I Want A Different World for My Nephew So I Wrote him a Letter

15 07 2015

My nephew is now four and a half. It baffles me sometimes; love this strong has never lasted four and half years before. I love him like he is my own and was inspired to write him a letter in the spirit of the legendary James Baldwin because of the violence and death surrounding black girls and boys, men and women.

Red Letter Christians were gracious enough to publish my letter in two parts. It describes the pain of the present and the possibilities of a different Christianity that RLC believes in and that I pray will be the faith of my nephew’s future.

You can read Part I and Part II here.

Thank you for the support and please continue to work with me for a future and faith that looks different than what it is now.

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Agoraphobic Faith

30 03 2014

Easter has me thinking honestly. I guess the Lord does that type of thing, huh?

Disclaimer: I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, especially with how I am choosing to think about agoraphobia. I have found a redemptive angle to this interesting perspective of closeness and vastness and hope to offer some thoughts here. With that said, these are reflections about the manifestation of faith for me. I do not wish to offend or belittle; I DO hope to inspire honest reflections around faith and its understanding!

I think I am agoraphobic. This is a self-diagnosis, but I believe that it is pretty accurate. I get antsy when my senses, mainly the visual, come in contact with certain manifestations of vastness.

I do not become overwhelmed to the point of the inability to function; I become overstimulated. I tend to see everything. I see clearer. I see things with a sharpness that wasn’t there before because my senses are acutely aware of the imbalance in the scenic picture that I am taking in.

It feels too big, or rather, I feel so small.

The vastness reminds me of my minuteness.

I have found my anxiety of my smallness heightened in response to three occasions of vastness: driving through open land such as pastures, fields or meadows, driving beside mountains, and driving over, through, and beside the ocean.

And through this revelation of openness I have come to this conclusion – I am deathly afraid of God’s vastness.

If God created the land, the seas, the mountains, and I find myself made uncomfortable because the weight of its importance outweighs me. It signals something larger than me. It demonstrates that something can conquer me, swallow me up, render me insignificant, render me small enough to be forgettable.

And this riddles me beyond sanity because my minuteness does not expect the attention of such a vast God.

The vastness of God’s creation overwhelms my ability to understand it. Its bigness overpowers my sensibilities. I cannot calculate my existence in or around those things and spaces. I makes me acutely aware of my space in the story of God’s creation as smaller than a blip on the screen.

I am afraid of vastness, because it reminds of how vast God is, how creative God is, how God’s sensibilities render mine small, lacking wonder, lacking understanding.

What I lack, God is okay with – but this does not make sense. Why would the Lord favor such a little being as myself?

Vastness exposes that my faith is not wed to understanding. They are not considered together – sometimes one proceeds the other, sometimes one stands alone as if not married at all. And then I realize that they are not necessarily wed, but somehow they are together – sometimes.

It shows how human my faith is. It is so elementary and relies heavily on my senses to be. It also relies on how I can explain away the fact that God exceeds my comprehensive abilities. My intellect, my ability to believe are put in their place. I feel small. But my feeling small is not one of feeling insignificant as much as it is about finally realizing that I am nowhere near understanding God’s limitlessness.

If I am in awe of God’s creation, of land and rock and water, what other wonder, that I have not even tapped into, do I hold for the Creator? In my smallness and my not knowing, what more is there to see and know about God?

Thus, my faith is agoraphobic.

And I am happy with. Okay, maybe not happy with it, but I accept it.

I am perfectly fine with it being based on an uneasiness and constant reminder that my “I am” renders inconsequential compared to the Lord’s essence.

Because I cannot understand God, take in all of who God is, I find my faith quite appropriate. What else should my faith be outside of reminding? What else would be belief feel like if it did not include tension that borders fear but lives in the land of reverence?

A mixture of fear and fortune in my not-knowing and only partly knowing God is showing me something. Unfortunately and possibly fortunately, I am sure I only know a small portion of what this something even is.

