Piles (or What I’m Reading)

I don’t know many writers who only read one book at a time. (If you are one who does, I’d be fascinated to make your acquaintance and would try to question you about the reasoning behind your reading practice without making you feel as if you were a specimen under a microscope.)

I have piles, you see. 

There is a pile on the glass-topped elephant table in my bedroom, next to my favorite chair of all time. It includes my Bible, Dave Harrity’s Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and Bearing the Mystery, a collection of twenty years’ of some of the best works published in Image journal.

On the tiered side table in the living room I have The Poems of Richard Wilbur and A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with the last several volumes of Poets & Writers magazine and Writer’s Digest. The Book Thief was there until this past weekend, when my kids stole it to read after we watched the movie together. (Digression: this is one of my favorite books, and I was skeptical about the movie, but it captured the soul of the book & of the characters better than I expected.) 

My “library pile” on my bookshelf to the right of my desk has Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship, and Faith, Francis Schaeffer’s classic, Escape from Reason, and Thomas Merton’s The Springs of Contemplation. (No more pics of piles, because I don’t have time to straighten up the mess & wipe the dust off any more surfaces with my hand.)

And on the coffee table are Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (to counter-balance the weightier tomes), and the one I find myself reaching for most often this week: Compassion—A Reflection on the Christian Life (Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison). I found it in that thrift-store gem, Savers, a couple of weeks ago. A few thought-provoking quotes:

  • On a communal understanding of compassion: “Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together.”
  • On massive exposure to human misery: “When we are no longer able to recognize suffering persons as fellow human beings, their pain evokes more disgust and anger than compassion …. Anne Frank we can understand; piles of human flesh only make us sick.”
  • On our response to suffering: “Therefore, the question is, how can we see the suffering in our world and be moved to compassion as Jesus was moved when he saw a great crowd of people without food …. This question has become very urgent at a time when we see so much and are moved so little.”

If I don’t have a pile of ready reading within reach in each room of the house, I feel itchy and unprepared. When I have a ten-minute span of time between finishing an editing job and starting dinner, I grab the nearest book (and push nagging reminders about wet laundry aside). When the kids are taking an extra-long time getting ready for bed, I plop down on mine with a book and a prayer that they’ll keep dawdling.

I can’t do without my piles. With my husband’s influence, I’ve mended my pack-rat ways in most areas, but don’t ask me to part with my books. (I know some of you reading this get me. We’re a tribe.)

Finally, a list of books I keep coming back to:

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Anything by Frederick Buechner (wrote about him more here) or Brennan Manning

The New Jim Crow—Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (please read this)

What titles are in your piles, and where do you stash them?


Adeste Fidelis

Many of us are closing down 2016 with a keen awareness of the darkness all around us in the world today—a bitter and divisive election that exposed a great deal of ugliness in our nation and perhaps even in ourselves; world events that stagger us in their brutality even as we want to look away—Aleppo, the global refugee crisis, Yemen, South Sudan; and closer to home for us here in Baltimore, the grim statistic of more than 300 homicides in the city this year. As you read this, I’m sure you could add more items to this dark list.

I recently re-read the chapter in Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, titled “Come and See.” I’m going to quote this essay at length today. He says this:

If darkness is meant to suggest a world where nobody can see very well—either themselves, or each other, or where they are heading, or even where they are standing at the moment; if darkness is meant to convey a sense of uncertainty, of being lost, of being afraid; if darkness suggests conflict, conflict between races, between nations, between individuals all pretty much out for themselves when you come right down to it; then we live in a world that knows much about darkness.

What do we do, then, with these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2)? How do we understand these words in their past-tense proclamation?

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1608

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1608

Has something like this really happened? Something that included angels too many to count singing to ignoble shepherds, that included wise men and a strange new star?

Buechner writes, “…let us be as skeptical as our age about this story of Christmas. Let us assume that if we had been there that night when he was born, we would have seen nothing untoward at all….the woman in labor….the smell of hay….the lonely barking of a dog.” He goes on to say:

Whether there were ten million angels there or just the woman herself and her husband when that child was born, the whole course of history was changed. That is a fact as hard and blunt as any fact. Art, music, literature, our culture itself, our political institutions, our whole understanding of ourselves and our world—it is impossible to conceive of how differently world history would have developed if that child had not been born.

