do it again, do it again

New recipe. New job. New shoes. New movement. New haircut. New leader. New year.

We love beginnings–I love them. There’s a giddiness to that first step, leap, and bound. Possibilities ahead, the disappointments of the past cast behind, and you plan and dream for that dewy, shining land stretched before you, waiting to be conquered.

I remember when I started my first full-time job last fall, how I scrambled out of my blankets before the alarm went off and paced back-and-forth at the train stop, thrilled to begin another day. I tacked sheet after sheet of paper above my desk, scrawling all over them with new ideas to improve school programming, bright blue diagrams and arrows pointing to the results of yet another brainstorming session over lunch.

I remember how those first months took organic shape, how I knew with bone-deep certainty that I was in the right place and the work was a natural fit.

Looking back upon this year, I can see how the months have worn into me like denim taking the sun’s beating, changing color over time. Mistakes made (mine), emails piling, student crises spiking, spreadsheets looming, and more mistakes chafe at the mystique and wonder of a new job until you start having those moments where you need reminding of why you’re there.

It’s easy to fixate on everything that went wrong or was lacking. It seems to be human nature that we inflate our failures and linger in our losses. January 1st appeals to us because it’s our reset button: we get to start over. But how long does that anticipation nurse us before bad news, boredom, or just sheer doneness sets in again?

I don’t want to start 2018 the same way I started 2017–or frankly, the way I start most things. In the past, I would hinge all my hopes on the list of goals I drew up and sailed through the initial days, expecting that everything will be different once the clock struck twelve. Then when things got hard, when I found myself caught in the same routines, I got tired and those dreams collected dust, discarded as winter rolled on.

There are reasons for this weariness. 2017 has been a year where I’ve seen the division of my country sharpen and splinter. It’s been a year of destructive storms and shootings and conversations cut off. It’s been a year of uncertainty and unjust laws. It’s been a year of crying, raging against the same problems. It’s been a year where we all got tired of the daily grind and the daily headlines.

But as I prepare now for 2018, here’s the difference from December 31st, 2016: it’s no longer only about beginnings. 

Yes, the first day of January comes, symbolic and stainless. But for everything else outside the calendar box…it continues. The struggles of the previous year and years are still there, the hurt is still-deep-in there, the living people who matter to us are still there, and the work in our hands is still there. They may have lost their glamour and we may have lost our fire, but that doesn’t mean we stop there and pretend we can start again from a vacuum.

No, we build upon what we had before, and above pursuing the changes we want to see in ourselves and in the world, we pursue Christ first, who orients us to rightly engage all other things of weight. This is persistence: instead of only chasing the attraction of the new we can accomplish, we continue to labor in the soil where God has strategically placed us to bring renewal. 

We invite God to extend our vision and work through us so we not only think of “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” as Philippians 4:8 invokes, but our daily actions and choices will also testify to all facets of God’s glory.

The words of Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy come to mind now, words shared with me during a Faith and Work class I took a few months ago:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

These words resonated powerfully with me when I first heard them, speaking to me in midst of the sleep-deprived doldrums of my work. They refreshed my soul then, and I offer them to you now as a reminder that a year cannot be defined solely by the mountaintop experiences of our greatest successes and milestones, but rather by every single seemingly-mundane moment in the valleys between them. 

It’s hard to move forward and know that even while you work towards the growth and change that is needed, there are many things around you that will remain. There will be emails to address and political reps to call and protest signs to make and meals to cook and friends to pray for and meetings to attend and headlines to grieve and alarms to answer. But I invite us to move boldly through these everydays not with grimness and resignation, but with confidence and compassion, knowing God already goes before us.

We get to choose everyday to work with everything we’ve been given, love with all our God-given capacity, and build slowly towards dreams that cannot be contained within a day, a year. We live and endure along a road to eternity where even our routines are worship to God.

I take ownership of what has been laid in my hands and the burdens laid on my heart. I confess my passivity, my pride, and my fear that prevent me from taking a stand and trusting God to sustain me through the struggles and hard work to come. I confess this and lay it before God-knowing I’ll be tested in these areas again and again-with this declaration: I am not a static character in a stale book. No, I am changing and learning as I endure the long race, mirroring my Savior who endured the cross to scorn its shame and bring freedom. So I’ll wake up and go to work and write about racism and check in on my friends and pay bills and plan events and thank God for it all.

I realize now that I didn’t write as much this year, and while I could feel guilty about that, I won’t fixate on things not done. A new year comes, and with faith, with hope, I will keep going. For me, exercising persistence will involve everyday choices to pray, research, and write. I will continue as a scholar, servant and advocate, acknowledging that the capacity for blessing others through these roles is only fully realized when I pursue Christ first.