I am sure that the vastness of Christ’s blood scares me too. I am positive that the vastness of God’s love and the omnipresence of the Spirit contribute to my anxiety.

What am I to make of myself if Christian understandings I am taught to believe incite a deep and subtle fear? A fear of goodness being so big that my humanity all of a sudden becomes bigger than I want it or ever need it to be.

My sense of me is heightened when confronted with the largeness of God’s creation and I am not sure that I am completely comfortable with this. My creaturehood is put on full display; God’s greatness reminds me that I only have the ability to be displayed because of the Lord.

I look forward to and at the same time dread what will be on display about me and my humanity come Easter Sunday. I can only pray, pray that my smallness does not try to occupy more space than it literally can. I pray that the vastness of Jesus’ words, ministry, and blood overwhelm me. They already do; I simply pray that they will continue to outside of liturgical seasons and moments on the church calendar.

I pray my faith does not cure itself of its agoraphobia; my humanity depends on it.





On Love and Hate: A Continuation of “Still Black, Still in the South, and Still a Woman”, A Review of “The Help” film

1 09 2011

The night I watched “The Help”, I wrote these intial thoughts, but definitely have more thoughts to flesh out.

In the movie portrayal of Katheryn Stockett’s “The Help”, one thing puzzled me that I did not have the tongue to articulate until now. The love/hate relationship with Africa.

The main antagonist, Hilly, a white upper-middle class staunch advocate for segregation, articulates in her being this troubling dynamic.

She advocates for missionary funds to be donated to “Africa”, but refuses to let her African-American maid, a descendant of Africa, use her toilet or loan money to her next African-American employee because she did not want to set a precedent of merely giving people what they could and should earn themselves (ironically contrary to her charity towards Africa).

This made me question, why create the opposing dynamics of demonstrating charity towards Africa and hostility towards African-Americans? This dual-mindset does not mesh. At least on the surface it does not. So I thought deeper.

Two factors that I have been mulling over in my mind can help me begin to think through and address this dilemma: 1) Mission-work/The church and 2) American values. Both missionary work/the church and American values play a factor with how the African and African-American are seen or not seen (in the case of Africa).

I’ll explore “Mission-work/The church” in this blog post.

Mission-work/The Church

The church seems to be the connecting factor between Africa and White Middle-Class
America. The church seems to be the connection between African-Americans and White Middle-Class America.

Hilly’s character is so important because she subtly and overtly gives commentary on the poor state of the White church in 1960s America. Hilly’s character gives us a glimpse inside the ecclesial reality (alongside the familial reality, which I argue is an ecclesial reality as well) that has shaped her view and understanding of darker bodies.

In other words, Hilly is not “just a racist”, but Hilly is primarily a Christian.

This is an important point that her character advertises throughout the entire film. Hilly is not inherently evil because her belief in Jim Crow, but she appears evil precisely (to borrow the emphatic word of Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter) because she is trying to be pure, to be a good Christian.

Her church, her ecclesial history, background and reality have shaped her social outlook as well, not only her spiritual life. Her faith has broken from the boundaries of being a personal journey that includes others, into a public demonstration that includes (i.e., excludes) others.

Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her toilet initiative. Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her mistreatment of her two housemaids. Her strange demeanor fluctuating with mean, sweet and sweetly-mean (or “condescendingly-helpful”) reflect the attitude of the white church towards the un-white.

This is most evident in her treatment with her maids and Aibileen, the maid who “is not hers” (oh, the language of possession). It is not seen but it is seen in her relationship with Africa.

Few people may have noticed, but Africa is absent totally from the film except when Hilly “speaks it into existence”. Africa created on the tongue of Hilly (perhaps alluding to a new understanding of “speaking in tongues” … perhaps 🙂 )

Outside of African-Americans, the only portrayal the viewer receives of Africans comes from the mind and mouth of a middle-class white woman hell-bent on saving it. But from what?

