Once, when we were support-raising missionaries for a Christian church planting organization, a funder wrote me and warned about our going down a slippery slope. Falling away, going down a slippery slope, turning one’s back and back-sliding–these were the worst … Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
“…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.
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.
Every day I need deliverance. I just forget it, which is the scary thing.
All day I have a scrolling list of shoulds and T-charts and timers. I have the domestic burden and blessing of trying to decide if organic zucchini is worth the price if they won’t eat it anyway and how much screen time is a good reward and how big of a deal is picking up dirty socks and the word “fart.” I have the Enneagram type 1 hat of problem-solving and advocacy and general discontent (my prescribed growing direction is Ryan’s type 7, which carries the motto “I want to have fun!”). Oh YEA!
This time in history is like a warm, moist environment to this bacteria of constant reform and conviction within me. When my breath catches in my throat under the wave of an injustice or a worry, when I see the feeds that starve, and the posts that dismantle, when I feel the weight of responsibility and disappointment over what the margins have to say and what the powerful keep missing, I wring my hands with the rest of them. And I labor…I dream of fixes, simplicity, solutions and revolution.
But well-meaning thoroughness, and honest engagement, are no substitute for deliverance. I do not muster deliverance; I take hold of it. I receive it. I let go because of it.
And it is a time, more than anything else, for deliverance.
Yes, there is advocacy and sacrifice. Yes, there is becoming informed and listening. Yes, there is civil discourse.
But first, and last, I want to pause before the throne, before calvary, and say, “Yes, Lord – please deliver me. Please deliver us. Through all this chaos, all the violence and false narratives, all the fear and greed, and cloudy future…You’re here. You’ve done the work, as irrelevant as it may seem some days. In You I place my hope and I see You in these shambles.”
And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. Daniel 12:1-4
History tells us this isn’t actually the worst of times. I’ve seen people call this election, this anti-everything, binary mode the worst–for Christians, cops, voters, the like. I don’t need that to be convinced things are bad. No, but it is raw, and there is no lapse of evil to take a breath.
But in this very moment is our deliverance, Christian Americans. In this very hour, we might be saved.
Awake, souls. No longer is there an autopilot, and that myth of a Christian nation must be a little tipsy by now. Let it fall. No longer can faith pretend to sleep with a political party in wedded bliss, all the while committing adultery. No longer can righteousness be molded into a political system and a national story that was never capable of holding eternity and never had an edge in God’s economy. No longer can the sleeping American Christian avoid shining awkwardly or owning its shame and contempt. It is a day of reckoning, and in case it hasn’t dawned on us yet, the alarm will undoubtedly keep rising.
Receive your deliverance. Take hold. Let go. Step out.
We have the opportunity to be delivered from mistaking a government’s promises for God’s, and a government’s best interests for our own as His children. We have the opportunity, like Israel so many times in the Old Testament, to be delivered from a sinful apathy and assimilation. To be liberated from a facade of Christianity to our true status as foreigners in this land, meant to engage vigorously but not to enmesh seamlessly. We have the opportunity to re-find ourselves and be delivered from a lack of critical-thinking that has too long forced the Good News into an either-or tug-of-war that cuts the knees off of our Christ and took all our energy and resources. I love and respect this country but I will keep her an important acquaintance. We are not to confuse our way of life what the one–whichever one–she purports.
I am pained by who has fallen and by who we’ve elevated, and all the in-between plaguing our nation right now. But I am comforted by this deliverance. I am hopeful that my children will walk with God and the Church and not have to argue about the connection between abortion and healthcare and racism. I am hoping that they will not find it difficult or unique to attend a local congregation that sings in different languages and has no one ethnicity or gender or class in power, that doesn’t mind talking about a political candidate because everyone is a Christian before they’re an American and the bullying vehicle of political argumentation finds no fuel in the Church. I am hopeful that today’s deliverance means that tomorrow’s Christianity is brave and loving–and incongruous with any one nation’s fears or worldview.
This election, and the constant pitting of souls against souls in the rest of the headlines, could be enough to break up this sham of a marriage between the Christian faith and a great country. Oh, would it! Too long have we looked for Him under a flag and anthem rather than around the eucharist, kneeling beside the footwashing basin. Perhaps His Bride may return–beleaguered, but delivered. Perhaps, in the midst of this cracking we will find missing pieces and our voice again. Shining like stars, delivered.
See you at the table.
