getting out: part I

I’ve never been strapped to a chair in preparation for lobotomy, but when I saw the horror in David Kaluuya’s eyes as his character’s desperate situation dawned on him, I discovered that the pounding of my heart in sync with his was not new…it was familiar.

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch Get Out with a group of my friends who are black. I had seen the teaser and assumed the movie would be about slavery ghosts or some drama like that. What I got instead hit uncomfortably closer to home. What director Jordan Peele accomplishes brilliantly (and disturbingly) through Get Out is that he creates a movie for black people in which we are allowed to be afraid.

Thanks to my family, I’ve seen my share of horror films, and a trend we mock constantly is that “the black guy’s gonna die first.” And he does–not always, but enough times in bloody, gratuitous ignominy that we can joke about it to shrug off the uncomfortable truths propping that reality. Get Out resists that narrative by presenting us with a black man who not only experiences terror and still makes it to the end of the movie blessedly alive, but who also gets to see his fear legitimized.

The latter part is especially compelling when you consider what his character is afraid of: white people. This movie has been criticized in some spaces for being “anti-white” and feeding into “reverse racism” because the circumstances in which Chris finds himself when he visits his white girlfriend’s family home are seen as exaggerated. The movie showcases him interacting with white people who squeeze his arm to admire his “genetic advantage,” who attempt to forge camaraderie with him by declaring they would’ve “voted for Obama a third time,” who ask him to speak to “black issues” and praise his existence because “black seems to be in fashion.” They definitely turn out to be on the extreme end of cultural appropriation by the movie’s third-act reveal, but what Peele ultimately points to is not a demonization of white people, but rather the very real fear and discomfort people of color carry into spaces where they are the minority. 

It’s vital that we center our analysis of the film on the experiences of the black characters rather than contesting the lack of “good” non-racist white characters that white audiences can feel safe relating to (even Hidden Figures surrenders to this trope). We enter the film through Chris’ black gaze, and that is subversive and rare both for the horror genre and for mainstream media.

We need to commit to this black lens because Chris is, in many ways, a stand-in for people of color who find themselves walking into a room of white people, preternaturally conscious of their Otherness. This doesn’t signify that those white people are malicious or intentionally hurtful; neither does it insinuate a space void of friendship or positive connection. That sensation of internalized difference is instead symptomatic of a society where color does hold differentiated weight and value, even if that truth lies unseen by those within the majority group. We have enough past and present histories to evidence that people of color have good reason to feel uncomfortable with white people when their embodied existence has been consistently devalued in so many ways–even by the most well-meaning people.

Devaluation and disenfranchisement take different forms, sometimes in the blatant examples of horrific mass incarceration rates, the headlines of a black teenage girl beaten by police for acting like a criminal, the mockery black celebrities like Leslie Jones endure for their atypical looks (when I say atypical, I mean she’s not white). But it’s worse when racism appears in casual, conversational, and normalized form because it’s overlooked and easy to dismiss by white people.

Racism outside the bounds of the hateful bigot who is easy to point to can seem innocuous, but it’s no less hurtful because of how it piles up. It looks like the absence of ethnically diverse church leaders, local authorities, and policy makers when congregations and neighborhoods are diverse. It emerges in the passive acceptance of injustices facing people of color and in victim-blaming. It’s wrapped up in compliments that exoticize a person of color and suggestions that they “be less angry” when sharing their experiences of racial pain. It shows up in the standardization of life practices, worship styles, dress, language, literature, theology, and media as normal only when they are based on a white Euro-American context. It can take form as stereotypes and the assumption that people of color are in the wrong, that they must factually prove their innocence and their pain to have a stage to speak.

We must extinguish the belief that racism equates to racial hate. Being confronted for acting or thinking in ways that maintain whiteness as the norm should not be perceived as an act of character assassination, yet there seems to be no greater crime than to be accused of racism (white and POC communities can do better in addressing this anxiety). Racism is a stronghold of sin that inflicts deep pain, but not on the basis that all white people hate black people; instead, it grounds itself in the lie that only bad people perpetuate it. The white people Chris meets at Rose’s home don’t necessarily hate him; they think they are doing the right thing in their approach to his blackness. However, their actions align with a racial narrative that outlines his blackness as something they can benefit from or downplay without personal cost. This narrative is real and pervasive in America, and it’s rooted, not in hate, but in blindness.

There is a collective unawareness among white people that our system of racial difference was created to reinforce the superiority of people classified as white (supplying the reason for why reverse-racism does not exist), and so it bleeds into both individual attitudes and institutional policies. It may have started with slavery, but the impact of that practice is felt in the here and now. And when racism is understood not solely as a posture of hate (since there are definitely still people bearing hatred towards people of color) but rather an assignment of meaning and value to physical differences, it becomes harder to address. Even if a person of color notices it and speaks to it, they risk being chastised as crazy or-the worst crime in Christian spaces-divisive.

To avoid this labeling, people of color may inure themselves to stand politely, speak diplomatically, and grip silence rather than point out when a white person has said or done anything offensive. Within the realm of race discourse, we classify this as “catering to white fragility.” White fragility is a term thrown around a lot whenever a white person gets upset about a person of color talking frankly about racism or confronting them about the ways in which they unconsciously hew to problematic racial ideas. In this case, I refer to white fragility as a dynamic that arises when a white person has a low threshold for experiencing the tension and discomfort that comes with conversations about race. This low tolerance of discomfort can result in the seeking of a quick exit from the conversation, a defensive posture as if responding to the subject as a personal attack (even if it’s not heated), or a rationalization of how they are not racist. The pot gets hot; they jump out.

This discomfort is understandable, and I empathize with my white brothers and sisters struggling with it. But there is a cost when a white person’s reflex is to avoid engaging with racial issues or critically reflecting upon both their experiences with race and those of their brothers and sisters of color. The burden is heaved upon people of color to navigate the racial systems they didn’t create and to heal the wounds dealt them. It’s the loneliness of that work, the weariness of that everyday resistance that engenders frustration towards white fragility.

I bring this up because fragility-like fear-is an experience that people of color are not usually afforded. Since our Otherness is stamped upon our features, and our society has imposed lenses through which to view us as alien, deviant, and threatening (the thuggification of Michael Brown highlights this), we can’t easily avoid conversations or experiences directly related to our race and ethnicities. Our communities suffer because of the historically-seeded narratives that frame our opportunities and identities, and so we enter the trenches to understand racism and struggle to dismantle it. We at least value our lives, and we know God does too.

