all is not well: hope and despair in an age of rage

One could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this particular American moment. No matter your vantage point, we live in uncertain, hateful times. To quote a local pastor, “All is not well among us.” Each of us has felt the creeping anxiety of uncertainty, or the erasing sadness of marginality, or the confusing alienation from people once trusted, or the ambiguity that comes from no longer knowing who represents what to whom. Perhaps if we contextualize our own frustrations with those of our neighbors we might find that we belong—unsure but hopeful—together.

 If you have children, school shootings, drug use and soaring rates of anxiety and self-harm can be terrifying. If your skin is brown, or you appear ambiguously ethnic to others, you might be reasonably fearful of overt acts of hate or of chronic suspicion from law enforcement. If you advocate for the sanctity of early life, recent laws passed in Virginia and New York can make you question how our society can tolerate such evil. If you love a person with a terrible medical diagnosis, the repetitive trauma of watching them struggle to live is compounded by the fear that lawmakers who “represent” you might eliminate their healthcare. If you think of yourself as a good person who is kind to others, you might feel accosted by the possibility that others might think you bigoted or racist.  If you are wealthy, trade wars and a stock market based on the feelings on investors erodes security. If you are poor, hearing about a strong economy while working full time without access to healthcare or a living wage might feel like slowly drowning. If you believe America should protect its natural resources, and has traded long-term global viability for access to fossil fuels, you are stunned that we seem to be making it worse on purpose. If you believe that black lives often don’t matter in America, hearing about elected officials who thought it was fun to reenact a racist practice from the Jim Crow days likely feels disorienting and demeaning. If you understand the way trauma works in kids, then the idea that our government can’t or won’t reunite children with their families feels like slow motion horror. If you try hard in your life to live at peace, serve others and stay out of trouble, then all the outrage, eye rolling and accusation might feel like an assault.

Nearly everyone has a good reason to feel abused, to be angry or to worry. Many of us seem to think the best path forward is to blame others, to raise hell in an effort to get others to care, or even to try reaching across lines of difference to learn from another perspective. In addition to these, I wonder if it also helps to name our grief? The laundry list above can feel like whining, or worse, like an attack. Those of us who avoid complaining, who take pride in “owning our junk”, who fancy ourselves people of action, likely have trouble sitting with the sadness, pain, anxiety and anger such concerns bring to the surface. Nevertheless, it is good to name our grief.

Our religious traditions would agree. The Jewish people know lamentations usher the lamenter before God, who is the only true source of hope. Islamic tradition makes space for memorializing the hardships and sufferings of the faithful as they seek to end corruption and live generous lives. Christianity offers both worship and lament as viable paths to recognizing the hope of the Messiah. These ancient Abrahamic traditions remind us that uttering the ways that we cause pain—and grieving over the actions of others that cause us pain—are genuine expressions of our humanity and genuine pleas from our humbled states that connect us to one another.

Accusation and guilt often feel like more satisfying alternatives, but they fail to move us toward healing. Accusation keeps our feet planted on the ground while we jab at those around us. Guilt sinks us deep into our souls, paralyzing us and preventing us from looking out or up for the hand of an ally. Naming our grief is different. It allows us to move past both accusation and guilt until we come face to face with our disappointment. It allows us to feel sad without blaming that emotion on ourselves or someone else. When we name the things we have done alongside the things done to us we eventually find our selves.  By this I mean we come to remember we are people whose hearts get broken living around other people whose hearts get broken. This affirming of our humanity, this gazing inward at our sadness instead of pointing outward at our blame, prepares us for gratitude and, finally, for meaningful action.

One of my favorite admonitions in the Bible is when Paul, from prison, reminded friends to be “watchful and thankful.” He knew that if we only watched the world around us we would despair. He knew that paying attention can be dangerous work for the soul. He also knew that if we only focused on our own gratitude we might reduce our ability to see that hurt in others. The antidote for anxiety, selfishness and despair, according to Paul, is to pay attention with gratitude.

 My sister and her husband are living through a type of hell on earth as they love their older son through terminal brain cancer. Coping skills and belief systems tend to fall apart when smashed against the anguish of watching a kid you adore suffer in relentless, soul-crushing ways. They are watchful. They see it all. And it nearly kills them. They speak their grief, naming their suffering until they run out of words. And then they find gratitude even when they don’t want to. When we pay attention, gratitude wells up, and our souls, almost in an act of defiant betrayal, are lifted. Watching and thanking, we find a way to make it through the hour.

