At the worst of times, in the worst of places, we hear the whisper.
“There’s something more to this,” it says.
“Lean in,” it implores.
We aren’t often told that the Holy Spirit and Grief are partners.
Mostly, we’re taught a narrative that they oppose one another, that we should trust the Spirit but keep the words of Grief far, far from our hearts, because she will surely tell us something we don’t want to hear. She will surely break us and we won’t know how to put it back together again.
But if we imagine Grief and the Spirit as partners, the voice of God takes on human flesh all over again, for Jesus’s life was full of grieving.
He grieved as he left home, when his days of carpentry were over.
He grieved when he moved through the wilderness and into his calling.
He grieved from Gethsemane.
It taught him who he was.
And every season of shedding a piece of his identity only to take on a purer one required the work of Grief– holy work, indeed.
We are people who numb, fix, and manipulate pain.
But Grief has something important to say, whether we want to hear it or not.
I suggest we try.
Because when we realize that we are not the only ones who are grieving– that all of humanity grieves, individually and collectively– we understand how the Spirit works.
The Spirit, birthed from Jesus himself as a gift to us, leads us out of isolation and toward one another.
And when we get there, it doesn’t mean that Grief’s work is done, that we’ve arrived at a place of joy, with no more sadness or sorrow.
It means that we continue listening to what Grief has to say, and we do it together.
She teaches us to care for our enemies.
She teaches us to forgive.
She teaches us to let God mend our hearts.
She leads us out of racism, sexism, greed, bigotry, and idolatry.
She calls us toward wholeness, if we only let her do the work.
And the Spirit holds her hand along the way.
So my friend, next time you hear Grief whispering for you, pay attention.
She is a gift in a form we don’t always understand.
But her voice is universal.
We are a nation grieving.
We live on an earth that grieves.
We go to church and synagogue and temple with grieving people.
We share sidewalks and cubicles and turning lanes with others who grieve.
That’s why Shalom’s work is not yet done.
And for all the distortions of peace that come with our bodies and souls, Grief and Shalom are partners, too, teaching us that community always works alongside the moving parts of everyone.
And we’ve got to work through the pain to get to the other side.
So many of us have been fed a Jesus who is distant and stoic, but says the hard things when we need them to be said so that we can, you know, get back on course for a few hours. He’s not really taken seriously, and if he is, it’s in bits and pieces.
The problem is, if we have a Jesus who is that easy to consume without a second thought, we’ve created a Jesus who doesn’t model the one written about in the gospels.
We want a Jesus who tells us things are easy, that we are always #blessed, that pain is never worth our time, that we get to live out our faith on our own terms with our own people. We want to be told that we don’t have to let go of our pride and that whoever gets in our way is the one to blame. We want Jesus to be the fun guy at the holiday parties.
Instead, Jesus was a rabble-rouser. He stirred things up and turned societal norms upside down. He had bruises and matted hair and callouses on his hands that only a carpenter might have. And when he told stories, they weren’t for entertainment, they weren’t children’s rhymes that we could tote along with us in case we got bored on a rainy day.
No, these were stories that hold up mirrors to our faces and our souls time and time again, asking what kind of people we actually are when it comes to caring for the oppressed and forgotten, when it comes to radical love.
Following Jesus isn’t really about having fun.
Sure, it’s about joy and laughter and knowing that we are loved so we can love others.
But it’s about digging into our humanity, even and especially our pain, digging into the lives of the oppressed, getting honest about often white-washed history and constant societal injustices.
Being an advocate and an ally isn’t really fun, but it’s necessary.
Radical love requires something else that Jesus commands us to have. Humility. If being humble during a marital spat or family fight isn’t hard enough, we’re asked as followers of Jesus to be humble with our enemies, with people we don’t know, with our neighbors, with each other, with ourselves.
Jesus never said, “Hey people! So, we’re going be humble. And it’s going to be GREAT. And we’re going to have all the fun and get all the fame and money and power because of it, so buckle up because it’s going to be quite the ride!”
Instead, he says, “All of you, human just like I am human, let me tell you something. Humility hurts like hell. It’s going to put you on your face. It’s going to force you to say and do things that you really don’t want to do. It’s going to force you to look at yourself and ask who you are and who you want to be. But don’t give up. We are uncovering daily the Mysteries of God, and it’s worth it.”
“I wonder how it feels to be a leader, writer, activist of color and watch a white woman like me earn praise for doing the same work that earns her condemnation. I wonder how it feels to watch me be recognized for doing five percent of the work to which she’s dedicated her entire life.”