Our backyard is not something I’m proud of. The carefully laid sod we bought and planted our first year here died long ago under the drought and our incompetency–the neglect of both the sky and human attention. The still-loved trampoline has a bad case of sagging-net and has bright yellow duck tape on pieces, betraying its years in the sun. Our mandarin orange tree is so confused, with 3 stages of oranges on it and a slew of ants. The tortoise has some pigeon poo on her shell.
It is a great space but what was once nicely cleaned up and orderly and growing is pretty dusty and rustic and lackluster.
I know the feeling.
14 months since leaving vocational ministry. 17 months since losing a baby and, eventually, a battle. 14 seizures in our youngest son since she was taken. Over 3 1/2 years since we started becoming foster-to-adopt parents. 4 inches of paperwork from our time with her and fighting on her behalf. 2 inches of paperwork from medical bills. A lot of goodbyes. A lot of misunderstandings.
Nearly all the things have been unconventional and unplanned. By God’s grace and love, good friends, the propeller of children to care for every.moment.of.the.day, and the tyranny of time, we have bid some farewells, and had times of healing and moving forward.
6 months pregnant. 4 months seizure-free. 2 months into a new career for Ryan; 3 middle school grades representing a bounty of love, promise, investment, heartache, and heart. 10 months into a new job for me; 4 grants awarded. 1 new Christ-centered, socially-active, egalitarian, small-budget, multi-ethnic church body. 2 beautiful sons growing in character and becoming friends, teammates and co-rascals. There is still so much goodness in our little space.
Still, it has not left us unscathed. All of “It” so near and yet so far back. There are days when we have been ungrateful–where we have not felt like we had enough, could keep going, had things to give, and had received our fair share. Yes, there have been days we have felt downright bratty and mad–“Why won’t anything work out?” “Would it be too much to ask for a break?” And these attitudes, and the survival mode of many months, have left us dry. Left us acknowledging our need for a rekindled devotion to God and service–in our heart of hearts.
Because while the pace keeps going, the extroverts keep showing up, the kids keep growing– things can become hollow, less grounded, more default, more rote, quite smoothly.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” Rev. 3:1b-3b
The hollowing is not all wrapped up in grief and injustice. It is not all excused by stress and weariness. It is not all because of inadequacies in our personalities or maturity or marriage or parenting or planning (though all those things possibly exist). Things have really sucked at times despite the best of these things and while God has been near, and we have been helped and supported by Him, our devotion has suffered. Our discipline has lagged. There is discouragement in our prayers. Our faith is still recalibrating. What is left may be true and good; it is solid to grow from, attach to, and offer back. But there is wreckage. The many hard realities of life the last couple of years have not always driven us to Him, but within, or our coping devices, or our hard work, chatter and human autopilots.
“I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” 1 Cor. 7:35
As the former missionaries, the church goers, the natural leaders, the open house, the whatevers and whoevers we’re tempted to allow others to think of us as, we are fallen, and though stronger in small ways, weaker in many others. We do not know how to wait patiently on the Lord for adoption and how to conduct ourselves in this system and this brokenness. We do not know how long to wait for MediCal back payments on bills after months of fighting and resubmitting. We do not know how cautious to be about epilepsy and we’re not good at being gracious with our local pharmacy. We do not know what it’s going to be like to have a newborn again, in the middle of the school year, with a teacher/administrator and 1st grader in the mix this time.
We do know we need to spend more time in ancient Truth and stillness. In rereading scripture, in rekindling devotion, and investing in the deeper conversations and friendships. We do know that we are not alone, and all is not lost–far from it. We are part of a Kingdom that cannot be shaken–i.e. purposes and a love that both demand and return much despite any of the “It” we face. We know that good is lasting, that love is final, and there is grace enough for us and our mess.
The rains are coming; the land is waiting in all its non-glory. The grass might grow back…and perhaps we with it.
All who make idols are nothing and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. He and his kind will be put to shame; craftsmen are nothing but men. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and infamy.
No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge of the understanding to say…”Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?” He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”
I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in the land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right. Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.
Isaiah 44:9,11, 19-20; 45: 19-20
Still with images of girls and women being yanked around in their swimsuits and viral videos of uniformed crime and salivating mouths over a lie about race in a movement that needed her integrity (much worse than a lie about, say, family health and safety), I pray for AME churches and for the spiritual family that was attacked in Charleston. For the 5-year-old girl playing dead to live her life. She is the future of our Faith, the victim of our ignorance and idols, now a name joining a long history of persecution and dangerous gatherings. She may leave or re-enter the congregation in the years to come based on the white-majority church’s ability to call a spade and spade and do the awkward, slow, and humbling work of getting better.
