Category Archives: theology

Simply gifts

It was one of the last few days of the semester, the time when spring is tempting summer and so this particular student and I had elected to head outside to talk.  As we settled onto the picnic table, she thanked me earnestly for all that she’d learned over the course of the semester, for my passion for ministry and students and for the class, but as she looked toward the exam she was to write, she had just one final question, she said.

“Do you really believe, Dr. Raffety, that people with disabilities have gifts for ministry?”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing, questioning whether I’d heard or understood her correctly, as she went onto qualify, quite sensitively, but definitively her disbelief in what I had believed to be the central tenet of the course–the one thing I’d been trying to get across all semester.  It was a mixture of righteous indignation and bitter disappointment and bewilderment that took over me in that moment: just how might I convince her?  Where could I even begin?

That was in May.  Our study of disability, communication, and joy with families who have children with disabilities who are nonverbal began in April and has continued over the last few months.  And as we’ve spent time with these children and their families, we’ve been struck by how much the struggles of communication are exacerbated by, if not even caused not by the children with disabilities, but by an environment that refuses to consider or appreciate the variety of their attempts to communicate.  As one specialist commented to me, “Because people are often only looking for speech, they dismiss a lot of what is also communication.”

But might it work much the same way with gifts? I wondered.  Because able-bodied people are looking for certain types of gifts in people with disabilities, gifts they’ve seen before in other able-bodied people and thus recognize, perhaps they literally don’t have the ability to perceive other gifts because they’re hovering under the surface, imperceptible to the able-bodied eye?  

Less than a month into our study, a young woman from one of the families we interviewed died.  I’ll still never understand how just a day after her sudden death, her mother had the wherewithal to contact a group of lowly researchers to let them know, but she did.  One of our research assistants dutifully went to the funeral.  Not only at her packed funeral but in a subsequent follow up visit, her parents shared the tremendous impact the young woman’s life had had on so many people around her, but also what they believed to be her unique abilities.  As I listened to the interview, I noted how confidently her parents asserted, “She was an excellent judge of character.  If she didn’t like someone, it was because she could tell they weren’t genuine… We often learned to take our cues from her reactions to people because she could really tell so much about them just from being with them,” her mother added.  All this hypersensitivity and supreme ability from a 30 year-old woman who had physical and cognitive disabilities, limited purposeful movement and no words.

Was this family, especially still fresh in the throes of grief, generously but falsely attributing super powers to their daughter with disabilities?  Or might it truly be possible, perhaps especially given their daughter’s presumed dis-abilities, that she had a unique way of interpreting and interacting with the world that has something to teach us?  

I’ve always smarted at literature that pronounces the gifts of people with disabilities in terms that are limited and narrow–they’re notable for their wonder at the world, their slow ways of being, their vulnerability, even their joy.  Those don’t seem like bad things on the surface, but the sparseness, simplicity, and uniformness of them, the suggestion that people with disabilities fall into these staid categories primarily because of their disabilities does not take full stock of their complicated ways of being human in the world that include but aren’t reduced to their disabilities.  Of course, yet another suggestion, that people with disabilities exist as objects, not subjects through which able-bodied people can get in touch with their vulnerability and brokenness as distinct aspects of all our human nature, is also quite offensive.

There’s nothing broken about my daughter, thank you very much.

However, if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I’d ever contemplated how my daughter’s own differences in communication, brought forth by her disabilities, palpably registered in her limited movement, vision, and verbal invocations, might yield not just gifts of relationship or gifts of perspective but simply, gifts.  I had long noticed that even when Lucia’s gaze was positively fixed on the ceiling or when she seemed little aware of her surroundings, when her father walked into the room, she’d giggle knowingly and even turn to smile in his direction.  With low vision and limited head control, it’s pretty clear that she’s not seeing him, but sensing him otherwise; we’ve suspected that she “knows” him by the sound of the weight his carriage (and only his) induces upon our creaky floorboards, because she doesn’t react to anyone else coming into the living room that way.

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Lucia snuggling with her father on the couch.  My photo.

I’ve long believed that Lucia also knows we’ve come home to our house and entered the garage by the way the light darkens inside the van and the bump into the threshold, at which she always starts smiling and giggling.  But just a few days ago, she started smiling even as we pulled into the driveway!  And when we came home late from our vacation a few days prior and deposited her asleep into her bed that night, but she ended up in our bed when she was crying the morning after, when I carried her downstairs into the living room, even before I could pronounce that we were home she beat me to it, erupting into giggles, without so much as turning her head to look around the room!

