Back to the Table

The ordeals that have kept me from writing regularly and resuming an academic career for the past three years are…not over. Thankfully. But this past Lent and Holy Week have been an inflection point in my life, I hope and believe.

Completing my first dozen years brought me to faith and literacy; my second dozen to teaching and service; my third to family and study. I don’t have a crystal clear idea where this fourth dozen leads me. But I do have these fuzzy notions: The times mean I’m fighting against revertin’ back to our daily programs. I need to write like I’m running out of time. And if I only live another dozen years, I want to have known that I spent these raising my daughter to be strong and humble, proud and loving, in this world.

So I’m trying to crawl back to the table.

Some Prayers on January 28th

This morning, I’m praying for refugees, displaced peoples, and migrants the world over, but particularly from those countries and faiths that this president has targeted. I’m praying to a God who hears the cries of the oppressed, who hangs out with the outcast and exiles, and who brings low those proud rulers who set themselves against him.  I repeat their names, as many as I know, as I read about them or hear from friends who know them, repeat them to a God who knows their circumstances. I pray against the systemic evils that push people from their homes, and the ones that leave them homeless when they’re looking for sanctuary, a safe place. I pray for those sanctuaries under assault.

And when I can hear their points of view, especially when I can know them by name, I pray for people who feel differently. Their cheers prick like more of the deep hurt that punched me in the gut on election night, the sentiments they might call mere politics or consider speaking up for themselves, or trying to retrieve an “America” lost, or equalize things they resent have somehow become unequal. They have aspirations, hopes, hurts, and hesitations. They pray. They have views that they feel are underrepresented, though those views seem so often tinged by misinformation, and so dangerous and out of proportion that I fear for the consequences of those distortions on their souls and spirits.

Though I convulse with disgust whenever I actually try to listen to President Trump, honestly straining to hear past the bloviating and hucksterism to really find some substance, something that drives him beyond a terrifying TV narcissism that has disastrous consequences on real human lives, to search in vain for something to help me understand those who support him and what he appeals to that is good… I pray for him and his administration as well. Not for winning. Not for triumph. Not because when our president succeeds, we succeed. I can’t pray that with any honesty to the God I’m addressing.

But I pray with more understanding of the radicalism that made the prophets and apostles pray for their worldly leaders. With fearful dread of the extent of the earthly power they wielded despite their patent, human self-centeredness and the havoc it wreaked on their subjects, especially the vulnerable, including their supporters. BUT, meeting that dread immediately, an even greater fear-of-God that knows with tear-stained, life-giving faith that God is greater than these powers. The arc of God’s cause isn’t some ridiculous and deadly regime of cartoonish tyranny and hellish brutality. Rather, awe at how God breathes life into the humble and unseen to welcome the stranger and defend the fatherless, how God moves forces we can’t economize to unmask deceit and remind us of our frailty, how God engages every minute towards the outcomes of millennia.

So what I do pray for the president: to hear the voices, see the faces, consider the administration’s power over the lives of human beings all over the world… now, before he hears and sees them again when we’re all called into Account. I pray for him not to be enslaved by a twisted conception of the cheers and hoots of his red-hatted supporters, to realize the hopes they’ve pinned on him aren’t meant for his insatiable ego and capitalistic machinations, but are meant for a responsibility to call them to the best, rather than the worst, sides of themselves.

I pray for these things even though I’m convinced all natural likelihood is that God’s people of conscience will have stand against most things issuing from this administration: approval of torture and unlawful detention, irresponsible stewardship and exploitation of lands and peoples for profit, and so much more. But prayer is for things that are beyond natural likelihood. And the hopes of my prayers are not set on the puppets in power, but on a God of justice, how that God animates those who serve and love, how that God moves.

Callings and Responsibilities

from ‘March’ by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

The fierce urgency of now dictates that it’s time to act. I’m ready. I’m willing. But… can I get some babysitting?

