Shutting Down

Hi Everyone,

Just wanted to let you know I am shutting down this blog.  You can email me at kdabaghian@gmail.com. I wish you all well on your journey!

-karen

 

Why We Tell The Story

Why We Tell The Story

Yesterday afternoon I watched in wonder as my little Julia, one week past her 10th birthday, portrayed the beloved character Ti Moune, in her school drama club’s adaptation of the musical, Once On This Island. Spoiler alert: I fought back tears from start to finish, but not for the reasons I expected to.


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Set in the French Antilles, Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphan peasant girl, “black as night,” who lives on one side of the island with her people— the poor slaves who make up the islands’ servant class. On the other side of the island live the wealthy grandes hommes, the fair-skinned land-owners who shut their eyes to the suffering and poverty of the peasants so they can benefit from their labor unhampered by conscience.

The island is overseen by four gods — Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwé, God of Water; Erzulie, Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death. Unbeknownst to the peasants and grandes hommes alike, the gods commence a cosmic wager designed to answer the most enduring of questions: can love conquer death or is death the most powerful force in the universe. All agree, Ti Moune’s life will be the the balance sheet upon which the wager is played.

The gods cause a great storm to lash the island, during which a young grandes hommes, Daniel Beauxhomme, is fatally wounded. Ti Moune rescues Daniel, stepping into her destiny and holding back the Demon of Death by exchanging her life for his. With Papa Ge temporarily sated, Ti Moune nurses Daniel back to health, falling in love with him and imagining he loves her in return. Soon the grandes hommes realize Daniel is with Ti Moune, and bring him home to his father’s grand hotel on the other side of the island, the gates of which are tightly shut to keep the peasants out. Ti Moune, with the help of the gods, gains entrance and continues to care for Daniel, who begins to love her in return.

But at the moment it seems love will conquer the great divide between the privileged boy and the peasant girl, Daniel admits to Ti Moune that he is betrothed to a woman from his own class. Daniel is given the choice — go against the proscriptions of his community and choose Ti Moune, whom he loves and to whom he owes his life, or kneel to social expectation and marry his betrothed. Choosing convention and ease instead of loyalty and love, Daniel betrays Ti Moune and casts her away. At that very moment, Papa Ge arrives to test Ti Moune and play out the wager — he gives Ti Moune one final opportunity to recant on her vow, one final chance to save her own life. Brokenhearted, Ti Moune picks up a knife to stab Daniel in the back but in the final second she casts its violently to the floor and collapses in grief, choosing to die so that Daniel can live.

Two weeks later, Daniel is married and as is the custom, the bride and groom throw coins to the peasants outside the gate as part of their celebration. Starved and dying, Ti Moune calls to Daniel, hoping he will yet love her, but upon seeing her, he stoops only to place a silver coin in her outstretched hand, an act so profane it takes your breath away.

The gods, in their compassion, give Ti Moune a peaceful death, and moved by the depth of her love, turn her into a tree that to this day, the story goes, stands in the entrance to the hotel, forcing wide open the gates. The story ends with the ensemble telling us that for the generations to come, the children of both the peasants and the grandes hommes played beneath Ti Moune’s branches, one community formed from rich and poor, black and white, formed because of a love that conquered death.


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Good theater blurs the lines between fiction and reality for the audience, and this is where my part picks up, with the blurry line of watching my daughter become Ti Moune, watching her wonder about her destiny, discover it in the broken body of a boy on the brink of death, trade her life for his, bear his betrayal, choose even to die, and then see her choice bloom bittersweet.

As the story unfolded and I started to realize that Daniel was going to betray Ti Moune, every ounce of my mama bear heart reacted. My souls’ depths started screaming, Don’t do it Ti Moune! He doesn’t deserve you. You, my sweet precious little girl, do not give your life for his. Take up that knife, drive it through his back, do whatever you must to live.

“Its just so different when its your child,” He whispered, there in the dark of the theater, as I saw in the face of my 10 year old daughter the face of Jesus, filled with chesed, with divine, loyal love that outrageously defies explanation and common sense and self-preservation, that argues beyond doubts’ shadow that all our theologizing about the cross is the mere clanging of symbols, useless to teach us anything real.

Want to know what the cross means? Skip all the pontificating by talking heads and don’t bother with all the Big Important Books purporting to explain it all. Just watch your child die for someone else. Even if is only in your imagination. Even if its just a play. And it doesn’t really matter who your child dies for, because I guarantee you there will never ever be someone who is so deserving that you will look at them, then at your child, and back again, and agree the exchange is legit. Never.

I touched the ethereal tip of something I have known my whole life and yet, in an instant, realized I have never really known: why Jesus died for me. Not the theology mind you; I know that of course. No, this was about the essence, the part that resists being reduced down words and bullet points. I grasped it, there, in the face of a little girl acting a part in a play, and I haven’t stop crying since. Jesus died because he loves me. But saying so, alas, the words can’t touch the meaning, can’t take us where we need to go. Still I try: I couldn’t love Him in return and He still died, not as a chess piece in some cosmic arrangement but because He couldn’t help himself. Because all of Him loved all of me, because love ran red hot in his veins, and nobody, not even God, was going to stop Him.

God watched him die and I wonder, did God’s mama bear heart scream too? Did God hold his tongue as I held mine, to let the story play out, to honor the choice made by His Son?

