Category Archives: Media

i am the beggar of the world

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I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors–calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones–not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling–a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.

 

 

I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. “I am not interested in the headlines,” she told us. “But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening”.

I’m taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:

 

In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

 

As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren’t there, who felt excluded in some way–due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.

 

I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.

 

 

 

 

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Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

I so resonate with Deidre in this piece. I am not a huge modern art fan myself, but when I do find a piece that speaks to me–it sort of takes my breath away. I am so grateful for this beautiful, succinct essay on finding universal themes of sorrow and love in art–and how similar we all are despite our world doing it’s best to convince we are all alone in our miseries. Any piece of art that asks us to crack our hearts open just a bit wider is to me a blessing from Christ himself. 

 

 

Upside-Down Art: Disappearing, Endless Love

Guest Post by Deidre Sanchez

 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Image from the Brooklyn Museum

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Image from the Brooklyn Museum

 

I am not one for contemporary art. Most of the large scale displays in the big museums fail to evoke any emotion in me. I always feel so disconnected from whatever the artist is trying to say. As if we live on two different planes of meaning and we’re talking to cross purposes. It’s always the Pollacks and Van Goghs that I linger in front of. The O’ Keefes that steal my breath. The Chagall’s that draw me to wonder.  When I visit museums, I dutifully walk the floors of contemporary art, sometimes almost at a run. I don’t want to miss something creative and beautiful just because of my own prejudice but I am always prepared for disappointment. In the Chicago Museum of Art I was (almost) running the top floor, smirking inwardly at the two hipsters stopped in front of some tangled up string engaged in a very serious discussion on how this was so derivative of Lindberg. (I know. I’m the worst).

 

I enter a new room and a flash of glowing color catches the corner of my eye. I spin right. There is a luminous heap of something. Glass? Lightbulbs? I’m not sure what it is that’s piled in the corner of the room. It seems so alive, iridescent, incandescent. I thought this pile must be lighted up from the inside: pulsing with color and light as I move towards it. I read the card. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA). Ross Laycock was the artist’s partner and died of AIDs. The pile was originally 175 lbs worth of cellophane wrapped candy, which represented his ideal body weight. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece of candy to represent his slowly diminishing body weight. The artist asked that the museum replenish the pile “thereby metaphorically granting his partner perpetual life.” Love. The word rings like a gong struck in my head. All the pain of loss and love sitting on the ground in front of me. I reach my hand out to take a piece, meditating on the pain of watching someone you love shrink smaller with disease. Is that a universal experience? Do we all at some point lose one we love to deadly disease? Watch them disappear piece by piece. If we could all grant them perpetual life in the vast array of  colorful glory in which they lived!

 

I have the piece of candy still. It’s sitting in the basket by my bed. The cellophane wrapper dulled with dust, less stunning now that it’s separated from its mound. Every once in a while I take it out and roll it between my fingers. I don’t know Gonzalez-Torres. I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him on the street. I don’t assume that I have much in common with a gay, Cuban-American artist. And yet his work threw out a thread and drew me in. Into his pain. He tied our shared experience together with one stroke of breathtaking imagery. And when I close my eyes I see the glow of cellophane wrappers lit by a skylight overhead and I think of Ross.

 

 

unnamed-6Deidre Sanchez is a Jesus-follower, wife and mother, a disillusioned optimist, amateur cook and obsessive reader. She currently writes at agapeeverywhere.wordpress.com. Her blog is a personal exploration of the nature of love. It’s an experiment in how far love can go, what it looks like and how people experience it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series (and to submit your own!) click here.

 

 

 

 

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Expensive Narratives: Captain Philips and the Somali Community

I watched the Oscars on Sunday (how did I make it through award shows before the snarky, humorous insights of Twitter?) and I rooted for my boy, Barkhad Abdi. Even though I knew it was a long shot for him to win Best Supporting Actor, it was still surreal to see one of my neighbors, a Cedar Riverside proud Somali boy, walking that red carpet. And it made me long for the day when actors like Barkhad and Lupita have thousands of roles to choose from–and they don’t just have to play pirates or slaves.

