The other week a colleague and I did a presentation for Ph.D. students about the job market. She told them that when she started looking for jobs her own adviser told her that it’s not that difficult to find a job, but to find a job that leads to or amounts to a career takes about four to five years on average in academia.
I could see the desperation and disillusionment in the students’ eyes, but deep inside, I sighed a bit. Her words reminded me that we so often look at others around us and all we see is where they are now, the fruits of their hard work, and we assume things came quickly and easily to them, probably—no–definitively, more quickly and easily than they came for us.
But what if that’s not the truth? What if I reminded you today that good things take time? And that the good things that others have, those took time, too.
See, despite my sigh, I saw myself in the eyes of those students. Here I am not even three months into my new job and I’ve been beating myself up a bit, because I haven’t made it around to all that much of my writing, I don’t have a clear three-year vision for this appointment, and I’m not sure what role I can or should play in institutional change.
But it’s been three months.
And my expectations crammed into those short months, for the next three years, reek of impatience, perhaps even faithlessness. I wouldn’t expect to take a new job in a church and within three months implement dramatic changes. No, I’d recognize and routinize the value in listening, observing, taking in what’s God is and has already been doing before ploughing boldly ahead.
So I’m drawn these days to something like the wisdom of percolation, to recognizing and valuing that if we people work hard for years beneath the shadows, then surely God needs time to work, too. That perhaps we’ve got it all wrong: time is not against us, but for us, in that it takes time to understand, to learn, and to grow, and God wants us to have and to hold and to enjoy that time with God. I would and can afford that time to my students, but it’s a bit more difficult when it comes to me.
But maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I need to be.
It was worn, tested, tried, and true. I repeated it probably millions of times over those earlier years when I first fell in love with the spiritual discipline of silence, of making room for God to move in ways that involved only clearing my mind, cultivating a space, and ushering in a countercultural reverence for stopping when the world refused to stand still.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve never really been able to get my mind around this word, why I’m not so good at abiding, or even praying about it.
I confess that recently my abiding has become dusty and decrepit, just like my centering prayer practice, beholden and bent to the cluttering of my life in which I’ve allowed little space for anything other than tasks and work and running–little space for silence, breath, let alone God.
And yet, in the recesses of my soul, God whispers more countercultural wisdom–that more can even be done with less rigor and muscle and strength. That, just as it’s been in the deliciousness of these last few mornings, when I’ve sat idle, letting the waking silence wash over me, I’ve felt most refreshed, most awake, most alive.
There’s this mystery about life with God, how when we resort to doing wholly nothing, that nothingness becomes holy in its luxury and extravagance, a sacrifice, an intention, a heartiness that can’t be achieved or earned and is yet, so much purer and better and good than all my blustery days.And that openness gives life and purpose and wisdom to our work and our justice and our advocacy–it exceeds us, because it so importantly comes for God and not from us.
Whether it was the clergy in full vestments, arms linked facing down gun-wielding white supremacists or the torch-bearers chanting anti-semitic threats, it is abundantly clear that theology is not neutral in 21st century America. And yet, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Christians have responded with opaque calls to unity and appeals to people of faith to “tear down the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”
At first I thought such statements offended me merely as a cultural anthropologist.
You see, while it is powerful and poignant to condemn discrimination and racism, it seems a problematically ethnocentric, if not a positively white-privileged perspective to blatantly condemn “the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”
Whose culture, whose race is dividing us? Perhaps it seems like mere semantics, but when Christians posit that culture and race are problems that breed division, that they are the very evils that need to be stamped out, we reveal that our calls to unity run dangerously close to the rhetoric of those who rallied in Charlottesville last weekend (even if that was not the intent).
Even though race is a social construct, we do see color and it has socially and politically relevant power and effects that especially white Americans must grapple with rather than ignore. The creative cultures that have emerged from communities of struggle and resistance among people of color in America are not barriers that divide us but rich resources to teach us about what America can and should become.