For this reason, I think black people are familiar with walking in someone else’s shoes because you have to in order to navigate the minefield of feelings and reactions of white people in regards to race. It’s an anxiety that hinges on my words when I talk sometimes to my white friends, not only because I’m afraid of rejection, but because I’m afraid for them. Few people choose to make others feel uncomfortable or offended, and for a people-pleasing, way-too-apologetic woman like me, I lean into making myself a buffer to console white people rather than airing out the warring thoughts inside me. The lines between consideration and accommodation become blurred, and I get lost in the middle.

Tasha Robinson from The Verge speaks to how Chris mirrors this experience in Get Out:

It’s significant that Chris starts out as a passive, quiet, conflict-averse man who defers to white authority in every form. Peele has said that his target with Get Out was primarily the white liberal elite, the types who think President Obama’s election and their own open-mindedness have solved racism. And he’s unsparing in mocking them, in terms of making his antagonists not just ruthless, but laughable. Still, Peele spares a little side-eye for Chris, who’s willing to go along with anything to avoid causing trouble, and gets himself in trouble as a result. The entire film is about Chris coming to terms with his need to defend himself, to fight back, and to trust his instincts about who’s a threat, no matter how congenially they tell him that black skin is “in fashion” at the moment.

As Tasha points out, Chris appears as the “safe” black man at the beginning of the movie–someone white people can feel complacent around. He encounters white people who accentuate his difference and make him the anomaly of the room-even when they say color doesn’t matter- and with a hand-wave he responds: “It’s okay.” How many times have we said that to avoid bringing more attention to race or to our own anxiety about it?

In the beat before “It’s okay,” “It’s fine,” and “No big deal,” lies the reminder of who holds power in the room–and it’s not people of color. Peele explains that the inspiration for this movie came after Obama’s election and how the media touted this as a symbol of our post-racial age. We’re equal now. Race doesn’t matter. Yet in Get Out, Peele magnifies one of the consequences of this thinking: white Americans believe they don’t participate in racism. Even though the narratives surrounding black people and other people of color have been updated instead of altered (see: the Mamie, the submissive Asian woman, the Latino lover, the Thug), even though our system still disproportionately allocates resources to black people and disproportionately punishes them, even though our churches still struggle with segregation, this belief that people of color have nothing to complain about because we’re equal now is nationally circulated. This accomplishes much in rationalizing the patterns of collective inaction among white people, particularly white Christians, in respect to racial issues.

So when I tell my white friend in college that I feel self-conscious in class because I’m the only black girl in the room as we elaborate on the virtues of Western literature (which apparently don’t include black or Latino or indigenous stories except for spring electives) and she gently offers that I might be “paranoid,” I shut my mouth. I’m making a big deal out of nothing. When I attend formal events for work, I catch myself lapsing into the role of the conciliatory minority, smiling away microaggressions as they amass in my gut to be picked apart later. I don’t want to make a fuss. When I visit someone’s home and sit at their dinner table as the only darker-skinned person present, sometimes anxiety locks my spine straight because I just want to blend in as much I can, leaking only the parts of my cultures-the parts of my self-that will be safe here. I don’t want to stand out more than I already do.

I’ve been at that dinner table, that party lawn with Chris. I can still have a good time and enjoy the company of people I’m with, but there is this ever-present anxiety that accompanies me in predominantly white spaces that has rarely been acknowledged or validated. Instead, I’m pressured to blame myself for feeling this discomfort when in a group of white people. I’m reminded that I should be the one getting over it because clearly no one else but me has the problem. So my eyes widen when Chris is proved right. He is right in feeling tension. He is right in noticing something is wrong with the way he is treated. He is right to defend himself because he is someone worth defending. I keep rooting for him to get out of that house, that sunken place because I feel like I’m still clawing my way out of it.

every black drop

There’s about half an hour left of Black History Month as I type this, and I am determined to cling to each minute left, use it. I feel like I’ve been slightly MIA this month–a respite from writing, a sabbatical from marching, moments in shadowed corners away from the fray, where I hear my breath and hear my thoughts.

February has been such a pendulum month with peaked highs and such deep lows that I don’t know how to summarize it, so I won’t try to. I can’t fully articulate the soul-ache extended to my limbs, the way you wake up tired after a full night of slumber. Neither can I fully capture the heady joy that awakens, vibrates into being unexpectedly, and thrums new life into my fingers as they flex and I face a new day. It’s both of these coexisting realities I have known this month as I unravel my country to examine its threads and allow God to unravel me so I can be known.

But in these remaining minutes, I want to remember, that is, I want to pay homage to the blackness that birthed me and has also been part of the dual realities–the weariness and the vitality. I want to remember the black women who have seen me through seasons and those seasoned with years beyond my own.

I want to remember my Abuela whose stories pulled me to an island I had never seen and whose own story dared me to be a warrior like her, serenity and fortitude in the cocoa-brown of her eyes.

I want to remember my Grandmother Joan, whose patient brown hands could stir pitchers of brown-sugared lemonade, wave into the air with her bright, high laugh, or clasp my shoulder as she reminded me again that I belong to her, belong to family.

I want to remember my aunts, black, bold, laughing, loving, drawing us all in and together, Caribbean beats and earrings with afro-womened silhouettes.

I want to remember my mom, who gave me histories to interpret my existence, took me to Civil Rights museums and MLK’s fatal hotel, but also the grassy knoll in Downtown Nyack where she hosted picnics with me and my sister where we feasted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; she gifted us innocence. 

I want to remember the black girls of my childhood on my screen, the Tia and Tamera Mowrys and Kesha from The Magic School Bus and even Francine from Arthur (coded black) that showed me that I belong in so many spaces, even if then the screen didn’t show us in all of them.

I want to remember the women from graves long grassed over: Sojourner Truth with her blunt, fierce gaze, Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson–whom I did my first biography book report about.

I want to remember the black women in my childhood church who mentored me, sang with me, and taught me to pray to a God that created all our colors and cherished us.

I want to remember the black sisters in my church now that give me the freedom to break apart but keep me from being forever strewn in pieces–who also let me be full and loud and unapologetic.

I want to remember my black friends in college who rinsed the product from my hair, invited me to discover my own blackness, and taught me how to be angry.

I want to remember the black women on YouTube who helped me love my curls.

I want to remember Maya Angelou, whose words taught my own to push past the wired walls of fear and self-consciousness that caged them and find the music freed beyond them.