 

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Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne

 

I recently wrote about what it’s been like to be at the periphery of the East African diaspora in America. Every day I am astonished at who is carving out a life in this frozen tundra of a land (Lewis and Clark deemed it “inhabitable” back in the day, and I am inclined to agree with them). I find myself living and working in the heart of a community which is complicated, inspiring, thriving–and repeatedly misrepresented by the media.

I haven’t written too much about my personal life here, for many reasons. The spotlight on Barkhad Abdi and his role in Captain Philips made for a timely piece, and it finally felt appropriate for me to share my own experiences here.  While I am not an expert on Somalis or the East African community, I believe that it might be helpful for other outsiders like myself to get a peek at a different narrative than the one we are being told over and over again.

Here’s the beginning:

 

 

My friend was celebrating Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday commemorating the feast of Abraham, like everyone else was: by going to the Mall of America. I went with her and her family, wearing the clothes she had given me for the occasion. My dress was colorful and flowy; we wandered around the mall and people-watched. It was still a bit early, but the large East African diaspora in the middle of the Midwest was already beginning to pour in. Families, as far as the eye can see, laughing husbands, smiling mothers, children running and shrieking, everyone dressed up in their best clothes, shopping, riding the carousel. I followed my friends, insecure in my outfit, feeling like an imposter or worse—someone playing dress up. The clothes that hung so elegantly on my friends looked like a costume on me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, just by trying to fit in, to look like everyone else, to celebrate a day and a culture that is not my own.

After a few hours, my friend took off to go see the movie Captain Phillips in the the theater, while I headed home. Later, I asked her what she thought of the film. Oh my gosh, she said, it was amazing. Really? I asked, slightly taken aback. Yeah, she said, the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing. Laughing? I asked, at what? Isn’t it a sad movie?

Yeah, I know, she said, but we couldn’t help it! Although I was a little worried—the few white people in the theater started staring at all of us. But any time one of the Somali boys on-screen would start talking, we would start to laugh. It was just so funny to see them up there, talking in Somali.

Why was it so funny? I asked, still confused.

She turned to look at me, and said it matter-of-fact: because we had never heard anyone speak Somali in a movie before. It was so strange, and so, so funny.  She paused a beat, and then acknowledged: even if what they were saying wasn’t really funny at all.

Go to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest. The piece is an exclusive feature that has been shared with you but is otherwise available only in Volume 2, Issue 5 of the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. For more features like this, download our app for iPad and iPhone from Apple’s App Store.  More information here.

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a war, a wallet

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It’s poverty awareness month, something that slipped by me until I couldn’t look past all those posts on the “9 things you need to know about poverty” (i.e., that the poor in America have flat screen TVs and the government spends way too much money on them–cue the quiet rage eyes). It’s been 50 years since that one old white guy said he was waging a war on poverty, and wouldn’t you know it, things have gotten better and worse and really stayed the same.

I’m no expert but I do have skin in the game. as in, I know plenty of flesh-and-skin poor people, am surrounded by them, am drowning in them, I have barbecues with them, learn the ABCs with them. And from here I don’t really think we need a war on poverty, nor do need any more ideologies arguing against each other. We don’t need to cut all government programs nor flood them with more cash, we don’t even necessarily need more “awareness”, educating ourselves about budgets and programming or anything like that.

What we need is to wage a war on class divisions.

And that, of course, is much harder to do. You can’t force people to interact with those who are different from them, you can’t force love and community and awkward parties when it is all so much easier and nicer to eat the food you always eat with people who look and think and act like you. Our tendency to stick tight with our own also has the added benefit that the other becomes the Other, the demonized, the entitled lazy poor, the evil greedy capitalists.

I watched a documentary the other day called The Belief in the Other Man’s Wallet. It’s a movie about our moral obligation to the poor (a damning phrase if there ever was one). The documentary, while not explicitly Christian, does interview quite a few people who believe that Jesus wants us to help the poor (people like Tony Campolo, for instance) and the director comes from a Christian background. I asked the director, Peter Garriott, if it was intentional that he interviewed so many Christians in his documentary. Why was that, I wanted to know. He responded: “There are a lot of Christians who are rethinking how to alleviate poverty. Unfortunately, a significant amount of people who attempt to alleviate poverty but don’t know what they’re doing are… Christians.”