I pray for the African American followers of Christ–I cannot imagine how my family members, literal and spiritual, ache as the attack resonates with parts of who they are, and blatant racist action is dismissed or not commented on by other believers–especially those leading the Church. I pray that they would somehow be resilient in the face of a white-silence solidarity, the enduring presence of such hatred and the outstanding discrepancies in our approach to the criminal. Minority-culture churches do not have the liberty of being silent and fearful when it comes to these headlines; they do not have the liberty of touting how the Church is color-blind and not color-coded in the immediate wake of these deaths. But it is undoubtedly wounding when these luxuries are witnessed.
And I pray for the grace and discernment to love, to not assign false viewpoints and narratives to people at a glance, that close them in and shut them off. I pray to see my own fear, my own idols, and my own pain, truthfully. Oh, that I, with others from this Bride, would stand with the margins sacrificially, the mourning, breaking away from the fear, parties and self-protection that prior headlines have grown. How can our grief for fallen Christians of color fall along lines in a predictable fashion? How can our grief and anger be so vulnerable to political agendas and the lie that calling this racist somehow indicts all others?
I weep for what it must be like to be a black young person with this news. And to still log-on to Facebook and see the same people, saying the same things or not saying anything, diverting and dodging the R-word when the shooter clearly stated his motive and paradigm.
Tomorrow, that 5-year-old girl could be the girl at the pool, Dajerria Becton. Saved in the sanctuary to be treated like a guilty party, a fugitive somehow, as a teen. If you fail to see the connection and believe me to have taken the “media’s” Kool-aid, ask around. Ask those who are trained from birth to keep their hands in view when they’re pulled over. Ask those who are taught that they must make eye contact with storekeepers and smile whenever they enter a store. Ask those who have a different expectation and definition of respect and power than you do. They will know the dots between one cute, innocent victim of a “tragedy” and one controversial teen in a video being pulled by her hair.
Idols in the church rot it from the inside out. I love this Family the more I get to know it, but it is a costly and conflicted love. It is painful, so painful, to see some of the idols standing tall, grasped tightly in the right hand, when funeral arrangements for saints, shot because of their skin color, are underway. Let’s call this a hate crime, racist and perpetuated by a sinful society and culture that still makes decisions and judgments based on race, armed with many ways to spin racism so we never have to admit to it. And let’s call the Church’s ill-preparedness or sheer inability, especially in the white church, to empathize with our fallen African American brothers and sisters and condemn their predator a sin–an indicator of an idol that organizes an other-worldly organization into categories rooted in the depraved depths of this world. Kudos to those who are re-examining. Who are reaching across the segregated aisles of the congregation. Who have mourned and prayed for their African American church family more than ever before. Who have called this racist, named the discrepancies, and risked public disapproval or awkward conversation.
May the Lord make the fugitives powerful, strong and brave enough to continue gathering, continue seeking and continue claiming their freedom and liberty. May He show the pursuit, the worship, the faith, is not in vain, quickly, through a reconciling Church and a zero tolerance policy of racism from the steeple outwards. We are of the Already and Not Yet. To some it costs their lives; to others it costs the idols in our hands.
Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accused of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their loves so much as to shrink from death.
In the latest parts of a day, and the earliest parts of the next, sometimes my thoughts catch up with me.
In the inky-bluest shadows of the never-dark Los Angeles night, I am alone and the scattered thoughts and pounding heart have free roam before the listening ear of a loving Father and a learning, wandering soul.
Tonight many noises accompany my rising.
The constant whirl of the freeway beside us. The helicopters’ relentless search overhead. The speakers from the other side of the street, sometimes sending a blur of words, sometimes of tones, that remind me of the mosque by our house in Nairobi–the one we used to take the littles to while Mom and Dad walked laps or I jogged for basketball. I remember a navy blue stroller with yellow and green. I almost forgot about that.
Tonight I sit in a room that I can still smell her in sometimes and I lay all the things before a Greatness I believe is there and before and beyond and with. Life has been like the helicopters; relentlessly searching out the plans I had, the places I thought were secure, and I am naked and poor, wretched and blind, before the glare. It has been another long week and I swear we are not crisis-centered people. The four of us have been sicker than we ever have been and we are all thinner and more humbled by our fragility and need for others as a result. The reality of Ryan’s work has hit hard, and we keep finding our youngest having had seizures and the diagnosis and solutions aren’t keeping pace. Yes, there are many thoughts catching up to me.
