aurora

There are the moments that the words don’t reach… – Hamilton

It is easy to write when the sun shines. All is well, the Muse descends, and the words sparkle into being. It is even easier to write when it rains because each drop startles you into alertness; in that moment, you are vividly alive and aware of each one pressing into your skin. Even when the rain is undesirable, threatening, relentless, at least you know where you stand and react accordingly.

But when a darkness creeps over you, heavy yet hollow, with no rain, no slice of lightning even to illuminate the trees, the ground, the people around you, words seem to fail.

Suffering can carry that sort of darkness. We are human, and because of that, we exist within boundaries of how much pain we can bear before our consciousness cracks under the weight. When unchecked, it swells and swells until the pain both drowns our senses and eviscerates us, abandoning us to a cavity of grief.

We try to grasp the meaning of it, the lessons propelling it, but when no answer emerges, the jaded darkness draws in greedily, ready for our surrender. It’s too much, too much to handle or manage, so why not feel nothing? Numbness is an addictive alternative.

I don’t why know why hundreds of innocent people are getting murdered in Aleppo. I don’t know why black men and women are getting gunned down every week in the United States. I don’t know why some people get cancer and others like me never see illness.

There are “logical” reasons underlying all of these, but that’s not the why we seek. We want to know why THEM, why US, why is OUR world allowed to be so horrendous and heartbreaking. Maybe knowing the why lessens the weight of it all.

I sat in a dark hospital room with a friend as she lay sick, and I asked myself why. Her eyes could not handle the light, and I hated seeing her in pain. I couldn’t do anything to fix it. I couldn’t free her veins from the insidious force that had clamped around them. Clunky machines crowded her bed, beeping and buzzing, and I could do nothing. She didn’t deserve this, didn’t even know she was sick…so why was this happening?

I fought my tears and failed, and I prayed.

Sitting with her for over a week in the darkness, a slow understanding began to kindle. See, I am always looking for some new revelation, some explosive encounter with God that will make everything clear, draw thick lines that edge the paths I should follow so I won’t get lost. I am always seeking the big mountaintop experience that will throw everything hidden into relief. But as I huddled in the shadows, thoughts straining to reach some cognizance about pain and death and suffering, God did make something clear: I don’t need anything new.

I don’t need a new book or theological discipline or spiritual revelation. I need to be re-awakened to what I’ve already been given.

As a follower of Christ for years, I know the Bible stories, the Gospel message. Yet this past year has grounded into me the realization that I have dulled their power in shaping my reality and daily life. These ideas have become like well-worn jeans so I have forgotten that I was once naked and in need of covering. I once needed a Savior…and I still do.

I have taken these fundamental stories for granted, and this neglect constrains my vision. I miss out on the Great Story that transcends my pain, my loved ones’ pain, and points to the only One who can offer relief. When a crisis hits, the power wielded by that story fades into the periphery when it should define everything.

Christmas is part of that Great Story, and we either round its edges or fashion it into whatever tool we need to justify our cause. A pastor of mine described this action as us trying force Jesus into the mold of who we desire him to be, whether that be our therapist, our social justice warrior, our political revolutionary. We want Jesus’ power over death, over sickness, over injustice–and that’s not a bad thing. But when I look at the Christmas story again, I’m struck most by this: Jesus came to us weak and vulnerable and small.

Our world was lost in the dark, mired in war and grief, and it would have been washed out by a Sun. We expected a mighty king but might have cowered had he arrived in that form. Instead, the Son descended like a glimmer, cradled in frailty. This did not negate the power he wielded as God, but that power manifested itself in the way he demonstrated weakness when among us. He knew what it was like to live as a refugee, to cry when friends died, to experience persecution for his ethnicity, to toil at a low-income job, to face rejection because what good could come from Galilee? And then he died in the most horrific way, broken and mocked and tortured. With every shaking, choked breath he could have tipped his finger and saved himself, but he suffered to save us. He took ownership of all suffering so suffering could no longer own us.

When we say Jesus is Emmanuel, we declare to the world that he not only chose to familiarize himself with our pain, but he also conquered it. This awareness does not dissolve the reality of pain, but instead places it into a framework where we see and acknowledge Jesus’ sovereignty over pain and His love for us experiencing pain. He paved a way for us to know comfort and peace in Him even as our world lumbers towards the ultimate healing he promises. We haven’t reached that end yet, but as I wrote in my previous post, the Gospel truth we cling to illuminates our steps as we struggle together through the evils that remain and the hurt they cause.

