Saturday, December 12, 2015

Equal Opportunity White Supremacy and the Race for the Presidency

This post was originally published on ecclesio.com in November 2015.

No one political party has ever, in the history of politics in the U.S., attained a clean record when it comes to race and racism.

In the United States, race-baiting during elections is not restricted to one political party, despite one party increasingly identified with white voters and the other identified as more friendly to most people of color groups (see for yourself: http://www.people-press.org/2015/04/07/a-deep-dive-into-party-affiliation/). Living into white supremacy is something every presidential candidate does, whether it is for political expediency or an actual belief held by that candidate. Just listen to what candidates say about the U.S. relationship with China, and you’ll hear the shades of yellow peril slipping out.

Neither major party is known to be particularly responsive to the concerns of people of color, although the Congress did Native Americans and immigrants a solid with the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, closing a loophole that had allowed perpetrators of violence against Native American women to escape prosecution, and extending protections to immigrants escaping domestic violence. When Gwen Ifill moderated a debate in 2008 between the two vice presidential candidates, Dick Cheney and John Edwards, she asked a question about the rates of HIV infection among black women. Now, as someone who has a tendency to pay attention to public health policy and issues with a disproportionate impact on people of color, I thought everyone knew that black women at the time were experiencing very high rates of HIV infection. Neither vice presidential candidate was aware, and in my opinion, both fumbled their answers. This is only a minor example of the ways in which Democrats and Republicans remain largely unaccountable to communities of color.

President Clinton scapegoated “welfare queens” (not so subtly referring to poor black women) for social ills. President Obama’s administration stepped up deportations and detention of immigrants, most of whom are racialized in the U.S. context as people of color. The first time Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate, her campaign engaged in cynical race-baiting in an effort to raise her profile over and against Barack Obama. Clinton talks down to Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and has yet to address real gaps in her platform and her policy record. Sanders fumbled his solidarity with Black Lives Matters, showing much improvement with unveiling a racial justice platform (only after being challenged by activists). And the Democrat presidential field for 2016 lacks racial diversity.

Republicans provide plenty of spectacular examples of statements shaped by racism and white supremacist ideologies. Donald Trump thinks Mexicans are rapists and murders. Jeb Bush thinks anchor babies born of Asian women are a problem significant enough to merit mention during campaign speeches. Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson think people of color need to quit making such a big deal about race. Carly Fiorina thinks Chinese people can’t create anything (centuries of history to the contrary); instead they are trying to steal all our ideas. (Alert! Sharron Angle, of “some of you Latinos/as look a little Asian to me” fame, is attempting to run for the Republican nomination to Harry Reid’s Senate seat in 2016. The part of me that loves gaffes can’t wait.) Entire Republican debates have gone by without a reference to BLM. The persistent popularity of candidates who make blatantly racist statements (Trump) or subscribe to a colorblind ideology that limits appropriate diagnosis and treatment of racial injustice (Carson) says something about the commitment to racial justice among likely voters, many of whom claim to be Christian, and many of whom claim to be evangelical.

We have problems in this presidential race.

Christians who vote have diverse approaches to understanding and addressing racial disparities, racism, and injustice. This diversity often aligns with one political party or another, and it is not necessarily the problem. The problem is the lack of an articulate theologically based commitment to ending racism in the U.S. The problem is that some American Christian theologies continue to reinforce the false ideology of meritocracy (if you are oppressed, it’s because you didn’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps) and white supremacy (white people are, in fact, more created by God than any other people).

Christians who shrug when a black girl is thrown to the ground by a grown man because she had her phone in class, or who think it’s a good idea to round up all the immigrants and throw them out behind a wall paid for by a poorer neighboring country demonstrate the insufficiency of our theology. That many of us would protest about bringing politics into our faith, and say that violence against black women and men, the same policing system that is killing Native Americans at even higher rates, the indefinite detention and deportation of immigrants (many of whom are from Latin America), the invisibility of unequal access and persistent prejudice and poverty within particular Asian American ethnic groups, and ongoing hate crimes against people who “look” Muslim,” demonstrates our theology is thin, at best.

The problem is not that we have brought politics into faith. The problem is that the faith many of us bring to our politics is anemic, whitewashed, passive, privileges the already privileged, and prefers charity over justice.

But many Christians have a robust faith that pushes us to work for human rights. It causes us to trust people who are different from ourselves when they show us statistics and tell us stories about being unfairly targeted and discriminated against.

