020. Where Liberation Lies

A few weeks ago, a writer and blogger I love tweeted this:

This is where liberation lies: recognizing the systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice, not individual failings.

I can’t stop thinking about it: “The systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice.” I think about all of the ways in which I’m either a bystander or an active contributor to cultures and power structures of injustice, all of the ways in which I’m ignoring or benefiting from those weaker or less advantaged than I am. Cultivating apathy, callousness, inaction; enjoying the easy dividends of injustice; my inhumane habits and stances. Those are what human dark sides look like–not our “sins” of crudeness or immodesty or anger or lust.

Jesus spoke often and passionately about loving the weak and the needy and the downtrodden. He actively and effectively loved the overlooked and the scorned and the pitiful and the annoying and the under-resourced–and he didn’t pay attention to what they were wearing or eating or watching.

I grew up in a deeply fundamentalist Christian culture that understood sin, or evil, as the latter: individual failings. And not just failures of kindness or empathy or integrity; I mean “failings” of a very specific and petty order. It was a culture that cultivated fear at all levels of living. Fear of crossing imaginary boundary lines: interpersonal, emotional, physical, mental.

What strikes me as especially strange about the classic fundamentalist take on sin is the reasoning behind it–the idea that God is supremely and perfectly just, and thus cannot tolerate injustice. So, our individual sin separates us from God, a separation that can only be reconciled through the perfect penance of Christ’s death. It’s clean, incontrovertible logic. But in this paradigm, God’s need for justice seems to taper out beyond those individualized arcs of reconciliation.

It doesn’t tell of a God who’s saddened by the enormous systemic injustices of the world, a God who’s concerned with the the way human nature has spawned a society so tilted that some kids skip three or four meals in a row while other kids glibly let entire refrigerators of food rot away. It doesn’t tell of a God who can’t stand a world in which dead babies are acceptable collateral in national pissing matches. Or of a God who hates when someone doesn’t get a job or a loan because of their skin color. Or of a God who cares about your part and place in that global calculus.

But the God I know is more supremely and perfectly just than I was ever taught; he’s more bent on redemption than I ever knew. And it doesn’t have anything to do with curing my lust/immodesty/anger–it has everything to do with love.

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I’ve generally avoided writing about my spiritual and theological formation as a teenager, but this seems like as good an entry point as any. It’s something I keep processing and circling back to again and again, from new angles and with new information, so I’ll certainly write about it again.

From eighth through twelfth grade, I attended an evangelical Christian boarding school in the Kenyan highlands, located about an hour outside of Nairobi. It was populated mostly by missionary kids (with a few children of business-people and expats sprinkled in), and was staffed by missionary teachers and administrators.

The school’s geographical isolation, coupled with its intensely fundamentalist ethos, created what I felt to be a suffocating and even harmful spiritual environment. Many people (insiders and outsiders alike) would have called the campus spiritually vibrant: kids attended chapel daily and went to voluntary worship sessions on the weekends; friends prayed together before meals and teachers worked God into the curriculum; and the administration was hyper-invested in the students’ moral wellbeing.

But enforced spirituality is no spirituality at all.

Fear-driven faith is no faith at all.

We were a young community kept in line by shame, or by fear of being shamed.

The culture that my school cultivated was one in which even the smallest actions were morally weighted. There was spiritual meaning to every tiny decision: how your body moved when you danced, your sartorial choices and music preferences, whether you missed a curfew, or questioned a teacher, or kissed your boyfriend, or cursed, or got into a fight. Everything could be “a sin” or a disappointment to God or a sign of horrific moral disintegration. Everything was punishable. Pretty hard to be a normal teenager in that context. Pretty hard to ask questions or try new things.

You know what was easy in that environment? Ignoring the world’s real and immediate wrongs. Looking inward, not outward. Carrying guilt around my neck. Forgetting entirely what freedom looked like.

For years during high school, I operated in a fog of fear and shame. I cowered at the prospect of being shamed. I was afraid of being exposed as a fraud, afraid to voice my doubts or my disappointment with God. It was paralyzing, like living in a metal cell where all the walls were humming with live electric currents, so you simply could not dance or jump or relax or fall asleep for fear of hitting one of the walls and electrocuting yourself. My actions were considered, measured, fearful.