The film shows various different perspectives on how to alleviate poverty (I really liked that there were differing perspectives, forcing the viewer to see how complex the situation really is) but my favorite part might have been the eerie shots of the filmmakers asking people in America questions about poverty. These “man-on-the-street” interviews are usually edited for brevity and clarity, but here the filmmaker leaves in the awkward silences, the stares, and the complete and total unease we as Westerners feel when being asked about poverty and our own role in it.

Be it waging war or talking about wallets, we are still far from solving the crisis of inequality in our world. Every day I see evidences of this. I am on a journey of breaking through the barriers of class that have perhaps unknowingly defined too many lives for much too long. If everyone in your life–your church, your play group, your blogroll, your school–looks and acts and thinks just like you, it might be time to start branching out, to intentionally become the outsider for once. You guys, it’s super fun and super awful.

I have met Christ, here, in the uncomfortable places. I have been asked if I love my neighbor, the neighbor I am least likely to understand, and I have stared blankly back in fear and guilt and confusion. And I have been led, by a love greater than myself, to move past the point of dwelling on unanswerable questions and to start living life with the marginalized.

How do we solve a problem like poverty? I am not waging a war, and I am not convinced wallets are going to do much good here either.

 

But having skin in the game might.

 

 

 

From the website, here is the introduction to the film:

Imagine you’re walking through a park on your way to work. Across the way, a small boy is drowning in a pond. You could wade into the pond and save the child, but you’re wearing a $200 pair of shoes and rather not ruin them. So you pass by the child, allowing the boy to drown.

The reasonable response to such a story is moral outrage. But noted philosopher and Princeton Professor Peter Singer argues you’re just as guilty when you purchase luxury items. Instead of going on vacation or even buying a $5 latte, you could donate the money to a non-profit that provides vaccines, medicine, or other life saving treatments to one of the 8 million children who die each year from preventable diseases. Choosing not to purchase a $5 cup of coffee could save a child’s life.`

To some, Singer’s solution appears too simple. There are too many steps between a small purchase at a coffee shop and a hungry child in the slums of Kenya. To others, the solution is as simple as donating used clothes, buying a pair of TOMS shoes, or traveling to Haiti to help build new homes and schools. But do these solutions help or only reflect an American understanding of prosperity?

If you would like more information/to purchase The Belief In The Other Man’s Wallet please click here*.

 

 

*I was given a promotional screening of the film. Which is one of the very, very few perks of this whole blogging gig.

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas in 4 movies

Merry Christmas Eve, ya’ll!

I wrote an essay on Christmas for Christ and Pop Culture. Of course I talk about advent, Home Alone, and the Abominable Snowman. I can’t really think of another publication that would let me write about all three.

Truly, the best part of this essay is that Seth T. Hahne made an illustration for it. You can check out more of his work at goodokbad.

 

Here is the image (which I am now going to send to everyone in my family–Merry Christmas, guys!):

 

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So, see if you can guess which 4 movies I use to illustrate my changing perspective on the Christmas Season. And then go here to read the entire essay.

 

Also, my amazing friend Amy Lepine Peterson wrote her own essay on Christmas and movies. It is much smarter and better written than mine, and is also in the same issue of Christ and Pop Culture. You can read that one (which talks more about White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) here.

 

Happy reading, and happy Home Alone-watching. 

 

 

 

 

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santa is not sustainable

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa--done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa–done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

 

 

Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation–recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.

Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy. 

Like Christmas.

We made the decision that it wasn’t sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It’s a hard decision (um, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with “A Tender Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it’s the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.

What about celebrating Advent?  

We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are “kindness elves” awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.

But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don’t think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of “Christmas magic” that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.

Which brings me to Santa. 

Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie–so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled “from St. Nick”. But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree. 

Now, in my neighborhood, I can’t help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.

For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can’t help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way–for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families–the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.

What is sustainable, then? 

I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good–count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. 

That’s it.

A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity–extra food cooked, coins given to the children–reminding us to always extend our table.

That, my friends, is sustainable.

I’ve started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn’t look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration–firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.

 

Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.

And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the now and not yet: some links that made me think

Sometimes, I just have to share what is going on in my brain.  I read articles, clean my house, prepare lesson plans, bake brownies; I absorb news of tragedies, then spend hours in the throes of potty training. I have my disorienting life, just like you. Except I am discovering more and more, that stories of peace affect me profoundly, giving me hope. Stories of violence bring me to my knees, my heart connected to them in some way or another.

