Wednesday, 9 November 2016

That Which We Call a Rose

Obviously, today is a hard day. A bad man has been elected president, and all America seems to be reeling in shock. Except, this cannot be the case, for there are many, many Americans who are celebrating now. How can this be? How can it be that the name I call myself, an American, is the same name used to identify those who hate me for being what I am?

What's in a name?

This election has made the truth seeking part of me so happy, because it feels like now that our dirty laundry has been tossed into the street for everyone to see, we can start to sort it out and maybe, someday, it'll all be clean. But another part of me knows that for dirty laundry to become clean, one has to be able to differentiate between what is laundry and what is dirt.

I am a Christian. This is another complicated word today, because, somehow, the new president-elect claims participation in this ancient faith, and I have been horrified by everything that he has said and done and promised to do.

What's in a name?

I am proud to be a Christian. I am proud to follow the life and teachings of Jesus; I believe that he lived, and died, and rose from the dead. I believe that he is coming again. I believe he is our true Deliverer. I believe that he is good. I believe that he loves us. All of us.

At the same time, I am ashamed to use that title, Christian, because so, so many evil things have been done in that name.

What's in a name?

If right now, you are horrified by what Christians have done or failed to do, by what Christians have said or failed to say, I am right there with you. I just want to say, not all that glistens is gold. Not all who claim to follow Christ know where he's going.

What's in a name?

All that Christians have been asked to do is to love God with everything they have, and to love their neighbors as themselves. That does not mean merging identities with political parties. That does not mean hating the other. That does not mean doing violence in the name of God. That does not mean choosing which lives count as important. That does not mean controlling the government.

What's in a name?

In the Bible, God promises a faithful remnant, a group of people throughout history who in word, as well as in deed, aim to live as Jesus lived. God also promises in the Bible that there will always be people who claim to follow Him but are actually liars. There is only one test: no matter what a person says, it is by their actions that they are known. Any Christian who does not love God and their neighbor is not a true believer.

What's in a name?

Nothing, and everything.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Reimagining The White Man's Burden: On Shame

I had an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers today. We were talking about our school's cultural awareness program and the ways that I think it could be improved. She expressed reluctance to spearhead discussions about racism and discrimination because she is white. She mentioned that in college, she took a course that focused on the history of oppression. To paraphrase, the course led through various injustices in history and pointed out that each of these atrocities had been perpetrated by white people. She said that the course made her feel ashamed, like it was all her fault.

I've been thinking about this all day, and while I expressed sympathy in the moment, I wonder about the worthiness and honesty of my response. 

Generally speaking, I don't want to say, "Don't feel bad" to a white person who feels shame on behalf of other white people because I feel bad on behalf of other black people. It hurts you to think about your ancestors enslaving blacks, and it hurts me to think about my ancestors being enslaved. It hurts you to feel like people are still blaming you for civil and social injustice, and it hurts me to still be treated and viewed as less than a white person. It is, to a great degree, our heritage as Americans to feel shame: for what we have done or for what has been done to us.  

Mostly, I don't care when white people complain about white guilt and shame. Shame is like a shadow for me. I still live in a society that, in many ways, disrespects, dehumanizes, marginalizes, and oppresses black people. Every day, I have to decide how I will deal with this shame: will I ignore it, internalize it, or fight it?

I didn't choose this shame either, but it's here. I want to say, "Too bad, deal with it." I want to say, "Join the club."

The polarization of race, especially black vs. white, is a problem, and we can't find solutions to racism by ignoring white voices. And I want to be compassionate in my conversations with white people, even when those white people cannot even begin to understand what it is like to be discriminated against because of their skin color.

If you are white, what do you think about this? Do you agree that shame is the burden of the white American? Do you believe that this is fair or unfair? Should we try to alleviate the white man's burden? Or should we simply learn ways to deal with it?  

 Does this picture make you feel shame? Me, too. 

