Oh don’t worry. I will be writing about it.
What are we doing here? is a question we ask ourselves often, constantly, a thrumming beatbox to our jam-packed lives. What are we doing here, what is the point of all of this: relocation, downward mobility, eschewing hierarchy, doggedly believing that Christ is here?
All we ever do is learn from people, I told my husband last night. That is truly all we do. We don’t do anything of importance, we are stretched too thin by too many needs to ever really be of use (the one thing that I so wanted to be). We do not have opportunities to share complicated doctrines or theologies, we are not making a difference in the world. But oh, how we are learning from people. How we are wide-eyed and mouth-closed, how we are the opposite of workers, how we are trying so hard to pay attention and notice all of those important lessons we somehow missed along the way.
Peter didn’t pay good attention in the Bible. He scoffed and scorned those women who showed up and said what they all wanted so badly to be true but couldn’t let themselves believe: that Jesus had transcended death, that he was alive, that his kingdom was here, that forgiveness and resurrection was now available for all. Peter didn’t believe them, he ignored the marginalized just like everyone else. But when no one was looking, when he could no longer ignore the hope in his chest anymore, when everyone else had left–he ran to the tomb as fast as his legs could carry him.
All we ever did was try to be good, productive, correct. All we ever do now is stand still and notice. All we ever do these days is run, run as fast as we can to where we can only hope our signs of resurrection will be.
Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
–Cheryl Strayed (as Dear Sugar)*
I have two friends who are very pregnant right now, and both of them are writers. They are smart, thoughtful, beautiful souls, and when they pour themselves onto the page you just want to stop everything and sit with them. They both have other children (beautiful, loud). And they both told me that with the upcoming birth of their next child, they felt like the writing part of their life was going to be over.
I understand where those thoughts come from–the hormones, the panic, the sleep deprivation that acts like a very bad batch of drugs for a very long time–but I can’t condone them. I know my friends, and I know the work they have produced, and I know what is in their future. They will experience the mess and the chaos of birth and newborn land and shifting, growing families. They will cocoon inside of themselves, for months and even years perhaps, pouring out their bodies as sacrifices of love, rocking and shushing and feeding and cleaning and wiping, all while they tend to the endless minutia of everything else they are in charge of in their lives. They will continue on in that long obedience of selflessness, the continual little deaths and rebirths that parenting is comprised of, and one day they will lift their heads up and find that their head is clear and their mind is itching. They will start writing again. And they will be better than ever. Their babies will make them better writers.
If you asked me, point blank, what my thoughts on motherhood were, I would hem and haw for as long as possible. I have nothing eloquent to say, except that it wrecked my life in so many ways, and it healed it in just as many. Marriage for me was no big adjustment, just a lot of fun to have a partner to roam the world with, and we made a lot of space for us to be our individual, introverted selves. But motherhood was the great shedding of selfishness that I didn’t even know existed, it was the time of confronting how very tied up my own identity was in being productive for God: helping others, loving my neighbors, teaching ESOL classes, volunteering with refugees, working full-time. Then I got pregnant, developed a rare-and-life-threatening condition, and found myself both very ill and with a premature baby to care for. Suddenly, I could not do most of those things that had always defined me as me. I was alone with a sad baby who was not quite ready for the world, and it was my job to keep her alive.
When she was 6 months old, possibly 8, I started to write. In earnest. The hours of being alone-but-not-alone, of rocking and shushing and swaddling and feeding and cleaning and walking and breathing, had built up to a point of pressure in my mind. I started, for the first time, to objectively look at my life. To assess my background, how I grew up, what I was taught to believe, and what that meant for my life choices. My baby, with her round-the-clock-needs, turned me into a bird that soared high above my own life. It was the first time I was able to step outside of it. The first time I realized how important honesty and vulnerability were to be in my life going forward.
I wrote for her, that chubby-cheeked spitfire sitting on her bumbo on the kitchen table while I slowly started sending pieces off into the void. And she helped me, in so many ways, push beyond the narrow confines of what it meant to be in the world, of where my value came from. And this, my friends, is the backbone of what it means to have prophetic imagination, of what it means to be a creative in a very conforming world.
