I Walk, I Do Not Run for Justice

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I walk, I do not run for justice
Oh how I wish I could fly.
Soar above the despair.
Yet, the burden is too heavy.

This load, this crushing weight
My own, my brothers’, my sisters’
Forces me to take slow, heavy steps
Forward, always forward

But I fall, often I fall
For justice is not perfection
It is a devastatingly human desire
Full of lust, envy and failure

So I walk, I do not run for justice
For each human failure
accepted, noticed, loved
Makes the steps easier, the burden lighter.

My stumbles bring healing
For me, for my brothers, for my sisters
Their stumbles bring healing
For me, for my brothers, for my sisters

For how can I run?
When millions struggle to simply stand
Under these structural burdens
For only my privilege lets me run.

But if I run, I stand atop these burdens
Freely, swiftly
Pursuing a lofty end of justice
While adding more weight to these burdens

So I choose to walk, to carry this weight
Not run above it, adding to it
For a justice, sustainable
For a healing, universal.

May we walk, not run for justice
Noticing people, dreams, failures along our way
Building community that chooses to carry this unbearable weight
Understanding our privilege to even dream about simply running.

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Belated Lenten Reflection [Rewind]

While I’m a little late in the liturgical season for this post, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote last year during my time working at an after school program for middle school and high schoolers.  I wrote and read it for a Stations of the Cross event that my service program, Amate House, hosted last Lenten season.  I was assigned to write a reflection based on the station, Jesus is Judged by Pilate. 

The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accused you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed…Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd released Barrabas…and handed Jesus over to be crucified. (Mark 15: 1-5, 15)

Failure. Dropout. Criminal. Gang member. By the time he was fifteen, he had been labeled every single one of these. I met this particular young man on my very first day at the Teen Center.   As I took deep breaths to calm the insatiable butterflies in my stomach, he came over to me, stuck his hand out in order for me to shake it, and introduced himself with a half smile.   After knowing this young man for only thirty short minutes, he had already managed to share with me many of his past struggles and his ambitious hopes for the future. Walking away from this encounter my first day, I realized that my work at the Teen Center would be much more than merely supervising an after school program.

Almost every week, it seemed like this kid came in to the Teen Center with a new crisis or life-altering event to share with me. Over the past eight months, he has faced more challenges than most people can even begin to imagine. Just in this past year, he lost his childhood friend to gang violence, was arrested for an extremely serious offense, and learned he would be a father at age nineteen only to find out a few weeks later that his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. And now him and his family have been homeless for over a month, the six of them living with different family members and friends in small one-bedroom apartments. But he perseveres. While looking at his story one can begin to see why his identity has been so tightly entangled with his mistakes: failure, dropout, gang member, criminal. Many people have given up on him and told him he is not worth it. But, even through all these challenges, I could never get the memory of that enthusiastic young man that I met my first day out of my head. I realized that while he may have come to me looking for answers and advice for the problems he faced, what he actually sought from me was an acceptance he had never experienced. He wanted to be able to admit to these mistakes without worrying that the person listening would condemn him, judge him or abandon him. He wanted to be seen for who he is: an incredibly joyful young man with a huge heart and unstoppable goofiness, who has a love for writing poetry, who would do anything to protect his three younger siblings, and who cared enough to make me feel comfortable on my first day of work. He was asking for freedom from these negative labels and low expectations that seemed to continuously define his life. Not until recently did I realize that I have some small power to help him find that freedom.

Pilate was also in a position of power. Power to change the outcome of the story. Power to save a life that was hanging in the balance. Power to stand against the accusations of the crowd. No, unfortunately, I do not have the power to dramatically change the outcome of any of my teens’ lives or make certain life altering decisions for them, but I do have the power to stand against the accusations and judgments they have heard from parents, teachers, and peers their whole lives. I have the unique power to choose to see these young men and women as more than charity cases and delinquents. To choose to speak out louder than the crowd, which shouts of their worthlessness and inevitable failure, and refuse, unlike Pilate, to be a passive observer to such violence. Because if I don’t, then these young men and women may also begin to see themselves as nothing more than criminals, dropouts, gang members, and failures instead of the reality, that they are leaders, artists, role models, and survivors.