For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. . .that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. -Ephesians 2:14-19

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Name I Call Myself: On Race (Pt. 1)

How I Celebrated Black History Month
I first realized that I was treacherously unsatisfied with Black History Month about 4 years ago. I have worked in education for the past 12 years, in special education for the last 8. In this time, I have been one of only a handful of black students and coworkers, which has meant, no matter how "diverse" my workplaces have been, that I have continued to exist as a minority among minorities.

When black history month is celebrated in a school, it usually looks something like this:

  • Plaster grainy, black&white photographs of famous African-Americans on the walls. Always draw from a pool of the same 20 people. Descriptions of what these people are known for may or may not be included. 
  • Talk about segregation in the 1960's and the civil rights movement A LOT. Make it clear to the students that segregation WAS. Use more black&white photos (this time from the 1960's). Talk a lot about buses and water fountains (use my presence in the room as an example that segregation is totally over, if convenient). Talk about how hard it was to be a black person. Invite white students to shake their heads sorrowfully at the reality of former injustices. Do not leave room for me to comment on the lesson. 
  • Talk extensively about Martin Luther King, Jr. and how, because of him, black and white people, nay all peoples in America, can be friends. Talk about how great it is that no one is racist now. Emphasize that the president is black.

In my classroom, I have a cultural awareness poster that I change every month to go along with our monthly assemblies. For February in years past, I have done what is expected: I printed out various photos of famous African-Americans and put them up on the poster, along with a poem by Langston Hughes and a map of Africa filled with titles of various careers and occupations that have been held by blacks. I spice things up by intentionally using photos of famous black Americans both in color and black&white, both dead and alive, both male and female. I always feel that I have gone the extra mile, hopefully providing visual proof that not all good black people are dead.

This year, I started asking questions. What is the point of Black History Month? Why do I cringe at the thought of it? What, if anything, can be accomplished in the 28 days we have been given to combat hundreds of years worth of disrespect and dehumanization? Then, it struck me. I find it atrocious that we have to put up, during Black History Month, pictures of African-Americans that are "worthy." It feels like the whole month is spent saying that black people are not all good-for-nothing. It feels like a display of exceptions. And, the worst part of all, it means a month of sitting through classes, staff meetings, and assemblies where people who are not black describe to other people who are not black, in my presence, with an air of unquestionable authority, what blackness is. This gave me an idea.

I returned to my poster. On a 3x5 card in bright red marker I wrote: "BLACK PEOPLE ARE. . ." Then, on more 3x5 cards, in the same red ink I wrote adjectives that corresponded with the photographs I'd chosen. Under a picture of Jesse Owens leaping over a hurdle I wrote "FAST." Under a picture of Harriet Tubman I wrote "BRAVE." Under a picture of Maya Angelou I wrote "CREATIVE." Under a picture of George Washington Carver I wrote "INTELLIGENT." I felt shocked at myself for my boldness: how dare I affirm explicitly and without permission what I know to be true? How dare I not qualify my assertion with the word "some." This is not how Black History Month is supposed to be celebrated.

I think black history month ought to be about creating new language, forming new assumptions, and letting 1,000 positive adjectives fall from our mouths, all about what it means to be black. I just want someone to run around Los Angeles, covering billboards with the phrase "Black people are. . . " and then writing in one hundred thousand good words. Why? Because the other 337 days of the year society is saying "Black people are. . ." and ending that statement in 1,000,000,000 ugly ways. The best thing we can do during Black History Month is to say that it is good to be black, and then to hush and let the words sink in, uncontested.

So I spent this Black History Month entrenched in blackness. I intentionally spent the time celebrating the work of black musicians, artists, authors, and filmmakers. I read books by black authors talking about blackness, I listened to spoken word artists talking about how to love themselves when everyone around them is calling them unlovable. I engaged in discussions with my white friends about their experiences and how they were different from my own; I had long talks with my mother about her experience of blackness in Jamaica and then during the civil rights movement in America as an immigrant. I visited a black, Episcopalian church, I listened to a lot of Nina Simone. I thought about lies I have been told my whole life. I looked for, and found, living black role models, because it is important that we know that not all good black people are dead. And I worked on explicit self-definition, remembering that most of the problems we have with race in America come from us naming each other to make ourselves look better-than, which is an act of destruction.