Besides all that, all through the ages since that event people from every walk of life and corner of the globe have “found themselves in deep and private ways healed and transformed by their relationships with him”—made whole.

How do we find out for ourselves whether in this child born so long ago there really is the power to give us a new kind of life in which both suffering and joy are immeasurably deepened, a new kind of life in which little by little we begin to be able to love even our friends, at moments maybe even our enemies, maybe at last even ourselves, even God?

 Adeste fidelis. That is the only answer I know for people who want to find out whether or not this is true. Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light. Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough at least to draw near to see for yourselves….Pray for him and see if he comes, in ways that only you will recognize….In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands.

Come and see. Come with your doubting in your throat and your last slip of hope tattered by harsh winds. Come see if this outrageous story you deep-down wish could be true—God come down to you, to me— can be the light that dispels your darkness, can even make you light in the darkness.

I wrote the poem below a couple of years ago, for Advent. “If we are people who pray, darkness is apt to be a lot of what our prayers are about. If we are people who do not pray, it is apt to be darkness in one form or another that has stopped our mouths.” If it helps, read it as a prayer.

The Branch of Your Planting

Isaiah 60: 19-22

We are the branch of your planting,

grasping the earth

until it is too much with us:

soil on our leaves, arching petals

into cups to hoard the rain.

We are cut and grafted,

withered, unyielding, broken

even as we bloom another

improbable blossom.

We are the hidden, dying seeds,

trembling in our casings

with desire for glory: ours

and yours. And you promise it

and much else besides.

Hasten it in its time.

Because we mourn in exile here,

striving with unclean hands raised

toward heaven to grasp at your coming

or waiting silently with this dirt

ground deep into the lines

of our upturned palms,

all of us whispering

Come, come.

"The Birth of Christ" by Mariotto Albertinelli; 1503, oil on wood

“The Birth of Christ” by Mariotto Albertinelli; 1503, oil on wood

The Truest Thing I Know

By my desk, there is written on a green index card this quote that I see every day as I sit down to write:

“Say the truest thing you know, line by line.”

In Writing

I read it in a guide to writing poetry by Suzanne U. Rhodes, The Roar on the Other Side. My tendency as a writer and poet is to hide behind metaphor, or to talk my way around a thought, couching it in beautiful lyricism or visceral imagery. Many times I’m unaware that I’m doing it at first, but my phenomenal poetry workshop partners point it out with gentle stubbornness. They encourage me to push deeper, to dig for the stone at the heart of the poem and bring it into the light. Rhodes’ quote challenges and helps me in the same way.

An editor who gave me feedback on a short story of mine said it was “85%” there.” She told me to go back through it and expose the emotional state of the main character in a few key scenes. “Twist the knife,” was how she put it. Don’t be afraid to dig in, to poke at the wound.

In Life

If I have to push myself to write the truest thing I know, the challenge also applies to life, and specifically, to my relationships with others. I’ll be turning forty in less than a year, and the older I get, the less I can tolerate wearing masks in conversations with others. But to speak about true things—deeper things—with others requires courage and a killing of my own ego, or vanity. It forces me to push past self-protection (which can manifest as “niceness,” cynicism, sarcasm, judgment, and even shyness).

But speaking true things from our hearts, and listening when others do so, happens when love overrides fear, when the desire to connect our own humanity with others’ takes precedence. A couple of weeks ago I kept feeling a prompting to write a letter of empathy and encouragement to a woman I knew who was struggling with the long-term aftermath of a devastating end to her marriage, inability to get a job despite trying daily for two years, and anger at God for allowing so many trials in her life. I felt a bit foolish—we weren’t close friends—and I definitely didn’t want to preach at her. But I ended up writing four pages, letting her know that I see her, that I hurt for her, that I understand what it’s like to feel like you’re a ghost looking in at everyone else living their normal lives when your life is unraveled and on pause. I shared with her some words from authors* who have helped me to hope for something sacred and even beautiful to emerge from my own “dark nights of the soul.”

