Last winter while at a friend’s wedding, I found myself seated next to a friend who was having a hard time at work. I tried to steer the conversation in other directions a couple of times in an effort to be sociable, but I could see that even though he didn’t want to talk about work, it was all that would occupy his thoughts.
So I did what anyone would do. I offered to get him a drink from the (open) bar.
“No, thanks,” he shook his head. That’s when I noticed he wasn’t drinking at all. He had given it up recently. I was stumped. What could I offer him to help him enjoy his friend’s wedding?
The next thing that popped into my head wasn’t a practical idea. It was just what was on my mind:
“Would you like to pet a bunny?” I asked him.
He burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you just asked me that!”
I felt slightly embarrassed, but what happened next felt like one of those serendipitous moments that strengthens your faith. I didn’t pull a rabbit out of my purse, but he pulled out his phone and leaned in so I could get a good look at the screen.
“Check this out,” he said, using his thumb to reveal the screensaver: a two second clip of a bunny twitching his nose and taking a slow step-hop. He played it twice more, our smiles increasing with each bunny hop, filling us with calm pleasure as we watched this animal’s simple behavior.
After he re-pocketed the phone, looking a little embarrassed himself, he asked why I had asked him such a question. I explained that just hours before friends of ours had asked me to donate to an organization that was close to their hearts.
From the charity’s website:
“The mission of Lucy's Love Bus is to improve quality of life for children with cancer and life-threatening illness, to support their families, and to mobilize the next generation of cancer activists...Lucy’s Love Bus delivers comfort to children with cancer by paying for integrative therapies that help to balance traditional cancer care and improve the quality of life for a child, such as acupuncture, massage, therapeutic horseback riding, nutritional counseling, Reiki, meditation, art and music therapies...Lucy's Love Bus offers children and their families the love, understanding, and comfort that they need while going through cancer treatment and beyond.”
On the day I donated to Lucy's Love Bus for the first time, they were featuring “Barn Babies,” a pet therapy session involving interacting with puppies, kittens, bunnies, chicks, a goat and a piglet.
This organization was originally birthed in the heart of an 11-year-old girl who succumbed to leukemia just six months later. A donation will help fund supplemental services like those listed above to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The organization also has a special emergency fund for families connected with the organization who are particularly hurting from circumstances due to the COVID pandemic. Click here to donate to the emergency fund.
You may not be able to pet a bunny today, but you can help a kid with cancer get that much closer to supplemental therapies that can increase the quality of a life under threat of being cut too short. Donate here.
Before coronavirus, I typically spent the morning following a class or writing group session combing through comments and making a list of ideas for revision. I understand I am an anomaly. Many writers choose to let those comments sit for weeks before attempting to incorporate the suggestions into their next drafts. I, on the other hand, like to strike when the iron’s hot, when the ideas are fresh in my mind. Yes, coronavirus derailed all of that.
But by the time summer came around and I found time and space to write, I had a backlog of material to catch up on -- excerpts I had presented to my writing group and to classmates. It was a bit discouraging to review the excerpts months later. I could remember that I had had ideas. I couldn’t remember what those were. Very frustrating, but I dove in anyway, hoping I would be able to jog my memory.
At some point this summer though, I started to wonder whether I was doing it wrong. I mean, having time to write again was supposed to be a gift. Why wasn’t I enjoying it more?
“In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right...The form always has profound psychological consequence on its author.” (xx)
“Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.” (xx-xxi)
“However many intellectual pleasures a book may offer up, it’s usually your emotional connection to the memoir’s narrator that hooks you in. And how does she do that? A good writer can conjure a landscape and its people to live inside you, and the best writers make you feel they’ve disclosed their soft underbellies.” (xxiii)
“...this book’s mainly for that person with an inner life big as Lake Superior and a passion for the watery element of memory. Maybe this book will give you scuba fins and a face mask and more oxygen for your travels.” (xxiii)
Based on what my most recent classmates shared, I also learned that I tend to jump in a lot faster when writing about traumatic moments. Whereas some writers will take 80 pages or so to work up to writing about the event that they want to write about, I usually start the action on page 1. I’ve realized that while this makes for a page turner, it leaves the reader panting for breath, in addition to raising a lot of questions about the backstory. Karr suggested interspersing “places of hope” in between the dramatic moments, in order to throw “past pain into stark relief for a reader”...and perhaps give me a chance to take a breath as well. (13)
Perhaps the biggest gift Karr gave me though, was permission to set down my own truth. As she puts it, “you’re seeking the truth of memory -- your memory and character -- not of unbiased history.” (11) I love how she puts her foot down about this:
“However often the airwaves wind up clotted with false memories and misidentified criminal culprits and folks dithering about what they recall, I still think a screw has come loose in our culture around notions of truth, a word you almost can’t set down without quotes around it anymore. Sometimes it strikes me that even when we know something’s true, it’s almost rude to say so, as if claiming a truth at all -- what? Threatens someone else’s experience? Most of all, no one wants to sound like some self-satisfied proselytizer everybody can pounce on and debunk.
“The American religion--so far as there is one anymore--seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.” (88-89)
More than anything, these last words give me courage -- to set down my truth, even as “doubt and wonder come to stand as part of the story.” (14)
We come to the end of summer now, and while I haven’t made as much progress on my revisions as I would have liked, I have accomplished some things. The voice and backstory are starting to take shape, and I have hope that there is more potential to my stories than I would have guessed back when I had wished a first draft would suffice. Despite the hard (emotional) work involved, I do want to see what comes of these pages.
And so for now, I press on.