I want to remember the singers of the blues, of the oldies, of Motown, that my 24-year-old soul still finds resonance with years later when I hear them sing of new love, endured struggles, and the sparkled, boogied happiness to be found in-between beats of a longer song.

I want to remember the black women I see protesting on the news, lecturing in white academic halls, preaching poetry in protest on a vacant stage–the ones who refuse to be made invisible and give me the courage to be seen.

I want to remember the black women whom I am friends with still, whom I weep on the phone with and rant on sidewalks with and dance to Beyonce and the Wobble and samba with (shout-out to all the Afro-Latinas out there!). 

I want to remember the black women I have never known, but whose lives I feel the weight of with each step I take.

You will never be forgotten. With 2 minutes to spare, I’ve done my very small part in making sure of it.

percentages

What does “Christian” mean today in America? Not for those who consider themselves followers of Christ, but for those who do not: When you hear “Christian,” what words or images come to mind?

Let’s get real here. People see 81% (voted for Trump) and 76% (approved of the travel ban) and white evangelical Christians get branded racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and then are shoved into a box by liberal-minded people so they can continue in their ignorance at a safe distance from the rest of America. Now, the self-identified Christians contained in these numbers span a spectrum of experiences: some may consider themselves culturally Christian because of their upbringing; some obligatorily take the label “Christian” and agree with Trump on a moral basis; and some claim a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ as their Savior.

These nuances matter in examining Trump’s rise to power and the consequences for communities now suffering the brunt of his nascent orders. The shades within the data prompt more complicated questions about how Bible-believing Christians align with Trump’s policies even if they dislike the man himself, how race and class shape political beliefs for people of faith, and how the Church should deal with the burgeoning resentment it faces in the United States.

The response to the latter question might earn you a lecture about John 15:18-25, where Jesus declares:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason’.[b

I’ve seen Christians proudly raise the banner for our status as foreigners in this world–in not of, present but separate. I resonate with the core truth that our primary belonging is in Christ and not the mores of our current society. Our attitudes and actions should be counter-cultural if those standards misalign with how Jesus calls us to live; we are to emulate him, not mimic the denizens on the It-List. Where I experience tension is when Christians use this passage to avow the persecution of American Christians and shrug off the ire of non-Christians as the same kind of lamentable hate John 15 describes. Christians start glorying in percentages and media attacks as proof of their righteousness, proof that we are right, they are wrong, and we must either endure their misguided slander like societal martyrs or challenge it as morally superior conquerors.

I want us to look at the last line of the passage again: “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ Remember, this is Jesus talking. When he was on Earth, he was perfect, holy, loving…and many people hated him–enough to crucify him! The Pharisees and other religious folks’ rationale for killing him was founded on fearful, self-serving reasoning, not any actual moral high ground. And so in this passage, Jesus warns his followers that if they seek to be like Him, they will experience persecution. The world will not understand them. It will hate them instead.

But what if there was another reason for us to be hated?

For many years, Christians have had a reputation as being intolerant, dismissive, apathetic, ignorant, and largely irrelevant to the systemic problems shaping the lives of marginalized peoples. That is our tragedy, and we cannot just blame the media for it. We have to be willing to step closer to the question of why we are hated–and if not hated, then met with such friction.

Where is hate born? It can emerge from that destabilizing fear of what one doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to–like what the Pharisees experienced in respect to Jesus. But it can also come from hurt, and there are ways that as Christians living in America, we have collectively hurt many people.

Through the eyes of non-Christians-especially those with marginalized identities-they see us criminalizing trans people over bathroom stalls without caring about the staggering percentage of trans teens who commit suicide. They see us dismissing black people’s pain while chastising them as divisive for speaking out against racism. They see us getting defensive when the segregation and power imbalances in our congregations are challenged. They see us fall silent as hundreds of black men and women are unlawfully imprisoned each year. They see us reducing the plight of Latinx immigrants to a matter of “just following the law” or assimilation rather than us taking time to listen to their stories and look at our detention centers, our labor exploitation. They see us trying to change gay people before we allow them entrance into our sanctuaries. They see us forget the indigenous peoples of our land to protect our economic self-interests. They see us prioritizing hierarchy and tradition and theological debate over standing in solidarity with the suffering.

It is possible that what they are valuing represents the heart of Christ more than what our words and actions are conveying. Rather than promoting a compelling vision of a world being redeemed, walls torn down and people made equal, we too often advertise the failed systems of prejudice and oppressive powers of an old order.

But who is this generalized us anyway? The we?

I ask these questions because I’ve noticed that when other people rant about Christians or ridicule them on social media, their words are coded for white Christians. White is seen as the face of the church in America, the benchmark for our loudest and most featured voices. In media representation, we get either the white evangelical stereotypes or the soulful black Gospel choir tropes. But when it comes to conversations about social justice and Christians, the image of white Christians materializes first. And so when they are framed as corrosive, we all get burnt–the other “we” being Christians who are not white. Where do we feature in these media portrayals of Christianity, and are we included in the “hate” for it, even as we face our own oppressions?

I stand somewhere to the side in this space, apart from the pie chart dividing white Christians who echo Trump’s policies and those who don’t. I see the debates raging about where Christians stand, and everything is “white evangelical” this or that, and out of those rhetorical battles, the bitterness towards Christians as a whole grows. In this languaging, I’m grouped with the perceived oppressors, and my multiple identities don’t factor into the equation. Maybe I’m looked at with pity for remaining with a socially illiterate faith community. Maybe people are waiting for me to get further woke and leave it. Maybe it would be easier to do that after all the hurt I’ve experienced and witnessed within it.

But I have to ask myself: How big is my God? Is He bigger than the Republican party as it exists now, conflated with religion? Is He bigger than His white followers who inadvertently perpetuate harm towards me and towards marginalized communities?

I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that anyone who voted for Trump or even voted for the immigration ban is a bad person (and I don’t see my fellow Christians of color making that argument). That’s the old way of looking at things, where people can be divided and dismissed. These people are still my family in Christ, and they love Him and desire to follow Him. But they have their blindspots, the voids where that love is not found, and the consequences for people of color are well-recorded in history. Those blindspots must be accounted for and confronted.

What do I do with that? I will not demonize white Christians whose attitudes reflect the world that birthed Trump, and neither will I respect “opinions” that denigrate the dignity of human beings I am supposed to love and protect. There is a distinction between the two, even as I reject the idea that all white Christians can be subsumed into one ignorant collective and cut off. It’s not that simple, and we cannot reduce decades of racial tension in the Church to “good progressive white people” vs. “bad racist white people” when the insidious dynamics of racism defy dichotomies of good vs bad. Instead it fabricates a society where it is entirely possible to be kind, loving, intelligent, and follow Jesus and yet reinforce white supremacy and racism through one’s attitudes, actions, and participation in public life.