It was a pretty raw letter. I held onto it for a day before having the courage to put it into the mail. I heard back from her after a couple of days, and one thing she said was, “Just knowing that someone notices that I thirst and tries to bring me water…girl. No words can express my gratitude.” That letter opened up a life-giving dialogue. We were set free to be who we are with each other, no masks. (And it inspired her to apply to one more job that day, which led to an offer of employment as a teacher! She said she was “raw and genuine” in her cover letter, as I had been in my letter to her, and that is what caught the attention of the woman in charge of hiring.)

This morning I spent time reading, journaling, and praying about this very thing—how to be life-giving and human and real in my relationships. But I was also having a bit of a pity party because my deepest relationships with those who know and love me best are long-distance ones, dear friends scattered to the far corners of the earth, literally.

I finished, took a shower, and was just getting dressed when the phone rang. It was one of my best friends, who lives a few hundred miles away and is dealing with the pain and confusion of a recent divorce and doubts about her faith. We’d been emailing but hadn’t spoken on the phone for months. She just felt prompted to call me today, and to open up to me about her faith struggles and the grief she’s carrying.

A Balm

What followed was a half-hour, deep drink of the draught of heart-to-heart connection. It was a balm to my soul that she trusted me and loved me enough to express her doubts and pain, and that we were able to listen to each other and to hear everything beneath those words. We encouraged each other to be brave in the things each of us is facing even as we feel fear or grief, and we shed a few tears together.

In his sermon-essay, “The Killing of Time,” Frederick Buechner writes, “We are really alive when we listen to each other, to the silences of each other as well as to the words and what lies behind the words. ‘Looks as though we might get some rain,’ somebody says. Speak to me for Christ’s sake. Know me….I’m bored and tired as hell, if there’s such a thing as hell. A cup of cold water.’”

May the true things we dare to say, and the deep way we learn to listen, be a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty today.


*Frederick Buechner, Brennan Manning, Larry Crabb

“And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business…to speak with our hearts…and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by the true word of [Christ’s] holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all.” Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark

I Didn’t Want To Be That White Woman

They saw me leave the house.

The two boys looked to be about fourteen years old. They had already passed my house and were walking down the middle of the street as I climbed into my car to pick up my kids from school. Something inside told me to wait a few minutes and watch. And no, it wasn’t because they were African American. Our city, neighborhood, and block are all majority black, so it would have been far more unusual to see white kids walking down my street. What was it? They were clearly school-age, and school hadn’t let out yet. They also weren’t wearing any of the nearby school’s uniforms. They were walking with a bit of a swagger down the middle of the street, not the sidewalk, laughing but looking intently at parked cars they passed.


I sat in the car and watched for several minutes. Once or twice I saw one of them reach out like he might be trying a car door. Are they casing cars, or are they just walking? I didn’t want to jump the gun and call in suspicious activity, but I was conflicted. After waiting another minute or two, I decided it was safe to go. I did drive past them, though, and took note of their physical descriptions, just in case.

When they were just small figures in my rearview mirror, I realized that they had turned to walk back up my street. Uh oh. But I rationalized the feeling away. It’s probably nothing. I’ll be back home in a few minutes anyway.

As my kids and I walked up to our front door, I saw Ms. Janice, our next-door neighbor, motioning for us not to go into the house.

“Two guys were trying to break in! They might be in the house!” she whispered urgently from her doorway. She had called the police after hearing repeated banging and had seen the two boys in our backyard. The cops arrived just then and scoped out the house. The boys—it was the same two I’d seen, according to Ms. Janice’s description—had fled, having unsuccessfully tried to get through our back door (but they did leave a mess of shattered glass). The boys were never found, though the police walked the alley and drove around the neighborhood looking.

Looking back on it, I wondered why I didn’t listen to my gut. Because I didn’t want to be that white woman. I didn’t want to be the white neighbor who calls to report “suspicious activity” when kids are just walking down the street. When I saw them reaching for car handles, I rationalized it away. I felt stupid afterward, when my suspicions were confirmed, and I was telling friends the story. But I also felt a sense of contentment that I had erred on the side of assuming the best instead of the worst.

