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.

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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.

unexpected messiah

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered.
[Matthew 26]

I have a hard time imagining the Pharisees as the Ultimate Evil, the way they’re always depicted in sermons and stuff. Maybe I’m just a contrary person, but I also have this thing where I don’t like one-dimensional labels for real human beings. So, the Pharisees – kind of crappy people? Probably. Ultimate Evil? Nnnnnno.

Also, to get real with you, the Pharisees were religious scholars. I am/intend to be a religious scholar. And if we’re not careful, oversimplifying the Pharisees’ role in the story can lead to something like this:
1. The Pharisees learned too much and thought they were better than everyone else.
2. Jesus opposed them and they killed him.
3. We should all learn as little as possible.
I’ve heard way too many versions, subtle or overt, of this argument to get behind the wholesale demonization of the Jewish leaders. But a rejection of this mindset leaves a bit of a hole in the story. I mean, if they didn’t hate Jesus because they hated Jesus, if they didn’t lie because they were born liars – why did they oppose the Christ?

After all, the Jewish community had waited hundreds of years for its Messiah. So when he finally comes along and goes, “Oh, hey, I’m the Messiah,” their leaders get all outraged and execute him. They’re not even like, “Whoa, that guy is crazy,” or “Hmm, are you sure about that?” They are clothes-destroyingly infuriated.

I don’t think the Pharisees were such big liars that they were only pretending to expect the Messiah. But they wanted their own kind of Messiah; there was a script in their heads for how this thing would go down. The Messiah would restore the nation of Israel to the nation-state of Israel. He wouldn’t pay taxes or help centurions; he would take names and throw down, rout the Romans and make Israel a theocracy once more. And who better to assist in the government of a theocracy than the faithful keepers of the Torah?

A Messiah who did not legitimize or increase their own power was entirely outside the Pharisees’ frame of reference, because they had stopped worshipping a God who was “slow to anger and abounding in love” in favor of worshipping the Law. They only understood the power of coercion, of religious threats and expensive vocabulary and alliance with governing swords – so they were baffled by Jesus’ power of love, his influence by compassion, his simply-worded summation of the Law and the Prophets, his foolish donkey rides. And if there’s one thing that makes academics angry, it’s the inability to understand. How could they watch their people flock to this penniless, child-honoring wanderer and not feel affronted? After all, anyone who undermined and insulted the Sanhedrin, insulted God: blasphemy.

Jesus’ message and ministry were always simple but never easy. He made it clear that God’s standards for holiness are nothing short of perfection [“love your neighbor as yourself”], but when the time came he did not condemn sinners. The God-man himself is a paradox and at every turn in the Gospels, the paradoxes only compound and multiply.  So here is the question for the scholar, for every person who wants to walk humbly: are you waiting for the true Messiah? Because we always encounter him again and again, as long as we are willing to believe the Living God as he is.
If my Messiah never forces me to confront paradox;
If he always serves my interests;
If he never surprises me;
If he would never, ever ask me to give all I had to the poor;
If he would exercise his right to cast the first stone;
If he prioritizes the powerful over the needy;
If he has no compassion for the Pharisees;
If he did not die for everyone;
If he never asks for more than I think I can give;
if I’ve stopped waiting for him to reveal himself because I think I’ve already grasped him, 

then I’ve constructed a false idol, and I do not worship Jesus Christ at all.

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