A Time to Keep Silence

I’m not sure if the news on racial divides these days is really worse than it was before, or if I’m just paying more attention because it’s happening in my hometown. It’s possible that I just can’t ignore it now because my newsfeed is full of it. I’m ashamed to admit having publicly ignored it before. Beginning with Ferguson, whenever #blacklivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter and #alllivesmatter came across my newsfeed during the last couple of years I just went on a facebook hiding spree of those I found particularly distasteful (sometimes outright racist), hit the “like” button on a few posts or articles I “supported” and moved on. I didn’t want to engage. The thought of posting something of my own and having to talk to someone I disagreed with was too overwhelming. If you are not already aware, this is a prime example of my own white privilege.

But this time… this time it was too close to home. I returned to Baton Rouge after 10 months out of the country on the day Alton Sterling was executed. I sat in front of the television most of the day, tears streaming down my face during every news break. I wept, and I watched as my Facebook newsfeed filled with passion and compassion from friends and writers all over the country… I decided to “like” and “share” without thought to who may disagree. The time for me to keep silent has come to an end. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help noticing that many of my Baton Rouge friends, both black and white, remained silent on the front of racial reconciliation. I engaged with more friends out of state than I did here. And I was so encouraged to see others, like myself, who’d previously been quiet come out in public support of Black Lives. I started a screenshot collection of their posts. I desperately wanted to see a silver lining.

But yesterday morning, something changed. At first, all I saw were postings of news reports on more violence and the deaths of Baton Rouge Police Officers. If I’m being honest, I fought numbness and forced myself to face the sadness of continued loss of life. I’ve grown weary of tragedy. But as the day progressed and I refreshed my newsfeed, I didn’t just feel sad. I started to get angry. People who have been largely silent in the face of tragedies the past few weeks suddenly found their voice, railing against “these people” in all caps. I saw profile pictures light up with blue flames and blue lines, one after another. I was reminded I had facebook connections I’d honestly forgotten were there, it’d been so long since they posted anything. I was annoyed at the convenience of their grief. How is it that they have only just had their hearts broken enough to publicly lament? How have they escaped this tearing, this wound, inflicted by injustice upon injustice, the kind that feels like torture, intended to make you scream?

Rumi-On-Silence

In my disillusionment I briefly entertained the notion of deleting the facebook app from my phone and disengaging, just to curb my growing annoyance at people I otherwise know to be kind and reasonable. But then, among the local support from the silent ones I began to see support and prayers for Baton Rouge from my friends around the country, the same ones who’ve been defending black lives with vigor. I was reminded by them that standing for justice and fighting for love is not something we do only when it is convenient to our pet causes. Lament is worthy of being heard no matter where it’s coming from.

I have to confess that the most telling silence the last few weeks has been that of my black friends here in Baton Rouge. And I know because I’ve checked their pages just to be sure I haven’t missed something. Some of them are people I have had painful, halting conversations with about exactly how it’s different to grow up as a black American – particularly in the South. They are the ones who made my blind eyes see colors as they truly are, not how I wish them to be. And while the rest of the country seems in an uproar over the things taking place in our hometown, they grieve quietly. I know, because I’ve reached out to a few of them. While I want to wail, rend my garments and scream, I watch their eyes fill but refuse to spill, demonstrating a strength that comes from years of practice I have no concept of. I echo their fears. I want to say, “This isn’t my Baton Rouge. This isn’t my city.” But when I listen to them I know that isn’t true. This has been my city for years. I just didn’t want to see it.

I was talking to a black friend last week who said she wants to do something to bring change. Talking doesn’t seem to make enough of a difference. I told her that her story can make a difference. That people like me desperately need to hear voices like hers. I told her about my screenshot collection. I told her that her voice matters. She looked back at my tear filled eyes and said, “Bekah, how are you going to tell me my voice matters when my life doesn’t even matter?”

I felt my heart crack and later, it shattered. What could I say? I could tell her that her life matters, to me. I could start there. I could use my voice of privilege to try to make others see how much her life matters. But it doesn’t seem like enough. I alone cannot make her believe a truth she has seen disputed in the blood of her brothers all her life. That night, I sobbed in the arms of my father over the injustice. Coming to believe I have a voice worth hearing has been one of the most affirming experiences of my life. Knowing that she is unable to believe the same simply because her skin is a different color, broke me. It isn’t fair. It shouldn’t be that way. I want it to be different.

For my black friends I understand if now is a time to keep silence. I understand if the weight is too much. This is a grief you cannot count on all of humanity to share. I wish you could. Like Job, perhaps you must sit in silence. I want to sit with you. But, I want to learn better from the friends of Job. If you will permit me, I will lament for you… And when your time of silence is past, I will do whatever I can to be sure your voice is heard. Because your life matters.

But so does your voice.

 

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Love That Will Not Let Me Go

11254053_10153406434689261_7435853901037485899_nThe view from my balcony at Chalet Bellevue

When you come to L’Abri there are 4 questions you’ll have to answer over and over:

  • Where are you from?
  • How did you hear about L’Abri?
  • How long will you be here?
  • Why are you here?

The first few are fairly innocuous, but you find out very quickly that there is an expectation of honesty if not outright vulnerability in your response to the latter. It’s rarely one-sided, and it feels safer to speak the truth when you’re not the only one doing it.