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In the past I’ve had people say angrily to me “I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me,” and indeed, they did not. I understand the emotion they are expressing, the sense of non-agency involved with the idea that someone dies for you and you didn’t ask for it, the powerlessness, and the desire to reclaim both agency and power. And actually, I applaud that desire. I don’t think its pride. I think most of the time it shows itself in individuals who, in one way or another, have been denied human agency in their lives and the impulse to get it back is a God-given one. I have no quarrel with that.

And yet, I can’t help but feel they, and me too, we are all so painfully far from the glorious edge of this mystery.

The point is not theology or agency, nor is it a cosmic quid pro quo that says, “since Jesus died for you, you are now obligated to live for Him.” The point is not wallowing as undeserving or endlessly trying to enter into how much the crucifixion must have hurt.

The point, at least as I see it now, is this: we get glimpses of what love looks like in the ordinary stuff of life, the moments shared between friends, lovers, families. And these glimpses are real, they are, and they are good gifts from a Good God. But it is in the tidal wave of grief and suffering, where the distance from crest to trough terrifies us and defies our human ability to cope, that Love radiates its deepest hues. Ti Moune’s love for Daniel was certainly evident in the way she nursed him back to health and basked in his love for her. But it became powerful and otherworldly, it grew unimaginable dimensions as it faced Daniel’s rejection and betrayal, as it chose its own death rather than kill the beloved. Love that conquers death can only fully be seen juxtaposed to death, such that if we are ever going to know how much Jesus loves us, we have to stand there at the cross and watch it all unfold. Stand if you can, friend. I cannot. I collapse there, overcome. I am loved like that.

Why does God allow suffering and grief? I don’t have an answer. I think, probably, there is no answer, certainly not this side of death and maybe not on the other side either. But in the darkest moments of our life, if we can bear to watch the tidal wave at is crashes down on our heads, we just might catch a glimpse of what Love is, what Love does.

The Road to Emmaus

The Road to Emmaus

Yesterday I drummed up the courage to went to church. Both services.

It took a bit of courage because I was slated to speak briefly about my experience in the psalms. The Rabbi (Brian Morgan) was preaching from Luke 24, the story of Cleopas and his wife, Mary, arguing along the road to Emmaus as they try to make sense of the events that had taken place in Jerusalem just a few days before, the events we know of as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I wanted to share here what I shared there…

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I spent a year traveling through the first book of the Psalter, going one psalm at a time. In the early part of my year in the Psalms, it was like magic, like being in love. It was easy and every turn of the page, every line of poetry revealed something new about who God is and how He sees me. But the season turned, as all seasons must, and when it did it turned toward lament. I spent many months grieving – grieving wounds I didn’t even know I had, learning to let tears heal the past and make the present holy.

A funny thing happened there, deep in lament. As I learned to speak my truest self to God, I began to see in completely new ways the depth of my sin, my utter and complete inability to become the woman after God’s own heart. And so my journey took a new direction, now into the wilderness – but this was unlike any wilderness I had experienced before. Instead of shame there was feasting. Alone and bereft I discovered God’s presence to be more than enough for me.

At last I came to learn this was the destination of my psalms journey – the moment of awakening to an unearthly gratitude for God’s presence and the sure knowledge that the greatest gift He gives us is Himself and eyes wide open to see Him.

With the exception of those first few months in the psalms, what most characterized my psalms journey though was dissonance. Over and over I was ushered in to sacred space where there were precious few answers, where tension dominated, where God’s invitation to me was to loosen my grip, resist the need to pin it all down, practice holding the mystery of it all. I finally came to realize that the journey itself – the walking – was the thing. That the best part was the gaping, scary space that lies between starting and finishing.

It’s a place I would give almost anything to get back to, but God never takes us back does He? I can’t tell you how many times in the two years since I finished my book I have felt like the Pevensie children from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, grimly waiting for train in Paddington station but really what they are waiting for is the magical pull back to Narnia, back to Aslan, back to technicolor life.

So when Brian corralled me last weekend to see if I would stand in as Mary, Cleopas wife, I agreed because for me the Road to Emmaus is the road to Narnia, the road made by walking. I love the picture of these two people, arms and words flailing as they argue and debate and wonder, then joined by a stranger who sets their hearts on fire with a story so epic it simply has to be true because who could make up something like that?

I love the road to Emmaus. I love it so much I even wrote a poem about it.

When I wrote this poem two years ago, I was just beginning a new journey into trying to grasp the humanity of Jesus. I had realized in my psalms year that I related most of the time to Jesus as divine and grasped next to nothing of Jesus the human being. I couldn’t get past the idea that Jesus was like Superman, disguised as Clark Kent but really on the inside a superhero.

Like Thomas, I needed to put my hands on his scars. Not the ones from the crucifixion but the everyday scars that life had etched on his face – disappointment, frustration, discouragement, doubt, rejection, shame, heartbreak.

My Emmaus poem is written from the point of view of Jesus, which I realize is a bit presumptuous, but Jesus seems to like presumptuous women so I’m going to forge ahead here unapologetically.

It explores the place where the humanity of Jesus and the promise of the Road to Emmaus intersect — the place where one man with faith to trust God through the ebb and flow of the confusing, convoluted human experience gave birth to a whole new creation that will never again groan under the weight of death.

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The Road to Emmaus
Can you love whom you do not love
even crushed beneath the
weight of your own pain?

Can you swallow evil down
bile turning to acid yet
not vomit it out?

