Lament on the First Day of Spring

The first day of spring was the color of dust and stone this year. That morning, I backed our minivan out of the garage under a continuous cloud stretched across the sky, a barrier between us and the warmth of the sun. The skin around my eyes was puffy and pressed against the plastic rims of my glasses like pillows, reminding me how turbulent the last night of winter was.  Despite the mercies of a new morning, I woke in the aftermath of my own storm. There was wreckage to clean up, things to mend.

I drove my daughter to preschool and looked forward to being back at home in an empty house. Outside our window, we passed the same unremarkable strip malls we pass every time we go this route. Their homogenous messages blurred into one. We passed beige fields and rows of trees that remain thin and naked, their branches reaching to the sky like bitter fingers.

Don’t they know it’s the first day of spring?

It’s easy for me find beauty in shades of gray and layers of fog.  I am not afraid of the melancholy of cloudy days, of bare brown tree limbs, or the visible effects of a long winter.  

But today, all I see is the litter of plastic bags tangled among the tree trunks. 

Have there always been so many?

There’s trash wrapped around the foundation of almost every tree I see. The grief I feel wraps around me as well.

I’ve been passionate about racial reconciliation for years, but engaging in it exhausts me. Since I was a little girl, I’ve thought about the way cultures collide. I’ve seen the effects of those collisions up close.  I’ve lived them.  My own body feels like a collision of worlds, of ethnicities and cultures, of the East and the West, of racial distinctions made with the intention to separate and classify. If I try to ignore racial reconciliation, I attempt to ignore myself.

But engaging in it is not a calling that makes me feel alive. There’s no arriving or hustling that fits into the work of it. My heart beats faster for it, but it’s lonely and heartbreaking and I have no choice but to face it.

Racial reconciliation isn’t something anyone in the church should be able to choose to be apathetic to. And yet, there are many who believe they don’t have to engage because they aren’t feeling it and weren’t born facing it. It’s a flat-out privilege for anyone to say they aren’t feeling itand it’s not their thing.

I wonder how many people weren’t feeling it as they watched their neighbors leave homes with a suitcase of belongings and a yellow star pinned onto their clothes.

Don’t they know we’ve always belonged to one another?

The last couple of months, I was knee-deep in writing about racism for a project I was a part of.  I was hopeful at times, comforted and riled up as I honed in on Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, but terrified to hope for anything in the world I know. Writing about such a huge topic with such a tiny and inadequate space for the words was daunting, and I came home from the library where I worked and cried often.

The lament I felt as I re-read books, found new ones and tried to write anything worth anything, felt as heavy and ridiculous as wearing a mink coat in the summer. I would rather not wear it. I would rather not be a person who wears a winter coat and tries to get others to wear one with me while they are trying to enjoy their ice cream.

We had a few unusually warm days this past winter. They were so warm that buds showed up on some of the trees in our backyard.  After the most recent tease, winter came back with a vengeance. I walked through our backyard covered in ice to marvel at the way winter has the power to silence things. It was eerily quiet but it felt like someone was laughing. The buds were completely frozen, their tender hope stopped cold.

Engaging in racial reconciliation as a woman of color in the world, and in evangelical circles today, feels like being a tender bud trying to survive Winter’s constant comebacks. There’s hope and there are new mercies every day, but there’s still so much silence and cold. When someone says they are scared to be too bold about racism for fear of scaring people away, we all know which people are the ones everyone is most worried about scaring away. What about those of us who are just trying to keep one bud alive in a world frozen with the power of winter?  

Isn’t anyone worried about scaring us away? 

Do they know how many times we’ve wanted to leave already? 

The calendar says that spring is here, but I still see the bags littered among bare trees.  I cannot ignore them. I refuse to ignore them.

Will anyone else notice the trash we’ve all left on the imago dei?  There’s wreckage to clean up. There are hearts that still need mending.  

Listen to the Flowers

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Yesterday the clumps of unremarkable leaves that line the side of our front walkway were suddenly sprinkled with periwinkle.  Our Woodland Phlox had begun to flower.  I am struck with how startled I was to see them again.  Although I’d become tired of the plain brownish-green stumps of plants they had been for months now, it’s as if I had forgotten the beauty they were capable of.

Today, the flowers on top opened and there were even more pops of periwinkle sprinkled across the plant like pinky promises. Their modest but sure arrival was begging me to pledge to notice them when they fully bloom, and believe they were always on the way, even when I couldn’t see their reality or imagine them last month.

After the joy of the first snow of Winter early on last season, I spent months wishing for the end of it.  After weeks of gray-skied, lip-cracking, static filled days, I became decidedly weary of Winter and waiting, quickly forgetting what Winter was working hard to bring about again.

When Spring finally spreads through our neighborhood, noticing is uncomplicated. The birds sing wildly in the now early morning light, and the Crabapple tree in our front yard lets loose a million white flower petals to the wind as if our streets were made for a wedding celebration instead of the everyday grind of commuters, yellow buses bringing hungry kids home, and mail trucks filled with bills and impersonal ads. It’s as if Spring has perhaps always been and exists on it’s own, unrelated to the long, mostly unseen work of Winter.