It’s the kingdom of God: The now and not yet.

Here are some things that gave me pause this week.

 

The Not Yet:

Trading Privilege for Privation, by The NYtimes.

Not going to lie, this article sent me on a downward spiral. It profiles a South African couple who moved into the slums for a month in order to experience what it was like. The article focuses on much of the push back the couple received, which was both warranted and not. All in all, these issues are what we are needing to think through. It touches on two of the important topics of my heart: how we share our stories, and what it means to try and identify with the poor (and the constraints therein). After I read this I had to go have a real long time of prayer and reflection.

Also, my friend Rachel Pieh Jones had some excellent thoughts in response to the above article.

 

Whistling Vivaldi Won’t Save You, by Slate

This is an extremely difficult and important article to read. Jonathan Ferrell was shot and killed by the police while he was trying to obtain medical care from a car accident he was in. The ramifications of this story ripple out in ways that affect all of us.

 

Somalia’s Al-Shabab Claims Nairobi’s West Lake Mall Attack, by the BBC

This one hits me hard and fierce and personal. I know people who live in Nairobi, both Kenyan and Somali. I work in communities that are actively targeted by Al-Shabab. I am angry at the violence, how it makes victims out of all of us–even the shooters.

 

The Now:

Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism

“Ultimately Gravity exists to help the women and children in red-light areas, refugee camps, sewers and slums who deserve better. Who can’t afford another painful loss or sad goodbye. Who don’t need young idealists to show up in their neighborhoods with promises of hope or freedom only to last a couple of years before they decide they want to go back to grad school or pour coffee 20 hours a week while figuring out what else they want to do with their privileged freedoms.”

Yes. Trip to Omaha, anyone?

How Deep Is Your Incarnation?, by John Blase

This poem really moved me. I can’t stop thinking about it. What does it say that I have no room in my imagination for a Jesus who got himself a reputation as being a glutton? Somebody who loved life a bit too much, in the eyes of the religious elite. This was a challenging meditation for me this week, but it brought me so much joy. Go read it.

Trader Joe’s Ex-President to Turn Expired Food into Cheap Meals, by NPR

I just love stuff like this. Prophetic Imagination FTW!

 

A quote from Madeline L’Engle, from the daily devotional Glimpses of Grace:

“As I read the Old and New Testament’s I am struck by the awareness therein of our lives being connected with cosmic powers, angels and archangels, heavenly principalities and powers, and the groaning of creation. It’s too radical, too uncontrolled for many of us, so we build churches which are the safest possible places in which to escape God. We pin him down, far more painfully than when he was nailed to a cross., so that he is rational and comprehensible and like us, and even more unreal. And that won’t do. That will not get me through death and danger and pain, nor life and freedom and joy.”

 

A picture, which is worth a thousand words: (by Jim LePage, original found here)

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And a promise from God which has given me inordinate amounts of comfort this week:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards,not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 Cor. 1:26-31

 

I am such a weak thing in this world; I have nothing to boast in that doesn’t come from the one who loves with an everlasting love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If You Knew Me, You Would Care

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Another day, another dollar, another crisis I should be caring about.

Another day, another post, another thought on downward mobility–how the term doesn’t work, how it isn’t good enough, how if we don’t have love . . .

Another day, another question. Not the ones I used to ask (Lord, send me. Let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart.) but the ones I don’t care to admit to anyone (have I done enough yet? Can I relax now? When is enough enough?)

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I started a new job this week, it’s perfect for me in every way, down to the level of chaotic ambiguity that surrounds the classroom. I teach literacy to adults who may never have held a pencil in their lives before. We meet in a computer lab, a battered fooseball table for my desk. I don’t know all of the stories of my students, because we don’t speak the same language. I can guess at the little I know, which is laughable. And it is hard, wearisome work, to go over the ABC’s a thousand times and then for us all to realize that nobody remembers them still–the after effects of war, trauma, unmentionable acts committed against the body and spirit. Learning to write your own name becomes a symbol of something so much more: you are an overcomer.