And so, a few days later when the child study team from Lucia’s school called and kept talking about how difficult Lucia is to reach, teach, and communicate with, I kept thinking, are we talking about the same kid?  Sure, she doesn’t roll over and she can’t purposefully reach for objects, yet somehow, despite having low vision and not being able to purposefully turn her head with much precision, she knows who her father is.  What’s the problem here, again?  I wondered.  My perspective had been so altered by what we had been seeing in our research study that I couldn’t see Lucia the way they saw her; in fact, I corrected them on it.  I told them I didn’t want to hear anything more about how difficult my daughter was.  Wasn’t it their job to perceive where communication was already happening and magnify it?  Why were they approaching her as if something was wrong with her when it seemed something was wrong with them?  (They didn’t like that very much.)

When I responded to my student’s question in May, I spoke from my experience regarding Lucia’s gifts for ministry and the gifts of some people with disabilities in our congregation.  Just a few days after, I discovered this beautiful article from Amy Julia Becker, that could have been the anthem for my course, intentionally titled, after all as it was, “Ministry with People with Disabilities.”

But I feel convicted that even my own musings as a researcher, a scholar of disability, and a parent have been necessarily limited and incomplete.  Looking back on months of our ethnographic study with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal, nearly every single one of the families notes the gifts of their children with ease; a dramatic portion of them question whether their children are really cognitively impaired or if it’s just the world that’s disabling them.  It makes so much sense–we believe that intelligence and gifts come in so many different forms.  We say that all the time, but perhaps we don’t really believe it.  But it was from the family of the 30-year old girl in our study, the person who had lived the longest, whose family arguably knew her the best and was the most familiar with her, from whom the most precise, dynamic assertion of gifts came.

As able-bodied people, we’ve got to actively stop denying and diminishing the contributions of people with disabilities because they’re not obviously or immediately available to us.  Just like the communication that is gainfully there, but simply different, the gifts are also decidedly there but often imperceptible given our own ableist lenses.  We’re going to have to learn to accept our own limitations in order to see differently, to believe, to anticipate that gifts come in seemingly curious forms.  They even disrupt the status quo, they disturb conventional knowledge, even knowledge of joy and humans and God.  

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Road tripping!  My photo.

The conviction of this research project has been that people with disabilities have so much to teach us about communication and joy and spirituality if we would just have ears to listen.  But my student wasn’t the only one who needs to be rid of her own prejudice and obstacles and ableism to really appreciate the gifts of people with disabilities.  That’s a lesson I’m learning everyday.  Indeed, I might have replied:

“Yes, I do believe people with disabilities have gifts for ministry, but sometimes I may struggle to see them.  That doesn’t mean they’re not there.  It means I have a lot of growing to do.  But I’m thankful that God has granted me a glimpse of them and I will continue to pray that I can learn to see differently and honor what God is doing in them and through them.  I pray that God grants you that, too.”

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Lent just in time

I realized that it’s only fitting that I started blogging again yesterday during Lent, because as history serves, Lent has lent (I just can’t help with the puns…you know Easter is on April Fools, right?!) a good portion of inspiration.

So I’ve compiled, just in time for Good Friday, a dose of Lenten posts for your contemplative reading.

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Egyptian wilderness.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

I pray that this season has been meaningful and full for you and that you find so much comfort and hope and peace even at the sight of our wounded savior on the cross.  May we linger on that cross and the grave with renewed passion and waiting and expectation of the hope to come on Easter Sunday.  Amen.

Deeply Needy, Deeply Grateful

The God of Silence

Thanking God for the woes

Everyday Listening

Forgoing Security for Faith

Practicing Gratefulness

An Invitation to Listen

Dirt

Where is the Joy?

 

Something different

Do you like podcasts?  My current favorites are Happier in Hollywood, By the Book, GymCastic, and Pod Save America.

Well, I was pretty intimidated, but I recently gave an interview on Princeton Seminary’s new podcast, The Distillery.  You can listen to my interview, “The Gift of Difference,” by clicking here.

Give The Distillery a rating on iTunes and thanks for your support!  And leave me a comment below to let me know if you liked it or you have any questions.

Also, check out the conference on Disability and Youth Ministry I’m speaking at and helping to host in Princeton next February (mentioned at the end of the podcast) here.  Please come!  We need your perspective!

