We don’t know what to do but…

I encounter more people now as our community stumbles forward and we try to feel each other out. How close is it ok to approach a person on a neighborhood walk? What criteria do I use to decide if I go back to church in-person or watch online? What level of risk is appropriate to be with people and for what purpose?

Figuring out this new world, learning how to live in it as we hold in tension so many competing realities is a weight we are all learning to carry.

The other times in my life that I remember talking this much about how to interact with people on a daily basis was when we first moved overseas. My husband and I experienced an onslaught of new our first few years overseas that left us speechless, staring at our McDonald’s cheeseburgers.

We are now back in the country we grew up in. But, with the sudden shift of culture caused by this pandemic, it again feels like we are learning a new world. We are in the same place physically as last year but doing so many things so differently adding to the strangeness of it all.

It’s like the world tilted and I’m left again grasping for firmer ground.

A passage of the Bible that captured my attention this past week was the story of Jehoshaphat (yes, like in Great Jehoshaphat!). He was one of the good kings in the Bible. He went around to the whole kingdom to talk to the judges and tell them, look guys, you’re working for God and He’s not a God of injustice, bribery or partiality so let the fear of God guide you.

Wow! I really appreciate that kind of leadership.

A lot of times you read these stories about the good kings and generally things go better for them, but not Jehoshophat. He soon learns a huge army is coming for them and they’re pretty powerless to stop it. He prays this great long prayer but at the end he says, We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on You. 

So then, another guy stands up and says he’s got something to say from God. He basically says, don’t be afraid or discouraged. Go out to the battle but you will not need to fight in this one. Stand firm and hold your position. God ends up routing the enemy before they even get to Israel’s army.

There is something beatiful and right in determining you’re up against something bigger than you can deal with and saying I don’t know what to do. And, then, still showing up to the battle even when it’s not clear how it will all play out, just that God will be there.

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In all this upheaval, I’m realizing the importance of showing up to see what God will do. When I say show up, I mean open up opportunities, be available and trust that God can do something no matter how meager and anemic the method feels.

Somehow, he’s not limited by our physicality. I can tell you, God shows up on video calls, phone calls (they’re back in again–just give younger folks a pre-call text), and conference calls.

I guess that’s where I am today, I don’t know what to do often. I feel overwhelmed some days. But I want my eyes to be on Him.

Sometimes its more that I don’t know how to do it this way, but I am trying to take the step and trust Him to be there in the middle of it with me.

Each time, as I look back I can see that He’s never deserted me.

 

Enraged

I had just sat down when she started banging on my stall door…yes, my bathroom stall door. What transpired is family legend—that time mom lost it in the bathroom in Asia.

Finding a decent bathroom is a challenge when traveling, especially overseas, maybe especially for the westerner in eastern lands. There’s this kind of toilet called the squatty potty. When mastered, it frees one from a consuming fear of being forced to learn under duress.

But beyond that, just finding a relatively clean bathroom with stall doors (yes, doors!) is notable. This bathroom on that day was not only clean, it had stall doors and it was not a squatty.

I don’t really take pictures of bathrooms much…butt here are some cool doors.

Toilet paper, you might ask? No bathroom really ever had toilet paper. BYOTP was the name of the game.

On this day, I made a point to stop at this particular bathroom to make a pit stop in loo (punny, right?) of the unknown I might face the rest of that day. It felt like the sun was shining on me because there was no line when previous times I’d waited in a long line for the privilege of this clean bathroom.

So, I commenced to commence behind a nice locked stall door. And a woman came in the bathroom and immediately started rattling my door telling me to hurry up because she needed the stall. She shook it so hard, testing the lock, that I feared she was going to break the door open!

And I immediately lost it. My language was good enough to say things I am ashamed of now. Looking back on it, there is an element of comedy. Here is a little of what I remember:

Hurry up! I need to use the bathroom! [rattled door]

I can’t go faster. Go find another bathroom.

I don’t know where one is.

Well! Go ask someone! I’d show you if I could, but, well…I can’t help you right now…I’m busy!

You are taking too long, let me in. I have to go! [more rattling]

I can’t let you in and I have to go too!! I’m using the stall! Stop shaking the door or it will take longer.

Hurry up!

I would if I could. If you’d like to teach me, go ahead!

And it went on and on like this. I was trembling angry when I finally finished, walked out, slammed the door and kept talking very loudly to her…ok, shouting in anger at her.

The look on this woman’s face when out walked a white girl was kinda priceless, really.

At this point, my dear friend was coming into the bathroom. I should mention that my daughter was in the stall next to me during this whole encounter, totally perplexed about why I was so angry.

To give you an idea of the level of my outrage, my friend thought someone was assaulting my daughter—that’s how mad I was.

The event passed and I’ve told the story a few times and thought many times about why, why, why I lost it so quickly and so completely that day.

People who have known me a long time know that I get angry but this was something different, it was rage.

The only conclusion I came to was that someone was threatening a basic human right of mine, to a space, to time, to perform a basic bodily function. It was like she was trying to shove me off the toilet mid-stream, and it was downright offensive.

And it enraged me to the point of a fluent, loud, trembling argument in my 2nd best language. There is a double edged-ness to fluency. Being able to really argue in a second language can get one into a lot of trouble.

