervasive. Connected.

It can be hard to not trap the becoming, the new, in the unbecoming, or the old. It is hard to keep the two separate and moving, like siblings. For me, this includes the wildernesses of domesticity and being a woman in 2017 specifically. The ways to help, the gaps in our society, the cultural shifts, the breaking down of Christianity in our context, the new science, the recent poll. The conversations and opportunities that meet me each day, new pages, fresh print–not to be jammed in an old drawer and defined by an old construct.

It requires courage to not automatically reach for the old drawer, the last language. The becoming lessons are new to stay new–to start brand new hope, conviction, and relationship. Framing them in the past makes the lessons fade and compromises the work of unbecoming. We are brave when we look with curiosity. The situations my children face, that children before have never faced. Failures and successes that need to stand on their own two feet. The becoming is daunting in its own way because we don’t have the syllabus and the deadlines are moving; constantly, we are asked by this life to show movement, memory, and change–in this becoming, we are never finished.

Shalom, if we can dare speak of shalom within the world of only one person, is the overlap. When the lanes of the unbecoming and becoming merge. When the past isn’t too heavy but its substance is polished, and when the new isn’t hype or cheap but tailored…I suspect those moments when our gut, and mind, and lungs, and prayer, and worth are full, those are the times of most truth.

I pray for this work of unbecoming and becoming, a dotted line between the two in their youth. Traveling companions, but different journeys, each needing to stay in their lane for the most part. I pray for divine differentiation for healthy attachment; that the becoming would not have the lid of unbecoming, and that unbecoming would not go unnoticed in the fervor of becoming, and that both would help us be true, and full, and sources of shalom. I pray we would have people in our lives helping with each, pulling us to do whichever one comes least naturally, applauding the overlap, cheering for shalom.

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May you find the dotted line to occupy both spaces.

Undo, and new, ever human, going deep.

Unlearn, and discover, safer still, you and me.

 

 

Maybe Happens

One thing that I have not shared much about is a very good and important thing that happened over the summer. Last summer had some real downers but those don’t subtract from our joy, and rejoicing, over a new victory.
Our second born had a rough time for a few years. A major accident at our church, febrile seizures, and getting very sick in Guatemala. When we returned home and began fostering, he embraced her fully as a toddler would, and his febrile seizures continued but thankfully he was not often running a fever. 9 months after her arrival, in the aftershocks of her sudden removal, some of his first sentences were heart wrenching. While we were fighting that battle, Asher began having many more seizures. Maybe stress and the emotional trauma of losing a baby like that did something, maybe it’s just coincidence. It was a very hard period. These were not just febrile seizures like they had thought and the medical bills started piling up.
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There are many things we don’t know about epilepsy, and that doctors and scientists don’t know. It is a scary diagnosis. Asher began treatment, and despite changing jobs and insurance twice, and becoming part of medical, was able to see the same pediatric neurologist his whole life. Because of the Affordable Care Act, we were able to have continuation of care and not be penalized for his epilepsy. I tried going to the first neurologist we were referred to on one of our new plans at the time. It was a truly terrible experience and I could not imagine working with them to sort out appointments, let alone solutions, as we found ourselves on this path.
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The first medication didn’t slow down the seizures. We gave it a good run but we saw the negative side effects and didn’t notice much relief. It was hard because he couldn’t tell us how it made him feel, and if he sensed anything different before or after his episodes. We slowly began a different medication–one which introducing too quickly to patients could end in fatality. Doctors said after more testing and overnights that they didn’t think he would outgrow epilepsy. I briefed babysitters and teachers and sunday school. I tried not to think about IEPs one day, or driving, or camp, or anything restricted on this bright eyed wonder.
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He did well on the new medication and we could breathe once we reached a therapeutic dose with no rash outbreak. We were still dealing with collections, payments, and billing reductions but we were not documenting seizures. Eventually the grip on the phone when separated loosened. The spans of playing out of eyesight lengthened. The months between UCLA neurology visits and that $14 parking garage grew. He was pro at taking his pills. We were pro at fighting, I mean working, with the local pharmacy to help them keep their inventory up and refills regular.
As Asher’s Kindergarten graduation plans were taking shape, and no ambulance was ever called, we had another checkup. It was a slow breakthrough. With epilepsy they call seizures emerging under medication “breakthrough,” which is the opposite of any headway a parent wants to make. I was shocked to hear of a real breakthrough: the dr thought we could try titrating down, off the medication, to test the epilepsy. Maybe he was outgrowing it. Maybe it was different than they had thought. It had been over a year. No delays. No jumps in dosage. Maybe the prayers, the hopes, barely spoken aloud for fear it would ruin our ability to walk the prescribed, long road ahead, were coming true.
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On my birthday, Asher took his last, now tiny dose of epilepsy medication. And there have been no breakthrough seizures during the months of transitioning off. His moods and energy seem to have panned out, from however the drugs affected his system, combined with the excited exhaustion of starting 1st grade. We don’t wonder if something is seizure, drug, or age/misbehavior/mood related now. It’s just C, a 5-year-old boy, learning. We are thrilled at his progress and health, for him, for us, and for the pharmacy on the corner. I don’t know when we can say he does not have epilepsy, when it will be far enough away that a glazed look doesn’t cause my 2nd take, but each day is closer to then.
To be sure, it has been a rough year on almost all accounts. Homes, literal and figurative, are burning down all around us. But this is quite the foil. We are so proud of this boy and his love and tenacity and incredibly excited that this is yet another new normal. This victory, this praise, deserves our tears, applause, and thanksgiving and I’m so glad to be able to share this today, in the midst of all the todayness that weighs heavy. We’ve learned so many lessons by his side. From the waiting, to the hurting, to the forgiving and the grieving, to the advocacy, to the pain of children’s hospitals, in which so many have stayed for far more time. We’ve learned to take things by the day, that anesthesiologists have their own groups, and nothing is for granted. We’ve seen how limited we are as parents, and how scary pre-existing conditions and medical bills can really, really be. And we’ve been encouraged to keep places of hope in our lives that defy reason, that may be hibernating, for an unexpected spring. Who knows, maybe your birthday is coming. Maybe the breakthrough is slow. Maybe because this maybe came true.
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Her Permission

