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.)
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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.

 

 

God, Grief and Group Projects

There are times when it seems inconceivable to believe in a God and those are the same times I’ve found it impossible to breathe without faith. Each breath requires a prayer. Each prayer a resistance to turning stone cold.

The air tight apologetics I was raised in, that tried to make story irrelevant, emotions sap credibility, and choice an insult, are a vapor. It is only the story, only the feelings, only the choice to believe in these moments when we cannot get warm. And what good is faith if not for these moments? Where proofs and data were intended to bulwark (bully?) faith into being, the test of life, of exposure to suffering, of engagement with my internal world and the true external world–those pulled me into immersion in this faith river. Those were in fact the currents that keep me and hold me, when all else has failed, and me right along with.

I’ve been asking God, Parent and Creator, I Am that I Am, “Isn’t it too much?” The attacks, the weaponry, the assault, the epidemic of lies, on the airwaves and on my street–it just. never. stops. More so, isn’t it too much, what my friend has had to bear? And that friend, and this friend, and that family member, and that country, and that people? How, God–how are people supposed to pray, to give, when they are rampaged by suffering, betrayal or disappointment–by inconsolable grief to every cell of their being? How can you expect us to believe in You under the weight of this breaking?

Is there a way to find you God, to find Love, real, not through the threshold of pain?

Is there a way to edit Gethsemane and Golgotha and keep the empty grave?

Before I knew real pain and injustice, my sturdy and safe faith was clear and confident. It’s not to say lacking in value, nor deny it a piece of the puzzle, but it was as skinny as a pre-teen with an early growth spurt–all bones and corners and a little anemic.

It’s just not that straightforward anymore. And it’s also not such a lightweight.

In the moments of highest exposure, greatest pain, and deepest grief, we are naked before God. The garden story, to me, is not only about guilt and shame but perhaps more about grief and isolation. When tragedy falls hard, there is no where to hide and we want layers and holding and concealment. Oh to have the weight of something covering, of absorbing the racking sobs, of comforting the abandoned child within.

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Impossible is the new story, and the only way we make it into the next moment is thinking, hoping–believing?–that impossible is not the end of the story. Faith is setting our eyes outside of our raw chaos–daring to think that the people who we find next to us may be of some help–that the lineage we come from, the story we’ve been ingrafted into, will repeat. The story of suffering into love. Of grieving into wholeness.

I walk with tender and vulnerable people. I am a tender and vulnerable person. Not one person whom I really know is whole. I used to see people as whole; I used to expect people to have it together. To generally be doing well. I saw them as independently successful or overall autonomous. Now, the wholeness is only done in groups. When our broken pieces, our faith, and our love for each other melt into a whole, the sum greater than the parts–the impossible becoming possible, a minute at a time. When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, when the victory is relief lighting all pairs of eyes–this is wholeness as it was meant. This is shalom that will stay.

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And somehow, tomorrow happens in this way. Somehow the crying takes pauses. The shameful parts don’t seem so paralyzing. The death doesn’t define the life. The suffering breaks into love. And our resources are multiplied. Our generosity renews itself. Our faith is linked and sacred anew. It turns out we were made for this. It turns out everyone is doing better when we’ve all shown we’re doing a hell of a lot worse.

This will only make sense to you who have carried your stomachs in your throats for days, who also soak your steering wheel with the occasional cry fest. You’re not alone, you who audaciously prayed despite the circumstances that merit calcification of the heart. If you are searching for covering, if the cries are muffled, I hope you will ask for help. Reach and grab someone before the mask is clad, before the thoughts take over and spiral you into isolation. Include another soul into your hole-ness, and find yourself more whole than you thought. Let someone be more of who they were made to be by including them in your grief. Pray a breath prayer as a radical ellipsis into the future. Give something out of the bankruptcy and find your own anxiety and impossible a little farther away. Be undone and in turn done in by the connection and comfort of others, God incarnate.

I don’t know if God is known resiliently without deep acquaintance with suffering, but I know for us it’s been the best introduction. Regrettably, and redemptively, so.

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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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Feels Like September

I have a half-written grant proposal collecting dust in my computer. It talks about the dream of sitting under someone much farther along, who is not emotionally invested in your identity and protection in the way that your mother, or even grandmother, is, and should be. But she is someone who still knows, and who, because of her completed steps, can guide or understand or cushion your own. The brewing idea is one of intergenerational community of sisterhood, that debunks the mommyblogs and echo chambers we fall into, because like tends to like, and our technological toys silo us as much as they can connect. She is the see-er. The voice missing in our confounding mental loads as women doing it all, fighting competition, pushing justice, weighing obligations and avoiding high fructose corn syrup.