After 11 weeks here my response to the last question is well rehearsed. I spent nearly 10 years in a christian cult which I left 3 years ago. I may have prettied up my reasons for coming here in previous writing, but the truth is that I came to L’Abri to immerse myself in community after being alienated from it for several years; to intentionally learn to live with people again and prove to myself that they are safe. I wanted to find a sure foundation to stand on. Those goals are being met, but it doesn’t look the way I thought it would.

Sharing my reason for being here dozens of times has made me reflect a lot on my time with Oikos Ministries. I didn’t see it as a cult until my friends started to leave, 6 months after I did. One of them googled the word and the similarities to our church were eerie. No one wants to believe themselves or their friends and family are deluded enough to be in a cult.

It was the habit of the “apostles” to cyber-stalk people who left the church, looking for clues of their demise. The struggles they confessed in pastoral counseling were made public and any misfortune they experienced subsequently was credited to the fact that they walked away from Jesus; walked away from us, because we represented Jesus in the earth. Tongues were clicked when families experienced trial or tragedy, people divorced or jobs were lost. We shook our heads and said, “That’s what happens…” the implication being that your life would implode when you left our church, when you left the truth.

This practice made me supremely uncomfortable and increasingly mistrusting. I knew that my own online presence was under scrutiny. I analyzed everything I posted from 10 different angles before putting it online, so fearful of a confrontation. When the final confrontation came I expressed to the “apostles” my discomfort with how the stories of those who left were handled. I was told, “If they leave the church, they’re fair game*.” When I confessed that I didn’t feel I could trust them I was summarily dismissed and they moved on to address my sister.

I didn’t leave for another 2 months after that. I was so afraid of losing my family, all of my friends, my apartment with my sister. I was afraid of being struck down by the disciplinary hand of God. I’d seen families torn apart because the loyalty in them was split between church leaders and one another. I didn’t want to take anyone down with me and see my own family destroyed. So I walked out as quietly as I could, holding my breath and waiting for things to blow up in my face.

But they didn’t. At least not for several more months and by that time the explosions were controlled and deliberate. I got my own apartment for the first time. I got a promotion and a raise in my job. I was flourishing in every external way. Inside, I was falling apart and having a massive identity crisis. Nevertheless, I did not fulfill all of the prophecies of destruction spoken over dissenters. I still haven’t.

I’m sure my old church members would read this and think I’ve gone soft, cruising my way along the wide path of love and grace. They might have a point, but I don’t take it as an insult. I am softer.

Finding freedom for me was like walking on ice. With each careful step I let go of legalistic rules about daily bible reading, drinking alcohol, cussing, going to church every Sunday, “regular fellowship”. Is it any wonder that as I unburdened myself of these heavy things I found my weight on the ice still supported?

I thought by coming to L’Abri I would somehow find greater ease in restoring the so-called “Christian disciplines” to my life and thereby experience the love of God to a greater degree, one that is acceptable to all my Christian friends. But love does not come through rules. Love comes from people. The christian cult I was in taught that Gods love is conditional. My experience of His love proved otherwise quite some time ago but it is difficult to make my heart believe.

Here at L’Abri I have encountered love that is not contingent on conditions of success or failure. No one cares what my job was. I can’t earn my way into affections through favors or exchange. This love is not trying to correct my behavior or my theology. It isn’t concerned by the things I believe or scared of the stories I tell. This love sits next to me when I ask pain-filled questions that have no easy answers. It cries the tears I can’t and tells me I am loved until I start to believe it. This love shows me my worth and makes no demands.

Love that does not want to change me, has changed me forever.

In learning to be loved, I am set free to love others in the same way, without condition. My heart is opening up. There’s nothing I can do to stop it, and I don’t want to try.

I plan to spend another term at L’Abri next year. I want to study theodicy and keep asking questions about the nature of God. But when I return home for a few weeks this December, and even when I eventually leave L’Abri on a more permanent basis, it will be with the assurance of a love that has been made real through people – tangibly. Love that isn’t composed of fancy lighting, moving music, an emotional altar call and warm fuzzies. It’s real in shared wine and long conversations, freshly baked bread, kitchen crew choruses, cups of tea and mountain views, touch without fear, tears shed and belly laughs.

This is love that will not let me go. Not ever.

Oh love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths it’s flow, may richer, fuller be.

Oh joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.

* I have a witness to this statement.

Valentine Pink

I approached the register with hands full of art supplies and stood there for a few moments while the cashier stared out the wall of windows behind me, suddenly captivated. Apologetically,  she motioned towards the counter and admitted she was distracted by the sunset. I gasped as I turned to see that in the few minutes I’d been inside the sky had turned brilliant shades of pink and orange. It was a worthy distraction even if it was framed by a strip mall.

There was no one in line behind me so the cashier asked if I would mind her stopping to take a picture while it lasted. I gladly obliged and stepped out of the way so she could get a better view. After snapping a couple of photos and pocketing her phone she apologized, claiming it was cliche’ to love sunsets but she just couldn’t help it. I smiled and said I was just as guilty and I didn’t think it cliche’ at all. I told her that I feel like sunsets are God’s gifts to us, evidence that we are seen and loved. And maybe it was the hot pink hues turning me to sentimental mush, but maybe it was Jesus whispering to my heart as the words left my mouth.

“They’re like valentines.” 

She probably thought I was silly because she left my comments unacknowledged and quickly sent me on my way. But the exchange has stayed with me and ever since each sunset has felt special. God paints the sky with Valentine Pink, unconstrained by Hallmark holidays. We can know His love through something as simple as a color. So, pay attention. And next time the sky glows don’t apologize for pulling over to take a picture.

Valentine

 Some Valentines come more than once a year.