I learned to write when I became a mother, because that was my vehicle for stepping outside of myself. For you, perhaps it was something else; something tragic or wonderful (or some combination therein). Something that helped you to see your small place in a very big world, to wonder at what your response might be to it all. Motherhood certainly doesn’t necessitate great art (in fact, many can cling to the trappings of motherhood as yet another symbol of productivity in the world) but I have known enough great writers now to know that it spurs you on towards the deepening of things.
Motherhood, for me, has been my agent of becoming small, of living a true upside-down life, of whittling away at my draughts of self-absorption. I am more afraid than ever, and yet I continue to do very brave and hard things. And I just want to say to all of my friends out there, the ones who adore and fear the changes coming: write like a mother. Write like the souls that you are, the ones who were put here to notice whatever it is that God placed in front of you.
The kingdom of God comes through babies, I imagine Christ whispering to his disciples as they tried to shoo the unkempt, uncouth, loud and beautiful children away. They didn’t understand, because they so badly wanted to be doing something so good for him, their savior. But later, through their own forms of death and rebirth–watching Jesus slowly die as a failure in front of them, huddling up in an empty room together–they would be cracked wide open by the pain and joy of being so connected to everyone in the world.
And luckily for us, some of them stopped and wrote about it.
*to read Strayed’s entire advice column (of which I “Christian-ized” a bit in this post–sorry, Sugar!) go here. You will not regret it. While you are at it, why don’t you go and read all of her columns? You will not be left the same.
Yesterday my friend sent me an old picture of hers from Instagram–a photo of my daughter, age 1, crawling around the floors of our apartment. my friend said “I just want to be back at [your old apartment complex] with you, drinking French Press and getting scratched by your cat Huckleberry. SOB. Can we go back in time a bit when life was simpler? I’ll meet you there.”
The picture, and the sentiments, stopped me cold in the middle of my day. My baby–so little, so adorable, such a weird little mullet–I had almost forgotten what she had been like at one. Then there was the apartments: the well-kept low-income housing complex where we lived for four years in SE Portland, which in my minds eye seems cleaner and quieter than anything we have experienced since (a dishwasher! no cockroaches! my husband’s life only got threatened once!). I remember the huge windows, the natural light streaming in (even if it was a bit cloudy), sitting on my orange corduroy couch and drinking coffee with my friend. How we agonized about our lives, how far they were from our ideals, how we were always itching to get on to the next phase of life.
And now here we are. My friend and her husband moved to Uganda, their lives are a mishmash of experiences I cannot even imagine, her photo stream filled with joy and sweat, me wishing I could reach out and touch her. Me and my grown-up baby and my husband moved across the country and plunged ourselves a further bit down the ladder of the American dream, our lives a beautiful jumble and we can’t keep track of all that we have learned or all the ways we have been changed. And as much as I love my life now, I still, just for a moment, longed to go back in time. To sit with my friend, clutching my baby, in my beautiful cozy apartment surrounded on every side by refugee friends and neighbors, to drink coffee and to appreciate the day for what it was.
I told my husband about this. Remember when we lived there? I said. It was a great time to be alive. We were so happy.
I don’t know, my husband answered slowly. You always seemed a bit lonely to me.
There is another picture I thought of the other day, which I tracked back to my Myspace page (oh my word do you remember those?). This is me when I was probably 20, maybe 21. I am untroubled by the world. My face is smooth and unlined, my hair short and swingy, a beautiful baby strapped to my back. i was no doubt running around tacking up flyers for the kids homework club that I started, visiting various families, sitting on floors and eating with my fingers, sitting on couches and being ignored, just showing up week after week for this amazing life that I had discovered in the pockets of America. I did not have angst. I was pleased with myself, pleased with the part I was doing in the world, pleased to know I was using my gifts well.