Back in June, our book club read and discussed Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce, the fictional story of a female London writer aspiring to be a war correspondent during World War II but inadvertently becoming an advice columnist in a women’s magazine. One of my discussion questions was “how was this book different from what you expected?” I asked this because I was a bit disappointed that the main character, once derailed from her dream, didn’t try to get back on track. For sure, she helped out with the war effort by working the phones at the fire station. She also kept her chin up as she continued to frequent cafes and shows in the midst of the Blitz. Some readers may argue that she served women through her magazine responses by answering their concerns in an emotionally honest and encouraging way, but I wasn’t convinced that this was enough to satisfy the character. I wanted something more for her.
Or perhaps, I was just searching for a different character.
“I could be a war hero, Christophe.”
He laughed. “A girl? A hero? Absurd.”
Isabelle got to her feet quickly, yanking up her hat and white kid gloves.
“Don’t be mad,” he said, grinning up at her. “I’m just tired of the war talk. And it’s a fact that women are useless in war. Your job is to wait for our return.” (34)
But Isabelle refuses to hear that she can’t be useful, even when the love of her life tapes a goodbye note to her chest that reads: “You are not ready.” (79)
Whatever her lover’s intentions with the note, Isabelle pursues resistance with even more resolve, simultaneously upset that she is overlooked as a woman and aware that that oversight works to her advantage to break through checkpoints.
This epic tale takes the reader through the entire war, pausing at each stage to demonstrate the women adjusting to their new realities. For the fighting sister, the reader sees how she bravely helps the underground movement to free France and return fallen English and American pilots to their homelands. For the sister sheltering in place, the reader sees her making incomprehensible decisions -- to comply with orders, including freely offering names of Jewish and Communist neighbors -- all in the name of protecting her own, forcing the reader to question what it means to be complacent and what it means to survive.
As Vianne reflects on her actions, she seeks the advice of her confidant, Mother Superior, who tells her:
“Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you...The path of righteousness is often dangerous. Get ready...This is only your first test. Learn from it...You’re not alone, and you’re not the one in charge...Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can. I think that is how we serve God -- and each other and ourselves -- in times as dark as these.” (165-6)
And indeed, as the story unfolds, Vianne too chooses to risk her dwindling security in order to provide aid and shelter to those persecuted by the Nazis.
Hannah’s tale is centered completely on the women, and I got the sense from page one that these women were especially in the dark about the state of Europe and Hitler’s intentions. Overall, they couldn’t believe something like this would happen again...after they had just lost a generation to the Great War. And they weren’t invited to the discussion where they could act on their views. Women didn’t get the right to vote in France until de Gaulle’s government in exile awarded it to them in July 1944. Perhaps this oversight also allowed Hitler’s soldiers to overlook French women in the ways described in Hannah’s novel as well. Still, the Nazis eventually caught on, imprisoning the female resisters at camps like Romainville and Ravensbruck.
At the end of the book, the narrator’s son asks why he never heard these stories of resistance during the war. The narrator explains,
“Men tell stories...Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” (561-2)
By the end of the story, the narrator wishes to change all of that: “I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.” (5)
That is the point of The Nightingale: to elevate the stories of so many women who served anonymously during the war. In her author’s note, Hannah describes the story of “a young Belgian woman named Andree de Jongh, who had created an escape route for downed airmen out of Nazi-occupied France. Her story -- one of heroism and danger and unbridled courage -- mesmerized [her] and led [her] to other stories about the women of the French Resistance. Women who had saved Jewish children and rescued downed airmen and put themselves in harm’s way to save others. Women who had paid terrible, unimaginable prices for their heroism.” (569)
Hannah wrote The Nightingale so that we would remember these women. And truly, the saga of Isabelle and Vianne is unforgettable. Consider picking up this book, but know that remembering the past requires bravery too. Come prepared. Bring your tissues.
As a fourth year medical student on a rotation in medical oncology, part of my morning duties were to check on patients prior to rounding with the team, to have a sense of how they had fared overnight and how they were feeling that morning. It was during this pre-rounding that I met a Muslim woman receiving treatment for leukemia. I remember nothing specific about her condition except that there was this sense that there was little more the doctors could do.
The woman herself seemed weak, always in bed, yet peaceful, as evidenced through her reliable and gentle smile. Our interactions were warm, our words exchanged soft though few, and somehow, through our brief interactions, she perceived my own weariness.
“Have you read this?” she asked me one morning, her right arm extended halfway in my direction, her fingers clasped around a small book.
I think my first thought was, I thought it was spelled ‘Koran”.
“No, I haven’t read it,” I told her.
“Take it,” she said and extended her arm further.
“Oh no, I couldn’t take your book,” I declined quickly. Why was she offering it to me? Where would I put it during rounds? Why would I take it if I had no intention of reading it?
But her eyes were insistent, and kind. It seemed so important to her.
So I took it, thanking her, and I put it on my bookshelf, wondering when I would ever have the time or desire to read it.
That copy of the Quran moved with me a few times as I moved east for residency and moved again when we purchased our home, but after awhile it must have ended up in one of the giveaway boxes, as purging remains a necessarily frequent exercise given our limited square footage. It pains me that I never read it. I would like to say that I did, to honor my patient’s memory. And yet, otherwise, I didn’t see the need. I was happy with my religion. Why should I learn hers?
There was a time, years later, that I began to feel isolated as a person of faith. I wanted more people around me to know what I believed and why. When I spoke to women of other faiths, I learned that they had similar concerns. They also wished to be seen and understood. It was around this time that I hosted an interfaith tea party for mothers of different faiths from my kids’ school. While I was a little worried about sharing my own beliefs, I shouldn’t have worried. The other mothers were so eager to share their own experiences and ask questions of each other that all I had to do was refill tea cups!