Not only do we have to choose our words carefully from an anthropological point of view, but we have to do so because the ministry and the integrity of Jesus Christ is at stake here. Countless Christians have boldly quoted Galatians 3:28 in the face of racial division: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” But Paul uses this passage to argue that all are liberated from the law and therefore, we do not need to become like one another to be in Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; rather, in Christ, we can live as one with those who are radically different from us.
Indeed, we often forget that Jesus came into a culturally pluralistic world and honored the cultural practices in communities and peoples who were different from him, while preaching a gospel that sought to unify. There are certainly passages in the Bible that also justify slavery, genocide, and division, but when we look at the whole of God’s ministry arose history and in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I believe we do see that redemptive reconciliation does not damn culture, difference, and the sacredness of varied human lives, but the ways in which we human beings often instrumentalize these differences as division.
There’s nothing theologically unsound about unity, but unity that obliterates, objectifies, and undermines difference falls short of the vision God has for the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ. Unity that maintains inequitable power structures is false and faithless. And unity that fails to listen and value the struggles of people of color in America is not only anthropologically unsound but theologically dismissive.
Of course, there’s so much more to read and do. But at the very least, let’s check ourselves from parading around platitudes about unity at the expense of diversity, especially in the name of Christ. Christians have got to stand for more than that. We owe it to one another and especially to Jesus.
A few weeks ago a former student emailed to update me on her summer. “How’ve you been?” she asked spiritedly. “I’ve spent the summer distracted by healthcare,” was the confessional, somber, and bitter beginning of my reply.
When there’ve been great gushes of joy as there are in everyday life alongside Lucia, I felt resentful that they still felt tinged by a foreboding, ominous fear. How can you mess around with joy when you feel such aching fear and trembling, I’d cringe. And then I’d smart because I’d be angry that 13 men in a private room were even threatening to take my joy from me. How dare they do that?
This summer has been filled with ups and downs, victory and solace punctuated by deep uncertainty and angst—so many bills, so many promises, a little hope, very little peace. So even the things that normally come naturally to me–forging ahead with bravery and decision–have been called into question, fretted and flummoxed by the helplessness and fatigue I’ve felt. I’ve found that it’s easy to be brave when it’s just you, but it’s much harder with someone else depending on you. Or when you’re made to feel that bravery is foolish or may count for little in the end.
But what has made all the difference in the last few weeks, through the wise spiritual counsel of trusted friends, is to discover that bravery is possible even in the face of tremendous fear and uncertainty, because joy is resilient, defiant, and knows no boundaries. This is the message I shared last night about our life with Lucia at a rally for equitable healthcare–that joy may be an unlikely home for advocacy but it’s effective because it’s genuine and human and resounding. That being human means sharing vulnerability and fragility but it can also mean finding joy in the most unlikely of circumstances and working together for change.
Of course, the one problem is that however lovely these words, they are tinged with privilege. Many people won’t be able to lean on family or something as seemingly ethereal like creativity, but practically translated as amazing university employment. People will be so hurt and scarred by revoking healthcare and Medicaid and those the most hurt won’t be me or my family but those whose dignity has not just recently come under assault but rather has long been denied by the classist, sexist, ableist, racist undertones of America’s unrelenting “greatness.”
But I do think it’s something–it’s certainly not nothing–to feel joy amidst fear and live to tell about it. Indeed, this is what I find defying and powerful about so many saints of the church, champions for justice, and seemingly ordinary people who have gone before me. Please, please don’t hear me wrong. I’m not giving up, but rather recalibrating our fight. I’m suggesting that we bravely, boldly live our joy-soaked lives even, perhaps especially in the face of such an assault. Taking pleasure and joy in our humble lives becomes an act of resistance in itself, a luxury that many struggle to find.
And this is precisely why we must not measure ourselves by human standards because we see human standards faltering in our midst everyday. I’m reminded these days that they can’t take our joy because our lives never belonged to them or even to us but to God. And same thing with that joy. It’s roots are deeper, wider, grander than many of these legislators have ever encountered. May they feel its fury, its vibrance, its resilience and may they be led beyond fear, as I have, to seek justice.