I am a feminist deeply concerned about the liberation of men.

Just as in the case of equality for my black brothers and sisters being interrelated to my own thriving and wholeness, I recognize as a deeply feeling and mothering woman that there are certain spaces I occupy which the more powerful gender does not get to inhabit. And that is to all of our detriment.

It is not easy for women to admit wrongdoing, to about face, to express emotions particularly negative ones, or to differ to others, partially because we have been forced into silence and submission too many times, they have been used to disqualify us, and we are constantly aware of our vulnerabilities physically and vocationally. At the same time, our wired-ness for connection, our internal responsiveness to vulnerability, and our reciprocal permission for emotionality amongst ourselves all work to undo and unlearn the walls. The pride. The scariness. We, amongst ourselves mostly, have created a different economy that rewards, or at least respects, wholeness and authenticity. 

For men I see a different landscape. I can count on one hand the number of men I’ve known in authority positions who have openly admitted to wrongdoing and sought help, humbly led and sidestepped accolades, and expressed and esteemed emotions appropriately. And I have been in more than my fair share of places with men in authority roles. I can count on one hand the number of lay men I know make public apologies or change their minds about a position, a conclusion, and a line in the sand. And there have been a lot of things to change our minds about.

These observations lead me to wonder how many walls do men have to scale to get from the unhealthy, the codependency, the pride, the shame and insecurities we all build homes in, to the wide places of vulnerability, process and connection? It is more than I have to scale. How is the journey different for my male counterparts, for my husband, for my father, and how can I contribute to mapping it for my sons? 

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There are different pressures on different cultures and socioeconomic landscapes, and so the risks for men vary. The positive reinforcements for rigidity, authoritarianism, stoic demeanors, and self-reliance fluctuate. But I’d like to learn more despite the complexities.