Meeting these women, including Muslims from different cultural backgrounds, and reading Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance by Linda Wertheimer, and then reading Carl Medearis’s Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, all snowballed into this need to learn more about Islam. I specifically wanted to know what Muslims are taught about Jesus. But besides that, I wanted to know about this religion because it concerns so many -- the millions who practice it...and the many who fear its teaching.
As I began reading the book, I noted the way the author acknowledges that her “engagement with other worldviews had been more about pageantry than pluralism…[and that she] might identify as someone who celebrated diversity, but in reality, [her] worldview was pretty cramped.” (34) How true is this for so many of us? How insular are our circles?
In order to uphold her value of examining the beliefs of others, as well as to debunk the myths that lead to Islamophobia, the author immerses herself in a year long study of the Quran. I appreciate her efforts to provide multiple Muslim perspectives, probing the Sheikh on sensitive issues as well as conducting interviews with Pakastani and Egyptian Muslims who hold different interpretations of the Quran.
Aren’t Muslims right to seek justice, for example? Isn’t that a “cornerstone virtue of Islam”? The Sheikh replies yes, but… “There [would be] justice, ultimately, he said, but it would not necessarily arrive in this life. Allah would provide it in the Hereafter.” He recommended compromise and peace first as a smarter strategy to buy “space and time to do something, to build something” that might later give their people strength. (243) Above all, the Sheikh stresses the Muslim to seek God first and let the minutia of this life, the slanders, the slights, the injustices, fall away. He recommends leading by example, to let a quiet life speak for itself. “True freedom,” he says, “means freedom from desire. True freedom means freedom of thinking.” (255) Have faith, he says. They can not take that from you.
Americans, on the other hand, he views as “slaves of desire, and that’s not good for people. These things are more likely to bring death to America than any Al-Qaeda, any destruction of towers.” (255) A bold statement! And yet, the philosophy and the actions seem linked in a disturbing way. Along her journey the author learns that very few extremists studied at traditional madrasas or Islamic boarding schools. Rather, they were Western-educated. “It was ‘Western-educated types,’ not madrasa graduates, [the Sheikh] said, who harbored the biggest grudges against the West. ‘They want what the West has,’ he said. ‘They want power.’” (266)
Given the severity of potential outcomes from misinterpretation, it was difficult to hear though that the Quran could only be fully understood in classical Arabic. Only after years of study, said the Sheikh, could one purport to interpret the passages justly. The author cycles back to this idea several times as she finds many Muslims doing their own research, ending up with what her Sheikh would call cursory results.
Similarly, in Christianity, the Bible is a complex text, and without guidance from a pastor or community of believers, we too might misinterpret its meaning. On the other hand, I love that the Bible can be translated into every language without losing its potency. I love that it remains a living text that can speak to its reader directly. I love that it's a physical demonstration that God’s love is meant for all.
As the Sheikh explained the origins and practices of his religion, he necessarily had to acknowledge differences of belief with regard to Judaism and Christianity. I didn’t find his views to be antagonistic, and yet, his perspective was so different from mine, it made me want to reach through the pages and suggest alternative or deeper explanations for what I felt were misperceptions. Basically, I couldn’t agree with his interpretation of Muhammad’s life, and he couldn’t agree with my interpretation of Jesus’s identity.
It was hard to read the Sheikh’s statement that “Christians...went to extremes by confusing their prophet Jesus with the divine.” (33) For sure, Paul and the apostles went to extremes to spread the Gospel, but this seems to skip over the beginning of the story -- when the disciples struggled to believe, when it was God himself who went to extremes to rescue sinners through Jesus.
Similarly, while my religion agrees with the Sheikh that to worship any God but God is a sin (shirk in Islam), the mystery of the Trinity requires avid study, and while difficult to define, is not impossible.
While the Sheikh claimed, “Christians are not so concerned about what Jesus did…[whereas] our spirituality comes through [acting] as the Prophet Muhammad did. We want the closeness of God through this history.” (53) On the contrary, Christian do study what Jesus did so that they can better understand and grow closer to God.
On the other hand, in so many examples, I felt like the Sheikh and my goals (mainly to know God and honor him) were completely aligned.
I wanted to celebrate Islam’s perspective on submission to God, the prostration in prayer...and share the beauty in Jesus’s message to submit to each other as we submit to God, to be humble in all areas of life. I love the idea of designated times of day to pray, to create “a separate peace” sacred to God. (110) Of course, Christian monks and nuns have prayed according to the clock for centuries as well; the concept is present in Christianity...yet not as well seen or likely as well practiced.
I loved learning how Islam is rooted in the prophets and other Bible stories. And yet, it was shocking to read about differences that shifted the interpretation. For example, Islam says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is descended from King David, and not Joseph. I loved learning that Muslims believe that Jesus ascended into heaven, and yet, I am confused as to why they don’t believe he was crucified first. I loved learning about how important women were in early Islam...just as they were important in early Christianity.
I also appreciated the author’s observation of the “porous quality between a spiritual experience and ordinary life [that] is a feature -- and a strength -- of Muslim life.” (213) This reminded me of what Christianity has to say about the importance of bodies, in addition to that of souls, which I considered while reading Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary and also recall now as I remember a pastor admonishing us to be “spiritual in natural things and natural in spiritual things.”