It definitely doesn’t feel like fun. And it forces us to recognize that the dose of humility we each need is a little different from one another. What I need right now in my own skin and for my own soul is different from what you need. But we need each other to be honest about it.
It’s hard to be the voice speaking out, and even harder for women of color and indigenous women in America. And yet, we are a part of the gospel’s work if we follow Jesus, right? We are part of the world finding peace, right? We are part of the humble work, right?
It’s for all of us. All of us. And so, our job as allies to one another is to carry the burdens together in community.
Because no one should have to do the work of humility alone.
Jesus wasn’t walking around with a fun wagon behind him, carnival songs blasting from its speakers. He wasn’t the life of the party. He healed people. He said hard things that knocked people off their feet and their high horses.
And he did it in community.
He was always sitting with the people who smell bad and look bad and don’t talk the way a “civilized” person should. He rubbed his bare skin on lepers and used mud to heal people. He told others to listen to the women, to the children, to those that are often considered disposable.
Jesus, who was human, laughed and breathed and cried and railed against a broken system like any person could.
But he did it humbly. He was a servant.
So when we look at him, we should feel the weight of the hard work ahead of us, because following this Jesus is more than getting a pat on the back and it’s more than getting a party mansion in some heavenly realm when we die.
Kingdom here, now, is about a humble trudge through the mud of what we’ve done to this earth and to each other, and how there are still sacred moments in all of it.
Humility is our faces close to the ground, so that we know what it’s like to be on the bottom, so that we know what it feels like to touch the earth. It’s not a party there, but it’s fullness.
Humility is the tool by which we walk this road, the tool by which we protest and we cry out for justice, just like Jesus did—Jesus the protestor, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the protector.
But here’s the beautiful truth. Humility is this fullness that we cannot possibly understand.
It’s the ability to say, “I am small, and I honor you,” while looking at a tree in the forest or watching the ocean, while looking another human being in the eye.
Humility is the way we get to one another and the way our stories do the work of teaching us what it means to love.
So while we learn who Jesus is, while we spend our days getting it wrong and getting it right and getting it wrong again, let’s remember that we weren’t called to just have fun, to take things lightly, or to live for the sake of political parties, blessedness, wealth, prosperity, or even people-pleasing.
We’re called into dying so that we may live, the very lesson taught to us throughout the seasons of the earth, as we tend to our gardens and hope to bear fruit.
We’re called to humility, because it brings us full circle to the person of Jesus, to that moment when we can honestly say that love is love is love and mean it from the bottom of our hearts.
“…which causes me to wonder, my own purpose on so many days as humble as the spider’s, what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?”
“But every once in a while, with a basket in hand, or a peach or a pencil, there is that moment when the mind and spirit open to all the connections, to all the lives and our responsibility to use them well.” — Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
I’m sitting in our newly organized office, a room at the front of our house facing the yard. My husband has a desk, converted from an old oak table with our computer placed on top, and I sit at a tiny desk gifted to us by my sister-in-law Melissa right after we were married 10 years ago.
To be honest, for the past few weeks, the Earth has been closely haunting me with her songs, her stories, her wishes.
Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t listening before. Usually it’s the case that I just don’t know how to. There is too much noise. There is too much Netflix. There is too much I’m just too busy.
It’s the lie of the century, really, placing blame on things like busyness. We are called to be honest people, and so, in a time like ours when the Earth is continually stripped by human greed one tree, river, and piece of land at a time, we need to remember our place.
If you’ve not read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass,I highly encourage you to. As a poet, a scientist, and an indigenous woman, she weaves together stories through her encounters with the world, a book written by a true mystic if ever there was one.
She describes, in the latest chapter I’ve devoured, the work of creating black ash baskets from the trees. It’s a process that requires the artist and creator to understand that the pieces used to make the basket are a gift, to honor the work and to carry that acknowledgement constantly with her.
We have always lived in a world that gives to us.
And if we’re Christians, our entire paradigm of religion or spiritual practice is based on the idea that grace is a true gift, passed to us in the most unexpected ways from God.
And so, we are constantly on the receiving end of goodness.
And so, we are constantly in need of becoming better givers.
I grew up reenacting the scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,you know, this one:
I spent hours in my yard, wherever I could find little sprigs of weeds that I could watch blow into the wind. I wanted a magical life, where I could sing and dance and be free with the creatures around me who ask to be free.
But along the way, I found television shows and indoor games, and the call of the wilderness became a far off dream. I became further disconnected from my Potawatomi identity, and in losing that, I lost stories that could have reminded me of myself, of God.