We, like so many other parents across the globe, took our almost three year old to her first political protest on Saturday. And like so many, it was not necessarily the words of the speakers or the size of the protest that mattered so much, but the experience of standing alongside others in that damp, dreary weather and feeling the light and the warmth of knowing we’re not alone in the fight for the rights and dignity of all people in this country.
But when another pastor came up with his family to tell us that he had first started to take his now teenage son to protests when he was about Lucia’s age I have to admit that I was a little dismissive. Lucia would probably not be conscious of this protest anymore than ones she might attend in the future–in other words, I was emphatically aware of the cavernous difference between his able-bodied son and my disabled daughter, of his typical family and my not so typical one. Minutes later an elderly woman wanted to present Lucia was the paper crane she’d been fashioning while she stood beside us.
“Kids must be so bored at these things,” she whispered. “Perhaps she’d like something to play with.”
“Oh, well she can’t really use her arms,” I replied dryly.
“Well, can she see?” she persisted.
“No, not really,” I replied again, rather impatiently.
“But she can feel,” I finally acquiesced, flapping the tiny wings of the little bird against Lucia’s cheek to the woman’s contentment.
Even then, despite this woman’s resolute patience, I felt a pang of ambivalence. I perceived her persistence to be a reflection of her own desire to give her gift, whether or not it might be appropriate to give or whether Lucia could really receive of it. Despite the myriad of people who encircled us to tell us that they liked our “#disabled lives matter” sign and smile at our toddler with special needs, I realized how possible it was to feel disconnected to the 7500 people with which we stood.
Nonetheless, not only the Trenton march, but the hundreds across the globe, especially the march on Washington, were an enormous success, and on Sunday as we stood in the church hallway, the other pastor and I chatted excitedly about what it feels like to be part of history. I remarked on how deeply moved I was by all the supportive responses to the piece I published on Thursday on this blog and Friday in the Huffington Post and how emotional it was when friends texted me photos of themselves marching in name for our daughter, Lucia, and disabled people across the country. But then again, almost before the words were out of my mouth, I realized I didn’t like how they sounded: I realized I was being dismissive again. I said something like how loved we felt, how Lucia had been so happy all day, but of course, she didn’t understand much of what really was going on, although it still meant something to us, to her parents.
“Oh, I don’t know,” my colleague replied graciously and carefully with something like, “I think love is love. I’m not sure we really know how people love, how it works, or how they receive it, but I think we can feel it. I think everyone can feel it.”
I swallowed, a big lump rising in my throat, and I thought about the pastor and his kids and the woman with the paper crane. I thought about the 7500 people marching in Trenton and millions of others across the globe. I thought about the words I’d written last week, and I realized that in the midst of calling for Lucia’s rights and for real love for her, I, too, have the ability to silence her.
It’s not up to me to decide what’s love or whether or how Lucia receives it. I realize that as much as I understand the reality of my daughter’s differences, I am not in a position to fathom what love really feels like to her, how she receives it, and how she experiences it. Those are my own limitations, and it’s not for me to constantly assert her differences when other people see common ground, or to presume that there’s a right or a wrong way to love her. I realize that perfect love isn’t about the most appropriate gift or words or gesture, but it’s about the desire to engage, to stand with, and to keep trying, even when the caverns seem massive and deep.
So with a humble heart and a contrite spirit, I realize just how tremendous and miraculous your outpouring of support has been, how deeply thankful I am to all of you not only because you’re fighting the good fight, you’ve got my girl’s back, and you’re doing everything you can to be a voice for justice, but because you remind me and are teaching me everyday about what love really means. You’re teaching me what it really means to let go and let Lucia love and be loved by you. And it’s not necessarily how I would have imagined it.
But thank God for that.
Thank God that despite our limitations, God somehow uses people to enable love to break through and remind us that God is love–that perfect love looks like undeniable kinship between so seemingly different families, paper cranes, spirited marches, letters to Congress, Lucia’s happiness, and so much in between.
Love is love and God is love and that’s why, despite our best (and flawed) human efforts, we’re never really alone.