Can you hold rejection in your own hands
while it blisters and burns
trusting Me to heal the scars?

Can you let Me kill you with the hope
I’ll raise you from the grave
and not forget?

I think I knew from that first moment
Dove resting on My head
How it all would end
Not the horror of it, mind you
No one could have foreseen that.

Can you feel the welts rise on your back
from the lash that loves to
separate flesh from bone?

Can you hold your tongue amid snarls of accusation
when you know better
when you know all there is to know?

Can you face the man who thinks he is your enemy
grip the table as he strikes you in the face
see him convulsed in confusion and fear?

Can you let your tears mix freely with your blood
without needing to explain
from whence they came?

Can you follow Me there
where theology fails and
evil plays every card?

Can you live without answers?
walk an untrod path?
die for a man’s choice to hate you?

Will you follow Me
there?

Then take My hand
end My loneliness
walk with Me
to the cross
the tomb
wait for Me
to rise
journey with Me
to Emmaus
hear it all explained
until the ground
beneath our feet
turns to gold
in the New Jerusalem.

Jesus, Inc.

Jesus, Inc.

The good news: my book is published! Well, its available for pre-order and I think it will be actually available next week. I should know the drop date, but I don’t. I know the soccer schedule for today and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

The bad news: I’m still ambivalent.

When I was younger (by at least half and maybe as much as two-thirds) I desperately wanted to be an author and maybe even a speaker. My goal was to have a book published before I hit 30, because after that I would be close to dead and I didn’t want my book jacket photo being of an old person. True story.

Looking back I think this youthful desire actually reflected a few dynamics:

  1. In Christian circles, the only place a woman could contribute ideas in an more-or-less equal way to men was in the author/speaker circuit. The pulpit was not available, because ovaries. That led to #2:

  2. As a female you were basically screwed if God had gifted you with prophetic or teaching gifts,* and the older I get the more convinced I am I fit into the former bucket, which explains a little about #3, namely

  3. I felt I had A Lot To Say.

In the intervening years, my hair has started to turn grey, I have permanent bags under my eyes, and I genuinely feel I have Nothing To Say about God or the life of faith. The older I get the more mysterious it all is — less propositional, impossible to communicate didactically, only apprehended incarnationally, with limbs and tears. God seems to be antithetical to reduction of any sort, and thus faith becomes, I don’t know, perplexing.

It would have been soooooooo much better if I had published my first-and-only book before the age of 30, when my book jacket photo would have been of a young person. When I knew so much more and I had so much to say. When I wasn’t so lost.

But here I am, with Travelogue about to drop, feeling horribly vulnerable and quite truthfully regretting that I didn’t leave it on my shelf where it probably belongs.

As if that’s not enough, my ambivalence stems equally from a deep discomfort with what I have taken to calling “Jesus, Inc.”

I’m a high tech marketing professional by trade, which means that I should be pretty good at marketing my own book. I know all the right things to do and then some: blogging and SEO, contributed articles, give-aways. You know, build the brand. But I don’t want to. It feels like I’m marketing Jesus, or worse using Jesus to market myself, and I don’t like it. I can’t wrap my head around “Jesus” and “Business” set cheek and jowl as if they can legitimately occupy shared space.

Of course is not that simple. I know deeply faithful Jesus-people, who are conference speakers, published authors and brilliant bloggers with sites optimized for search engines, and who are building their readership one relationship at a time with integrity and for honorable reasons. Jesus is truly at the center of what they are doing and I am proud to support to be part of it. It is good and right and true, what they do and I’ll not back down from that.

I still don’t want to do it.

And, at the same time, I’ve watched a drama unfold within the so-called “emergent” church for many months** that has the veneer of “Jesus” but turns out its “Business” and its ugly and destructive and not-Jesus-at-all. Whitewashed tombs come to mind. It reeks of money and minor celebrity, of scheming people jockeying for advantage and well-meaning people discovering they have ungodly bedfellows but can’t get out of bed because its a bed they themselves have made.

Thus on the cusp of Travelogue being formally published, I find myself with tons of dissonance (no surprise there) and oddly grateful. Grateful that if this book sells not even one copy, it will have been worth it for all that I have received. Grateful that as a published book I can get it to people who want it, for less money than it was costing me to print it myself (Rabbi, remember the days of $25 unit cost?). Grateful that as publishing niches go, Travelogue is in a pretty tiny one (let’s face it: poetry and the Psalms … not exactly source material for the hot take) so I’m not at risk for any kind of commercial success.

* * *

*As a side note, I have many friends who fall into the category of believing the pulpit is no place for ovaries, and suggest that God might want me to be a prophet only to women. Or children I suppose, assuming the male ones are not over the age of 12, or 15, or 26 depending on your cultural assumptions. My problem with this is the Epistles (ie: location of discussions of gifting) don’t seem overly concerned with parsing out gifts-based-on-audience. Gifts, as far as I can tell, appear to be based on the Spirit.

**There are plenty of examples across the entire spectrum of Christian theology and praxis; this isn’t juxtaposing conservative v progressive, only pointing out the progressive one is the one I’ve been watching.

Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha

A little lament poetry to get me back into blogging and kick off the week. Because for me, when starting over is the only next thing to do, you start with tears.

Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha
Evangelical memes,

The one approved by Jesus
But excluded by His disciples

Who love nothing more
Than their boys club

Whitewashed with welcome
But locked from the inside

Holy Writ glued to the door
Edited to read: “Equal but separate.”

