things Judah taught me: on with-ing

I wrote the following on a very bad day full of very bad news. I wrote it as an act of resistance, because I realized that bad news has a way of becoming the center. The consuming, expanding center of everything. I felt the devouring begin to happen and I refused to allow the monster of bad news to erase the person for whom the news was bad. I wanted to resist the erasure, to remind myself that while bad news can be loud, I could learn to drown it out by singing the song of a remarkable child who belongs to a family who loves him. Today more bad news threatens to take all our attention, and I find myself resisting again. I won’t let the hard things take my eye off the good lives I know. Every instant we commit to loving those who hurt creates a moment of beautiful resistance. As perfect love casts out fear, stubborn belonging dispels the power of evil.

From July:

Today I found out my sister’s son will likely die within a year. He has a brain tumor, and it used to be a gentle tumor stuck in a bad place. This summer it turned into a ferocious tumor that respects no boundaries. His name is Judah, and I have to remember that he is the one, the star of his life, not the damn tumor. The tumor seems to be calling the shots, but Judah’s life is much more than a tumor bearer. He is an image bearer. He was put together by a creative and loving God who knows his name. Who knows his every thought. Who sees each tear that falls, and hears him when he calls.  

It is easy to forget this in the midst of hospitals and ERs and pain meds and appointments and tests and labs and waiting rooms and waiting in general. But Judah himself is a gift to us. He is clever. Super smart and observant and notices stuff that others don’t. He loses himself in imaginings. He laughs at funny faces. He latches on to clever turns of phrase. He loves to be the one who knows, who understands, who gets it, and so he builds connections with the adults he trusts. He’ll pick up on a phrase and then, hours later, look at the adult who first said it, and repeat it with a knowing glance, “Oh, here we go again…we’ve been here before.” Endearing, this ability of his to connect. To remember. To create a thing we share.  

He has made me feel worth observing.

In the face of bad news, it is all too easy to turn away, to shut down, to pretend we don’t care because we can’t imagine how to fix it, to try to minimize the pain by averting our gaze. But when you love someone, these methods don’t work. You can’t turn away, because the grief is in every corner. The only thing to do is to lament. To acknowledge what has been done and to confess what you have done.

To cry out for all the sadness, to witness the pain, to sit in the grief, to behold the breaking heart.  

Apathy and indifference feel viable until they aren’t. Distraction works until it doesn’t. Therapists tell us we cannot heal until we talk about our pain. There is power in bearing witness. In being present for the awful.

Sometimes this life can feel like a fight to win. Or an effort to be upwardly mobile. Or a platform to find followers. Or a canvas on which to leave a mark. Or a warehouse in which to horde wealth. Or a story to write that makes you the exceptional hero.

What if it is none of those things? What if life is really about the chance to show up and be present with others? What if life is a block of time in which we get to lend a hand, to be a companion on a fearful, fretful journey, and bear witness in all the possible ways? Bear witness to the truth you have experienced, to the ways of God as you understand them, and also to witness other humans being human? To watch, observe, listen and stand next to?  

What if life is about being with?

When God gave a vision to Isaiah, his Prophet, about the coming Messiah, the One who would redeem and save the people God created, he called him “Emmanuel.” God with us. I have come to believe that bearing witness to Emmanuel is the best we can do. By this I mean that perhaps the best we can do is to show up in someone’s life and offer to be “with” them. If we hope to emulate God then we must be people who are with other people, as Christ was. We must strive for the “with.”

In the weeks and months ahead, my sister and her husband will be “with” their hurting son and his siblings. They will be companions. They will observe and listen and lean in. In this way, they will elevate Judah the child of God, not Judah the kid with cancer. Judah is Subject of this story, not the object of a disease. Judah is worth witnessing. Judah is worth being with.  

When we see so much pain around us, from counselor offices to Senate hearings to adolescent angst to refugees fleeing home, let’s work to remember that the people enduring the pain are the ones we want to stand beside. Good energy is spent telling the story of a person’s self, refusing to allow them to be eclipsed by the pain they endure or the problem they survive. Don’t look to the problem before we see the people suffering underneath the problem. It is so easy to focus on the trouble, to give attention to the pain. The better path though, is to hold on to the uniquely fabulous person underneath all that trouble.

