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.
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.
It’s a place where people show up late, they won’t stop greeting each other during the passing of the peace even when the pastor’s screaming to get their attention, and just about anything goes.
We also do cool things in the liturgy. Our prayers of confession aren’t staid and silent, but often full of passion and hope. This Sunday, as we read the following words, I realized something:
In this place of confession we are shaped by hope:
In our brokenness, we know your blessing.
In our pain, we touch your promise.
In our longing, we discover your love.
You are making things new in our lives and this world.
I realized that God’s love is transforming, because God makes weakness holy. God doesn’t just give meaning to our suffering, but God enters into it and makes something new from the residue of despair, longing, and pain.
That’s why we Christians are people who live, especially in this season, with deep hope. We know that it is not up to us to change the world or its brokenness, but that God, despite appearances, is already redeeming all this messed up humanity and making things new.
It’s really hard for me to trust that on these dark days of injustice, but I imagine it was equally hard for the shepherds and the wise men and the Jews. This season I’m asking God to give me eschatological vision: to believe that in great longing, there is great love, that in pain, there is promise, and that in brokenness, we will know blessing.
This week I have been struck by how deliciously novel Advent feels, despite it being the 33rd year I’ve celebrated it, and the 2014th year the world has done so. I take this as evidence that 2014 years later, God is, indeed, doing a new thing. We may not perceive it, we may not see it, but I’m praying that God will help me to believe, and to trust that our weaknesses will be made holy once again.
There is a mantra among new parents, oft repeated and spoken with a mix of exhaustion and hope, that “everything is temporary.”
That is, the sleepless nights, the afternoons filled with crying, the growth spurts, they’re all necessary phases, but blips on the map of childhood so quickly turning to youth and adulthood, and life. Young parents remark that if you can keep this perspective that everything is temporary, you can endure anything…temporarily.
This is what I choose and try to fixate on when life seems mundane and contrived, that what is extraordinary about the ordinary is God’s grace that makes each morning fresh and new, grace for more than this moment–for eternity.
DC Teacher and Davidson Alum, Clint Smith‘s moving spoken word on zip codes, food desserts, and injustice entitled, “Place Matters,” is lighting up my facebook account and provoking some important conversation about the battles young children are fighting everyday against drugs, poverty, and obesity. Click here to hear what he has to say!
Over ten years ago now, I spent a formative summer in Anacostia working with a youth missions organization, and it breaks my heart to hear how much the children there are still struggling to survive. In a spiritual autobiography class at Princeton Theological Seminary, after we read Frederick Douglass’ biography, I wrote a piece about my time in Anacostia and Douglass’ house, which stood high on a hill just down the street from the church we lived in, and from which you can get a glimpse of the capitol. I want to add my voice to Clint Smith’s this morning in an effort to raise awareness about the state of education, poverty, and injustice just a few miles from our nation’s capitol.
I held Terrance and Talib’s small brown hands in my white ones as they dragged me toward the convenience store, expectantly bouncing up and down toward sodas and candy. But in a matter of seconds the rusty van with its side door missing came careening around the corner, flying past us and I had just enough time to shove their little heads to the ground—trembling, we were, amidst the sound of screeching tires, hugging the hot pavement. Two weeks prior a local gang from our neighborhood had accidentally killed a kid from Congress Heights in the crossfire, and here the gang from Congress Heights was now, circling the neighborhood for easy targets. Terrance and Talib all too casually rose from their prostrate positions and turned their backs to the street, peering through the great iron bars that lined the sidewalk right where we had fallen. They raised their eyes to look at his house, broad and grand, the only three story house that hadn’t slumped to two under the weight of poverty and decline, the only porch that held pristine rocking chairs, the only grassy hill for miles of pavement.
“Whose house it that?” Terrance asked.
There is no Frederick Douglass in Anacostia today, I thought, instead of mouthing the words.
His house was right there over the bars and I longed to tell that to Talib and to Terrance, but without “the sliver trump of freedom” it would mean nothing. No soul can rouse itself to eternal wakefulness without a light to summon its attention. Much as the bondage Douglass experienced gave the white man’s salvation a distinctly bitter, putrid taste, a message of spiritual liberation so trite meant little to this neglected community and to these boys who were starving for the sustenance of life itself—their own humanity.