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I have this idea of learning from older women, not in spurts but in rhythm, and making it more possible for others, because of the incredible women who are already a part of my life. But in practice, I’ve struggled to do this.

Because the ladies in the shallow end at swimming lessons have also recently given birth. The women in my grad classes were career-minded, seeking first mortgages, internships, and noble peace prizes. The ladies on my feed are in the trenches, reaching out in the nano seconds of alone time our thirties give us for a like, a laugh, a lunch break. And it’s hard to stop and visit with my senior neighbor when the whining pulls. It’s hard to interview and take long walks and listen to senior women when I am chasing, scrambling, and budgeting every minute and dollar.

There is another voice I have missed, in addition to the one far in front of me. It is my own. To a lesser degree, to a smaller detriment, but still. Interruption is my norm. Bending and adjusting is the plan. I forget things when I only have to think about myself at this point; I am more awkward and uncertain the fewer moods rely on my preparation. I have sought the help of professionals and brutal/beautiful friends to help remember me before us.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health.       –Courtney Martin

I promote solitude in theory, primarily as a mode through which we hear God’s heart, not just our own. Not to brag but I have exercised it in 90-120 minute parcels irregularly over the past 11 years of adulthood/marriage/motherhood. The last time I had solitude that was not measured in minutes, but days, in which I was not completely anxious, was probably when I was 20. I am soon turning 33. I tried taking an overnight solitude retreat a few years ago. An alarm kept going off and there were no curtains in the sweet cottage nestled in the woods. I was officially citified by that point and completely distracted and edgy. Barely slept. When I was 20, I had 48 hour of solitude on a rock face, with a clif bar, a journal and bible, a sleeping bag, a headlamp, a water pump and bottle, and some sunscreen. It was one of the best things of college.

Tomorrow I embark on both a time of sitting for extended times with a woman much farther along than me, and being alone with my self and God, for not a matter of hours, but days. And I have no idea what to expect. It is a completely different situation than the past, oh, all my years, and I’m so grateful and humbled in advance, but also have trepidation. What does a day look like without a deadline and nap schedule and bell system? What DO I want to eat for breakfast, that meal that always eludes me? What will God show me as I sit, awkwardly quiet and un-needed? How will my life of planning, devoting, working, fighting for causes, and connecting with friends leave me to be, or inform who I am, away?

This summer has left some scars and presented good gifts. The school year is in full swing now. I remember that feeling of September, up in Oregon when we’d start school after Labor Day. Excitement. Unknowns. Courage and nerves, holding hands. Tiredness from that summer still on our shoes. This kind of feels like all of that. September is about diving in, and stepping out, and back to school. This year, me too.

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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.

Her Missing Voice

“…the insight of women whose hearts are attuned to the heart of God are silenced because so much of our ministry endeavors arise from a culturally derived false sense of masculinity…We are forcing a theological famine upon ourselves by ignoring the voices of women.” ~Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament, p. 64

I see hunger everywhere. And I find the malnourishment especially painful to understand, early in this adult life, as it thrives in this Church, this love of mine. To accept that conferences and services and studies led by men are for men and women, and those led by women are for women (usually ones with a ring on and a mortgage). To hear excuses made for men that would endanger the jobs and influence of women. It’s hard to know that a woman in leadership is still a living, breathing debate, and to constantly live where men and misinformed masculinity are the decision-makers.

Half of God is neglected when half His people are not at the table.

Adopting the roles of wife and mother has both sharpened my appreciation for being a woman and my sensitivity to the ways in which women are ignored and discriminated against, especially if they don’t fall into the privileged hats and stereotypes I happen to possess. I hurt with those who don’t desire to ever have these titles, or do but have not found or pursued them yet; I can see how living in the pressure cooker of churchy society often make both women feel out of place.

In my humble daily, I strive with others to set a different table and divest from such mean, narrow, Bad News culture. I long for the day we don’t have to apologize for being women. I’m encouraged and taught by so many doing similarly, mindful of God’s femininity and motherhood, of the voice and might of women in Scripture. As much as I hold men responsible for perpetuating or breaking down the confines around my gender, I also feel the burden and calling of putting forth a more cohesive and comprehensive image of woman.

We are uniquely qualified to speak as God’s children when we work from the truth of our experience on the sidelines. From the time we are labeled bossy when he is named leader, to the first time we are called a bitch for having a thought threatening to a man, to the observation that men are asked to pray and women to babysit, while the sermons rattling around in our heads have no venue. We remember the debut of our physical figures and the ensuing comments, hollers, and assault. We are aware of brokenness because we have been subject to it, with greater frequency and less recompense than the other gender. Women can be present and affected by another person’s pain because we have faced our own, and brought it before others and Abba God, again and again. The complexity of our bodies and our sexuality, our nuanced intellect and our God-given emotions, are qualifications and indications, not apologies and caveats.