The viewer does not know what Africa is being saved from. Except itself. And maybe, albeit with great subtlety, that is what Hilly wants society to understand since this is how she has been taught Africa. Maybe that is how Hilly “knows” Africa and wants everyone else to know Africa. Since no one truly knows Africa, Hilly and co. have to create an Africa worth knowing, an Africa that is poor, destitute, dirty, in need of money and white help. Hilly creates in her tongue and actions, an Africa that needs saving. And she has no problem with herself and her society being the savior. She has no problem saving from a distance.

Hilly’s faith has everything to do with maintenance, maintaining her social and moral status among her peers. She maintains the status quo all-the-while helping the poor. She maintains the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping save a life. From a distance.

Oddly enough, Hilly serves a god of distance and discrimination, not disturbance and
disruption (of the social norms).

Hilly loves the idea of Africa her faith has helped create. Hilly loves the idea of helping African-Americans by employing them as long as they remain in her place (i.e., as long as they do not threaten her place as a Southern Christian socialite).

But Hilly also hates. She faithfully hates disturbing what church tradition has taught her social consciousness. She hates it when African-Americans step out of their place. She hates her authority and expertise in naming the other being questioned, or even worse, proved wrong. Hilly loves and at the same time, hates, Africa.

More thoughts to come on American values!





Still Black, Still in the South, and Still a Woman

18 08 2011

* Warning: These are my initial  thoughts. Things can change after some sleep and time to process, but alas, I  am avoiding both to get down my thoughts now*

 

Being a Student

In  a class I took a few semesters ago, a student was recalling a point he made in his weekly writing assignment about the role of white women and the power they possess in the difficult journey of Harriet Jacobs.

Unfortunately, a few pompous students pounced on his point arguing that the dynamics he saw
did not exist in the narrative. But they did. Because I wrote about it too but never had the courage to speak up in that moment and stand beside him.

Watching “The Help” painfully reminded me of what was there in the narrative of the seemingly helpless white woman that no one truly saw that day.

 

Being a Woman

I don’t think I’ve EVER felt this emotionally or physically queasy after watching a movie, than I did after watching “The Help”. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a story about one young white woman’s quest to tell the stories of the black female maids in 1960s Mississippi, or as they are commonly referred to, the help.

Skipping the plot summary and all, I just want to put this out there. The movie’s point is pretty clear: black female voices need to be heard about the injustice and blatant racism they encounter. The subconscious point is also clear: no matter how many victories and feel good moments the movie invites us into, the larger narrative points to the reality that black women are still the help. They still reside in the social constructs and constrictions of being black in arguably the most racist state of the South.

I get this.

What I don’t get is what to do with these feelings.

Ironically enough, white women are painted as the faces of evil in this film. So, from the first moments of the film I found myself asking, “Should I hate white women?” What is even more ironic is that white women are also the heroes and protagonists of the film. So, I had to ask myself, “Should I hate some white women and love the others?” Or perhaps, I should love the white women who don’t belong and end up being the crucified of the bunch. The awkward, educated but socially conscious prophetess. The economic outsider, but innocent innovator.

What do I do with all these white women and the complex psyches they fight through? And what do I do with the warm fuzzy feelings that these white women help paint in a socially horrific movie?

Directly after the movie I found myself telling the brave souls who went to see it with me, “I found myself ready to let go and cry at the touching moments, but then my conscious slapped me awake to the larger reality that no matter how many sappy moments this movie possesses and professes, black people’s lives still suck.” Please forgive my bitter language.

But it’s true. Their life still sucks. Their life still sucks even after they get a portion of the book’s earnings, even when they get a signed copy of the book, and even when something is finally done for them for once. Their life still sucks. They’re still caught in the web of racism, and hate, even after they’ve worked their entire lives to dispel the false rumors that garnered hate in the first place.

Yes, the larger narrative still looms: these women are discerning the best way to live life in hell. And in my opinion, hell is still hell.