But this is where Douglass’ struggle ends, not where it began. He begins his story with all that he does not know, all that he has lost because he was born a slave, far beyond Tuckahoe, Easton, and Talbot County. And it is in this way that the children who came to Renaissance Baptist Church simply because we were there to listen, told their stories. Absent of any detail, a parent completely unknown to them, a knowledge of nothing beyond the W, the street on which they lived.
It is called W Street—like many city streets in southeastern D.C., in what is known as Anacostia, it seems downright generous to give alleys littered with burnt out cars, bottles, and buckling houses even a letter to their name. On one end of this winding road is the metro station which connects this landmass on the other side of the Anacostia River to the rest of the capitol and congress buildings, and at the other end lies his house, statuesquely seated upon the only hill for miles, looking across the water to the capitol, yet directly down upon a city of shambles.
These are the tangled roots of America and American Christianity, that though “all men are created equal,” the marble of the congress buildings was laid to bear by the hands of slaves, that though the Christian scripture might have harbored a message of liberation, the harshest slave owners were the ones whose whippings were steeped in scriptural righteousness. This Christian and public alliance with slavery is what pushed Douglass not only to flee the plantations of his youth northward, but to flee (temporarily) the faith as well. His anger, though, represented his hope, the fire of freedom that refused to accept a religion promising only spiritual, not physical liberation to its people.
But the anger in Anacostia today fractures the community as brothers and sisters thrive off the exploitation of one another. Even Renaissance Baptist Church was just another haven for drug trafficking—our pastor drove an olive green jaguar and came once a week to look out at the streets with a smug, careless glance. It was Frederick Douglass who attacked this kind of religion, the kind of Sunday holy-rolling that slinked away to prostitute itself during the work week, from the very offering plate that the faithful had filled. “What! preach, and kidnap men?/ Give thanks, and rob the own afflicted poor?/ Talk of they glorious liberty, and then/ Bolt hard the captive’s door?” While Douglass spoke of a new paradigm for salvation from his house on the hill, those in Anacostia found the captive door bolted, and traded the hope of glorious liberty for a hellish day-to-day hardened existence. The black church in this place had lost Douglass’ fiery ambition, becoming a cult of complacency in a community of need.
Perhaps all that is why the Nation of Islam temple two blocks up the street was so popular, boasting the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who preached twice within its tattered walls that summer. The police barricaded off blocks up and down the street and black men with bright bow ties marched past the Frederick Douglass house, the Renaissance Baptist Church, and into the temple. It was one of these nights in July that a young Anacostia man held his pregnant girlfriend hostage in a car across the street from our church; it was a scene unlike anything I’d ever experienced, police lights flashing, sirens and blow horns thundering, bow ties aflight from the area, fleeing across and out of Anacostia.
And this was what I observed: nobody, nobody wanted to be in Anacostia. The church was two blocks from murder row; the Salvation Army and the Red Cross had moved out. The Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Center was a gleaming, marble monument in the neighborhood over, but it was a testament to the Williams sisters’ ability to get themselves out of Anacostia, rise above these God-forsaken streets.
The nights were bleak despite the joyful cries from the children frolicking on the steps of the church. They were there because no one cared where they were, least of all their parents. For the first few nights, I tried to walk these children back to their homes, meet their parents, and let them know that we couldn’t care for them at these hours of the night. But from within young Terrance’s house came the notable shrieks of his mother prostituting herself in the upper room, and suddenly babysitting on the steps seemed the only thing to do.
But it is his house, the Frederick Douglass house, which stands so solemnly and out of place amidst this sobering circus. And there are tourists who come to D.C. and come all the way out to Anacostia to see the yellow house with green shutters and experience the world of Frederick Douglass. Perhaps what they do not expect is to have to use their imagination to see past the reality of Anacostia. They have to wonder, I think, how St. Michael’s, where Douglass worked the plantation, is one of the loveliest portions of the Eastern Shore, whereas his own home attests to the height of urban poverty, institutionalized racism, and neglect to the ideals of freedom and equality he sought so desperately to instill in all people.
All people have souls, Douglass’ biography teaches, even the slave. But does Anacostia itself have a soul? Or has it sold its soul, sold these children, Terrance and Talib, into a new irreversible, urban bondage of poverty? Who will tell Douglass’ story, not just with words, but with his life? Where is hope when there is none to be seen, when the house on the hill can stand so tall but its presence is not enough to triumph over today’s complicated systematic evils?