I still spent time outside, but I didn’t listen the way I once did. I lost sight of the magicthat once called me, unable to find the wardrobe that led me to my Narnia where Aslan sang songs of creation and benevolent beings stretched out their arms to care for me.
As beautiful and good as this world was created to be, the older we get, we inherit the human trait of deeming it a wasteland, taking whatever we want at the risk of ruining what was once full of life.
We strip trees for paper products.
We build skyscrapers without asking what creatures we’re stealing from.
We desecrate sacred sites for the sake of oil sales.
But growing up in the church, I never heard a word from the pulpit about our responsibility to care.
Sure, we were called to save souls and do our daily quiet time, to love God with our hearts, souls, minds.
But not once did I hear the word, “…and treat this world the way you’d want to be treated. Treat this land as the sacred thing that it is. We are connected to all of it, and so if it perishes, so do we.”
And I certainly never learned the truth of our history as a nation, that we stole land from native peoples and called their ceremonies pagan, savage, vile. We instead decided that our own religion should lift up economy and profit for the sake of the Gospel.
And so, as an adult, I’m returning. For 10 years I’ve watched my husband long to be outside, to find rest among rivers and rocks, to stretch the arms of his own heart out for the world to answer Welcome home, welcome home.
I recently returned to a home that I had never been to, a home that has been calling me back–the Great Lakes region of the United States where my tribe, the Potawatomi people, once lived.
We lived as the Three Fires Anishinaabe alliance alongside the Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Ottawa (Odawa) people.
While there for a conference, I took a morning to tether myself to the land, to the water. I walked to the edge of Lake Michigan and watched the waves roll in, listening for a story, for a word.
I could hear laughter in her wake. I could hear the faint sounds of time, cries of lament, words of encouragement, of keep going echoing along the shoreline.
In essence, the water was telling me, again, the story of life, my own story, calling to memory the journey I’ve taken to get here today.
She was telling me of my own people being removed from the land, forced to walk the Trail of Death toward dusty Kansas and into Oklahoma. She was telling the story of a Creator who sees and bears the pain of it all, speckling grace over us the entire way.
She was telling me that I am not alone, that I never will be.
The world, she asks us to return. She asks us to look back, to laugh, to lament, to tell the whole storyand leave nothing out.
I’m returning to things that have been calling me for a long time.
I’m returning to the work of wonder.
I’m returning to the gifts given.
I’m returning to a time before the busyness to say that these things are worth the hard work of paying attention.
And so, it is truly not enough to put aside one day out of the year to call this Earth good.
It is not enough to blame others for not caring when we ourselves have not learned to care.
It is not enough that some of our institutions care for this world and mostdon’t.
If we are alive today, it is because this world that we inhabit has sheltered us, has given to us, an extension of God’s own love.
May we return, in 2018, to the garden, to the greens, to the sights and sounds of peacemaking, because the Gospel, which has always been with the people, asks us to.
“We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.” —Braiding Sweetgrass
Maybe the stars went black that day because there was nothing else to get their attention, the people gathered around the crosses with dice in their hands and grins on their mouths, a few others hiding, stopping to stifle their quiet sobs.
After all, thieves hung on crosses every day, proclamations of miracles and resurrection on their lips now and again.
Maybe the stars went black because the sound of the nail through skin made them, finally, too tired to shine.
Maybe they just closed their eyes for a minute to weep, while the thunderclouds wailed around them.
Maybe then it only lasted a few moments, but maybe every night while we sleep, the stars go black for a second, and the thunderclouds rumble a low lament– a weep and a wail lasting centuries in this world.
Weeping and Wailing.
For every innocent body executed by the state—
Weeping and Wailing.
For every murdered indigenous person whose killer goes free–
Weeping and Wailing.
For every abused child–
Weeping and Wailing.
For the poor, who are told to pull themselves up or else–
Weeping and Wailing.
For young women, who believe their voices don’t matter in the church–
Weeping and Wailing.
For the tired widows–
Weeping and Wailing.
For young men incarcerated and abused by the system–
Weeping and Wailing.
For the descendants of the oppressed, who live generational trauma in their bones–
Weeping and Wailing.
For the Empires, who for centuries have oppressed in God’s name–
Weeping and Wailing.
For too many tombs filled with those killed by police brutality–
Weeping and Wailing.
For institutional sins of ableism, sexism, religious bigotry, toxic masculinity, white supremacy and racism–
Weeping and Wailing.
For a world that has been abused herself, beaten year after year because we say that we are called to “subdue” her–
Weeping and Wailing.
The stars went black because they had no other choice.