On second thought, that isn’t quite true. I was, after all, there to “practice” on people before I moved overseas, before I really dedicated myself to God, when I had all my theologies sorted out and a team and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I was testing it out, seeing if I was any good at it, slowly becoming suspicious of all of the people I knew who loved to talk about mission but couldn’t be bothered to come once a week and help refugee kids learn basic math. I discovered that I was not good at a whole lot of things: proselytizing, supervising homework clubs with 50+ kids and no other volunteers, doing it all on my own without getting bitter. I was more than a little bit lonely. And instead of being good at anything, I began to realize how much pleasure I found in being with people who were different from me.
I’m thinking about all of this, because the angst has never really left me. Even in this season, it is here, lurking underneath. I recently watched Ragamuffin, the story of Rich Mullins (a personal hero of mine), and it left me more than a bit uncomfortable. I recognized so much of myself in him, both his depths of unhappiness and fierce propulsion to continually move forwards. How can somebody continually have revelations from God, write songs about his love, and then have moments of being completely unconvinced of that truth? But this is how it is, this is the reality of the world. We hear revelations, and we forget. We experience love, and we forget. We witness the miracles of forgiveness and resurrection, and we forget. We see the kingdom come, we are filled with love for the church, we are content to be little mustard seeds and then–it all flows away like water.
I have no doubt that in three years time I will look back at this time, this day, this season in my life with nothing but kindness. Through rose-colored glasses I will only see the good, will only see the revelations, will choose to not see the clouds of forgetfulness. I will be kind to my un-perfect self, realize that if I spent over 20+ years of my life willing myself to be the one who goes out and saves everybody then it might be realistic to think it would take some time to gently undo those faulty beliefs and all the relational brokenness that comes out of them.
If I could go back in time–ten years ago, three years ago–what would I tell myself? I would probably say:You can move across the country, sell all that you have and live in a poorer neighborhood–and you will still feel that restless urge. You will not be able to outrun your demons, the sense that you are never doing enough. You will continue to fluctuate between deliriously happy in the love of God and what he is up to in the world and being crushed by the inaction and apathy of so many around you. The angst is not going to go away. The love will continue to grow until it engulfs you. You will be crushed, and you will be resurrected, time and time again.
You will still be so very lonely. You will still be so very loved.
I am writing this here to remind myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I will soon forget.
*Ha! I totally got you! That, my friends, is called clickbait. Of course I go to church. I just am not very good at it.
Yesterday I did not go to church. I did not feel well at all, and usually we come to the ends of our week ragged both with the good things and the incurably mundane. I read a Walter Brueggemann sermon instead (suggested by a dear friend) and cried my eyes out. I watched a video of a prophetic demonstration, and cried some more. I listened to a podcast while I cleaned my kitchen and–you guessed it–the tears came again.
A few times a month we go to a little Mennonite church in our neighborhood. We started going there because we could walk to it when the weather is nice. Before we started attending, a year and a half ago, we had never been inside of a Mennonite church before. We really like it. It is so peaceful (a result of their theology, perhaps?) and I sit and listen to the songs I didn’t grow up singing, the four-part harmonies that spill so easily out of the lips of my neighbors. I am lost, but I enjoy it. I sit in the pew and soak up what I do and do not know.
Before the Mennonite church we were in a beautiful little house church. People coming together to share their gifts and their crockpot casseroles, everybody has a job, everyone has something valuable to share, the children run around and wave prayer flags, there is shushing and nervous silence and awkward sermons and it is so empowering to be reminded that all the church is are people. We are it. And we are enough.
Before that we came from churches where the music was gospel, the music is one white boy with a guitar, the music is non-existent, the music is projected onto the 3 large screens up front. We come from churches where the pastor tells us what to think, where he tells us how to live a better life, where all are supposedly welcome, where only some are. I have a bit of charismatic in me, a little bit of conservatism, a tiny bit of anti-intellectualism, a dash of anabaptist with a sprinkle of old-school evangelicalism. A lifetime of Bible Studies centered on the rapture, of pentecostal Bible colleges, charismatic conferences, Baptist professors, church of Christ doctrines, a non-denominational pastor dad. I can’t leave any of it behind. Nor can I forget all of the ways I have grown in the love of God that have happened outside of the doors of the church: friendships and relationships with those that would never feel comfortable stepping inside a traditional church. The uneducated. Those experiencing poverty. People of different religions. People who can’t bear to be marginalized again.
