Last week I retreated with my master’s of divinity class, one year after our graduation. The theme of our retreat was “thriving through transition.” I stood in the middle of a labyrinth where, six years ago, I first changed my answer to the question: “Will you change careers, drop what you’re doing now, go to graduate school, and become a pastor?” I said “yes” for the first time in the middle of that labyrinth. Then a little over a year later, I was laid off from my job as a news reporter and forced out of a career that I had loved for nearly half my life.
The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has researched a concept called “grit” that is making rounds lately in podcasts and media think-pieces. Here she discusses grit and how to learn it: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint….(Growth mindset is) the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
During the retreat, led by Carolyn Foster, we heard this poem, which funnily enough hearkened back to my days as a Kentucky journalist:
By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
Even though I had said already said “yes” to a career change, I still felt like a failure and tasted the bitterness of the layoff for months, even years afterward. But as I stood in that labyrinth last week, I rewrote my story of failure. I remembered that I had said “yes” to change many months before being forced to change. I reminded myself that I have agency and power, and that as long as I’m alive, my story is not yet finished. I will keep on changing.
I lie at the side of my road, hollowed by shareholder robbers, identity thieves.
Where is the voice, the calling in the wilderness, I had heard drawing me forward?
I was so distracted by your voice, O God, I forgot to watch the intersections
And you allowed me to be bowled over, and I tumbled and rolled and skidded
Out of my clothing, out of my very skin, which is left on the pavement after flaying
And I lie on my back, open to the slate sky, blank. Who am I without my job?
No one will answer; my compatriots, fellows on the journey, stream by, and you allow
Their abandonment, you let them continue without me. They become my enemies
Unwittingly. I am on the same road, still, but unmoving, and suddenly with perspective
Anew, from below, from the side, from the sidewalk. I strain for your voice, for you
To tell me who I am, how to re-clothe myself, where the pieces of my skin can be grafted
And where I must scar as a reminder of who I was (or still am?) Only you can tell me
What happened, because I was listening to your voice and didn’t see what happened.
And now I cannot hear you.
I cannot hear you.
I know you were there.
Because of you, I am here.
But I cannot hear you now.
Until I stand up. And lose my shame, and decide on my identity, and choose a path.
Then will I hear your voice again. Will I hear your voice again?
Every week, this show has me thinking and imagining in between church services. This week was no exception. All about faith.
Talking about this today with my Christian pastor friends. The funniest line in the story: “We’re not a cult, but if we were, that’s the first thing we’d say.”
What should Christians do with this “church” that, at least in the eyes of this reporter, seems more real and relevant than many of our churches?
“When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.” ~Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
In Sunday school at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church last week, we discussed body image and obscenity in relation to this campaign of YouTube videos and a related Texas billboard. Our discussion focused on the appropriateness of tattoos in society, mainly talking about growing popularity of tattoos (around a third of adults 18 to 34, including me, have one) and taboos, modern and ancient, on them. Is a tattooed Jesus appealing to us, or is this image grotesque and inappropriate?
However, I think the larger point of this ad campaign has nothing to do with tattoos per se. While I think there are problems with the campaign, particularly with video messages by Christians who claim they were miraculously cured of HIV/AIDS and depression solely with prayer, it speaks to our intimate and complicated relationship with our bodies. Our spiritual lives are not at all disembodied, despite millennia of post-Platonic theologies, and it is important to acknowledge this when trying to explain ourselves to non-Christians or trying to attract congregants to our churches.
We live through our bodies, and we experience not only sin but also salvation through our bodies, and through Christ’s body, ritualized in the Eucharist and Baptism. The video campaign’s promise that Jesus takes a away the marks on our bodies and souls and takes them on himself is at first glance heartening. However I am not sure that I am willing to apologize for the many marks that my life has left on my body and soul.
Also last week I read this blog post, Why Instagram Censored My Body | Petra Collins, about a woman who posted a picture of her bikini-clad non-airbrushed lower quarters. It made me think about the censorship that my church asks me to place on my body. In church I am afraid to speak about sex, homosexuality, tattoos, addiction, menstruation, femininity as an attribute of God, and numerous other topics because they are “worldly” or “of the flesh” or “obscene,” even if they are creations of God.
As a young woman who grew up in the mass market media world, my relationship with my body is one of the most influential aspects of my life. It is very easy to look in the mirror at my overweight face, weird body hair, acne, clinical depression, and spiral into self-loathing and equate this with loathing by God. If God made me depressed, does that mean God doesn’t love me as much as the next person? No. Absolutely not. Even the scars, mental and physical, show that I am human, created and loved by God. Christ, God embodied, suffers with me and gives me hope of future resurrection. For me to long for a mark-less life would be to wish for a relationship with God that is incomplete, a relationship that lacks humility.
Luke 18:9-14 describes a self-righteous Pharisee and a humble tax collector, a parable meant in some sense to illustrate that a mark-less life is not what you might think it is. The Pharisee, who suffered little and was not shunned by society, is taught a lesson about humility and drawing closer to God in times of trial and suffering. It is so easy to point to a suffering, isolated person and thank God that we are not like them, to see our privilege as God’s reward. But this parable tells us that God is near when we are actively seeking in humility and powerlessness. God lifts up the lowly because they are lowly.
I moved to El Paso, Texas, about a week ago to start an internship at two churches, a requirement for graduation from San Francisco Theological Seminary but also a fulfillment of a dream of mine to return to the Southwest and minister to bilingual/multicultural populations. So far I am not disappointed. Nearly every conversation I have had here, no matter which part of town I am in, has happened in English and Spanish. I am serving two tiny Presbyterian churches, one English-speaking and one mostly Spanish-speaking. And I am living in an apartment building where the manager doesn’t speak English and where most of the tenants seem to be recent immigrants.