Sometimes in my dreams, I imagine those children from the church steps playing on the Douglass lawn, on the porch, living in that big unlived-in museum of a house. I imagine it all with anger, helpless anger, until I remember the real lives lived on the streets. You see, it’s easy to equate the decay of buildings and structures with the decay of souls.
The story I have not told is the one in which the community on W Street took us in and protected us from all the danger they lived with everyday of their lives. Gert and Bill, the couple who lived across the street from the church, came over the very night we moved in, promising to be there, whatever we needed. That eventually came to spiritual conversations, much needed showers in their cramped bathroom, and ever-important information about the needs of the community. By their generosity of spirit, their hospitality, and their care, we touched one another in a community that frequently felt bullets graze by, felt the emptiness of hunger, but rarely felt the “silver trump of freedom…rousing one’s soul to eternal wakefulness.” Douglass recalls this moment for him, when “freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, seen in every thing…I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”
Douglass looked out from the plantation’s slave barracks on a bleak future yet all he could hear and taste was the cry and the thirst for freedom. Perhaps looking for hope against the dingy backdrop of Anacostia is to place too much faith in appearances, to place too much acceptance upon the reality that seems irreparable. If Douglass’ deepest longing to learn, to know freedom, and to live, reverberated from deep injustice, perhaps Anacostia does have a soul after all. Anacostia could not be so desperately in need of salvation without a soul to yearn for grace. A great injustice remains in the blocks surrounding the Frederick Douglass house, but the justice to redeem it will come from within. The Frederick Douglass house stands as a reminder that freedom calls us all to wakefulness, but not a freedom from oppression or poverty arranged at the hands of white men in congress, but a freedom for humanity rumbling in the depths of the depravity in which Anacostia toils on day after day.
If we were having coffee this morning, I would wonder aloud whether this coming of age thing is supposed to be so fraught with life and death, divorce and birth, loss and love. Sometimes the co-mingling of so much joy and pain, so much sunshine and devastation, seems cruel, contrite, and certainly, inconceivable. I think it’s partly this stage of life, where friends and family are facing such crossroads, but I also think that living life fully necessarily takes us into deep sorrow and deep joy, and we have little control regarding where one ends and the other begins.
I’m left with a sense of awe regarding how the God of the universe holds our fragile lives in such a charged balance. And a sense of humility for how little I understand of this life, how without words I find myself when witnessing deep pain or deep joy.
But in the midst of the unknown, I find gratitude creeping over me.
What more is there in this life than accompanying one another through the valleys and the mountains? What more is there to be being human than these experiences and the ways we respond in love and care to one another? And how much more there is to this God we seek to know more fully! I’d tell you that even when I can’t see or feel God and I doubt what God is doing, I trust in God’s peace that passes all understanding, I trust in the peace we lend to one another as sinners, yet bearers of Christ, when worldly peace is utterly unfathomable.
I’d also tell you how I’ve hit something of a stride with this dissertation and how very thankful I am to be in a field where I can be both analytical and creative. I’d tell you how nervous and excited I am to be teaching at Drew University this fall and be learning with students there about Chinese family culture. I’d tell you about the anticipation of planning to receive our Chinese pastor friends at Princeton Seminary and Princeton University this fall, the joy I feel at hosting them at our home when they were so generous in showing us around years ago.
And finally, I’d tell you about how gorgeous these final days of summer in New Jersey have been, how there’s something about the sun coming through the window in the morning, the hummingbird on the porch, and the encroaching crispness of the evening hours that reminds me of hope in the midst of darkness. Just last fall, New Jersey experienced much of the brunt of Super Storm Sandy, but since that time, nature has been healing herself and healing many of us in the process.
Yes, in the midst of pain, there is peace. It’s not immediate or instant, but comes about slowly, with grace and goodness, and we are its bearers in a fallen world.
What is your hope or your peace this day?
P.s. I’ve linked up all the virtual coffee date posts in a new category so you can find them easily. Check it out!
No matter who we are, no matter where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done, there are times in this life where we are reminded that we are but fragile humans, vulnerable to the myriad of threats to life on this planet.
And at times like these, we ask very important, very human questions about whether a good and mighty God causes or allows things like disaster, disease, or illness.