I wanted those boys to be just kids on their way home from school. My children have friends, classmates, youth group kids, etc., in their lives who are young black children, and we love them. I don’t want any of them to become a statistic, to be wrongfully accused, to be sucked into the unjust system of mass incarceration. And I didn’t want any of that for these two boys whom I didn’t know. (Dear White Reader, it happens ALL THE TIME to people of color, regardless of innocence, education, or socio-economic status. Listen. Read. Learn.)  I wanted it not to be what it was, more for their sakes than for my own.

I know I’m late to the conversation, having only in recent years begun to understand and learn about the insidious hold racism, both individual and systemic, still has on our country (thanks, Ta Nehisi Coates, et all, for the education–see various links below for a starting place). I used to think, “If people just obey the law, they won’t get into trouble.” I realize now what a myth that is for millions of people of color in this country; it shows that I was living in a dream. When you get up close to friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters in church, etc., who have personal experiences that contradict the narrative you’ve always believed—that “all that was taken care of in the Civil Rights Movement”—you realize that it’s time to wake up from the dream.  (By the way, the ability to live your whole life in the dream?  That’s privilege.)

Coates, who was born and raised here in Baltimore, writes to his son:

“[The Dream] is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long, I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our [black people’s] backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (from “Letter to My Son,” The Atlantic, September 2015).

Friends of ours recently had their first baby, a boy. I held him when he was about three weeks old, a wrinkly but handsome little guy with a high forehead and black downy hair that stuck to the crook of my arm with sweat—mine or his, I don’t know. His name is Emmanuel. God with us. God’s image in the face of this child, cradled in my arms.

But his mama and daddy carry this knowledge: all sweet on this earth is mixed with sorrow. “We worry about him growing up as a black child in Baltimore every day,” Christine, Emmanuel’s mom, says. Many will not see the image of God in this little boy, not once he’s tall enough to threaten just by walking down a street, or reaching for his license, or laughing a little too loudly with his friends in a store. And it won’t matter that his father has his master’s degree in engineering, or that his mother has her PhD in public health. It won’t matter that they are committed to their church, or that they are neighbors who will mow your lawn for you or babysit in a pinch. None of that is a guarantee that will save little Emmanuel from how others see his skin. I pray that this sweet boy is always seen as a person who carries the image of God in him, but it’s hard to be hopeful in light of reality.

If I could meet with those two boys right now, I would pray for the eyes to see the image of God in them. Foolish or not, I wouldn’t press charges. Not this time. I think I’d tell them how even though I had described them to the police, I didn’t really want them to be caught.  Because “the price of error is higher for [them] than it is for [their] countrymen” (Ibid.). This is a well-documented fact.

I didn’t want to be “that white woman,” so I hesitated. Was I right or wrong? That question doesn’t keep me up at night, but what does is wondering where I still get it wrong—where I still find myself wearing “blinders” that I need friends like Christine to help me remove.

White friends, let’s not live in the dream, even though it’s so comfortable there. Let’s wake up, pray, listen, learn, and then stand in solidarity, doing what is ours to do.

Things to read if you want to go deeper:

This Is What White Privilege Is

Reconciliation and Justice Network: Craig Garriott (the pastor of our church here in Baltimore)

Communion and White Fear

IVCF Theology of Reconciliation

Ta Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”

Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”

Coates’ “Letter to My Son” 

Disparity by the Numbers

12 things white people can do now because Ferguson

How Baltimore Became Baltimore

I Grieve With You

It’s high time white Christians listen to our Black brothers and sisters




Like a Refugee (sort of)

Our caravan of white Toyota sedans wound its way slowly through the looted city on its way to the banks of the swollen, muddy Congo River. Some fires were still smoldering, broken glass all that remained of some shops and businesses—even doors had been pulled off their hinges and hauled away. Everywhere along the roadside people sat, hands between their knees, staring. There was nothing more to take, nothing more to do.

Since the airport in Kinshasa had also been attacked and looted by soldiers desperate for back pay and by citizens who followed them, the American Embassy was going to ferry us across to Brazzaville, Congo, to await flights out of the country. We had been allowed one suitcase each and had said goodbye to our cat that early morning, putting him outside the back porch with a heaping bowl of food. It was eerily quiet as we left our house—no bullets zipping through the streets, no yelling crowds—just the acrid smell of smoke in the air.