Since she unwillingly left, it has been long enough to conceive and carry and then hold a new child, home. But we are still waiting to know what was conceived on that night other than loss. We are still looking for a heartbeat of something new and breathing to help give the grief a gloss–not a cover, but a seal. I have not posted more lately about todays as though yesterdays but I have written a story that must wait to be told, to fill in some gaps. I don’t have the story I would like because still there are no conclusions. I pray for her and I ask, what do you want Lord? What does love call us to here? What do we need to surrender?
My mind shifts to those outside of this empty room with the new paint. The friend who has spent the past week in the hospital, while my family was emptying our guts sick at home, having every part of his gut examined and tested, praying for life and a break from the pain. The family that surrounds him that are the type of people you don’t want anything or anyone to hurt or hold back because they help all those around them hurt less and move forward. Some ruling out has been offered but peace is slippery in the waiting room. And I am transported to this time last year, when our loved one was spending her last weeks on earth with her loved ones, next door. So much has changed since then; there has been much grace but still, the losses are heavy. I pray for the unknowns of the one family of saints, their strength and their care and I pray for the knowns, the finality, that still dawns on the other family of saints–and their strength and their care.
I consider the hearts of my sons. One is needing me more instead of less–and everything I may have guessed about parenting before is brought into question by fuzzy layers of side-effects, grief, epilepsy, and a 3-year-old personality I don’t completely understand. Each day is a mystery and we are waiting for our own answers for him. One has been so strong through so much, so steady and predictable. But I see his strength growing in some directions that will pen him in, that will close off options that are fully his in a life of grace. And I want to help him avoid the wrecking ball of the future–the decontruction I know because I do it, with Help, over and over. And I pray for grace. For strength, for tenderness, for loving hearts. For rescue from the barrage on his mind and protection in the war over his heart.
The accounts of a visit to Iraq and About sections on adventurers and non-profit starters and writers from afar move me in between apple juice and bed changing and squabbles over Legos. I wonder at those women, and my nearness of heart to them but my seemingly infinite distance of proximity. Have I changed? Did I miss something, do something wrong? Should I be doing something else? These seem like indulgent thoughts this night of shadowy watercolors. No, maybe, I don’t know– I know that I thought I was mightier at some point than I am. I can admit that I thought I would be in charge of more things by now while I’m in fact finding out I’m in charge of fewer than ever. And so I pray. Tired, quiet, with all the night noises my chorus, I pray. You are mightier than the worst nightmare and the biggest success. These questions are too daunting. Show your mighty acts, your justice rivers, your mercy storms. Reassure my frenetic heart as the myths dissolve away. Be close to the warriors in these conflicts; those who are able to start and renew out there.
And I pray for the other women in my life. Who feel alone. Who are vulnerable to attack. Who are restless and bored and strong and exhausted all at the same time. Who are yearning for answers and needing a searchlight to show a new route.
And this continues. I wake and I wake to the storms and this is how I meet Sunday–feeble, frustrated and befriended. By not just a god, but a Shepherd. Not just a counselor, but a Maker.
And this is acceptable.
I find that for someone who does not have journals of conversations with God but piles of lists and academic notes, it can be difficult to pray. It is difficult to pray when the last year has held so many unanswered questions and hopes, you half expect visible debris to fall from the ceiling when you do. It’s difficult for me to pray, alone, unless my heart and mind have so much going on that their caffeine of need overpowers my endless fatigue and distractions.
Tonight, last week, I could not do anything about anything. But this new week, I’m starting with what I can. And it’s all I can more often than not. It’s not my favorite, and it’s not much to write about, but I learned more of true might tonight in my weak state–in the mess of all the pieces that fell out of my head and spilled from my heart, and scattered all across this space of loss, turned holy.
In the winging of this waiting, in the haze of this night, I can only invite Help and rest until morning.
“I do not understand. Where are you from?”
He was a scuba instructor and we were in a pool, about 90 degrees cool, on the east coast of Africa. His English was heavily accented in that clipped Kenyan cadence I never mastered. I was maybe 15. There were no other Asian tourists that I can recall but then again, I was technically a resident. And though I was racially Asian, I was ethnically white, with an increasingly amount of ethnic space under construction. Thus his confusion. He thought he knew me, and the words “adopted” “Nairobi” and “American” did not compute without further explanation. I thought I knew myself too, but that, I would learn, would never be the whole story.