As much as I resonated with President Obama’s farewell speech and its defense of a democratic vision, its aspirational declaration of unity with the best streams of the American tradition, I also agree that now is the time for the assertive tone that Congresswoman Barbara Lee has taken in vocal opposition to the incoming administration. Truly, it’s a tone that’s not just about speech, but action. Working diligently with action versus merely trumpeting inflammatory talk is a contrast that has now been thrown into the mounting pile of Wonderland-esque, horrifying absurdities that is the Trump performance art of ludicrous, surrealistic authoritarian propaganda, as #notmypresident now sets his sights on ever-more infamous foes like civil rights luminary John Lewis. Next up: perhaps Trump anoints himself in contrast to “sad” Lincoln, “overrated” Martin Luther King, and “failing” Jesus.

The good that’s coming from the Trump’s naked exploitation of people’s resentments and darkest impulses is that it inspires speech and action across the spectrum, from those values leaders rightfully aghast at Trump’s indecency to organizers like Lee and Lewis (and more workaday, unheralded heroes) finding the stark and simple platforms to stand up for justice and morality. Hope mobilizes but sometimes it anesthetizes, while opposition and oppression can at least serve as a backdrop for clarity. It’s time to act, no ifs ands or buts.

But at such a moment, the hard temptation is for me to become discouraged at my own inaction. Now is a time for movements. But I’m distinctly caught in a stage of life when that calling and responsibility toward political action threatens to be overwhelmed, more than ever, by my callings and responsibilities to take care of my family members. To navigate the health care system rather than to fight for it. To work through the dilemmas of public schools rather than to defend them. To traverse cultural walls rather than prevent the erecting of them. I keep thinking, every day, reading reporting and news, “I should be doing more.” But every day, I am overwhelmed by my struggle to even handle even everyday duties. Feed my daughter. Visit my mother.

I try to regularize activities like signing petitions and calling congress members (which is a set of actions that makes me wish I lived in a different district or a red state). I find comfort that my teaching and writing have always been about learning, equity, justice, and mercy, and I redouble my efforts, knowing their clearer significance. I devote thought, talk, and words to understanding people, to moving us beyond mockery and comfortable satire to genuine dialogue that is practical, empathetic, and solutions-oriented.

But only sometimes. Because most days, I’m just trying to figure out what appointments come when, which pills and dosages are right, what salmon to avoid, and how long traffic will swallow me in its vortex. Most of the purported labels I would like to attach to myself (“academic,” “activist,” “critic”) are laughable in contrast to my actual daily activities, as if I could equally label myself a “biker gang member,” “interpretive dancer,” and “deep sea diver” just because I fancy it.

Once again, Scripture in my lectionary reading stirs up my reflections about this and gives me insight. I read, on one hand, Elisha’s calling, when the great prophet Elijah tells him to come along, but he can’t, not before he takes care of his parents. I wonder about the disciple that Jesus called to follow him, who protested that he must go back and bury his parents, to which Jesus replied the shockingly direct, “let the dead bury their own.” And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to drop all the small family obligations that can seem petty in the face of the larger mission, a more universal mission; or if I’m supposed to remember Jesus’ condemnation of the religious teachers who instructed others to give to their system as Corban rather than caring for their own parents, defying God’s actual word of loving duty with their human religious tradition.

I’m actually comforted by this seeming contradiction in direct marching orders from the examples of Scriptures. What kind of God would tolerate neglecting one’s own family members when they need us? What kind of God would settle for our complacency and inaction in the face of systems of oppression that threaten to exploit the weak, the alien, the fatherless, the widow? False choices that are all too easy for us to use to justify our neglect of either one or the either, justice or responsibility, the stranger or our family.

They’re false choices but they feel like real conflicts in the day to day decisions where we play out our actual priorities. I come back to the connectedness of true righteousness. Our fight for better stewardship of the earth also entails careful stewardship of our own homes. Our stand for a health care system that is just and good also entails finding the best program for our children and parents. Good schools involve choices that remember that all our children are ours, not only ones that seek the best for our own.  As that last link reminds us, these are non-negotiable obligations, callings and responsibilities we all share– to act in the very local locality of our own communities and families, to think in the very global sphere of our societal and even eternal stakes– indeed, to “think” and “act” in both layers at all times. But they are also patently in contradiction with each other, at times. These contradictions require living in faith and faithfulness, erasing the rubrics and yardsticks that the world wants to impose, keeping our eyes on a higher calling.