At the end of her journey, the author circles back to a secondary purpose for this book -- to consider faith for herself. Near the beginning of the book when she is discussing her non-religious upbringing, she quotes her father:
“‘I would love to believe,’ my father would say, spreading his arms wide, as though waiting for some deity to arrive in his embrace. None ever did.” (37)
By the end, the author does not convert either but admits that the “year with my own sheikh and the Quran provided [her] with many moments of grace…[where she] found comfort in how small [she] felt reading the text, as when [she] considered the images of the “Lord of the heavens and the earth and everything in between…” (291)
On the other hand, the author is disappointed that the Sheikh has made no conversion of his own, no move toward her worldview. The author takes him to an art museum and wishes for him to acknowledge the beauty in the paintings which she believes pay tribute to her secularist worldview. She is discouraged when he does not. And while reading this, I felt similarly frustrated. Here was a woman mesmerized by the beauty of art, which I view as a potential portal to appreciating the beauty of God. I feel the Sheikh missed an opportunity to reach her.
The author did, however, receive renewed faith in her own beliefs. As she writes, “Our lessons were rites paying tribute to my belief that to be fully human is to try to understand others.” (300) And yet, she concedes that “understanding difference” is not solely a secularist’s value, but rather “also a Quranic one. Only through diversity, says the Quran, can you truly learn the shape and heft of your own humanity.”
I would add that “understanding difference” is also a Christian value, and after reading this text, I appreciated the chance to reexamine my own beliefs as I learned about the faith of others.
Here’s the situation: I applied to a competitive writing course this past spring but was rejected. (I wanted to personally thank you for applying. I’m so sorry we couldn’t offer you a spot in this year’s class. I was, however, impressed with your application and I hope you’ll consider taking more classes at…)
Why not me? I thought I had a grand application!
One of my writer friends got in though, and when she mentioned receiving a required reading list as part of her workload, I asked for a copy. I figured that just because I wasn’t enrolled didn’t mean I couldn’t learn alongside.
Skimming the list of books on craft, I immediately knew who I wanted to read first.
I took a different, shorter course on memoir writing this summer instead, and while my instructor made several points about craft that allowed me to consider different ways to approach my own storylines, we spent most of our class time in workshop mode. That is to say, at least fifty percent of class time was spent praising and critiquing peer material.
In preparation each week, I spent hours reading and rereading my classmates’ work, considering the plot, the characters, the word choice, the conflict, the pacing, and what I am coming to realize is the hardest part of memoir: the layering of the narrator’s and character’s voices.
Gornick says this is the key. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (13)
This wisdom, she says, must be arrived at honestly by the hands of a reliable narrator. The narrator allows the writer to make sense of what happened. As her own gifted teacher of writing once said, “Good writing has two characteristics...It’s alive on the page and the reader is persuaded that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” (14)
The tricky part of memoir is that the narrator and protagonist are one in the same...except at different points in time and at different points along an emotional journey. Referencing an essay by George Orwell regarding his post in Lower Burma, she describes how “paragraph upon paragraph -- composed in almost equal part of narration, commentary, and analysis -- attests to a reflective nature now regarding its own angry passions with a visceral but contained distaste.” (16)
In order to gain the right perspective (and develop the reliable narrator), Gornick recommends finding the right tone, syntax and point of view -- “to pull back -- way back -- from these people and these events to find the place where the story could draw a deep breath and take its own measure.” (22) The narrator provides the insight that organizes the writing. The narrator’s sympathy for the protagonist “creates a dynamic in writing, the one necessary to stimulate internal movement” -- through which a writer struggles “to make sense of [complex] feelings.” (32-33)
But how to gain this perspective? That’s still not clear to me. Many writers say it just takes time. Or that you need to put your work in the drawer for a while and pick it up after emotions have cooled. But my writer friends and I also talk about where we like to write -- Coffeeshop? Office? Mountain cabin? Some of us were scandalized that one of us wrote in bed. (No! Bed should be a protected space!) But I hadn’t considered why certain places worked over others until I read Harry Crews’ explanation of why he lives in Gainesville in order to write about Georgia:
“If you don’t leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.” (46)
I guess it makes sense -- you have to be close enough to the memory in order to conjure it, but far enough from it that your narrator can stand on her own feet.
In the end, Gornick concludes that since it’s not possible to teach someone how to write (although I think she does a great job of explaining the nuances of the craft!), the point of these courses is to “teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others…[to ask] what is this all about?” Such questions turn the writer’s attention to the narrator and how to use that narrator to relay the story of the subject struggling with the material. (159)
Gornick says that a good essay, for example, will demonstrate the narrator “moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified knowledge.” (36) I hope I’ve made a similar journey over the past few months. I don’t know if my writing has improved at all this summer, but I know I’ve benefited from a humbling experience that spurred me on to further study. And I’ve definitely benefited from reading the stories of others. I have learned how to dissect a piece in order to figure out what’s working and what isn’t, so at the very least, I have a better grasp of what I need to work on.
It’s time to tear it up. I’m moving on to revision, because even though it’s an emotional process, I agree with Gornick that:
“That impulse -- to tell a tale rich in context, alive in situation, shot through with event and perspective -- is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.” (90)
Little did I know until I cracked the cover that this was the very population Lewis was invited to address, initially delivering his words over radio broadcast in England during World War II. By that time (so the preface to my edition tells me), many English had become disillusioned with faith. Not intellectual enough for me, they said. And yet, where to turn to for hope while London is ravaged by bombs? How to carry on amidst the senseless evil of the world?
After serving as an air raid warden, Lewis began to “speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil, work that resulted in his being invited by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on Christian faith.” (XVII) Lewis “told his radio audience that he had been selected for the job of describing Christianity to a new generation precisely because he was not a specialist…[and] that he had accepted the task because he believed that England...had never in fact been told in basic terms what the religion is about.” (XIX)
Over the past few years, I have felt exactly the same way about my own community, where I feel a lack of knowledge and understanding has led to false assumptions at best and prejudices at worst. Where is the intellectual curiosity? When did Christianity lose its mystery? I know I can’t answer those questions here, so I’m going to ask for Lewis’s help in tackling a different question that ironically, he makes easier to answer.
