the secret reason I was burning out

I’m linking up today with Amy Peterson in celebration of her book release! Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Change the World is very much on my wish list. Spiritual memoir, social justice learnings, beautiful writing: check.

For my own part, I’m not going to claim that I won’t forever be on some misguided quest or another. Here are some thoughts for all of us along such a journey.

I had always thought Santa hats were a dumb charity item. In the week leading up to the church’s famous Christmas dinner for our homeless and poor neighbors, one of the parishioners had dropped them off. “For the kids or whatever.” I thanked the well-meaning person but grumbled in my mind; I’m frustrated by this dollar-store brand of Christmastime charity. My feet shared the under-desk space with the trash bag of hats.

There were indeed a good number of kids at the dinner, and I plopped Santa hats on the heads of a brother and sister, thinking about how the hats would be in the real trash by tomorrow. A nearby adult asked for one, and I blithely passed it over to her. Then, at least in my memory, I was suddenly surrounded by twenty grabbing hands. Someone yanked a few hats out of my bag. “They’re for the kids,” I kept repeating, trying to hand them to the closest kids or parents I could see, but all the grabbers were adults. The hats quickly disappeared and some of those who hadn’t gotten them were angry with me, kept asking, examined the bag. Maybe I would’ve just been sad and a little banged up if one of these people I’d never met hadn’t spat, “You are a racist.” The utter nonsense of that statement, given that almost everyone who’d gotten a hat was the same race as the speaker, somehow made it crystal-clear what I had just seen. It was the purest embodiment of greed I’d ever encountered, everyone reaching to take before they knew what they were taking, snarling at their rivals, this man bitter and victimized when the trinkets went to the children.

At that statement I just dropped the bag and walked away. A friend (who happened to be homeless) offered to talk, but I needed to be alone. I needed to be angry that people had come to abuse an event so lovingly crafted by my church. I needed to be sad that anyone could be as upset as my name-caller while surrounded by Christmas carols and a feast. I needed to hate, hate the systems that had trained poor people to grab whatever they could from strangers at Christmastime, because there would be nothing the rest of the year, because these one-off events kept them nameless and faceless to us, because they knew that the Santa hats had been pocket change to the person who bought them.

I have never liked Santa hats, and I never will.


People who volunteer or work for nonprofits often feel like we’re not supposed to share these things. You know that someone will ignore everything else you’ve said and use your story to confirm their stereotypes of others. And people don’t like when nonprofit workers complain about their jobs; and you are grateful, in the end, for these moments. They’re reality checks; they’re empathy builders; they’re the moments that transform.

For a long time a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in my nonprofit work. I couldn’t have told my Santa hat story a few years ago, when it happened, because I was afraid of scaring off donors and afraid that my liberal friends would police my tone; but I also couldn’t have told it because I couldn’t quite fit all those terrible feelings into my picture of myself and the world. It wasn’t OK with me to just be upset; it wasn’t OK with me that others might hear the story and think I’d been naive or uncaring; it wasn’t OK with me that the problems I encountered in that moment were so much bigger than me, my actions, and my organization. I needed to only tell hopeful stories because hope and realism couldn’t coexist in my picture of who I was and how I mattered.

Instead of telling these hard stories, we just say, over and over, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. Over and over we want to appear strong or nonchalant, and hope others can be convinced to join our work. It’s worth it, we say, and we do mean it, even as we’re losing energy, becoming jaded, burning out. We tell the good stories back to ourselves and stuff the bad ones away. Or worse, we tell ourselves we’re too privileged to deserve these stories, that admitting we were hurt, frightened, or surprised by something constitutes some sort of betrayal of someone else’s greater pain or fear.

That is a lie, and we need to tell each other so. And we need to tell these stories. We need our friends to know what we go through. We need our donors to know that we can’t fix people. We need our volunteer recruits to know what they’re getting into.

And we need to know: that our careers don’t have to be made up only of stories with morals. That even the upsetting realities we face are better than the pleasant fictions others dwell in. That the things we encounter have made us better, stronger. That we, as people, matter more than the roles we play in our organizations.

For some of us, the difference between excitement and burnout is as simple as the difference between the stories we’re holding, and the stories we think we’re supposed to tell about ourselves.

May we have the courage to ask someone for the stories in their hands.

How to stand tall in the noise of these days

I am reluctant to speak into the din of these days.

An observation: we have reached a point where the two major sides in our debates are both driven by fear. Our president was elected for his projections of strength: for promising to protect us from bad hombre immigrants, from the globalized market, from terrorists, from the pace of social change. And now his policies have stricken terror into the hearts of his opponents—worried for themselves, for minority friends, worried about international relations or about creeping authoritarianism.

Though the cacophony appears to address many issues, in the end we are mostly responding to threats. We all perceive our particular threats to be very real, while dismissing others’ fears and blazing with disbelieving outrage when they dismiss ours. In our anger we cannot see how lonely this has made us. We feel the loneliness, but not consciously; the ache only fuels our outrage.


The Ph.D. in political science whom I keep on retainer who is my dear friend tells me that the biggest protests work, even when they’re not supposed to, even when no one expects it. So I will go to the protests. But I won’t be outraged; it’s not in my nature. With Paul I will proclaim that we all have gifts differing and I will thank God for those who do outrage well and righteously. I’ll be the one giving out water bottles, or crying. You’re probably not supposed to cry at a protest, but I’m mostly sure that’s what I’ll do.


What is in my nature is to passionately declare the extreme urgency of everyone sitting down and thinking some more. This is an unglamorous and unpopular vocation. Thinking sells best when paired with a vice—traditionally pipe tobacco or whiskey. Outrage is brighter, the work of a moment, and pairs well with that comfort food, superiority.