***

Attitudes like the ones fostered at my high school plague so much of evangelical Christianity. They quell freedom and foster shame. They deflect our energy and focus away from the real injustices of the world, and funnel all of our energy toward policing ourselves and each other.

Instead of trusting a good God whose heart breaks for the forgotten and hurt and oppressed, we remake a god in our own image–pettiness and prejudice included. I truly believe the promise in John 8:36, that “if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed.” But what did freedom look like for Jesus? It looked like dismantling “that which feeds on injustice.” It looked like pulling out evil at its very roots. It looked a lot like the concept of ubuntu:

I am because we are.

Or, said differently, “I will be free when we’re all free.” Freedom–the way Jesus lived it out, and perfected in his death–is understanding yourself as your brother’s keeper, as someone whose freedom and wellbeing is deeply and intricately tied to the freedom and wellbeing of others. It leaves no room for fear or hesitation.

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014. Addis, Remake Me

Early yellow light on the yellow walls of the room. A small room, a just-enough room. Three stories above Kenenisa Street, and I cannot find the edges of myself. I am totally formless, just spirit and not even that–undefined, borderless, in the most disturbing of ways. Unable to stand, as I am lacking legs. Unable to breathe in the exhaust-smeared air, as I have no lungs. I feel myself everywhere and unformed, just an endless web of connections, agonizingly bereft of a nucleus. Just try to walk down the stairs as an immaterial being. Just try to splash water on your face.

Oh, there. Coffee brewing on the hostel patio–that familiar sting at my nostrils–thank god, I have found my nose. This nose, just sprung into being. Created in involuntary response, as are most created things. This one olfactory edge of my being–found, to my great relief, on the front porch.

Mombella (regal hostess of the hostel) had blanketed the porch with foot-long strands of new grass–unbearably green, their sinews still flowing with soil-water. She had just finished roasting and grinding the coffee beans whose crumby evidence could be seen under her legs, and was poking a small open stove, where the beans were stewing to a tarry medication.

Addis Ababa was so beautiful. Part of me winces to remember it, it was so beautiful. After many dark, swirling, haunted months on the Swahili coast, I finally found this thrumming city-of-sunlight where I didn’t know the language, and began breathing quietly. I lost my tongue, found my lungs. The streets of Addis were filled with small tin cars, like toy cars, painted in the colors of schoolroom blocks: sky blue, lemon yellow, apple red.

There was so much smog sometimes that at the end of the day, the insides of my nostrils would be lined with black grease. I wiped it away in front of the bathroom “mirror,” just a square of glass lined by reflective silver paper, and rinsed my fingers under the tap. An American doctor I met said he knew he was taking years off his life by breathing in the Addis atmosphere– “The same as smoking a pack a day, at least.”

One day it rained, and then there were just mud rivers coursing through the city’s street-veins, the fumes washed right out of the sky and down into the packed dirt, the streetside mannequins getting soaked to their plastic skins, their silk magenta dresses bleeding dye in the downpour. Taxi-buses wouldn’t stop for anyone, they just slowed to a gentle roll. Passengers rode with their hands out the bus-door, holding open umbrellas. I sucked a popsicle in my seat, my hair in strings, soaked inside and out.

I cannot help but react hungrily, even violently, to God–sometimes I think I was born in pure reaction, a concavity shaped around God’s good creation. I’m a plaster mask on a face I adore–my contours owed fully to the life forms around which I’ve been molded. Any beauty in me emerged only in response to much greater beauty: this desire, this hurrying-towards, this feeble imitation.

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007. Reversals

i.

Sometimes I think that growing up, or growing wise, is actually more a process of unremembering all of the destructive directives and the coded lies we’ve been soaking up since we were kiddos—more a process of shedding axioms and “absolutes” than of accumulating them. I think that growing up maybe feels like growing small, or growing light. The wisest people I know are also the most humble and most free. My favorite grownups are usually, in their burning cores, the most childlike. Maybe growing up is just one big comprehensive shrinking—you feel smaller every day, you know less every day.

ii.