During the five days prior, soldiers and citizens had rioted and looted all throughout the city of Kinshasa, many frustrated by President Mobutu’s rich and corrupt administration, which drained the country of its astounding natural wealth and let its people suffer in poverty. Perhaps others were just opportunistic. We had watched tracer bullets zigzag crazily through the dark each night; some had lodged in the walls or roofs of the houses on either side of us. Our CB radio (we had no phone) crackled at all hours of the day and night with calls to the embassy from frightened expats who were told to lock themselves in bathrooms while the mobs raided their homes. We stashed backpacks of essentials in our bathtub and pulled the curtain to hide them, hoping we could run into the room and hide if people started forcing their way into our home. Rumors flew—somebody said that a Lebanese classmate of my brother’s had been raped as her home was being looted. Over several days, the embassy had gathered all the Americans in the city onto five compounds and were now arranging an evacuation.

After the ferry ride and the waiting at the diplomatic compound in Brazzaville for most of the day, we were bused to the tarmac in shifts and put on a plane bound for Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. One blessing of the experience was being able to reunite with friends whom we hadn’t seen during the whole week of violence and rioting in the city. We had this one flight to say our goodbyes. After three hours on the tarmac in the hot plane, and then a 17-hour flight (with one refueling stop in the Canary Islands), we landed in the U.S. to media crews and the Red Cross. While our parents signed multiple forms and made phone calls to relatives, we were fed hot dogs, bright plastic-looking apples, and bags of chips. We shivered in the late September chill, and the Red Cross produced blankets for us.

My grandparents drove from western Pennsylvania to pick us up, and we spent the next few days trying to settle in to the little log house we lived in during the summers. My grandparents’ church donated some fall and winter clothes to us, and my mom tried to shop for groceries. She fled the store halfway through, leaving her cart, because she was overwhelmed to the point of tears at the abundance in each aisle. She couldn’t help but think of how she had tried several stores in Kinshasa in the last few weeks just to find ones that still had butter, sugar, flour—the staples—while she carried plastic bags full of worthless currency. A local news channel did a human interest story on our family the night before my brother and I enrolled in the local high school—“Out of Africa,” they called it. We’re almost like refugees, we said, alternately chuckling and crying.

Almost like refugees. Except not, in so many ways. Yes, there was a potential for physical harm and we didn’t feel safe. We had to flee our home and most of our belongings, knowing that most likely we would never see them again. We were given food and clothing when we first arrived, and people were kind to us as we tried to settle in to a new life.

But we were returning to our own passport country, to family, to people who spoke our language (even though I had only lived in the U.S. once before for a year as a little child; and I experienced deep culture stress after the evacuation). In the midst of that stressful, scary experience, when we were also dealing with loss and grief, we were welcomed in. We didn’t have to hope for shelter—we already had a place to stay. We didn’t have to spend years in a refugee camp scrounging out an existence.

Our evacuation from Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) is the closest I’ve come to experiencing what refugees go through. So many of the stories I read, particularly those of people who have fled ISIS-controlled areas and the civil war in Syria, are mind-boggling in their horror. Women and girls are watching their fathers, husbands and brothers being slaughtered, and are then taken as slave concubines to the Islamic State’s slave markets. Families are fleeing their destroyed homes in Syrian neighborhoods after losing their children to exploding shells. HALF OF THE REFUGEES IN THIS CRISIS ARE CHILDREN.

And, friends, some in this country of embarrassing opulence are calling for the government to shut its doors in the faces of these vulnerable ones.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ should be the LAST voices that should ever join in that call. Scripture reveals God’s clear ethic and call on this issue over and over again (look up the words “foreigner,” “stranger,” or “alien” in a Bible concordance or index). Remember the Good Samaritan? He asked no questions—Jesus was smart to describe the victim as half-dead and unresponsive. The Samaritan didn’t ask him his religious persuasion before tending to his wounds. It is abundantly apparent that loving our neighbor (and our enemy) trumps protecting “me and mine” in fear.