As a woman and as a leader, I hope to do whatever I can to allow for men to admit their mistakes, change their minds, and be fully present to their emotions. I would like to help them do this because I know from experience that it is in acknowledging the misunderstanding, the inadequacies, the feelings, that we assert our identities over them. We differentiate from the shame and arrogance; we look fully in the mirror. I can’t help but think that women lead this revolution; we lead this integrity. We know the unlearning. We contribute to the paralysis or tip the scales of new permission.

Do I keep space open for Ryan to emote? Do I allow men who have wronged me the real opportunity to apologize and change? Do I encourage my sons to name failures and mistakes without becoming anxious or rushing it away with reassurances or successes, inadvertently suggesting that the failures or mistakes are too powerful and scary?

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Integrity means all mixed in, combined, and through and through the same. Integrated. I picture bread, leavened, beat up, but rested and rising. Men of integrity are not so much marked by being the same as they were 20 years ago in doctrines, family role, finances, and job security. Men of integrity are fully in touch with how 20 years has changed them, how that brokenness meant this mistake and that mistake meant this need and that need mean this community. In our culture, we’ve exchanged an idea of men of integrity for men of stability, a first cousin of rigidity. But we were created for change and growth. No wonder men especially are lonely and self-protective. No wonder our society is so deconstructed. No wonder our parties are polarized. No wonder lobbyists rule. No wonder the church is nearly irrelevant. No wonder we are hurting.

There is no shalom without the whole band involved. Without liberation on all fronts, under all shadows, behind all doors. Shalom, wholeness, centeredness–that is what Jesus announced. And yet His bride more often than not is ruled by bottlenecked power, decisions made by money because no one has time for another rubric, and control. The gender that holds the power can still be empowered by the gender that does not, slowly and barely, because despite all the mess and disparities, our familiarity and comfort with vulnerability as women is the key to the wholeness of men. As Christians, as leaders, as feminists, as women, we promote integrity and shalom in this brutal world through including men in these conversations. We must recognize our role to play in redefining masculinity.

Did you know your strength is in your brokenness? Did you know there is power in the stepping aside? Do you know the past you’re avoiding predetermines the future until you feel it? Did you know I have the same problem?

Brother, be free. Sister, make the way. Spirit, lead us.

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I Failed to Achieve Citizenship

I find that people like to talk about adoption. Especially when I am open about my own. Whatever culture, class, and countryman I find myself interacting with, there is a natural curiosity, sympathy, and sometimes endearing confusion about adoption.

People are sympathetic to adoption, to put it mildly. Churches have adoption campaigns, so much so that children in need of homes are miscalled “orphans” to really pull the heartstrings. People donate to adoptions. We ourselves are still struggling to adopt, now over 3 years since our first placement was pulled and we’ve fought for another, and almost 5 years since we first started the process. We really believe in adoption–from the top notch celebrity to the Christian icon to the farm with no TV, adoption is pretty popular, and for good reason.

The growth in awareness and advocacy is great, don’t get me wrong. Fewer things in this life demonstrate our theology and our connectedness moreso than adoption. At the same time, I find it interesting that the innocence of children, and the presumed virtue of the adoptive parents, are almost always givens. The positive perception is pretty resilient in this arena.

What about when the adoptive parents are really evil and negligent? What about the mistakes biological family make to get those kids there? What about the dead ends that led children to be in a terrible, expensive and inefficient system—I mean, is it really worth it? What about the adoptees that turn against their parents, develop mental health problems, commit felonies? Are they still worth the campaign? Still deserve a loving home, social belonging, their pieced-together childhood, their citizenship?

Citizenship. Adoption is one process that takes forever, has a million variances, and does not bring guarantees. Children are at the mercy of a system and their caregivers, whether they be social workers, adoptive parents, biological family, or judges. Kind of like all children. Everywhere. Kind of like Dreamers.

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I’m adopted from Korea. I landed in MONTANA, a state which only recently crossed the 1 million population mark, a day short of being 6 months old. I have to say, I didn’t have many choices at that point. And I was pretty helpless. There are a lot of adoptees from Korea. Turns out the citizenship of at least 18,000 supposedly adopted Korean kids in the US is kind of fuzzy. Maybe a felony, maybe a mental break, would land these adoptees back in Seoul. At that point, they may learn that they are actually not adopted, but were supposed to have been, and not a US citizen. They have no language, documentation there, means, or family. Their education is irrelevant. Well, that doesn’t seem right. Because their parents didn’t finish some paperwork? Because something got lost? Because outstanding needs, disadvantages, neglect, desperation, limited resources, and lack of basic necessities…who knows what…from their childhood, they are deported?