Among the objections raised regarding the Christian faith is the question of the Trinity. How can you claim to believe in one God and yet say he is three persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Let me begin by saying that this question can be difficult for Christians as well. The very early church was split about the identity of the Holy Spirit, and many struggle to explain the divinity of Jesus, let alone a more mystical being like the Spirit. But I’ve heard some good sermons on this topic and particularly like the way Lewis teases out the issue. Before I turn to his rationale, I want to use this fundamental, go-to verse as a basis for discussion:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
I memorized this as a child. It was probably one of the first verses I memorized. I heard it repeated everywhere -- Sunday School, “grown-up” church, summer camp, kids’ clubs and youth groups… But I don’t ever remember someone explaining the word “begotten”. I had always wondered, why a “begotten” son? Thankfully, Lewis provides an answer.
“To beget is to become the father of; to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies… But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A man makes...a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But of course, it is not a real man.
“Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God.” (157-8)
What it comes down to is this: that when the verse says God gave his begotten son, it is saying that God gave God. The son has to be God too.
Lewis makes a further point on this, to say that while we read this event as a sequence, as though the Father came first and then later, the son existed, isn’t the case. Rather, “there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.” (173) Christians believe that the three-in-one God was not created when Christ arrived in the manger but rather has always existed.
So already here we have God in two. How can this be?
“The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings -- just as, in two dimensions...one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures...In God’s dimension...you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.” (162)
Lewis stresses that it’s not so important to be able to imagine a three-in-one being. We shouldn’t let our limitations prevent us from “being actually drawn into that three-personal life” where we can experience all of God. (162-3) What might this look like?
“An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get in touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God -- that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him.
“God is the thing to which he is praying -- the goal he is trying to reach. [God the Father] God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on -- the motive power. [God the Holy Spirit] God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. [Christ]
“So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life -- what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.” (163)
Lewis has one more illustration for us in order to help us understand this complexity. To return to that famous verse that begins, “For God so loved the world,” we are reminded that God loves. And not only that, God is the expression of love itself. We have all heard the phrase “God is love.” But have we considered what it means to say that? Because saying “God is love” has “no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” (174) But since the three-in-one God has always existed, love has too. Christians believe “that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.” (175) Now that’s a hopeful message, that love has always and will always be present!
Lewis points out that the Son is “the self-expression of the Father -- what the Father has to say” as “light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind” and yet, God chose to describe himself as “Father and Son [because it] is more like the relation between the First and Second Persons than anything else we can think of. Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love. The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father.” (173-4)
This, Lewis says, is “perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing -- not even a person -- but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life...a kind of dance.” Lewis admits that the Holy Spirit is more difficult for us to understand. The Holy Spirit isn’t something we look at. Rather, “he is always acting through you...God is love, and that love works through men -- especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son.” (176)
And what about that last half of the verse? The part of John 3:16 that talks about believing in God’s son and receiving everlasting life? Lewis explains that should we accept God’s gift to us, then we undergo a transformation. Whereas we begin as only statues of God’s creation...
“This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” (159)
That is to say, that for now we are invited to “this three-Personal life…[to take our] place in that dance” and that we will receive a new spiritual life -- “sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist.” (176, 177)
Every June, our church hosts a vacation Bible school program they call Summer Blast. Last year I wrote about how much effort goes into making the weeklong program meaningful for its many participants. This year, with so many events being cancelled due to coronavirus, my family held our breath and wondered what our church leaders would come up with.
Turns out that after hundreds of hours of work, the resultant virtual program was phenomenal and reached more than twice the number of kids who participated last year (about 300!). I’m guessing it helped to have a couple dozen tech-savvy teenagers to iron out the details!
Every morning, my family tuned into a half hour video message that introduced the bottom line for the day, encouraged us to get up and sing with the worship team, taught us some cool games and crafts, and concluded with an engaging Bible story. Following the video, we ran to the boxes of materials that had been shipped to us and found the packets to guide us in the day’s games and crafts. In the evening, we signed onto Zoom for a slideshow of the day’s photos and to debrief the finer points of the Bible story and message.
Along with all of the programming, every year our church leaders highlight a mission or charity for which the kids can raise money, as a way to teach service. This year though, the kids weren’t supposed to just bring in money. They were asked to identify adults in their lives who would sponsor them for acts of service done for their siblings or parents. The kids could also earn money by memorizing Bible verses or reading scripture. I thought the chart of options the church provided was brilliant -- until one of my children voiced this concern:
“You mean, we do all this work, and then they get the money? Why don’t we get anything?”
I was flabbergasted. But then again, we had just gone through an intense season where we all had felt loss. Special events and milestones had been erased from the calendar, and along with them, most of our good humor. What more did we have to give?
I noticed this particularly in my own attitude. How could I devote any more time or patience or attention to my children when I was completely spent? How were we ever going to fill our buckets again?
It turns out, as they tend to be, our church leaders were onto something. They had been living this season right alongside us. They felt similarly drained.
But they knew the antidote: Prayer. Scripture. Service. Acts of kindness.
I told my children that the point of service was to serve others, to remember that there are those whose needs are greater than ours. But -- in this case, I said I had a hunch that if we gave it a try, we would get something out of it too.
Our acts of kindness were bursty and patchy, but as we assessed our progress over the week, the kids’ eyes lit up when they were reminded of how they shared or were kind or helpful. And those who were helped by those actions were lifted up as well.