Being African

What I do greatly appreciate about this movie is how my perspective has been broadened and challenged. As one who grew up in the cross-hairs of the African perspective and African American church, I’m starting to see why the black church is so important to many of my peers. I thought I knew, but I’m starting to see how much more there is to learn.

As a black person I felt extremely uncomfortable throughout the entire movie. But I have a pass. I don’t come from slave descendants. My grand and great grandparents did not deal with what the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of my peers did.

The black church has concrete significance. It was a way to survive hell on earth. It was where God dwelled when Satan loomed in the law, and the people and the churches of the Jim Crow South.

The things I challenge within the black church today like tradition of dress and even some points of theology were not in question. They were clung to. They were life.

I see that now, and hope to continue to see it as I figure out what role the black church plays today.

Being Christian

I love how this movie did a great job portraying the evils of segregation within the principles of Christian people. How outrageous the whole thing is displays the genius of this movie. Yes, Christians believed that their prejudice and hate was genuinely the right thing to do for their well-being and the well-being of their families.

Being a Christian in “The Help”, in a sense, portrayed the nuclear family as the church that needed to be protected, kept holy, kept clean from the influences and “diseases” of “others.” The community became constricted, the Bible a handbook of supremacy and domination, and the church monolithic. And white-washed.

How the white church saw the black church was never really engaged, which I would have loved to see portrayed. I imagine that it would fit comfortably within the narrative: expressing a complicated love and even more subtle disgust and hate.





Deconstructing the Masks of Racial Reconciliation

7 10 2010

Disclaimer: I am no expert on racial reconciliation, nor do I claim to be one; I write solely from my observations and experiences, but I write with the intention to identify the obvious and unspoken, the uncomfortable results of the racial reconciliation movement that we who have decided that church cannot be church without reconciling, repentant, loving, inclusive action and being have a duty to name and hopefully address honestly, not simply with reprimanding in mind, but repentant and faithful living. (and yes, that was a run-on sentence!)

Racial reconciliation should transcend the boundaries of actions that are close to but don’t purport the notion of community through sacrifice: sacrificing all that is familiar for the unfamiliar, sacrificing personal preference in order to embrace the preference of another, and especially sacrificing pre-meditated understandings of peoples and places and believing the people of those places who tell you differently. Racial reconciliation is not racial welcoming, racial tolerance, nor racial observation. It is more personal than we think. It affects more people than we think. It affects the body of Christ entirely, not just a congregation here or there. It runs deep into Jesus’ body, not as a fad, but as the life-giving connection between His blood and our worship, His veins and our stylistic preferences, His arteries and our cultures.

What it is not is un-sacrificial. It is not a runner-up to what Jesus meant when He sat, ate with and was joined by sinners. It is not achieved in the welcoming level, tolerance level, or observatory level.  

Racial welcoming comes close to what people think to be racial reconciliation, but lacks the effort and commitment to adopt a theology of discomfort from both parties covenanting to be with one another. It welcomes as long as it is not transformed into something unrecognizable, for unrecognizability resists the “predominantly” label so many churches are accustomed to having and being.

Racial tolerance is even further from the target than racial welcoming as it signals one group at the center of the Christian universe, whether they’re African, African-American, Asian, Latino, White etc and allows other to be, to a certain extent, only in light of their being. One group sets the standards and others are “appreciated” in light of how much they are not like the standard, for diversity must be celebrated, right? Celebrated but not integrated, racial tolerance gives permission for Christians outside of their majority to exist within the confines of what the majority deems Christian existence.

Racial observation rests even further on the outskirts of racial tolerance for it is simply a ministry of on-looking. It witnesses difference from afar, and witnesses from afar alone. Nothing is done to see if racial difference and cultural distinction can mean more, it is simply observed and in that observation a false sense of education is exercised, pejorative reading of the Christian church is made precisely in that inactive “education,” and the division between groups remains glaring and distinct.  