Because if the world went black for a moment or two, maybe the people would gather to one another and make peace.
Maybe they would remember that they belong to each other and the world they inhabit, there in the darkness, there with the thunder calling their names.
Maybe the darkness puts us in the tomb, too.
Maybe we go there to weep and wail ourselves, for injustice, a longing to be whole again.
When my partner and I traveled to Uganda in 2009 for a research trip, I remember the moment at tea time when I finally realized what colonization looked like. Uganda, a country colonized by the British, still bore the familiar scars of that control in something as simple as a cup of tea in the afternoon, even though it gained independence in 1962.
Still, back then at the age of 20, I would never have applied the idea of colonization or assimilation to myself or my own country—no, America would never admit that we are a colonized nation, but it’s the truth. We are taught instead that this land was gloriously discovered by Columbus, and that later it was simply a liberating land from the tyranny of the church of England.
But the terror of what happened on these shores once Europeans arrived is mostly unspoken of. The genocide and assimilation are stories told amongst the indigenous peoples of this land but not often by the outside culture.
A lot of people ask me why I consistently use the term “decolonize,” and part of the reason is to make the point that we are colonized in the first place.
My partner and I attended a showing of Black Panther recently. I waited with anticipation to see a film that celebrates the African culture of so many people I admire and denounces the work and aftermath of slavery.
I realized that I was holding my breath as Wakanda came into view a few minutes into the film.
I was holding everything inside myself still because suddenly, for a moment, a world that had never been colonized appeared before my eyes, a tribal people, rich in culture, indigenous to their land.
Obviously, I’m not African. But I am indigenous to a land that has been pillaged for profit, and I belong to a people who were marched on foot away from the Great Lakes into foreign, barren territory in other parts of North America.
My partner sometimes describes the United States like this: imagine a colonized country in which the colonizers never leave.
America is the place that brought 12.5 million African slaves on ships from their homes across the ocean.
America is the land that saw its indigenous population shrink 90% from the millions that lived here before smallpox blankets were distributed. By 1900, only 237,000 indigenous peoples were in the United States, compared to the 10 to 12 million that once lived here.
In contrast to these colonial atrocities in America, Wakanda is a land free of its abusers, a land rich in resource. And as I watched it, I imagined my tribe, the Potawatomi people, the Anishinaabe, long before colonizers arrived on our shores.
I imagined the way we grew wild rice on the water and harvested the trees for syrup. I imagined the way women were honored and respected, the way they prayed over the water, their strength publicly valued for all to see. I imagined us, the people of the place of fire, doing the sacred and beautiful work bestowed upon us by the Creator.
Colonization took what was and said, “You must look, sound and think like us, and to do that, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.” Thus generations of “kill the Indian, save the man” have attempted to turn people of rich tribal histories and cultures into cookie cutter white, American Christians who have lost ties to their own cultural ways.
And following that, slaves stolen through the transatlantic slave trade were brought for the sole profit of a colonized America in which bodies of color were considered less than human, like those of First Nations people. And so, we are bound up with one another’s suffering, even today.
Erik Killmonger, the Wakandan villain and victim of a colonized, racist America says in Black Panther, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
In the past year and a half of learning about my own ancestors and my own story, I have walked closer to the stories of my African American brothers and sisters, whose ancestors were forced onto a land that they did not know. I grieve that I have not known more of their stories and struggles. I grieve the systems in which I’ve lived that benefit from their suffering.
Somehow, in a way that I do not fully understand, colonization brought us together, and when I see Wakanda, I can believe that we are not just colonized people.
For First Nations people in the United States, the goal of the American system all along has been to assimilate us so much into white culture that we disappear, that we forget our own cultures, languages and ways. But Wakanda will always be this picture of celebrated African culture, and by extension, a celebration of all decolonized cultures as well.
Even if we are doing this on an individual level, fighting colonial systems of oppression, we are working toward a common goal, and the church has a huge part to play in this conversation. If we are to be people who follow Jesus, who was literally crucified for defying the culture of the powerful, we need to be having conversations today about breaking down systems of colonial oppression in the American church.
And in 2018, movies like Black Panther are helping lead us there. So, with our fists raised high, as women warriors who are not afraid, but sacredly bold and beautiful, we proclaim, “Wakanda Forever!”
…a new day is upon us, as indigenous people of this land are revitalizing their languages, restoring familial kinship systems and rediscovering their music, dances and art forms in Jesus Christ—all for the glory of God!
I recently joined a group at my church called Be the Bridge, a gathering of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds coming together simply to process race within the church. Started by Latasha Morrison, Be the Bridge works to create people who press on “towards fostering and developing vision, skills and heart for racial unity.”