The voice of women implores the Church, the Bride, to greater honesty and empathy. She calls the family to remember, to lament, and to a patient and inglorious resolve that introduces Jesus where we need Him most.

Women, you –we– are necessary to the task of love, the Shalom that calls. We still have the hard work of pushing, gripping one another’s hands, and screaming through the pain of bringing forth a more whole picture of Jesus to the world and one another. Because we have found God as Parent, and Good News in our own experiences, we can offer non-judgmental space for others who are hurting, who have made big mistakes, who are slow and disappointing or just completely different. We are great about embracing the cause. We are half of Christ’s body left here on earth and imperative to the Already and Not Yet.

The women I know have been the bravest and the quietest, the most overlooked and underpaid, the best qualified and the least promoted. Men, I ask you to share the pulpit and agenda, invite women to the team, and defer to their advice. Making space may mean moving aside. Listen. Copy their rhythms, ask God to make you sensitive to language and theology that excludes us. Repent of the assumptions made about us. Women, let’s share the mic. Bring a friend to the opportunity that’s been given you. Maintain vulnerability. Invest in each other’s stuff. Name bravely what is happening. Keep unlearning and repenting of the stereotypes and prejudices we have absorbed against ourselves and each other.

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From the dinner table to the conference table, from the pews to the platforms, your womanhood and way of seeing and being, is impactful; do not relent. You are commissioned and seen, encouraged to not neglect the gifts in you, named chosen, royal, holy, beloved.

I take heart in your sisterhood.

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.

Missional Women and Skyscrapers

When I first became a mom, I was also in my early years of adulthood and vocational ministry. I had just graduated with a masters in theology, and as grateful as I was for the gift of a child, I also deep down felt a little cheated. Like I had let everyone down, like I was going in the opposite direction as planned. I was very young, and I had many ideals and intentions that seemed incongruent with being a mother. I careened into motherhood like I did other stages of my life, and as quickly as I could I resumed roles and responsibilities, out to prove that being a mom wasn’t the end of me. Mostly to myself. In doing so, I delayed forming a more congruent sense of identity, and fostered a belief that motherhood competed with a better purpose.

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Looking back, I wonder if I spent too much time fighting against my role as mom, disliking the embedded stereotypes I felt defensive towards, as opposed to seeing this new part of my life as a conduit through which those ideals could manifest creatively. I wonder if I could have been a little easier on myself, a little more trusting of God’s work through me as opposed to relying on my effort. I am now seven years into my irreversible tenure as a mother and I’ve settled down a bit. I had a short, glorious reprieve from diaper bags, leaking sippy cups, and pack’n’plays. Now, we are a year into our third son, cherishing the good with the hard, a little less rushed, a little less pressured, and, honestly, a little less together.

I can tell you that being a mom has not become the definition of who I am but it has determined most of my waking and sleeping hours for the past 7 years. I can also tell you that, at the same time, it hasn’t been a death sentence to my ideals, my sense of calling, and my dreams. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you, yes you, that new mom, or the woman who had an unexpected, irreversible detour of any kind, are still on mission. I’m glad to report, even just 7 years in, that the socially-minded, justice-fighting, feminist, grown-ass Jesus-loving woman can co-exist with this honor of motherhood. That, as Donald Miller articulates in describing his friend David in Scary Close, maybe while life is declining “in earthly validation [it is] all the while ascending in the stuff that really matters.” You don’t have to become a mom to learn some of the things I’m learning. But you don’t have to not be one also.

I am writing against the doubts and shadows of despair that I myself still face occasionally. You know the ones: the flat one-liners that reduce us to who we are in relationship to one other person, or box in our dreams to a specific shape, size, and color. I’m writing to you from a fellow trench of deafening needs, long days, and short years. You are still you, and your heart for others is going to grow, not wither, from your station in the home.

// .  // .  // .  // .  //

 

Women who are primarily labeled stay-at-home-moms in this blessed world routinely practice a very profound behavior: the act of invitation. She invites the tears of her children, the sighs of her husband, the stories of the cast of characters in her ever-growing community. She invites care when she is exhausted or confused, and help when she is sick. By nature of being a woman, she is vulnerable to surprise, cycles, changes, setbacks and regrouping. She receives people, in her physical space and her emotional depths. She reflects Trinitarian reciprocity and extends the hospitable nature of God as wife, mother, neighbor, friend, visitor.

As a woman translates her self into her leadership in the home, in developing familial and extra-home relationships, and in turn allows her self to be affected and matured through that role, she embodies a powerful combination of structure and adaptability. These are the crossbeams of a good invitation.