Refugees have changed my life in so many ways. Once I meet a group, a clan, a tribe, I want to know so much about them: the way they dress, the tattoos on their face and hands, what their favorite food is. I want to know about their past, if they want to share it. I want to talk about all the ways that America has been kind, and all the ways that she has been cruel. I want to be a friendly face, a listening ear.

I want to know all these stories, and more, because they are the only things that get me to care about anyone besides myself.

//

My husband just checked out a book from the library called If You Knew Me, You Would Care. In it there are large, breathtaking portraits of women–survivors of unimaginable traumas. These women were interviewed and photographed by other women, and their stories shock and amaze. Their faces, so large, so human, so crystal-clear, run the range of human emotion: improbable joy, blankness, defiance. I could look at these pictures for hours. The stories, I only glance at briefly. How much more tragedy can I bear?

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Perhaps this is why the images in the book are so big. The hardest quotes, filling up an entire page. To me, they say: Don’t look away. If you knew me, you would care. If you stopped to humanize me, even for a second, it would change the way you lived your life. Because caring doesn’t equate with an emotion–sadness, shock, gratefulness. Caring equates with tangible, physical acts: cups of cold water, Jesus would say. A coat to someone in need if we owned two. An hour or two out of our day to visit those imprisoned or in the hospital.

But it’s easier to close the book, go back to my life of worries. I write blog posts about downward mobility and dream at night of one day having a space for my child to run in the grass; I spend an hour or two praying for eyes to see and hands to bless my neighborhood, and sink exhausted on my couch every night, escaping either into a book or a television show.

Because I know people now, and they have made me care. But here is the other truth that no one want to talk about, that we spend all our time protecting at all costs: our culture thrives on forgetting. On distractions, petty concerns, and the crushing pursuit of individual comfort. Every day is a struggle to care. The only thing that makes it easier is if you are forced to confront it, time and time again. If you put yourself in the position where you can’t opt out–where there are no drive-through Starbucks, clean and bright Barnes and Nobles, massive church complexes with state-of-the-art sets. Where instead there are tangible evidences of the disparity of our economic system, where people are much more comfortable in voicing both their joys and complaints in the streets. In order to care, it turns out, I have to be in a place where every day I have to look one simple truth in the eye: my reality is not the reality of the majority world.

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//

I read an excellent blog post this morning–honest, searing. In it, the author says:

“Can we, being part of the top 10% wealthiest in the world, be trusted?  How does our dependence on wealth color our self-assessment and judgment?  Regardless of how earnestly wealthy Christians try to be directed by the Holy Spirit of God, we’ve all still got our goods—not to mention our social standing, class, gender and ethnic power.  We remain comfortably perched above global exploitation.  Is that just “the path” Jesus has called us lucky ones down? Or have we neglected something in the ‘I’ll follow you wherever you go’ tune?”

No matter where I go, I’m still comfortably perched. No matter what I do, it isn’t enough. Yes, yes, Funfetti and all that. I know that God loves me no matter what I do. But he also loves the people being crushed by the systems that make my life better. He Loves them. He is in constant sorrow over them. He will avenge them, surely. And he would like me to get to know them, for my own sake as much as theirs.

Talking about downward mobility doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when we are talking about the suffering of people in places like Syria right now. Almost every day I am in contact with someone who has experienced their own form of Syria, has overcome so much more than I could ever imagine. Every day my hands are open, empty, pleading. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know how to do anything except show up again, to prepare to be overwhelmed once more. I look into their eyes and think: that’s why I moved into your neighborhood–so then I can’t escape your reality as easily as I would like. 

Shane Claiborne worked at a mega church for a year, and this is what he walked away with: “the problem isn’t that there are rich folks and poor folks in the world–the problem is that the rick folks don’t know any poor folks”.

Because we all have the image of God in us. And if we knew the poor–as in, longer than a week, a blogging trip, a year in the ghetto–we would care. We would care to the point where love would compel us to do things both crazy and mundane. Our lives would revolve not around safety and security but around justice and righteousness.

And we would all be richer for it.

//

My internet friend Marilyn contacted me about spreading the word about some tangible ways we can help Syria. She put together a blog on some practical kits that concerned people can put together. Click here to read more at her space, or you can go directly to International Orthodox Christian Charities for more information on the kits.