Today, as I write this, the Senate is debating a bill that the House already passed that would close the doors to refugees from Syria and Iraq. Click here to read a timely and urgent letter urging against this type of legislation, signed by former secretaries of state, homeland security, and national security advisors, as well as former chairs of joint chiefs of staff: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/FormerNatSecOfficialsLetterRefugees.pdf.

We in the U.S. have the luxury and capability to vet refugees. The process is rigorous. It is not 100% terrorist-proof—no process can be. But the cost to our country and to our souls is too great if safety is our idol. We’ll trade too much of ourselves away, and what will be left?

This country must remain a refuge for people in need.


What did you leave behind?

I had the joy and privilege this past Saturday of being able to attend the annual Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, held in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.  As many other attendees noted, it was a beautiful thing to spend time with others—complete strangers from all over the world—with whom I could immediately connect because of our similar cross-cultural backgrounds and experiences.  I met other women who were trying to adjust, and help their families adjust, to life back in their “home” country after living abroad (check out this post about repatriation written by a new friend I met at the conference).  We commiserated about the feeling of being “hidden immigrants”—looking like we belonged in our passport country, but feeling so alien inside.  We shared tender stories of seeing our children navigate their own inner “foreignness” among peers who have no clue.

The conference theme was “Finding Home: Amidst Global Change.”  It was fascinating to listen to international business people, foreign service personnel, NGO workers, missionaries and grown-up missionary kids (MKs), international educators, mental health professionals, writers and others struggle together with the concept of “home.”  What does “home” even mean?  Is it possible to find “home” when you move over and over again?  What if “home” has nothing to do with our passport country?  Can we create a “home” for ourselves even if we are globally mobile?  What effects does that mobility have on us?  On our children?

The beautiful thing to witness was how gentle and gracious everyone was with with each other’s stories.  In myriad ways, we were able to say to one another, “Your story matters.  Your losses and triumphs matter.”  There was an intense focus on supporting one another, on helping different groups of people to navigate global mobility in healthy ways, and on making sure no one was left alone.

I was particularly struck by one question that a presenter said is important to ask children (or adults) who are struggling because of a big move, or as a result of frequent moves.  The question is, What did you leave behind?  

So, I’d like to wrap this up by asking those of you who have moved, especially often and/or cross-culturally, What did you leave behind?  I’ll start: I left the balcony where my daughter took her first steps; the apartment complex where my son learned to ride a bike; the ability to call out my kitchen window to friends hanging out outside; keys to all my friends’ homes; my electric scooter; neighborhood walks involving greeting all the shop keepers/fruit vendors we knew; and some aspect of my identity that now needs to be rediscovered or redefined in this new place.

What did you leave behind?


My favorite mode of transportation



Paradox, Part III: Death Leads to Life

A few thoughts today on forgiveness:

Brené Brown said that Christ’s love began to make more sense to her when she heard a leader at her church explain that in order for forgiveness to occur, something has to die.  There has to be a death—of our expectations, our pride, our thirst for revenge, our control—before there can be real forgiveness.  But Brown says that her research has revealed that our culture is deeply afraid of grief and shame–two emotions that weigh heavily when forgiveness is in the balance.

Simone Weil writes, “The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death.”  But we want to avoid the “spiritual nakedness” we’d feel if we released the debt another owed to us.  We also avoid asking to be forgiven for the same reason: our fear of the nakedness of humility.  We imagine humility and shame to be interchangeable.

But unforgiveness is well-disguised death of another sort.  It is a slow death—a secret calcifying of parts of our hearts and souls; it is another form of grief.  Grief that is unexpressed and unprocessed.  It is slow poison.  It never satisfies.  It empties and asphyxiates.  And it all happens as we walk about, deluded by a false sense of control.

Think of the ramifications of this upon our relationships.

Which death, then, shall we choose?  Only one death will set us free.  One is chosen out of courage and trust; one out of fear and grasping.  Only one death is followed by resurrection.  Weil’s statement above finishes this way: “If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us.”

Think of the ramifications of this upon our relationships.

Advent Interlude

I’m interrupting my series on paradox to invite you deeper into the Advent season with this poem.  It’s a prayer-cry for those of us who need to remember how desperately we need this Child to come and enter into our brokenness, grief, confusion and sin.  How desperately we need this Gift.