Leaning heavy on hope she wonders
How long, Oh Lord? How long?

Why won’t Yeshua let me in?

The other rebuked by Jesus
But applauded by His disciples

Who love nothing more
Than the labor she provides

Conditional inclusion a
Faustian bargain:

Her soul exchanged for the
Promise to play by the rules

She kneels to separate lentils from ash
Wondering at an unnamed ache.

Yeshua isn’t even here.

Silicon Valley Suicides

Silicon Valley Suicides

I.
Its been another devastating month for Bay Area students and their loved ones. Three suicides in as many weeks. Two students jumped in front of CALTrains and another off a 280 freeway overpass. Those are just the ones I’ve heard of through friends and social networks, the ones that were reported on by news media. School administrators, teachers, parents, education policy experts, we all keep talking about the fact that our students are under incredible pressure, quite literally killing themselves to meet expectations, to achieve, to compete. Schools add suicide prevention programs, parents attend seminars and read books such as this one on the “Price of Privilege” to try to discern a way through the craziness. And still our kids are killing themselves, death perceived as a viable alternative to the weight of adolescent living. This dire situation is not abstract for me. I’m in the middle of it, trying desperately to lead two pre-teen daughters through the minefield that is Silicon Valley, through the even larger minefield that is a “21st Century Education” and even larger still the Global Economy in which they must someday exchange goods and services in order to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I make my choices. I pray, I worry. I do my best. But none of it feels adequate. Sometimes I inadvertently even add to the pressure when what I am trying most desperately to do is simply to give them the tools they need to thrive, my good intentions paving a well-traveled road that is only ever down and out.

II.
I heard of these suicides within a few hours of reading this article, Better All the Time: How the “performance revolution” came to athletics and beyond— in the New Yorker. Author James Surowiecki explores the impact of ever-increasing levels of performance training to produce the best “fill-in-the-blank”: the best athlete, chess player, musician, corporate worker, student, teacher. Summing up his observations, he writes,

“That’s actually the biggest change in performance over the past few decades—it’s not so much that the best of the best are so much better as that so many people are so extraordinarily good.”

I have been told by friends who live elsewhere in the States that the pressure — no, the need — to be extraordinarily good is now nearly universal in affluent communities, of which Silicon Valley surely is the vanguard. Where money is no object, we can invest it in churning out the best and the brightest, no longer understood as limited or more positively, shaped by natural talent, God-given ability or grit, but only by the amount of focused training a developing student receives, either at their request or at the insistence of a well-meaning, petrified parent. It goes without saying this applies not only to athletics but to music, academics, extracurriculars of every stripe. I will never forget the day the Principal of our local public elementary school informed me that in excess of 80% of attending students went to “school after school” — not remedial tutoring, mind you, but accelerated learning: Kumon, STEM curricula, language classes (for second and third languages). She admitted to me without even flinching that her teachers did not need to teach basic skills because 80% of her students were learning those basics and more after hours, and if I wanted to compete I should consider putting my Kindergartener too in after-school learning programs. Because, you see, the assumption was that this was the only way to produce a student who was extraordinarily good, and that manufacturing of said student was what I desired to do. Kindergarten, it turns out, was actually all about me and not in the least about my 5 year old.

III.
Let’s talk for a moment about that parent I mentioned above, the well-meaning, petrified one. I know that parent because on too many days of too many weeks, I am one. Every day I wrestle with how to help my daughters grow and thrive, and my wrestling is not always infused with excitement and anticipation but rather with anxiety and doubt. They are inheriting a difficult world absolutely saturated with dog-eat-dog competition. Nevertheless, it is a world they need to be able to cope with, make sense of, thrive within. But they were born into a cultural moment suffocating beneath technology, succumbing to the relentless pounding of elusive forces driving us into isolation and fragmentation, a moment where childhood is cast as a race to the top and where the complexities of daily life befuddle even the grown-ups who are supposed to know how to navigate — but we don’t, we can’t, because the world changed beneath our feet. It changed so fast we were knocked off-kilter and many of us are having an increasingly hard time figuring out how to right ourselves first, let alone help our children keep their wits about them. I quite literally cannot tell you the number of times I have talked with friends who grew up in the America of the 60s and 70s, where kids played in the neighborhood after school until the streetlights came on, where homework arrived for the first time in modest amounts somewhere around 6th grade, where being good at cheery drops off the high bar on the playground was enough to make you feel like you were something special. This is the world we understand, the world we were prepared to pass along to our children. Work hard at school and do your best, find what excites you, learn how to get along with peers by playing baseball and soccer in the neighborhood, no adult supervision required, with sweatshirts for bases and goals and the ubiquitous though contentious “Do Over.” Do I even need to say it? Those Days Are Forever Gone and in their place are high octane days of rigorous school and hours of homework, special projects and travel teams and Tiger Moms. In the circles I run in, for many it is a given that their child will not merely attend Stanford (that is a fait accompli) but will attend on an academic or athletic scholarship — never mind the fact that the parents have 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars in the bank and the scholarship is purely for parental bragging rights, proof positive that their labor to produce an award-winning child has succeeded.