I am adopted from South Korea. I was raised by and primarily absorbed the white suburban middle class culture of the Pacific Northwest. At age 11, I went to South Korea and the Philippines and I felt more at home in the Philippines. Soon after, we were headed overseas as missionaries, in a state of constant travel and transition until landing in Nairobi at age 13. I attended an international school there, the 2nd largest nationality there being South Korean. My white parents adopted my three youngest siblings, who are racially black but ethnically a blend of the international sub-cultures they lived in and white suburban middle class. For university I returned to the States but a region I’d never spent time in before: Southern California. I attended a school that was committed to promoting multi-ethnic awareness and was proud of its diversity in a crowd of Christian colleges typically monocultural. I struggled as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) reacclimatizing to the United States after formative years away.
Out of college I began living and working in the diverse urban center of Los Angeles that reminded me in many ways of Nairobi. I married a white man whose family has lived in the same white suburb for generations. I also attended a seminary that forced me to continue to interact with and study from people with different racial, ethnic, cultural and theological backgrounds, by text and in person. We became certified to foster and adopt through the county and took cross-racial and cross-cultural parenting classes. I am watching my younger siblings make the tough transition across the ocean that I did, in the opposite direction, still not matching their surroundings, racially or ethnically. I daily interact with people who have had completely different experiences than me, partly due to their familial culture, their economic and geographical history, and partly due to their race. I love my city and my family and I am a career student of the stories therein.
These are the bullet points to a lifelong continuing journey of learning about race and reconciliation.
I am no expert. I don’t hold any keys or any exclusive rights to this conversation; quite the opposite. I happen to like writing and talking. I make a lot of mistakes.
From walking through sewered pathways in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi to reading Gustavo Gutierrez’s On Job to finding my heart ashamed as I realized deep, unfounded fear of another race in college to seeing the Gospel in new ways in the housing projects of Los Angeles, I am convinced that despite all my blindspots and all my mistakes, I will continue to learn from and talk about people with different levels of privilege than me. I am dead set on keeping in touch with the margins in this issue because I believe that Jesus is there and when I insist that the strangers to my life are strangers, I miss truth. I accept an under-developed level of compassion and understanding that will hurt my community, my siblings, the Church, and my own children. There is ample opportunity for this story-exchange and learning in today’s world; in tomorrow’s, it will not be optional.
It is my privilege that this is a choice. That I could choose to go through life without talking to people who are not white and not of the model minority race with which people secondarily attach me. It is a privilege that I grew up seeing leaders, authority figures, illustrated Jesus and the disciples, and heroes portrayed as the race I primarily identified with (though not the gender). Constant translation of pervasive icons and messages was unnecessary to me as a child because I so strongly accepted my white ethnic identity; my ethnic identity was normative and dominant so I did not have to be actively aware of my race or ethnicity. For others, translation and accommodations and making room for the stranger, the other story, the social norms that don’t correlate with your own identity and experience, are constant. That is called being a minority. And I tend to think that those who have been cognizant of their race and racial relations all their life have more to teach me about the subject than I them.
When Ryan first went to our local Costco with me, he left with a stark realization of his white-ness. Did it define who he was? No. Did it explain all of his behaviors, mistakes, idiosyncrasies and worldview thenceforth? No. But the fact that he had never been in a public place in the United States and been forced to think about being the only person of his racial background spoke to his racial privilege. This isn’t an indictment; this is a fact.
I speak and learn about race not as a victim or as an intrinsically conflicted adult TCK with adoption issues (both of which I’ve been accused of). I speak and learn about race as someone who has enjoyed a great deal of privilege and knows it. I do not feel guilty about that; I feel more informed about that than I used to be. That’s all. I wish more people would learn about this with me, correct me and listen to my limited stories. I wish that more of my brothers and sisters in Christ would be vulnerable and humble online and in person, sharing their stories, their questions, their fears, and listening in this arena.
I sincerely apologize to those that I have rubbed the wrong way in this journey for the things I have said and tones I have used that have inadvertently excused you from the conversation. I am truly sorry for the part I’ve played in separating us from connecting and engaging with this topic to the degree that your response has to do with me. I am not going to stop talking about race and listening to and highlighting the voices of the underprivileged, but I am hoping to do it better. I am new to this topic; for those who have not been racially or ethnically privileged, they do not have that luxury.