All images from If You Knew Me You Would Care, by Rennio Mafredi. For more information on the book (a part of Women for Women International), please click here.

 

 

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The Powers of Addiction, The Honesty of our Neighbourhood — Guest Post by Exile Fertilty

The post today, while seemingly not at all about downward mobility, really addresses some of the deeper issues I was hoping to discuss in this series. Mainly, how do our neighborhoods affect us? How close are we to the brokenness of the world? What are the blessings and drawbacks of running towards the hurts of the world? I adore Becca and her husband, and this vulnerable, insightful, and hopeful post got my brain spinning just thinking about the creative ways that the kingdom comes, even (or dare I say especially?) in our most troubled neighborhoods. It comes through our desires to choose one another–our spouses, our children, our neighbors–to honor instead of exploit. 

This is not an easy post to write, and I want to honor the struggle of how hard it is to be honest. Addiction is a common thread in many of our stories, mine included. So thank you, Becca and Chris, for encouraging us all with your commitment to God and his kingdom, and to each other. 

 

 

Love

The Powers of Addiction and the Honesty of our Neighbourhood

Guest Post by Becca (Exile Fertility)

I’d known Chris for two weeks when he told me about his addiction. It wasn’t a confession, nor an attempt to reel me in with an attractive pseudo-vulnerability.  We were talking about his album, eclectic, poetic and strange, and I asked him what the songs were about.  He went through them as he walked me home, of number six he said “That one’s about how I used to be addicted to pornography”.

I’d never heard anyone say those words before, not out loud, not in a normal conversation.  We said goodbye that night in 2007 not knowing if we’d see each other again, but began writing emails every couple of weeks (although my interest was much greater than my frequency let on).  Nine months later we became extra special friends of the long-distance kind and another year later we were extra special friends of the married and suddenly sharing everything kind.

When we met, Chris had been sober from a pornography addiction for two years.  That was after a decade of secrecy, self-hatred and intense shame, beginning in his early teens.  It was a private hell, he was powerless to stop using a substance stronger than hard drugs, one that completely re-wired his brain towards objectification of women and bonded him to a severe distortion of God’s design for sexual intimacy.  Coming out from under the addiction’s power began with extreme desperation and some life-altering honesty.  From then it was 18 months of regularly sharing in community, receiving unconditional love from people and letting God renew his mind.  One day it was done, he knew he was free.  For him, walking in that freedom has meant continually allowing people into that part of his story.

I’m so proud of my husband, eight years clean this August.  When I told him how amazed I was by him he said to me, “I’m still a recovering addict, becca.  I always will be.  You need to know that.”  There’s this honesty about him, this humility and openness about where he has been and a continual pursuit of wholeness.  We communicate very openly around the subject, with each other and with our community.

It was never really a pressing subject until we moved onto the main street of an industrial neighbourhood where we’ve lived for two and a half years.  I love it here–our street is lovely on sunny mornings, people visiting the small businesses and art galleries that have been popping up, it’s easy to forgive the abandoned buildings though they outnumber the healthy ones.  Neighbours teach my kids to speak Aussie and meet us at the park, shop owners know us by name and talk about grandbabies.

The situation has drastically improved in the last decade but people still come to our neighbourhood to feed addictions, escape reality and numb themselves.  Men file into the three pubs (read: bars) on our street or drive up and down looking for a sexually exploited woman who may be standing on the corner, leaning against a wall or stepping out of another man’s car.  Sometimes there are used condoms and needles at the park or you see a man and woman come out of the bushes together in the middle of the day.  Friday night is “waitress night” (read: topless) and I hear men hoot and holler when a woman appears at the pole specially erected for the weekly event.  Maybe five or six times I’ve been walking by and seen a woman’s breasts on display while she serves drinks to a table of men.  The more I learn about sex trafficking and prostitution worldwide the more aware I am of the invisible shackles on women in the industry, that it’s hardly their choice to be there if it is at all.

Power over addiction begins with honesty.  The media sells us a thousand lies about sexuality and pleasure and need, saying nothing of the terrible damage that occurs when we objectify other human beings.   But our neighbourhood is honest about the cost, about what addictions can lead to: a married man with kids risking everything for a body to orgasm inside, he’ll exploit a woman who is desperate, high or out of her mind; guys meet weekly with friends to drink while topless women ‘entertain’ them, people stumble outside drunk and angry at 2am.  There’s nothing glamorous or sexy here.

