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.

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Sharing: Just for Kids?

It seems like adults all agree that kids should share but I’m not so sure if we all agree that WE should share.

After being a vocational missionary for about 8 years, attending a seminary and university that are leaders in their circles in promoting social justice and diversity, and living overseas, I have a pretty warped perception of privilege and power. Specifically mine.

While I would really like to think that I have given up a lot of privilege and power, I haven’t. It’s more than touting living simply, practicing incarnational ministry, and soaking up lessons from those who are underserved. You might be surprised to find out that living in a developing country says nothing about your detachment from worldly comforts and privilege. Sadly, I haven’t really scratched the surface and that is extremely hard for me to admit.

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No matter what lengths I go to separate myself from luxury or power that I was given by my upbringing, I could basically reclaim any of the things I have managed to lie down (not many) at any moment. And, even more upsettingly, the non-empirical effects of privilege– the way I see my options and time, the confidence and vocabulary I have, the relate-ability to those smack dab in the middle of privilege, the trust I have for authority, and the choice to deny or not deny my privilege–are inescapable.

Since attending Storyline, I have been wresting with how to share my privilege; I don’t want to deny it (thus insulting those with less privilege) and I don’t want to waste it (in thinking it’s mine, all mine, to enjoy). When I first arrived at the event, I was judgmental of the crowds and their privilege and homogeneity. But I knew deep down that that was ugly of me. It was over-simplification and I judge the things I fear in myself. I desperately don’t want to fit in in those situations but ultimately I cannot deny that I mostly do. And no one really cares about that as much as I do.

I’ve since been trying to think constructively about how to translate the culturally-embedded Storyline material to other contexts and what to do with the privilege I simultaneously enjoy and judge. Ideas have been swirling about and were given more substance as I read Christena Cleveland’s eye-opening Disunity in Christ. Despite its negatively-toned title, it bears hope and practical ideas of recovering a commitment to reconciliation in the segregated Church.

I have been grasping around, trying to think of how to share privilege in clear, lifestyle ways. As always, I want company in this. I need company in this. Is anyone else wanting to share some of the privilege you have (class, race, ability, gender, sexuality, age, nationality…)?

At the risk of being found simplistic, here are some ideas. 🙂 My starting lines to sharing better: 

1. Regularly invite people of different cultures to speak at your pulpit, class, and small group or (gasp) write on your blog.

2. Take someone without a wholesale membership with you and divvy up products if they so desire; share in the savings and mitigate the overhead cost.

3. If I were a man in any leadership position, even in a singular meeting, I would invite a female co-leader as frequently as possible and potentially fight for another position to be opened for her.

4. The next time you attend a training event or conference, invite someone to be your guest, who normally doesn’t have those opportunities. I would also like to ask them if there was anything that they are planning on attending that I could tag along to.

5. Instead of vying for position on a bus, in a line, or in a room, use your abledbody-ness to reserve a seat for the differently-abled, the elderly, the shy.

6. There’s always a line outside of our Ralphs for the shuttle service. I wonder if anyone would let me drive them and their groceries home.

7. Swallow the inconvenience of translation, not ending on time, or an adjustment to a 7-course church service or meeting to allow for a more inclusive time together that allows for translation without feelings of embarrassment or time strain.

8. Invite others to use your computer and internet for online job applications.

9. Go without things. Until you can afford two. Until you can afford four. Until you don’t need it any more.

10. Print text, order books and format powerpoint in large print, with two languages when remotely appropriate.

11. Quietly sponsor a retreat for a family, for a pastor, who does not have the privilege to afford reflection and space.

12. Dress down.

13. Accompany a single mom to some places she is interested in going; help with snacks, get the directions, manage the shopping cart.

14. When the remodel happens at your church or office, fight for a family, unisex, accessible restroom. Or five.

15. Use that camera, or recruit your friend, to take pictures of families, events, engagements and newborns who don’t have a professional photographer budget line.

16. Next time you travel, travel with someone who doesn’t travel.

16 is my favorite number so that is the deep reason I will stop there. Thoughts?

I am coming to terms with the facts that my privilege is not something I can bleach myself of, not something to be shamed by, nor something to soak in. It is a gift, and it can be shared. I can spread beauty and justice and mercy and in doing so, experience so much more Truth.

What are your favorite ways to share? What other ideas do you have for me?