In international communities, it is normal to acknowledge race and nationality and celebrate the differences. It’s not the basis from which to understand people but it is a useful description that is not taboo. Current events in our nation continue to raise the issue of race relations, which are incredibly relevant and important to my family and local community. Yet this has struck a good/bad false choice in people that jars my heart deeply. I had forgotten, after many years in an international community, the academy and now in international Los Angeles, that debating racial issues could be an abrasive topic from the outset in circles where the very subject of race is politely avoided (out of often good intentions). I recognize that in bringing up solidarity with the race-based experiences of other races, I have threatened a white solidarity unspoken norm at times. As a result, I have been rejected from circles to which I used to belong. I can see my own past and current tendency with what has been termed “white fragility” in avoiding acknowledging any privilege or dominant influence my ethnic category has had on society as a whole. I almost daily recognize knee-jerk reactions against these hard, awkward conversations and situations in an attempt to make myself feel more comfortable and innocent. I get these postures. But I want to move away from them. And if this is a constant source of alarm and offense to you, perhaps we should unfriend and step apart for a time; I deeply hope to reconvene later.
At the end of my life, I hope that I was able to be a public learner–which is to say, a public, apologetic, messer-upper. I’ve said before that part of my purpose in this blog is to write part-way–to disclose weak and deconstructed parts of my journey in order to normalize and invite the secret struggles of others. Part of my purpose as a parent and older sibling is to show them why Jesus matters in every context and to model being brave and broken. This matter of race and reconciliation is of utmost importance to me and, I believe, central to an understanding of the Christian faith. For this reason, I’m willing to have awkward and fruitless conversations and go there. I’m okay with being publicly embarrassed and discredited along the way. I’ve accepted that I’ve made mistakes and I’m going to make more and I know that the people I need most in life are going to still track with and love me through those blunders.
I yearn for companions on this journey. Would you let me know if you are on this path too? I know that you are strong enough and there is courage in numbers. I love the black women who reached out to people with different hair and capitalized upon racial curiosity. I love that now that I live south of Koreatown, I am learning about my own hair for the first time! There is such freedom in talking about our differences, from hair to how we define respect. All I am saying is that I am listening to new accounts and it is changing my own to be more truthful. It is opening wider places of understanding and humility and while it is hard and frustrating, it resonates in my soul as right and He is near.
This is my story with this collective story of our country called race and ethnicity. This is why I care and why I keep talking about it. May our lifelong pursuit of wholeness (shalom) bring us ever closer to each other and our Creator.
“And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? ’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
It is a time of digging deep and bearing down; a time to look at the dust on our arms, the bruises to our vision and pray, however we can, for saving. The cumulative laments and brokenness have their welcome here; bring your ashes and rags–it is a brutal fight for faith.
Today we begin with a renewed collective spirit to join hands across the graves of our lives. We reach out knowing that the suffering has changed us and we carry it, and we look forward to a time, a resurrection, when that suffering will have improved us. We are not too hurting to know that we have caused sorrow ourselves, and this too drives us forward, discontent and restless.
This year, when I read with many other saints Matthew 6, these words make me wonder:
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The secrets of the year leading up to this Lenten season are too many, many unspoken. We are dizzy with all the unknowing. It seems cracked and hurting to look at some of those secrets–to see the destruction, the disappointments, and the lonely, stranded places.
Here, in this verse, the secret is holy. The secret place is a refuge, a reward–something where the Unseen is interacting with the seen, the Infinite with the finite. Here, the quiet darkness and solitude–what was looked down on by the religious–is esteemed. The chapter suggests that only when morality and virtue comes out of a secret place, a deeply transformed character, is it the light that shines that Jesus spoke of in the chapter before. Only when the behaviors are unknown and unnoticeable to the disciple herself can the security of the birds of the air, the confidence of the lilies of the field, be hers. So accepting of and accepted by God’s Kingdom is she that she has lost her insecure false self and gained an orientation of abundance rooted in faith. Scarcity and self-protection have been replaced and she is free to be spiritually formed by quiet disciplines and spiritually active in unobserved ways.