This race is not about who is president. It is about who we are and who we profess to believe.

The problems in this country are not someone else’s fault. They are our fault. My fault. Your fault. We as Presbyterians know better. Our confessions remind us weekly of our depravity and responsibility, while they remind us we are saved, redeemed, and beloved. We are reminded of the ramifications and inherent sinfulness of our actions and inactions.

Does it matter whether we end up with Clinton or Sanders or Trump or Carson or Rubio? It matters from a policy standpoint. But as we know from President Obama, one person with a pretty good analysis of racial injustice in the U.S. can’t cure a whole country. (For a more robust discussion of this, you can pre-order the forthcoming book on race here) The presidential race is not just about the presidency. Focusing too much on the presidential election ignores many of the races that make an even bigger difference in our day-to-day lives – local and state elections.

The question is, will we take this election to step up, claim responsibility, and work on our personal and systemic contributions? Or will we default to what is easy?

Race-baiting in election season is easy. Refusing to play this game is hard. Changing the game is harder. And creating new theological discourses among the average Christian may be the hardest of all.

The only way to change the game is to play it, and switch up the rules while we play. We can vote out of character. We can put pressure on our candidates to play differently. We can work with others to find a way to change the financing of campaigns and elections. We can use our moral voice; but only if we participate. We can expose ourselves to diverse theologies that challenge us to follow Jesus by moving between the pews and the streets.


And pinning our hopes and dreams on one party to best govern out of inclusion and justice instead of white supremacy? It’s foolish. We need more than one party’s ideas and more people power than one party can galvanize, to get us out of the mess. We need Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t have a party.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

I'm Confused About That Part Where Blackface Is Still A Thing

There was a little blackface incident at Presbyterian-related Whitworth University. Click here for the story.

I like that university and I really respect the administration. See P.P.S. below.

What I find absolutely puzzling is that this kind of incident isn’t isolated. I have seen countless reports during the 21st century of people (mainly on college campuses) dressing up like "Mexicans" or dressing in blackface or donning "Indian headdresses" or any other number of offensive things.

I know I’m getting old when I think, “these idiots are going to be in charge of the world when I’m elderly and can no longer care for myself. Good luck to us.”

Here’s the thing. These people probably aren’t idiots about everything. As I have said before, common sense isn’t common. It is taught. A perfectly savvy and mature young person might make a racist decision because someone, namely parents-pastors-teachers-older siblings-grandparents-friends-pop culture, never bothered to teach her or him that some things are wrong.

So many people think it is okay to dress up in blackface/yellowface/red face/brownface. I’m here to tell you it’s not okay. In fact, I’m making a handy reference list for you.

Things that are not okay:

  1. Dressing like stereotypes of Mexicans for Cinco de Mayo (That’s called “brownface” and it’s racist.)
  2. Dressing up in white face paint and knock-off imitations of kimono (That’s called “yellowface” and it’s racist.)
  3. Dressing up in coconut bra tops and fake grass skirts (We colonized Hawaii and deposed their queen and have relegated indigenous Hawaiians to the margins of culture and history, and you think it’s cute to dress up in a stereotype of a deep and rich culture? That’s racist.)
  4. Wearing an “Indian” headdress (That’s called “redface” and it’s racist.)
  5. Painting your face with dark paint to look like a black person (That’s called “blackface” and it’s racist.)

Things that are okay:

  1. Think it’s fun to get together with your not-Mexican friends and get drunk on the fifth of May? Guess what? You can drink any day (if you're over 21)! Go ahead! Drink the tequila and eat food. Do it without a sombrero. I believe in you. (But drink responsibly. Responsible adults can drink and make merry without getting drunk. Just FYI.)
  2. Think geishas are beautiful? Guess what? You can read about the geisha tradition and consider how you are helping your own cultural traditions live on through art and music and conversation.
  3. Want to wear something festive and cute and appropriate on a hot day? Try a sundress. Sundresses can be worn by both men and women. Just ask my friends who went to a certain liberal arts college in Ohio and then all went to seminary and are now your pastors. 
  4. Want to honor the incredible contributions and diverse cultures of the first peoples? You can support cultural centers of various tribes, or contribute to tribal colleges. You can read Native American and First Nations literature. You can even get your books at a bookstore owned by a Native American award-winning author! It’s called Birchbark Books and it’s in Minneapolis. You can work for self-determination of all indigenous peoples. You can form actual relationships with people who are indigenous.
  5. Want to honor the Jackson 5? Wear the clothes that look like they are from that period and carry around a Jackson 5 LP. How clever would that be? It is completely not necessary to put on a wig and paint your face. (Because… it’s racist! Yes, you’re learning.)
  6. Want to dress like you love your body? You can do it! Yes! Show it off. Why not? Bodies are gifts from God. How about you wear a modern take on traditional clothing from your own ethnic background? If you’re more of a designer clothing person, there are some incredible contemporary American designers who are Asian American/Native American/African American/Latinx. Support them and their work!
  7. Want to have some fun? Have your friends over and play a great game like “The Game for Good Christians” or watch a wholesome movie like “Big Hero 6” (my new favorite). It is completely possible to have fun and never insult an entire culture. I’ve been doing it for years.  