So we don’t really belong to one particular church. Oh, we attend somewhat regularly and are involved in the “body”, as it were (volunteering for nursery, serving on the mission committee). But no matter where we are, what season of life we are in, we always have one foot out the door. The question of my whole life has started to thrum louder and louder until it becomes hard to hear anything else: who isn’t here? Who is excluded? Who are we missing out on being in relationship with? And no matter where you go, there are always so many who are missing.
We’ve got to start broadening our definition of church; perhaps our unwillingness to be forthright about the exclusivity that undermines nearly every element of every Sunday service in this country is a reason why some might feel less than thrilled at the prospect of a traditional church. The world is too beautiful and varied and wide for us to fiercely hold to one pastor, one building, one sermon series. Whenever someone is a bit too gung-ho about their particular location/brand/sermon podcast I always have to wonder: that all sounds lovely, but surely you know that this isn’t all there is? That none of us, on our own, ever truly figure it out?
I have been changed, in the best way possible, by my experiences and interactions with everyone in my life. The fundamentalists, the progressives, the charismatics, the un-churched, the Baptists, the mennonites, people of different cultures and ethnicities and spiritual backgrounds.
I’m all for supporting and encouraging the local church. But I’ve got two eyes in my head and I see that God’s dream for the church is nowhere to be found in my neighborhood. It’s always one tribe, one tongue, one nation over here. So until we have the imagination and the wherewithal to bring God’s kingdom down to earth, I guess I will continue to keep one foot out the door, always looking for who isn’t here. I will of course continue to go to church most days, support it, love it, learn from it, push it, and prod it. But may I never fully belong there, may I never fully be satisfied. May I never, ever stop asking: who isn’t here?
the other day i almost bought a living social deal for a costco membership, until my husband gently reminded my of my scruples. this is the problem with
public journaling blogging. people remind you of grand-sounding things you said once, quite some time ago. but life marches on, and you move into a beautiful lil’ house that actually has a basement where you could purchase and store sensibly-priced paper goods in bulk, where your life could be just a tiny bit easier. time is a river rushing by and there are so many ways to remember that you are always coming up short in your quest to identify with people on the margins. there are so many ways to tune out the prophets.
where we live, going to the dentist is an ordeal. we live in the midst of a city, as urban as i have ever experienced. we are surrounded by payday loan companies and “treatment centers” and halal markets. But the only available dentists for miles and miles around are all students: bright-eyed young things who poke and prod your mouth and have to call in a crash of supervisors for any little old thing. it takes forever (it costs relatively little). people make mistakes. a one-visit procedure stretches into 3 or 4. i take my daughter to these students because she is complaining of tooth pain. they look at me and my medical insurance card from the government, and they loudly tell me that i really should be bringing her in for a cleaning every few months. i hang my head, ashamed, letting this young thing think whatever it is she wants to about me. my daughter’s teeth are perfect, they cannot see any cavities. i only feel slightly better.
my husband got his tooth pulled last year. it is one of his canines, you can only tell when he smiles so wide that his eyes get lost in the crinkles. before this happened i didn’t know there was yet another way to categorize people in our society, a way that we not-so-subtly put people in their place. there are people in our country who are missing teeth, and there are people who get them replaced. nowadays, i know so many people with the tell-tale gaps. my students, the ones who are so recently arrived here in this country, they are in the midst of it. a student will be gone for a few days, then come to class, holding an embarrassed hand over her mouth. she doesn’t want to talk. when she finally does, i see it: 4 or 5 teeth pulled, many in the front, just like that. no replacements, no nothing. we all have the same insurance. the government will help us all pay for the teeth to be removed, but replacing them is viewed as “cosmetic”. vanity of vanities, to want to look in the mirror and remember for a second, how it all used to be.