Another perfect day, they keep piling up
I got happiness that I can maintain, some beginner’s luck

These days, I’m forgetting more and forgetting faster with every passing sunrise—the good kind of forgetting. Forgetting how I’m supposed to act in relationships, forgetting the meaning of the verb “to act” entirely, forgetting what used to make me scared (I try to recall the fears but they’re so alien sometimes), forgetting shoulds and shouldn’ts and should’ves. These days, happiness is piling up like generous quiet drifts of snow. Some of my most deeply lodged lies are working themselves loose—I feel the unclenching in me, a white fist opening one slackening finger at a time, though I hardly dare to say so.

iii.

Jesus said we must become like little children to be a part of his kingdom, which once offended my sensibilities because it sort of smacked of anti-intellectualism, but now sometimes all I want are the ways-of-being that I lost between childhood and now: how natural it was to trust other people, how easy it was to delight in any created thing, how much mystery seemed latent in everything, how intuitive love was, how little I noticed myself.

iv.

One of the beautiful side effects of beautiful music is that it makes you feel incredibly small, which is a pre-condition for awe, which is one of the best things you can experience inside these human parameters. This week I’ve been listening over and over and over to War on Drugs’ album Lost in the Dream–some of the most consuming, exquisite recordings I’ve heard in years. Auditory annihilation. They feel like rolling through American wildernesses, cracked badlands of the heart and country. The album’s closer is “In Reverse,” and like all art, it’s open to interpretation, but to me it sounds like someone who has come to the very end of himself, someone who has found his own limitations to be utterly real and unavoidable, someone losing his grasp on the life he once thought he owned, someone finally getting free.

Is there room in the dark, in between the changes?
Like a light that’s drifting in reverse, I’m moving

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005. Tsavo

A couple of weeks ago, my parents met me and a friend at Ocean Beach (San Francisco’s slowest borderland) and brought along our baby Great Dane, Tsavo. Tsavo is only four months old, but he’s already bigger than most of the other dogs on the beach. He’s tawny, uncoordinated, exuberant, and best of all, absolutely unprejudiced—having never been hurt or rebuffed in his life, he has no reason to expect hostility from the people and puppies he meets. He just delights and astounds me.

*

If I lie on the living room floor, Tsavo comes up to me and stretches his body along the whole length of my body, wanting as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. He’s so needy that I think my heart might burst. He’s happiest when I doze off on his tummy, like he’s a breathing beanbag and we’re just two unworried loungers with synchronized sighs.

If we don’t monitor him, he sits on the sofa like a human—butt on the cushion, four feet on the ground. Or he arranges himself on guests’ laps without asking permission (he’s a little entitled). He’s strictly not allowed in the kitchen, but if we’re cooking in there, he comes right up to the edge of the tile and looks mournfully at us, woe-shot eyes trailing our every move—accusing, beseeching. A few weeks ago, I called dad and found him right in the middle of a Tsavo tussle. He sighed into the phone: “Yep, he’s a willful one. Got some Schaubroeck in him.”

*

But I think I love him best on the beach, out in the open—no lines he can’t cross, no nooks he can’t stick his nose into. He’s just a little compact, burning, 60-pound bullet of life and energy, his ears turned inside-out in the wind, new discoveries to scare or electrify him every half-second: a yapping terrier, a thin wash of cold Pacific foam, an old man’s turkey sandwich dangling too close to the ground, a wayward frisbee, a skittering seagull, a sun-screened baby, a sinkhole in the sand. He’s alert to all of the clamoring details around him, his nose and ears burning with input, his little puppy-heart thrilling to creation.

*

My biases in the great canine-cat divide are no secret, but I truly believe that dogs embody the best qualities of humans. If you started with an average, decent human dude and stripped away all of his ego, selfishness, pride, regret and anxieties, the leftover qualities might approximate the makeup of a dog. Dogs—if they’ve had a good puppy-hood with loving owners, and there are definitely exceptions—have a seemingly endless ability to receive love. It’s the main reason I’m so crazy about them. They are big, gaping, egoless love-holes, and somehow, my love always grows in proportion to the size of my puppy’s love vacuum.

*

I think we (I’m talking humans, maybe with an emphasis on Americans) are not that adept at receiving love. American-ish self-sufficiency, a quality that at one point, many years ago, startled and repelled me, I now can’t help but consider to be (on some level) a moral imperative. We’re so slow to acknowledge these gaps in us, these recesses of need.