If I started being a real deviant or simply did anything that suddenly revealed that my citizenship was not completed as a child, I would really expect you all to be upset if I was deported to my birth country. And I think you likely would be.

I don’t fully grasp the tenacity it takes to enter our country in violation of the shitty legal process, saying goodbye to everyone and everything KNOWN for MAYBE. I’m not even going there tonight. I’m speechless at the idea of doing that with child. I’m saying, why are we so willing to adopt and sympathize with some kids with messy or unknown pasts, but not others. Or why can we sympathize with even the adults who were “adopted” and then screwed up and find themselves deported to what might as well be Timbuktu, but we have a political stance and unbending heart against people who are similarly undocumented but un-similarly innocent of any felonies?

We, our country, have adopted DREAMers. On average DACA recipients arrived as 6-year-olds. They have raised their hands in our classrooms, sung in our Christmas pageants, babysat our children, carried our groceries, designed our products, paid their taxes, lectured at universities and have done everything our “own” children have done (unless your child has committed a felony), without, by the way, access to many safety nets citizens enjoy. Not that it matters, but they’re not deviants. They don’t deserve threats, a price tag, deportation or even DACA. They deserve so much more. They deserve permanence, not only of family but country. Kind of like your son, and your daughter. Kind of like me, and kind of like you.

I hesitate to even call them Dreamers sometimes because it is a false distinction. They are we, and there is no dream among us in this beautiful, complicated country without them.

Finish the paperwork, America. Don’t end DACA. Leave it until it’s replaced with a pathway to citizenship. Adoption doesn’t come in two-year increments and isn’t subject to a presidential vendetta. I recognize I didn’t have anything to do with my privilege of citizenship. Did you?

 

*custom art ordered from doodlebubbledesigns.

The good, the bad and the ugly.

Sometimes suffering comes crashing upon our personal lives despite our best maneuvers—perhaps a tragic accident or diagnosis, a betrayal or crime. But sometimes suffering touches us in the embrace of a friendship—through walking with a loved one who finds themselves in the throes of struggle.

It was natural to say yes when my neighbor asked me to read over some letters she had received. Though her English is excellent, the official documents were laden with terms difficult for me to decipher as a fluent speaker. This small invitation into Lily’s* life was the beginning of a long initiation process. I was soon researching the housing department and learning with her how to stand up against illegal hikes in rent. It is under her tutelage that I have learned about renter’s rights, power company corruption, the complexity of gaining citizenship, a vehicle towing racquet in cahoots with LAPD, and the impact of incarceration on our community. She is not a local politician or a professor of community development, urban culture, or theodicy, but perhaps she should be. Lily has taught me more than any textbook or class. And she has done so through allowing me to be her friend.

Lily has a small stature but immense presence. In her person, faith and bewilderment, celebration and grief, are fast companions. She has shown me how to walk with God in suffering, and she has generously opened a world to her friends through that posture. Lily’s life has included waves of undeserved suffering, the other not subsided before the next hits; interacting with suffering is not optional. With each wave, her authentic friendship with God has moved her theology further from steady explanations and resolutions to suffering, and my own with it. What I have lost in certainty, I’ve gained in empathy. Nerves newly exposed. As a witness and companion to Lily, I have felt the discomfort of losing touch with that worldview and the reassuring, privileged sense of order and justice in the world I once held. I have also felt the companionship suffering breeds. When we have gone through dark valleys, she is one of the first to listen. To cook. To cry. And I am bowled over all over again at the way love and friendship multiply themselves.

As aware as I have become of my privilege from trying to keep up with spiritual giants such as Lily, I continue to have impressive blindspots. I speak out of new knowledge and experiences too often, instead of letting them settle, and staying humble and contrite. I struggle to apply the things I’ve learned at Lily’s side to the little souls under my care.

