Breathing Through A Reed

i’ve been breathing through a reed
underwater
without realizing it
too cautious in my surroundings
to trust breathing deeply
too tired of treading water
to thrust upwards for a view
of the sky
i’ve been trusting GOD’s presence in the water
to keep me afloat
and it is good
but GOD is also beyond the water
i yearn for that glimpse
that new perspective
on life
and the holy
for a vision of air
beyond my submerged reed

P.S. to “Beloved”

A preacher’s sermons are inevitably informed by experience—her own experiences, the experiences of congregants or others she knows, as well as communal/global experiences. So it is no surprise that my sermon on 9/27 had “Beloved” as its undertone. The scripture texts are Esther (excerpts of chapters 1 – 5) and Mark 9:38-41.

BEAUTY IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Sides are being taken everywhere we turn. Divisions and opposing positions are being constantly outlined over politics, religion, nationality, class, war, global warming, race, taxes, access to health…you name it. Lines of division are played out in almost every environment–work, school, neighborhoods and nations, churches–as they have been for decades and even centuries. Everywhere we turn. Although the lines aren’t new, the intensity of anger surrounding these divisions between people seems to have increased in volume recently.

Much of the anger and angst over these lines is due not just to the existence of the lines, but to the value that is assigned to people according to the lines: the assumptions that we make (individually and as a society) about who is good, who is trustworthy, who is beautiful, who is acceptable…and who is not good, who is not to be trusted, who is not beautiful, who is not acceptable.

Worth, or the assessment of beauty, is in the eye of the beholder as we stare at each other across the lines.

Lest we think that these lines are merely theoretical or that we can ignore the lines as we please: think for a minute about someone you know (or maybe yourself) who has been hurt, who has been limited, who has been put down because (s)he is on the side of a line that is less valued. Think about the person you know who is financially strained to the point of breaking by the costs of medical care, and the lines being drawn by politicians over health care are no longer theoretical. Think about the same-gender couples you know who share a strong and supportive relationship, and suddenly the lines being drawn by churches over sexuality are no longer theoretical. Think about the African American child you know who is told by a classmate that her curly hair isn’t beautiful, and the lines being drawn between neighbors and nations over race are no longer theoretical. Think about someone you know and love who has been told, in one way or another, “You are different, so you are not as good” or “You’re different, so I like you less.”

The lines that divide us are not just theories: they are tangible and painful experiences. Each line that is used to identify who is beautiful and who is not, who is more good and who is less good–every line is personal. And, equally important, every line, every marker of division, is a critical matter for faith. As people of faith, we have an immediate, urgent decision to make–not just once, but every day in every moment, in every encounter: will we be people who draw lines of division or people who cross those lines? Will we look across a line and see our fear of the unfamiliar, or will we look across a line and see a beautiful image of God?

Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

Our scripture readings leave no question as to how we should answer these questions, as we are pointed toward two people who crossed lines of social division in bold ways:

Start with Esther, a beautiful virgin who is chosen out of many beautiful young women to be King Ahasuerus’ latest queen. Physical beauty, however, does not equal political power for Esther, who has no authority to cross lines of gender in the king’s court. And Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father, has forewarned her not to cross lines of religion and ethnicity in the palace, so no one knows that she is Jewish. Esther lives within all of these societal lines, valued for her beauty but otherwise devalued as a woman and a closeted Jew; she toes every line around her…

…until the lines become personal. Until Haman gets mad at Mordecai and decides to take it out on all Jews. Until the image of God in her people–beautiful to her eyes and to Mordecai’s eyes–is hated in the eyes of Haman, who makes the Jews his target for malice and violence. At that point, in that moment, Esther becomes a line-crosser. She steps across lines of gender and lines of authority to approach the king directly with her appeal. She crosses lines of religion and ethnicity to challenge the king’s vision and presumptions about the value of her people. Esther crosses lines when Haman is intent on drawing lines. “For such a time as this.”

Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

If we’re unconvinced that crossing lines is a matter of faith, or that it’s a priority of living out our faith, we only have to look at Jesus and his ministry to understand that breaking down lines of division is integral to the work of the Kingdom of God! Jesus crossed social lines at every turn: touching and healing and teaching and feeding people across strict divisions of ethnicity, physical ability, class, emotional and mental state, gender, health status, political affiliation.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus even goes so far in his line-crossing as to affirm (ready for it?) the ministry of someone who is not part of his own group of disciples. Consider how radical that would be today, if churches affirmed one another’s ministries, if we trespassed denominational lines to see the beauty in our diversity of ministries! Jesus told his disciples, “Regardless of the affiliation of this other miracle worker, he is doing God’s work just as we are. There is goodness in his work. There is no less value in the cup of water that he shares with someone who is thirsty than the cup of water that you share.”

Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

It is a matter of faith to witness to the beauty we see, the beauty that God sees, against the prevailing noise of bad news and divisions. The church is long overdue in making the lines of separation personal, in prioritizing the work of following Jesus across these lines. When we each know so many stories of how these lines cause injury, when the news itself is increasingly divisive, we cannot keep silent or pretend that we have said and done enough to affirm the beauty and inherent worth of all people. Across lines of ethnicity and race. Across lines of creed and lines of gender. Across lines of ability and health and power and sexuality and finances. Having the courage to see and to celebrate the beautiful image of God, regardless of and in resistance to the loud shouting and bitter anger that seek to maintain strict divisions between us. Seeing and celebrating and standing up for beauty in all manners of diversity. Crossing lines of division–not because we are such brilliant and bold visionaries–but because God has the brilliance of vision to behold us and call us beautiful. God is the ultimate beholder who compels us to see the beauty of the image of God in all people. God is the ultimate beholder who sees us and loves us and challenges us to cross lines for the Kingdom of God.

P.S. to “Beloved”

Many have been gracious (both here and on facebook) in rising to rally quickly and virtually in support of my family and, by extension, others who encounter similar naive? ignorant? racist? remarks from their peers. My thanks to each and all.

As I read through the comments, I realized that the offense of the incident, for me, is not singular in focus; I am offended and upset both for my daughter and for the systemic insult of racial bias and discrimination. Julia is right in observing that our focus necessarily shifts back-and-forth between racism in the system and racism in the moments of daily life. After responding immediately to affirm my daughter’s beauty as an African American child, my thoughts shifted to the systemic put-down that my daughter experienced personally through the voices of other children.

To rephrase my original post, when will the affirmation of bodies of color no longer need to be a covert act of resistance but a common celebration of humanity?

My love and comfort to my daughter was not just a mother-daughter moment, it was an active resistance to every voice that belittles and seeks to undermine the beauty of brown, the joy of ethnic/racial diversity, the strength of interracial coalitions.

Yes, children can be cruel, sometimes simply because they are honest in observing differences and have not yet learned how to censor themselves, sometimes because they [white children, here] haven’t learned that there is a world beyond white, and sometimes because they learn bias & hatred directly from those around them.

But we can deal with kids. I’m fortunate to have multiple avenues of recourse in responding to this incident and to my daughter’s classmates: from giving her advice on how to respond to such comments to speaking with school officials about my daughter’s experience. Although I don’t underestimate the very real peer pressures and self-image doubts that my daughter experiences because she is “different,” I’m also proud of her self-confident and resilient spirit.

I am less confident about the rising spirit of white fear–a haunting spirit that is crying “Victim!” as it defends whiteness as normative and resists the appearance (quite literally, the increasing visibility of non-white faces, most notably represented by the face of President Obama) that hints of the death of “how things used to be.”

It’s in resistance to that fear

Beloved

This morning, my daughter pranced out the door on her way to another day of second grade. She was pleased as peach with her self-selected outfit, her dark curly hair (inherited from her Kenyan father, kept “down” with a headband today), and the academic activities ahead (she loves school).

This afternoon, my daughter returned home and reported that she had had a “kinda bad” day: several kids in her predominantly white elementary school felt the liberty to tell my biracial daughter that her hair “looked like Frankenstein” and was “freaky.” Another young student suggested that she should “do something about” her hair.

A few years ago when my son was in kindergarten, a classmate commented that he looked “bald” when he came to school with a fresh haircut. To this day, my son–now a fifth grader–has strong opinions about the length of his hair when he sits in the barber’s chair (it cannot be too short).

I’m debating a letter to the editor in the local newspaper, reminding parents that the ways in which they voice their opinions at home about politics, people, and the state of the world directly impacts the kind of crap that their kids dump on my kids. Whaddyu think, too strong?

Anyway. For tonight’s reading time before bed, I am printing out the following excerpt of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (a beautiful but troubling book) for my kids to read: that wonderful sermon by Baby Suggs in the middle of a forest clearing. Perhaps someday the affirmation of bodies of color will no longer need to be a covert act of resistance but a common celebration of humanity.

“We flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes… No more do they love the skin on your back… And O my people they do not love your hands… Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!

“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you… And the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

(Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume Books, 1988. 88-89.)

Words For Those Who Provide Care

Attend to me, O God, even as I attend to others today.
See how I am worn down
and stretched thin;
Yet I cannot quit caring,
I cannot simply step out of this role
as a care provider.
It’s amazing: somehow,
even when I fall flat with fatigue
I find you in this,
in this business and these days
of watching over and worrying about
and letting my heart be broken
for another.
Be gentle with me that I might be gentle;
Ease my pain so that I have the strength to comfort;
Be near to me
as I remain present for others.
By Jesus’ grace.