Whiteness as a construct infiltrates our institutions and results in policies that disenfranchise people of color in ways that would horrify our white brothers and sisters if they grasped the extent of it. As James Baldwin put it so eloquently:

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he said. “But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.

“That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.

“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.

“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin said, his voice rising with indignation. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

There is dissonance between the experiences of black, brown, Asian, and indigenous Christians and the experiences of white Christians that belies the systemic reality Baldwin exposes. The former peoples are not included in the percentages that rouse animosity towards Christians-even as we follow the same Christ-and our loyalties are constantly tested as we sit in churches that nurture our spiritual formation, but whose members will not march with us when our children are shot in the street nor question their own prejudices.

There are the individual dynamics that Christians with dis-empowered identities must wrestle with as we interact daily with white people whom we love and know love us yet resist engaging with the unsettling and even threatening truths embedded within our experiences. I say threatening because making the commitment to educate yourself about race will destabilize your comfort and worldview if you are white. There is a cost to entering into a battlefield where history is indeed our present and something that we always carry with us, as Baldwin suggests.

If we (we being Christians as a whole) want to understand the resentment towards Christians within America, we must navigate the kinetics of these systemic and individual realities. We must lament them. We must ask God for clarity and courage to change them. My white brothers and sisters must also consider the stresses endured by Christians of color as we rally against the temptation to be bitter and jaded in our pain. We may understand the ire towards Christians better than anybody because we must wrestle with it in our own hearts; we persist in asking God to cultivate the forgiveness and grace in us we don’t always feel towards our white brothers and sisters.

From this tangle of identities and tensions, I speak to the hate, draw near, and repent. To those we have harmed: I own the sins of my Christian community, including the wrongs done against me. I repent of that and submit to you. I get it–some of it. I am not white, and sometimes I wonder where others would fit me into this conversation. I’m a black, Latina woman with roots in Africa and China and defiantly American…and I’m a follower of Christ. I’m still reconciling that tension.

The Christ I follow isn’t some White God. He isn’t defined by the politics of my country. He isn’t the arbiter of imperialism, colonialism, slavery–no matter how his image has been manipulated for other ends. He is not diminished when those who follow him fail to share his love with those who most need that affirmation.

Tenets may be questioned and examined, but I have an eternal relationship with this Jesus who embodies what love and sacrifice and faith looks like in action. And the historical faith that is woven into my story has many of the same roots I do: it comes from the East, from Africa, from huddled groups of brown exiles praying for deliverance from oppression, from loud, praising peoples declaring the glory of God from prisons, from radical communities loving the poor, calling out injustice, and opening their homes to each other. Christianity isn’t White, and so it is a shame that our theological texts and Sunday School lessons have painted it so.

Jesus isn’t contained within the percentiles of whiteness, maleness, or any other category–but since we have divided ourselves and allocated power disproportionately to different categories, we must now grapple with our sins committed against others. We must trace the statistical lines that encase our hideous realities and turn to the God who transcends them. Part of love is being accountable to those you have harmed, and that is what I expect of each person who answers to any policy that sins against another person and causes them suffering. Percentages do not define us, but our lack of compassion and humility will define our witness as the Church in America if we do not repent of it.

If Christians are going to be disliked, mocked, or even hated, then I hope it’s for the right reasons. I hope that we are known first as those ridiculous people who reach out to those who oppose us and love them, those weirdos who give up our privileges and comforts to follow Jesus, those radicals who consider people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, citizenship statuses, sexual orientations, and physical and mental abilities lovable and worth defending. I hope we are hated for being too much like this bewildering, offensive, audacious Jesus, rebels with a cause, heirs robed as servants, wielding grace as the hammer under which all things unjust crumble.

don’t catch fire as you rise

Wax dripped onto my fingers as I gripped a candle in the midst of hundreds. I stood in Washington Square two nights ago, catching snatches of the speakers’ declarations, a litany of “Stand up, fight back”s and “This is what America looks like”s and “No ban, no wall”s. The memory of the press of people at my shoulders bolsters me now as I consider the past few days of controversial Executive Orders and the resulting protests.

It is a complicated day to be an American. It gets even more labyrinthine when you are a woman of color and a Christian. I find myself caught between multiple communities, affirming some words, hesitating with others, all the while trying to be consistent in where I stand. I must contend with the condemnations of the Women’s March that I walked in as well as the constant charges from other Christians to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see.” I understand their reluctance to judge Trump’s actions–it can be perceived as an exercise of grace for a new leader.

Yet Trump has had more than a year-decades in fact-to demonstrate what kind of man he is and what he values. Words reflect the orientation of the heart, and I take his words seriously, as well as those from the constituents he surrounds himself with, many of whom at the worst have ties with nativist, neo-Nazi, and other discriminatory organizations and at the least offensive are unqualified for their positions of influence.

One hand grips this understanding. Then there is this:

Do I believe in a God big enough to transform Donald Trump’s heart, lead him in paths of wisdom and mercy? Yes. The answer will always be yes, as much as it was for Paul, as much as it was for me. When I align with Michelle Obama’s stance that “When they go low, we go high,” I choose to believe in God’s boundless ability to cultivate love in any person and use their life for good purpose–I refuse to doom them to eternal depravity, and it’s not my role anyway. Out of this, I choose to refrain from attacking Trump’s family, from engaging in aggressive actions against those who voted for him. Even if he doesn’t change, I still choose this. Going high means we don’t get to satisfy our desire to hurt others who have hurt us, no matter how justified it may be, and only God can enable that kind of grace.

I want to do the hard thing: acknowledge the imago dei in others AND hold them accountable for their actions–especially when those actions carry so much weight for communities already facing intense marginalization. There is a way to do both, and that path leads to the Cross. “We have the privilege of loving our enemies,” a friend told me yesterday. “And God’s like ‘You weren’t able to do this before. Not without me.'”

I had never thought about it in that way before. I get the privilege of loving my enemies. Before Christ, there was NO reason to do this–it makes no sense, it feels wrong even. Unfair. That is the Gospel though: the unfairness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because how dare He choose to love the unlovable. How can I stand before God and reject the humanity of another person He created when I have been reborn through this Gospel?

