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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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.

Eyes to See

I have to see my neighbor to respond. I have to be near them to identify they’re hurt, that there in their face is Jesus, and in the space between me and them is the salvific command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Perhaps others have better memory. God has seen it fit for me to stay in physical proximity to arrays of need, since moving to the equator at 13 till now, at 32, living on an equator between rich and poor. And I still forget. I still forget we belong to each other and the good samaritan example is the climax of this life of Christian discipleship.

Yes, there are needs everywhere, and so many under my own roof, but there’s something forceful about living in a place where your looks don’t match, your culture and background don’t match, and your norms are shown to be privilege, with daily reminders of the inequity and blight of this temporal world. It is my pleasure, my privilege, and my pain to be a guest here. Yes, becoming less and less each day but no matter how it all develops, it started with choice, and that sets me apart. It will always set me apart.

I live and love in a beautiful neighborhood with lush, inventive yards, gourmet home chefs, majestic magnolias, and strollers and children and small businesses everywhere. There are also money stores, robbing the poor, and failing schools, feeders to a criminal justice system that feels more criminal than just. Heat reverberating off the cement, bouncing off the stucco, gleaming in the sweat of hardworking people, pointed in the bars on the windows and burning in the hearts of the mothers wanting the best for their children.

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It is here, between three planes of cement, with a faraway sky looking down from above, that a neighbor was attacked, stabbed more than a dozen times, in the middle of the thoroughfare between the middle school my husband works in, that started my entrance into this zip code, and the elementary school my children attend. At 11 in the morning, before God, in the alley that looks like a gutter, blood was pooling, and people poured out from all the walls.

It is here I was reminded with scarlet and shrieking alerts that good samaritans do not work remotely. And though physically I may live in the midst of need, I can emotionally and mentally relocate. Her cries echo still in our community, pulling us out of our silos, pointing us, pointing us, back to the road to Jericho. Asking us, asking us–when was the last time you touched the stranger, risked your safety? When was the last time it cost you something to prepare for this eternal life?

The men called the professionals and offered advice. The impromptu team of women bent low, the first to touch, to ask about her kids, as though meeting in the market–the lifelines of connection, family and what to live for. The Lord shielded the eyes of the children, no classes out between nutrition and lunch, no transfers between electives and schools. Pressure, and touch, and prayers applied. Blood thickened, the loss slowing. Hearts went out, and were returned emboldened.

We didn’t know where all the wounds were. We never do.

In time the uniforms arrived. She was taken to better help. Her son on the way. Her attacker found. A young man, wounds inside, being chased by his own attackers. God have mercy.

I was on my way to precious office hours. The privileged work I’m paid for, the place where children are not tugging and the climate is controlled. I saw my friend running. The screaming was not a normal screaming. The interruption was glaring, the invitation stark. I couldn’t miss it. But so often, so often, I do. In less dramatic stories, I find the angle to the other side of the street. I don’t look up from my text, my text of Christian employment, domestic hurry, measured sacrifice, as though that could be true. I miss the bending to the ground, the giving and finding of life, the neighbor I so need.

I forget that the commands are in the middle of the gift, the good samaritan told in the context of how to gain. The mystery of this Christian life is not how well it coincides with our American identity and sensibilities and comfort. The mystery of this Christ-filled life is how the giving and the lessening and the kneeling is our only way of promotion and purpose. The broken hallelujahs. The breaking of the bread. The exposure of scars.

“In shattered places, with broken people, we are most near the broken heart of Christ, and find our whole selves through the mystery of death and resurrection, through the mystery of brokenness and abundance.” -Voskamp, A Broken Way. Blessed are you when bad things happen and faćades fall down–favored, preferred, attended to by God are you when…

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This morning I was replanting feeble seedlings in a garden bed. I am a stranger to growing green, to trying new things, and risking failure. As I pressed on the good soil I had mixed in with the old, surrounding the small plant–propping it up with a hope and a prayer–I heard “you hem me in, behind, and before…you lay your hand on me…” I felt so lucky to have laid my hand on that dear woman in a time of brokenness, and a few days later, replanting for abundance, both pressing and feeling pressed upon. A couple hours later a friend sent me the same text, graphic and new.