Bear witness to the lives of the people around you. Show up. Make time. Pay attention. Remember. These are ways to resist the darkness: Give people a place to belong when the path ahead is dim. Remind them that they are seen and loved, not lost in all the pain. Find the person, not just the suffering. Be with.

on advent: me or we?

The month of December means Handel’s Messiah is playing in my house.  My husband grew up in a home where music was life.  His mother sings every chance she gets, and his father can hardly speak when he hears beautiful choral music (St. Olaf’s Christmas reliably ushers him into the throne of heaven itself!).  My people hail from the hills of East Tennessee, and while I also love chorale music, I am most thankful for my family legacy when we are gathered around a piano, singing shape notes with a few guitars, banjos and a mandolin thrown in.  Family “sangins” were serious business in my world; Christmas brings these memories up for me, and remind me that Christmas carols are an important part of the way I experience Advent.

I teach a class on Christ, race and culture at my church, and while I appreciate the opportunity, it usually means I miss the corporate worship time.  This is a chronic tension I feel because I love to sing, but it never stings more deeply than during Advent.  There is something about singing those familiar carols together that reminds me that my understanding of the world is rooted in a God who calls me into the great “us” of humankind, not into my own private pursuit of God or moral goodness. 

Music reminds us we are better together, and this is why it is so pivotal to the way I approach God.  Even when we are very bad at understanding and appreciating each other (as we often, in fact, are), music seems to remind us that we are best when we work together.  I noticed a few years ago that many pop songs on the radio had choruses sung by large groups of people.  They beg us to sing along.  From Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”  to Phillip Philip’s “Home” to DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” to U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, pop hits contain lyrics recorded as sing-alongs.  My life affords me the opportunity to spend large quantities of time with people roughly under 30, and when I hear them sing along to the radio I am reminded that some thing in all of us finds belonging when we sing along with others.

Advent reminds us that the faith journey, as designed by God and modeled by the life of Christ, is very much a communal affair. 

This realization matters particularly at Advent because the promise of the Messiah, the One Advent expects and waits for, is very much delighted with the idea of singing along.  So much of western Christianity has rejected the importance of the communal nature of God in favor of a faith locked into the personal pursuit of the Divine.  The experience of a faith journey for many in American Protestantism is wholly about personal devotion to Christ and obedient evangelismAdvent, however, reminds us that the faith journey, as designed by God and modeled by the life of Christ, is very much a communal affair. 

The prophecy which Handel memorialized in the Messiah, and which Christ quoted in his declaration of public service, is from Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.  They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
— Isaiah 61:1-4

Advent, and the Christmas moment it looks toward, is about the Messiah coming to make things right for broken people.  A glance at this prophecy, which Christ himself claimed to embody, reminds us that the Messiah did not only come to justify individuals, but also to bring justice and equity to the present world.  Advent looks toward God’s cosmic invitation to humanity to sing along with Him, to join the work of bringing good news to the poor and wounded in every practical way.

This Advent, I would like to suggest that the Messiah came and is coming to bring righteousness.  Not only to justify us and make us righteous, but to invite us into the work of making things right for all our neighbors.  The highest devotion for a follower of Christ is not to live a life devoted only to knowing God personally, but to follow Him in the work of making things right for those around you.  To commit myself not to the flourishing of me, but to the deep right-ness—the peace and Shalom—of the we

Advent looks toward God’s cosmic invitation to humanity to sing along with Him, to join the work of bringing good news to the poor and wounded in every practical way.

Advent celebrates the fact that God’s fullness was revealed when Jesus sacrificed all His capital for the flourishing of others.  Might we best experience Advent by committing ourselves to the flourishing of the communities around us?  We must preach the good news to our own poor selves, but we cannot stop there.  Because the fullness of the purpose of the Messiah is only realized through sacrificial service to others, we cannot reflect on Advent by only focusing on our own interior lives.

This Advent, think about the reason your heart responds to meals and parties and carols sung together.  Our core selves already know we are looking for good news that works best in community.  We simply cannot understand the peace of Christmas unless we understand the needs and gifts of the communities in which we live.  Sing along. It’s more festive that way.