i don’t mind the gap in my husband’s smile, i think it is rather cute. but the dentists said that since my husband is so young that is could permanently mess up the way the other teeth in his mouth move around, could cause him many problems in later years. so we scrimp and save for a year, shelling out what amounts to more than what we paid for our (admittedly not-so-great) minivan, our identification coming to a screeching halt. my husband is on his way to let students insert a screw into his jaw; in a few months they will affix a new, shining tooth. he will go on with his life, eating whatever he pleases, working in his professional capacity, bearded, pleasant, whole.
a few months ago our cat was bit by another; the wound was large and gaping and we didn’t know what to do. we tried to clean it up but by the next day it was clear that this was bad news. we found a cardboard box and brought her to the vet; they put her anesthetic and cleaned her wound and put in a drain. she was gone the whole day and when she came home we had to put a cone around her miserable head. she moped, for a week, and we bought her special kitty food to coax her. she got better, day by day. we fixed the screen door so she couldn’t get out anymore (our neighborhood does have the meanest cats you ever did see) and she meows pitifully, longing to be out. but it cost us so much money to save her that we can’t afford for it to happen again. a neighbor came over and sat under our tree in the backyard and we talked about pets who got hurt, and all the ones who died because vets were not even an option. all the animals we loved so much when we were young, the ones we clutched and cooed at and kissed; the ones who fell by the wayside, who were attacked by the robbers of the world, the ones that we were always powerless to save. i look at my cat, gleaming and whole, and it is a marker of difference. of options. the opposite of identification.
teeth and kitties, such vulnerable parts of ourselves. the whole world is a place that is liable to hurt us, to weaken us, decay us and bite us. some of us have access to resources and money where we can forget about these realities for a few more months, a few more years. we can justify ourselves to people just like us all the day long, but in the end, the same Christ looks at all of our hearts. and he will ask all of us: did you learn from the prophets, the ones i sent you all along? the gap-toothed and the sad, the wounded and the un-whole? because they are preaching to us, all the time.
they are the reminders of the kingdom that is slowly barreling into our hearts and our minds and our lives, a kingdom where every tooth and every kitty is cherished, valued, and most importantly, mourned.
It was a hard spring and summer, harder than I care to admit; now that everything is better I realize what level of stress and sadness I was operating under. Coming out of a winter where it was colder than mars, we ran headlong into a season of chaos and being crushed under the burdens of trying to neighbor well in intense situations. I thought I became allergic to something, found my throat closing up, started gasping for breath at the most inopportune times. I went to the doctor and had them stick all the needles in my back, but it came back negative. The doctor gently told me that there was no biological evidence that I was allergic to anything. You might want to consider panic attacks, he told me, and I instantly felt foolish. I didn’t know that was what they felt like–I assumed shaking and jittering and crying. Not wanting to drive or talk on the phone of feeling like your throat was closing in on you–this was just my new normal.
Now I breath clear and fine, I have forged through rough relationships and came out tender and new on the other side: what lesson better than forgiveness can we ever take to our graves? It is truly a mystery, finding yourself rock solid in selfishness, having the Spirit crack you wide open, deciding that you are the worst and everyone is the worst and why don’t we all consider the lilies together? Because there really are some lovely ones in my neighborhood.
This summer I went back to Oregon for a visit, the place of my family and my people and so many of my threshold experiences. I visited with the Somali refugee family that changed my life, nearly a decade ago now. The girls are tall and tower over me, high schoolers who take inordinate amounts of selfies, giggling into laptops, cooking the evening meal. I wrote a book, I told them, feeling more than a little nervous. They were non-plussed. Oh yeah? I thought you liked to write or something. I pushed ahead. The book has a lot to do with you guys. They look at me, but don’t say anything. You know, how you guys changed my life. How you taught me so much about God, about what it is like to be a refugee, what America looks like to you . . . I trailed off. I suppose I was looking for their approval. They shrug their shoulders and look back at their screens. Yeah, you did learn a lot from us, both of them say. This has been apparent to them since day one. They are bored of this conversation, and pull out a baseball cap that is completely covered in large gold studs, the bling just dripping off of it. Want to take your picture wearing this hat? they ask, and of course I say yes.
