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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Silence, came 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.
Concerning our Justice System: This TED Talk from Bryan Stevenson, which I watched with the friends at New Hope Church in Oakland, is a great introduction to the message (and messenger) of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. My first post about the book’s introduction is here.
The abuses and racial injustices of America’s prison and policing systems sear our consciences. Like the Black Lives Matter movement, Bryan Stevenson has a way of making those corruptions of the justice system into something human and stirring, weaving together memoir as a civil rights lawyer, stories of affected people and communities that are as compelling as any page-turner, and historical and contemporary contexts that captivate the moral imagination.
The first four chapters bring us into the story of Walter McMillian, a wrongly convicted inmate awaiting execution in late-1980s Alabama who Stevenson represents on appeal, and whose case is a miscarriage of justice that could only happen in real-life because it’s too unbelievable for fiction. Interspersed with his unfolding account of the story of the crime McMillian didn’t commit and the contorted, nightmarish social, criminal, legal, and penal apparatuses that bring him to death row, the author explains establishing his own legal practice defend and advocate for people like Walter, and the sounding drum for justice that motivates it.
What these chapters make clear is that Stevenson recognizes the critical vitality of being a witness. What I mean is that his work demonstrates what happens when you fearlessly pursue what others spend their lives shielding themselves from. He witnesses executions, and the words and stories of the people who wind up on the chair. He is in the courtroom and he is in the cell block and he is in the church house. And once, affectingly, he is arms-spread over the roof of his own car as a sufferer of illegal police profiling and persecution. His work and his writing are testimonials, testimonies, shattering and stunning, but without soap-boxing, in touch with compassion and history, laced with faith and hope. And so he is a witness in a way that convincingly bespeaks his subject with political, practical, professional, as well as prophetic credibility.
Read this book.
Quietness is hard to find, and even when circumstances clear up for it to be possible, it’s hard to achieve. Yesterday, in ongoing efforts at cleaning and organizing and, ultimately, simplifying, we went to Ikea to find a shelf, and would up spellbound by its consumer witchcraft. I’ll skip the details, but they may or may not involve “necessities” like pillows and floor lamps for the basement. And I was reminded of the frightening fact that when I turn off noise, sit still, close my eyes, what comes to my mind is an impulse to browse, click, add to cart, and checkout.
One enters the sphere of inaction through divestment, and this release affects all the elements of the workaday sphere. Business activity and exchange of money are forbidden, and one is urged not just to desist from commerce but to develop more interior spheres of settling the mind from this type of agitation… Slowly, under these multiple conditions, a sense of inaction takes over, and they day does not merely mark the stoppage of work or celebrate the completion of creation, but enforces the value that the earth is a gift of divine creativity, given to humankind in sacred trust. On the Sabbath, the practice benefits of technology are laid aside, and one tries to stand in the cycle of natural time, without manipulation or interference. (Ellipses Brueggemann’s).
The idea is becoming quiet and mindful of God, not just against noisiness and people and busyness, but against the commodification of our bodies, the commercialization of our needs. the cycle of work and consumption that are always a live threat to define us. Instead, we are offered Sabbath and Manna, resistance and alternative to what we need to and have to and are required to by the yokes of contemporary society.
This book is addressed exactly to those who are ‘weary and heavy laden,’ made so by the insatiable requirements of our society–in its taxation for the sake of imperialism, in its social conformity that urges doing more and having more (now perniciously embodied in ‘teaching to test’), in its frightened intent that there should be no ‘free lunch’ for anyone, in its assumption that there is a technological resolution of every human problem, in its pathologies of greed and control.
I am exactly weary and heavy laden by those particular loads of care. I’m concerned about my taxation, and ours. I’m constantly tested by measurement society. I’m anxious about fairness, anxious about solutions, anxious about security and securitization. Sabbath is not neglecting those things, it’s answering them with a resolution that they are not Lord. Instead, the Lord sees as more than those things, not the sum of our assets and liabilities, not the evidence of our productivity or return on investment, not our plans and strategies.
I am interested in this alternative life of discipleship that Jesus invites and challenge us to. I’m curious what kind of Sabbath practices weave into my week and daily life, weave into our life as a family, weave into the fabric of my thoughts and prayers, that offers a way of freedom. A way where his yoke is easy and burden light.