Light has always been associated with Christmas (as dozens of sweetly bland Netflix holiday films testify to), but that light holds weight to me in a way that it didn’t before. Not the twinkling lights strung along fences and rooftops, but I think of the brilliance and warmth of a light that shoves away the shadows and reclaims Earth simply by touching it again. A star in the East, a moon hovered over a cramped cave. God drew down to Earth in the form of a weak, tiny baby, and light followed.

Fixing on that light brings clarity to my surroundings, tenebrous as they are in physicality. Cliche as it sounds, I am re-discovering that at the heart of Christmas lies a light that eclipses all suffering. This is not an opiate, but rather a way to endure and allow Jesus’ love for me to define the way I engage with pain. I move forward into this season with the certainty that Christmas introduced the changing of the world, a massive upheaval where sickness no longer reigns, death no longer conquers, and suffering no longer dictates our destinies.

I did not expect to feel peace in that dark room with my friend. But this indescribable peace emanated through the blank walls, and I knew her pain did not go unnoticed by her Creator. I didn’t need the answer to why; I just needed to know that it wasn’t the end all–and it isn’t.

Our words lack the ability to reach and minister to our pain. But John 1 names Jesus the very Word of God, the one present at the beginning and the source of all beginnings, and that Word reached us. We do not see all the whys or hows, but we see Him, and that is enough.

There is a grace too powerful to name

We push away what we can never understand

We push away the unimaginable

May God bless you this Christmas and remind you that Jesus knows weakness, vulnerability, and pain. He is with us when the darkness threatens to swallow us, and He draws us close to the light of His love, a fierce, unyielding love that no sickness or weapon can touch. He came down to us because He loves us, and despite all the unimaginable horrors around us, we know hope by knowing Him. That hope will ground us in the days to come. I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Lord of the Rings, and I pray that you too will see the Christmas story with new eyes:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. – The Land of Shadow, The Return of the King 

 

tears in the night

I am agonizing over what to say.

I could say I’m in mourning, but what I’m mourning has been burdening my heart for far longer than this election season. The tension knotted in my stomach, the nausea thick in my throat is not new. For years I have grieved for the divided state of my country.

This election highlights the failure to actively listen, the failure to empathically recieve another’s story, and this has crippled interracial dialogues on the interpersonal level and prevented our national discourse from taking ownership of the ugliness beneath the red, white, and blue. Each community feels ignored, invalidated, and we all suffer.

I wish I could say that when I clicked off the news last night, the only sensation residing in my heart was hope. I wish I could say that I didn’t spend the night wracked in tears and desperate prayers–but yes, the results of this election was a stab in the gut.

I felt ashamed of my tears. I thought: I should be focused on the redemptive part of all this. I should get back to work and keep fighting. I should feel perfect peace. When I saw that some people weren’t rattled by the election, I thought that maybe I was wrong in feeling what I feel.

But then I asked myself: Why do we rush people to praise when they are suffering? Why do we demand them to feel better so quickly? Do we really think they’ll be better for it, or are we the ones who will feel better when their pain is not all in our face? The fact that I feel this subconscious, overwhelming pressure to suppress the anguish clawing inside me tells me that as a Church we still haven’t learned how to embrace lament, nor how to mourn with those who mourn. Lament involves engaging with pain in the here-and-now, recognizing that the wrongs strewn across our national landscape connect our past, present, and future and necessitate our confrontation with them. Instead, I see Facebook posts chastising people for “sulking,” “being whiny” when they should clearly just “get over it.” It suggests to me that these people don’t want to deal with my pain, so they wrap it in platitudes.

American Triumphalism shoves us past periods of grief to the grand vision of reconciliation and unity and restoration. We are all one! it declares, then furrows its brow when it notices us standing apart from each other. Why are we still divided? it complains, throwing up its handsWe are divided because we never took the time to fully grieve the losses reaped by a consistent history of compromising the dignity and livelihoods of people of color. Racism spikes the soles of our feet, yet the church in America still wonders why we stumble.

Knowing that, I will not apologize for my ugly tears. I will not apologize for the hollowed-out ache in my stomach, the invisible weight dragging my lips down. No one is entitled to my smiles nor the assurance that I’m okay when I am definitively not.

If the Church that I am a part of truly seeks reconciliation, then we must face the ugly. We must tell the truth to each other and see each other as we are–not only the parts that are palatable. So this is me telling my truth, sharing where I stand.