Very few people I see everyday care about books. They do not read the magazines I read, they do not adore the same authors, they do not understand the intricacies of industry and marketing and platform, the great big desire to be noticed, to be new, to be good, to be admired. They do not understand how people who publish books can sometimes become giant cardboard cut-outs of themselves. They do not know how easy it is to fall into those categories, to wander in the way of self-righteousness, irony, elitism, hubris, or easy breezy moralism. Most of the people I hang out with are refugees, many of them non-literate, the majority of them all carving out lives in the hard stone of the American Dream. The other person I hang out with is 4, and she is a wormhole of ferocious need, an excellent advocate for herself, a barreling ball of kingdom values (truthfulness, faith, love), and she most emphatically does not like anything that takes my attention away from her.
It is good to be small, good to have more than a handful of identities (wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, teammate, teacher, advocate) that vie for your attention, split you up and keep you on the ground. For awhile I looked in despair at the discrepancies of my life: living and working within one population (people experiencing poverty in America) while writing for another (mainly Christians who come from somewhat privileged backgrounds). But now it starts to seem like a gift, an authentic whole, a way to beat back the sin of pride (which comes at me from every direction). To be small, everywhere. Living in the upside-down kingdom, and writing about it. To try and be honest, to be vulnerable, to open yourself up for the inevitable misunderstandings and criticisms, to forge on ahead and practice forgiving and being forgiven. What lesson better than forgiveness can we ever take to our graves?
I was born a reader and fed by a mother who let me be interested in the world, by small-town libraries, by a quest to know truth. But I did not start writing (beyond the college paper or a re-cap of a missions trip) until a few years ago. I now pinpoint the shift to when I had my daughter. I was made small and still by that experience. I had many more hours to contemplate (feeding and rocking and jiggling the baby), and it seems to me writing happens in your head when you give yourself some space to think. So I wrote a few things and sent them off, was legitimized by places I adored and read religiously. And I was surprised to find that the element underlying my new obsession with writing my own words was this: I finally wanted to be as honest as I could. And the only way I could be honest with myself is if I wrote it down.
And in the past 3+ years, that is what I have been doing. Eventually I realized I had written a book. It took me a long way to get to the place of saying I am ready for people to read that book, but here I am. I am over the moon. I am entering into this new part of life, this plan I never expected for myself. I just signed a contract with HarperOne (such a dream choice!) and I am excited for the expertise and the bridge-crossing that this particular publishing house is capable of. I’ll be sure and give you all the particulars as I come to understand them, but for now I just wanted to say thank you. It’s been a hard season, it has been one that has changed me. I am still coming to terms with all of my different selves, especially the ones that I never lived up to. When I started writing, I was finally able to be honest with myself and with God. And it became my way of considering the lilies–especially the ones that the world forgot. When I started writing, I started to finally start being able to understand the radical nature of honest in relationship to reconciliation and forgiveness. And I know I will have to keep re-learning it until I can learn no more.
I guess I just want to say thank you to everyone: thank you so much for reading along with me, for encouraging me and praying and being the cup of cold water that I generally always seem to need. But most of all, thank you for letting me write it out as I need to. It means more to me than you can possibly know.
“There is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith. It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with their alienation” –Jurgen Moltmann, the Crucified God
“For in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves” Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and I pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned in our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand. There was a black boy who died and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: you have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is. In his astounding kindness, my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing to my soul than I could begin to understand.
It has taken many years, many relationships, cringe-worthy questions and blustering self-righteousness to get to the place that I am today, a place which is still far from where I want to be. My choice of neighborhoods is just the tip of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel far from the people in Ferguson, but not as far as I was a few years ago; I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.
