For Advent this year, we continued our family tradition of lighting candles at dinner. We talked about the names for Jesus, including the Light of the World. We read different versions of the Christmas Story and talked about what it must have been like for people waiting in the darkness.
Now, at my kids’ young ages, they can’t sit still for too long, and we ran the risk of an argument over whose turn it was to snuff the candles (a coveted task). But we got through it most nights, and the ritual was just as much for me as it was for them. The nightly candlelight helped me focus my own thoughts on waiting for Jesus to come. I also noticed the pull on my heart as I recalled the names of those I love who don’t yet know Jesus. I thought of people who yearn for a light they don't yet know...as well as people who feel like they have no need for the light Jesus offers.
At this point, several interconnected thoughts led me to pick up a copy of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, a short book in which he expounds on the meaning of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son.
A couple of years ago, my church recommended this book for skeptics and seekers. I thought of it again last year, at a women’s retreat at Camp Berea in New Hampshire, when my eyes were opened to an interpretation of this parable that I hadn’t heard of before. Sure, I was familiar with the story of the prodigal son -- the son who demands his birthright, turns his back on his father, squanders his wealth, repents and is welcomed by his father with unconditional love. But I had always glossed over the story of the elder brother, whose pride keeps him from enjoying the party the father throws when the younger son returns. I wrote about the lesson I learned from that perspective -- to “be grateful that we are already home and to cultivate a heart of service.”
The younger son, for sure, spends everything he has, but the man, standing in for God in this story, acts similarly when he discards his reputation by accepting his wayward son and throws a lavish party in celebration of the son’s return.
And why does he do that?
Because the elder brother won't pay for the sins of the younger brother, even though that is his duty. Beyond that, his “pride in his moral record...his righteousness…[keep] him from sharing the feast of the father” to which he is invited, leaving him outside, alienated from God. (35)
Both sons are spiritually lost, one because he turned away from the law, and the other because he mistakenly saw the law as the whole point.
Consider this: “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior.” (37-8)
In telling this parable, “[Jesus] is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition.” (130)
Fortunately, God, giving everything, provided a true elder brother in Jesus who stepped in for all of us when he came to earth and died on the cross. When we “acknowledge our need [for God’s love], rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ,” we can finally enter the feast. (89)
Keller explains that Jesus mentions a feast because he is a God who invites us to taste and see.
“He loves and cares for the material world. The fact of Jesus’s resurrection and the promise of a new heavens and new earth show clearly that he still cares for it. This world is not simply a theater for individual conversion narratives, to be discarded at the end when we all go to heaven. No, the ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering, and death. The climax of history is not a higher form of disembodied consciousness but a feast.” (110-111)
The gospel message wakes us up and lights a path through the darkness. During Advent, we remember how God gave it all to come to earth to reconcile us to him, whether we knew we needed him or not. Once we understand this prodigal God, it changes how we live.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knowing the gospel message allows us “to focus on how seriously God takes sin and on how he could only save us from it at infinite cost to himself. Understanding this must and will profoundly reshape our lives. We will not be able to live in a selfish, cowardly way. We will stand up for justice and sacrifice for our neighbor. And we won’t mind the cost of following after Christ when we compare it to the price he paid to rescue us.” (122)
This Advent, I reflected on the times I acted like a wayward son and on the times I acted like the moralistic elder brother. I have been both and am grateful that Jesus’s message “is a completely different spirituality...not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism...it is something else altogether…[where] everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change.” (45)
The news the angels brought was life-changing. God came to earth, spending everything to be with us. Knowing this, we celebrate big on Christmas. And I hope, someday, that those skeptics and seekers on my mind will join us at the feast.
This past April, when I first learned of the Muse & the Marketplace writing conference, I put it on my ideal calendar for 2020. Mingle with writers? Learn about the industry? Potentially speak with agents and editors?? For several months, I dreamed about the conference, framing it as the gateway to setting foot into the publishing world. When I learned that Grubstreet members were entitled to advance registration, I signed up and eagerly awaited my invitation to take the first steps.
But then the email popped up in my inbox, and I found I didn’t feel ready. I wanted to speak with an agent about my writing, but whom to choose? And why would they even bother with someone like me -- someone who has only taken one class, who has never been published, who hasn’t even finished the first draft of my current project?
I felt massively under qualified to take the next steps in fulfilling the dreams I hold so tightly. And yet, I knew the conference would fill up quickly. My fear of missing out won me over and led me not only to sign up but to select an agent as well. All of this sent me in a mental tailspin as I realized I had also silently declared that I would finish my manuscript, and polish a twenty-page submission and a tantalizing pitch all by early March.
As I have shared my project with test readers, most ask how close I am to being finished.
“Getting there,” I reply, admitting that some days I’m not sure how much more I have to write, and most days the pace can vary so widely that I have no idea how long it will take me to complete my story.
One friend, eager to see me realize my dreams, suggested,
“What you’ve shown me reads like a book. Sure, there are some gaps here and there, but can’t you just get it to be good enough - have most of it done - and start sending it out there?”