I feel:

Hurt because for so many years I have defended my white brothers and sisters in Christ. When I observed and experienced racist words and actions, in my head I diminished their impact because I grew up with white people, loved them. I didn’t want to strain my relationships with white friends and neighbors and believe them capable of the ignorant attitudes my black classmates talked about. But when Trump called my people criminals and claimed that black people lived in an inner city hell, when he insinuated that Black Lives Matter were like terrorists threatening the rights of everyday Americans, too many white evangelicals were silent. When I saw that over 81% of white evangelical men voted for Trump, it conveyed the message that I was not worthy of being defended. Trump supporters may not have intended my devaluation, but when the racist and sexist statements of someone aiming to lead your country are met with silence instead of condemnation of any kind, that is the message I internalize: you are taking your America back at my expense.

Conflicted because examining the arguments in support of Trump, the reasons why people voted for him, does not erase the damage. Some of the reasons relate to the depressed economic situation encountered by people in rural areas; some relate to high healthcare costs and the barrage of headlines about homicides by an undocumented immigrant or a illegal drug-runs. Some base themselves on the moral imperative to preserve the unborn and transcend “identity politics” and a defensive PC-culture. I empathize with these concerns and the legitimate anxiety underlying them. I know all too well how infuriating it feels not to be listened to. At the same time, the fear professed by people after Obama’s election is not equivalent to the fear others are experiencing right now. Whether rich or poor, urban or rural, whiteness still maintains a privileged position in America, and when the anxieties of white people dictate the policies of a nation, the people who pay the price, the ones made more vulnerable are black people, Latino people, Asian and and Arab and indigenous people. Acknowledging the valid arguments for a presidential candidate’s rise does not disguise the racism and xenophobia in its foundation. America has a problem with race, and the fact that in election coverage we can’t even say the R-word because we don’t want to see it contributes to the twisting in my gut. I hear that Americans (total) have spoken, but if we’re being honest, which Americans?

Angry because there is no space for my pain. There are so many well-meaning posts laid out to remind me that Jesus is King and the Church is one Body and not to hate on other people. The unintended patronizing tone stings because these words assume that I don’t already know this, that I haven’t already been praying constantly and asking God for the grace to love Donald Trump and reach out to those who voted for him. The words assume that I am consumed in my fervid emotion and unable to see the Gospel in this. Lifting up Jesus as the ultimate leader of my life is not mutually exclusive from being devastated at the idea of Trump having a position of such profound political and social influence. It’s both/and: I cling to hope and believe that God will wash this nation in the revival it needs; I also cry because thousands of people decided that Trump’s vision of America is desirable, and that vision doesn’t appear to include me. You can tell me my worth is in Christ, and yet I can still cry out to my Savior that I feel rejected by the white Christians in my country. If you’ve never felt that kind of betrayal from a community you are supposed to belong to, don’t judge it.

Sad because even though there are better words to capture the depth of what I feel, sad is the easiest to access. I feel sad because I don’t think enough white people understand what the election results mean to the groups Trump has targeted in his agenda this past year. I feel sad because so many people I know are furious and shocked and their reality feels leagues away from the casual “well it’s done now let’s make up” attitudes I see on social media. I feel sad because I am overwhelmed by how big the problems are and how many economic and spiritual and racial dynamics are tangled in them. I am sad because the estrangement between peoples in America cuts more deeply than I can ever express.

Assured that God will redeem what is broken in my country. Even as I cried last night, I felt that alien peace, this sense that the blatant showcasing of disunity we have seen will provoke the radical racial awakening that America needs. I want to be part of that movement to throw off the blindness hampering our movement to intimately relate to each other across color and socioeconomic and gender lines. I want to lift up and cover my brothers and sisters of color and rebuild our communities. I want to learn from and protect the groups I am not a part of–like my Muslim neighbors. I want to refine the voice God has gifted me and speak truth into the spaces where it is most needed. I want to see bridges built.

I was not surprised by the results of this election. I am still heartbroken, and for my white neighbors to reconcile with me, I need you to see that and not look away or tell me I’m not trusting God enough. This is not the time for jokes or calls to be polite. This is not the time for claims of America’s greatness. I love you…and you have hurt me. Both/and.

To my Black and Latina brothers and sisters who may resonate with my pain: Let no one deny you your need to process what you feel. It is not healthy to pretend it doesn’t exist or diminish it so you look okay to the outside world. Let it out. Take time to rest. I am praying for us.

The train pulling away from the Bronx was silent this morning, and I felt a spiritual pall settle over the people seated beside me. America is bleeding, but if we can all finally see it, we can tend to the wounds.

I re-read Psalms 116 on the train, and even as the tears remain a steady, heavy presence, and anger writhes in me like a desperate creature I can’t placate, this passage tells me that my God sees me and will not shame me:

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
    our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

I believed, even when I spoke:
    “I am greatly afflicted”;
I said in my alarm,
    “All mankind are liars.”