There’s been a new kind of pressure on our marriage since moving to this street- there are times when relatively small disputes feel like they carry this enormous weight, that there’s some cosmic battle already raging that we are just stumbling into.  God’s kingdom is a delicate eco-system of justice, freedom, and wild, beautiful Love and we are called to be an alternative people who honour rather than exploit.  When we are demanding rather than giving and ignoring the diversity and equality within each other we have subscribed to the dominant consciousness around us.

It’s really, really hard sometimes but there is something prophetic happening in our upstairs apartment.  It’s when my husband and I choose only each other again and again, even when we’re exhausted and frustrated and have said things we regret.  It’s when our friends pursue sexual wholeness together, when we name addiction for what it is and walk the hard road towards sexual sobriety.  It’s when we re-imagine the possibilities of honest to goodness friendship within our own gender and between men and women, when we really see each other as unique individuals powerfully equal, Imago Dei shining bright.  It’s when we practice the quiet, subversive sacrament of neighbourliness.  We are digging a hole here, planting our little tree and watching it grow; one day those roots will erupt through the concrete on our street.  As Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has written, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Jesus’ resurrection frees us to to model our lives in his likeness, to treat each other with the honour and respect we all deserve.  Jesus has triumphed over the powers of addiction and exploitation that rage in our neighbourhood, he’s paraded them around to be seen for the lies that they are.  He’s made them get honest, and that’s our first step to freedom as well.  There is no shame or condemnation here, only healing and freedom and the transformation of our minds, the ‘conversion of our imaginations’.

Someday the tide will turn and the raging waves of misogyny and exploitation in the world will be drawn back out to the chaotic place from which it comes.   The pornography industry will self-destruct and all the precious children of God who make and consume it will be reconciled.  Men will drive home to their wives rather than up and down our street, our neighbourhood pub will be known for it’s good beer and honest conversation and everyone will take ownership over their thoughts and actions.  No one will feel shame over their God-given sexuality.  As we get free from our own addictions to self-comfort and escape, and when we give love freely in our families and communities, we are a sign that the new world is already on her way.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see the image of God in us all.

—-

For some incredible resources on recovery and addiction visit The National Association for Christian Recovery.  

Becca spent five years working in mother-child healthcare in beautiful places like South Sudan, India and Nigeria.  She now spends her days chasing two toddlers around the post-industrial Australian neighbourhood she calls home.  She’s American, married to an interesting and kind Canadian musician and they haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the babies came.  She writes about lots of loosely related things at exilefertility.com while keeping a fairly messy, but welcoming, home.  Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

For all the posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

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Downward Mobility and The Doctor

http://society6.com/TravisEnglish/Doctor-Who-VNj_Print

nerd art by Travis English

The series on Downward Mobility is only a few weeks old and already I have heard so much feedback. People have come out of the woodwork to say “oh, isn’t it strange–I have the same funny ideas too!” There has been a lot of push back, from people I know and people I don’t; people who love the term and those who loathe it. There are people who think the phrase “downward mobility” doesn’t do enough, there are others who think it legalistic, and there are many who struggle with knowing what it all means. It has caused me to think, long and hard, about why I want this space to be about this topic.

I will have smart people here to tackle many of the questions and concerns, but I wanted to clear something up right quick: I don’t have all the answers. I am not telling you how to live your life. I am not saying you have to sell all your possessions and give to the poor (but somebody I really love said that, and I do want to be able to even entertain that as a possibility). This isn’t going to be about some iron-clad ethic for your life. It is a place for all of us to reach out towards each other, with our questions, fears, hopes, and dreams, and be challenged and encouraged.

 

On that note, I will leave you this fine Tuesday with a quote from Doctor Who (you can thank Sarah Bessey for getting me hooked on this silly, stupid, marvelous show). I think it sums up the whole thing nicely:

 

“You know when you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all

‘Grow up,

get a job,

get married,

get a house,

have a kid”

and that’s it.

Nah.

The truth is the world is so much stranger than that.

It’s so much darker.

And so much madder.

 

And so much better.”

 

 

(from the episode Love & Monsters. I highly suggest you check it out).

 

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