IV.
I see parents responding to this cultural moment in a few ways, and I am not casting judgement on any of us. The older I get the more I realize we are all doing the best we can and maybe that’s why I feel so compelled to talk about why we are choosing what we are choosing –to deconstruct our choices if we can so we can see more clearly the places where we parent from fear and where we lead and nurture our kids from a place of faith, confidence and unimpeded vision. If you have comments and nuances to add to these categories — or challenges to them even — please do so, keeping in mind that language choices must be made carefully and with attention to the fact that others might be choosing differently than you. If you can’t find a place of genuine collaboration, it might be wise to just listen for a while. Perhaps if we can understand the available options we can invent better ways through the quagmire, because invention seems to me the only way forward.

Rejection. Parents literally relocate their families to rural or intentionally non-affluent settings to make it easier to embrace values that dominated in previous generations. Unschooling and extreme homeschooling, Christian patriarchy, homesteading and communal living are all examples.

Co-opting. Parents opt out of traditional schooling and secular-based organized sports, music and drama programs and put their kids into Christian versions of the same programs, an argument in kind that says the institutions aren’t the problem, only the people running the institutions.

Competing. Parents play the game — top schools, expensive sports programs, private music lessons, after school academic classes to augment in-class learning — with or without a self-reflexive awareness that they are in fact playing the game.

Combining. Parents try to cobble together a unique way forward based on what they think are the best parts of each approach. I see the most doubt in this group, frankly, perhaps because they can’t locate themselves in any of the other spaces.

V.
How do we connect the dots then, between the horror of children broken beneath trains, broken beneath the pressure to achieve, and how we are parenting as individuals and as villages? How do we help our children develop into adults — find their passions, discover their talents and gifts, connect with the people who will enrich their lives — given the changing landscape of the world we now inhabit, where excelling above and beyond the pack seems to be Job #1 and yet ironically where “so many people are so extraordinarily good”? How do we stop talking and start doing, in ways that shield our kids from the worst of the worst but still prepare them to step into adulthood as fully functioning members of an ethnically and religiously diverse, fast-paced, global society? This all feels incredibly urgent to me. My daughters are growing fast, and they are looking to me to guide them — to know when to intervene and when to step out of the way, to know when to give counsel and when to show I trust them by my silence.

I don’t know about you but bromides and pat answers don’t work for me when the stakes are this high. This feels complex and risky and totally resistant to anything that could be stuck on a Pinterest board or Tweeted. Plus, I have that chilling sense that I only get one shot at getting it “right” — scare quotes intentional, because perhaps ultimately that’s the root of all this evil.

What do you think?imgres-1


Header image is taken from promotional materials for Race to Nowhere.

What Liberian Christians taught me, thanks to NPR

I have been captivated these past months by the global response to Ebola — a response that tells us far more about ourselves and each other and what we truly believe than any amount of pontificating and posturing ever could. We see who we really are when confronted with such a dangerous and deadly foe.

I have felt a huge range of emotions — outrage at times, fear and deep grief, anger and hope too. I have swung wildly in my views on how the US ought to be handling our efforts in West Africa as well as our efforts at home. I have recognized the cold grip of racism deep in my bones and prayed earnestly for forgiveness, for the grace to learn true repentance and see as Jesus sees. It is a long road for me, this excising of the sin that thrives below the waterline of my soul, that is at once profoundly individual but also institutional and thus engrained in my very worldview.

So, whenever there is news about Ebola, I tune in, and a few days ago that took me again to NPR on my afternoon drive down to pick my daughter up from school. The story was being told by a Western journalist who had been (actually might still be) in Liberia at one of the Ebola treatment centers. I may not get the details exactly right — I was driving after all and not taking notes, but let me give you the sense of it.

She described how, first thing in the morning, the Liberian care-givers, many of them pastors and other Christian leaders, would arrive already in their scrubs, bleached to bland, barely-there pastel colors, and begin the process of preparing for the day ahead. They would start their morning with prayer, a portion of which NPR recorded and then played for those of us tuning in.

In the recording you hear a Liberian pastor pray for grace for his team, for mercy for his patients. He prays for courage and hope, for compassion and safety. As he prays, the background is not silent like you would find in a typical Western white church. There is singing and chanting as the men and women who are gathered that day affirm his prayers and raise their own voices to God in worship. The journalist then explains that the group prayer is followed by a few moments of silent prayer, where everyone has a moment to soberly consider the reality that today might be the day they contract Ebola and face their own death. The care-givers look the specter of their own death in the eye, pray for protection, and suit up.

By the time I reach the school parking lot, tears are swimming in my eyes. It seems God can use even NPR to speak with me, and I feel a profound joy in that realization, affirming with the poet-king:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Ps. 139:7-12)

I learned in my year in the Psalms that these spontaneous emotions are doorways to the sacred. That may seem obvious to you, but for me, I developed in my teens and 20s the spiritually debilitating habit of suppressing my emotions, swallowing my feelings so I could think more clearly (rationality was a prize far greater than tears in those days).

I’m all for thinking clearly, but if you are seeking the face of God, you have to learn how to loosen your grip a bit, receive rather than control.

So there I sat, waiting for my daughter, trying my best to step in the sacred space opening up, and I was struck in that moment by how simple the Gospel really is and how badly the Western evangelical and mainline churches have together messed it up.

These Liberian healers, men and women scrubbing in to minister to the sick and dying, they embodied the Gospel, the good news of God’s Kingdom inaugurated among us by the person and work of Jesus.