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As a mother, I am daily challenged by the desire to nuance judgments and descriptions that seem inescapable in our binary climate. But parenting doesn’t wait for preparedness. I cringed when I first heard my oldest talk about bad guys, many years ago. It’s hard for me when they play cops and robbers. I pray, “God, please help relieve my heart from things I cannot carry, feelings you’re not asking me to feel. Grow in my children a sensitivity that is loving. Help me know…what is good to teach them.” 

How do you help a child, so honored in Scripture for their simplistic faith, refrain from oversimplifying people into good and bad? How do you decide what is innocent play and what needs to be reframed–in the name of loving playmates who have been terrorized by, guilty of, or in the middle of cops and robbers? How do I help this mess of boyhood mine to embrace suffering, to endure loss, as an invitation…when I barely remember myself? To have more time between hearing about something and knowing why it happened. How do I show them misfortune is so often the ultimate bridge between people, not a charge against them?

When things go sideways, from a toy breaking to a sickness, I watch their minds and hearts try to make sense. To sum up whys and dive into despair or push away with blame. I see the nature of Job’s friends in the Bible, of my own craving for judicial order and linear effects. This is a big job–to fight the goliath of distance from suffering as an adult, and also try to be alert to it as a parent. This is a calling.

Walking alongside Lily was initially a choice, indicating my privilege. But now I consider it a luxury in its own right. She’s shown me more of Jesus, and because I’m learning, just by being nearby, I have hope for my kids. That their privilege, their resources, and their choices will not keep them away from truth and complexity. I hope they have to unlearn less than me, and that extending friendship to suffering will be second nature.

We are all learning beside each other, in this big city, on this little street. Suffering lives nearby. But friendship and love are growing like weeds, thriving in its shadow. A child, with children, I’m lucky and humbled to reside right here.

Start Small

It has been a summer, and it is barely even summer.

I cannot talk about all that has happened here, but I have felt the wrongful use of power from within the ekklesia–the adopted family of faith, the light-holders, the called. This is a special grief.

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When I was young, my family experienced a profound betrayal. At the heart-wrenching news of a sibling’s diagnosis, the inherited virus that struck fear in the hearts of the most educated and powerful at the time, a church responded as though they were not heirs to a different Kingdom, as though their inheritance did not set them apart to love and courage.

New to the mission field and missionary kid identity, a hemisphere away from the congregation, my heart was still in those stateside walls. I had grown up there. I had stenciled its bathrooms. I had flipped those worship song overheads. And my faith and discipleship had flourished within that loving community. I didn’t have many friends in Kenya yet. We were sent but had not completely left perhaps. On the ground, but maybe a little in the air.

When as a family we were in the throws of the grief of the surprise diagnosis, I was incredibly unsuspecting that loved ones could respond in any way except empathy, sadness, and love. I didn’t know the word stigma yet, and I wasn’t versed in the rationale behind HIPAA. So when that home church board, which had shown Jesus to me in so many ways, rejected my sibling, and questioned our new livelihood and partnership, I grappled. The silence of others was an injurious as the words blasted out. (My parents tried to shield me from much of this, but they also taught me how to use e-mail and read, so…) Grief upon grief. One parent eventually flew back to the States in an effort to find reconciliation, with the help of a mediator. I remember the other parent crying in their bedroom, when the water tank decided to leak through the roof, alone in a foreign country with 5 kids, spotty electricity and that hovering sense of abandonment. Water pouring down the walls, and my own sense of belonging and home pouring out with it. It was disorienting, and though we did not speak of it much or share about it then, it was defining.

That experience forced my faith to differentiate from a place, or an outcome. And it showed me that the most mature, the most devoted, by word, may be the youngest in deed. Everyone has work to do. And fear is a convincing hurricane pulling up the tallest trees.

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A few months ago, I was working with some colleagues to address some sensitive and serious matters. I heard the words “stay small,” during one time of prayer. As an advocate, a first-born, a leader, and achiever, we can all be confident that these words did not come from my head. The words helped me with patience, and to work within the given system, to wait behind leaders, and watch. And the words help me today as I am forced to continue waiting and watching from this place of betrayal and grief, as I see false narratives and am left alone to check my own attitude and actions in this Church.