The night before we made our final donation to the Promised Land Covenant Church (to help feed and care for people affected by COVID-19 while also seeking to bring racial reconciliation in New York City and beyond), the kids added up their acts of service and tallied a total for the family. I was pleased that they neither compared their results nor competed for the highest “score”. Each child was proud of his or her own acts and total amount raised. And I was proud of them.
This month I wrote about the suffocation of coronavirus...and of isolation… But unfortunately, the inability to breathe freely this season didn’t stop with those issues.
Coronavirus, isolation, and police brutality? I decided to listen in to learn how the crises of this season were affecting the Black community in Cambridge.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Cambridge School Committee Vice Chair Manikka Bowman and former mayor and sitting City Councillor Denise Simmons began to notice that minorities were three times more likely to become infected with the disease. Why was that? They cited underlying medical conditions, unequal access to healthcare, and employment in essential services as leading reasons. It is clear that even in a city as progressive as Cambridge, we still have a long way to go towards equity.
In response to this disparity, these two courageous women initiated a series of panel discussions about how the pandemic has affected the Black community in Cambridge, covering topics like education, mental health and an intergenerational conversation on the intersection of COVID and racism.
I listened in, and this is what I gathered from the first three of these probing conversations:
First, the Black community has sayings I have never heard before. Sayings like,
“If every hand that reached, could touch…” referring to the inequities facing Black Americans who often find themselves on the other side of a locked door. And perhaps, more specifically as it relates to contagious disease,
“When everybody else gets a cold, we get the flu.” Or, in this context, getting affected by COVID at a rate three times greater than whites. Dr. Jeanette Callahan of the Cambridge Health Alliance shared that new studies in epigenetics (the study of changes in heritable gene expression due to environmental factors) suggest that underlying conditions like vitamin deficiencies, as well as inherited genetic changes from “internalized trauma,” the results of multi-generational struggle, effectively amplify the vulnerability of this population. Mental health workers further spoke of the stigma of mental health issues within the Black community such that people are prevented from receiving the emotional support most have needed during this time -- even as much as a “how are you today?”
Educators notice changes in their students: high anxiety, disconnection, worry about family members who continue to work as essential workers, lack of IEP services, new responsibilities like taking care of younger family members or doing the cooking at home. Community partners like Becoming a Man, Workforce, Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, My Brother’s Keeper, Building Equity Bridges and the NAACP have tried to fill the gaps by providing space to support the mental health of their students. They have also worked to provide information on meals available through the Cambridge Public Schools as well as guidance for how to access the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund.
But they kept hearing from people, “we are too scared to leave the house to get that food.” Also, they heard, “It’s hard to engage in teaching or learning when you’re wondering, how does this make a difference in my life right now?”
First they encouraged people to pay attention to their bodily needs -- for exercise, rest, even a warm bath to help relieve the stress. But then they got serious about education. Let’s provide a variety of resources for these students -- these scholars -- who need an array of options to meet their needs, because we don’t want to be any further behind when we return to school, they said. They called for an elevation in language (as in referring to the students as scholars) as well as expectations to combat the status quo that has perpetuated grossly unbalanced academic outcomes between white and minority students in the district.
Educators and community members encouraged families and parents to use their voices and give feedback so that the system can give them what they need. They noted that the school system can change faster than we thought it could...and perhaps now is the time to leverage that momentum to make changes toward equity during this time. Vice Chair Bowman also announced new funding to be dedicated to hiring additional social workers for the district, in an attempt to fill the gaps. More guidance counselors may also be hired.
More counseling of course, because during the time between the first panel discussion on May 24th and the third panel discussion on June 21st, things heated up across the country for another reason.
COVID has been an accelerator for the conversation about racism. Perhaps it’s the lack of sports or other distractions that let us put it off until later, as one Cambridge father mused. Whatever the reason, progress wasn’t going to be made until people made it a priority, but more and more people are stepping up to act.
Multiple panelists began to call for Cambridge to declare racism a public health emergency, as Somerville did recently, with Mayor Joseph Curtatone stating:
“"No one should fear for their lives because of the color of their skin. No one should have to grieve the loss of a loved one, friend, or stranger who died because they were black. No one should have to fear those who are sworn to protect and serve."
Panelists responded to parents’ questions about how to discuss recent events with their children, advising age-appropriate conversations first, but that when the time is right, to educate each other on the history that hasn’t made it to the textbooks yet. And when you have shattered their reality, then, they said, “be prepared to love your child after the conversation, because you won’t be able to answer all questions.”
Panelists also discussed how to safely attend protests during this ongoing pandemic. The Chief Public Health Officer for Cambridge reminded people to take precautions -- mask up, stay six feet apart, think about getting testing for coronavirus afterwards. Other panelists encouraged people to think about what else they could do besides attending a protest -- encourage Congress to provide PPE for protesters, sign petitions, or use apps to fill up Trump’s rally with phony attendees to falsely elevate attendance levels...
The most recent panel discussion took place during Juneteenth weekend, the holiday commemorating the announcement by federal soldiers in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 proclaiming that all slaves were now free. Several Black panelists were unaware of Juneteenth prior to college or adulthood. Two cited the show “Blackish” as the source of their knowledge. But as community members caught on, they enjoyed the celebration in front of the Main Library, hosted by the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, and began to think of Juneteenth as a time to remember that, in the words of one high school student, “no one is free until everyone is free.”
The holiday has been elevated to attention lately, and recognized, as HR Strategist and Cambridge father Jeff Davis put it, as “a reclaiming of the stories of escaped slaves and sharecroppers that have been taken from African Americans for over 400 years.” Ken Reeves, the President of the Cambridge chapter of the NAACP pointed out that Cambridge declared Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a city holiday ten years prior to it becoming a federal one. Panelists hoped that they could take the lead on elevating Juneteenth to that same level, referencing it as a focal point to address racism in this country.