Yes, it's possible for people of color who do not identify as white to participate in cultural appropriation. STOP IT. It's embarrassing. We all internalize white supremacy and white supremacist behavior. If you see someone engaging in appropriation, say something.

If any of this is confusing and you think I’m being too judgy, I recommend a little internet reading. I’ve included a few starter links below.

"What's Wrong With Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm"
"What is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong? "
"5 things white people need to learn about cultural appropriation"

Next spring, we’ll be putting out a book for churches about racism. Stay tuned!

Late Addition: My in-house consultant pointed out that this post lacks solid grounding in an analysis centered around the larger issue of white supremacy in the U.S. White supremacy as a framework explains how some people believe it is acceptable to have "white trash" or "redneck" parties. When certain ideals are normalized, pinning the responsibility for bigotry on poor white people, or deciding poor white people are an acceptable class of people to mock, becomes a diversion from the real problems of white supremacy and widening economic inequality. Poor white people are trapped, too. "White trash" or "redneck" parties are offensive and classist. Don't do it. Instead, work for measures that will reduce economic inequality, increase educational opportunities, increase affordable housing and transportation availability, and invest in the growth of jobs that pay a living wage.

P.S. And if you’re more upset by this post and my judgmental tone than you are by the refugees fleeing Syria and Libya and not finding any country willing to take them, you need to re-order your priorities.

P.P.S. About Whitworth University: I chose to attend a different school for my undergraduate education in part because when I was applying for admission, the college (it was a college then) didn’t allow gay and lesbian students space to meet on campus. When your mom serves an open and affirming congregation that marches in Seattle’s Gay Pride parade, that kind of thing is important to you. But strides have been made. It’s a legitimately good place. They hosted a conversation on race and gender at which I was a speaker, and they are very hospitable. I have childhood friends and minister colleagues who are Whitworth alumni. This is not a Whitworth problem. This is an American problem.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Beloved

This is the sixth blog post for the Companions on the Inner Way summer retreat. The featured speaker is Enuma Okoro.

You can find the other blog posts here:


Blogging for Companions on the Inner Way: It’s Not About Me. 


Seeking Home: Where Do We Come From? 


Who Have We Become?


UnBelonging



At the second-to-the-last Lectio Divina group, the passage was I Peter 2:10. My word was “mercy.” 


Well. I’m so good with mercy as a policy (people who have served time for the felony for which they were convicted should get the right to vote in all 50 states!). But when it comes to myself or others with whom I’m in relationship? Not so much. Sometimes I’m so wrapped up in all the stuff that I miss the whimsy and delight and mercy around me. Here’s a reminder of the mercy I have received and the mercy I might consider extending to everyone, especially the people I know. 

Usually, and maybe this is because I’m a pastors’ kid, by the second or third worship in a row, I feel the temptation to skip it. That’s because I never skipped any worship as a kid (I really missed out on potential rebellion and I’m a little bit disappointed in myself). 

I didn’t want to skip any worship at Companions. I ducked out of the healing service early, but that was due to needing to call home at midnight eastern time. And it left me wracked with guilt and feeling disrespectful. (This may explain why I never skipped as a kid.)

It was worth not skipping. The preacher for the Thursday afternoon worship was Scott Quinn. He had me at “Star Trek.” The sermon, with a reading from I Peter 2:9-10, opened with sadness about the death of Leonard Nimoy and confessions of devotion to Star Trek. The character of Spock lived a paradox, never quite fitting in. The scripture reading tells us the hearers didn’t quite fit in because of their faith. They are urged to live that paradox. 