So I take “all of the above” as my activist response to this anti-minority, anti-worker, anti-earth, anti-equality, anti-peace administration: I will take care of my daughter as best I can, raise her as best I can, as I also try to take care of all daughters and sons by nudging our school systems and opposing disinvestment in equity and public schools. I will not be silent for the cultural and civic change that causes us to consider one another, but also struggle on to be considerate of my neighbors, friends, and enemies, in my own hood. I will visit/”visit” the sick, whether they’re a world away and caught up in distant devastation that should inform our foreign policy, or they’re in the next room, waiting for us to drive them to the doctor.

Like a Stranger in a Foreign Country

Preparing to live in America under Trump is reminding me that we are not meant to be so at home in this place. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel at home, to feel safe, to feel belonging. There’s only something wrong with mistaking a place that’s not supposed to be ours for home, for security that’s false, for belonging when we’re meant to be estranged.

Hebrews 11:8-10. By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 

Genesis 12:2-3. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 

It’s interesting that the New Testament doesn’t interpret the Old Testament narrative to conclude that Abraham’s example is his triumph as a father of nations, as the one who had seized this blessing of a great name, God’s favor and choosing. Instead, the New Testament reminds us that Abraham’s calling required of him a weirdness, vacating from familiarity, because his longing was supposed to be for something greater. A city with foundations.

I read an educational research article today about schools with “hyper-diversity,” which the ethnographer used to describe schools with a profusion of languages and cultures represented among the students. And a New York Review of Books article by Annette Gordon-Reed I’ve been reading discussed Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, which reminds us that despite the founders’ democratic philosophies and ideals, their oppressive treatment of black and Native American people was not just incidental to circumstances like slavery, but part of the citizenry-defining project of the American Revolution. Pointing towards Parkinson’s book, Gordon-Reed writes:

Instead of being treated as citizens at liberty in a republic who have the right to be free from tyranny, African-Americans are treated as if the words “liberty” “republic,” and “tyranny” have no application to them. These were some of the words the founders used as they made the case for breaking away from the British Empire and setting up a federal union for the benefit of a newly constituted American citizenry. The policing of black people, in contrast to the treatment of true citizens, too often employs tactics that might be used against a captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community. How did this happen?

It takes little stretch to think of how this same treatment might be applied to Native Americans. And the status of “captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community” is not far-fetched when one studies the forces that propel many migrants to leave the familiarity of their home nations to become aliens in a foreign land, one where the earth’s resources convert into measures of security and prosperity that seem to have been stripped from their communities at home.

All this makes me encouraged and challenged by the new sanctuary movements re-emerging in the American church in the wake of Trump. But I’m also reminded, at the same time, that while God’s people are called to be a sanctuary against the injustice of the empire, we are also called to continually identify with the foreigner, the alien, the oppressed. We are not supposed to feel at home in this world.

That has many implications in how we encounter the world. One of them for me, at this moment, is to give me a different stance when I read the news about the latest dismantling of ethical accountability systems or democratic norms from government leaders. After the initial shock and chagrin, I remember that my trust was never in politics or government officials to establish justice in the first place. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting withdrawing politically, and I’m inspired by people like my friend Scott Figgins, who posts daily actions on his Facebook page that rally his friends, or others pointing out how progressives can locally organize to resist. But perhaps the fight to hold the powerful (including ourselves) accountable to justice takes a different shape–one more circumspect, and perhaps more faithful to truth rather than wedded to partisanship–when we aren’t blinded by the assumption that our own arguments can be taken for granted, our own values and virtues are commonly understood, and our “normal” is how our political leaders and institutions will operate.

Another implication is how I respond to the feelings of alienation and estrangement day to day, a feeling that’s hard to articulate or even pin down, but one that reflects what it feels like to be a person somehow on the road, a sojourner, an alien in a shifting landscape. To be in a place that might be somehow called “hyper-diverse” is to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable in many situations. Because unless we want to enshroud ourselves in the familiar at all times, nestled in the safety that we know how things go and the way we do things is the way they ought to be… well, that’s the way most of us live most of the time, right?