The Branch of Your Planting

Isaiah 60: 19-22

We are the branch of your planting,

grasping the earth

until it is too much with us:

soil on our leaves, arching petals

into cups to hoard the rain.

We are cut and grafted,

withered, unyielding, broken

even as we bloom another

improbable blossom.

We are the hidden, dying seeds,

trembling in our casings

with desire for glory: ours

and yours. And you promise it

and much else besides.

Hasten it in its time.

Because we mourn in exile here,

striving with unclean hands raised

toward heaven to grasp at your coming

or waiting silently with this dirt

ground deep into the lines

of our upturned palms,

all of us whispering

Come, come.


Paradox, Part II: Solitude and Community

I’m fascinated by something I’ve been reading lately by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It’s this paradox: “Whoever can not be alone should beware of community; whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (from Life Together, 82-83).  Willa Cather says something similar: “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship” (Shadows on the Rock, book III, ch.5).

When we start talking about solitude and community, it often quickly gets sidetracked by the introvert/extrovert discussion— how we “recharge” our energy either by being alone or with others.  But solitude and community are concepts that go much deeper.  Apparently, if this paradox is true, then to experience the fullness and depth of each in a satisfying way, we need to learn more about this “inner connection” (Bonhoeffer’s phrase) between the two.

Bonhoeffer states, “Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness.  Because they can no longer endure being alone, such people are driven to seek the company of others…..More often than not, they are disappointed.  They then blame the community for what is really their own fault….In reality they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time.  It is precisely such misuse of community that creates the deadly isolation of human beings” (Life Together, 81-82).

This rings true for me.  If I am unable to face myself alone in the light of piercing truth and reality without hiding, then how can I be an unhindered blessing in the lives of my friends, family, faith community?  I have to reckon with my own poverty of spirit—the brokenness that is always present in some way—and be honest about it to myself if I want to experience deeper connection with others.  Please hear what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that I have to fix myself before I can be of use to others.  I believe that’s largely God’s work, and He isn’t through with me yet.

If I have learned to be alone then I can be part of community without the compulsion to hide.  I can, perhaps, serve with more humility and love, speak with wisdom, bear another’s burdens.  Community won’t be where I go with my mask on to disappear among the crowd, or to suck others dry with my neediness.  There are seasons of need in each of our lives in which our family and friends will have opportunity to care for us, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that.  But if I fear solitude and its work in me, I will never have anything to bring to the table, not even honesty.

On the flip side of the coin, Bonhoeffer says, “Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone….Those who want community without solitude plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair” (Ibid., 82-83).  We are made for each other.  We are imprinted with a need for relationship, and it is in relationships that we learn who we are, how to see the world, how to subdue our own egos, and how to love.  And love is the thing.  Some say it isn’t, but I disagree.  Humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception, and too much solitude can pave an easy road for that “bottomless pit” Bonhoeffer described.  We become big in our own eyes, and everything and everyone else diminishes in significance.

Octavio Paz writes, “Man is the only being who feels himself to be alone and the only one who is searching for the Other” (The Labyrinth of Solitude).  Solitude and community exist in a beautiful and delicate tension, like silence and speech.  “One does not exist without the other,” says Bonhoeffer.  We will always be striving for the balance between them, and probably often failing to find it.  But let’s “be and be not afraid” (Tracy Chapman) as we try.


Paradox, Part I: Exiles and Pilgrims

(This is the first in a series about paradoxes of life and how we live with them.)

“I called it ‘Hurt.’” Collin was eating some cheese and crackers at the dining table after school, describing for me an art project he had done that day. The students were shown abstract works of art made with angles and were asked to create their own. “Nobody in class knew what mine was about, but I think maybe the teacher understood.”

He described how he had used lines, angles and various colors to represent his life and adventures in China, Thailand and the Borneo Rainforest. He also tried to illustrate the pain of many goodbyes—the “severing of friendships,” as he so eloquently put it—due to the transient expatriate community overseas. He rattled off a short list (although his is long) of other losses and confusions of identity that he somehow tried to express visually in his piece. By the end of his explanation, the tears were flowing (his outwardly, mine inwardly). I realized that he was describing a deep inner sense of exile that is common to TCKs,* especially those who are repatriating.