I find comfort in the smallness, the humility, of the passion of Christ. The disorder he endured and the abandonment central to our Good News disarms my expectations while hosting my pain. I compare alluring human success, the touting of statistics, name recognition and acquisition of comfort, with his rhythm of ministry, his walk of suffering, and I don’t see much connection. I know from his life that collecting successes and platforms was not the aim; the power and the transformation he preached was in the visit to the prisoner, quiet and inconvenient, the feeding of the individual, unknown and undocumented. His stories are small, like the vulnerability of confronting and empowering a woman, in the heat of the day, at a pivotal moment. His record was one of investment into real relationships. Proximity to the pain was central. His acquisition of status did not overlap a hair with this world’s. His smallness and humility was our very victory and salvation.

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I can no sooner slow the growth of my children as I can solve my current problem or convince people to do the right, small thing. So I am left to start small, to stay small, with my self. Am I one that employs language of reconciliation and love but do not meet at the table with the complicated friend? Do I outwardly suggest all means of generosity and inclusion, but side step relationships when they smack of sacrifice? Do I stay at his feet, do I quiet the demons, enough to be draw near to the God of the margins, the Lord of kings? Do I build equity and justice in the small ways, in the daily steps?

There is enough work to do in me to keep me thinking small and to extend far beyond the puffing chest or the raised fist. Giving helps the grief, and blessing out of brokenness is the only way to heal. So far Life keeps reminding me that it is in the pouring out and the breaking, the kneeling and washing that we meet, we share in, and enjoy, the holy. We echo him, and we find him, and that is all we ever could hope to do.

 

Glory

It was fitting that I was cooking with a fair amount of bacon grease when the call came. Grandpa Pruitt, Bobby, had passed on to the next life. Suffering no more, he was gone. And like that, as my dad said, the oldest generation was departed, leaving behind deep roots and so many branches in this family of faith.

I remember as a little girl, wrapping presents with Grandpa in our guest room in a split level house in Oregon. They had come for Christmas again, and we were busy downstairs, just me and him, somewhere between the DOS computer and patchwork quilt. He used the scissors with a constant up and down motion, snipping each 4 inch segment of the wrapping paper at its appointed time. I showed him what I liked to do: hold those scissors at a steady angle and ZIIPPP, that new line was slightly curled in the wake of my linear efficiency. “Well, I’ll be,” he beamed, sputtering something about the thought of ME (who he commonly referred to as “ugly”) being able to teach HIM something. He wasn’t one for pretending so I believed that I had introduced this technique.

It’s hard to explain a man who called his young granddaughter ugly without once causing her to question how much he loved her and thought otherwise. He was the Zeke Braverman of the family, with less Berkeley and more suspenders. He got away with too many things, and was my first teacher in the well-meaning, if not downright inappropriate, insult. He wasn’t too proud to tear up when noticing the significance of a moment, or laugh that high, vacuum-sounding pleasure at his own mistake.

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Proverbs 13:20 Become wise by walking with the wise; hang out with fools and watch you life fall to pieces.

I give thanks for this man, this legend of the river and woods, of missions and letter writing, romance and brusque ways both. For the life he and Grandma built. Thank you, God, for the son they raised in my father. For this undying legacy my siblings and I are swept up in. Thank you that he is no longer lonesome, no longer limited. Be with us, the crowds of Pruitts and beyond, grieving this loss, the passed generation of scaffolding, stability and faith, which not one of us has ever lived without. Our ankle twists in the hole left behind the removed pillar. Our eyes squint at the absent shade. Their hands, their hearts, their foibles, all so big. All such a gift.

He found mansions of glory here, on this earth—in his garden and around the fire, on the water, in the kitchen and beside his bride. His eyes twinkled with endless delight at innumerable grandbabies, the piano, a pie, a bad joke, and always, always, at the sight of any of his six children. But now, the mansions of glory, and endless delight that do not end are his—the ones needing no repair, that do not age and move away. All his senses restored, reunited with Grandma, with his youngest daughter, with so many of his friends who went before him. I don’t think that Rush Limbaugh is turned on in every room up there, but who could hear it over Grandpa’s storytelling anyway. The hymns have taken over, the berries are ripe, the river glass.