My Back History Month Bibliography (to date):

  • Z.Z. Packer Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
  • Tracy K. Smith Ordinary Light
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah
  • Toni Morrison Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination 
  • Toni Morrison God Help the Child
  • Helen Oyeyemi Boy, Snow, Bird
  • Zora Neale Hurston Mules and Men
  • Tamara Winfrey Harris The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America 
  • Issa Rae The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
  • Fran Ross Oreo
  • Essence Magazine
  • New African Woman Magazine 

The Principle of Self-Determination 
The point: freedom is me naming myself, narrating my own experience, and describing the scope of my own strengths and limitations. It does not matter how kind one's words or intentions are, they are judgments, limits, restrictions, invasions, and impositions. It simply isn't anyone else's job to tell me who or what I am. No one should attempt to tell me that I am worthy or that I am unworthy. Being black is what I say it is. And I say that it is good.

I'm just warming up, really.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Happy Poverty

When I was brought low, he saved me.

I have a few quotations taped on the side of my desk, next to my bed. It's a couple of Bible verses, a Rumi poem, a few notes to myself about things I want to remember, a poem by Mary Oliver, a Psalm. I keep them there so that when I wake up in the morning, I remember the important things, and when I'm feeling especially low, I remember the good.

The smallest quotation, written in Sharpie on a tiny orange post-it note, is taken from the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. 

Today, this is the most important sentence in the entire world. I've had two weeks off for the holidays. This always seems so good to me, time to spend with friends, time to wander, time to bake and read, time to sleep in, time to color and binge watch Netflix. But no matter what else I'm involved in, no matter what activities my body is devoted to, these long breaks always leave time to my heart for thinking, and that means all the topics I've been avoiding suddenly, silently resurface.

There is something about Christmas and New Year's that makes me evaluate my life. Stringently. Part of being around so many loved ones means that I am constantly comparing myself to them: everyone seems to be smarter, prettier, holier, more successful, inexplicably happier. And part of it is that I'm forced to judge my life over the past year. Am I, compared to myself 12 months ago, any holier, smarter, prettier, happier, or more successful? Somehow the answer is always the same: No, you are not. No, Self, you are the same Self you were last year: equally jealous, lonely, angry, weary, pitiable, selfish, fearful, unsuccessful, and sad. This reality always hits me like a sack of potatoes in the face: it hurts.

I don't know what it is, but I can't seem to let go of the fact that other people are better than me. I know God is better than me, this is an un-troubling idea, but even while I write this, I feel annoyed and upset because I have friends who have blog posts that are better written than this one will be.

I want to be a glorious unicorn, but I know I am a worm.

But I want someone to call down from the sky, No, you are not a worm. You have been a glorious unicorn all this time! You are sparkly and you are lovely. You are worthy of love and goodness. 

I hate being spiritually poor.

I googled "What does it mean to be poor in spirit?" and then skimmed a couple of articles from what I thought might be opposing viewpoints. The answer seems to be the same across the board. Spiritual poverty is the inheritance of every human since the Garden of Eden. But to be poor in spirit is to admit and recognize one's spiritual bankruptcy, and to throw one's self upon the mercy of God.

When I look honestly at myself, all I find is spiritual poverty. And it is so discouraging. I don't want to be poor. I want to be good enough. I want to hold up my head in a crowd. I want to feel proud of my accomplishments, of my whole being. But I'm not. I'm ashamed, and I'm sad.