It’s not just the seasons. I feel this way about the character God is growing within me and my children when there are months without any evidence of it despite so much intentional work. I feel this way about longing for racial reconciliation within the church. I feel this way about the important relationships in my life that aren’t in the places I hope for them to be. I feel this way about my aging body when changes seem slow to show, despite work and desire to grow and become healthier and stronger.

The more I begin to recognize the way that what’s seen and unseen are two necessary parts of a whole thing, the more contented and convinced I become, no matter the season. The more I look beyond the surface of what is seen, the more I see the world around me, even the day to day mundane and the seemingly still unchanged, with hope and wonder. Click to tweet  The more I surrender to the way that each of the seasons is irrevocably connected, the less I try to pull and pick them apart from one another, resisting their bond.

I often think about the way Jesus was prophetically described in Isaiah as someone who would be tender, lacking in physical beauty or majesty, melancholy, rejected and disliked. His family, friends and followers were asked to see beyond what was seen when he was living on Earth, from his humble birth to his death on the cross and everything he did in-between.  His description seemed opposite of what anyone would ever expect while knowing who and what He truly was.

The memories of past Springs remind me that our little Phlox flowers won’t stay for long.    The birds will finish their busy morning songs and our Crabapple tree will lose it’s snow-white flowers one by one. Most celebrations in life are short and sweet no matter how we hang on.  The Phlox petals will fall back to the earth they rose from, leaving plain green plant leaves to stay throughout the rising heat of Summer.  If I pay attention, I know I will be asked to remember every part of their imperative rhythms as purposeful; and if I listen closely to the voice that matters most, I will be wooed towards greater faith and sight until they rise again.

All the Pages

While she was still in Korea, our daughter went to a weekly playgroup with other kids like her, who were waiting for their forever families. When we came to bring her home, the adoption agency that had become part of her regular community gave us a little photo book with a cheerful yellow cover and English words and phrases spread throughout it like, “I love you” and “happy day.”  It’s full of pictures of her at playgroup playing with friends, enjoying Korean snacks and Korean toys. It’s a glimpse of her in her culture of birth before everything changed.

She loves to look at this book. Every so often, she will pull it off of the bookcase on the low shelf spot it keeps and pore over every page of it on repeat. Even though she is young and cannot fully comprehend or explain the loss she’s experienced, it’s clear that she still feels it, no matter how happy, brave and adjusted she’s become since. Early on, I was a little afraid to show her this book and other things that would remind her of life before us. For a few weeks, I put it on a high shelf behind other big books and looked at it when I was alone, thinking about what we would say when she looked through it and wondering what she would remember of it.

Eventually, we put the book out where she can see it and reach it and show interest on her terms. We look at the book and other pictures we have now and speak simply but honestly.  We don’t do this perfectly.  Sometimes I feel fear sneaking up on me and the desire to try and make sure she is happy and doesn’t have to face anything that reminds her of what she’s lost is strong. I have to push back against this. Again, and again, we see how imperative it is that we welcome her whole story. A story is incomplete without all the pages. In adoption and beyond, we must to learn to welcome our whole stories, or we risk missing out on growing in grace and knowing how deeply we are loved.

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When she looks at the book, she says things like, “I want  go there. Can we go Korea ‘gain?  Together?”  She then lists each of our names and says she wants us all to be there. She naturally wants to make connections between the two worlds she has known in her short life while knowing that we aren’t going anywhere and that we are forever.

We tell her we want to go back there and yes, that we want to go back there together. Every chance we have, we try, however imperfectly, to tell her that what she grieves is worthy of the grief she feels, whenever and however she feels it.

In western Christian culture, we’ve been conditioned to hide sadness, cover up weakness and put a strong and cheerful face forward. We hide our grief for fear that others will mistake it for ingratitude.  We bury our lament before it’s finished because we’ve been told there’s an open window somewhere that we should be focusing on instead.  And yet, when I look at scripture, I see there is welcome space for these things. There are no time limits or cut-off dates placed over them.  Jeremiah does this beautifully in Lamentations 3.  While the chapter ends with hope, there’s nothing of platitude in his writing.  In Lamentations 3:19-24 (The Message), he writes:

“I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
    the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
    the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left.”

His sadness is spiritual; he meets with God and affirms the place of his hope in the very depth of it. The most beautiful art and poetry courageously rise from places of ash and loss, brokenness and grief.

I am learning from my daughter.  It’s impacting the way Matt and I parent all of our kids and the way we welcome our own stories with wholeness.  I watch my daughter’s small hands working together, one holding her playgroup picture book  steady while the other turns pages and urges her to remember who she was and who she is. I am learning in fresh ways that grief and joy can co-exist and work together. Like two hands from the same body, they work together to lead us to our one and only hope throughout every page of our story.