These three models of racial reconciliation I believe are more often than not, falsely practiced in place of true and Holy Spirit led racial reconciliation. They provide the foils against which true racial reconciliation can be recognized, but are utilized often because they are disguised as “we’re getting there” and “this is a messy vocation that takes time” language. These three types of models mirror the three categories of personality types present within many churches who find themselves a part of the racial reconciliation conversation. They enter into a conversation without calculating what it would cost them and thus mete out what they are willing to sacrifice, giving rigidly, contemplating giving, or convincing themselves that their interest is gift enough.

The Racially Welcoming Christian (RWC) exhibits 1 Corinthians 11 behavior (vv. 17-33). They are most than happy to sit at the table with everyone, but do not change their eating habits. They feast the same, not cognizant that even their being at the table (implying communion) has to be received differently. They commune not only for themselves with Christ, but with and for others in Christ. They love that difference exists in their midst. They embrace their brother or sister as important, imperative to their understanding God’s kingdom, valuable to and in the body of Christ. What they fail to do is change as a result of another person’s permanent place in their life. Their church body may change, but their personal theology doesn’t change much at all. They listen to the theological background of another, but do not add it to theirs since addition of another’s means subtraction of their own theological beliefs. They operate the same, but appreciate and recognize the difference in everyone. They are touched, but only changed on the surface. Nothing changes in their life, except information about other people. The information does not penetrate deeper than their intellectual capacity; it may touch their heart, but it rarely reconfigures it.  

The Racially Tolerating Christian (RTC) models the Galatians 3 confusion assuming that people are entering their world and thus need to adhere to their way of existing. The Gentile is welcomed in, but the confusion surrounds what the Gentile is entering into. It is a Jewish existence for sure, but what they misunderstand is this notion of being the “original church body” in the first place. Both groups are Gentilic, entering into a completely new existence. Chosenness rests in Jesus’ body that both, the majority and minority church body, are equally invited into. Both are bringing aspects of themselves into community together that looks messy, feels incomplete, and hurts a lot of the time, but leaves without a shadow of a doubt absolutely no room for selfish ambition to parade around as if it is God’s will. It takes both groups out of their traditions of comfort and asks them to be together uniquely and collectively. It leaves no room for human effort, but encourages desire and participation; the Holy Spirit does the rest. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, faith that His words, and body and practices did something to old ways of doing and thinking and constructed something completely new, un-like what we would deem comfortable or perfect and yet is perfect.

The Racially Observant Christian (ROC) parallels the rich, young ruler in Luke 18 (vv. 18-23). They have resources, they have culture, and they have influence and power and do not find it necessary to lose them in order to be with other people. They face Jesus and honestly think that they have done their Christian duty but cannot handle a re-drawing of the boundaries of their commitment and love. They fear that the loss of their resources will affect how others view their culture and influence although that is precisely the story of others’ lives. Their understanding of faith is contingent upon comfort. They believe themselves to be educated on the crux of a life that follows after Christ and models His ways, but are unaware of the depth of this pledge. So they choose to remain afar and give up absolutely nothing. But no doubt, continue “keeping” the commandments.

These responses and ways of being in the racial reconciliation conversation are produced from a desire to do something righteous and right, but after the cost is counted, kill and hinder true racial reconciliation’s attempt to spring forth. The messages sent forth in their failure to break out of the selfish grips of church tradition, racial and cultural purity and generational war deter us from truly seeing the form of racial reconciliation. It is an ugly one at that, a hunched over, injured, and imperfect figure that Christ calls us to. It may not have the stage for P&W (Praise & Worship), the hymnal, the fiery preacher, the contemplative chants, the whatever. Or it may have all of those together mashed together as the same thing; those interested in being reconciled must understand that racial reconciliation happens when people of those different cultures are reconciled, brought together, asked to and taught to live together.