Charles Spurgeon's sermon on this Beatitude emphasizes that the word "blessed" as it appears in this self-effacing maxim is the same word used in the Beatitudes I'd more willingly claim: "blessed are the peacemakers. . . .blessed are the pure in heart. . ." There is no less goodness or happiness in accepting one's spiritual poverty than there is in being a person of righteous reputation. Everyone who is pure in heart, who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness, who hungers and thirsts for goodness, takes their first step on the same road: blessed are the poor in spirit. 

But it is not enough for me, 89% of the time, to be told that God loves my awareness of my own poverty. It is not enough for me to be told that when God looks at me he sees Christ. I don't want him to see Christ! I want him to see me, and love me for my goodness. This is, of course, impossible.

Something that God has been hammering into my head over the past few years, is that it is blessed to receive. We are so good at giving sometimes, having been told by our Lord that it is the better option, that I think we have forgotten how to receive.

Being a spiritual pauper means being a recipient of grace, and being a recipient of grace is the best possible outcome for humanity. But it is hard to receive sometimes. I love being given presents, but it's always easier for me when I give in return a gift of equal value. It is easier to take with one hand while I am giving with another. It is very, very hard to be the person with both hands open, being the vehicle of blessing for someone else who wants to share their blessing with you. It is hard to say, "I accept this gift, knowing that I can in no way give back to you in equal or greater amount. I take, accepting that this gift is by no means fair, because it is unearned, unmerited, and cannot be recompensed."

It's hard to accept good without feeling guilty. Without feeling that you need to make up for it somehow, that you need to balance the scales. But that is entirely what being poor in spirit means. Our hands open to God, our mouths open like ugly little squawking bird-babies, waiting for God, our Nourishing-Mother, to dump sustenance into our impatient, starving mouths.

Bah. Blessed. Happy are you when you realize your hands are empty. Happy are you when you let someone else fill them. Happy are you when you take what you have been given, and glory in the fact that you have nothing of equal value to give in return. Happy are you when you gladly receive all good gifts, whether from God or from man, and are simply happy to have them.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, and they have done nothing to deserve it but to hold out their empty hands. Happy Poverty.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Like the Moon We Borrow Our Light: On Vows
"Lots of churches take the celebration of Jesus' baptism as an occasion for congregants to renew their own baptismal vows. I find this hard. I remember what I pledged at my baptism and how badly I've done at keeping those pledges and I wonder if I dare make them again." 
--Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God
 Lauren Winner, who is one of my favorite living authors, seems to think that every believer is bound by vows made to God during their conversion and baptism. I never think of my relationship with God in this way, and I'm beginning to think that it would be helpful if I did. I often think it would be good for me to either marry or join a monastic order because I love the idea of being bound by a lifelong vow. I think making eternal commitments is easier somehow, because one must simply form one's life around that promise, instead of living committed to something for a time and then beginning over again. 

But when I gave God my heart, I made a vow that was not only lifelong, but everlasting. When I accepted his promises to me, I made promises to him: promises to love, trust, and obey him, no matter what happens. It's shocking to think of my relationship with God this way, because it means that I have broken my vows so many times. It reminds me of Dante's Paradise, and the way he organizes heaven, with the moon as the lowest realm, assigned to nuns who broke their vows. They are shades, scarcely visible because of the unsubstantial nature of their own wills. Hahaha. The irony of this is overwhelming.

One of the best poems I read in college was Donne's "A Hymn to Christ, at the Author's Last Going into Germany." I repeat it to myself sometimes because it reminds me of the total allegiance I have made to God, and of my own need to ensure that my love is well-ordered, with God as the center of my affections. Here are the last two stanzas of the poem:

Seal then this bill of my divorce to all,
On whom those fainter beams of love did fall ;
Marry those loves, which in youth scatter'd be
On fame, wit, hopes—false mistresses—to Thee.
Churches are best for prayer, that have least light ;
To see God only, I go out of sight ;
    And to escape stormy days, I choose
        An everlasting night.
I sacrifice this island unto Thee,
And all whom I love there, and who loved me ;
When I have put our seas 'twixt them and me,
Put thou Thy seas betwixt my sins and Thee.
As the tree's sap doth seek the root below
In winter, in my winter now I go,
    Where none but Thee, the eternal root
        Of true love, I may know.
Right now I'm struggling with obedience. It's amazing how convoluted my desires can be. Some days, I genuinely want to obey God. And other days, I only want to want to be obedient. I spend a lot of time asking myself if obedience is actually worthwhile. This is hard. Today I'm feeling like it would just be easier if I had no will of my own, because then I wouldn't have to be so concerned with the state of my affections all the time. I'm deeply concerned with the order of my loves right now: do I really love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Sometimes, I feel like I can't obey God because I don't really trust him all that much, but, if my vows mean anything, then I have promised to obey him even when I don't understand what he's asking or why.

Abraham obeyed right up to the point of killing Isaac, only stopping because God intervened. Does my heart align to the will of God so completely? I will tell you right now: it does not. But how do I come to this place of perfect surrender? How do I stop questioning whether what God wants me to do, or not do, is really the right thing or the best thing or the thing that I am actually going to do? How do I just pursue obedience regardless of the circumstances? Micah 6: 8 fell on my head the other day like an anvil . .it makes me feel, O, so convicted about the way I've been thinking about life.

"He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
I think a lot of obedience comes down to trusting God, to walking with him in humility. If I trust that God is entirely holy, then I trust that doing what he opposes is inherently disgusting and dangerous. If I trust that God loves me utterly, then I can trust that what he asks is for my own good. If I trust that God punishes sin, then I can trust that God will hold me accountable for the sins that I commit. 
"Trust and obey/there is no better way/to be happy in Jesus/than to trust and obey."

That refrain is stuck in my head right now, it's so blessedly simple to sing and ponder, but so hard to practice. This post is full of music. Here is another song I'm wrestling with right now.

"Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior"
Do you ever find it hard to trust, dear Reader? I can't sing those words glibly. I can't sing them without picturing myself in the ocean frantically trying to swim with the depths of the sea falling far below my scrambling toes. Obedience is scary, I tell you. But the reason we obey is because submission to the will of God is our greatest good. Apart from grace, all is lost. Charles Spurgeon says: 
"Like the moon, we borrow our light; bright as we are when grace shines on us, we are darkness itself when the Sun of Righteousness withdraws himself. Therefore let us cry to God never to leave us."

The problem with those moony nuns in La Divina Comedia is that they believed something else could be better than obeying God. All thoughts on monastic vows aside, I understand their complaint. But I don't want to be a nun on the moon, I want to trust that God is who he says he is, that my life contains meaning and substance only when I cling to him, and that there is nothing offered by the world that can compete with the great good I find in Jesus. So I guess I had better endeavor to keep my promises. 

Winner, speaking to her priest, before being baptized: "This is ridiculous, I can't promise these things. Half the time I don't trust God one iota. I can't stand up there and promise that I will trust Him forever and ever. Who on earth makes these promises?"
The priest replied: "You don't just answer all these questions in the affirmative. You say, 'I will, with God's help'." 

Not my will, O Lord, but yours be done.  

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Girl in Yellow: Behold, You are Loved!

Dear Reader,

There are two things I want you to know today:

     1) God makes room for himself inside us.
     2) You are loved.

Pt. I
This week, I've been trying to think about dwelling in the middle of nowhere. I'm learning to be comfortable waiting, and I've learned waiting is often more about the formational process of waiting than about the things waited for.

For the last 2 1/2 years or so, my life has neatly paralleled the Israelites' wandering in the desert. After several months of examining this metaphor, I've learned that feeling lost, being in-between, having questions but not answers, living in the still barrenness of winter, is OK. I've learned that the wilderness is a place of preparation, a place that disabuses you of former treasures, visions, and joys. The wilderness creates a longing for the Promised Land, that is, walking through the wilderness results in a deeper desire for God.