Persistence fueled by divine hope shatters unjust strongholds and welds communities together where there was once estrangement and ignorance. It illuminates, clarifies, and clears a way for a world still waiting, still yearning to unfold.

Wake up tomorrow and do it again. Do it again, do it again, and watch the world change with you.

Thanks for reading, commenting, and reflecting with me in 2017. I hope alongside you for the new year, and I look forward to continuing together. 

to write and riot: one year later

Jordan Edwards is dead.

When I lift my fingers to type, they drum down on the keys with the weight of this–the names of the people Racism has stolen from my communities. They are not just headlines that will pass away; they are not just bodies behind bars. Yet I live in a country where non-White features designate people as Other and thus less valued–no matter how many exceptional people of color “make it out.” There is no “out.” We are all inextricably, unavoidably, in this, and the ripples of one boy’s death collide with each of our realities–even those too numbed to notice.

This is for those who hear me and stay.

I was recently startled into the realization that this blog is one-year old. God charged me during the Urbana ’16 conference to channel all the thoughts I wrestle with into something that could not only stretch my growth, but also potentially challenge and lift up others. This blog was born. I didn’t so much leap with faith as really tip over into a new realm where suddenly my words were pulled out of my head and heart and positioned on display for the world to see (whatever sliver of the world manages to find this blog).

Starting this blog was an exercise in anxiety. I’ve always shied away from public writing, even as I envied others who seem to share with such ease. I also didn’t believe I had anything groundbreaking to offer–not anything other social justice-oriented individuals had already shared (and far more eloquently). Yet God tugged at my feet, so I took a step forward into the unknown.

Rusty from a few years of wildly inconsistent writing habits that would provoke slow, somber head shakes from my former professors, I quarreled with a blank screen and an overload of ambition. I blundered (and still stumble) over the basic stepping stones: to whom to write (audience), what to write about (topic), and how to write about it (tone). Cognizant that I was writing about issues framed as controversial (cite: avoidable) in the Church, each typed word became fraught with tension.

The reality that I am a woman of color in her early 20s loomed over my fingers as they flexed, preparing for the Great White Portal to racial discourse. I sat before my computer (feeling) unequipped, inexperienced, and lonely in my racking desire to confront the racial pain burdening my heart and to help my communities somehow. Then the questions stampeded in, no pause to exhale:

What if I’m too angry?

What if I burn bridges?

What if I have nothing to say? 

What if everyone hates me?

What if I’m wrong? 

Dread wrapped in a tight, thick knot in my throat, I begged God to give me an out. Clearly I wasn’t shaped for this type of work.

A little over a year later, this blog remains (obviously). So what happened? A few realizations unfolded over time:

  • I don’t have to fix racism. It’s not on me to do this–I’m no Savior. I can speak to what I observe, what burdens me, what others have taught me, but I’m never engaging in this work of repentance and reconciliation alone, leading to…
  • I’m joining a conversation. I am one voice, carrying my stories and thoughts and struggles, and my voice matters, but I must recognize that I am entering into a space where I am engaging with past, present, and future threads. There are others I must listen to and learn from, other voices to reflect upon and voices to interact with as we untwist the problems of race and identity and community.
  • I’m human–own it. I am not perfect. Neither am I the ultimate authority on all things related to racial discourse. I can honestly admit that I’m stubborn and struggle with acknowledging my mistakes–I prefer to rationalize them as logical or excusable. I also have a ridiculous capacity for being judgmental, and that creates blinders that prevent me from seeing all sides and angles. I’ve been learning through this writing process how to take responsibility for my sin areas and make space for God to teach me differently. My writing will always reflect my imperfection and gaps in knowledge, but I am committed to deepening my comprehension, adjusting my vision, and growing outwards.
  • The pain is worth it. I’ve cried during and after writing a blog post. Some of them have excavated deep wounds I didn’t realize I still have; some shoved suffering into my face, leaving me adrift and unable to process it all. Some made me feel every single gram of my inadequacy, and I wanted to give up. But then I would get a message from someone who read a post, that it helped them in some way, and it was like God’s prodding to keep going. Words arose, quiet, steady: Keep going daughter. Face the storm. I am with you. So I went on.

I labor over this work–and it’s hard. I am constantly amazed by those of you who have been invested in this labor for years. I agonize over words, pray over them, gnaw my lip and wonder if I should soften the language or shift topics. God rarely responds yes. And even then, I don’t always obey, bending instead to the pressure to be polite rather than truthful.