The Destruction of Marriage Robots

My mom is one of those moms.  You know the kind of moms I’m talking about.  The ones that give the best everything-will-get-better hugs, make the best homemade apple pies, and always made sure to sneak that only slightly humiliating but secretly awesome note of pure love into your Care Bears lunch box every day in elementary school (and maybe sometimes high school…let’s not talk about it).  So as you can tell she was a pretty great mom.  Now, Mom, if you are reading this, don’t be too upset when you hear what I have to say next.  Like I said there are very few things about my mom that I could complain about, but one of those things happens to be her taste in wall decorations.

I know what you are thinking, ‘She gave you life and raised you and you are going to complain about her interior design skills?’  But it’s different than you think.  It’s not that my mom’s house wasn’t decorated, it was.  Everything coordinated perfectly. Well, as perfectly as it could be coordinated with an unfortunate splattering of forest green carpeting that us kids use to pretend to study our world geography on because of the vast amount of Diet Coke and who-knows-what-else stains all over it.  But I digress.  The wall hangings.  It was almost as if she was worried that we would be bored or forget that Jesus loved us, so in that way it was sweet and considerate, but in every other way it was just plain weird.  While we had the typical, ethereal Jesus praying hands picture (if you grew up in a practicing Christian household you probably know what I mean) and some sign hanging above the doorway meant to set some sort of blessing upon whoever entered our house, but we also had a couple that now seem less typical. Yes, I could write a whole other blog post (and probably will) about the five stanza poem that hung in our bathroom at the perfect level for each of us to read as we relieved ourselves about taking time to pray as we go through our day (see what they did there?), but my real issue is with a small framed poem stitched on off-white fabric that hung above my parents’ bed.

I remember crawling into their bed when I was maybe seven or eight and reading this poem over and over again with both confusion and intrigue.  The poem by Beth Stuckwisch went like this:

“Marriage takes three to be complete;
It’s not enough for two to meet.
They must be united in love
By love’s Creator, God above.
Then their love will be firm and strong;
Able to last when things go wrong,
Because they’ve felt God’s love and know
He’s always there, He’ll never go.
And they have both loved Him in kind
With all the heart and soul and mind
And in that love they’ve found the way
To love each other every day.
A marriage that follows God’s plan
Takes more than a woman and a man.
It needs a oneness that can be
Only from Christ-
Marriage takes three.”

Doesn’t sound too bad right? And, you know besides the heteronormativity and a slight hint to some sort of God-centered threesome, it really isn’t.  It has a good message. Love God, love your spouse, be complete.  But somehow this poem and some later events convinced me that I was NEVER going to get married.

Flash forward a few years to junior high: the confusing time when girls stop being convinced that every boy is infected with some disease affectionately known as “cooties” and start ‘dating.’  If you can even call junior high relationships that. Since this hormone crazed transition is a critical time for sex-ed training and abstinence talks, my church had to join the trend.  A weekend event called “True Love Waits,” which I’m sure most of you have heard of, was planned that culminated in each teenager being asked to sign a promise that they will wait to have sex until they are married.  I was less than excited.  Not because I didn’t want to willingly sign away my sexual desires for my own eternal security, but because of the sickening speech we were presented with before the signing.

Two perfect-looking, well-dressed individuals waltzed happily up to the stage with smiles smacked on their faces.  A man and a woman, a recently married couple from the church, stood in front of hundreds of confused and insecure teenagers to proclaim the everlasting joys and satisfaction that comes from waiting until marriage to have sex.  I could buy it, sure, sex was a sacred and intimate act, why not save it for the right person? but my question was what drugs are these two on to make them so annoyingly happy. Obviously no drugs were involved, but to my skeptical teenage mind there was something not right with the public display in front of me. It’s not that I didn’t think they were in love and genuinely believed everything they were presenting, I think they were. The problem for me was that when I looked at the beautiful smiling wife and heard her slip in a giggly “Oh, honey tell them the story of…” every few sentences of their speech, it made me want to hurl.