The first week that we met, I cried while introducing my story as a Potawatomi Christian, because I don’t often have safe spaces in which to share my story. It’s one thing to write about it, but it’s another thing to talk openly about the struggle. It was like a group therapy session, people from different backgrounds sharing their racial experiences with one another.
In another small group setting, someone brought up Lent, asking what we’re prepared to give up (or pick up) this Lenten season. I hesitated.
Because so much of my journey as a Potawatomi woman and a Christian feels like a strange wilderness (you can read more about it here), Lent is just an extension of that. I could give up chocolate or sugar, but I feel like there’s something more here, something else that’s asking to be paid attention to.
So, I have a different idea for this Lent.
What if we decided to look our habits in the face this Lent? And I’m not talking about the way we eat or how often we watch television.
It’s more subtle than this.
I’m talking about our institutional habits that have been crafted over the years, systemic habits that have pitted humans against other humans, humans against the earth.
Habits such as racism, ableism, stereotyping, hatred, bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy, white supremacy, or damaging religious rhetoric are the things I’m talking about.
If you grew up in religious settings that told you what to believe and how, no questions asked, you know that day after day, those beliefs become habits, and after a while, it’s terribly difficult to break them.
As the old saying goes, old habits die hard.
And that’s what Lent is about, when we’re faced with a wilderness experience that asks us to look beyond our skin and bones and see what lies there, deep inside.
So this Lent, I’m asking us to look at what’s underneath. I’m asking us to check into the subtleties of damaging habits and mindsets, ones that have been brought to the surface of America’s landscape lately.
I’m asking us to sit in the wilderness with Jesus as we ask how we got here and where we are going.
I’m asking us to have really difficult conversations.
One of these subtleties happened for me recently when I was asked, not for the first time, “So how far back?” How far back does your Indian blood go?
As my husband lovingly and passionately pointed out later, I could have simply said, “Me. I am an enrolled member of my tribe, and so you don’t need to ask that question. It’s me.” But in the moment, I freeze over these kinds of questions. I explain who my ancestors were. I explain that I am on the tribal rolls of my tribe, that I can trace my people back to the Great Lakes Region of the United States before the Trail of Death.
But you see, that’s not the answer people are looking for. Because we are trained to ask for a blood quantum. We’re trained to say, “So, your native blood is running out, right? How native are you, really?”
But we can begin to break some of those habits and recognize that the things we’ve been institutionally taught have fostered attitudes of racism, hatred and misogyny in America, and in our schools and churches.
So this Lent, I intend to keep my mind alert.
I intend to face my own racism, whether it’s against my African American brother or the white woman who asks how Indian I am.
I intend to watch how I interact with my brothers and sisters with disabilities, how I pay attention to their needs and battle stereotypes that are set up against them.
I intend to have conversations with my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, to learn from them, their histories and stories, their experiences in America.
I intend to pay attention to the mental paths my mind takes when I get defensive, to trace those paths back to institutional habits that have been set in place for years.
Then, I intend to pray into those spaces.
And know this, I am one of those people who believes that prayer is a constant position of the body, mind, spirit. That also means I’m pretty bad at sitting still with the silence.
So I want to sit and face my own habits. I want to face institutional racism, misogyny, hatred, religious bigotry, and I encourage you to do the same.
And as you explore these things too, share what you’ve found with us. Use #oldhabits on social media to begin conversations about where you’ve noticed your mental processes going and how you want to change them. Challenge the systems that put them there, and challenge yourself not only to create new mental and spiritual habits, but to challenge those institutions as well. Challenge them for your children. Challenge them for future generations.
The only way we begin to kill old habits and pick up new, healthier ones is to do it in community, to do it with others in spaces like Be the Bridge groups, in conversations on Twitter or in private Facebook groups, with people we trust, over cups and cups of coffee where we understand that the conversation, as hard as it may be, is far from over.
So here are a few ideas for this Lent, always, always with the work of shalom and grace in mind:
Grab a cup of coffee or dinner with someone who is of a different race than you are, and take turns telling your story. Don’t interrupt one another, don’t get defensive if something difficult is said. Come to the table with the understanding that you want to pay attention to institutional racism.
Listen to some women in your religious circles. Challenge misogyny. Get a group of men together and ask them to share stories about the women who have shaped their theologies. If you’re creative, make a video of those stories and share it with your church community.
Read new books by people of color (here’s a perfect list to get you started!), and read new books that challenge what we’ve been taught about our history, like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Honor #BlackHistoryMonth by listening to black voices around you.