But knowing we’re aliens means we don’t gate ourselves up in places where we’ll never be suspicious or feel suspicious. Most people who recognize that reckon with the big picture implications of that, such as losing some status or financial security. What can wear away at us is the mundane, daily ways that being alien feels. Somehow, things are awkward. Often. Somehow,  you’re having to re-learn, again and again, what it means to listen to people, what it means to do right, what it means to serve, to share, to teach, to grow. Just when you think you got it, that you know something, that the hill you’re climbing is conquerable…

It’s a vulnerable position. But it’s not one that we nobly take on. It’s one that we humbly realize about ourselves. Especially when we look in the mirror, dismayed that all our garments of supposed power and security are actually the weights that keep us from taking flight.

Leaving Behind 2016’s Chariots and Horses

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.  Psalm 20:7. 

While catching up with old friends yesterday, I admitted 2016 was the worst year of my life. In addition to the world’s specters of violence, exploitation, and vicious politics, in addition to great struggle in my family and work, I was sorely disappointed in myself and what I’ve become.

Looking at the new year, I am disillusioned with our technologies of speed and power, and I’ve lost faith in our cultivation of breeding and strength. I choose today the name of our Lord. God is doing something bigger than me and my goals. God is doing something bigger than our daily fights and struggles. God is doing something bigger than our games and competitions, even the ones of global consequence, the ones with nations, economies, and lives at stake. Yet what God is doing encapsulates all of these layers. Just not always the way we expect when we put our trust in the players within them.

We will trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Mixed Methods Living

In theory, I believe in mixed methods research. I say “in theory” only because there is a set of skills and knowledge you need to include quantitative, numerical analysis that usually you mean when you say “mixed methods,” and that is a set of skills and knowledge that I sorely lack. As a researcher, that’s okay, because I know enough to read, evaluate, and make use of others’ quantitative analyses, and then my part of the work is to offer the complementary qualitative analyses that speak to what those numbers say.
 
But in daily life, being a “mixed methods” person means that I am learning when to attend to the “qualitative” aspects and when to attend to the “quantitative” aspects. They’re analytically distinct, meaning they’re two different ways of looking at things that can often seem to contradict each other. But in reality, in God’s eyes, so to speak, the separation is not so stark. What things look like from the scales of measurement with sufficient quantities of data might provide a different picture from what they look like from the description and interpretation of details and up-close units of analysis. But both become necessary in ways of living. 
 
I was listening to a basketball podcast interview with Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean talk about how he and his coaches work with players. The players he recruits and prepares for the League, he says, are not just the ones who are willing to spend time in the gym or to put in the work— in my words, not just the quantity of will. He also looks for those willing to get into the details, to pay attention to doing the little things right, to get better at the fundamentals that ultimately have a greater impact multiplied over practice time— in my words, the quality of skill. (I’m paraphrasing and adding in a lot— this is my version of what he said in my head, which is definitely riddled with inaccuracies!)
 
But of course, everyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell knows it takes 10,000 hours to become awesome at something, like the Beatles, right? That’s scientifically proven! Malcolm Gladwell said it!
 
Truth is, though I’m a qualitative researcher, I tend to act most of the time as if volume is what matters. Say more words and you’ll cover all your bases. Show your devotion by promising and racking up more hours. Cherish the experience of the buffet, and eat more, regardless of the subtleties of flavor, because the feeling of inundating yourself with food all at once will secure you from all future hunger.
 
Mixed methods research is really rich research, but it requires attending to a lot of particulars and articulating a lot of relationships that can’t be taken for granted. How will one kind of analysis speak to another kind of analysis, what propositions or narratives will the data test or examine and how will they go together. At its best, it’s a John Williams score over a good Spielberg movie. Poorly planned, it’s trying to listen to Macklemore while watching Survivor at the same time.
 
Mixed methods living: a similar challenge. Can I pay more attention to the quality of my time spent with my daughter than sheer quantity? And yet not take myself off the hook for just plain ol’ carrying my share of the load of responsibility, the gigantic mountain of attention she needs and deserves? Can I do the same with my writing, research, or teaching, all of which are vocations that show pretty clearly when someone is taking shortcuts, which require lots of time in the gym, but also thoughtfulness and selectivity? 
 