Yes, there is no where we can flee from His glory. In death, in pain, in the gutters of our own selfishness, we are not abandoned. We are surrounded, as though a woman in an alley, bleeding but helped, wounded but rescued. We are each so human, so broken. Vulnerable. And these very things, which Jesus tenderly modeled, are the currency of God’s favor and love–of transcendent life. Give and receive; break and find life.

See and be seen.

Nostalgia – Lent Day 1, Week 1

<< With gratefulness, I’m using my college friend’s devotional guide this Lenten season that brings in the scripture readings, reflections, parts of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book record, and actual coloring pages designed by different artists. >>

The theme for the first week is Nostalgia. Like Garret, I have a strong internal voice from yesteryear, that influences much too much of how I evaluate Today. This unwelcome companion to my adulthood wants to define success for a life it knows nothing of and a life that yearns for godly success on its own terms. My old voice competes with the answer to “What is God’s invitation to me now, here?” and I feel, and know, and see that this voice contributes to my ongoing battles with discontent and depression.

I echo this part of the guide’s reflection: “…help me navigate the passion of my past with the wisdom of my present.”

I am filled with questions. What does spiritual formation look like now–what has it looked like for wives and moms of young kids, unpracticed in self-care, uncomfortable with traditional gender roles, and unfurled in this age of pseudo-connection and polarized faith? What space does passion inhabit when I am engrossed in other people’s needs almost every waking moment? What does the suffering and lament of Christ this season invite me to, as I both set aside temporal longings and find fulfillment and footing in the ancient, sacred rhythms?

img_5067The passages for today are 1 Kings 19:9-14, and Ps. 103:8-14. We were directed to listen and focus on particular verses in the song.

To me, verse 10 sang freedom. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. He does not maintain and enforce the old yardstick by which I measured my self; that was not His idea anyway.

Verse 8 also fought hard against the voice. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not hold me to a standard of motherhood and womanhood I cannot keep. He did not author the rubric I use to berate myself. His judgment is loving. His approach is calm.

In case you too are working hard to claim the Good News of liberation from past plans that have become judgments, I share this. Life is brutal; our God, our Savior, is not. His suffering is purposeful, foretold, redemptive. At times, I suffer as a part of His call. But other times, I suffer because of something empty, expired, and exhausting–a noise so consistent, so established, it’s been excused and accommodated though it no longer fits or rings true. As I step into more reflection this week, I am aware of the perils of this nostalgia soundtrack and my need for a Savior’s voice.

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Joy

Once, when I was a kid, I got in trouble.

I remember gettin’ a talking to for not showing enough emotion, especially when I was expected to be visibly grateful and happy. I think I was very awkward expressing emotions at some points, which may be hard for you to believe if you have been around me lately. I don’t know why I was almost non-communicative emotionally. I don’t think it was all due to being a brat. 🙂

I have been attending a 3-part class on adoption and substance abuse. Last week was about temperament. One of the dimensions they spoke about was emotional intensity. As a child, I had low emotional intensity. I was rarely hyper, excitable or giddy. I also did not show much sadness or pain. I was happy but also cautious, rational, and rule-oriented. Basically, I was 5 going on 55.

As I have become older, I have become comfortable admitting my emotions as well as a tendency towards melancholy. I am content with not being an optimist. At the same time, such a historical sense of apart-ness from the happy, hyper crowd has left me with a lingering sense of missing joy–like an observer to this great Christian virtue I never got. It has made for an internal dialogue and striving that sets joy as something foreign, other, and a “should” destination that is really tough to get to. I find joy intimidating.

There have been about a million mediocre reflections, devotions and sermons written on joy. I have found few very helpful. At the risk of adding another to the pile, here is what is helping me this year when it comes to the J-word.

Joy is not as much a behavior or demeanor as it is a current.

A space for wonder. Opening. Submitting. Tension. Aim.