Read the Bible with eyes to see that Jesus was an activist, a rebel, and someone who constantly challenged institutions. Ask what that looks like for you in America in 2018.
Give yourself and others grace, because we cannot move forward if we are paralyzed by fear or by how hard this is. It is going to be hard, and it’s going to be terrifying at times. You are not alone.
May this Lenten wilderness call us out of ourselves and into the wholeness of a God who sees color and diversity and calls it good.
May this Lenten wilderness make us uncomfortable enough to ask difficult questions, and patient enough to listen for difficult answers.
May this Lenten wilderness bring more of the truth of gospel to our circles, the heart of justice and shalom always guiding us into a more inclusive faith.
May this Lenten wilderness lead us to deeper love for the created world we inhabit and for one another, precisely because of our differences. May we no longer feel the need to say “we are color blind” but that “we love others because we are not the same.”
May this Lenten wilderness remind us that wildernesses are meant to show us ourselves in the face of a world that reflects all the wild love of God. May we lean into that truth today.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir
And we end up leaving exhausted because we have to hold our own culture’s truths and tensions with the gospel, and also hold all these cultural, racial, belief-based tensions with one another.
As a worship leader, I pay attention to the room during worship.
I listen to the voices in unison.
I wonder where people are coming from when they sing words like, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”
And as I am analyzing these things and trying to worship through my own experiences, I come back to this idea of nakedness.
Theresa ofAvila says it like this:
You find God in yourself and yourself in God.
To know the true mirror image of God is to know ourselves fully, as we are fully known.
And that means that while we stay tethered to and learn from and engage with our cultural lenses, we also zoom into our souls, into that naked place, to that deepest part of who we are to embrace Mystery, without analyzing any of it.
We embrace Mystery without analyzing any of it.
This means that we even have to allow ourselves to step out of the mindset that worship should look, feel and seem a certain way.
To embrace Mystery is to recognize that worship is something fully beyond us that we step into and participate in, and not just in a church building full of people.
One of the most worshipful experiences I had recently was while I was staying at an AirBNB in the Blue Ridge mountains. I took an early evening walk, mittens on and a cup of coffee in my hand. As I turned the corner, I watched a family of deer run across the street and up into the woods on the other side. Before they disappeared, one of them stopped, turned around, and stared at me for a few seconds.
Sometimes worship happens as a rootedness that we do not expect or even think we deserve.
The mirror image of myself in that deer was nothing but worship, a moment to recognize my own sense of belonging in this world. In the space, beyond my culture, beyond the fact that I am a Potawatomi woman, that I am a mother and wife and worship leader and writer and friend, I was simply one soul looking at the soul of another creature.
We were simply acknowledging one another, and in that, acknowledging Mystery, without analyzing any of it.
So we erase the lines that make rules to tell us when and how to worship. We expand our thinking outside the walls of the church and realize that “occasionally it is not the open air or the church that we desire, but both” (John Philip Newell).
And this is difficult when you’re on church staff, when you’re trying to figure out how to run a church with various cultures, to honor diversity, to honor the life of Jesus. I get that. But leading others in worship means we lead them out of themselves, and we also lead them out of the mindset that worship must look the way the American church thinks it should look.
And soon we find that deconstructing our worship patterns is actually a return back to that nakedness, to that mirror image between us and God, between us and the world, between my own culture and yours.
And then we find that worship has done its work, because the glory of God happens when this created world is fully alive to beauty, to love, to all of those things that we have such a hard time finding because we are so constantly trying to analyze the questions and critiques as they come to us every week in church.
Because of and despite our questions and critiques, the Mystery is still there, still engaging, still asking us to look and respond, to be present with every aspect of ourselves, to the honor and glory of God.
In America, and many parts of the entertainment world, people really like dramatic Before-and-After experiences.
We watch a home go from a hoarder’s filled mess to a dream home;
We watch the un-groomed man or woman become fashionable;
We watch a special nanny whip disrespectful kids into shape;
We praise the salvation experience– before we were heathens, now we are saved.
We love the drama.
We’re addicted to the adrenaline of the outcome.
Today is Christmas Eve, and if you’re a Christian like I am, we celebrate that today is a Before-and-After experience, too.
Before Jesus and After Jesus.
Before salvation and After salvation.
As much as the world ached for the Savior, we can’t forget that it was still a world in which God was present. Too often, we demonize what was Before, and we say that the After picture means true victory.
Sometimes, this is absolutely accurate.
But let’s not forget the life blood still pumping in the Before.