As I learn from them, and others I know who have every right to be angry and to despair, I find myself following in their wake. Pay attention to all of it. All is not well. Watch anyway. Name your grief and lament your way into hope before a God who can hold it. And then allow your soul to be lightened by gratitude. Thankfulness lifts us out of ourselves so that we see those around us. We find empathy and connectedness when we notice the many ways we hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. Then, and only then, are we able to take action, to challenge the forces that cause our pain, to speak against systems of unjust power, until we are heard. If we want to find light in the dark, we need to see and name the dark, reach out to hold other reaching hands, and give thanks that we are not alone after all.

on advent: we need help admitting we need help

In the past month, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with two families as they said goodbye to their beloved, grandmother, sister, wife and friend.  These women lived gorgeous lives, loving and blessing and laughing all the way, each day until they were suddenly taken from us.  Funerals are terrible.  But they are also beautiful. A time to grieve and reflect and honor and remember and thank.  And sometimes, in the most precious of miracles, funerals are a place where deep sadness becomes hope.  Maybe that is why these funerals have helped me become an Advent person. On this, the first day of Hanukkuh, a holiday that remembers when God rescued and restored Israel, miraculously multiplying meager resources, I’d like to argue that Advent is a time to admit we need help, and that this acknowledgment moves us from despair to hope.

As much as I know that binaries destroy our ability to love ourselves and others with the nuance demonstrated by God and required of us, I kinda love them.  I often think of myself as reasonable, and many others as uber-biased, or at least uninformed.  I often think of myself as a person loving people well, while I see selfishness in others.  I often see the vulnerabilities—deficits even—in others, while I see the nobility in my own efforts, and the efficacy in my actions.  These perspectives are utter bullshit, of course.  I am unreasonable, uninformed, selfish, vulnerable and deficit-laden.  In that way, I am human, just as you are human; we should recognize binaries as the toxic delusions that they are. 

Those who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Advent is a season that knows this, although a person could be forgiven for thinking it is a thing designed for comfortable people living in cozy homes, not for people who desperately need to be rescued.  Many of us have sanitized not just the birth of Christ, but His own stated reason for coming.  The truth is that Mary and Joseph were very poor, and very alone, and very far from comfortable people having thoughtful conversations in important places. The truth is that Mary was very pregnant, they were very young, and they were so desperate for rest that they accepted an offer to sleep in a barn.  The truth is that she could have died delivering Him, and it was not at all clear in that moment that this was the protected and predestined moment designed to save the world.  Joseph probably felt the same sense of helplessness and pride that most partners feel when their wives are entering the ring of fire that produces precious life.  It was probably terrible.  And it was probably beautiful too.

I so often act as if Jesus came, angels sang, sheep and cows and horses were super not-terrifying, and the king of the universe became a human.  I add to that misunderstanding of the historical narrative the blasphemy that God sent His Son so that comfortable, American evangelicals could be super clear about who God doesn’t approve of.  That the Messiah came so that awesome self-sufficient people could have awesome quiet times, or so awesome people could attribute to God their remarkable ability to hoard wealth.  When we read the early stories in Luke and Matthew, we know that this understanding of Advent is a deep misunderstanding. 

If we look at the prophecies that predict God’s advent, it becomes clear that the Messiah comes for those who live in darkness, for the burdened and oppressed, for the grieving and captured.  He comes to bring light and ease and comfort and freedom for them.  He comes for those who are ignored, marginalized and abused by the systems that benefit me. 

I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.

When we sanitize the Christmas story and the life Christ lived, it is not just hurtful for those whose vulnerabilities define them to the world.  That outlook also incentivizes the rest of us to act like we are not vulnerable, not in need of rescue; as if we regularly embody our best selves, and our moments of need (stressed, screaming, frantic, cussing, harried, insomniacal gluttons who just want to rest) are few and far between.  But this is not who I am.  

I very much need rescuing, from myself and for myself.  I need to believe in a God who allows me to be a mess, and deeply loved.  I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.  An honest look at Advent begs us to remember the way of Christ—from the beginning—is the way of broken, obscure people who long for recognition and rescue.  The beautiful arc of Christian doctrine tells us that Christ came once into the world to provide an eternal avenue to belonging, and that Christ will return to fully establish the earth as a place where all flourish, where all is made right, where the table is big enough for everyone.  In the meantime, followers of Christ are tasked with joining the child born unto us in His work of justice and righteousness; we live to establish a world where the dignity of every person is assumed, where vulnerabilities are met with compassion, and the grace we all live under is obvious. 

That is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.  God marches right in.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Handel’s Messiah, nestled in the middle of the greatest chorus ever written, lives the line, “The Kingdom of this world, is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and of His Christ.”  This world, this beautiful-ugly place, has been redeemed, is being redeemed and will be fully redeemed by Christ so that all of us will belong.  Margins will not exist, and people will not hide in shadows.  It seems to me that people who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Funerals offer us the unique chance to celebrate a well-lived life.  The chance to make meaning out of our attempt to live with others.  The chance to recognize the best in another.  The chance to collectively acknowledge that we are all barreling toward the end of ourselves.  The chance to acknowledge we need each other to flourish, and that caring about each other actually matters.  Perhaps Advent offers us a similar chance to remember our own deficits, to thank God for coming toward us when we are needy, and to align our actions with God’s approach to humanity.   Advent offers us a chance to hope.  If we are not moving toward hurting people with that hope, we are not following the Messiah.

why i weep

an open letter about the 2016 election

This week has been hard for me and many others in our country, and I suspect it would help us heal if I tried to explain why.  After spending time with college students and talking with a few of you, I realize that many who voted for Trump misunderstand our weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I am reaching out because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am reaching out because I want you to have every chance to understand.  I am reaching out because I need to heal and believe developing empathy for each other is a crucial part of that process.  If you also want to heal, if you are willing to see me as a thoughtful person whose feelings and perceptions of the world are valuable, then read on.  Although I think many will resonate with me, I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, so I will only write for myself.  