Which brings me to the conversation that has been most thought-provoking for me in the past two weeks. It happened with my 9-year-old neighbor, who has adopted me as his amiga. His father is gringo and is attempting to move his wife and other children to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez across the border. For the moment my friend is not in school, so he has a lot of time on his hands and waits for me to arrive home from work so we can play board games or ride our bikes to the library. Oh, and he doesn’t speak English.
So here is the conversation, translated:
Him: “How long have you been a gringa?”
Me: “What do you mean how long? For my whole life. I was born a gringa, I will die a gringa. I can’t change.”
“Yes, you can change.”
“How could I change? I can’t become morena (brown-skinned).”
“Well gringos have jobs, they have money, they have lots of things, they don’t rob you. Morenos don’t work, they are poor.”
“Some gringos are poor. Some morenos are rich.”
“Yes, some morenos have become gringos. Haven’t you ever seen morenos-gringos?”
This is from a kid my dad paid $10 to help tote up three flights of stairs the contents of my 14-foot UHaul trailer, all that stuff for one person and a cat, when the kid and his father and sister live in the same size apartment without a single chair to sit on. (They now possess one of mine that I confess actually did not fit into my tiny new living room. I burn with shame as I type this.)
The thing about this conversation is that I have no good response. I have witnessed morenos-gringos, and I have watched in two short weeks as people in both churches where I work distinguish themselves with logical gymnastics from recent immigrants and attempt to fit in to a whiter and whiter world. I was advised, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, to look for an apartment north of Interstate 10 because those neighborhoods closer to the border were more dangerous, less desirable, more slummy. One north-of-10 apartment manager, who was trying to sell me on her own place, advised me and dad to drive through neighborhoods at 10 p.m. and imagine whether I would feel safe, and whether my dad would feel I was safe, coming home from work late at night.
My dad and I marveled at this advice as we drove through a neighborhood surrounding one of my churches, the Spanish-speaking one. We saw grandmas gardening in yards, brightly painted and cared-for houses, cars parked on streets, kids walking home from schools. I didn’t feel unsafe, and my danger radar usually pretty accurate. The only substantive difference, really, between this neighborhood and one north of I-10 was that we heard a lot of Spanish being spoken and saw a lot of moreno faces. It’s possible that the crime rate is different here than it is in points north, but when it’s all said and done, El Paso claims to be one of the safest cities in the country, though that claim is questionable.
So when we get down to it, what is really the difference between gringos and morenos and how we meet the world? And can we change, as my 9-year-old friend says we can? This week I have also turned to Luke 16:19-30, the lectionary Gospel reading for next week. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a tough one to consider for two tiny churches, neither of which is rolling in dough, and neither of which has members who are rolling in dough. Where is the grace here, as the rich man, after death, begs Abraham to give him comfort when he didn’t bother to see poor Lazarus in life? This is a message directed at the rich, not at the poor, or in the parlance of my friend, at gringos, not morenos.
Or is it? Where is our hope in this world? Where do we long to be? Did Lazarus in life possibly long to be at the table of the rich man, with no longer a care for the material needs of the world, able to become blind to the poor? My young neighbor friend seems to think so, as he defines people in categories of those who will steal to get ahead or are too lazy to work, and those who are not criminal, who want to work, and who may be poor materially but are not poor in spirit. This is a far more complex distinction than one of skin color. But it is not complex enough. We cannot divide people so simply into the categories of the parable. It is fiction meant to illustrate a truth; it isn’t mestizo like real life. None of us is all moreno or all gringo. None of us is all the rich man or all Lazarus.
Perhaps the key word in this story is comfort. We gringos might tell ourselves that we see the poor, that we give to causes, that we understand injustice. But how far are we willing to go? Are we willing to move into a neighborhood full of people who are different from us and learn that different doesn’t mean dangerous? Are we willing to give up certain comforts, such as the proximity of a full grocery store, and the absence of roaches and mice, in order to learn how to live in solidarity? Are we willing to turn away from ourselves and towards Christ, and realize that Christ is, in fact, Lazarus, or a 9-year-old who lives across the hall?
I recommend this article. I have visited churches where the U.S. flag is placed prominently in the sanctuary, and I usually don’t go back. I am American, happy to live in the United States, and proud of my military veteran family members. But the United States is a construct of human beings, and the flag in the sanctuary is akin to the golden calves representing God (Exodus 32).
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7-10 (NRSV)
How beautiful is the messenger who brings the gospel. Who is the messenger in our Christian nativity story? John the son of Elizabeth, who comes before to announce the Christ. The angel Gabriel, who brings the message to Mary, blessed among women. Mary herself, the literal bearer of good news. The starlight dancing on the mountains, leading shepherds and magi to the birthplace.
In our Christmas carols, we ourselves are the bearers of the news: “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!” Later on in the Christian story, the apostle Paul will write of the gospel in ways that make me think that Christ, Immanuel, is both the message and the messenger. The news the messenger brings is not just notice of peace, but peace itself. The message has transformative, blessing power.
We know of moments like this in our own lives. Moments when knowledge touches not only our minds but our hearts and very bodies. They are moments of sickening tragedy, when we learn of the death of dozens of innocents in a senseless school shooting. They are moments of tender care, when our sister or brother comes out of the closet and the life of our family is never the same. They are moments of empowered solidarity, when a marginalized group stands up and proclaims justice and peace. They are moments of soaring joy, when the news of a baby’s birth, long awaited, changes the world, and hope enters in.