Panelists also referred to the impact of hearing Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” which will be read as part of Cambridge’s 4th of July Celebration later this week.
Some bottom lines and takeaways from Ken Reeves, President of the NAACP Cambridge:
For our nation: “Black hearts need to be unburdened. And white hearts need to change.”
For Cambridge, in particular: “We always thought we had a safety net that would catch everybody, “but due to front line jobs or overcrowded living situations where they can’t socially distance,” Black Canterbridgians are disproportionately affected by COVID.
Some next steps that were suggested as discussions came to a close:
-Invitation to participate in a new task force to reimagine how to open schools again.
-Invitation to School Committee and City Council meetings.
-Push for racism to be declared a public health emergency.
-Learn the real history, write it down, and pass it on. (Follow the 1619 Project in the NY Times Magazine.)
-Give thermometers to every family -- make them feel seen.
-Maintain physical distance; keep each other safe.
-Consider anti-racist strategy like this: First, name racism. Second, ask how is racism operating here? Then, organize and strategize to act.
If any of this was uncomfortable or difficult to read, remember that the first goal here is to listen. Just listen.
Click here to view the previous panel discussions: bit.ly/2M6DELL
Listen in. You may feel like you’re not accomplishing anything. Tell those thoughts to be quiet. Then, hear these panelists, and make their story a part of your story.
As the Cambridge NAACP President Ken Reeves said in closing,
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
One of the surprises from this time of isolation due to COVID has been how frequently my friends and neighbors have asked me about my church’s response. In the beginning, people I didn’t realize even knew I attended church started asking, What’s your church doing? Are they still meeting for worship? Are they moving online? And then, as Massachusetts dipped its toes into reopening plans, What’s your church going to do? Are they reopening?
I have to admit that I was a little upset with my church’s decision to close their doors even prior to the State mandate to do so. In closing, they were disrupting my small group’s meeting time. They were depriving me of that weekly spiritual renewal time when we gathered for worship. I mean, there’s a reason we call our worship space a sanctuary!
But then, especially as the pandemic worsened, and as ambiguity faded into the background, the other congregants and I felt new purpose in our mission to stay home in order to keep others safe. Our church was also conveniently technically advanced, and we didn’t even miss a Sunday service as the staff swiftly switched the entire program to YouTube. That first week with the kids home from school, our Sunday School leaders initiated a kids’ program for connection, worship, and study that met three times a week for several weeks before they morphed the program into Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
My kids wondered, “Why are we doing extra church now?”
And I was all too grateful that in the sudden void of our daily routines, our spiritual leaders were providing guidance and community during unprecedented and uncertain times.
My church also initiated a pun-filled and entertaining YouTube series called “Hope and Soap” where pastors interviewed church members and attendees about the work God was doing through them during this time, work that served to bring hope to us all. I wrote about this briefly from another angle in my post Rethinking Fight Strategy.
And yet, about a month ago my church discontinued its installments of “Hope and Soap.” Not because they had lost hope. Rather, they felt God shifting their focus, and all of a sudden I started hoping people would ask me this:
What is the church doing about racial inequality and police brutality?
And yet, while I had opportunities to share with friends and neighbors, no one sought me out to begin this discussion. Today, I want to remind church-goers and non-church-goers alike that we want to be held accountable to anti-racist work.
Within my church, as within many churches across the country, all of a sudden, our services were filled with space to lament and grieve the deaths of Black people. And we revisited our shame that these disparities aren’t yet resolved...even within the walls of our own church. How had we let things continue in this way?
When I first started attending my church there was an African American woman pastor. She left the congregation about five years ago in order to fill a position on staff of our denomination, and since she left, we have had no Black Americans on staff.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
I have always considered my church highly diverse (and I learned the above quote during a Sunday sermon!). Yet, while I can find people of all colors, we are predominantly half white and half Asian, with a smattering of Latinx and Black people. And among the leadership staff, there are clearly some folks missing from the table.
During the last month or so, my church has started to listen to folks outside of its bubble, including engaging Black voices in conversation during our services to provide perspective and teaching. As the protests continued, I listened up as my church interviewed college students about how they saw God calling them to be a part of an anti-racist movement. I joined the tail-end of a Zoom meeting when one of the pastors hosted a presentation on the intersection of protesting and violence by Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. And when several members of the Cambridge branch of our church organized a “Teach-In,” I was an attentive witness as six presenters shared history and personal story of the intersection of racism and a variety of topics, including education, transportation, Asian-American identity, technology, the relationship between protesting and violence and yes, racism and the church.
That last one, of course, was particularly hard to hear. None of the information was good. In fact, as we defined our emotions entering and leaving the Teach-In, the word I brought with me into the space morphed from “curious” to “heartbroken”. How could I look at images of white women in front of their church holding signs saying “We do not welcome the colored” and not be? How against the message of Jesus is that?
But wait, there are Black people at my church. We must be beyond that, right?
What I am learning is that if a Black person says he does not feel seen, we need to stop telling him we see him. If he’s saying “I’m hurt,” we need to stop saying, “It’s not my fault.” Instead, we need to ask him what we can do to help. In the case of my own church, one starting point would be to hire Black leadership.
For several Sundays, we have been reviewing the verses in Revelation that couch Jesus’s salvation not as just a personal salvation and entry to Heaven, but a salvation for all tribes and nations to heal and come together. And yet, just as we strive to work out our personal salvation on earth prior to death (rather than not care and just go on sinning without confession), we feel the Biblical call to work out our corporate salvation as well, to do the work on earth to reunite the different peoples of the world. As Revelation 7:9-10 says,
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
As we study these verses, we come to understand that God doesn’t want us to be colorblind. He wants us to celebrate the diversity among us, to lift up every race, ethnicity and language, so that we can all sing praises to God together.