First, they prayed. The sang their songs, and prayed their fears and hopes, together with one voice and silently as individuals sharing a communal space. They cast their cares upon a Good and Sovereign God. And then they put their lives on the line for the sake of another.

They didn’t stop to figure out if the sick and the dying were Christians with correct theology. They didn’t decide to risk their lives only for the patients who contracted the disease innocently and refuse treatment for those who contracted it by way of social or sexual practices they found offensive. They didn’t send out 140 character bromides about the “ebola of unbelief” or use the humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to promote their theology. They prayed for grace, mercy, safety, hope, peace. And they put their lives on the line as if to prove they meant every word of their prayer, as if they believed God was stepping into the quarantine rooms with them. As if they believed they were God’s answer to their very own prayers.

We in the West get this all wrong, and I am chief among the mistaken.

The Evangelicals, among whom I still most of the time count myself, we totally get the “prayer” part. We are great at praying and worshipping, and I mean that genuinely. We really do. We know how to submit to the sovereignty of God, how to pray for healing and repentance, mercy and faith. We know how to raise our voices and testify to the saving work of Jesus and we know how to open our souls to the sacred space of corporate prayer and worship. But when it comes to good works, we Evangelicals of recent history saw them in terms of conversion “missions” where we exported our systematic theologies and went on “exposure” trips to 3rd world countries to see first hand how successfully the natives were implementing our Western worship practices and Biblical interpretations. We sometimes built houses and dug wells, and I don’t mean to say these missions trips were (or are) without merit, but my observation in retrospect is that our attitude was more as teachers and leaders bearing gifts for the less fortunate, rather than as humble, authentic learners cogently aware we were standing amid giants of our shared faith. The idea that Africans, South Americans, Indians or Arabs living in relative squalor had something fundamental to teach us about the Gospel, something inaccessible to us because of our Western affluence, was beyond the scope of imagination.

The Mainliners and Catholics, with whom I have lots of experience but less theological commonality, they totally get the suiting up part. If you have a cause that needs arms and legs, get them involved. For years I watched in utter amazement as nominal Catholics and Protestants of all stripes quite literally went all over the globe to dig wells and vaccinate children and build churches. But they could not speak of Jesus or give testimony to their faith or conversion journey. They squirmed at the idea of either prayer or worship, and felt deep discomfort even uttering the name of Jesus in polite company. Jesus, I came to understand, was for them something of an embarrassment.

This is of course not news, and of course I am generalizing. The point is, we have watched for many years the back-and-forth between the social gospel liberal folks and the prayer-in-schools conservative folks, and neither one of us got it right.

These Liberians, living in the hot zone — they are getting it right. The gospel is both, together: confessing with our voices that Jesus alone is Messiah and King, and demonstrating with our bodies that His Salvation and His Kingdom have come. Prayer and worship followed fast by the sound of boots striking the cold hospital floor. A worship song hummed while gloved hands wash blood from a faltering man’s eyes and ears. Tears and a holy benediction over a body bag in size extra-small.

I do not understand this Gospel but I want to. I understand the words but not the essence of it, not really. My Western affluence makes it difficult to engage the Gospel like this, and doesn’t Jesus himself say this? How do I then live in the “where” and “when” God has called me to for now? The tension this creates for me feels unbearable at times, and perhaps that tension was part of my tears that day listening to NPR. It seems simpler there, in Liberia. More accessible, more present. I am most certainly romanticizing it, my robust imagination creating a version of reality that is certainly false.

Nevertheless …

Nevertheless, my struggle to weave together my humanity, God’s sovereignty, and the world’s great need rages on.

What compassion looks like

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to NPR interview a Doctors without Borders nurse who was in Africa working in one of the Ebola zones. The interview focused on the protective gear the nurses and doctors wear to treat Ebola patients, and it was fascinating — the specific way into and out of the gear, the challenges of working in the intense heat that the suits produce (there is no ventilation since ventilation would mean potential exposure), and the fact that it takes two people to get each other dressed and undressed. As the nurse kept repeating, “there are no shortcuts with Ebola.” Skip a step and you potentially expose yourself or your partner to the deadly virus.

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The interview took place from the point of view of keeping the nurses and doctors safe, and I for one am glad we insist on our caregivers being cared for in this way. These are brave women and men on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak. We ought to pay close attention to protecting them — for their own health and for the sake of containing the outbreak.

Then, at the end of the segment, the interviewer asked what changes the nurse would like to have in the protective gear to improve her working conditions. Her answer was arresting.

She replied that what she most wished for was a different way to protect her face. The hazmat suit, along with the protective mask and goggles, means that the only part of her face that is visible to a patient is her eyes, and even eyes are hard to see well behind the goggles. She went on to say that because Ebola is so contagious, patients are completely isolated. They have no family by their side, they cannot be touched except through layers of rubber gloves, and all they can see behind the yellow suits and medical-grade masks and goggles is the eyes of their nurse, their doctor. Many patients die this way — alone, isolated, afraid, hungry for human touch and companionship.

The best I can do, she went on to say, is smile at them with my eyes, but I wish they could see my whole face so they could know they are not alone.

Her answer for how to improve her working conditions? Help me love the terrified, the isolated, the dying more, better, fully.

Would that I understood compassion like this.

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.”
― Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging

GI Jane got me thinking …

GI Jane got me thinking …

Time for a confession: about once a month I sit down in the middle of the day.