P.s. The Betsy DeVos vote has been postponed until Jan. 31 so that gives you a week to call your Senator! See my previous post post-script (hehe) on why DeVos is bad on disability rights and how to call.
P.p.s. The Jeff Sessions vote could be as early as tomorrow! Call your Senator now to oppose and read this article to see why he’s bad for disability rights, too.
P.p.p.s. Letter writing is effective! Learn how here and please write to your Congress-people (you have one rep and three senators) asking them to protect state and federal Medicaid for families with disabilities!
It’s been a few weeks since we lit the Advent candle of joy and here we stand, poised to celebrate another Christmas Eve. And yet, the world is dark–ravaged by war, injustice, insecurity, and violence. And so perhaps you do not feel it. At first, I did not feel it. At first I was wont to ask, where, how can I find joy this season?
But we do not find joy.
We do not carve joy, just as we do not carve prayer, peace, patience, or goodness of our own devices. We wait, as we have for at least the last twenty-seven or days, if not much, much, much longer. We wait on God for joy.
As we studied the words of Isaiah’s prophecies these past weeks, we were met with a world full of judgment, impending doom, violence, and war. And yet, God, through the words of Isaiah, called the people not to ally with foreign forces but to wait upon God for Emmanuel. Hundreds and hundreds of years later, the terms of the census, the reign of Herod, and the world Jesus was born into were inhospitable to him and to his family. His parents struggled to stay together in a culture that shunned their out-of-wedlock pregnancy; and when they made the pilgrimage toward Bethlehem, they probably did so with not joy but great inconvenience, with great fear and awe and worry.
Look back on your own life and think about the moments were joy peeked inexplicably, unexpectedly, impossibly through the veil of sadness, despair, and fear. Think about the breath and the beauty of light in a world or a room filled with darkness. And care and coddle and nurture that kind of joy this season. Welcome and look for and do not dismiss that kind of radical joy that finds the world and finds us in the midst of despair. In fact, strive to remind the world that that kind of joy is not only possible but present, and let us live with this joy not only one day, on Christmas, but each day, even if the world remains dark.
We’ve spent the last few weeks caring for our daughter who just had surgery. She was in a fog for about three days from the anesthesia and all the pain killers, and though she had no major complications, we felt like we lost her for five days or so to that medicine-induced haze and the severe pain she experienced intermittently. Leaving home last weekend and this past Monday to head to work was particularly difficult because she wasn’t fully healed (she still isn’t), and she certainly wasn’t yet herself.
And when people asked well meaning questions I felt most qualified to answer them from my experience–my husband and I were struggling so much with seeing her usual bubbly self all comatose and uncomfortable. Caring for someone who is in pain is painful. Despite the seeming wisdom of it, then, when people tried to move past the pain–“but the surgery was successful, right?” “But she’ll feel better soon,” or even, “Well, of course she’s in pain…”–it made me feel very misunderstood. It felt like other people were trying to look past the real pain and grief of my experience because it wasn’t very palatable, convenient, or acceptable. They wanted to resolve my grief for me, but when I came home and found Lucia limp in my husband’s arms or screaming in pain, I felt so alone.
Precisely because I was grappling so ungracefully with my own grief these past few weeks, I immediately recognized something similar in my students’ tear-stained faces, slumped shoulders, and speechless, flustering sighs the Wednesday morning after the election. Truth be told, given my own personal grief, I didn’t quite feel like beholding the grief of another. But something nudged me that a void remains a void (or becomes even worse) unless a leader, even a trepidatious and imperfect one, steps into it. And so, armed with some words of wisdom, some humility (after all, I knew that some students’ grief would be juxtaposed with other students’ celebration), and a deep conviction, I showed up to class that morning.
I showed up and told them I wasn’t really equipped to moderate their discussion but felt that we needed to acknowledge what happened, our varied feelings, but mostly that for the 15-20 minutes as a class we would covenant to make our space safe for all people, and to be respectful to especially those who were grieving. Many students cried, other students aired frustrations, some students tried to move forward. Very gently I nudged them back toward their grief. When one student tried to tell others they were overreacting, I did the same.