Whether insider or outsider, we belong to God. 

Not fitting in can be positive. Those of us who feel we don’t fit in are forced to look elsewhere for happiness. We can’t look for external validation; we have to look inside. We find belonging in God, in belonging to a purpose beyond ourselves. 

Those of us who are fans of Star Trek remember that in “The Wrath of Khan” (the second movie in the classic Star Trek series, for you newbies), Spock says, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” 

We are given community; in community, we are re-membered. We are reminded whose we are. Sometimes, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many (cf. “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”). Each one is precious enough for the community to sacrifice on her or his behalf. Each one belongs to God and a purpose bigger than yourself. 

The preacher for the final morning worship was Enuma Okoro, a treat for those of us who had been journeying with her throughout the week.  The first reading was  from the book “Passion for Pilgrimage” by Ellen Jones (the section I caught was, “I do belong to God, and this love affair is true”), and the second reading was from Isaiah 43:1.

Enuma shared that where she is from, a name is given to a child on her or his eighth day at a naming ceremony with the elders, in the hope that the child will grow into her or his name. Names say something about who we are and who we could be. In Scripture, God does a lot of naming and re-naming.

We’re familiar, of course, with Jacob being re-named Israel, Sarai and Abram being re-named Sarah and Abraham. A new name means a shift in identity, a new direction. 

Some of us have taken on names or been given names that are not leading us closer to God. We experience people telling us who are, naming us as failures. We take on false names and labels, which make us smaller. One of Satan’s weapons, Enuma said, “is to try to convince us that we are not already named, that we do not belong.” 

But God has already given us names: saint, friend, daughter, son, beloved. We are already named, and God expects us to walk into that name. To be beloved means God is walking with you. “Beloved” is to be beckoned home.

I neglected to tell you we held hands and sang and walked when the retreat began. We did the same as the retreat closed. This was lovely and meaningful, but it was about ten times less lovely because I’m a sympathy crier. At an event like this, a lot of people are dealing with a lot of things. Having space with God in community can remind you of your preciousness, provide you the space to grieve those lost. So when others cried, I almost cried. Ugh, empathy. Messy. (I’m sure empathy is a gift, right? I just hate crying.)

On the way home, with three flights I had plenty of time to think. 

Things I will miss:
Morning prayer by the lake
Space
Structure for prayer and engagement with the holy in community
Singing multiple times a day

Things I’m looking forward to:
2-ply toilet paper
Coffee at its appropriate strength
Dogs
Bourbon
A whole week of meals with no processed soy products
Squeezing my friends’ baby
Internet fast enough for talking with nieces

If you are interested in attending a Companions retreat, next year’s retreat in Malibu will be February 28 and March 4, next year’s summer retreat at Lake Tahoe will be August 7-12, and the first weekend retreat will be October 14-16 in Newport Beach, CA. The weekend would be a great format for those of you who find it hard to take an entire week away. 

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to attend the Companions retreat and to get to blog for these good folks! And now that I’m back to the office, I carry with me a sense of delight cultivated by the past week.  

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Exile and Belonging

Questions for the reader are in a different font.

This is the fifth blog post for the Companions on the Inner Way summer retreat. The featured speaker is Enuma Okoro.

You can find the other blog posts here:

Blogging for Companions on the Inner Way: It’s Not About Me. 

Seeking Home: Where Do We Come From? 

Who Have We Become?

UnBelonging

Beloved

After our break yesterday, we had our Lectio group. The Scripture passage was John 15:18-21.

I am not particularly fond of the Gospel of John. And this is a particularly uncomfortable passage. The phrase that stood out to me was “on account of my name.”

What the heck is that about? I wondered.

I went to the art room (at least I’m persistent, eh?) and started with oil pastels. I wanted to draw the vortex that can be the national church.

I’m not saying this because I don’t love my work, or where I work, or my colleagues. It is a natural hazard of being national staff that it can become a vortex, both in the sense of how the place can feel during busy times, the number of hours I could work if I were feeling particularly unhealthy, and in the sense that in some settings you become a natural magnet for everyone’s complaints.

But I thought, “it’s about the call.” I don’t think that being national staff is akin to persecution. It is a privilege and a gift! I get to see things most people don't that are awesome. (Besides, I get to help publish books!) It’s just another way to serve the church. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think following God’s call, however, can be a tricky beast. It gives life, and it can be very hard. Sometimes there are roses, sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up and says “I told you so!” and some times there are lovely gifts to be had. So. On account of the name.