Still, even the most active of activists is already acknowledging that our task won’t be over for a long time, and we’re going to need something that burns a bit slower. I hasten to add that, while we must equip ourselves for a long-haul future, we have a yet lengthier past with which we must also deal. This crisis did not develop overnight, as if caused by some particular genius of Trump’s for villainy. This is the overflow of ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years. If we accomplish political goals without any mention of these things, they will only fester. The colonization of rural places, for instance: extracting resources from a place while systematizing contempt for its people. The abandonment of national politics to lobbyists and of local politics to the dogs. The abandonment of our minds to our screens. The utter lack of restraint on our consumerist desires, so that each side accuses the other of entitlement with great accuracy and total hypocrisy. And an extreme failure, on all sides, to know the oppressed, to sit with them in their pain, to share bread with them.

These things, of course, cost more than five minutes and 1000 words. These things rarely go viral.


But perhaps, I concede, the past is a discussion for another time. Perhaps what is before us, just today, is to excavate and banish our fear. If you are a Christian, you have no excuse for it; if you are not, let me assure you fear remains a hindrance to you. It is not naive to resist fear. You may be aware of a danger without giving that thing power over you. To the contrary, once fear is acknowledged and set aside, you are more agile, more perceptive, less prone to mistakes. Once fear is set aside, it clears the way for that most searing weapon: love.


I read an article several days ago about what to do, the basic actions that would be essential to resisting the extremism we’re witnessing. I found it wise and compelling in its simplicity—things like interacting with your representatives; seeking out reliable news sources; taking care of yourself (in the long term, going to bed on time and eating your vegetables); learning about privilege and oppression; getting to know the people in your community who stand to lose the most. And as the list went on, I realized that these were all things a truly excellent citizen would be doing regardless of who was in power. It was comforting and intimidating, I suppose, to realize that all anyone needs to do to stand up against a bullying President is become a truly excellent citizen.

What was, for me, conspicuously absent from the list was becoming aware of any new development within ten minutes of its occurrence; scrolling through Twitter with increasing indignation and despair; firing one-liners or articles at people on Facebook who would then be compelled to recognize the error of their ways. As the days have gone by, I’ve felt more and more antipathy towards the hot takes and the outrage machines and even the copied-and-pasted Bible verses. So much blame for our situation goes, in my mind, to our penchant for preferring the viral to the true; to our self-righteous armchair activism; to our willing deliverance of our attention to the antics of national figures, at the expense of understanding the goings-on in our own cities and states.

Do you want to drive out fear? It doesn’t happen when you get a good grasp of the situation from twitter or even from the news. It happens with love. Have the courage to love yourself without the safety blanket of self-righteousness. Have the courage to love someone else without assuming you already know who they are. Walk around your neighborhood and talk to the people you meet. Plan an uncomfortable dinner party: invite someone different from you. (Have lots of comfort food.) Call your representatives on behalf of someone else even though it inconveniences or terrifies you. Read about an issue you don’t want to face. Take up that habit you know you’re supposed to do—riding your bike places, donating to charity, praying for your enemies.

Pray. Pray more than you tweet. Pray before your political calls. Pray for the country. Pray for refugees. Pray before you eat. Pray before you buy. Pray with other people.

Read books. Gather with friends. Don’t think about doing good deeds; do them. Be aggressively present to your own life, your place and time.

Be still. The Lord will fight for you. The noise will take care of itself.

Donald Trump is my president

Dear United States of America,

I first knew you as a thousand and one telephone poles whooshing past the car windows on the drive from Central Florida to Oklahoma City. Crossing America meant Cracker Barrel and, if we were lucky, a hotel with a swimming pool. Later in life, the drive began in Georgia, but the result was the same: it ended up in a foreign landscape, but familiar hugs. Visiting our family made us special and different in its own way; sometimes Oklahoma would come up in conversation and friends would remark that they’d never been anywhere near it. I’ve been to Oklahoma,’ we could say, and we would tell about cows and cowboys, oil rigs and spicy food and about just how flat a place could be. America, you are a thousand and one places perfectly foreign and absolutely familiar.

You are the suburbs of my growing-up, tacky and prosperous and petty. You are the mountains I call my homeland, rolling and wise until the afternoon thunderclap. You are the county fair, the rodeo and the revival. You are the pool table where I drank Mountain Dew and listened to stories of jail, abuse, and abortion, where deep poverty grabbed me by the collar and dared me to not to look away. There, too, I learned honesty and hospitality and love from those storytellers, and they saved my life.

You are the burned-over industrial city where I brought a wool peacoat to the fight against blowing torrents of Lake Ontario settling under an eerie city glow. You gave me food stamps there, and every penny they saved me went to fund my first semester of seminary—maybe someday you’ll tell me somehow whether you are glad of your investment. There, there was a foreign place that could very well have gotten the best of me; but from the beginning there was, too, a man who felt like home.

You are the little town of a big city where I learned to sail, lived with 23 others in a mansion, rode the last Green Line train of the night, served food to Michael Pollan and Michael Dukakis, smoked cigarettes on a roof under the Citgo sign, and had the theological shit beat out of me. You are all the people I met the likes of whom I’d never known before, a school full of outspoken Koreans and Puerto Ricans and gays and tree huggers and Black people and even a South Dakotan, who grabbed me by the collar and loved me hard.

You are the wonders of the world I’ve seen without a passport: The Atlantic, Niagara Falls, Sedona, Lake Tahoe, Chilhowee Mountain, the Potomac, Half Dome, Eufaula Lake, the Grand Canyon, the Adirondacks, Amicalola Falls, the Rockies, the Pacific. Your land, America; if I ever despair entirely of your people, I will take solace in the land that bears us all up.