We asked some of these questions last Sunday as part of a summer series our pastor is engaging on questions from the congregation. As she invited members of the congregation to share, it became apparent that we’re all struggling somehow–that these threats to life touch us all very deeply, because none of us, no matter how proficient at this thing called life, is immune to disease, disaster, or especially, death.
And as our wise pastor shared her own thoughts on this difficult topic, looking out at many tear-stained faces in the congregation, she pointed us from God’s Old Testament miracles to Jesus’s healings, to his death on a cross, and finally, his resurrection and the Holy Spirit he left behind. She reminded us, as she often does, that we are the body of Christ, and so we’re the ones that are charged with ministering to one another, with being Christ to one another in these moments where the questions seem to weighty to bear.
So I’ve been pondering, all week, the depth and simplicity of that theology, daring to wonder what life would be like if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?
They would know we are Christians not by our love, but by our empathy, by our grace, and our mercy. Because love is oft contaminated by the things of this world, sometimes most of all by we Christians and our misguided, self-righteous and judgmental interpretations of truth.
I’m led this week and this weekend to contemplate an economy of grace in which we can be a little more aware of how much we’re all hurting and a little less judgmental and a lot more humble about how healing happens.
What if instead of contemplating the origins of disease, asking how the bus driver got lung cancer, or quibbling with the details of disaster, wondering why people bother to live in Oklahoma which is so prone to tornados, we contemplated the length that Christ went for us on the cross, the underservedness of our own grace, and the abundance of grace in a world that’s often so graceless? And then what if we committed to being not the one who speaks, but the one who prays, not the one who solves or fixes or even heals, but the one who recognizes, beholds, and reveres deep need? What if we found a way to acknowledge great hurt, but live with great hope?
What if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?
I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together. I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.
But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.
It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.
It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable. But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype. Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.
This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land. What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there. We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers. I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.
But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something. Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle. They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing. And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.
I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.
Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain. It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.
This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church. But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.
As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community. How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death! It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.
Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community. Thank God there is room at the table. And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.
It’s been about three weeks (May 9) since I first read on a Chinese news website about the incident of baby trafficking in a poor county in Hunan that subsequently made international headlines. While I’ve been busy, the wait was actually intentional, in that I didn’t want to respond with only my gut or my heart, but with my mind, as well.
Several weeks later, allow me to share a few lingering thoughts.
First, I’m filled with sorrow for the parents who lost children so many years ago, and whose pain was largely ignored by not only local and provincial leaders, but media, and social agencies. This story, though it received many slants in the media, is first of all a story of human tragedy, and only secondly, a story of tragedies about national or international systems. I also am filled with sorrow regarding the mistakes of local officials, and their alleged abuse of the population policies.
Next, it saddens me that a few individuals’ mistakes have colored international perspectives regarding Chinese governance, and given that my research attends to the individuals in Chinese society who warmly and willingly foster and adopt abandoned and disabled children, it frustrates me that this negative story is the one (as the negative stories often do) that has captivated international attention.
As someone studying Chinese social welfare, I’m more often than not refreshed by the care and concern Chinese people have for their children, and I’m blessed to see that there is much to be hopeful about when it comes to the lives of orphans and disabled children in China.
Finally, it frustrates me that several media outlets have taken this opportunity to draw attention to the one-child policy, and focus on condemning its role in child trafficking, rather than the illegal actions of a few individuals, or the complexity of competing pressures. In this case, local officials abused the policy, and for whatever reason, chose to implement the policy illegally and inappropriately, and as such the child trafficking is a consequence of illegal behavior, rather than routine policy enforcement. While the one-child policy is by no means perfect, child trafficking in China, as in other developing countries, is a much more complicated effect of poverty, international demand for adoptions, etc., rather than the direct consequence of a policy.
This incident has received attention from the Chinese government and the Chinese press, and is currently under investigation. My hope is that as a result of this incident, the pressure that population officials are under to maintain low birth rates will be illuminated, and families who lost children in Longhui county, as well as in other parts of China, will be given support and attention from the government.
My encouragement goes out to those in Chinese society who are working to promote the case for foster care and domestic adoption in China, and my hope is that I am able to describe their work accurately, so that the international audience can understand the complexities of life in China, and also relate to the love parents have for children here as well.