When someone asks a why question, I always say “Jesus” – it’s a joke, but it’s true! Jesus is the reason!

Here’s my art. As you can see, I’m not 100% sure how oil pastels and watercolors work. I thought I’d contrast my work with my brother’s. You can find him at www.davidcheifetz.com and if you click on his art, you'll be directed to his website in another window.

Mine: 


My brother's:

"In the Void"


"Sparks on Third"

Yesterday afternoon, I had a moment. I was getting tired. Writing makes me tired. Doing all the spiritual stuff can make me tired. And I was way behind on my Fitbit challenge with my colleagues. (I think being at 6500 feet elevation should give me extra points, but it doesn’t work like that.) So I had diet Pepsi at dinner. The beginning of the end.

After dinner was worship. Now, I thought it was a healing service, nothing more. Nope. It was a full service with the Eucharist and then a healing service. I love the Eucharist at every worship, provided the logistics aren’t too complex. I’m still impressed that at every Eucharist, the celebrants are wearing a different set of stoles that match the cloth over the altar. I was clearly tired, because I didn’t bring a note-taking device with me, which is why there are no Tweets from last night’s service!

Sharon Edwards was the preacher; the kind of preacher that makes me want to hang it all up and just go hear her. First, no manuscript. Second, completely coherent. Third, embodied.

I remember my own interpretation of the sermon, so forgive the inaccuracies. She pointed out that exile is not always a place we go. Sometimes it is waiting at home, and we get tossed into it. Sometimes exile finds us.

Exile is hard. In exile, sometimes it is all you can do to breathe. Being able to breathe is the first struggle. And when you can catch your breath, you might ask God “where are you?” And God says, “I’m in your breath.” Perhaps is it is no accident that the Hebrew word for the Spirit of God is ruach, interpreted as “breath” or “wind.” But exile is not all bad. Exile can give us new eyes; we can see new things.

This morning, I finally took a photo of the morning prayer by the lake. It is a series of movements, singing, readings, and a breath prayer. It is pure bliss.



When we gathered for our morning session, we began with a slide show of images and readings and song. Today’s theme was: “A People’s for God’s Own Possession: Belonging to God.”

The Scripture passage for the day is Isaiah 44:1-5.

We talked about Jacob, and about God’s covenant with Jacob. Belonging to God, Enuma Okoro, the speaker, pointed out, isn’t easy. Based on this relationship between Jacob and God, being God’s people means a lifetime of wrestling. This passage says, whatever happens, I am God’s. I am already claimed. And I belong to a people (generations of them) who are God’s.

As a reminder, a covenant is a binding contract, and in this relationship, we see Jacob is bound to God’s purpose and love. He wasn’t bound because he was perfect (Enuma said, “Jacob was kind of a scoundrel.”), but because he is claimed by God in who he is. After wrestling with the angel of God, Jacob walked with a limp. Every step was a reminder of the wrestling and the blessing.

We were invited to draw how our bodies feel. We had to illustrate how we feel, physically. As the speaker said, many of us are taught to think with our heads and our hearts, but taught to ignore our physical bodies, and what they are telling us. She invited us to consider these questions:

Draw your body. How does my body feel? How does my stomach feel? How does my heart feel? Imprisoned? Scared? How do my hands feel? Why? Do they feel empty or fumbling?

Here is my drawing. For a fun contrast, I included one of my brother’s figure paintings.

Mine: 

My brother's:
"Naiad"

After we drew our bodies, we engaged in a conversation with God. We imagined God was looking at our image with us, and asking us questions about it. We wrote God’s questions in pen with our dominant hand, and answered the question as ourselves in our non-dominant hand with colored pencil.

What does God want to know about your self-portrait?

Not surprisingly, in my conversation with God, God came off a little sarcastic. Unfortunately, in my imagination, God is like a little too much like me. Big oops. And I didn’t get to how my body FEELS in the first page. (I have a former therapist who used to say, “I hear how you THINK but how do you FEEL?” Apparently I’m not perfect yet.)

God in black ink: Those dark circles under your eyes... um...
Me in purple colored pencil: I'm tired, but I'm having too much fun to sleep.