I think it becomes harder to receive this message when others have co-opted it to silence you and soften the edges of horrific realities. I have witnessed too many white Christians appropriating the grace of the Gospel to dispel the pain of their sisters and brothers of color. I went to a Christian college and felt the sting when me and other black students were criticized for “creating more division” and “being too angry” when we talked about the racial problems on our campus. By the time a blatant incident of racism happened and no one at school could ignore it, the chimes of forgive forgive forgive forgive from our white classmates pricked at calluses built over years of dismissal and apathy.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the barriers became so thick because I felt like we were being asked to extend a hand, extend trust, extend grace, with no assurance that the other students even acknowledged our pain or would take steps to stand by us in the future. Some of us had been burnt too many times to risk it.

I’m sharing this now because I want to emphasize how hard Jesus’ teaching is when he tells us to love our enemies–and it may not even be our enemies! It could be loving our friends and neighbors and co-workers-and even family-who have committed microaggressions against us, who have offended us with their words spoken out of ignorance, who have perpetuated a passive acceptance of the world as it is because they haven’t seen it for the specific challenges we experience–or have been unwilling to. Where we locate the resistant tension in our hearts when we think of these people in our lives, that is where all the implications of “do good to those who hurt you” becomes a serrated truth, cutting deep.

I get the privilege of loving others when it feels impossible to do so. That is what Christ enables us to live out in our everyday interactions with others, whether that be on Facebook, in the work room, or at the dinner table. But what does this love look like? Does it look like holding hands and smiling at each other, pretending that our houses aren’t burning behind us? Does it mean we wave off Trump and get over it?

Well…no.

There is grave injustice at work in our country, and there are forces actively spurring the flames of disunity and fear. We shouldn’t diminish the wrongness of that. I am furious, and every time I see another Executive Order, I feel like screaming to the sky “Come, Jesus come!” Our church is in a fractious state, our conversations with neighbors brittle with unspoken grievances. We must stand where are and look around; this is where we are starting. Loving each other within this space of tension and uncertainty and breaches of understanding means that we choose to wrestle with the pain, with the current division and still face the Cross together as we do this.

We call out evil when we see it. We humbly challenge each other to consider experiences we aren’t familiar with (I’ve been learning a lot about the experiences of my low-income white sisters and brothers lately). We mourn the pain of others even as we invite them to enter our own. We speak out when we’ve been sinned against and repent when we sin against others, individually and as a community. We say NO to any laws and actions that harm our neighbors. We resist racism and sexism and xenophobia and persecution of any kind that grieves God’s heart. We acknowledge unbalanced power dynamics in our relationships, in our systems, and we dismantle them, guided by those who have been disempowered. That is love that rises to survey the mess and embraces the incisive truth-telling and white-knuckled dialogues that form the foundations for bridges.

Exposing the pain, exhaling it, tangling and untangling it with another person willing to work through it with you, as equals, is one of the most terrifying and healing choices you can make. I had one of these conversations with a friend, a white woman I love dearly, and I’ll never forget what she told me, or the validating balm it was for my grief and outrage:

I’m sorry that in the great gamble of history, for some reason, people who look like me, people with my color skin, came out on top. I don’t know why that is when it could’ve have easily been the other way around. I’m sorry for the ways me and my people have hurt your community. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve oppressed you or silenced you and your community–especially unintentionally…The greatest injustice is that you were made to feel guilty for doing the things to survive, to feel safe…I don’t have a right to your trust. I have to earn it…Will you forgive me?

I did. And she forgave me for all the times I’ve painted her with a broad-brush, dismissed her as another white person I struggled to trust, failed to empathize with the suffering she has seen and experienced in the South. We’ve had a lot more of these conversations in the past year–and it’s hard. It’s confusing and tense and cathartic and vulnerable. We have found communion within burning wreckage and discovered ways to build a friendship that allows us both to rise without blistering.

In some ways it’s easier and harder to do this with a friend–what about with a stranger? Someone on the Internet? That person at church whose politics make you grit your teeth?The politician who makes himself an dart-board for mockery? Can we pursue this type of radical, counter-cultural, Gospel-seeded love with them too? I am asking myself this question now as I struggle between the reflex to pile insult and indignation and the awareness of how my actions testify to Christ whom I claim dwells in me. There is a difference between the righteous outrage that illuminates wrong and the bitter rancor that can warp our vision. We cannot shame and demean another person and face the Cross at the same time. Neither can we go high and still grip stones to throw.

the inaugurating call

We woke today in different frames of mind. Some celebrate. Some weep. Some lack the words to capture the complicated thoughts twisting inside them. I wonder how history will look back on this day. Will it mark the day as anything memorable? Will this day take up a corner in the national tome, only a blip on a grander scale? Will it signal a great quake or a tiny tremor, unworthy of notice by later generations?

But I don’t live 5 years from now, or 15, or 50. I can’t predict how these coming years will benefit or damage us, and neither can I tell you that this will all blow over when I have no assurance it will.

I am present in this moment, and in this moment, I feel grief. Those who boycott the inauguration or speak out against the man coming into office are being told to “get over it.” Through some eyes, to be critical is to denounce our democratic system or exacerbate the divisiveness in our nation. I acknowledge that there is always this danger of demonizing others or lapsing into a sense of self-righteousness when results don’t turn out in the way you expected or desired. I realize that our system as is elected this man, and I support a peaceful transfer of power. I choose not to ignore that reality. Donald Trump is our President.

He is my President, but I will not normalize his words or other actions. I will not affirm the contempt and vilification he has thrown upon my Latinx family, immigrants and daughters and sons of immigrants. I will not say it is okay when he compares Black Lives Matter activists to terrorists and supports further aggressive police measures to “keep order,” even when it may lead to more dead black bodies on the street. I will not get over his dismissal of my LGBTQA friends as they struggled  to be seen, his neglect of my indigenous neighbors when they have fought so hard to gain notice of the abuses they face. I will not stand alongside his consistent demoralization of my sisters of all colors.

John Piper shared a message today that acknowledges the challenges of living under an unqualified leader. I resonate with the words he opens with:

Today we will inaugurate a man to the presidency of the United States who is morally unqualified to be there. This is important to say just now because not to see it and feel it will add to the collapsing vision of leadership that enabled him to be nominated and elected.

Not only that, but if we do not see and feel the nature and weight of this sorrow, we will not know how to pray for his presidency or speak as sojourners and exiles whose pattern of life is defined in heaven, not by the mood of the culture.