I am disappointed we elected a President who, in my view, does not have the experience to excel at the multiple aspects his job will require.  I am disappointed we chose to believe he will surround himself with wise council, even though he repeatedly thwarted opinions--even in his inner circle--that did not confirm his own.  I am disappointed we chose to trust him most of all with our economic future, even though he has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy, refused to pay bills, and has chosen to make the vast majority of his products overseas rather than in America.  

These truths disappoint and frustrate me, but they are not the reason I have cried every day, or look with pride to some of the protesting marchers, or feel betrayed and shocked by my country.  The reaction I have had to this election has nothing to do with red or blue, my candidate getting defeated, sour grapes or even frustration with policy positions.  My deep sadness comes because I feel alienated from my country given what a vote for Trump necessarily affirms.  Let me be clear: He has openly encouraged behavior and statements that portray

  • Women as gratifying objects whose primary value is demonstrated through their physical attributes.

  • Muslims as radical, unwelcome terrorists who are not to be trusted or made welcome, and who cannot be loyal to America even if they die defending our freedom.

  • Hispanic immigrants as thieves and criminals who have come to ruin American livelihoods, who cannot function as professional Americans in any environment.

  • Disabled people as objects to be mocked.

Please hear me say that I feel confident that you, the majority of Trump supporters, disagree with and loathe these statements.  I do not think you are racist or misogynistic in the way you approach others.  I also know you might feel judged and attacked by those protesting or weeping for our country.  I am sorry to have lumped you in with voters who enthusiastically endorse the statements above.

Here’s the deal though, and this is the key to understanding the tears and despair: By voting for him, you did endorse his perspectives on the value of others.  With zero intention on your part, you confirmed a perspective which negates the value of about half of our country.  For a female survivor of abuse, a Muslim, an immigrant, or a disabled person, our country’s decision to elect Trump was an irreversible statement screaming that we find them unvaluable, expendable and not one of us.  I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but this is the message that is rattling around in the hearts of half of our society.  I am a white Christian profession woman, and I am devastated that I can’t pull that message back.  I can’t unring the bell.  My students and friends and African-American daughter will have to live out the consequences of all of us saying these statements aren’t bad enough to be absolutely rejected.  They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.  They have to get up and go to work and school in a country that elevated a man who said they were not and never would be his equal.  Can you imagine leaving your house this week if you were a minority teenage girl or boy?  We had the chance to say, “no”, and instead, by electing him, we said, “more please.”  This is why I weep.

They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.

I have heard many reasons a person might have voted for Trump, and none of those include bigotry.  I hear you, and am trying to understand the dignity of your choice.  For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.  I know these ideas are already out in the world, and I know voting for Trump didn’t cause them to exist.  However, I am deeply wounded that we had the chance, as a people committed to liberty and justice, to say, “Absolutely not. I will not allow comments like that to go unchecked at my dinner table/workplace/playground.” We missed it.  Instead of saying we want to heal as a country with a terrible track record on race and gender, we decided deadly sentiments like Trump’s were not a problem.  This ability to overlook the danger in his comments reveals to me that my community either does not know any immigrants, Muslims, disabled people or victims of abuse, or that we just don’t care.  This is why I weep.

For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.

I am not interested in blame, but in helping articulate a path forward so that we can stand up as a people and say, “Absolutely not!” to words that inspire violence and exclusion.  In light of that interest, here are my commitments to you:

  1. I commit to not speaking of all Trump voters as bigoted misogynists, as if you are all the same. I will believe that you do not and did not support or minimize the damage his comments would cause many in our country. I commit to working hard to finding empathy for those whose value system allowed them to vote for our President-elect.

  2. I commit to giving our new President an open mind and my respect, even behind closed doors.

  3. I commit to confronting my own despair and to finding and celebrating moments of hope and healing.

  4. I commit to making it my daily mission to reach out and affirm every person marginalized by the power of the majority.  I will go out of my way to listen and to actively value people who are different than me.

In our commitment to healing, I ask you to consider the following:

  1. Will you commit to finding empathy for those whose lives feel endangered by trying to build relationships with people outside your race or gender?

  2. Will you commit to standing up and speaking out against jokes, stereotypes and comments that undermine the dignity and value of all God’s people?

  3. Will you follow your vote up with action that affirms life, liberty and equality for ALL, to look beyond your own interests in order to rebuild the fabric of our society?  Will you reach out to those who might feel marginalized or endangered and let them know you are an advocate for them?

I am committed to making this the moment when we agree as a people not to blame each other for our own failure as a society.  No matter who you voted for, can you commit personally to moving toward those who are weaker than you, who have less power or comfort?  If we say yes, Trump’s presidency will be one of healing and hope for all of us.