As a 12 year old and probably at an even younger age, I knew that I would never be that wife. Since I was not new to this whole church thing, I had heard many similar couples stand up and give many similar speeches so I was not surprised by what they said. But that day was the day when all these images of perfect god-centered couple I had swirling around in my head violently and swiftly collided with the words of that poem stuck on constant repeat whenever the topic of marriage came up. When the slight panic disappeared and the chaos of the collision settled, what I was left with was a resolute conclusion: I was never going to get married.

I told myself I was never going to get married, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t think I would be able to. My only conception of what married life was like was this odd poem that hinted at some supernatural threesome and this parade of couples that told stories about the happiness they found from praying together, starting faith sharing groups, and getting up early on weekends just to read the next chapter of the Bible together. Hence, I was convinced that I would never get married.

Married life sounded terrible! Praying freaks me out, it’s not that I don’t do it or believe that it has some impact in this world, but praying out loud carries too much pressure. It’s like a speech, (I hate speeches) but to the creator of the universe, so, you know, no big deal! Are you kidding me? That sounds like a daily anxiety attack to me. And I didn’t even get up in the morning to read the Bible on my own, why would I want to do that while having to interact with another person before the hour when I transition from a complaining morning monster to the delightful woman you all know and love? Sometimes I’d rather just read T.S. Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald by myself in my bed at a decent hour and call it a day. So my 12 year old self declared marriage, or the church’s secret plan to make a complacent robot army, a horrible option.

Now I know I’m making light of these very important aspects of a Christian life, but I want to make clear that I’m not trying to say you can’t experience God in your marriage through these activities. What I want to suggest is that the script that the church often uses to talk about marriage, love and sex is limited to a drama of perfect happy couples that do only the above outlined Christiany things. While this limitation in the script is not necessarily harmful, for me, it was another reason I often felt, and sometimes still feel, isolated from the church. I thought marriage could only look this way, which meant encouraging people to find a good white, virgin Christian man of a middle class background, similar religious upbringing and parental guidance as you, marry him and settle down to have the same safe life your parents lead. That message was terrifying for me!

I want to suggest that the script be opened and edited. Sure, marriage does work out better when you find unity and agreement around a higher being or similar values, but this whole “marriage takes three” thing is just confusing. In order to fix the confusion, the church decided that the only way God is present in a relationship is if you mention his name directly in conversations, pray to him together in the same tone and order, read this one inspired book, or hang out with other people that think these same things you do. That’s not fixing anything it’s just making a smaller box for this God we keep talking about.

Now, I’m engaged so I proved myself wrong, I guess, I am getting married. But being engaged brought back these fears and worries in me that all of a sudden I was gonna have to force myself to do things that don’t make me feel any more connected to God simply so I could point to that poem and say ‘Yup, that’s me!’ No, after trying to change myself and my fiancé into these Christian robots that I had always seen on church stages and realizing that I was right–this stuff made me miserable–I have realized having a relationship centered on God is so much more.

God is in our relationship when we argue and do unthinkable things to each other but then choose to forgive each other every day. God is there when our hearts are so broken that we can’t even bear to smile at each other. God is there when we have a conversation about racial equality over a home cooked meal and bottle of wine. We pray through encouraging each other and uttering words of hope, that love is alive and well in this dark, crazy world. God is there when we come together in community with people that look, think, act and believe different things than us. I don’t think God is asking us to take part in some bizarre threesome with the trinity. God simply asks us to be open to new ideas, people and interpretations, to consider the other side of every story and to invite each other into our messed up lives in hopes of finding some love and meaning in it all.

So, no, I don’t really hate my mom’s wall hanging that much it’s actually an important concept, but man am I glad it doesn’t mean I have to be a perfect robot wife.

“Get Over It Already” and Other Harmful Christian Messages

As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.

Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.

Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.

Yes, you read that right. A speech.

Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students.   Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.

Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.

I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.

My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.

Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality.   I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days.   But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.

I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’   They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.