What if it wasn’t a toilet stall though? What if it was a different, much more important space like a good school, a safe home for my family, healthcare, to life?

And I understand just a little more the rage one can feel when pressed and challenged for places way more important than a toilet stall.

Rage feels terrible and so it often gets labeled a negative emotion and we are often encouraged to get out from under it at any cost…mostly by suppressing it.

But anger is an emotion, a powerful one, but only an emotion. The wrong comes when we act on it in ways contrary to God’s truth—like when I berated this woman rattling my stall.

This might be why trying to pacify justly enraged people rings a false note in their soul. Asking others’ to bury rage because we may feel uncomfortable with the emotion is not coming alongside someone in pain.

This is where lament comes in—lament is agreeing about the wrong done that brings the rage felt. It honors the emotion while bringing the injustice together to God, the only one who can ultimately judge justly.

But in no way does falling on God’s ultimate justice excuse us from our God-given role to pursue justice on earth while we live here as His ambassadors.

What injustice we see more commonly is way more subtle than a rattled stall door…its more crafty and more insidious and more unseen…and, so, harder to understand.

So, listen carefully and listen well and listen long…observe…and I bet you’ll hear the rattle of a stall door. Something intruding on a space that should be respected and guarded and safe.

Oblivious

For 13 years, a third of my life by the time we left, I lived in a country where I stuck out. I was taller than most every other woman. My eyes were lighter and rounder than every other person. My hair was a different color and texture. I had the coveted crease in my eyelids. My nose was bigger. My feet were bigger. My clothes size larger, even when I was at an ideal weight. I have hips.

I stuck out in a crowd and drew attention most places I went. Everywhere I looked eyes were looking back at me…and did not look away when I made contact.

In the marketplace I was asked repeatedly where I was from, how much I made, how long I’d been around. Privacy was not a thing. These questions were not off limits culturally though they felt incredibly intrusive.

Most of the attention was positive when seen from a certain light. The advice given about how to dress my kids or myself was a form of care even if it was based on an assumption that I didn’t know anything. I learned to take it for what it was most of the time.

But there were those times when I just couldn’t wrap my head around the cultural differences. I spoke sharp words many times when I’d just had enough of being tsk’d at for what felt like the thousandth time.

Some of my friends embraced an effort to blend in by dyeing hair or wearing the shawl that hooked around the middle finger to protect from sun damage. I learned that an umbrella is not just for the rain. I became expert at transporting home a dozen eggs loose in a plastic bag hung from my handlebars, losing one only on occasion.

I adapted. But I never fit in. Ever. I was always a minority and never blended in. But I didn’t fully appreciate my status as a privileged minority until many years in my sojourn in Asia.

Intellectually I understood that my Asian-American friends had a much different experience than I did. At a large round dinner table at a restaurant, my Asian friend would be expected to order even when my language was better. They were assumed to be a tour guide and were questioned about their foreign friends as though we were celebrities.

I could identify remotely with the shame they experienced in the surprised reprimands when their grasp on the language wasn’t up to snuff. But even in recognizing it, I didn’t feel it personally. I felt it for them but could easily put it aside after a conversation and move on. It wasn’t my experience and it didn’t touch my lifetime of shame experience like it did theirs.

My empathy was something but I couldn’t ever really understand.

I felt confident taking trains and traveling alone, jumping in cabs and advocating for myself. My experience was that people listened to me, things happened when I acted. I got what I wanted more often than not. Doors opened for me, literally and figuratively.

But my Asian friends did not. When my friend once explained her fear in a travel situation when she was by herself, I finally grasped a little more of her world.

What if I blended in? What if I were one of the oppressed? What if I feared kidnapping, assault, and violence because that was how people like me got treated? Even if my nationality offered real protection, if my face appeared to be “local”, that protection would not help in the moment.

I’d be stuck and unprotected.

Her experience really impacted me because there was one time when the gravity of the big world and my helplessness in it hit me.

I was traveling, foolishly, alone for the day with my 6 month old baby stowed in the baby carrier to get immunizations a town away. My many other trips left me feeling confident that I could do this trip and it was easier than making a day trip with a 2.5 year old and a baby and my husband.

It all went well until I got out of the cab to catch the train back and someone was watching me put my wallet back. On the large bridge, I felt my bag move and looked down.

The zipper was gaping and my heart beat faster. A major rule of travel is always zip your bags up and I followed it. My wallet was gone, my train ticket was gone, I had no money and no ticket to get home. No ATM card to get money either.

I panicked but I had my phone and called my husband and others noticed my distress. A kind man bought me a return ticket and my husband met me at the station at home so I could pay the man back. He refused repayment.

We made it home and, besides a little panic and lessons learned, it didn’t change my life dramatically.

But when I heard my friends story years later, I wondered what my experience would’ve been if I blended in. If I was part of the class that was not minority privileged. What if I was an Asian woman? Or African?

I could finally see how someone could become the poor soul on the streets near the stations with sad chalk stories written about how they ended up far from home and just needed a ticket…a little mercy.

And I read the stories today and I know why we have such a hard time acknowledging the privileges of having a certain skin color or background.

It’s like living in a world of automatic motion-sensing doors, don’t they always open for everyone else?

They don’t but it can be very, very hard to notice when they always open for you.