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I love you Grandpa and miss you already. Thank you for loving this life, and us, so well.

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Staying

It is no small and unholy thing to stay.

I don’t know about you but I sow my wild oats in the wee hours of my soul’s nights. I rebel from my heart, not my body. In my deviance, I move through my own life as a visitor, a reluctant tourist, as though my connecting flight was delayed and I flirt with fantasies of departure. Mentally, emotionally. I wish to be impenetrable. I think that it, that my presence, makes no difference.

In the morning, when dawn starts and I feel the relief of new mercy, I relearn that becoming absent is not the answer, but rather full presence is the promise. Compartmentalizing is not often our strength as nurturers; integration is. On the other side of my leave, I resolve that one of the most powerful and transcendent things I can offer my own health, my Lord, and my family community, is the posture of staying. I pray for the faith that suggests that God is for me here, with my longings and fears. I believe that God is for them—the children, the friends, the others—here, so we can all stay and I can be present to whatever this holds.

Professional chaplains finesse the art of this ministry of presence. Their work relies on the theology that the Diety indwells the humane and in one another’s company, we draw nearer to God. Whether visiting a person in a coma, or incarcerated, a premature infant in NICU, or a chatty outpatient, the chaplain offers their presence to the pain, and enters the space having been honest with their own condition and capacity that day. Their effectiveness is not often measurable; it must be undergirded with a sound theology of Immanuel. So too is ours.

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We do not wear badges, nor chart our visits, but mothers and wives and women are full time practitioners of the ministry of presence, the discipline of staying, and it is a powerful cadence in the milieu of constant updates, upgrades and uprooting.

As missional women, the fire in our spirits and the thrust in our activism can lead us to a restlessness that bankrupts our confidence. Because the rubric of the empire, which American Christianity has often adopted, involves fame and fortune, statistics and stages, we itch. We measure our success on a faulty scale and despair, when all the while, our steadfast presence, our dwelling here and with, is the salve to our want, and the world’s searching. It is resistance and it is confounding. It is growing up and it is an anchor to the tossing.

Sharing reflections from the transformative community of Benedictine life, Joan Chittister speaks straight to me in the middle of my sticky linoleum: There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen, I must learn to wait through the winters of my life (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 151).

We know this irritation and this wait. And we also know, when by God’s grace we’ve approached Him with our misgivings, and sat with ourselves and each other, warding off both the guilt and the flight, that the ministry of presence is disarming in all the right ways. We know, for when we receive someone’s full attention or we feel the Lord’s pleasure after the full arc of a day alongside a child’s wonder, that the ministry of presence is healing. Renewing. Soothing.

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As a chaplain of communities such as the family, the church, the school, the neighborhood, the mother figure announces God’s goodness and steadfastness even as she relies on it herself. As a person vulnerable to other people, she demonstrates the invitation of the triune God. As a person rejecting the chains of perfection, consumerism, and control, she presents herself as an approachable companion to others. As she sits without judgment with an overwhelmed new mom, quietly occupies an overtired child in a hospital waiting room, or listens to a child’s unreasonable plans for a birthday for the tenth time, she suggests a Love and a Grace we only learn from one another. She resembles a weeping Savior, a cooking Messiah, present, stayed in the smallest and deepest of ways.

Even when it costs. Even when the night before she took a little trip through the weeds of want and the rushes of regret. She is present not because she does not have any other options or distractions or because it is easy; she is present because God is present to and in her, and this station is a conduit of the calling, not its culmination.

And so, my sisters, I see your choice to stay and I raise my glass. I applaud your outstanding grit to remain present over the years that you cannot speed nor slow, the surprise visits, the illnesses, the chores, that bleed into each other, that step on the heels of the next, and on the toes of your own securities. May the meaning of the moments neither pass us by nor overwhelm us to despair. We are here, together, injecting the daily with the divine. Thank you for staying.