I appreciate the attention he gives to the “weight of this sorrow,” the difficulty of knowing how to respond to this presidency when it has aggravated so many existing divisions and grievances. Yet his later point that followers of God have been able to flourish under problematic political regimes echoes the words of my father, who reminded me that, “God allows the rise and fall of good and bad kings.” We see this to be true in the Old Testament when the Israelites experienced slavery, conquest, exile under pharaohs and kings. We see this to be true in the New Testament when the growing numbers of Christ followers were threatened by torture, execution, public humiliation under the law of Roman rulers. We may not understand why, but bad kings are allowed to take power, even as they ultimately fall under the sovereignty of God.

Now, no President can be cataloged as wholly good or bad, but we can acknowledge that with the rise of some leaders comes higher stakes for certain communities. I urge you now to consider who bears the cost of the inauguration today. Who is feeling fear today–who is grieving?

I will not dismiss these concerns as petty or over-sensitive when their weight drags me to the margins where we should all rightfully be. Yes, there has been a measure of bitterness and pettiness on multiple sides, but these do not diminish the legitimate concerns many carry in regards to this incoming administration. People worry about their healthcare, the education of their children, their citizenship status, their ability to walk to the store and not have to see racist or homophobic slurs scrawled on the walls.

I can engage these anxieties yet still point to the eternal reality that Jesus is Lord and, as he declared in John 16:33: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Whatever our circumstances are, He transcends them, and He equips us to navigate the difficult periods where we have few clear answers. I lean on that strength now and answer to him as Master.

Jesus is Lord, and we have work to do.

If you voted for Trump, defend and lift up your neighbor, similar and different from yourself.

If you did not vote for Trump, defend and lift up your neighbor, similar and different from yourself.

None of us can claim exemption from the type of empathetic listening, humble heart-wrestling, and perseverant bridge-building the years ahead require of us. We entered the election already divided in so many ways. Do not call for unity unless you are truly willing to answer to what it will ask of you, because as someone once told me, “Be careful of what you pray for, because God will surely answer.”

If you truly seek to be one united family, it will cost you your assumptions. It will cost you your pride. It will cost you your comfort. It will cost you homogeneity and familiarity. It will cost you the satisfaction of hurting those who hurt you. Much must be cast down for a new foundation to be built.

My indigenous sisters and brothers, you have work to do. This work includes allowing God to bring you rest and comfort. Let Jesus reach those deep wounds in your communities and bring healing. Confront the forces that try to shrink you, make you feel forgotten or abandoned. Our Heavenly Father loves you so much, and He hears your cries. Continue to protest the injustices done against you, and know you do not stand alone. Nurture your children and remind them of the beauty and strength and resilience seeded in your stories. Please share your stories. I need to hear them, need to be convicted by your words, and I submit to you now. Challenge the rest of us past silences towards action. Lead us as we untangle our country’s sins and reconcile our peoples.

My black sisters and brothers, we have work to do. Many of you have already been engaged in the rebuilding of your communities. You have reached out to our poor, empowered our children and reminded them of how exceptional and worthy they are. You have engineered more just local and national policies. You have been relentless in making visible what has been invisible to privileged others for too long in our country. Continue that work and do not grow weary of doing good. Pray for our country and allow God to use you in the transformation of our churches, our workplaces, our homes, our streets. When you are tired, rest and know that your anger and sadness are warranted. But do not allow our Enemy to manipulate that anger into resentment and condemnation towards our white brothers and sisters. As believers, we don’t get to write them off and stop talking to them. We are called to draw close, to love, to share, to seek to understand, and to hold them accountable. This is hard work, and other voices may take advantage of our compassion and demand more from us. Some may label us appeasers and warn us that by choosing to love people who have the potential to hurt us, we are weak. But that is not the mercy we have been shown by the Cross, and it is out of the grace given to us that we keep striving to bring the unified Kingdom of Heaven to our soil.

My white sisters and brothers, you have work to do. Many look at the statistics of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and doubt the relevance of the church in its lack of social justice literacy. Some of us people of color have wondered how many of you in the safety of your homes espouse Trump’s beliefs, depicted powerfully in this comic. The hesitation and lack of trust this engenders has hurt our ability to commune together as one family. Now is an opportunity to approach those confused and hurting with gentle hands and compassionate hearts. Listen without seeking to defend your identity as a good person. Ask God what your role is to be in the lives of those oppressed right now, whether that means protesting, deepening friendships, reading books outside your comfort zone, joining efforts that address injustice, or teaching other white people from what you are learning. But do not be silent; do not be still. Out of the grace that has been shown to you, extend that now to those you may not understand right now. I assume nothing of who or what you voted for, but I invite you now to communicate with your choices, your actions how Christians love within the tension, within the adversity, within the existing divisions. Solidarity involves sacrifice. This is a grueling journey, and there are times when you will feel chastised and guilty for being white or hurt and frustrated when you are dismissed as a hater or ignorant when you just want to help others.  You are joining with others who have been in this struggle for far longer, and there will be clashes, but hold firm. You have much to gain when your sisters and brothers of color are finally treated as equals and we eat together at one table. Stake your identity in Christ and not the reputation you can craft and preserve. He loves you, and he will show you the way forward.

My Asian sisters and brothers, you have work to do. Our country may try to whiten you and widen the divide between our communities, but do not submit to that temptation. You are not foreign; you are family. Take ownership of that truth and share your stories. Bring light to the things I don’t see as a black woman. Know that God shaped you and cherishes you. I invite you now to step up and actively join conversations concerning justice–it’s for all of us, and the problems of the most vulnerable of us are ALL of our problems. You have a unique point of view, and we all need to hear it. Please let others’ lives matter to you in the personal made political. Declare that black lives matter to you and practice that. Protect immigrants, whether they speak Spanish or Quechua or Cantonese or Malayan. Our struggles become woven in one thread, and we petition God on behalf of our community, knowing He has created us to belong to each other. Out of the grace you have been shown, reach out to those outside your walls and may your love make them tremble.

My Latinx sisters and brothers, we have work to do. Our communities grow, and we are perceived as a threat in too many spaces; like our Asian neighbors, we are are Othered. But we treasure family, and when we accepted Christ, our family expanded to include thousands of all colors and backgrounds. Let us model that value and be unshakable in our desire to see all people welcomed. We get tired too, and it is tempting to isolate ourselves in our hurt and cling to what we fear to lose, whether that be loved ones, homes, languages. Cling to Christ; He will not forsake you. His love knows no boundaries, no walls and we have the privilege of allowing that love to permeate our interactions with others. We represent so much beautiful diversity, and our country needs exposure to that gift. We can act as curanderas at the cracks and bring paz even as we resist policies and crimes that inflict harm upon the marginalized peoples around us. We may be pulled in many directions, we may pass as many things, but we know where we come from, and we are at home in the arms of our Savior. Out of the grace we have been shown, let us welcome the stranger and make them our family, and may we stop any who dare make them feel less than lovable.