Then we gathered in small groups to look over our prayer cards in groups. We did a shared exercise, in which we asked a question that we’re mulling over, and we looked at each card, in order, to answer the question. When you have three minutes to use your card to explain an answer to a question, and you have that time for three different cards, with nonjudgmental listeners, a lot can happen. I’m grateful.

Home


Identity



UnBelonging



What are you working through, or asking about, in your life? What do your prayer cards show you?

Now, onto other important things. I put on my swimsuit to write this blog post because I really want to get in the water. This is where I’m headed. And here are some flowers for you, lovely reader.




Wednesday, August 12, 2015

UnBelonging

Questions for the reader are in a different font.

This is the fourth blog post for the Companions on the Inner Way summer retreat. The featured speaker is Enuma Okoro.

You can find the other blog posts here:

Blogging for Companions on the Inner Way: It’s Not About Me. 

Seeking Home: Where Do We Come From? 

Who Have We Become?

Exile and Belonging

Beloved

Yesterday’s afternoon worship involved no internet access, so I didn’t tweet the sermon, delivered by Roché Vermaak. He preached as Joseph. He had several great lines, like “my brothers hated me for my Technicolor dream coat” and “we had a slightly dysfunctional family.” He also said that he (as Joseph) had made Egypt into his home, but after the reconciliation with his brothers, home was with his family in Egypt. Letting go of past resentments helped make a new home. Letting go is not the same as forgetting. We have to deal with the past in order to live in the future.

(As a side-note, I have to say that the conference staff are impressive. They are always moving around the worship space, keeping it fresh with different arrangements and elements. And the music is pretty darn amazing.)

The Scripture for last night’s Lectio Divina group session was Genesis 45:3-5.

I found a website about Lectio Divina that might be helpful.
http://www.centeringprayer.com/lectio_divina.html

The word that stood out to me, or “glimmered,” was “presence.” I have no clue as to why. But as we did further reflection, and went away and did some art and some prayer-walking, things became a little clearer.

I call this “Presence.”



Presence: I rarely feel alone. This is in part because I have great community, even if they live far away, and because after a childhood of running around in the woods and years spent in large cities, I know I’m never alone. There is always some critter or someone else out for a walk. And the cosmos is full of life. But presence is not necessarily something that can be controlled. It isn’t a docile pet.

I have also been thinking a lot about presence, because I know a few people who have been in Ferguson, being presence in the midst of vigils and protests and important work. I struggle with how I can be a presence for social change, as a couple of earlier efforts to be present and in solidarity without going to Ferguson did not exactly pan out. I've been in marches and vigils and actions in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta for various causes related to police brutality, war, worker justice, banking reform, and ending the death penalty, but I still haven't been able to participate in anything in Louisville, where I now live. And I'm not sure I would be the right person to show up at Ferguson, a year late. I can do important work within institutional structures, and none of what I do is visible. Of what use is my presence, really?

This morning I went down to the lake early. I might do the same thing again tomorrow, since I have yet to find time to use the bathing suit I brought with me.



Today’s session was about exile, or unbelonging. Of course, exile can mean many things. We were invited to consider what it is like when home is a place of exile, or when we feel we are in exile from a person or from a place.

What are the periods of exile in your life?

The Scripture passages were John 15:18-21 and Jeremiah 29.

As I listened to Enumo Okoro speak, and reflected on exile and unbelonging, I thought of a few things. The first is that the church can be a place that is both home and a place of unbelonging. This pertains particularly to those who are not cisgendered heterosexuals. Too often, people who identify as non-gender-conforming or transgender or gay or lesbian or queer find that the churches that raise them are also places of rejection. Some of us are incredibly fortunate, and never have that experience. But just because the church has changed its policy doesn’t mean individual churches are equipped to be true homes.

The other thing that came up for me is my relative comfort with exile. I’ve been in exile for years. Currently, it has to do with where I live. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s tiring. When people ask me where I’m from, I say I live in Kentucky, but I’m from the west. (After living for 15 years east of the Mississippi, the amount of land in the west I’m willing to claim as home has expanded dramatically. Sometimes I’m happy just to get as far west as Denver.) I live in the south, but I am not of the south. In the discussion we had in pairs, I started laughing, because after having had five years in the south, I now defend the south to people who look down on it or don’t understand it.

Yes, you heard that correctly. I defend the south, because the south isn’t just Fox News and Duck Dynasty. It is also Moral Mondays and queer activism and a fantastic food culture.