She made an excellent point. Sure, every writing coach and all published advice strongly advocates for finishing and polishing your work before submitting. And yet, tell that to a perfectionist and the work could stay safely tucked away in a private writing desk for years before the writer -- ahem, aka me -- feels it’s good enough.
All of this leads the authors to conclude that, “essentially, women feel confident only when we are perfect. Or practically perfect.” (21)
Why is that? Why do women struggle with confidence more than men? And what’s wrong with wanting to be perfect? Well, besides driving us crazy, the authors explain, this type of mindset can keep us from reaching our goals.
Kay and Shipman lead the reader along a meandering path as they interview confident women in industry, politics and the military and dig into the theories in current neuroscience and psychology research in order to learn where confidence comes from and how women can get more of it. While their research is far from rigorous, they are able to make some convincing conclusions.
Bottom line, while you may be born with a certain chemical makeup that predisposes you to be more or less confident, there are plenty of tools within your control that you can use to boost whatever confidence you do have. For sure, sit up straight and get comfortable with taking up space. Speak up, but remember to be authentic. Break down your goals into manageable parts and tackle them one at a time. Put in the hard work, sure, but be willing to turn in that work and voice those ideas frequently. “Fail fast” as the tech industry calls it, so you can get back out there and try again. In short:
“Think less. Take action. Be authentic.” (202)
I like to think that as I approach the Muse conference this April, that I am following their advice. Yes, I have dreamed of becoming a writer. One year ago, those dreams were still safely all within my personal space. But now, one year later, I have taken a class, I have formed a writing group, and I registered for a conference. Now, to finish my chapters, rethink my pitch, trim and hone the text...and then, polish my submission piece. As they write,
“Small steps prepare you for taking more meaningful risks. It’s called the exposure technique.” (142)
Like the confident successful women discussed in their book, I would like it said of me that,
“She took risks, she was persistent, she worked hard, and even failed. And it worked. Whatever she hadn’t inherited, or soaked up as a child, she created.” (136)
Stay tuned. Winter’s underway for now, but spring is coming, with more opportunities to summon courage and foster new connections, to put myself out there and introduce my ideas to the writing world.
Our church is in the middle of a capital campaign called More Stories. Our goal is to renovate some of our buildings in order to create more space for more people to grow in faith and see God working in their lives. The plans include a larger sanctuary and better Sunday School classrooms as well as spaces for many other ministries.
During this process, in addition to asking us to pray about our monetary gift, our pastors asked us to pray about the kind of ministry we will be involved in as part of the new building. While giving that some thought, the church highlighted personal stories of how members and regular attenders have found God through the church. One recent video message conveyed the emotional and tangible work being done through the Japanese ESL ministry.
Part of the Japanese ministry involves a weekly playgroup and ESL class for Japanese moms and their small children. The moms are then invited to attend a Bible study following the language instruction piece, and many do.
Two years ago, I volunteered as a babysitter during those times. For the first part of the morning, I sang songs and read a story along with the moms and their children (as well as my younger two kids). Then, the moms stepped away to attend language instruction while I and others continued to play with all of the kids.
I felt drawn to spend more time with the moms and almost asked if I could train to be an instructor, but I also felt tied to the much needed babysitter role. Still, the kids’ crying wore me down pretty quickly. I was already surrounded by demanding children at home, and this only exacerbated the stress I felt from that. I participated faithfully for several months but finally decided to take a break when I felt I couldn’t also fulfill the role of a cheerful giver. Still, when I left, I felt like I was abandoning the ministry.
Recently, as I learned how much the ministry has blessed the Japanese community, I regretted not being able to continue to be a part of it. Plus, I learned that one of the children I had helped to take care of is now in the same public school classroom as one of my sons. I felt I had lost time to get to know that particular family better.
In the meantime, though, when I stepped away from this work that was wearing me down emotionally, I freed myself to pursue other interests.
Now that my kids are all in school, I spend a lot of those hours alone, released from the consuming cacophony of demands and cries, where I can sit and attempt to conjure up enough creativity to stitch together more than two sentences in a row. I have been writing, and I have been sharing my stories, including my faith journey, with my new writing group.
This month, one of our pastors gave a sermon on the name of Jesus. He pointed out that Jesus was one of the most common names of the time when he lived on earth. My pastor suggested that God wanted to name him Jesus in order to show that he was just like everyone else...in order to then let them learn how he was completely different. My pastor drew a parallel to our own lives, suggesting that in the same way, we can share our struggles and shortfalls in order to build connections with those around us, connections like the ones I was building in my writing group.
As I have revealed more of my story, my test readers have shared how they have been moved to reexamine their own beliefs:
I never thought a Christian would behave this way…
I never before considered that an Evangelical might feel judged…
You are making me reconsider my own beliefs...
A friend of mine pointed out that this was God validating my work.
A physical church building is essential in order to have a place to convene as God’s people, to worship and to grow together. But God’s work is so much bigger than that. He calls us to witness and serve wherever we are. And sometimes, like finding a Japanese child from the playgroup in my son’s classroom, God reminds us that we have more than one chance to reconnect with each other, and with him.
