Mom, On the Other Side

It’s been more than three months since my mom passed away. Her struggle with cancer lasted four and a half years.
Sometimes, the most unexpected things will set off a memory that makes me sad again, shocked at the change, the disappearance of her from the plane of the living. Someone asks me how I’m doing, and I spin off some capsulated stories to render a fond memory, to illustrate how we’re mourning, to reassure that we’re healthily moving on, all appearances that I am fine and emotionally reconciled. Then, in another unguarded moment, the stranger next to me wiggles their finger on the table, I’m reminded of mom’s physical tics in her last months when she was worn thin, hair grayed, not the same mentally, and then a deep sadness and longing for her sets over me, pulling my guts to the ground. I realize mom doesn’t breathe this air anymore, and the thought is still a vague shock.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for my dad, who is still living in the house she lived in, who cared for her with unfathomable intensity in the last year and a half. I wonder if he rounds the corner to the dining room and remembers again the chores and labors that must have broken his heart, happy as he was to do them, all the daily compounding signals that his wife for life was losing her functions. They’d been married a dozen years longer than his life before her; adulthood, America, aging, all must’ve been impossible to imagine without her. The impossible to imagine is now a daily reality, which must saddle days with a strange un-reality.
That’s what it feels that her physical existence is ashes in an urn in a niche in a wall on a hill in a cemetery. A strange un-reality. When she was sick, during the long bout, from the first day she told me on the phone about the cancer to the last days by her side, I would occasionally slip into a moment of recognition, like an alternate universe, where she was no more. I didn’t want to fear that thought, much as I didn’t want to entertain it. The thought of her smile not flickering over her face, my mother’s arms no longer available for an embrace, the mirror I saw in her zest and anxieties, her hungers and her fondness. When that disappearing wasn’t real yet, just the thought of it would govern me, govern my thinking so that I lived in the now (then) differently. I’d let the thought of my mom’s future passing reorient my present, and watch as subtly things realigned themselves to an ordering that felt more right. Important things first. Cherishing the time. Forgetful about the inconsequential. First things first.
I suppose that over the four years, I let that not-yet-reality in often enough that it changed me and changed my faith. The unknown end of her life, just over the horizon, kept me marching differently. I slacked on several rat races, sharply aware that I would be horrified to look back and to have spent my emotional energy on a career and left none for my mother who raised me. Or for that matter, for my wife and daughter who love me. Slipping into that unavoidable future, like a parallel world, would jolt me into a different way of being in this one. The clock was ticking, and so, all clocks ticked louder. With that ticking time, yes, anxiety. But also, perspective.
Now, it’s a strange new discovery to be on the other side of that great divide. Now, the strange un-reality is the present-ness of her no longer being here, the fact that it’s true and has come to pass. I am on a plane, and by habit, I think of mom when I’m on a plane. Informing her I’ve landed. Talking to her next time about this airline’s amenities, that airport’s newness, this luggage’s efficiency. I’m used to the tray tables reminding me of sitting beside her on a plane, eating her peanuts, putting my legs on her lap as I laid down. The un-reality is that none of those are supposed to happen on this plane of existence anymore. It’s so strange.
So now, just as her last years gave me a horizon of the future to orient my eyes for the present, so her passing gives me a horizon of eternity to orient my walk into the future. Faith no longer just involves prospects for the future, but almost like geographies of the present. In my egocentrism, faith used to entail a belief in future justice, future vindication, future hope. Yes, that’s still the case. And yes, in the past my faith also involved an imagination of angels singing and God in the present, acting and grieving.
But now, faith also involves where my mom is. “Over there.” Not just gone. Over there where we go, where we are held in God’s hands, where we wait. In the present, right now, the one whose hands wiggled, the soul behind those eyes that wrinkled into a smile, the person who is not just those ashes in that urn in that niche. That person, my faith says, in a way that is more real than I have ever had to grasp it, is in a real place, a place as real as New York where we’re landing now, a place as real as California where I just left. The geography of faith that isn’t just about our future reorienting our present, but the present “elsewhere” that comes to us in a new nearness.
In times when technology brings new nearnesses to our attention, somehow we easily escape death, imagining these tools and words in them to exist in perpetuity. The photographs I ran across of Mom all the time aren’t her continued existence, they’re just a repository of memories that flit into my consciousness again, calling up the love and regard she wished so much she could have received more of from me when she lived. They are not who she is now. Not where she lives.
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Where she lives is Somewhere, and if she is there now, then this Here is not the same as I thought it was before.

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.