Exile isn’t always bad for me. But it is not just about location. It is also that I do not always fit into my social or professional group because of my Asian American biraciality. Just because I identify as Asian American or as a person of color doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to connect with Asian Americans and with people of color. The way my denomination is structured is that each racial or cultural group that isn’t white has its own group (caucus). But how you get connected with the caucus is either you do a lot of national church work (me) or you belong to a racially-specific or culturally-specific congregation that relates to the caucus. People like me, who are people of color but not affiliated with a culturally-specific (non-white) congregation, are not universally connected with the caucus. I really love my time with the Asian American caucus, and they have been nothing but welcoming, but it takes extra work on both our parts to be in relationship. It’s not bad. It’s just how it is for me.

The value of these explorations in community wasn’t lost on me. As the speaker pointed out, our individual paths and journeys are grounded in the larger Christian narrative, which already has an ending.

Walter Brueggemann writes about exile, of course. In Jeremiah 29:4-7, God makes it clear that being in exile is its own sort of call. The people are given instructions (build houses and live in them, plant fields and eat from them) that are about what they are to do in exile. They are to really live it. They are to make themselves at home, even marrying their children to others already in the land.

And because I consider myself somewhat in exile, it was striking when Enuma Okoro pointed out the text indicates that exiles can still be beloved and chosen. Exile is not forever. It does not mean God will forget you.

We listened to a partner’s story of exile. And then we did art about not-belonging. Here is mine.




What does un-belonging look like for you?

The last time we moved, we rushed to unpack. And we didn’t unpack important files or our clothes. We unpacked linens and put up art on the first floor. We made sure beds were made for guests and the vases for fresh flowers were available. A few months after the move, and I’m still pulling out clothes from boxes. Fresh linens and flowers and art are far more important to feeling settled and at home, even in a land I don’t yet much appreciate. We have people over for dinners and drinks and an open house, hosted a work retreat, had family for a few days, and we felt at home in the midst of exile.

A life-long question for me, that the speaker also raised, is how we go one without feeling we are home. (Clearly, I put out art and make up the guest beds and gather friends around for food and conversation.) Perhaps God is really our home, whether or not we are in our place of belonging or un-belonging. Even in exile, we are accompanied.

When you feel a sense of not-belonging, of exile, do you make your home in the midst of it?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Who Have We Become?

Questions for the reader are in a different font, and resources are listed at the bottom

This is the third blog post for the Companions on the Inner Way summer retreat. 

You can find the first here: Blogging for Companions on the Inner Way: It’s Not About Me. 

And the second here: Seeking Home: Where Do We Come From? 

The fourth blog is here: UnBelonging

Here is the fifth: Exile and Belonging

And the sixth: Beloved

Here is an afternoon Lake Tahoe photo for you.



We left off yesterday during the afternoon break, the only time I can realistically write a blog post. After time to pray, relax, enjoy Lake Tahoe, or work (me), we reconvened with worship. The preacher was Jenna Meyers, on staff at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, which houses Companions. She preached about Elijah.

As Jenna says, stories help us peek below the surface of what is ordinary. Elijah’s encounter with the angel who feeds him after he prepares himself for death is full of ordinary things that do the extraordinary: a jar of water, a bush, a cake. He has enough for forty days.

The preacher shared that ever since she moved away from home, her mother has sent her full birthday cakes made from scratch, complete with candles to light and blow out. This cake might seem ordinary, but in times of feeling homesick, it reminded her where she belonged. The chocolate from her mother’s cupboard, water from Denver, baked in the family oven. A simple, ordinary object can become overlaid with memories and tap into a deep well of perseverance.

What ordinary object reminds you of where you belong? What ordinary thing helps you through difficult times?

After dinner, we met in our Lectio Divina groups. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the practice of Lectio Divina, it is a way of reading the Scriptures while allowing lots of space for the Spirit to speak. Or maybe a way to let the Spirit sneak through the cracks of our lives and holler, “Gotcha!”

The Scripture for reflection was Deuteronomy 26:1-2. I’m not really into colonialism, which of course is what I heard immediately in this passage, but I focused on the word “ground.” I’m having issues with ground right now. Ever since leaving Chicago five years ago, I’ve felt like I’m merely floating along the top of where I live. I find good restaurants, good friends and neighbors, and nice places to hang out, along with a good church, but I’m less good about digging in and getting invested in the place. Learning the politics of Atlanta was very challenging, and trying to care about Louisville, where I have lived for just a year, is really hard for me.