Of course I learned about you, too, in school, most often about your unprecedented birth and your unbearable schism only fourscore and seven years later. I am grieving for what I did not learn, like the family history everyone was embarrassed to tell a child; I am grieving every day for a different person who built this nation and in return received influenza, musket balls, beatings, broken treaties, broken bones, families rent, chains, poverty, lynchings, tenements and typhoid, internment camps, segregation, deportation, death. Still, with every grieving person I say that I will always dwell in grief and yet must always dwell in some kind of hope. There is no innocent country; and though I know now just how fantastical it is, I perhaps love the idea of you all the more now, America. That some hotheaded Yankees would plunk themselves down and Declare Independence as if they could just do such a thing. That they would brashly scribble that all men are created equal without knowing what they could possibly mean, and then invent the mechanisms for all of us to spend the next 240 years telling them what they had meant. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. You made it happen first, and it has always been a bold and silly, roundabout and beautiful experiment, burdened by evil but straining toward justice.


 

If there is one thing I can say for sure about President Obama, it is that he has not only governed, he has led this country. He called upon the best in us while demanding the utmost from himself, and we could always look to him when we needed an example of humility, grace, and strength.

In the waning days of his administration, President Obama repeatedly exhorted us to participate with him in the peaceful transfer of power, not sullenly or forlornly but by allowing the strength of our convictions to propel us to become better citizens. If you do not like your democracy, you can change it. Since the election, you already have. Keep on calling your representatives. Keep on learning about your local government. And keep on helping your neighbors cut their grass. Democracy and neighborliness are hard work, but they do not have to be lost arts.

America, we are tacky and brash and very few of our English accents are really all that nice-sounding. We are so many fractured groups, nothing we ever do will be cozy, or elegant, maybe not even civil. And in my opinion, we have spent a very long time doing a very bad job at this democracy thing. I’d say we elected an enemy of democracy. But he cannot destroy it. Democracy can only destroy itself.

Because I have loved so many Americas, I will not capitulate to President Trump’s monolithic vision of one. But because I have loved so many Americas, I will participate in its democracy, the only government I know that tries to honor them all. I will remain subject to this crappy and ever-evolving republic; I will capitulate to the will of my fellow citizens that he form the executive branch of our government. Then I will do everything I can to advocate that we make our democracy less crappy, from improving the education system that undergirds this form of government, to convicting fewer people as felons.

But I will not arrogantly pretend that I alone choose my president. To say that Trump is not my president would be to say that this is not my country.

And that, beloved, I cannot bear.

Dylann Roof and me

10-06-16-patrick-phillips-blood-at-the-root

I heard the truth about my town in Georgia—home base since I was 13—over the radio, from a woman in Philadelphia. It was a Terry Gross interview with the author of a book released last summer about the history of Forsyth County. Maybe it was a run-of-the-mill interview, sometimes even if you’re a Terry fan they’re a little boring, but to me it was bizarre and hurtful and fascinating and horrible all at the same time: hearing a man’s voice in the little car speakers reciting the details of two lynchings that took place on the town square where I had purchased a marriage license two months before. To be more precise, it was all of those things after the fact, because my response to overwhelming awful things is always immediate dissociation. At the time, I thought mostly of the classrooms two blocks from that square, where they’d taught us about the formation of the KKK on Stone Mountain but not about the lynchings in our town. Not about the weeks after the lynchings when every black person in the county was driven out of their homes. Not about the family that tried to quietly return and woke up to dynamite under their house. Not about the fact that there’s no record of who survived and who didn’t.

There were rumors, of course, about whose fault it might be that our county, even in the 2000s, held far fewer black people than any other in Georgia despite its rapid growth: a few white hoods in the 60s, a sign warning blacks out before sundown. But those rumors held no lynchings and no expulsions by night riders and certainly no mention of the massive protest in the 80s, residents demanding they be allowed to keep their county white.

In December I wrapped gifts, packed an enormous duffel bag, and in the last second before leaving Charleston for home I downloaded the book. It’s a quick read, really just a chronological telling of events. I’d expected a bit more from it—a primer on how to feel or what to do would have been nice. Instead, there were the happenings, then the end; and then I wandered about the county, visiting friends and the Dairy Queen downtown, in a state of surreality, seeing the 1910s superimposed over every place that composed my beloved home. The stolen homesteads of freed slaves forgotten beneath stately churches; the site of the rally, now some of the county’s most valuable retail real estate; and always, the lynchings of teenagers in the square.

I don’t know if it is merely naive or some much more serious moral and imaginative failing, but it was one thing to know of lynchings somewhere in those mountains, and another thing to stare down a picture of one across the street from Sal’s pizza place. It was one thing to hear rumors that black people had been unwelcome on our streets long ago, but another to read with what inhuman ferociousness their absence had been enforced up until my own lifetime.

I have not spoken much about all this. I am just beginning to grieve the place I thought I knew.


 

Even when we speak about the importance of history, we often act as though it is a collection of case studies that might sometime offer useful analogies to our own time, rather than recognizing that it is a part of us. We are learning every day, too, that this is no metaphor, our very selves shaped by history: trauma is passed on through human DNA as surely as injustice is passed on through our institutions. It is the privileged who study history; it is the oppressed who remember it. I came to adulthood asking why so much is wrong with the world. Those who bear the brunt of the wrong have always known.

And at the same time that it’s easy, once you start, to trace the series of events leading my people to have things so much easier than others, it’s impossible to quantify my own individual part in any of it. It’s nothing: I never asked or hoped for things to be this way any more than the victims did. And it’s infinite: my family came to Forsyth for its peace, prosperity, and Good Schools, all of which were uniquely available because of the county’s history and uniquely available to us.