That’s it. That’s my confession. You were hoping for something a bit more titillating, weren’t you?

Mainly I sit down because I’m so exhausted that the mere thought of trying to be productive makes me want to curl into the fetal position and cry, but since doing so would freak me out, instead, I watch TV.

TV, in the middle of the day, even with 999 channels (we have satellite) is an utter wasteland. 999 channels and there is seriously Nothing On. Friends reruns. Two-bit talk shows. Porn. Flipping channels can honestly make me despair about the future of civilization, or wonder if we’ve deceived ourselves collectively into thinking we are civilized when that ship sailed long before The Maury Show hit the airwaves.

But every once in a while, deep in the HBO channels, there’s a movie on that I remember from my 20s and I’ll watch it for a while. Last month it was True Lies (1994). Remember that disaster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis as Harry and Helen Tasker? The most impressive thing in that movie was the AV-8B Harrier jet that Harry commandeers near the end. But what arrested my attention at this most recent viewing was the way in which the movie captures the shift that was well underway by the mid-90s concerning the relationship between the sexes and women’s roles in particular — what the expectations were for us in marriage, the workplace, society, sex.

Movies, we all know, both reflect and shape cultural expectations, so when a mess like True Lies hits the screen, we unwittingly bear witness to the tension, usually without even knowing it. In my case, I didn’t see anything “wrong” at the time with True Lies — to the contrary, I thought it was great that the frumpy housewife got to be a sexy spy after all, and that she did things like slug her boorish husband in the jaw for lying to her. But the movie drips with misogyny — I just didn’t have eyes to see it.

This month I watched GI Jane (1997). Demi Moore plays Jordan O’Neil (note the gender-neutral name), a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is manipulated by scheming politicians (a redundancy if ever there was one) to be a token female in a fictionalized version of Navy SEAL training and, if she makes the grade, covert ops. It is assumed that she will ring out of bootcamp and prove that all women for all times should not serve in the US Military. Of course, our hero does not fail. She shaves her head, meets every challenge and shows she’s not only physically capable but also clever, a natural born leader. In the end, she gets serious (and poetic!) props from the Command Master Chief, played by Viggo Mortensen — the only thing in the course of her experience to bring tears to her eyes.

I’m sure library shelves are full of graduate-level theses examining the portrayal of women in film, and I have no intent of adding to that discourse here.

Rather, I want to point out — and maybe this is obvious — that when you sit down and watch a 20 year old movie it is much easier to see the ways in which our culture was trying to make sense of how men and women ought to relate, in what ways were they same and different, what the available roles were for each gender. Schwarzenegger was at the pinnacle of his movie career in 1994 and represented the ideal archetypal male. Demi Moore had posed for that scandalous Vanity Fair cover 6 years earlier and her physical transformation into GI Jane had both men and women alike slack-jawed (how on earth could a woman, a mother, do those one-handed pushups?).

Here’s the money shot. I point all this out because we are, of course, in a similar transformational cultural moment — maybe we never left the last one — and too many of us are too blind too much of the time to what is happening and what is at stake. I include myself in there, friends. What it means to be men and women is Up For Grabs right now, as technology and a global economy have shifted the ground from underneath our feet. I’m sure there are many other factors, but those two stand out for me.

The Church that I love is trying to figure this out too, both theologically and practically, and as you might expect, many people seem to be retreating to a place far away from that midline: the conservatives are getting more conservative and the progressives more progressive. Few want to occupy the tentative, tension-filled space near the middle where the line is hard to see because you are standing right on top of it.

I could write a thesis on the myriad ways in which this is happening right now in Evangelical culture. In fact, it would take a thesis-length paper to do it justice. On the one end of the spectrum, we watch the redefinition of gender-as-spectrum and the concurrent redefinition of marriage; Tony Jones and sacramental vs. legal wives; the Emergent Church and LGBTQ inclusion, and so on. On the other end, pretty much anything connected to Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Al Mohler; the Authentic Manhood movement that places Jesus in Schwarzenegger’s coveted role; the Duggars, Duck Dynasty, and lots of guys like this fellow, affiliated with John Eldredge, who in all fairness, explains forthrightly and quite thoughtfully that his blog is for men. Manly men (or those who want to be). Knife-toting, flannel shirt wearing, God-fearing, Spiritual Leader (TM) Men, not wussy metro men who live in suburbs and enjoy wearing Tommy Bahamas shirts and drinking wine. And Definitely Not For Women.

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Because women are the opposite of men, male is the opposite of female, masculine is the opposite of feminine. Or is it women and men are on a continuum, a spectrum, with gender as fluid and negotiable, and roles between and among men and women also best understood as fluid and negotiable. Or something else that’s not linear at all, a gender version of wave particle duality?

We are living in this tense cultural moment and it is hard for us to see the ways in which we are being shaped by and also reflecting and reinforcing our preconceptions. Some of us don’t care because we think it doesn’t matter. Some think if we withdraw far enough the raging current won’t knock us or our children off our feet. Some pick up arms of all sorts to wage culture war.

What will we think 20 years from now, when time and distance and experience yield hindsight and, one hopes, at least a modicum of wisdom? What will our movies, our blogs, even our theology tell us about ourselves 10 years, 20 years hence?

Perhaps the more salient question, given that there is nothing new under the sun, is how ought we to live this moment? How ought we hold the tension, treat our “enemy” who wants to shape male and female in ways we don’t approve? How ought we think about and engage with those who hold the opposing point of view?