What shall I render to the Lord
    for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord

    is the death of his saints.
O Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
    You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! 

Psalm 116

 

respite

I learned in a social work course about grief, loss, and bereavement that the stages of grief do not exist. I watched my classmates’ eyes widen as the professor explained with an irreverent toss of hand that there is no slow, steady progression through the realms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief is a river hitting bends and drops; it is an ocean in thrall and then unexpectedly placid. No expectations should be imposed on the grieving process by an outsider-even a social worker-because no one will experience loss in the same way.

This knowledge galled me. I am used to fixing things–the vestiges of my teenage savior-complex coupled with a once insatiable thirst for perfectionism. Asking questions like bullet points and preparing conclusions on lined paper, I bask in the certainty and security of what is known to me, what I can figure out and puzzle solutions to address. People can be understood for anyone with the willingness to listen, and the effects of any problem can fit neatly into a preexisting model.

My practiced patterns fly apart on the night before I’m headed back to the U.S. mainland from vacation abroad, and I see the Alton Sterling video. Until that point, I had avoided seeing videos of any previous police shootings. I see this one, and my heart sinks like lead.

I return to the U.S and the Philando Castile video materializes. Though an inner voice pleads with me to stop looking, I watch news segments where white lawyers and political agents with stone faces try to find some way to justify these men’s deaths. As my Facebook feed becomes an endless sprawl of articles, posts from my friends of color about the racism in this country, posts that vibrate with rage and sorrow, grief in that moment means a simmering anger triggered by every word related to race. Beneath my smiles and daily living routines, I rattle with fury.

Not again. Not again…

Then, suddenly, the overwhelming weight of everything wrong with my country drags me down, down and there are no words, nothing to make it disappear. I’m still on vacation, but I lock myself in a bathroom in a Texas mall and try to stifle the sound of my tears. Afterwards, I crumple toilet paper to rub the evidence away and re-enter the world a composed black woman.

This past week, these past years have awakened me to the reality of what being a black, a Latina woman in this country means. Before, determined to view my surroundings with a brightened lens, I would have downplayed what I see in the news. Surely it’s not as bad as it seems. But I have listened to those far wiser than me and those who have experienced more than me, and I am taking the time to learn my history; I know now that the sepia-tinged  America never existed, and black lives do not matter here in the way our Creator intended them to be valued.

Anger propels me. I must write something–everyone is writing something. Everyone is posting a response, laying out arguments, spilling out the storm inside them. I cannot be silent when I know that injustice will not end with this latest shooting; this story began long ago and there are no brakes in sight as it throttles into the future. But after sharing every post that strikes a chord, ruminating every new headline (then Dallas happens), I am emptied out, hollowed. I am tired.

Psychologists and sociologists have been conducting more research lately on the concept of race-based trauma, where exposure to race-related horrific events and/or discrimination experienced by you or members of your racial/ethnic community result in emotional and psychological stress. NPR labeled it “coping while black,” struggling along the path of resilience when you are constantly battered by the news of yet another example of racism in your country or encountering the markers of racial oppression in your daily life.

The microaggressions pile up, the little rhetorical gestures that subtly invalidate the pain of your community and remind you of your position of inferiority, even if you are a middle class black girl whose family member has never been shot (the they could be speaks louder). Enforced silences bind your throat because no matter how many carefully structured responses you provide, you will inevitably encounter the same questions from a white colleague, friend, or acquaintance another day. You are taught to resign yourself to the perpetual play of question-answer-apology or take shelter in silence. Find a good enough hiding spot and even in predominantly white spaces, maybe no one will seek you.

Some members of the black community call it “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” and they’re not far off. The multigenerational nature of racism in my country is such that the impact is experienced in both invisible and blatant ways now. We may never know what it is like to be in chains, whipped and sold, but we do see sons and daughters incarcerated in record numbers and stripped of the right to vote, get a job, maintain a stable family. We may never know what it is to sit on the back of a bus or use a separate bathroom, but we do see our under-resourced city schools that serve black children, the red lines around “bad neighborhoods,” and we see our community lampooned in the media, made into minstrels for viral videos and sassy baby mamas to incite laughter and wise negro friends to aid white enlightenment. We have inherited generations of unaddressed suffering, and our bodies pulse with the familiar rhythms of it, even when we are young and cannot name it.

There is a spiritual ache that heavies your limbs when you sense the strongholds of division and national blindness that prevent your communities from flourishing. It feels like masochism at times to keep drawing near the articles and and scholarly treatises and news updates and even movies because each is one of a thousand cuts and my heart bleeds.