It’s nice talking to you for a change.  More in 2018…

 

The wisdom of percolation

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 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.

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Fall in Washington, DC.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I need to be.

Maybe you are, too.

Dusting off the prayer cobwebs

My first centering prayer word was grasp.

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.

But abide, my second prayer word that I adopted only a few years ago, seemed to signal real growth and maturity.  Instead of so presumptuously grasping for God or even sagely realizing it is God who grasps for us, abide was the mere act of being in God’s presence or letting God’s presence wash over me.  I was proud of the attention, discipline, and even inaction it signaled, the way it chafed against a busy world, busy lives, a busy me.

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.

But there have been healthcare battles to fight, I rage in earnest!  There have been surgeries, and new jobs, and mourning, and real kingdom work, God.  You know where I’ve been.  You know my heart.  Surely my absence means little to you.

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.

Perhaps that Mary Oliver line should read, what is it that God will do with our wild and precious lives?

Or at least that’s what I yearn to surrender to.  For it is God who eternally waits on us, in silence, abiding in perfect patience, ever exceeding us lavishly with grace.

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A quiet morning on the beach with Lucia.

 

 

Why Christian calls for unity in the wake of Charlottesville may be both racist and theologically unsound

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.

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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.

If you’re a Christian, especially a white Christian like me, seeking healing, reconciliation, and unity, I recommend you read the PCUSA’s statement on “Facing Racism,” adopted in 1999 by the General Assembly as a policy document to guide the pursuit of racial justice.  Or read this exegetical lecture on Acts, where Princeton Seminary Professor Eric Baretto powerfully describes how differences are gifts from God.  You might check out my post on “Embracing Difference as a Spiritual Discipline” and consider the challenge in a theology where we recognize and affirm that although we belong to God, God does not belong to us.  And check out Christina Cleveland’s “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves.”

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.

 

Why they can’t take our joy

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.

Indeed, in the last few months, alongside the very real threat of losing the ACA, Lucia’s Medicaid benefits, and healthcare for millions of Americans, there’s also been the more subtle feeling of frustration that this fight has also taken its toll on my academic and pastoral passions, reduced me to someone who wasn’t producing or creating so much as maintaining vigilance, waiting on others’ words and others’ actions–merely responding.

And I hate being in response mode.

I, like so many Americans, truly despise the discipline of waiting on anybody or anything–I’m even kind of lousy at waiting on God.

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.

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Speaking at the RunRAllWomen Rally on Friday night.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

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.

In these last couple of weeks, even before the Republicans voted against the repeal of the ACA, even before so many of you stood up for the needs of those on Medicaid (THANK YOU!!!), I realized that even if they take away Lucia’s healthcare and they deem her life of little value, our family will still have our joy in each other and in God, and we will rise in the face of all of it.  We will go on and create and make beauty from ashes because that’s what we do, and nobody can take that transformative joy that we’ve found in Lucia, one another, and in God away from us.  It doesn’t make any of it okay, of course–the assault on the healthcare of the most vulnerable in this country.  It almost makes it worse that in a world filled with real life challenges of health and life and death for kids like Lucia, it could be something manmade that’s the death of them.  But it reminds me that I’m not waiting on our government’s bills or decrees or approval to live my life–I never was.  Instead, I’m happily and graciously bound to a family and to a God and to people who love us and whose love is real and here and stable.

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.

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Our family celebrating at my sister’s installation service.  

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.

 

Thanks again.

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.

 

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Photo credit.

“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.

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Protesting at the Trenton Women’s March.  My photo.

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.

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Amy Gabriel marches in South Jersey.  Photo by Dave Hernandez (Burlington County Times).

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.  

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Our happy smiles on Saturday.  My photo.

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!

Joy amidst despair

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.

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Hold onto joy.

The Christmas joy we want and we expect, that burst of joy from the heavens, joyous singing, harmony, and peace is not how I know God to have made joy biblically or in my own life.  Rather, God in God’s almighty wisdom seems quite wont and capable to carve joy from the most unlikely of circumstances, to bring joy when despair is the currency of the day.  Perhaps this, rather than trumpets and fanfare and glee, is what the birth of Jesus is really about–about God’s will to bring light to a dark world when it seems so bleak, so impossible, so, so, so difficult?

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.

 

When grief is unpalatable

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.

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Lucia and her father cuddling on a Sunday afternoon.  My photo.

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.

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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.