It is crass to speak of quantifying such things anyway. But, I think, even the sagest of “woke white people” can unknowingly hope to do so. In the interview through the car speakers, I recognized a certain instinct in the book’s author: a desire for absolution. As weeks went by and I tunneled down into my own distress, I found at the root of the pit in my stomach was an absurd hope: maybe if I do enough, or give enough up to others, I can become innocent of this.

None of us will ever be innocent of it.


The Bible speaks often of communal sin. This, like most things in the Bible, is incomprehensible alongside the individualistic myths that make up the American way. A lot of well-meaning people who have worked very hard in their lives not to commit sins will probably always refuse to comprehend it, protecting the idea of their self-made virtue. In so doing, they will refuse to understand the basic fabric of the world and perhaps of God: that we all belong to one another. We can’t stand up a self unattached to the others who remake us every day, any more than the squares of a quilt can be without the others.

I don’t know how anyone makes sense of history and its injustices without feeling this fabric under their fingers.

The Bible also speaks often of communal redemption. Thanks be to God, the un-innocent belong at the family table.


 

Now I live in a city that has prospered from the products of slavery since its inception three hundred and fifty years ago. We are still getting to know one another, so I cannot say much about what, exactly, this means for Charleston. But I can say that the city will never become innocent of the shooting at Mother Emanuel, certainly not by deeming a single life valueless and then offering that warped nothing as if it could be a sacrifice to justice.

Everyone is angry at Dylann Roof, but behind the anger lies fear: fear that he might be one of us. To entertain the idea of Roof in prison for life is to imagine him as something other than a monster that must be put down. It is to face the fact that a man, mentally sound enough to represent himself at trial, found little evidence in the society around him to dissuade him from the racist alternate reality he’d chosen. That man believed he could start a race war by carrying out his crime in the right city: what was once a city of slaves, ruled by a fearful and violent minority of white men.

Perhaps the victims and their families should be the ones to sentence Dylann Roof, but they are not. And we all sit in silent judgment of him: a jury of his peers. To leave Roof alive would be painful, to say the least. It would inspire justified outrage on several fronts. But to kill him means to label him irredeemable, while somehow maintaining that we are not. That is false. By killing him, instead, we further damn ourselves in the belief that the history that inspired Roof can be purged by wiping him out.

To leave Roof alive would be to look into his hate-filled face and force ourselves to recognize the fear, supremacy, and violence that every day enslave us all. Only when we stop settling for the scapegoat will we finally reach the beginning of our own repentance.

when you are too small for Aleppo

I feel weird sharing this, and I would feel weird not sharing this: I wrote two versions of my last post, about Aleppo, and they said nearly opposite things.

As I pondered Aleppo, I wondered, too, about all the war zones I don’t know about—the ones I don’t have the energy for. And my fingers flew off on something of a tangent that, in the end, I recognized as good and true but I also felt myself resisting. It was true for someone or sometime, but that night my own heart needed another cry. And that other cry is the one I published.

The first draft was for another me: the me who is so often overwhelmed by this world and so often unable to cope with her own small fears and wounds, who would be drowned so easily by it all if there weren’t grace for her, too. Although this week my own call was to pay attention, keep vigil here for Aleppo, just as often, I learn that my calling is to let it be; it is held. I hesitate to say this is a balance; that sounds like a skill you could develop or a decision you could make using a flow chart. Finding a place between a compassion that stretches you, and an acceptance of your own finitude even in this regard, and then again the knowledge that God calls us sometimes to a compassion that breaks—this is the work of the Spirit. It is a mystery, not a balance.

It can be true that we have a responsibility to lament and, at the same time, that you have a responsibility to rest, or to lament for something closer to home, or to hold those who lament. If Aleppo, so far away and so unbearable, is too much for you to hold this week, here is your permission to unfollow.


Our technologies push us beyond our limits in countless ways, but for some of us, this is the most persistently bewildering. It is beyond us to process a new disaster every week and every day, to carry news of this civil war and that kidnapping, this famine and that drug war, let alone the occasional reminders that refugee camps, climate disasters, human enslavement, utter poverty grind on and on every day, far from the front page. No one could respond appropriately to any one of these things over any course of time, but they appear, rapid-fire, in our feeds. We breathe prayers and give a few dollars and we feel that it is nothing, and it is nothing, and we flick the thing away before it drowns us in despair.

The expanse of humanity is more interconnected than ever before, but is that even a good thing? Can you encounter the expanse of humanity with an open heart? Or would it tear you open at the seams?

I submit that if you tried to direct fifteen minutes of your full attention to every disaster, crisis, and tragedy that crossed your field of vision, you would be crushed. Try to absorb it all, and blow after blow will leave you gasping against a wall; try to carry it all, and you will stumble, too tired to lift your face from the mud; try to love them all, and you will suffocate as the weight of your body and theirs halts your breathing, alone and covered with wounds.

Only one person has ever been able to hold it all. But not before it killed him.

You are small, faithful one, and grace frees you to admit that. You are allowed to breathe prayers and give a few dollars and return to the work you are doing in your own heart, in your own neighborhood, in your own state. Yes, it is enough to send a letter to your Congressperson advocating for refugee resettlement the United States. Yes, it is enough to light a candle. Yes, it is enough to lament. Yes, it is enough to feed your neighbor or to have sent all your money to last week’s cause, because anything but paralysis pushes back the darkness. If you are asking the question, then it is enough. If you are open to the voice of the Spirit, then you will know when it is your day to mourn for strangers. If you are faithful to your own daily work, then you will have made room for God to do God’s work.