My sisters and brothers made Other, you have work to do. The racial binary was not designed for you, and neither did our Founding Fathers consider you when they created the laws of this land. You have come from many shores, and yet have not been assured a place here. I lament that reality with you. You are ethnic, ambiguous, biracial, mixed, unlabeled by human measure, but God designed you with intention. He will use that inherent resistance to fit into categories to break down barriers. He will use you to reflect His kingdom in its diversity and limitlessness. Loosen your hands so your story can be released into the world, and it will be a tide that sifts out what is broken and soothes seething rifts. Let no one silence you; speak out from where you stand. Mentor and lift up those struggling with their identities and remind them of the worth endowed them by Jesus. Draw out the truth from misconceptions and stereotypes, and make the unknown and alien real and personal for those of us who do not yet know you. Out of the grace you have been shown, take your place as ambassadors and bring about the flourishing of all peoples.

Be encouraged today. Jesus has overcome the world, and He has set aside works for us to do, with patience, with faith, with love. I see you, and I pray for you. I pray for our new President, that he is granted wisdom and compassion. And I pray that we all do the hard work of contending with our racism, our sexism, our pride, our prejudice, our silence, our suffering and inaugurate a season of repentance and reflection in this nation. May the world be changed by what we start today, and may we never falter as God guides our steps.

hidden fences and tripped syllables

Awards season is here–whether you foam at the mouth at the mention of “Oscar” or start to yawn instead. Regardless, now is the time when critics and audiences sum up the highlights of the cinematic year. We start hearing more and more about “Oscar bait,” a reference to the period films and historical biopics and somber dramas that usually garner the acclaim of the Academy. This is when we reap the so-called best of the harvest–the films that enter the pantheon of essential films introduced to later generations. For Americans, these films are meant to reflect the peaks of our cultural and creative endeavor.

So I was irked when a reporter interviewed Pharrell Williams at the Golden Globes for his work on “Hidden Fences.” The ire flared again when Michael Keaton later announced Octavia Spencer (a notable black actress) for her nomination in…again “Hidden Fences.” There is no “Hidden Fences.” There is the movie Hidden Figures and the movie Fences, both of which:

a) came out recently

b) contain predominantly black casts

c) have received much praise from audiences and critics alike

But it’s a simple flub right? Shouldn’t I let it go and simply move on–after all, people make mistakes when on-air all the time. However, to simply dismiss it would be to forget #OscarsSoWhite. Last year’s awards season controversy centered on the startling dearth of people of color featured in film and critical attention…at least startling to many white Americans. When the gap finally become too wide to miss, suddenly you saw this outpouring of indignant articles and tweets confronting the Academy.

Black Twitter and other spaces where POC congregate have been tackling this subject for years.

I find myself less trusting of mainstream awards shows when it comes to representation of minority groups–and for good reason. When an actor or actress of color becomes a media darling, the result can be a double-edged sword: while their performance or film receives deserved recognition, the awareness of their race also heightens with it, and it can lead to some painful “flubs.” I still remember how people cooed over child actress Quvenzhané Wallis a few years ago for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet few took the time to pronounce her name correctly. Her otherness took form in the syllables of her name, which became unwieldy steps tripped over by white announcers and reporters and late-night hosts.

She was not the only person of color to have her non-whiteness pointed at by Hollywood, and she was not the last. White Americans do not have a great track record when it comes to celebrating people of color in cinema. The African-American blog MadameNoire has a great tongue-in-cheek article that highlights just how many black celebrities have been mistaken for each other over the years. The gaffes turn into a joke on SNL and then the public moves on–but we haven’t moved forward. That two major films like Hidden Figures and Fences can be confused for each other when this doesn’t happen to the La La Lands and Allieds underlines the need for more media spaces opened to people of color. It also underlines just how desperately America needs re-education on how white privilege functions both on the screen and off.

If two black films getting popular is such an anomaly that they can be treated as interchangeable, even though they focus on different subject matter, how indistinguishable are black people in everyday life?

I’m not talking about friends and neighbors–I’m talking about what happens when the rich diversity of darker-skinned peoples becomes subsumed into Black (for more on the history of racial labeling, check out The History of White People). There is so much awkwardness and tension surrounding the use of the labels “White” or “white people,” and weirdly enough, a nonwhite person could be written off as a “reverse racist” for using them. No one bats an eye when you start talking about black people. The facile use of “Black” implies that those connected to that category as normalized as part of a collective while “White” is associated with the individual. Black can be collectivized, blended and stereotyped on that level while White has the option of remaining safely unique and independent (no, those jokes about “white people can’t dance” are not equivalent in this conversation). White people don’t actually have to be white or a people, but black people will still ping on the radar in relation to their racial group first.

This isn’t even a phenomenon exclusive to black people–I’ve observed many times when a Korean and Chinese person are confused for one another, when blanket statements about “those Hispanics” pop up in conversation, when a Indian friend is asked if their “English name” can be used instead because their actual name twists the tongue. It stings. Not only are people of color defined first by a group status, reducing our singularities, our identity is implied as “forever foreign” (as Mia Tuan points out in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Todayor, simply, alternative to the norm–not white. When you are not the implicit norm, less time and space is allocated by the mainstream to examine those nuances that craft the complexity of your personhood.

Lack of exposure to diversity and a lack of effort to make those differences matter in personal practice cultivates this kind of latent indifference that slips into daily interactions. It may not be intentional, but it casts people of color in the role of the perpetual Other, and the reality is reinforced when our varied cultural ways of being, even down to the way we worship, can be construed as a deviation from standard–or worse, superfluous enough that it’s optional to learn our histories. That is why I took African-American Literature only as an elective in college–because we didn’t read black stories in the required core English classes. That is what it looks like to be on the margins: even your stories aren’t easily accessible.

In his speech on racial separatism, Malcolm X critiqued some contingents within the Civil Rights movement for over-emphasizing assimilation into American society as the ultimate goal of the movement. He stressed that the push for integration had not benefited black people–it just gave a new shape to their marginalization. He pointed to the white flight that occurred after neighborhoods were integrated, the economic disparities black people faced even as the color line by law appeared to dissolve. His words challenged listeners to think critically about whether assimilation signified true equality or a buttressing of whiteness as the ultimate aspiration for all Americans. I wonder if he feared what would be lost if black people were assimilated but not embraced on their own terms.