I tried to carve out a space where grief was acceptable and welcome, recalling how alone I’d felt just that past weekend when my grief had been too much for others to bear. It was only 20 minutes. My students have a paper due this weekend. Life goes on.
But I wonder sometimes what our country might have been this past week if we could have bore one another’s grief a bit more consciously and transparently and reverently over these past 18 months leading put to the election. It seems so much anger, righteousness, and denial in both campaigns speak to distinct places and manifestations of grief in more palatable clothes. It’s always more acceptable in America to express anger as opposed to weakness, righteousness over fear, blame rather than humility. But it feels decidedly too little too late when so many in this country were already hurting, but we mistook their grief for the ugly face-value emotions they presented.
Perhaps my greatest comfort in these trying personal and corporate experiences of grief is knowing that even when we fail, God’s empathy is deep enough for us all. When we think we’re alone in our grief, we never really are. But God is also not “on our side” as we in America are always tempted to think; God does not rejoice in our clanging campaigns of strength and righteousness but in our genuine holy moments of listening to one another.
In the dramatic days after the election, despite our penchant for progress, there have been holy moments of grief. They are moments we want to move past, but what if they’re just the beginning? What if they are moments that truly matter? I learned this past week that even when we are weak, God can make us strong. We can make space for those who are grieving to be heard, and while it may seem a simple step, it’s a vital one to healing.
We cannot heal if we do not break apart. We cannot lead if we assume God is looking for wholeness and greatness and power. Perhaps God can use us just as we are. Perhaps our lament is pleasing to God’s ears, too.
I have a friend that has a decidedly childlike twinkle in his eye (even though he is in his sixties) and a deeply committed, dry sense of humor. Because of his multiple sclerosis, he’s also in a wheelchair. And so it was only a few months ago that it occurred to his friends and family that while everyone else at church had probably gotten to hold Lucia, he hadn’t.
When we placed her into his arms, she settled into his lap and nestled onto his chest and began to make great Herculean gestures to crane her neck to see this new person who was holding her.
That’s how you know Lucia likes you. That’s how you know she’s interested. And then, she began to gaze up at him adoringly, an intensity of steadfast looking upon that exudes an otherworldly contentment (and that she doesn’t do for just anybody either).
A few weeks later, my friend came to me and talked about that heavenly gaze. “For just a moment, I would really love to see what she sees,” he mused.
None of us has ever seen or experienced the world through her eyes.
And here was someone who recognized (perhaps because of his own experience with disability) that able-bodied, neuro-typical people may see and experience the world in one way, but that’s just one way of seeing things. Here was someone who looked on Lucia and didn’t find her deficient or lacking or wounded but a person of great depth, worthy of interest, and even admiration.
My friend’s words touched me deeply, and something leapt inside of me, because someone seemed to be really seeing Lucia for Lucia! While we go about our busy days, Lucia finds great contentment in being still and listening. While we go through days and weeks without touching or holding one another, Lucia finds her greatest comfort and joy in being close. While we bury our heads in our desks and flitter away our hours with meetings, Lucia has finally mastered looking at people she knows, making small noises, and generously allowing us to brush her teeth.
This past weekend when we talked together at church about wisdom, I was rather at a loss. Wisdom is such a slippery thing to pin down.
What can you say about wisdom that rings true?
But we generally agreed that wisdom doesn’t come from us, it comes from God. It doesn’t come from our trying and working and hustling and struggling and toiling but seeps into our souls, patiently waiting for us to pay attention to what whispers rather than what is clamoring for our attention.
And so I think about my friend’s words, his desire to know more about what Lucia sees, his childlike heart and humor, and I think how paradoxical and playful wisdom also is. Wisdom comes to us in the ways of a child, mocking our pursuits, beckoning us to simpler, truer ways.
And it dawned on me: however mysterious and unknown and beyond us, Lucia’s ways are decidedly true. Lucia’s time is time well spent. When we try to capture Lucia in diagnoses or deficiencies or developmental charts, the efforts are colossal failures, crude renderings of a life well-lived.