I have learned that even Moses' time tending sheep in Midian, all 40 of those years before he became the champion of his people, before any bushes burned, were not wasted. God doesn't waste time, he uses every second of it, even when for us each second feels like Chinese water torture. Moses slowly learned to tend sheep, and then he slowly led a stiff-necked and wayward people through the wilderness. Even in the desert, God provides and leads: there are pillars of fire and cloud, piles of manna waiting on the ground, and the law, lovingly revealed. God never, ever goes away.

I have heard God say to me, over and over again, "Have courage, and say yes." I have often felt, reflecting on these words, that God is preparing me for something big, something that will take a lot of courage to face. This new thing is something that will require absolute, full, trusting obedience: the kind that dwells in furnaces of fire and lions' dens and does not let the cup pass.

My perspective is focused on earthly measures of success. It's as though I'm waiting for God to make me richer, or prettier, or more widely loved. But really, as I've been walking through this awful wilderness of being, or my twenties, I've learned that one of the most important things to have is an open, empty heart.

We think of emptiness as a bad thing. It's bad when your fridge is empty, when your wallet is empty, when your brain is empty, when your schedule or womb or stomach is empty. We are so focused on being and staying filled. In the short span of time I call my Grown-Up Life, the most important thing I have learned is that God is carving out a big space inside of me for Himself.

At least, I used to think this big space inside of me was for Himself. Sometimes I think that the big, empty space is just for the sake of emptiness. All I know is that this big, empty space is one of the most important things about me. I've become a large receptacle, and I'm waiting to be filled.

Kathleen Norris, in Cloister Walk, though married, writes about celibacy from the perspective and insight of her monastic friends. Norris writes about how, in celibacy, the heart grows large and opens; there is room enough for the entire world, because there is no room designated for just one person or one exclusive type of love. I don't know if I'm going to be celibate my entire life, but I am celibate now. And I do find, when I look deep inside myself, that there is all this room and space, waiting for something. Sometimes, being empty inside feels horrible, and I run around frantically, trying to fill that hole with something  anything  that will remove the feeling of hollowness I bear. But more often, I feel and know that this space is good; it means that there is room in my heart for lots of people, it means that there is a lot of room in my heart for the love of God.

I want to be a person who is comfortable with space and silence. When you think about a cathedral, or a chapel, you think about empty space. Those spaces we call sacred are nothing but concrete cavities for love and worship. If there is one thing I know about God, it is that he loves it when we make room for him. I have become a room entirely. It is not that I have room for God, but that I am room for God.

"Aubade for a Friend" was written by Fr. Gregory Elmer, O.S.B. of St. Andrew's Abbey. You should read the entire poem, it's wonderful. I'm copying the relevant parts of it here.
Whoever excavates a deeper bay
In your heart, so that you can the better
Yearn to love Him more, Who carves
Out this most precious space in
Your soul, a wound that curiously
Comforts you, a cave of the heart
Now being painfully excavated to
House more God, more love, to build
Within the middle of that heart, not
Only a more capacious pilgrim hostel,
On the shores of your spirit, but digs
Deeper the secret pilgrim road to the
Bottom of our heart, where. . . .we pass
Over the world, and set forth to cross
The wilderness. . . .We stumble down a way ever more interior. . . .
which leads on, in this life. . . .to the life eternal.

Becoming a temple of the Holy Spirit is painful and takes time.

Pt. II
Today I went with my roommate to Urth Caffé for breakfast while her tires were being replaced. Over our multi-grain waffles and tea lattes, roommate and I talked about the weeks we'd had, both of which were full of unpleasant people doing and saying unpleasant things, to put it mildly. While we were eating, two deferential, hipsterish twenty-somethings approached our table and apologized for interrupting us. They said they had a word from God for a woman in yellow, and that I was the only person matching that description in the restaurant (I was wearing a yellow cardigan). I can't remember every word they spoke, but by the end of that encounter, both roommate and I were wiping tears away.