Look, friend, before we were connected by the lights and bytes zinging around the globe, we were connected to each other by the dust from which we were formed. Scientists are just discovering what Jesus had told us all along: that nothing exists apart from the webs of life that enfold and ground it. To say your actions in Tennessee affect people’s lives in Syria is not simply a metaphor. And the more we learn about the problems of the world, the more we see that this is true: the destruction of the planet is the poverty of its poorest is the violence of its most desperate is the indifference and isolation of its wealthy. It feels like bad news, that no single problem has a single solution in this weary world. But if all of our problems are connected, then all the solutions are, too. Your own generosity and patience and peace are the restoration of something and a saving grace to someone else. They are miracles, they are ripples in a pond, they are the very most raw materials of the Spirit’s transforming work in the whole earth.

You will know the people, places, and politics to which you are called. Some of us are keeping vigil for Aleppo, fighting for local food, and holding potlucks for our neighbors. Maybe you sacrifice for other things. These are all simply offerings to One who gathers them together, breaks them, and by a miracle feeds a hungry world. He holds it without your help, and he holds you without any anger at your smallness. Let it be. It is beyond you. He weeps for all that you cannot.

what any of us can do when there is Aleppo

5035250691_b784ea445d_z

Aleppo before. photo: Pietro Ferreira

No human can be prepared or equipped for a massacre of innocent people. But this—this is beyond us in a different way, to watch one in real time from thousands of miles away. To know that no matter how much information you gather, no matter how much money you send, you will still be left helpless, gaping at a screen until you choose to shut off the nightmare your fellow humans are living and dying through.

The expanse of humanity is more interconnected than ever before, but is that even a good thing? Can you encounter the expanse of humanity with an open heart? Or would it tear you open at the seams?

I submit that if you tried to direct fifteen minutes of your full attention to every disaster, crisis, and tragedy that crossed your field of vision, you would be crushed. It is a heavy undertaking even to believe the bare facts about what has happened in Syria, to remind yourself the city is not an elaborate movie set, much less to actually imagine the panic and grief of the families there or to pray for a young man who could celebrate the “capture” of a wasted ruin littered with the bodies of noncombatants. Try to absorb it all, and blow after blow will leave you gasping against a wall; try to carry it all, and you will stumble, too tired to lift your face from the mud; try to love them all, and you will suffocate as the weight of your body and theirs halts your breathing, alone and covered with wounds.

Only one person has ever been able to hold it all. But not before it killed him.

As often as we rail against whatever God would “allow this,” we look again upon this God bored through with the world’s hatred and pain, and realize that, however baffled and brokenhearted we may be, we are never alone. And we realize, considering this God who proposed somehow to inaugurate the reign of hope, peace, joy, and love after two long days in a grave, that we have no choice but to trust him with his own work.

And we must trust that our own work has some significance—we must not give up on the work of lament. For work it is, to hold what you can of the pain, even briefly, even inadequately. There are those who would say only that which accomplishes something can be called work; to them I would say, lament is the work of pushing back indifference. To weep for strangers, to cry out how long, O Lord?, is to declare that what has been lost is not the collateral damage of foreigners’ conflicts but is our own family, invaluable, irreplaceable. To sit in the dust with Jeremiah is to remember not only Aleppo and Jerusalem, but the cries of the Israelite women in Egypt and the mothers of Bethlehem, yet it is also to defy the story that this is the way things have always been. This is an abomination, this is a tear in the fabric of the universe, this is Christ crucified again. If we have only the strength to light a candle, we light a candle, because we will not accept that this news can be consumed between celebrity scandals and political soundbites. We will not sit silently when others tell us to fear these people who saw their city ripped apart before their eyes.

It is not lament that signals despair. It is indifference that shows when we have given up. It would be a shallow thing indeed to call ourselves, this Advent, we who have hope, if we have not chosen to look fully into the faces of the suffering; if we claimed to look for Jesus this Advent and failed to find him there.


If you want to give to relieve the suffering of refugees from Aleppo, Preemptive Love is doing the work of taking them in—on the ground, in Syria. They also work to prevent violence and to help refugees rebuild lives. You can learn more or donate here.

when being white hurts for once

It’s possible I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program because I’m white.

I don’t mean that as an excuse or a complaint or really even a literal statement. In reality, there are lots of reasons I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program, and my race isn’t among the top five you’d hear if I told you the story. But it was something I had to think about both during and after the application process: If it came down to a choice between me and someone of a minority race, all other things being exactly equal, the other person would “win.”

In theory, I think this is absolutely good and fitting for any academic program, especially in the liberal arts, and especially at the highest levels. In these fields, our personal backgrounds and perspectives influence our work even more than in others. Because of that, the academy is much, much poorer if it fails to cultivate a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. And the world is much, much poorer if it’s not represented well in academic and theological circles; people who can’t see themselves in the thinkers they’re hearing about often aren’t going to connect with the ideas. There’s really no one sitting around saying, “I can’t relate to this theology; I wish another wealthy white lady would write one.”

In theory, that makes sense. In practice, it’s not just nerve-wracking or hard to swallow. It hurts. It hurts, on a personal level, to hear that your perspective is valued less than someone else’s; and it hurts very practically, when you’re forced to compete for your dream, to know there is the potential that it will come down to something so far outside your control.

But just because it hurts me doesn’t make it any less right.

I’ve listened to the academic arguments and the personal pleas of my minority classmates and friends enough to know that they feel that same hurt every day of their lives. They don’t blame me as an individual and they certainly don’t revel in my pain, but they do ask me to see affirmative action as a conscious effort to reshape a world whose culture—whose unconscious efforts—often discount, demean, and defeat them.