I joined the shepherds this morning when I read in Luke 2 of when the angel delivered the news of so-called “great joy.” They saw Him. The area all around them was filled with His glory. They were surrounded by the sacred; they had full view of Love Himself. And yet they also stood there, filled with fear. The good news of great joy didn’t seem to take too quickly. Or did it?

So often in modernity, we are subtly and overtly told we have two choices. Grief or celebration. Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative. Demonizing or deifying a person. Productivity or healthiness. Separating convictions or moral relativism. Sadness or happiness. All is well or all is lost.

In the current of joy, from what I can tell, there is space for and instead of or. The end of the story is not what it used to be and the field–the announcement–is big enough to handle the glory and the fear.

Therefore, I can cry over losing a baby girl without losing the possibility of rejoicing over her first holidays, even if she is never told about me. I can choose to accommodate and be hospitable to people with religious and cultural rules that are different to mine, without losing my own point of view and witness. I can lament in the current of joy. I can be completely hurt and I can forgive the perpetrator. Though I don’t exactly know where I am headed since I joined this stream, I do not have to stay put in the Pain.

Joy can be before us, as much as it feels beyond us. Much like the newborn King–who, for the joy set before Him, endured suffering. Joy can carry us, when our feet cannot find the ground but in our core we insist that there is more to this story, that there is redemption for the darkest moments. Joy frees us to remember that we are not the center of the universe but we are attended to completely. Joy shifts us so we remember that Shalom is for all people, for all parts of people, for me, for the Other, for this.

That’s all I need. Not a new personality. Not a beaming demeanor. Just a shift, a space–a to-be-continued lightness. To be included in and count myself a part of a well-ending journey–that is joy enough this year.

Peace

I’m sure she would have liked to know the part about the stable.

Giving birth in the company of animals, no matter how primitive your normal life, does not shout “favored one” or “his kingdom will have no end.” It did not confirm the calling on her life and body and probably wasn’t the set up to the Messiah and a new reputation that she was anticipating. The darkness of the night must have been punctuated by great disappointment. By heavy question marks that asked, is there a mistake? Is this truly happening?

Still, somehow, that is the story. That is the nativity, the pageant, the beginning.

So many times this past year, I have not wanted the story I was given or a part of. I have cried and prayed beside people whose stories were not panning out. I have watched plot twists that left people in deep nighttime, susceptible to loneliness and despair. In my own small world, 2013 has included more than its share of stables and instability.

It is for us, then, that dawn breaks.

We are the ones with our eyes fixed on the sky, who know that our greatest fears are not always unfounded and are peering through them to find a new star. We know the allure of apathy and absenteeism and can also testify to that pump of energy and faith that is a brief gift, completely unmanufactured by our own will or effort–simply a lifeline until the next calm can be found. We are the ones who grip another’s hand harder than we have had to before, who have come to readily admit our limitations because the lie of carrying them alone and quietly has been shattered by reality. We have come to the end of ourselves and found that He embraces that journey and frees us to our need. We are the ones less convinced than ever of worldly frameworks of health and happiness.

Just as there was no place for them, the immaculate conception, in the inn, things have probably passed that we had no room for–in our psyche, our emotional muscles, our schedules, our faith. We had no constructs to get through the time with, to lead us in the nights. We look up with empty hands, feeling unsheltered and oh so tired.

I am praying, leaning, holding my breath–that this advent would welcome the dawn of redeeming grace we sing about and for which we search. In the silent nights that haunt us, in the stables of disappointment. Not of a deus ex machine hero tale that dismisses what has happened but a step in each narrative towards resolution. A creeping towards the Prince of Peace. A filter, a blanket, over and under and through the darkness.

That would be peace. That would be a small way to add an ornament to the assorted memories of the year, a bridge to the unfinished ballads. That is the Christmas we need–not high-gloss but deep footing. We need to know that “those who dwelt in deep, intense darkness, on them the light shone”–in exile, in disobedience, in famine, in suffering. In birth and new life.

…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us…

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, 

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79