That people prefer themselves and all others like them is no surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refute that our systems might have the exact same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems (political and religious) are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me before, until I realized what the converse of that equation is.
Those systems are against others.
That sentence alone is enough to stop me. The words sin and repentance and judgement swim before my eyes. But this time, the meaning is different. Turning away from myself, and turning towards God: for me it has looked almost unbearably practical. It has meant turning towards the ones who are being shut out.
It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgement, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep but it has turned out the opposite. The struggle to convince myself and others around that we were not, in fact, prejudiced people living in a very un-equal country–this is what has caused my soul enormous pain and distance from Christ himself.
Because Christ came to suffer with us, and he has no use for people who brightly and loudly exclaim that they indeed are well, that there is no need for radical transformation, no need for someone to save us from the seeds of white supremacy that have been sowed in us from the beginning. So in order to edge nearer to a God who is present in suffering, I had to lay down my mantel of being well. I had to, in the words of a beautiful poet, “start cleaning my house.”
Make no mistake, I am scrubbed raw and bare and feel the impending panic of how often this process will need to be repeated. But the freedom–the absolute and utter bounty of staring our alienation in the face and telling it to go to hell–is something I will never give up again.
What has and is happening in Ferguson (which is a picture of what is happening all throughout our country) is an invitation to us all. The more we declare that we are well, the farther we will drift from Christ. And he is the only one with the words of life. He is the one offering us his own scars, pleading with us to look at our own.
I graduated with a degree in Bible/Theology in December of 2007, and a few short days later, we were married. We moved into the old farm house next to the mega-church where you were the care-taker/maintenance man. The price was right (free) and the rolling hills and llamas-for-neighbors allowed us to buy a beat-up old drum set and start a 2-person family band (sample lyrics: We’re just two pork chops marinating love/we’ve got each other and that’s enough).
You were still in school, I was working depressing retail jobs, we were young and in love and materially poor. We ate candy for dinner and never worried about anything that happened outside of our cozy house, safe and secure with each other.
At the independent bookstore on campus, that oasis within the storm, I saw a book that would not escape me. Jesus for President. Faux-battered, a precious little lamb on the cover, an intriguing political title. Although we never, ever did this, I bought the book at full price, fresh off the press, and took it home to read.
We took turns, devouring entire chapters, me impatient with your slow and careful reading. Maybe this was our first married fight. We sat together in the over-sized recliner that was there when we moved in, too large to fit through the doors. Squished next to each other, we would talk long into the night: serious conversations about what we were reading. Words like “Empire” entered our vocabulary for the very first time. You were converted intellectually and theologically to the idea of pacifism right away, chasing down the rabbit trails in your mind, finding for you a belief that mirrored your own sacrificial love, your unshakeable forgiving spirit, your sense of God as a very good father. I was captured by the immediate practicalities, casting off the cloak of the kingdoms of capitalism and consumerism. We changed all of our shopping habits, committing to second-hand and doing without, tuned out of all the political discussions swirling around us.
We were being converted, together. This doesn’t always happen, and I know what a precious gift this time was. We were changed, both of us, and we decided to obey together.
The book spoke to us in a time where we could recite the Bible out of both ears yet hungered to know how it could penetrate our spirits and our wallets and our relationships with everyone we knew. The subversive nature of it was exciting, the practicalities beyond challenging. We spent a night or two hopeless at our own complicity. And we repented to one another, and held hands as we tried to move forward.
A few short months after we read that book, we made some changes. I went to graduate school, getting a degree that was slightly less theoretical in nature. You pursued your calling as a notice-er and a peacemaker. We moved into the low-income apartment complex where so many of our refugee friends lived. We said goodbye to the rolling hills and llama’s and our last chance to play the drums as loudly as we wanted to, to live just exactly as we pleased.
And it has never been the same. With Jesus as our President, the world has become so much more complicated. We have been shocked at the amount of confrontation we have run into, the amount of forgiveness we have had to ask our Father for. Nothing is easier, but it has all been so much brighter.