This all came to mind when I read Dr. Christena Cleveland’s latest blog post, “How to be last: A practical theology for privileged people.” Of course, you should read it and then read it again, but here is the synopsis: Dr. Cleveland gives a brilliant retelling of the parable of the workers in the field—the one where some people work all day, and some work for only an hour, but everyone gets paid a full day’s wages. She points out that this parable illustrates that saying of Jesus: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This isn’t just a saying; it’s a vision of God’s kingdom. The Bible says (and social psychology happens to confirm) that in our sin-stricken world, where history and culture have conspired to place some people’s value, opportunities, lives, and comfort so far ahead of others’, putting everyone on a level playing field isn’t enough to bring about equality and justice. As she puts it,

We experience the kin-dom of heaven when people from oppressed groups lead and people from privileged groups follow…If you’re a privileged person, here’s what I have to say to you: You have an invaluable role to play — and that role is last. When you inhabit your role as last, you play a crucial part in forging and maintaining the equitable balance of the kin-dom of heaven. Furthermore, your freedom is in being last. Your pathway to a more just world is in being last. Your liberation from the shackles, alienation and dehumanization of privilege is in being last.

When someone says the first shall be last and the last shall be first it sounds like a nice saying. When someone says your place is to be last, you realize it’s not nice at all. It’s far more than nice; it’s redemptive, and redemption is a purifying fire, and it’s hard, and it hurts.

Some of the comments on the post reflect this hurt. There’s defensiveness, anger, and dismissal: running away from the fire. There’s calm debate: seeking to get around the fire. And there’s this:

My brain says This is absolutely what needs to take place.
My emotions say This is undignifying.

I think that’s a guy walking through the fire.

It sounds like this guy knows that what our culture calls “dignity” isn’t what the kingdom calls blessed. But we rarely know in our bones those conclusions we mentally assent to, no matter how firmly we think we believe them. We know in our bones what we experience. That’s why Jesus demands obedience: sometimes you can only learn the truth of something by doing it.When you’re used to measuring value and accomplishment in status, money, and power, it can take a long time to know the joy of undignity. When you’ve spent all your life being told you were meant to lead, it’s not immediately apparent how there could be freedom in following.

Since Trump was elected, the same word has been on a loop in my mind: humility, humility, humility. When someone becomes the leader of a country by bragging about wealth, power, deceit, and violence, humility has become a foreign concept. I can’t get away from that this Advent: they will know you are an alien when you worship a peasant baby as king. They will laugh at you when you pursue humility. They will despise you even as they secretly respect you when you begin to attain it.

Some of us get into the “social justice” game or “kingdom of God” talk because we think it will make us heroes. But God gets us into the game so it will make us humble, and so it will make us free. Work to free others long enough, you discover just how many of their iron chains are matched with your own invisible spider-web chains, chains you never noticed before you learned how to see. Clinging to “dignity” and even to dreams that revolve around achievement and status are two of those chains. Jesus, the teacher of hard sayings, is the one who frees us all from them. There are no heroes.

when singing is hard

eefmc1ug_k8-ben-white

photo: Ben White

Dear bestfriend,

I knew that you knew that I knew that I failed to call you after the election out of nothing but sadness. Acedia, the desert monks called it, and later sloth: when you know what needs to be done and you just don’t. You wake up sad and let the long day ahead flatten you before it even really gets going. Most pitiful and boring of the seven deadly sins.

A tiny part of me tried not to think about you for too long, in the week after the election, because your work with refugees has always overwhelmed me with a fierce protective pride and I knew and I saw on facebook how deeply sad you were. You go every day and you chip away at the mortar between bricks and you slowly bring down the walls between these fleeing people and their new lives. We sat on the phone this weekend and wondered without saying it how so many could choose fear and blame and walls. We mourned for what our nation loses by rejecting refugees. And we fought down panic for those living in tents somewhere in between the loneliness of no country, in between a past of rubble and a future of more tents and more waiting.

We shared the little things we’ve done to try and move forward in the past month, but underneath all that, a terrible sense of smallness. Don’t just blame it on Trump, either; call it a quarter-life crisis. We have been doing our little things for a while now, and so much has only gotten worse. Maybe we should just acknowledge that we are suckers for trying to triage a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Maybe all we’ve been doing is making ourselves feel better about, or more righteous than, an objectively shitty place. We could be excused for deciding to leave behind our idealistic youth, over time knowing less and caring less and just donating a comfortable amount to charities that flatter us in their promotional materials.

Some days that seems like the only sane way out of despair. And here it is, the darkest time of the year, when it feels like we have more obligations than ever to people who don’t make us less lonely. How do you catch your breath when you can’t stop, and when every quiet moment threatens to drown you in visions of walls and wars?

I think what you do is you go see Messiah. It is one thing to be spiritual and go for walks or pray or bake things and try to meditatively get through whatever next thing. It is a more important thing right now to seize upon the miracle that Advent is here in a great grab at the most tangible celebration you can find, namely a three-hour symphony performance that you don’t get away from without worshiping Jesus. I can say nice things that you already know about Jesus coming as a baby, but what you really need is to sit yourself down to hear the angels proclaim the damn fool’s truth that that baby is the King.

This is no longer the time for a subtle piety, my darling. This is the time to declare ourselves the fools, the poor, the babes. This is the time to give out money to people on street corners, to spend an evening wrestling Christmas Snoopy onto the lawn, to stand still and weep at carols we’ve always known. Maybe in the past, those little things we did felt like nice auxiliary ways to be faithful alongside the real work of the important people and pragmatic programs that would ultimately make the world measurably better. Now that they might be all we have, we find out whether we ever really believed those acts of madness meant anything. Whether, really, we ever believed this ridiculous manger-story. Did we really think the Redemption of the world and the cosmic defeat of the Roman empire came as a wrinkly red baby to a teenage girl, his “reign” announced to farm hands and the bumbling old mystics of some sketchy-ass religion?