I’m not sure yet where I will fit in the new building once it’s completed. But I know God has set work in front of me, letting me know if I only I will follow, everything will be in service to him.
Learning this, I feel like I have been living under a rock, although Forman himself points out that it wasn’t until the publication of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in 2010 that many legislators sat up to take notice of this connection.
When my own city of Cambridge legalized the recreational use of marijuana (with particular guidelines) in 2016, I wondered: why all this talk about legalizing marijuana? Setting aside the arguments for medical use, what were my neighbors pushing this for? I thought decriminalizing marijuana would just enable over-privileged white kids to access their drugs. Surely we have more important issues to tackle than that, issues like affordable housing and healthcare, issues like closing the achievement gap in education.
Forman uses a poem by African-American writer and activist Gil Scott-Heron to illustrate a similar pervading sentiment in the 1970s when marijuana decriminalization was considered in the District of Columbia:
“The irony of it all, of course
Is when a pale face SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] m-f- dares
Look hurt when I don’t call him brother and tell him to go find his own revolution
He is fighting for legalized smoke, or lower voting age
Less lip from his generation gap at home and f- in the street
Where is my parallel to that?
All I want is a good home for my wife and children
And some food to feed them every night.” (36)
Fearing that marijuana was a gateway drug to heroin, officials in 1975 D.C. voted against legalizing the drug, instead increasing the penalties for possession and distribution. Forman goes on to detail the history following that time -- decisions to push for gun control, the rise of the African-American police force, increased sentencing for drug possession and distribution in response to the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s.
These past few years, we’ve been horrified by police brutality and racial profiling. The thing is, as Forman explains, the police meant to target blacks. As a response to the spiking homicide rate throughout the crack epidemic, initiatives like Operation Ceasefire in D.C. aimed to: “Stop cars, search cars, seize guns.” (197)
African American Eric H. Holder, Jr., US Attorney for the District of Columbia admitted in 1995 that “the people who will be stopped will be young black males, overwhelmingly,” but he “argued that such concerns were outweighed by the need to protect blacks from crime.” (203) “A range of black voices -- and not just from law enforcement -- agreed with Holder that safety was a civil rights issue.” (202)
Those in charge invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name while putting these initiatives into practice:
“Dr. King would be shocked and disheartened by the condition of his people in 1995 -- and I, for one, would be ashamed to reveal to him what we have let happen to our community...Did Martin Luther King successfully fight the likes of Bull Connor so that we could ultimately lose the struggle for civil rights to misguided or malicious members of our own race?” (195, Holder, in a speech on MLK day honorary celebration on January 13, 1995)
But what did this do to the innocents who were incidentally stopped and who suffered collateral damage such as charges for minor drug possession? Forman points out that devastatingly, “things had gotten worse: they were still being stopped and searched because of where they live and the color of their skin, but now they were told that this is how Dr. King would have wanted it.” (211, italics added)
After defeating legislation to decriminalize marijuana in 1975 fearing it was a gateway to heroin, forty years later, “even the city’s black churches switched sides”. Forman argues that Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, “played a crucial role in providing advocates with a framework for understanding, and a rhetoric for criticizing, the War on Drugs. Published in 2010, the book quickly became required reading for anyone concerned with mass incarceration...and profoundly influenced the D.C. Council’s marijuana debates.” In 2014, D.C. decriminalized marijuana possession, the ministers concluding “that marijuana was instead a gateway to the criminal justice system.” (220)
In his epilogue, Mr. Forman shares a story from his case history about a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for armed robbery but was saved from the criminal system by the very man he victimized who was willing to try to forgive him in court and thereby giving him a second chance. Mr. Forman seems to imply that this type of radical forgiveness is more what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind for the future of African-Americans.
“Individual choices like Mr. Thomas’s matter immensely to the people involved, even if they barely touch the system as a whole. So too with many of the policy changes I have described, each of which reforms only one corner of our vast criminal justice apparatus. Against the scale of the world’s largest prison system, with its grotesque racial disparities, such incremental moves might appear meager. But mass incarceration, as we have seen, was constructed incrementally, and it may have to be dismantled the same way.” (238)
Within my own city, I have learned that “though Massachusetts legalized the use of marijuana in 2016, Cambridge did not consider legislation on whether businesses can sell the drug for recreational use until earlier this year.” In September, 2019, the Cambridge City Council passed “legislation [that] will prioritize granting permits [for recreational marijuana businesses] to those from historically marginalized groups, including women, minorities, and those who have been impacted by the war on drugs.” (New Legislation Lights Way for Recreational Marijuana Shops in Cambridge)
I wasn’t aware of how many black lives have been destroyed by criminal records of drug possession, and I wonder who else I’ve judged before learning the whole story.
Forman quotes Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy, explaining how when we describe criminals one-dimensionally, we get to know them by the worst thing they have ever done, instead of taking their whole lives into account. (231)
Needless to say, Just Mercy and The New Jim Crow are now on my reading list. I figure it’s better late than never to join the conversation.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.