I have to. There’s no other way to responsibly face the variety of callings in my life than to be responsible for how I live as well as how much I live into it. 
 

The Cloud of Witnesses and Children

This summer I’ve had the joyful chance to help out with the children’s ministry at our church, New Hope Covenant Oakland, and under the direction and partnership of Pastor Kara Groth to tell stories of saints’ lives to preschoolers and early elementary students.  They’re not my usual age of students, having been a high school teacher and youth group leader, so it was a learning experience from me.  Fortunately, friends at the church set an example of thoughtful teaching and storytelling for kids at that tender age, the age of my daughter, which provided a tremendous example for me.  Some of the ways they teach stories are inspired by the books and materials of Godly Play, a Montessori-based Christian education approach developed by Jerome Berryman and others.  Some of the ways they teach are also just born from experience with the groups of kids they have taught, adorable and precocious and curious and unique kids.

via Godly Play UK

via Godly Play UK

Focusing on the lives of saints has been fun and fascinating.  We’ve told them stories of St. Paul and Ruth from Scripture, Dorothy Day and Fannie Lou Hamer,  St. Clare and St. Francis, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Bishop Efraim Tendero of the World Evangelical Alliance, Desmond Tutu and Sojourner Truth, St. Paul Miki and the 26 Companions (Japanese martyrs), and others.  Those saints that I had a chance to tell stories about, I was inspired by the process of reading and research, composing stories simple enough for five year olds but spiritually meaningful.  Or maybe spiritually meaningful precisely because they are simple enough for five year olds, and still profound enough to inspire prideful old farts.  I revisited Endo’s Silencecame to appreciate the extensive catalogue and hagiography of saints that Catholics cultivate on the internet, and repeatedly reflected on the contrast between my goals and the purposeful lives of those saints the church remembers.

Communicating this to small children has been a different thing.  Godly Play involves stories played out with figures and materials, and our Sunday School room is stocked with wooden human statues, temples that can be assembled and disassembled, sand in boxes and felt underlays.  It’s tangible, beside which the spiritual is unfolded.  Christ in the flesh, God in the world, the Spirit inhabiting human lives and the material world: these are to be seen and lived by kids.  I realize how much I rely on abstractions on one hand and images on the other, and it’s taken an adjustment to think about stories differently.  Characters moving slowly across sand, in spatial relationship to each other.  Symbols that we can hold and touch.

Appropriately, the theme that Pastor Kara introduced, aligned to the church’s discipleship model, was introducing how these saints heard God’s call and saw the world through God’s eyes.  We tried to tell stories about people being sensory and perceptive about the spiritual enfleshed in the concrete.  I found that kind of thinking really necessary for me, the kind of person who has a way of intellectualizing my faith and compartmentalizing arenas of life.  No, Paul, you can’t just rely on a bunch of rhetoric and philosophy, phrasings and stories– these stories have to get down to the visible and mundane, the grounded, the kind of stuff small kids can see and understand.  Dorothy Day’s ragged coat, Paul Miki’s long trail of snow towards crucifixion, St. Clare’s bed for the sick.  How does God’s call invite us along a story that moves our feet and hearts, and how does God’s vision recast the reality around us?

Studying and telling stories about this cloud of witnesses, I also thought a lot about the daily lives of these kids and their families.  Establishing habits and experiencing disruptions.  Forming curiosities and discovering mysteries.  Lunches and movies and tan bark and scary cars.  Unbridled joy and depths of mourning.  I thought about how these stories might re-narrate help them hear God’s call and see God’s world.  It’s hard to expect immediate evidence.  My kid didn’t go home from one of our stories and radically reinterpret her life.  I don’t think it happens quite that way, quite that fast.  But i did think a lot about the stories i regularly read with her, ones with heroes who vanquish enemies and lovable losers who navigate and negotiate their way through existence.  Yes, those are the substance of life too.  But I’m so glad that alongside those stories, she has stories of a dawning revelation of things outside the hero’s journey that matter and last, of a larger adventure that begins before and extends well beyond an individual life, of a communion of saints who, remembered or forgotten, are known and loved by God.