You go see Messiah, friend, you will believe. When someone sings you half the Bible you sit up and notice that we’re still in that story. Fill up with music and take heart, let yourself imagine that we really are halfway through one of the tales Sam asked Frodo to remember. If God came as a baby then the greatest lie is that the humble unnoticed doesn’t matter. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. And that is all that matters in the end. Go hear the story. Go as a child who never thought it audacious to cast themselves as Frodo. Go as a weary idealistic-but-cynical sucker. Go as the one who hungers to hear the prophet in that opening line, comfort ye my people. Sing through it, cry through it, hug the person next to you; remember that every time you waste your time in worship, give without getting, and let your heart crack open a little further, you are doing the holiest world-changing things that can be done.

When the powers that be declare war on the stranger and the least of these, the only way out of despair is to go a little mad. Look, love, this Christmas we could burrow into the comforting familiar and pretend like that will protect us from these long, long odds we face. But let’s not miss the chance to tell things on mountains, kiss the feet of peasant children, and thunder out like Zechariah, Who DARES despise the day of small things? He is coming, He is coming, He is coming.



Hey. Want a sneak peek of my new website, coming in February 2017? Help me make it the best it can be by filling out as much or as little of this survey as you’d like. Once you hit “Submit form,” you’ll get a link to a jumbled-up mess of an inspiration board for a hint at the aesthetics of my new bloggy home.

Click here to take the survey and help make lyndseymedford.com a reality!

real love is 4 a.m.

[hey y’all. real quick. you are the earliest readers, the original posse for my little blog, and you are why I write the thing. 2017 is going to be about writing for me, so you can expect regular new posts and other exciting stuff at my new home, lyndseymedford.com, coming in February. If that makes you even the least bit happy, I’d love to get your thoughts about the future of the site: fill out as much or as little of this survey as you’d like, and after you click “submit,” you’ll get a link to the (raw, messy, homespun) inspiration board that’s guiding the site visuals! I promise I’ll read your answers and do everything you tell me use these responses as a guide to launch this big thing the right way. Click here to take the survey!]

commence post.

img_20161104_160210928

it’s a deeply spiritual post AND a photo dump of my dog!

I am sitting in a coffee shop in a somewhat unconscious effort to avoid my puppy.

I know this entire post will be laughable to any actual parents reading it, but THIS IS MY TRUTH. Miya just has so many needs—mostly needs to bite things. And working from home, spending 24 hours a day with her, sometimes makes me just a little bit COMPLETELY INSANE.

Poop time or play time can strike at any moment.  I’m always on alert for the sounds of way too quiet. And to be completely honest, I’m sometimes a bit frightened and ashamed by how angry I can get (When have you ever been allowed to bite my sweater or my toes or my sofa? NEVER EVER ONCE HAVE THESE EVER BEEN ALLOWED is the answer NEVER EVER).

img_20161116_153048713.jpgOf course having a puppy makes me the luckiest girl in the world and I love her and I’m also frightened by how happy she makes me and she is so perfect I would never give her up to anyone for anything. But also, she’s exhausting. And the main reason is because I’m selfish.

In your early twenties, you know you’re selfish. But you don’t really know until you find yourself enraged at a puppy for wanting to play. You got this puppy so it would cuddle with you and do cute  things, not to play with it at inconvenient times! You got this puppy so it would make you go for walks on days you felt like it, not on days when you have too much to do.

For a long time, my life has been full of somewhat external forces—school, work, travel, a long-distance relationship—that made it easy not to accept responsibility for others. Even more, my school environment and my own past were full of warnings against doing so too readily. Indiscriminately taking on other’s pain or mistakes or even their very real needs is never truly wise or loving. There are volumes to be written about that. But at the same time, whenever these warnings rolled too glibly off the tongues of certain twenty-two year olds, I sensed bewilderment if not real frustration from the people in the room with young children, aging parents, or desperate neighborhoods. These are the people who know inescapably that love doesn’t have an “off” switch. Love takes chunks out of you.

When you’re in your twenties, you’re supposed to enjoy having options. You can settle in to enjoy life, calibrated perfectly to allow for work, hobbies, fitness classes, Netflix, sleep, reading, and lots of dinners out. You don’t have to choose to let anybody into your life beyond the boundaries of what is comfortable, beyond a sad-face text when they are sick, beyond friendly chatter in the apartment vestibule. Letting others need things from you is nobody’s definition of success. Needy friends and dysfunctional family members are the kind of thing you tell people at work about with an air of chagrin and a hint that you won’t let it happen again.

When we’re in our twenties, we’re supposed to try to make something of ourselves. We’re supposed to invest in an education and then move around from city to city for a while, making strategic career moves and wry comments about how much money we spend on cocktails. Then maybe after a while, we buy a big house somewhere so we can have kids and dress them up in bow ties and teach them to be like us.

And a part of me really wants all that.

Another part of me is remembering these days that prosperity without roots is just another sick addiction, and love without sacrifice is just another cheap good on the market. We’re supposed to think the upwardly mobile life, devoid of unnecessary attachment, obligation, or debt, accomplishes happiness, but that life’s greatest accomplishment is looking good on the outside. Happiness is getting up in the middle of the night with your puppy. Happiness is making a double batch and bringing half to a friend who’s sick. Happiness might not be the phone call that ruins your peaceful evening; but it is knowing you brought some peace to someone else’s.