I don’t have the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

When Privilege Is A Disability

When Privilege Is A Disability

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about privilege. About what the Kingdom of God is and what privilege has to do with it. How those of us in the affluent Christian West might actually enter the Kingdom of God, and why indeed we might want to.

It all started at the beginning of the summer when I read that pesky story in Luke 18 where a wealthy, powerful man comes to Jesus and respectfully — and quite correctly, I might add — implies that because he has kept Torah since his coming of age, his obedience to God ought to guarantee him entrance into heaven (eternal life). The traditional reading has Jesus suggesting that this man’s wealth is an idol that he worships instead of worshipping God, and the implication is that the man did not go to heaven when he died because he was not willing to follow Jesus without condition while he lived.

For most of my formative years in church I was taught directly and indirectly that this story functions as a simile in miniature. Just as Luke 18 tells the story of one man’s personal decision about Jesus and the impact to his eternal destiny, so too the broad sweep of Scripture primarily concerns personal, individual salvation: the Bible as a love letter from God about how to get to heaven when one dies.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve slowly learned a new way of reading the Scriptures that doesn’t trace a theme of personal salvation but instead watches for this spacetime thing Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God,” which the prophets foretold in mysterious and mystical terms and the Hebrews looked for with eyes squinting into the future. Certainly individual conversion is built into this Kingdom, but it demonstrated over the long haul by incarnational evidence of repentance: love for enemies, compassion rather than self-righteousness, an embrace of suffering on behalf of the Other, and so on. It is not merely a shifting of beliefs or a profession of orthodoxy. It is a changed life — and the nature of that changed life is that it now seeks the Kingdom of God where before it sought something else.

Which takes us back to Luke’s rich young ruler. As I sat there, reading the story not through the lens of personal salvation but instead through the lens of the Kingdom of God, an entirely new understanding jumped off the page. It felt a little like vertigo; I got kind of woozy, seriously.

What if Jesus isn’t talking to this powerful, wealthy man about how to get to Heaven when he dies? What if he’s inviting this powerful, wealthy man to drink deeply of Heaven while he yet lives?

Because Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand with his arrival. As the rabbi likes to say, God did with Jesus in the middle of history what the Jews expected God to do at the end of history. In the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom has come. Emmanuel, theophany, God with us.

When Jesus suggests he sell all his possessions and distribute the yield to the poor, I don’t think Jesus is testing him to see if he idolizes money. He’s inviting him — genuinely inviting him! — to make his home, for the first time in his uber-religious life, in the Kingdom of God. The catch is that he can only find his way into that Kingdom as a person without — without wealth, without privilege, without a voice, without safety, without social standing. It does not belong to the religious elite nor to those whose social power comes from the color of their skin or their bank account. Not to the ones who keep themselves righteous by never embracing the dirty, diseased Other.

What this poor fellow could not do, then, is walk away from the privilege that his gender, wealth and social position gave him:

Political power
Social status
Slaves
Wives
A voice
Self-determination
Freedom
Safety

I’ve pondered this story all summer, you see because I am the rich young ruler.

Will I spend “life after life-after-death” in the Presence of God? Faith in the full testimony of Scripture tells me yes, and it’s a truth I have cast my entire life upon. But I’m not talking about that life — I’m talking about this one, and the older I get the more I realize just how right Jesus was. The Kingdom of God is hard to enter — perhaps not because we don’t want to but because our wealth and privilege turn us (wittingly or unwittingly so) into camels trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye.

I hate to break it to you, but we all are this rich young ruler. We, in the affluent Christian West, with our theology all neat and tidy saying who’s in and who’s out, with our political affiliations and our ability to isolate ourselves from global suffering and persecution, with our first world problems and our inbred materialism. And frankly, even if we all gave away our wealth, we’d still have a hard time — our privilege is so deeply engrained in how we think about and value ourselves that we are hard-pressed to actually hold real need, real weakness in our own two hands.

Men, apologies up front, but you have it worse than we women do — even when you don’t feel privileged because some other dude has more/better than you or some woman in your life outranks you, your voice still counts in this culture (particularly religious subcultures), your time produces more income, your seminary degree results in pastoral jobs and seats on elder boards, your life doesn’t bend quite so much around the needs of others because it is their lives that are required to bend around yours.

I wonder if this isn’t perhaps part of why women, it is observed, are more likely to be involved in church. Perhaps it’s not our “God-given nature” — a nice cop-out, gents, — but instead the fact that women as a class have less privilege and are thus that one small step closer to entering the Kingdom. It’s not enough though, which is in part why it is easier for me when I’m on a missions trip among the poor, with trafficking victims, or beside the bed of the diseased and dying.

I wonder too if perhaps this isn’t part of the case for having women, the differently-abled, the non-native speaker, the foreigner among us incorporated thoroughly and deeply into our liturgical practices, our pastoral staffs and elder boards, our doctrinal review meetings and our community outreach efforts. If in the Kingdom of God privilege is a disability, then those of us who have it ought to see the beauty in seeking out those without and bringing them in. Perhaps its time that I and any of you who are awaking to the deforming nature of your own privilege start listening and following the least of these.

I don’t know how, yet, to enter this Kingdom. I feel it beckoning and I feel elation because Jesus says “with God all things are possible.”

He will not leave me forever on the outside, nose pressed to the glass, looking in.