But in gazes and touches and whispers? Well, I’m with my friend, I want to know more of those.
We Christians have not been known, especially in recent years, for our ability to embrace difference…but what if we were?
A few weekends ago I listened to a podcast on the enneagram, the typology of nine interactive personality types that supposedly traces back to the desert fathers, and have been fascinated ever since. But while I have loved learning about my type, where I’m prone to stress and poised for growth, what I’ve loved most about the typology is the window of empathy it has given me into the way I view my friends, family, and co-workers. The enneagram, at its best, celebrates the differences that make us human, and instructs us not to try to change but to further understand and know one another.
But what about when people are really, really different from us and those differences confront what we think we know about ourselves, our culture, and even our faith?
As an anthropologist, I’m not only attracted to, but trained to appreciate differences in all their human forms. When I meet someone who tells me about a different upbringing, worldview, or belief system, my ears perk up, and my intellectual curiosity sparks. “How fascinating,” I think. Tell me more,” I often blurt out instinctively; I listen and wait and expect…to grow.
This robust respect for difference is entangled with one of the controversial, central tenets of anthropology–the notion of cultural relativism, or the belief that you kind of have to know a bit, well a lot, about another culture to understand it and to see and understand how they value what they value. All cultures contain truth and integrity, but we rarely stop to pay attention and try to see things the way others might see them.
As I mentioned, this tenet is controversial because it’s really challenging. Especially in the course I teach on disability, it’s almost impossible for our ableist and intellectualist-coded minds to stretch ourselves to consider disability as yet another element in human diversity. When I assign a provocative chapter that references the very title of our course, “Disability as Difference,” students are wont to collapse the tension, to find the differences of disability clearly lacking or deficient, or at the very least, to assimilate the disabled to be “just like us.”
We human beings are simply not very good at seeing difference as valuable or even neutral. We’re constantly shaping, skewing, explaining, and evaluating differences (and different people) that we come into contact with everyday.
But what if we added to our spiritual disciplines the act of allowing space for difference and even appreciating difference before we try to so hard to reform it, judge it, or rehabilitate it?
I think Christians especially have been afraid of the costs of such a foray. We are afraid of where an appreciation for difference may lead us–astray from our Christian beliefs, our Christ, our God, our truth. But if we are so easily lead astray from our faith when we value the differences of others, do we not serve a God who is small to begin with? If our faith falters at the very introduction of contradiction, tension, and diversity, is our faith not flimsy and perhaps very worthy of being discarded? Might we find a more robust faith, as Jesus did, in accompanying and learning from those who are different from us?
As an anthropologist who has learned so much from others about God precisely because of this openness toward difference, I seek a faith that is deep and profound and hearty because it is constantly probed and reevaluated and tested by what I am learning. At every angle, when I exclaim, “That’s fascinating,” and sit at another’s feet to listen, I may risk something, but I also stand to gain so much. I find this openness to difference, this grappling with diversity, to be a spiritual discipline because God is nothing if not miraculously incarnate and yet profoundly different from us at the same time.
But often we forget that truth.
We presume God to belong to us, to be just like us, to be ours, to be with us and for us. But I think God wants us to read scripture against the grain, to consider the rich diversity among its pages and in our lives, and to explore with abandon, making ourselves profoundly open to others and to God in unlikely and unexpected people and places.
We can’t do that if we’re afraid and closed off to those who are different from us, though. We can’t grow if we don’t allow difference to disrupt our neat beliefs and convictions. We can’t truly know God if we confine ourselves to that which is similar, expected, and narrow.
Do you do this in your life? How do you embrace difference as a spiritual discipline? How has it enabled your faith to grow, even if it has been tested and tried?
My husband often talks of how our seminary professors challenged us to discover a second naiveté after the faith of our childhood failed us and here Cornel West talks about a healthy atheism. I’m really interested in exploring how vulnerability like this to difference, especially, can help us to grow in our love for one another and God.