Let’s not forget the heart and soul of people struggling to be truly kind and good in the Before.
I’m reminded of America’s history here.
To the European colonizers who came to make something great out of this land, the After picture was the true pride and victory of what we now call the United States.
But remember, friends– what was here in the Before?
Groups of indigenous people, thriving on our land, tending to the earth.
We were still hurting people who sometimes fell into war and malice.
But we, as people of the Before, were still humans searching for and listing to the voice of the Creator.
Let’s remember that our opinions of the Before are not always accurate, and let’s trust that sometimes the After actually takes away our humanity, too.
So on Christmas, while God dwells in the After of Jesus, God always dwells in the Before, too.
As an Evangelical, I grew up, with my community, painting salvation stories really clearly– I was lost, now I’m found.
It’s the ultimate Before-and-After.
But lately, I’ve had to break myself free from that paradigm.
Because too often we begin, as people of the After, to demonize those of the Before. We belittle their existence and experiences, and in doing so, the grace of God to truly be with us–our Emmanuel.
So as you watch Before-and-After experiences unfold, remember that both may not always be what they seem.
After all, Jesus taught, as an adult, that his very presence exists in people you’d least expect– children, the poor, widows and orphans, the alien. They are people that the world pushes impatiently into transformation.
If he teaches that, maybe the Before experiences are worth paying attention to.
At my in-laws’ house on Christmas Eve, I’m watching snow fall and cover everything in its wake.
As I watch this tiny spot of the world transform into the After, I can’t help but look out and say a word of gratitude to the Before, to yesterday, to the snowless moments that prepared me for this very instant of awe.
Merry Christmas, friends.
May you find glory in the Before as well as the After, and in every space of transformation along the way.
I’ve been doing what a lot of Americans do during the Christmas season: watching cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. Recently I watched one called My Santa, a movie about a single mother who falls in love with Santa’s son. While I wouldn’t recommend you spend an hour and a half watching it like I did, it reminded me of the difficult time so many single parents have at this time of year.
I was a child of a single parent at one time, and right now I’m solo parenting for a few weeks. Every time my partner goes on a trip, I’m reminded of that time when my mother had to care for three kids and work full time. I remember that she was tired, and while the holidays are still really sweet memories, simple memories—I don’t think as a child I picked up on the stress that she carried constantly. What I remember is that we listened to Nat King Cole and Harry Connick, Jr. while we decorated the tree. What I remember is gratitude that I was loved.
After my partner had been away for a few days, I shared a thought on Twitter about how hard it is to be parent, and at the end I said, “Please tell me I’m not alone in this?”
A flood of responses came in, parents of all ages telling me that I am not alone, that parenthood is hard and beautiful, that our children are a handful and that’s absolutely okay. I was given permission to breathe a little instead of telling myself over and over that everything was fine and I shouldn’t be stressed because I have a good life. I was forcing gratitude on myself so that I couldn’t admit that it’s just hard sometimes.
And because we don’t like to admit it when things are hard, we don’t let others admit it, either. We often make it more difficult for our single parents, especially in a society that prides itself on consumerism and the idea that kids can ask for whatever they want from Santa and will get it.
It puts single parents, who are often struggling to make ends meet, in a difficult, exhausted position, not to mention the fact that they are missing out on the partnership that gives them the opportunity to receive their own gifts on Christmas morning.
It snowed here in Georgia recently, and that morning, I noticed a lot of birds flocking to our empty bird feeders that hang from hooks out front. So I refilled all of our birdfeeders out in the yard, and watched as birds flocked to the newly filled feeders, stocking up on food before the snow began to fall and the temperatures dropped. I watched, with great honor, the creatures I had the chance to care for. I was in awe that I had the energy to care for creatures other than my two boys and our puppy, because while I’ve loved our time together, it’s been exhausting.
I remember single parents who do not always have the ability to step back and rest and care for others because they are exhausted and this season requires so much from them. I remembered that the years when I had a single mother, we struggled but found grace in the kindness of others who took the time to care for us, whether it was our landlord or family friends.
So during this holiday season, let’s remember our single parents. Let’s remember that those of us who have partners shouldn’t take it for granted. Let’s practice sensitivity over judgment, and follow a few simple rules in honor of the single parents around us:
This isn’t a time to wonder if a parent is single because they are divorced, or because they had a child out of wedlock, or because their partner died. It’s not a time to wonder how much they’re putting in the offering plate or why they seem so exhausted around their kids. This is a time to hold space and to give as much grace as possible. It’s a time to listen instead of talk. It’s a time to embrace the idea that our souls are connected to one another because of our humanity, and that is enough.