What is the church doing about this? Probably more than I’ve listed here.
What could the church be doing about this?
More than I’ve listed here.
And if we don’t know where we should begin, let’s continue to listen, to learn the history previously unwritten in our textbooks, to amplify the voices that have been silent for too long.
That’s what my church is doing about this.
The following is a list of books and organizations that are engaged in anti-racist work. The presenters on the Teach-In encouraged viewers to read and donate as they are able. While I have read and can encourage the reading of Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin, I have not read the other books, nor have I learned about the other organizations in depth at this point.
Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin
The Coded Gaze, documentary, Joy Buolamwini (2018) and TED talk
Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey by Sarah Shin
TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
I know some people wonder if this virus is for real, but I was surprised to receive a letter from a friend declaring, “Enough already; let’s trust in God and get back to work!”
I’m sure we are all familiar with compassion fatigue by now. Even in places that have been hit hard. But to insist that things return to normal is to turn a blind eye to suffering.
To some, numbers are meaningless. But, in case it’s useful, to date of this writing, the City of Cambridge has reported 1,094 people infected with coronavirus...and 97 deaths. Months ago, when I sent the following pleading email to a friend in a lesser affected area, the numbers were smaller.
To those who wonder whether we should take precautions against this virus, consider my experience in Cambridge, a city that has suffered, yet suffering much less than many others during this time. I also share this knowing that my story is a privileged one -- that of a family able to self-quarantine while maintaining income and physical health during this time.
I know you as a person of faith, so before I forget, I wanted to pass along a link to a printable book (that your kids can color). A friend sent this link to me. It's by a Cambodian writer who is trying to educate kids about coronavirus and how we can focus on Jesus as we keep others healthy.
When I first started hearing about coronavirus, I got in touch with my friends who have family in China and Iran. They said their families were okay, thank goodness. Then, a neighborhood dad suggested quietly that we start stocking up on non-perishables. I figured I'd get around to that once I got through my kids’ birthday party...and a bunch of other stuff I had going on.
Then it got bad in Italy. And they closed schools here on March 13th and closed playgrounds on March 17th. And I was asking my Italian friend how her sick friend in Bergamo was doing. And I was seeing grocery shelves absolutely bare and worried about how I was going to feed my family. And my husband worried about getting sick and being out of commission when he was in the middle of a job transition. And I worried about how I was going to implement school structure at home so my kids wouldn't fall behind when my kids were completely balking at the idea of me as their teacher.
And then the first person in Cambridge died. And then people in their 40s died. And each of us wondered if we would be next.
And then friends who are healthcare workers got pulled away from their usual jobs to work with COVID patients, placing themselves and their families at risk. I mean, oncologists working as internists? We have heard of the hospitals being at max, of auxiliary locations being at max.
I pronounced 20 patients during my one year medical/surgical internship. And it completely wrecked me mentally. I can only imagine the grief and overwhelm that the healthcare workers in Massachusetts feel as they pronounce 150 people DAILY. I understand why the physician in NYC killed herself. 3000 deaths a day?! Morgues in the street?
I understand the situation is different where you live. I regret that this is yet ONE MORE divide in our already far too divided country. I couldn't sleep last night thinking about your perspective.
Yes, we have all had our purpose in life derailed. Yes, we are all angry. Yes, we all want to get back to normal.
But we aren't not trusting in God. Our church closed its doors before it was ordered to because we wanted to protect the most vulnerable around us. We didn't close out of fear but out of love for our neighbors.
Everyone who has work is working harder than ever before as they try to adapt to this work at home situation. Everyone who doesn't have work is....well, I hope they are all right. I really hope they get some assistance. I know our city is trying to provide multiple outlets of assistance to those struggling.
I still can't get everything I want at the grocery store. I shop every two weeks and hope it lasts.
But I'm not afraid of dying anymore. I never really was. But I was afraid of giving the virus to someone else and having to live with that. And so many people I know either have pronounced someone dead of the disease, have witnessed illness close up or from afar, or are similarly afraid for their frail loved ones. There have been 55 deaths in my city.
We don't know the mortality rate. That is clear. But we do know this virus has killed very quickly. We have tried not to overwhelm our hospitals but our medical workers are overwhelmed.
And I need to know that this is worth it -- this sacrifice we're all making. There's no way to go back in time and keep the schools open and put our senior citizen aged teachers at risk and wonder how it would have turned out. We have to believe that we did the right thing, trying to protect everyone.
It's now illegal to leave the house without a mask in my state. It's extremely inconvenient. I have been grieving and angry and a terrible parent and teacher for my kids. I have been a terrible wife. But then we come back together as a family and read "King COVID and the King Who Cares" and we think about why we are doing this, who we are doing it for.
I trust in God to get us through. I trust that he will give the scientists wisdom to create a vaccine to let us continue to function. I trust that he will bring people to him during this time.
I understand it's really hard to see this as anything but inconvenient when you don't know people on the front lines. And, as in so many areas, I wish we could do a better job of drawing sympathy for the hurting...whether they are hurting from COVID...or from hunger or from unemployment or illegal immigration or any other hurt in life.
Is this violating the Constitution? I don't know, but I have felt like this is an emergency situation. We're all frustrated that it's becoming apparent that no one knows how to get us out of this situation. That is really hard.
I just screamed at my family repeatedly before I sat down to write this. Is that the cost of this pandemic? Will we rise above that? I am suffocating from lack of space.
But some people, hundreds daily, are suffocating from COVID.
Who am I to put them at risk?
With God's help, I can do this.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.