In family systems theory, boundaries, adaptability, and the permeability of family norms and rules is discussed. When a family dance is met with a new person through birth or adoption, or a crisis occurs in a particular person’s life, the system has choices. Does everyone’s life come to a screeching halt? Do family rules end up in the trash bin, never to be considered again? Does everyone except one person make sweeping changes, protecting a particular person’s rigidity? Does the family grow out of touch, strangers under the same roof? How elastic is the microsystem?

In Los Angeles, buildings are designed or renovated with an earthquake in mind. The techniques engineers use to mitigate damage to the structure given a seismic crises are mind-blowing to this onlooker. And useful for the ideas of family systems and missional women. There are a variety of technologies but what I found most interesting are the innovative ways in which engineers equip a building to be flexible, and move in counterbalance to the earth’s movement. Rigidity is not reinforced; tension cables, swinging masses, steel tendons, rubber bearings, shape memory alloy…any of these may be the ying to the earth’s yang. To think that our ever-changing beautiful LA skyline is invisibly fluid, absorbent, and responsive.

It occurs to me that in so far as a woman equips her self to be responsive, yet stable, to the larger world, whether the bassinet beside the bed, or the neighbor everyone else calls crazy, she accomplishes the holy task of making room for the Other. In a spontaneous and unglamorous act of allowing her day (not to mention her night) to be run by a pre-verbal life-sucking bundle of joy, or in visiting the lonely with a front carrier and a curated portfolio of puree pouches, she is practicing divine invitation. As she becomes practiced at changing her plans to host a school playmate, inviting an unlikely guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, or promoting her home as a place to drop by unplanned, she demonstrates to her children, her self, and her community that perfection and predictability are not the priority. She acts subversively to the isolating American norms of privacy and refusing liability. She calls to the carpet the evangelical idol of the nuclear family unit and the consumerist approach to making a home.

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When a family system is moderately cohesive, and moderately adaptable, it achieves a flexible structure, a retrofitted connection. Family boundaries are neither rigid nor transparent but permeable. So it is safe for a crisis to arise in or out of the home; the system will hold. It is okay for someone to have an autonomous thought. The connection is not threatened. The dance will change. The change can be painful. But the building does not fall down. It is safe to go to this family with a need. It is appreciated when a guest invites their friend to the party. The children remain the children; the adults remain the adults, but the home is not a bunker. It is a port.

As a missional mom, it’s life-giving to me to continuously and awkwardly sort out how to use my home, my errands, my little realm of supposed control, in a reciprocal manner. I ravenously watch other women who have achieved these maneuvers. A dream that has birthed from the labor of motherhood is to instill an attitude of invitation in my family. My default as a mom is structure, preemptive organization, lists, and routines; these are my Ritalin. (I’ve been known to tape a newsletter-like document to the car dash when my husband and friend road-tripped with our oldest two kids. Because control.) But as a player in the larger mission of God’s upside-down economy, with creative agency instilled by our Creator, I’m compelled to counterbalance that structure by subjecting it to interruption.

The biblical account reinforces this idea of holy invitation, and dynamic family structures. Ruth and Naomi come to mind. Ruth, though she was the guest to Naomi’s family and land, opened up with her pain and adopts and attaches in response to calamity; their family dance shrunk and continued. In the Law, YHWH makes multiple considerations for guests and foreigners, establishing that even when His chosen people were a specific nation, that those boundaries were absorbent. His expectation was that they remember who they are and be responsive to the needs and guests around them (Deuteronomy 10:12-22). Structure and adaptability. Their family feast of booths included the visiting Levite, the servant, the sojourner, the fatherless. Permeable family lines. Jesus demonstrates innovative family makeup, and a hospitable heart always. Stopped on his way to bigger things, tending to basic needs of thousands, positioning his earthly mother to be cared for by his best friend. The culture of our faith is a radical hospitality. The sermon of our Gospel is simple invitation. Our realm lies strategically within this call.

This is unclear work. There is no syllabus. With every additional birthday of my children, additional personality type to the mix, job change, heck, counseling session, this goal of permeable family lines is adjusting. And it’s incredibly inconvenient but it’s a small price for remaining a congruent, missional person. Ladies, this is not win or lose. This is not pass or fail. Your heart is too big, your life too short for that binary garbage. Mine is too. We are committed to our families and that requires different things on different days. We are also committed to our gift for invitation and inclusion. Finding that sweet spot where these are mutually beneficial is a moving target, but what a holy opportunity. Our homes, our emotional space, our maddeningly ordinary tasks, may be the skyline of hope and belonging another soul needs. Stoicism need not apply. Perhaps never before have we been so in touch with our own humanity and limitations as now, here. What a perfect time to extend an imperfect invitation.

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