What the racial reconciliation conversation should continue to emphasize is the “person” aspect of Christian life. The church preferences belong to the people, they come from the people. The people who swear up and down that God loves to hear Christian Contemporary Music, and guitar solos, and see young adults in small groups and mission trips are people!

Once the people recognize that it’s more than sitting beside, allowing people to sit beside and thinking about but in the end choosing not to sit beside another, but rather that it’s sitting with that person entailing changing perspectives, open dialogue, holy disagreements, and holier shifts in what one’s “particular” culture is, then racial reconciliation can truly be the strange, weird, ugly, and holy love movement Christ’s body has affectionately called “community.”





When I Leave You with Peace

23 08 2010

I Google-chat a lot, and like to sign off with “Peace” as often as I can. To me “peace” is not an exit signal, but an invocation for something greater than what I am capable of doing or even being in the other person’s life.

When I say “peace” I mean it. Our conversation could be about stressful or turbulent topics that require something a bit deeper, something more thoughtful, something a bit more real than “TTYL.” Sure, talk to you later could suffice, but I’d prefer to leave my friend with something genuine. I want to leave my friend with a blessing over their day, their life, their family, their needs. Even though I am not ordained yet, I want to bless people any and every chance I get.

So a declaration of peace it is.

I want them to think about what I’m leaving them with. I want them to internalize it and begin to agree that their life should have peace; that their tragedy is capable of harboring more than pain and suffering and that somewhere in the midst of the violent chaos of despair, life can have peace. But it has to welcome it first. And they have to be aware that their pain can be overridden with something smoother, simpler, more lovely.

“Peace” is not a synonym for goodbye. It is the subject for good fortune and love over one’s life. It is the shortest prayer I have ever given in my life. It is the best prayer I will ever give my life over to.

As you can see, I pray a lot.

It is my earnest desire and deepest wish over someone else. That they are not only greeted with good fortune and success in their day, but bombarded with peace that doesn’t and shouldn’t make sense; I want them to know the Holy Spirit even before recognizing Her presence in their midst. And when they know Her, I want them to never let Her leave them.

When I depart with “peace” on my lips or on my fingertips, I mean it. It is my prayer. It is my wish that you experience something far greater than yourself or your circumstances. It is my hope that you absolve fear and doubt and grasp onto something just as real if not more real. It is love from a God who never fails, that I want to hand over to you in a small reminder packaged in 5 letters.

Please receive this blessing over your day and extend God’s gift to others.

Peace,

Tomi





Headphones

14 08 2010

Headphones

By: T.O.O.

 I need to shut out demons with headphones

A sound bite of God nestles Herself in my conscious mind and subconscious soul

And soothes

Away words and language that burn holes in my flesh

Thoughts in my ears

Lies in the dermis of my soul

Scarring me for hell, not resurrection.

I need to shut out demons with headphones

Airlifting peace and harmony into the veined places of my heart

Caressing cargo of care injected holy wonders and fluid memories

Into summer afternoons and fall sunsets

Winter moments and Spring cathedrals

Daring God’s grace to save me. And love me.  

Until I can’t feel fire anymore

I can’t hear gnashing teeth anymore

I need a barrier to barricade barrage after barrage of self-pity, doubt, hate, scorn

Suicidal mental notes to never take this life seriously again

A gifted serenade of mental notes floating far above my dreams and fantasies

Hopes and fears

Sacrificing lambs and rams filled with the sins of my songs

Doused in Hell’s hot sauce just for good measure

And redeemed

And restored

And renewed

Because it was sacrificed

I need to replace my gushing catharsis of Satan’s sanity

With God’s growing harvest

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven

Hear me Holy Spirit

Help me remember music that ‘tis so sweet

I trust in Jesus

Who places Satan behind Him

Beneath Him

Revised hymns of hip hop laced blues

Jazz-infused psalms of God’s heaven and grace

Comfort me, cover me, in wings, windows and words

That open up worlds unknown –

Submerged in headphones.








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