I don’t (as of now) face incarceration or mortal danger for typed letters, but as the PEN World Voices Festival warned me yesterday, not everyone has that luxury. So I treasure the freedom that allows words of challenge to unfurl out of my being and press against the world in some needed way. I don’t feign the posture of a great Liberator or Artist as I write, but because there is an unfathomable well of pain to speak to, I have a purpose in trying.

Writing, talking about racism is a tangle of pain and hope. The pain rises and throbs as you point to the realities of discrimination, unjust economic systems, and the hidden heart issues that bleed out into our actions. I move through a labyrinth of thought and feeling, a pack of understandings sloped on my back because I realize that confronting racism involves the indictment of that which has been hidden away, held taut beneath the surface and ready to snap. It requires examining what it means to be White and where White comes from. It mandates wrestling what it means to be Black and diasporic. It provokes the questioning of how to locate yourself within a color binary never designed for you if you are Asian, Arab, Indigenous.

This is tense, uncompromising work. It will not make you feel good–in fact, it will disturb and offend you. Confronting ugliness repulses us–and it should. I do not ask God to remove this tension from my gut; it unsettles me into a state of action so I will not be complacent when the needs are so great. They are great, and they are relentless.

With the presence of so much unfettered ignorance and a vacuum of empathy, how can I possibly soothe the heartbreak that racism causes in my country? I can’t. Sometimes all I can do is loosen my tears and not forget the ones abused by it. And I do this: I write. I lift my small torch to shed light on the margins so those willing to draw near them can mourn with me and step through the night into what could await us beyond it. This is a shade of riot, that we repel the forces that would keep us static and demand the ushering of Heaven to Earth, opening our hands to receive it and hold on tight.

Our hearts hurt because we sense that racial division and injustice is not God’s intention for us. His movement, always and forever, is to bind us together with words, with the Word, into one family with no dividing wall.

Words matter, and they have power. Writing can be an act of activism, rebellion even, against that which mars human dignity and distorts the beauty of our relationships with one another. Words have founded revolutions, fractured families and repaired them, and so I handle them with care and submit them to God. I look for the ways in which He is using them already to weave our disparate stories together, and I ask to join Him in that industry.

Yet there can be little communion when one member’s hands are burned, nerves exhausted. To resurrect our fellowship with one another, we must look frankly upon the wrongs done to our peoples and examine them, repent of them. Lament brings us through this cycle of sorrow, weighing the gravity of the past and present and leading us to the One who reconciles all. We end in a small echo of the final paradise: in praise, in community.

So I end this with where I started: a declaration of riot. I feel feeble sometimes, too passive and hesitant to shake walls and topple towers. I walk into rooms with an apology on my tongue rather than a confrontation. But you, my readers, my friends, and my God, you have dared me to surrender fear and point to the world I yearn for and the change I am now willing to labor towards. So I leave you with this and hope to encourage you as you take hold of the calling God has given you and till the soil for a world better than what you were born into:

The Cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of riot. Jesus’ sacrificial death momentarily shoved the world into a state of chaos as the sacred temple Veil was ripped, the ground itself rocked with tremors, and blood streamed from a beaten body and pooled at the feet of the terrified ones watching. All the cries of the abused, the violated, the oppressed, the lost, the unheard thundered above his bowed head. The darkness of a people estranged from God and enslaved to sin was broken by slashes of lightning that mimicked the aching stretch of his arms upon the wooden beam.

Hell emptied itself and Heaven touched Earth for the first time in centuries as the way to God’s throne was cleared at last, mediated by a soon resurrected Christ. He had thrown everything into violent, visceral upheaval, and we are still experiencing the vibrations.

The riot of the Cross challenges all that is disordered in our society and invites our participation in a holy commotion that will write a new draft above our stained histories. This draft is the Kingdom of Christ being ushered in now, though not yet in its final published form. In this draft, we are charged to disturb the status quo, remake the hierarchies of power,  demand justice for the marginalized, innovate new words to love and live with each other.

God writes the new draft of a Kingdom manifesto on a scroll of grace, unfurling to coil around each person with a binding embrace. This grace acknowledges our grievous wrongs and our depraved brokenness, both individual and systemic, but rather than charting an arc towards death, it writes us into new roles: redeemed rioters on Gospel terms. With renewed minds, we grow into our roles, stumble, and keep marching so that someday we will see the fullness of a radically altered world.

graceriot 2016

Riot on.

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