I believe that many—all?—of us live our lives with some sense of exile. We experience it and are aware of it to varying degrees, but it’s there. So many of our quests, our longings, our purpose-seeking, and the stories we create and tell are about trying to find our way home. Home being that place—literal or figurative—in which we feel wholeness and true belonging, and in which broken relationships are restored. We feel we were made for this something— yet what we are living falls short of the ambiguous ideal in our minds. We are “east of Eden” now and whether we realize it or not, our lives are permeated with lost-garden narratives. “This shouldn’t have happened to me;” “This isn’t the way my life was supposed to turn out.”

I’ve written before about the tricky issue of home and about the meaning of place. For those of us who are TCKs, our struggle to make sense of home tends to be a bit messier, perhaps, than some others’. Exile occurs quite literally in our lives, sometimes over and over again as we move in and out of multiple cultures, gaining and losing each time. The soil of each place clings to our roots each time we are transplanted to a new location. And so often we can never go back; for reasons related to finances, distance, sometimes even political upheaval, the doors are closed. Exile.

So, whether we are TCKs or others longing for “home,” what do we do with this? Some of us adopt a “grass-is-always-greener” mentality. We pine for what was lost—physical homes, familiar neighborhoods and cultural norms, food, friendships—and we just know that if we could go back there, everything would be okay. The discomfort and sense of displacement would disappear,…right? When I recognize this tendency in myself sometimes, I try to identify it and apply the cure: contentment and gratitude for what I have now, for where I am now. It’s hard. But I’m learning to root into the narrative of the place I live now.

Others of us choose to become tourists. Hey, we’re exiled anyway, nothing feels quite like home, so we might as well have some great adventures and take a lot of selfies along the way! Our commitment to relationships is tenuous and shallow, we evaluate our experiences as if we’re writing for TripAdvisor, and we’re always trawling for our next destination. When tempted to live this way, I remember that “the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth” (Psalm 17:24)—restless, disconnected from present realities and people. Oh, and tourists also ooze entitlement out of their pores. I, for one, don’t want to live this way (though it’s tempting at times).

There is another way, and it’s the way of the pilgrim, or sojourner. Pilgrims and sojourners are on their way to a destination, but they know that they’ll be traveling all their lives. While they understand that they are “just passing through,” their minds and hearts are awake to the weighty significance of each moment. They know that on their journey they will be tested in a variety of ways; that small moments and kindnesses matter and will be remembered later; that everything depends upon being fully present and available to each season and interaction. Pilgrims sometimes carry others’ burdens for a while, even if it means going out of their way for a bit. They don’t demand fair weather as their due, but are humbly grateful for it when it comes. Likewise, they don’t curse the storms, but seek to bear up under them and remain true to course. They don’t ask, “Why me?” but instead, “Why not me?”

Pilgrims learn to walk a life of paradox: even though their hearts are set on their final destination, they walk through each day alive to its possibilities, people and lessons. They live the paradox that it is sometimes through suffering that we discover our deepest joy and heart’s desire (for more on this idea, check out Larry Crabb’s book Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy).

I’m thankful that Collin is choosing healthy means—artwork, tears, conversation—to deal with his own sense of exile and longing for home. It’s not always that way, for him or for any of us, is it? I’m hoping that as I walk the pilgrim way, I can invite my kids to walk it with me, and that eventually we’ll each find our way home.

* A third-culture kid (TCK) is someone who has spent a significant portion of his or her developing years in a culture outside of his or her parents’ home culture. The mix of the parents’ home culture and the host culture creates a “third culture” for the child. TCKs don’t fully identify with or feel they belong to either home or host culture; they are a mix of both and a little of neither. Repatriating, or returning to one’s “home” or passport culture, is often bewildering, stressful and frustrating to TCKs because they essentially become hidden immigrants. They look much like everybody else (they are not obvious foreigners anymore), but there are many aspects of their identity, culture and worldview that make them feel very different from their home culture peers. They look like they should fit right in and “get” cultural cues and norms, and so often they don’t. They question their identity and wonder where they belong. I am an adult TCK, as are both my parents, so my children are third-generation TCKs!