Lots of people, including me, are talking about self-care after the election. And it’s true, we need routines and strategies to deal with our feelings so that we can respond to things like Trump’s comments yesterday about immigrants with strategic resolve and not with rage and despair. But we also need something deeper than strategic resolve. We need radical love, the kind that will be up in the middle of the night when ICE arrives to separate a family.

Miya is reminding me what it costs and what it gains to get attached. To join your life to someone else’s. She’s gently reminding me what it means to put aside my own convenience and shift my time and attention to another. I think she’s a gift of grace that way, easing me from a phase of self-improvement back into the rhythms and attitudes of other-care. Am I going to drop everything and become a dreadlocked Shane Claiborne type and vow to never move again and never go on vacation again and only be friends with homeless people? Maybe No Not yet. But in using my privilege to make choices about my life, I don’t want to shy away from the hard things. I want to be open to callings besides “make more money” or “chase down this career,” callings like stay when it’s hard and love the stranger and don’t look away. I want to be a part of Charleston, not a consumer of it. I want to walk with people, not around them, even if Miya turns out to love them better than I do.

img_20161030_193530589

Hey. Want a sneak peek of my new website, coming in February 2017? Help me make it the best it can be by filling out as much or as little of this survey as you’d like. Once you hit “Submit form,” you’ll get a link to a jumbled-up mess of an inspiration board for a hint at the aesthetics of my new bloggy home.

Click here to take the survey and help make lyndseymedford.com a reality!

what we do not see

gnjn5-c5ene-jovi-waqa

photo: Jovi Waqa

Maybe it sounds odd for a theologian to say, but here it is: it’s been a very long time since I thought or cared much about faith. I mean, I think all the time about the faith. But faith itself—the act of believing something—maybe hasn’t been high on my list of concerns since sometime in high school.

Part of this is a philosophical choice: I think the church of my childhood overrated faith. In their fervor to get me to convert, and to get me to get my friends to convert, those well-meaning people had me so wrapped up in “believing in Jesus” that my overserious little self constantly worried about what that could mean. How exactly do I know that I believe in Jesus today? How can I believe that Jesus lives in my heart when I still don’t understand what that means? Why is God so wrapped up in my ability to “be certain of what we cannot see,” like, why is that the prerequisite skill for heaven-entrance?

I’m honestly still not sure of the answers to all of those questions, and I don’t think they’re quite as important as they were made out to be. Faith is part of following Jesus, but the greatest of these is love. I think God cares a lot more about who and what we love than about all the specifics of what we believe. The greatest commandment is not to mentally assent to a list of propositions, but to orient the desires of our hearts toward God. And I’ll admit, maybe this is a convenient way for me to think about things, because when you’re in theology school, you’re never sure what you believe. If you had to write a creed on any given day in theology school, it would be something like “I believe in skimming, the deadline Almighty, and the power of a good night’s sleep.” The rest is up for grabs if you’re giving your reading any serious thought.

Those were pretty much all my thoughts on faith until the gospel of Matthew kind of slammed into me a couple weeks ago. It started with the Beatitudes, just reading them over and over with a level of obsession I’ve only dedicated to Wendell Berry’s poems and, before that, Ding-Dong, the red book where all the different animals come to the doorbell. One night I finished the Beatitudes and just kept on reading all the way through to “the end of the age” and it felt like everything was new. Every old truth about Jesus and how he was utterly crazy and also just speaking the most obvious common sense, all these things he said and did felt so outrageous and scary and good and true.

It’s a moment I’ve been reaching back for, trying to hold on to, ever since, because nothing else feels to me like it could possibly become new these days. Trump’s absurdities and the reactions to them are wearying in equal measure: anger and blame going around in circles, while even those calling for care and compassion so often mean their words to challenge everyone but themselves. The problems seem so big and getting bigger as we watch, not least because so many think they have solutions to the problems if only everyone else could be marched over to their own point of view. Add to that the loneliness and bewilderment of being new in town, and my feet are dragging. I want to quit my job and hunker down for the (nonexistent South Carolina) winter with my puppy and some junk food and Netflix or maybe a sci-fi novel. It just feels so patently obvious that the world is being devoured by humanity’s worst impulses, greed and anger and violence and indifference to suffering and fear; it’s hard to want to go out there in all that.

In Matthew, Jesus knows about greed and anger and violence and fear. He speaks constantly against them; but he doesn’t just berate people for giving into them. He says where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. He says be reconciled to your brother. He says turn the other cheek, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He says do not be afraid; even the very hairs of your head are numbered. He is not saying that greed and anger and violence and fear are bad and destroying the world. He is saying that they are empty lies. Jesus is showing the world as it truly is and, in the process, sucking all the power out of those evils that seem so all-encompassing.

Jesus is, in fact, asking us for our belief. He is imploring us to believe the truth even though the world will call us crazy: the truth that even so long as the smallest light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it. The kingdom of God is like the tiniest seed. The kingdom of God is humility. The kingdom of God is giving two pennies. It does not obey the laws of physics and its power does not equal money. The kingdom of God is pilgrims sent out two by two, not armies deployed by the millions. It is servanthood, not political clout. It is a meal with the least of these, not the thinkpiece of the year.

Faith means we act like this is true despite all evidence to the contrary. We pray as if it matters. We love as if people could change. We sing as if war and death did not have the final word. We get up in the morning and listen kindly to our coworkers or teach people’s children or clean our houses or feed people or write our little pieces as if these things could be cosmically significant, as if thankfulness could feed five thousand, as if compassion could heal diseases, as if a servant could lead justice to victory. As if love could raise the dead: so by faith we practice resurrection.

%d bloggers like this: