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.
This season I’ve been intentionally quiet, quiet mostly in the mornings but also quiet on the blog. This Advent, I’ve tapped back into my practice of Lectio and Centering Prayer. I’ve been reading the prophetic scriptures from Isaiah and the journey to Bethlehem in Luke as the Syrian city of Aleppo crumbles, lives are lost, and great fear reigns throughout our world.
I haven’t known how to respond to all the darkness, have you?
I should speak out, I think, say something like Isaiah, the prophet, reminding us how to follow a God who is not of this world, a king who is not violent, but gentle and humble and an outsider.
Is silence surrender in the face of such great evil, especially in a season that proclaims resounding joy, reconciliation, and peace?
I strive to work for justice in fits and spurts, donating, signing petitions, calling my congresspeople, but in the mean time, in a faraway land from where our savior was born, I hope that my silence meets God’s faithfulness. You see, what I have always found so powerful about centering prayer is that I’m not doing anything–and that’s the point. Because if prayer is just one more thing that we do, let alone one more thing that I presume to muster of my own wisdom and accord, then it is anything but a holy offering or a right relationship to God.
And so as we wonder how to respond, I wonder, whether as always, if it isn’t less about us and more about God–God’s saving action in the world? I am patient in this season to listen but not to listen without responsibility. I listen and trust and charge God with all God is always doing to offering healing, respite, and reprieve. And I wait for God to give me the words, the actions, and the steps to be an instrument of peace this Advent season.
If you’re interested, there are over 30 posts in the category “Centering Prayer” on the blog.
Here are also a few posts from past Advent reflections and practices:
Finally, I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who are struggling in waiting this season. It strikes me that waiting and silence feel particularly cheap in a season where this so much violence and need. What is God teaching you? Where is God leading you?
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.
However, as we drove home from the hospital after a successful surgery with Lucia yesterday, I reflected that in so many ways this attitude of understanding our children’s lives as cause for celebration rather than burden is bolstered by the support systems we share. My husband and I are so thankful to live in a state that invests in Lucia’s care, to have insurance, that despite its shortcomings, generally covers all that she needs, and to have friends and family that love Lucia unconditionally, pray for her, and care for us!
It is difficult to imagine how we might view Lucia’s disability if with every medical intervention we had to also sweat the finances or insurance coverage or if we had to worry that someone caring for her didn’t have the proper resources or training. These are the very important supports that often go unstated in the words I write about Lucia, and this morning, I am thankful for them. I am also deeply prayerful that families who don’t have such support will find it in gracious lawmakers, caring social workers, more humane insurance policies, and more state programing for kids and families with special needs.
The pending election in this country may seem positively incongruous with this month in which we aim to practice gratitude by naming our blessings when so many, like the ones above, go unacknowledged. But this morning, I began to wonder what it might look like to practice a spirit of gratitude despite the strife and division in this country and the world.
How would our attitudes toward one another shift if we were to focus our attention on all that we in America have to be grateful for, what we are grateful for in the candidates we support, or what we are grateful for when it comes to the provisions of our country and state (rather than only so very critical of)? Thanksgiving invites us to pause and offer God the praise that God is due, and as we can see, this in and of itself, in an election season can be very powerful and countercultural! Could such thanksgiving invite us to more civility and less hate? Could it remind us of our common human needs, desires, and goodness? Could it point us back to God when our human ways are frail and flawed?
I realize, perhaps more personally than many this election season, how dire and in jeopardy such supports for people with disabilities are, and I do not discount these challenges, but I wonder if gratitude is still an appropriate way to reflect on the hardships in the midst of the blessings. After all, God has taught me so much about how to experience blessings despite the challenges as we’ve gotten know Lucia!
So this morning, I am thankful for…
The amazing nursing care provided through Medicaid in the state of New Jersey, for my daughter, Lucia, and the opportunity for her to attend a school come February that will meet her special needs.
Students at a historically black college who protested a KKK speaker in their auditorium and people protesting a pipeline that will disrupt Native American lands. Thankful for those who lift their voices, use their bodies, and engage in brave, peaceful protest for those in need in this country.
A democratic country with peaceful elections, robust debate, and freedom of speech.
All those who love Lucia so well, celebrating rather than mourning or pitying her life.
What are you thankful for this morning? What countercultural words do you have this election season? Feel free to link up with this post and write your own #thanksgivingforelectionseason.
We’ve examined all the evidence, talked to multiple doctors, and made the decision for Lucia to have a minor, preventive procedure next week. But given that nearly every one of Lucia’s surgeries, despite its long-term success, has resulted in substantial consequences and complications, no decision ever seems so minor, no surgery decision ever completely or clearly obvious or secure.
When I was a kid, I used to think that being adult meant that when you made decisions you made them because you knew what to do–because you could distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad in the way one prunes the dead branches from an otherwise life-filled tree or discards bruised and rotting fruit.
But I think I find this so hard because I’m an 8 (on the enneagram). I make decisions swiftly, like it’s my job. In fact, it’s a job people often, with great, hearty, thankful sighs, outsource to me. I’m proud of my forthright and decisive nature, because it contributes to my vision. I can often see very clearly the path forward when others are still hemming and hawing over the myriad of options.
But I do not enjoy one bit playing God with my daughter’s comfort, life, future, and pain.
I really wish there was someone to outsource all of that to.
But then I’d be someone else’s parent and she’d be someone else’s child. And she’s my conviction, all twenty-three pounds of her is what motivates every excruciating decision and prayer and hope and risk.
Because when it comes down to it, complacency and inaction and passivity are all luxuries as well. As Mary Oliver so starkly put it, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
At my bravest and perhaps most decisive, I realize that Lucia is already living this life, and we are merely striving to find the conviction to live it just as fully with her. So we strive to outsource the burden of those decisions to God so the weight of them, whatever they may be and whatever may come, feels just a bit lighter. We decide to live each day with conviction, because perhaps it’s not so scarce after all or just reserved for big decisions. Perhaps conviction lies in embracing the everyday moments that compel us to see just how blessed we are to live this life with Lucia and one another.
I went away for my birthday last weekend and returned to find the walls of our house, previously bare, covered with photos and artifacts from our travels and pictures of that lovely girl has become the source of so much inspiration on this blog and to her parents. My husband and his parents had to work around the real plaster walls to adorn the place but it surely feels more like a home now that it did before I left.
For one thing, the house creaks and moans and groans and talks. It’s kind of like another character in our lives; it does its own thing. And it seems like people forgive that personality of old houses so much more easily than new. A crack or a cranny or an angle or a blemish is just how she or he was made, rather than something necessarily to be fixed. You work within the house’s constraints with more measure, because it has existed long before you and will continue to live on (hopefully) long after you’re gone.
A few people have asked me whether it’s haunted and I’ve replied heartily, gee, I hope so! Across the street a cemetery that initially spooked one of Lucia’s nurses (she’s from China and has a hearty respect for ghosts) has become a favorite walking place for all of us. It’s the view we linger upon from our windows, that and a little church that’s no longer in service. All these features can be kind of painful reminders of the lives lived within these walls and around this little town that cease to be. But they can also remind us of our smallness. Our small, small part in the grandness of God’s works throughout the ages.
You see, when we were looking at houses, we kind of fell in love and bought this house because of the way the sun set and the golden light glittered on the field out behind it. Sure, we cared about the inside of the house, its spacious kitchen, and its accessibility for Lucia, but it was not as much about just who the house was but what the house held out before us that made us buy it. Perhaps this is why old houses are so much more than the sum of their parts–they have storied pasts and thus, hold out before them artful futures, and we continue to feel blessed to live in the in-between space, where history is relished and dreams are conjured.
We’re learning to live with the clunks in the night, but it’s so funny, whereas in our previous apartment we used to go all frenetic when the smoke alarm went off and might wake Lucia, in this house, we let the sounds live. I think we imagine she enjoys and leans into the creaks and the clunks as much as we do. They’re a sort of comforting reminder that the house has its own truth to be spoken in a world that can be so careless with the histories, stories, and lives of things that mattered to someone and will matter in the future.
So on a rainy morning like this one, I listen to the rain fall on the rooftop, place my feet on the boards that have been here for hundreds of years, and relish the little creaks that let me know that my weight upon it means something to this sturdy, storied house. And I wonder how our lives lived will be added to its landscape, our little imprint figured into its much longer, illustrious, creaky history.
Yesterday a woman who works at Barnes & Noble walked right up to Lucia and greeted her–she knew her but she didn’t know me. One of Lucia’s favorite nurses, determined that she wouldn’t become isolated with our recent move to the country, regularly takes her on outings to book stores, walking trails, parks, and libraries, and this woman had read books with my child many times!
One day when I was working from home and a friend stopped by the house, Lucia was out on one of these excursions unbeknownst to me. The friend was a little disappointed.
Lucia has her own social life, I chuckled. Who would have imagined? I thought.
Indeed, I think it’s easy given Lucia’s diagnosis, physical, and cognitive challenges to presume that she lives a limited life, but this is so far from the truth. Precisely because we’ve been forced to rely on nurses, doctors, and therapists to help us care for our medically complicated child, Lucia’s social network has certainly widened beyond the typical two and a half year old.
At the outpatient facility where Lucia does her therapy she’s not usually interested in toys, but she always cranes her neck to see the other children running and jumping and shouting. This morning Lucia’s nurse, having just returned from China, brought her a Chinese children’s book and Lucia cocked her head to listen as the two of us yammered on in Mandarin about her trip. Several months ago, one of her nurses put her hair in Jamaican braids!
I think about the incredible richness of the life Lucia leads and I am in awe. Our minds, our predictions, our perceptions of life with disability often fail to see beyond the presumed downside of dependence, medical necessity, and constant care. But Lucia’s needs have, in such a good way, forced us all to expand our very limited social circles and our very limited notions of what life with disabilities entails.
A month or so ago when I spoke on the phone with a parent advocate about Lucia’s impending transition out of the state’s early intervention program and into school, she compassionately yet inaccurately projected another presumption onto me: “Oh I’m sure your heart is just breaking at the thought of her going to school all day, on that big bus. I’m sure it is so hard to see her go.”
Perhaps it would be hard to see Lucia get on that bus if she hadn’t already been living her life so fully. But knowing how much Lucia enjoys all of these people, adventures, and diversity in her life, my husband and I are decidedly eager and excited for her to start school. Perhaps another thing all these doctors visits, nurses, and therapists have prepared us for is trusting others with our kid, knowing it’s so important to share her rather than shelter her from the world.
When I look in awe upon Lucia’s full life, I cannot fathom the wisdom of God. This is precisely the life I would want for my child, and yet, who could have imagined this life in particular? Who could have imagined this village that God has provided, this little social butterfly despite her lack of words and gestures? Who could have imagined that it would take the world and its limitless possibilities to help us see how Lucia has expanded all of our lives? Who could imagine that a life with disabilities could be so rich and nuanced and bold and grand?
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 tenants 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 tenant 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.
That may seem like the most obvious thing to say. I’m supposed to love it, right? When you spend months and months anticipating something, it seems inevitable that your spirit would sigh a bit when you finally experience and live into what you’ve been anticipating.
Maybe it’s my Protestant ethic or my missionary soul, but it feels like a confession to make and it’s been a little hard to let me give in and love this house, because I have a hard time loving any-thing so much. Things aren’t supposed to make us happy, I scold myself. Happiness should be intangible, inwardly grounded, yet that which sets its sight on lofty and pure ways–contentment in all circumstances.
But it just makes me so deliriously happy to share this place with friends; to sit on the porch and watch my daughter, despite her limited vision, explore the beauty of the trees and the dappled light and shift her head from one side to the other in search of birds and cars and sounds; to watch my husband cook for friends and for me in the light-filled kitchen; to linger on the porch into the evening enjoying being outdoors and in one another’s company; to work fervently inside my office these days and creep down to watch Lucia solider on in her therapies in her new room; and to dream about the times that will be had here, the way we can share and reinvent and live into and enjoy our space.
And suddenly enjoyment of this space, the way in which it invites me to hope and dream and pray, doesn’t seem so bad, so ill-advised, decidedly worldly, so spiritually vapid. I find that my spirituality these days is constantly unfolding, being remolded and reshaped to see God in more places, and I think that is good. I find that my Puritan tendencies that push back against my instinct to revel in this place and its grandeur cannot always be trusted. Indeed, my own sense of what is good and pure and right can sometimes lead me astray, whereas Lucia, nature, sharing, my marriage, and life well-lived can be much better guides.