Let go of consumer culture.
One of the best things we can do for our children, for our culture and those who are less fortunate in it, is to pull ourselves away from the constant consumer culture that involves Black Friday sales and expensive shopping malls. For those of us who love gift-giving, consider shopping at antique malls or thrift stores, making homemade gifts or sharing an experience with a loved one. If we can change our culture, maybe we can make space for the single parents in our midst to do what they can for their own families with our full support.
Offer Holiday Help.
If you know people in your life who are single parents, reach out to them. Let them know that you see them, that you’re aware of the difficulties they face during this time. Offer your time so that they can wrap some presents or have an afternoon to themselves, or invite them over for a holiday meal. Drive around and look at Christmas lights together. Bring them into your spaces, put yourself in their spaces, and learn what it means to be community to one another.
Be Kind to Strangers.
As a general rule, right now everyone needs to be kind to everyone else. This goes beyond social, political and religious circles. We cannot afford to continue living in such a toxic, dual mindset that seeks to divide anywhere we can divide. Actions and attitudes like this begin in the heart and trickle out to everyone around us, creating waves of chaos and hurt.
Often, our children get caught in our fights, and this holiday season, we need to make space for our children to simply be children, and for our single parents to have peace to care for them without worrying about being judged by their neighbors or a stranger on the internet. So we practice kindness in the grocery store, in the airport where a single parent is traveling with their children. We buy someone a cup of coffee. We practice it at the park, standing in line at the post office to mail packages.
Maybe if we put on Christ-likeness this Advent season, we’ll take on the work of being blessing to those who are tired and in need of that kindness, and we will remember that God chose one single woman to bring the Savior into the world in the most beautifully humble way.
May we remember that as we care for the single parents in our midst this holiday season, as we thank them for the hard and beautiful work they do every single day.
I found a gray hair on my head one morning recently.
I smiled at myself in the mirror and nearly ran into the other room to show my husband.
It’s not that I’m longing to get older quicker; but I am longing for more wisdom, for more journey.
That morning I attended a day-long speaking event by Barbara Brown Taylor in my city, and was sure that I’d be stepping into sacred space as I drove my tiny white Kia across Atlanta, listening to a Powwow Song Pandora station along the way.
I was a bit surprised that I was one of the youngest people attending the conference. I found a table and sat down with a group of strangers, women older than I, kind and willing to listen.
I was unaware that they’d be speaking over me, calling me into my own gifts, my own way, leading me the way an ancestor does, the way an elder should.
We’re to listen to our elders, we’re taught in indigenous culture.
We’re to take their stories and wisdom and let them lead us in life. But so much of modern American culture fights against that, says that the older you get the less difference you can make in the world. But I sat in that room, at that table, with those women, and they simply held space for me. It was like I was watching their legacies trailing behind them, a beautiful train attached to their bodies that told their stories as they journey from one day to the next, that keeps record of the ways in which they have learned and re-learned what it means to be human.
I told them I had a book coming out soon and that I’d brought a copy to give to Barbara. They passed it around the table, writing down my name so they could buy it when it comes out. One woman looked through some of the pages, back up at me, right in my eyes, and said, “I think this is going to be more popular than you think it is. Do you feel that?”
I can’t explain to you what happens inside of me in those moments. It’s cocoon-like, a sense that I need to listen and perceive and remember those instances clearly for what they are. And in that moment, I was sitting beside my elder and she was reminding me of who I was, ushering me deeper into my own calling as she told me about her years as a converted Jew and her personal spiritual journeys.
There are a lot of divides that come with generations, but our underlying humanity–our joys and laughters, our gifts and callings, our need for community–they hold the whole world together, no matter what separates.
I left that day-long conference grateful for the spaces in which I was asked to share my story, to speak about how my indigenous identity and my Christian identity are one in the same, and that I’m trying to reconcile the rest of the church to that reality. I tried to sit still and listen for their stories and experiences, and while I received, they were few and far between. It seems this particular experience was to remind me that my ancestors, and the elders I surround myself with, are my leaders today and tomorrow. They walk with me on this path, even if it’s for one afternoon in an episcopal church.
And when I see gray hair, I think of my grandma, who had silver hair that she kept pulled up in a tight bun. Every now and then you could catch it down, trailing her shoulders, her back, long strands of what I imagined years of wisdom that made her the woman she was to me and my family. In our human experience, even in its pain, even in its misery, even in its divine transformation, we find hope along the way, as we age, as we grow, as we choose whether or not we want humility and grace to guide us.