This group gathering lasted 90 minutes, but it didn’t feel like too long, because we had space in the middle to go off and consider the scripture and the question, and the intimacy of the conversation was a gift.

Also, I did art. Check me out! I did art!





The top photo is supposed to be Kentucky, where I live. I’m the round tree and spouse is the palm tree. Maybe. I kept working with the same scratch-off piece of paper, and so the second is Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls at night with a moonbow, one of two waterfalls with moonbows in the world. I think I’m going to try to get connected to the ground where I actually live, not the ground where I wish I lived. As I told my group, I maybe shouldn’t be following the baseball in Seattle and the politics in Chicago and whatever else is going on in New York. I just need to figure out Louisville.

Last night was the first compline service, which I love. Yeah, I love sitting in a dark room lit only by candles, with song and silence and scripture and prayer.

(It occurs to me that my stuff with maybe sucking at spirituality isn’t a lack of knowledge, or even of practice. It’s that I just don’t really engage in it in my usual life. And because I have no choice this week, I’m finding that it is comfortable. I slip right back into it, and find meaning in it.)

Speaker Enuma Okoro set the theme for this morning: “Who Have We Become?” What are the key experiences that shape our sense of self and belonging? She then asked participants why we were drawn by the topic of home and belonging.

Answers varied, of course. Belonging can be anywhere, for someone whose home is always shifting. Some find home in community, in church, in self, in another person, with God. For some it is a landscape, or a childhood home, or a way of being. As we move more and more in our society, how do we maintain a space where we are nourished? When we are nourished, we are able to go out and nourish others. Sometimes there is a need to let go of old homes and old belongings that no longer fit us or are safe for us.

Enuma spoke about the key moments in our lives that shift the understanding of self. She thinks of them as doorways. Donald Miller calls them “story turns.” We were asked to think about those story turns that impact how we interpret our own lives/selves. Perhaps it is a loss of some kind that alters who we are becoming and where we belong.

To illustrate story turns, we looked at Joseph’s story in Genesis 39 through 41. A major story turn is when Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery. We practiced reading parts of Joseph’s story out loud and suggesting potential titles of the story turns. We also looked at how many of his story turns might have started out positive or negative, but were the opposite in hindsight after knowing his life story.

The following exercises come from Donald Miller's excellent work. (You can find out more about his work here: http://storylineblog.com/). His book is listed at the bottom of the blog post.

An exercise: Think about the story turns in your own lives. Write down one for each age increment:
1-5
6-10
11-15
16-20
21-25
26-30
31-40
41-50 
etc. 
Give each story turn a title, assign it “positive” or “negative,” and give it a description.

We turned the journal of the exercise above into a timeline. On the top of the timeline: titles of positive story turns. On the bottom, titles of negative story turns.

In your story turns, what are the themes that have emerged from your life? Have negative stories been redeemed?

I won’t post mine here, because it needs more work. But I found something interesting… even the negative story turns had been redeemed one way or another (and probably thanks to all the therapy). I was able to grow in my sense of self. And the positive story turns were about growing in love. For instance, the story turn in the 21 to 25 range was the delightful discovery that the world is a lovely and big place, and so is the church. I was one of the Presbyterian representatives to a small World Council of Churches consultation of only women, and there I learned to not worry about the demise of denominations (honey, there are so many Christians all over the world), and I found there is so much more to learn. Learning is a beautiful thing.

I wasn’t able to come up with a story turn for my current age, which is perhaps because I have no distance, and distance helps us see ourselves more clearly.

The homework assignment is as follows:
Give yourselves five minutes on a timer. Write “I have come from…” and write until the time is up. Re-set the timer for five minutes and write “I am going to…” and write until the timer is up. Do you notice anything that helps you understand where home is, has been, could be?

We ended the morning with soul collage work. The prompts for our collage were the following: Acknowledge our lives are intricate. Don’t think. Just gather what grabs you.

Here is my collage, entitled: “Loved and Freed: But I Sure Do Work My Ass Off.” Includes empty space for growth.



We shared our collages with a conversation partner. We began with “I am the one who…” And when we had no more to say, our partners said, “And then?” to keep us talking. Try it. It’s a neat exercise.

Some book resources for you

Donald Miller's book is Storyline


by Elizabeth Liebert

Just now published!

by Elizabeth Liebert


by Howard Rice

by Marjorie Thompson