The content of their message was that God sees me and wants me to know a new season is being ushered in, that a lot of changes are coming all at once which will be hard to understand. But God is leading you, they told me, like Dorothy down a yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz. And, speaking even to this wilder-wandering time, they said that God has seen me in the shadows.

Every time God speaks it is always good news. I keep forgetting this, but it's true. Every time God speaks, it is always good news. 

The pinnacle of encouragement is to hear another person say that God loves and delights in you. God sent someone today I didn't know to just the right place at the right time, because he wants me to know I am loved. I am dearly loved.

Roommate bought me a Rifle Paper Co.-esque art print to commemorate the day. Do you know what it says? It says, "You are loved."

Dear Reader, you are becoming room for God, and you are dearly loved.

Oh! How he loves us! 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Grace: A Beautiful Punch in the Face

My word of the year is grace. I’m living this year trying to understand what it means when we say that God is gracious, that we are transformed and renewed by grace, that grace is free and present and abundant all of the time. One thing I’ve been learning is that sometimes the working of grace in my life looks like a punch in the face—it shocks me, hurts me, makes me take a look around and reconsider my expectations. But other times, grace is like a warm hug, a spicy samosa shared with a friend, a cup of Earl Grey, laughing in the midst of a field of poppies, an infant’s little fingers wrapped around my pinky, breathing.

God gives us grace, in the packaging and dosage we most need, at the times when we most need it. I’m learning to recognize the presence of God in the everyday. I eat a strawberry: its sweet redness, its heart-shaped perfection, reminds me that God is good.

And then there are those other moments. The moments when what I most want is to just walk out of the room, out of the door, into nothingness, because existence feels futile, and frustrating, and impossible to bear. Then I think grace is like a sharp slap across my face, because it makes me remember that I have been created for something more: for something good, and true, and lovely. The me who was satisfied wandering around in circles pretending to live is more desperate than the me who is sitting on the ground, rubbing my sore jaw and wondering what just happened.

Grace is supernatural. That means that grace intervenes in nature—in the ordinary, the mundane, the status quo, the expected. Grace is wholly unexpected, wholly undeserved, and dearly needed. My natural self cannot get anywhere without God’s cosmic karate chop. I need God’s power not just to make all of my dreams come true, but to shatter the dreams that are built on false and shaky hopes, and to build new dreams on substantial foundations.

Grace meets me where I am, and then, like a whirlwind, it picks me up and whirls me around until I lose my bearings—leaving me somewhere else. The land may look barren—broken rocking chairs strewn about the desert, someone’s dazed cat stalking by on wobbly feet, but it is here, in this place, that I can meet God, because there is nothing else I expect to see. I have been taken out of myself to meet him. To meet God on his own terms, in his own timing, on his own fruitful soil.

To find one’s self in the economy of grace is to find that you do not have enough money for the journey. In fact, you are a thief and a stowaway and you have been found out. But instead of being tossed off the train, with your raggedy carpet bag tossed behind you, you find that you are invited to dine in the first class coach, provided you admit to the other passengers that your fashionable clothes are borrowed, and that your fare has been donated, not earned. It is in grace that we learn how poor we are. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This means, blessed are you when you can’t pretend anymore that you have anything to give, anything left to bargain with, anything to cover the fact that left to yourself you are only naked and mean and ugly.

Grace takes this ugly unkindness and dresses you up, beautifully, generously. Suddenly, you are the belle of the ball, and you remain here—in twinkling crystal slippers and a blue gown—until you forget that your carriage is really only a winter squash and that rodents alone will befriend you. Then, here comes grace, like a clock chiming twelve, to remind you that all you can claim for yourself are rags and woes and a bed made of ash.

Thank you, God, for the punch in the face that reminds us of how good you are, and of our poverty without you.

As Anne Lamott says,

“Remember, God loves you exactly the way you are, and he loves you too much to let you stay like this.”