Could I find Him in the secret questions, doubts and fears that still haunt us? That rear up when I receive an unexpected phone call, recounting more lies about our story? That make me pause in the middle of some songs, some readings, because I don’t know those things any more and I’m not sure if they are true? Those ashes, the debris of a busted up world, that we each bring with us, from the news, from our marriages, from our hurting churches, to this strange Ash Wednesday? Could we find Him here, in the secrets–in those experiences and tragedies that have been as, if not more, transcendent and impacting on us than anything else?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. Psalm 71:20
The beginnings of this season are humble. And they are wide. All are invited to bring their mess, to bring the death that has happened, into the sanctuary. Ash Wednesday and Matthew 6 and being a disciple are all about not doing things right, not having things figured out, and still finding ourselves welcomed on a journey of death becoming life. We are best prepared when we have been put in touch with our own depravity and fragility. When all that is seen is not rescue enough for what is unseen.
Today we take the first step in an awkward dance of self-forgetfulness, which is to say, freedom. A mysterious and secret, yet collective and traditional, meeting. My laments, my failures, my pride, and all the shaky ways I prop up my self-image and facades of safety are accepted and loved and gently, secretly, replaced. In exchange I am freed to take part in a character, a light and a love that calls to the margins and calms my true self that remains. A economy of abundance that I cannot understand with the previous coverings.
Again, I am headed to the steeple of love, the cross, and every time it is a disarming, mysterious journey.
Sometimes the fragility is so suffocating. So ending. For so long, it feels like I am living on the verge. Of change, of heartbreak, of rage, of tears, of breakthrough. Of it all. And I hate heights and edges. As I kid, I thought I was one misstep away from falling through those staircases with no backs. It may have been physically impossible but it made me focus on the next step so hard. Clutch the railing so hard. That kid is not too far away.
The cracks in my cool also make me more tender to the beautiful notes, to the moments — and there really may just only be moments — in a day with children that delight my mom heart. The cracks make me painfully aware of my need for a Savior and that can’t be all bad. The cracks make me so grateful and relieved by small things. Coffee. An open parking space. A friend’s dropping by.
My life is so small and I think so big. I am professionally poised while constantly compelled to reveal, unearth, and challenge. It is a strange, exhausting stretch. Do you know it?
My short walk with foster care has so far shown me that our grasp on reality is very, very weak. The hours of certification classes do not make sense of the process we are in now. The barrage of comments on our “daughter,” on how she looks like me, on our family of five, are bittersweet and strange nods to the mystery of family. The confident assessments of her visiting family, of how she is and what she likes and what I am thinking. The reports turned in to court by strangers describing a child’s situation they have never asked about. It all nods to the mysteries behind any appearance, any situation, what we see and think we know.
She hugs me so tight and that is real, but knowing that she could also never know about me is also real. Praying for her is one of the most real things we can do for her, because our feet are planted in Now and our vision is nearsighted, and yet, I cannot tell, I cannot perceive, what is real about it. What it is doing, what He is doing, what They will do, for her life, for mine. What is praying like this, for this, doing in me, the pray-er and what on earth is it doing in the heavenlies. I am the pray-er afraid of the gaps, afraid of falling through and falling small. The pray-er of brokenness and poise, of long-winded comments and wordless wants.
I am so here. I am so temporal and human and here. Heartbroken over the unknowns facing my children, clutching the railings for fear of falling through. Heartbroken over the recent losses in the Church–my extended family–and the lost ground of the Kingdom. Heartbroken over my own inadequacy and mistakes. And so I am heart-surrendered. Heart-surrendered to more–to more than I can see, to more than seems so real, to more than the graves of today. Heart-surrendered to more than here.
Whenever I think of here, I remember that sweet, divine line of poetry: “And here in the dust and dirt, O here // The lilies of His love appear!”
Maybe there is room on the verge to dangle my restless legs. To sit and rest from the climb. Somehow, with all the loose pieces of my heart and all the sensitivities in my soul, I still hope there are lilies to be gained. I am banking on that poet’s forecast. That even though I could be on the verge of insanity and even more grief, I could also be nearer to love, to grace, that I have not learned, not lived, before.
Not because I have transcendent powers of reflection or meaning-making, no. I have these suspicions because Jesus is known for coming to the edges and ledges; He is the relentless Shepherd of my story that goes to the verge and enters the graves and finds the ones. The alones. The heartbroken. The sinners elevated and isolated as special. The children with gaps in their past. The big-thinking unavoidably-regular moms climbing scary staircases. Only because there is the I AM, the YHWH, the God with us here, the Counselor, could this space–this fragile verge–be redeemed. Not the end, but the middle.