Sometimes, if I am being honest, I still feel a little afraid of what will happen next, now that we have no Empire guidelines to fall back on. All I have is this little piece of Jesus I hold onto, believing that he can heal us from ourselves. And you are here with me, sitting right beside me as I type this out. It helps me to no end that I know we will continue to turn again, to be converted towards the Christ that brought us together, and I pray that it never stops.
And maybe someday we will buy another old drum-set, and start a band where everyone we know will be invited to sing along.
That certainly sounds like something you would do.
Other posts in the Book That Changed Your Life series:
Look out for a killer guest post coming on Thursday!
There was a moment, just a moment, when the happiness overwhelmed me. I was driving a white minivan through the sun-drenched outer boroughs of Portland, the one where the grass was already dead and brown, where the cars pile high in the front yards, where the hipsters are few and far between. Navigating the streets I know so well, driving on auto-pilot; almost audibly my thoughts came: I’m home. The sweetness inherent in that thought–of being known and wanted and comforted–is quickly swallowed up by the realization: no, I’m not. I don’t live here anymore. I am embarrassed, look to my left and my right. But no one is there to see my slip into nostalgia, watch my new life and my old cause confusion in my eyes.
It is so cliché, but it must be said: I am homesick, no matter where I am.
One great thing about being married to a counselor is that sometimes they give you free observations about your life. The other day my husband told me that to an outside observer, it might look as though I was compelled to seek out relationships with people who are very, very different from myself. Conversely, he also noted, it appeared that my family and community were consistent sources of comfort for me. These two poles on which I staked my life sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other: what is safe, what is unknown. What is comfortable, what is exhilarating. To pursue one means that naturally, the other falls by the wayside.
Last week, in Portland, I was fed full and watched my daughter play with her cousin, I attended a baby shower for my older sister, I went for long walks with my mother, I made root beer floats with my father. Everywhere we went and ate and played I was looking for others, the worlds hidden between, for the marginalized of our society. They are few and far between in Portland, a city that is supremely silly and somehow never satiated in the desire for acceptance. I walked into a coffee shop where everyone looked so exactly alike that it felt like a slap to me: the calculated outfits and language and coffee drinks totaling up one very exclusive experience, designed more to keep others out than to usher them in. I went to church and cried all during worship, aching at how wonderful it was to see a large group of people together and singing about freedom; I slipped away into myself during the sermon, thinking about all the people who would not be able to step inside these doors. Surrounded by family and friends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick for the life I have created in the exotic Midwest, long for my neighborhood and my neighbors
Last week, in Portland, I was driving across town in a white minivan. I was by myself, driving to see very old friends, the ones who first showed me where the upside-down kingdom was. I know every street, have a story for almost each city block. I let myself go down the nostalgic trail of thoughts: I met my husband here. I had my baby here. I went to Bible college here. I met the friends who changed my life here. The other part of me–the one who grew up thinking that those who gave up everything to serve God–quickly pushed these thoughts away. I actively, aggressively chided myself into submission. Geography means nothing to me. My entire childhood was spent moving, every 2-3 years. What was important was family, the new church we were at, the next calling of God on our lives. But somehow I stayed in Portland for nearly 9 years, and the asphalt and the street signs and the brown grass in the summer has burrowed into my bones. I am homesick for a place. And it is completely divorced from any sense of mission within me. I just love it for what it is: my home.
A month or so ago here in the exotic midwest I went to visit a friend who moved into the suburbs. Her and her little family are on their way up, moving out of the cramped and crowded-to-overflowing house in the middle of the city. I am happy for her, even as I am sad at the natural distance that will come at her being 30 miles away. I saw her apartment complex, large and full of similarly placed families, everybody packed tight together, everybody trying to make it. The outside facade so clean, the hallways inside rather grimy. I instantly loved it. As I left, I let my hands trail along the walls, imagining what it would be like to move in there. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live in every apartment building in the city, in the country, in the world.
And even though I know this is not even possible in the slightest, there is a large part of me that wants to try.
The problem is: I have so many homes.