Maybe it’s the desperate hope that somehow the tide of the pandemic will finally turn and we’ll see a return to some semblance of the life we knew before. But I’ve been feeling the need to mark the days lately, to remember.
As summer unofficially ended in the U.S. with Labor Day, I noticed something strange in the air. Lately, each passing day has felt like another bead on the string of weeks woven together in this unending loop we’re in. We’ve rounded this corner half a dozen times now as we mark six months of pandemic life.
As the days have blurred together, we’ve had to be intentional to find things to make important days stand out. We didn’t plan to commemorate Labor Day in any sense. I needed to write, so I stole a few moments away at a nearby lake. I enjoyed the silence of nature but noticed the noise as well: families laughing, children screaming, dogs barking. Many had come out to enjoy the last day of summer.
While picnic blankets were spread farther apart than previous years and masks reminded us of what we’ve lost in recent days, the rhythmic beating of shallow waves against the rocks reminded me of what stays the same. I realized we can still hold onto those things if we’ll stop to notice them.
I stopped writing and called to tell my husband and kids to get ready. We needed to observe this day together. We needed to remember in hope...
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
–The New Zealand Anglican Lord’s Prayer
I wanted to savor each ship of chai in the tiny aluminum cup. I didn’t mind its heat on my hands even though my scarf already stuck to my chest, wet with sweat and humidity from the monsoon rains on the horizon. I gulped down my tea though because there was work to do.
I was twenty-four when I spent two months living with two local social workers and daily visiting the largest slums in Asia with them to assist in schools and women’s training programs. It was the summer I finally met the Jesus I’d been chasing for a decade.
Ever a rule-follower, when I started attending church at fourteen I took the systematic approach to becoming a good Christian. Pray a prayer and get saved (rededicate your life to Jesus if you mess up) and get baptized, check. Go to church and find places to serve, check. Study the Bible, check. Go out and tell people about Jesus and bring them into the church so the cycle can begin all over again with them, check.
I am forever grateful for the foundation I received as a teen hungry for love, community, and purpose. I learned to talk to God like a friend, to be responsible for my own spiritual growth, to love the Word of God, and to serve others. But that was only part of the picture. The Jesus I wanted so desperately still eluded me.
I was taught the world was a dark, scary, sinful place I needed to shield myself from. It wasn’t going to get any better until Jesus came back and saved us from it all. I thought that is what church was for—a place to prepare and equip us to go out and bring others into the hope of a world better than this one. We were saved from something and we had a mission.
But in the muddy paths between the tin and wood slum houses, I found a community that upended everything I thought I knew about what Christ came to do in this world, about God’s work of reconciliation. Like the early church, they truly depended on each other for everything. It was there I started to realize the Kingdom of God was already here, that we could be bearers of the goodness of God right here among each other.
In those days I saw poverty, hunger, trafficking, injustice, and suffering like I had never seen before. I also saw families God had restored, lives that had been made new, people willing to suffer to help others, and children clinging to the hope that this life could be better because of the Good News they came to that little church to listen to each week. I saw Muslims, Hindus, and Christians working together to make their little corner of the earth a better place for each other.
Every Sunday the kids we taught during the week showed up in tattered dresses and suits, smiling and calling out, “Namaste, teacher!” We sat and laughed over those hot cups of chai for a few minutes and then rolled up the mats we sat on, packed up the drums, and swept the floor. Class would start early the next day, and we had lots of families to visit.
The church building was swept away moments after the Sunday service was over, returning to its purpose as a schoolroom. But the Church dispersed throughout the slum to care for her people. Church didn’t stop with a worship service. My friends went out to talk to people about the lack of nutrition they experienced, about the injustice they encountered, about education for their children, and job training for women. They went out and really listened to the problems people were experiencing and asked how they could help.
“We are so quick, as human beings, to get our salvation and then make it personal. It’s all about Jesus and me,” said Civil rights activist, community developer, and Bible teacher, John Perkins. “What would happen if we organized with the expectation that God is going to use us in one another’s lives—if we recognized the importance of those around us to our own spiritual growth?”
The interdependence Perkins talks about is what opened my eyes that summer to a whole new way of seeing. I saw how each person’s life was tangled up in the others. This is a bedrock of Asian communal culture. It should also be a bedrock of communities of faith around the world, working together to see the Kingdom coming among us...
Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
“I accept whatever He gives and I give whatever He takes.” – Teresa of Calcutta
It’s not something you talk about in polite company—not being quite okay and being willing to admit it. When people ask how are you, they don’t expect an honest answer. I know; I’ve been answering honestly for months, unable to sprinkle sugary platitudes over the reality of loss and uneasiness I feel.
I’ve sat in the middle of transition, family illness, unemployment, depression, and feeling completely lost in the midst of it all. And I’ve named it, called it out loud to myself and to others. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Uneasy smiles fade. Eyes widen or dart away quickly. Promises to pray are made. People run for the door.
We’ve been conditioned to hide away feelings of pain and restlessness, especially in communities of faith. We’re a little more comfortable if it can be medicated or counseled, easily solved, or prayed away. But prolonged periods of dread, of feeling the absence of God’s presence or not being sure how to pray, of not having easy answers—that we’re not so good with.
I’ve been finding consolation in an unlikely place lately, in the company of a woman who spent well over five decades years of her life not feeling consoled at all. But she was faithful anyway. She loved with abandon anyway.
For many years I’ve felt a connection to the tiny-framed, quiet woman who lived her life among the poor and dying of India. Like so many others drawn to Mother Teresa, I’ve read her words and been awed by her from afar. Perhaps it was her selfless work for the poor that first drew me to her, our common love for India.
When I was stumbling through writing and rewriting the hauntingly beautiful curves of the Bangla alphabet a fellow language student mentioned that maybe this saintly woman also struggled to learn the verbs of the Bengali people she served, the same people I lived among and loved. I laughed at the thought of the small but mighty nun struggling with anything.
It was then that dove into a couple of biographies about the Albanian woman born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, sainted as Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church in 2013 and realized I knew nothing of her real-life at all...
I bristled when I received a message from an editor at a publishing house asking if I was working on any projects.
“I can’t write a book now,” I thought. “I’m still living in this messy space of transition between Asia and America, between old dreams dying and not yet discovering the new. Standing on this shifting ground, what advice can I offer a reader?”
As I debated my merits as a writer, I listened to a podcast in which poet Zach Savich taught about what he called “memoir from the middle of things,” writing about events that are still unfolding. He talked about living in moments that aren’t tied up neatly with a bow and writing from that place of unknowing.
I realized all I had been seeing was my own uncertain path as my husband and I struggle to know what starting over looks like. We moved around the world and back again and found ourselves unemployed, uncertain, and feeling terribly alone. But then I looked outwards and I saw it—unfinished stories, life lived from the middle, everywhere I looked...
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