What is most wearying is the expectation to respond. A race-related event occurs, and the person of color is on-air 24/7, ready to defend themselves and their community or ready to contextualize events to ease the blow for the mainstream. What I think many white people do not grasp is that to be a person of color signifies that you are a public body  in almost every space you inhabit–with the exception of the company of other people within your ethnic/racial community. Outside of that kinship of experience, I am conscious of my skinned walk in the world, and the world has taught me that I will be explaining my skinned life until the Lord’s new kingdom unfolds in fullness.

There are those who complain that as people of color we are “whiny” and “holding ourselves back” by raging against racism so much. There are white people who accuse people of color of “playing the race card.” But this is not a game. We are not trying to manipulate events in our favor or writing about abuses allowed against our communities to garner pity and make white people feel bad. The stakes are death and life, imprisonment and freedom. There are insidious crimes against people of color being committed on American soil; the matrix of privilege and ignorance can only envelop the public for so long.

I can speak, should speak. There are facts to unveil, histories to be re-evaluated–but I am tired. I am sad because so many people, black, white, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, are hurting right now and racism is a demonic stronghold gnawing at my country’s roots. I am angry that the pain of people of color does not merit as much attention on Sunday mornings as the losses of white people. I am in denial that the same police shootings keep happening. I am overjoyed to see the those of the diaspora, black people around the world, chanting “Black Lives Matter” in their cities. I find peace in praying for my broken Church even as the lament ends in tears. I am all these things at once, grief un-staged and shifting form.

Isaiah 40:28-31 provides a vision for the brokenhearted: a God who is relentless when we are weary of doing good and experiencing evil. It reminds me that I don’t have to be strong, even when the impulse to be strong and endure all this sorrow persists. The media, my neighbors are not entitled to my response wrapped in words when words fail me. I can’t avoid what is happening around me (and neither should I), but finding rest does not equate to running away.

So many expectations are placed upon people of color to explain current events and historical realities to those outside of their racial/ethnic communities. We are brought to the stand to defend, justify, ease tensions, deny hate, express condolences and listen to the well-intentioned and passionate rants of white allies. I am inured to creating space for others to rise and feel better even as my wings are clipped.

When numbed by grief and overwhelmed by the injustice made all too real everyday, I encourage my brothers and sisters of color to rest. I tell myself to rest, to take time to breathe for a moment. I take breaks from social media, spend time with my family, spend time alone, spend time with God. I try to make it clear when I cannot talk about the news with white friends. I could write a series of posts decrying racism and calling people to action, but I choose to come to God as my hurting self and ask for relief, trusting that He will reveal for me quiet waters after the shadow of death has touched me. I seek security in the presence of the One who does not falter even when I am weak and beyond words.

I rest when I accept my grief for what it is: ongoing and reflective of God’s heart for the marginalized and oppressed. I am right in feeling this pressure; it is pointing to a spiritual reality of systemic and individual racial sin. The world is not the way He designed it to be, and when I allow myself to process the weight of that, God frees me from the anxiety of conforming to other’s expectations and directs my attention to Him, the one who transcends the atrocity and doggedly redeems it. In this space created for me by Christ, who understands human frailty intimately, I can rage and weep and laugh and wait to re-enter the fray when equipped to do so. The world does not offer people of color enough space to be themselves untethered from explanations, but in the presence of Christ, we have the opportunity to renew our strength in communion with Him and see our pain validated and comforted in every way.

Friends, allies, co-laborers in the Church who are not black: I encourage you be conscious of what you ask of people of color in your conversations and even your efforts towards justice. There are times when I appreciate your intentions but am too tired to thoroughly respond. There are times when the people you care about need your listening ear and quiet presence as well as your consideration when solitude is vital. This is not your moment to prove how great of an ally you are, but rather to grieve with them and be present. Mourn with those who mourn without defensiveness, for there is a time to extrapolate and a time to simply acknowledge black suffering and lay it before God as your loved ones rest.

The causes of grief are not erased. Injustice jaunts through the nation, unconfronted. But between the headlines, I find my haven. The trauma of living black in a broken world that obsesses over analyzing my communities’ losses is not forgotten by Christ; in fact, He pursues the weary ones and gives them what few remember to offer: respite.

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31

Take rest and let no one shame you from choosing to remove yourself from stifling spaces. Immerse in the little things that bring you joy and rejuvenation, and allow God to minister to your soul by providing comfort without anxiety to perform and love without obligation to justify yourself. The world will not fall apart in the pauses where you exhale.