*

Actually, there is some falseness in those lines. I’ll stop saying “we” and just say “I,” because that’s what I mean. I am not that great at receiving love. I can accept small, coded, tentative, half-hearted gestures of love—but extravagance? The big-hearted, fearless kind of love, or generosity brinking on foolishness—I can never accept that, can never believe it’s meant for me. It is not earned and it’s emphatically not deserved. If I receive it at all, it’s only as a mistake or a charity, as love meant for someone else and inappropriately descending all over me.

*

Lately I’ve been feeling that maybe it’s not better to give than to receive. Under the absolute spread of God-who-is-love, maybe it’s infinitely better to give and receive, to keep all of your soul’s apertures wide open—his love barreling into you, his love flooding out. To let in all of the unfiltered beauty that’s been poured over us and around us, like Tsavo racing unleashed along the coastline with his eyes fluttering against the wind, his muscles stretching to extremity, his lungs tight with sea-air, free and filled. To become fierce imbibers, gulpers of this good life.

*

God’s love all over me, God’s love all under me, more of it than I know what to do with, more of it than I know how to receive.

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004. Moths

A few months ago, on the phone with my mom, I was crying. That’s nothing new. The crying was a new kind of crying, though—like relief, or release. The kind of release I imagine finally comes (in a much larger order) to people who have just endured an enormous feat of trembling psycho-physical endurance—the marathon, the trench, the slogging march of the exile.

Under those double-tests of both will and body, any falter in resolve, any sideways glance at the encircling darkness would lead to certain failure, and in some cases, death. The key to successful endurance is, I think, a temporary shrinking of the larger reality to focus only on the event at hand. It’s why runners can be stoic and soulless and steel-jawed straight through the finish line; and why, when the adrenaline of the race stops coursing through their bodies, they can become weeping crumpled children.

The sense of relief that had flooded me, and that I was haltingly relating to my mom through the radiowaves, was less dramatic and less identifiable than that of the athlete. I had just come from a weekend at Mount Hermon, a sprawling campus in the Santa Cruz mountains marked by spicy-smelling chapels, ropes courses in the redwoods, and cabins full of bygone accessories: a wood-burning stove, cast-iron skillets. It was the default site to which most Bay Area churches retreated for their annual weekends of communion—with each other, with the finally smog-less forest air, and, if all went well, with the Almighty God.

Meeting with God is rarely straightforward. I attribute this to many things, but most directly to our love of the darkness, our bewilderment in the light. We don’t know what to do in the light: flounder about in our newfound exposure, deem it uncomfortable. Undesirable.

At dusk this evening, I was assaulted by a moth on the porch of our house. I was trying to lock the front door as discreetly as possible, but the moth was making such panicked arcs around the porch-light that it kept rushing stupidly into my arm and shoulder—hurtling headfirst toward the glow to which it seemed so compulsively drawn, then losing all courage, tumbling back toward me or up into the cool wide night, keen to leave the yellow orbit. Its schizophrenia startled me. A new desire every half-second: beautiful light, abominable light. Consume me, leave me be.

I was telling my mom that, finally, I felt I was with God again, or God-with-me. Sharing the same spaces, Emmanuel. He hadn’t exactly found me at Mount Hermon, but during one of my antisocial flights from the campus, parked in a peeling 1999 Camry on the shoulder of the road beside the roaring Pacific. My sense of relief as I spoke with her came from being able, after a long period of self-imposed stoicism, to admit to all of my longings out loud.

Longings are not public things. They may determine entire human destinies, but rarely do they see the light of day. We tout our ambitions proudly, but our desires—the very marrow of our lives, so earnest and private we’re instinctively ashamed of them—remain securely trenched in us.

I told her that God had so often manifested in my life as an absence, a longing for reunion. I believe incompleteness is the most basic human condition. I have known God as a once-vital part of myself: a limb lost so early on that I can hardly remember my fully-formed self, but so great a loss that I re-encounter it every time I move my body. I told her that my longing for oneness with God, for reunion with my many lost limbs—it stretched backward like a thrumming thread through all the years I’d already lived, and even now it was stretched taut ahead of me, pulling me upward and outward with agonizing force like a newly-hooked fish.

“Well, most of life is just trying to get back to God,” she said.

Most of it is. Amen, amen.

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