While I disagree with his conclusion that racial separation is the answer, I resonate with his frustration. Sometimes it feels like for all the self-congratulating speeches our nation gives itself on our progress, the otherness of our communities has been sharpened in the process. For instance, Black and Asian and Latinx persons shouldn’t be treated as exceptional only when they represent the exception for “their people,” framed in a triumphalist narrative that is palatable enough to be celebrated. When that happens, they are still being defined by their otherness and how well they negotiate it in white-dominated spheres of influence like Hollywood.

We shouldn’t need to be reframed or renamed to be welcomed as equals. We are allowed to be individuals, God-created persons who embody a mosaic of taste and talent and experience. And yet we should also avoid diluting our ethnic differences away to replace them with an antiseptic type of colorblindness that misses the richness of our individual and collective histories and cultures. There is a way to honor that variety without crystallizing it as atypical. Unity emerges from differences valued rather than tolerated.

We celebrate MLK’s birthday today, and it’s vital that we don’t romanticize the man and the injustices he noticed and challenged during his lifetime. MLK was a controversial figure who didn’t just speak of dreams–he spoke about the alienation of black people in a society not designed for our flourishing. He was the man who preached:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK framed inequality as not only the result of these silences, but also as a reflection of our estrangement as a greater American community. We are still not one people when some members are accepted as American without a second thought while others clamber over the -dash.

When even the names of people of color cannot be pronounced correctly, the American story contracts a little more, and the walls press against the backs of those who rarely enter the center of the action. We (people of color) are here. Our stories already indent this land. So maybe it is not the belonging associated with assimilation that we seek. I don’t want to be melted away into a pot of progress, my blackness, my Latinxness ceasing to matter. Neither do I want that diversity casually stumbled over, glanced at, treated as alternative and alien instead of beautiful and right and utterly normal.

Maybe we simply want the freedom of visibility, to be acknowledged, not as beacons of racial progress to indulge or emblems of the exotic and unpronounceable to tease, but as equals. What is hidden and held back can be hurt; when those hidden step into the light, they are human, bodied, and lovable. MLK was one such person who mirrored Christ in the way his actions clothed once-invisible bodies so they would no longer be ignored or diminished. He helped dignify marginalized peoples and champion the worth already inherent in their creation. So now when our names are spoken, when our stories are shared, when we join with our brothers and sisters of all colors and take up more space in the fabric of America, we honor that legacy and carry it forward.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

a million things I haven’t done

My life has never settled into the rhythms of all I wanted. A year ago, anticipation thrumming under my skin, I thought I would be in a very different place by this point. Half-pieced visions of finished poems, a set stage for speaking out, a romantic relationship in bloom beckoned me to hope for things I yearned for and to reach out for what God could have in store for me.

When the last day of the year arrives, sometimes you can’t help the shame and disappointment that trickles in when you realize all that has been unfulfilled. I know I am tempted to sort out my life into the should’ves, could’ves, and the little good eeked out that offers marginal comfort. I could easily view this year with the same lens. Where is that book I said I would write? Those people I was supposed to reach out to? That guy who was supposed to show up? Wasn’t I supposed to be braver, bolder now?

That strain of thinking represents remnants of an old life, before the Gospel took hold of me, before Jesus. It re-emerges in the vulnerable moments when I still wonder if I am enough, but as this year has reminded me, it no longer has to dominate my vision. It is easier to feel like God has denied me what I desire; it is also easier to blame myself for how paltry my movements forward feel, but God does not view my year with those eyes.

He does not view my days as a waste to be winced over and eagerly left behind. Neither does he pin an evaluation of them on my estimation of my goodness. How grateful I am for that!  I live no longer as a summary of milestones like marriage or job promotions or great good acts I should do, but instead as a beneficiary of Jesus’ actions at the Cross. The performance anxiety ebbs in the face of my Savior, who sustains me with what has eternal resonance: His love.

This does not absolve me of the responsibility to continue taking steps of obedience to serve the communities I am part of, to love all the peoples God created and cherishes. We have witnessed great losses this year, not just of iconic celebrities, but of black women and men bleeding out from police brutality, Syrian families caught in the crossfire of war, LGBTQ individuals gunned down. We saw the devastating loss of trust between racial communities in the U.S. as this past election ripped away the curtain of pretense and revealed how deeply the wounds of racism affect each of us. These stand as the stark realities of 2016, and I am still accountable to my neighbors.

But there is a verse I keep coming back to–the other 3:16, this time in Philippians:

Only let us live up to what we have already attained

The verse follows Paul’s declaration to press on to take hold of what Jesus has for him, to strain toward what is ahead and run the great race. Through these words, the Past becomes a coach spurring us into further action instead of a colossal relic halting our progress. We get a glimpse of God’s eternal gaze and realize that we have journeyed farther than we knew and must keep going, even as we trip and hurtle forward.

We take into the future all the little realizations, the invisible turning points, the conversations that shifted the gears of our thinking, the tears we wept over every death we witnessed, the steely words of our mothers and fathers who warned us not to stop caring, not to stop fighting, even if all we can do in the moment is exult in our next breath.

That is living in its unfettered dynamism, and every single moment of it matters. Nothing is wasted, even our trembling in the face of giants.

Our lives cannot be a cosmic To-Do List where we needle ourselves for not doing enough or loving enough. That thinking helps no one, and it is too feckless and feeble to confront injustice or even face our own demons. We enter each day trundled in a grace outside ourselves, captive only to Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith. Our expectations may waver, our entitlements sour, but He does not change. Our actions on Earth are framed in that grace He extends, and we act on behalf of others because He demonstrates to us each day what love looks like. That is the hope of the Gospel that extends past Christmas morning, past New Year’s Day, and vibrates in every new year to come. It’s the grandiosity of God, not our ambitions, that we must abide in. We move with conviction, not guilt.

Now, we show up and follow Him. That is all He asks, and He will not shame us when we stumble, nor mock us for the yearnings yet to be realized–for ourselves and for our world.

There is much still wrong with the world to be reconciled, and our arms are able to reach that much farther than those before us reached. Not only that, but when I look at my life with the words of Philippians 3:16 mantled on my shoulders, I do not see failure; I see promise. So let us live up to what we have already attained. 

There’s a million things I haven’t done

and I may never do them all

but they are not a weight

compressing me small

I wait on my God

eyes forward

He calls