What constitutes God
If upon looking at us
They see something else?
What constitutes God
If upon looking at us
They see something else?
I mourn for this beleaguered Earth,
The only home we’ve known.
I stand with the Native Water Protectors,
But from behind the security of a Macbook.
I mourn for every sea creature with stomachs full of plastic,
Every newborn welcomed into a progressively toxic atmosphere.
What will it take to convince us of the grave importance of preservation
Over the lie of capitalist consumerism?
Perhaps a child of our own
Rays of light through the desolate woods.
A gift worth preserving.
“Why do people die?” It’s a question all must inevitably confront, and, if we are to live without paralyzing anxiety, a question all must paradoxically embrace and transcend. To pretend to know the answer to this question of why anything exists then ceases to exist is to perpetuate our enslavement to what Peter Enns calls ‘the sin of certainty.’ Obviously, we can never know why we die, only that we do in fact die. However, to ask this unanswerable question is crucial in learning to live beyond it. For all its virtue, the Christian Church has largely failed to accept this notion. Christianity has historically attempted to solve the mystery of our dying by conflating sin and death—just look at the theology of substitutionary atonement. This is largely rooted in particular Christologies that embrace the doctrine of original sin to a dehumanizing extreme. It’s crucial, then, that this outdated paradigm for understanding our finitude be deconstructed and provided with a more expansive alternative.
In confronting the absurdity of our questions we begin to wake up to better questions. To ask, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is a sort of prerequisite to ask the more pressing question: “What do I do with this one life I’ve been given?” In the same way, to ask, “Was Jesus truly the Son of God, the Messiah that the ancient Jews eagerly awaited?” is to discover the deeper and more imminent question that Amma the Hugging Saint most profoundly posed: “The question is not if there is a God, but if there is suffering.” In learning to ask the latter, one can devote themselves to alleviate the sorrows of the world without needing to answer an impossible question about the divine nature of Jesus. As Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, writes, “The ability to act selflessly for others transcends religion.” What he points out is that activism is not contingent on belief. Sure, it informs the way we act in the world, but it doesn’t presuppose our ability to act. That notion is just used to trap non-theists in religious prejudice. Secular humanists arrive at this basic notion more naturally than even the most progressive Christians do. Faith is clearly learning to live without knowing, and until the Church embraces that, it will continue to perpetuate damaging theologies that attempt to provide firm answers to the fundamental mysteries and tragedies of life.
The question, “Why do people die?” is not a question of imminent significance—a better question might be, “We’re all going to die, so what do we do in light of this?” Unlike the former question, this is one that can be answered because it doesn’t hinge on objective truth. Here, we could explore the infinite responses to this simple question from the diverse perspectives of every world religion and nonreligious philosophy, and they would all be subjectively right for the sheer reason that there is no singular “right” answer. But for our purposes, we turn to the Christian perspective as a starting place.
Paul famously said, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 NRSV), but let’s ponder that for a moment. Is death actually related to human sin? If so, the implicit corollary is that sin is somehow related to deaths that are not clearly related to human sinfulness, e.g., the death of an infant or the assassination of Gandhi. What’s clear is that people need to have the ubiquity of human suffering acknowledged theologically, and perhaps this is in large part why the doctrine of original sin exists in the first place. But the Church would do well to tread carefully here because such sin-based Christianity is so concerned with explaining suffering through original sin that often it forces the justification of such suffering. Stanley Hauerwas thoroughly explains why this is problematic: “If we try to attribute these terrible results to God’s secret providence, that cannot help but make God at best a tyrant and at worst a cosmic torturer. What we must finally do in the face of… suffering…is to show the patience that does not try to discern any ‘purpose’ behind suffering, but without in any way caring less for [ourselves and others].”  Death is tragic, but it’s not a result of sin. That’s a crucial distinction. If this isn’t recognized, the Church is in real danger of disenfranchising those who suffer against their own will and lose the people they most dearly love. We will, in short, explicitly or covertly blame them for their adversities. It’s of incredible importance, then, that death is acknowledged as a phenomenon built into creation, but not synonymous with sin.
So what’s the alternative? How can Christianity inform the way we live in light of our death? What does Christianity have to offer us as finite creatures on a tiny rock of finite resources hurtling around an inhospitable void? It is, in its stark simplicity, Christ. Of course, for some, Christ has been so minimized that those seeking a more expansive worldview have rejected him entirely. Often one of the negative consequences of the doctrine of original sin is violent atonement theologies that are often used to say one’s suffering can be redemptive. This is dangerous and bad theology. Jesus’ act of redemption was a once-and-for-all act and none of us are called to replicate that in our suffering. The search for meaning-making out of suffering is an important one, but it is never appropriate from a third party perspective to impose upon another person a redemptive value to their suffering.
What the Church of the twenty first century needs is to move away an a priori reading of reality and reconceive of a cosmic Christ. Most of religion is ideological; it operates from a top-down model of God that is stuck in the pre-Copernican cosmology of a three-tiered universe. But what if Jesus came to enhance our humanity, to point us to a larger reality of God, and not as a one-time phenomenon, but as a manifestation of the divinity that has always been right there in front of us waiting to be seen? This would enable us to see God in the ordinary and to honor God in “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV). Jesus could become, for us, the doorway to perceive everything as shot through with the glory of God, to see that every bush is burning and always has been. Teilhard de Chardin said, “Everything that rises must converge,” meaning that greater consciousness and greater evolution is always a step towards greater unity. This Jesus transforms our psyche, expands our consciousness, and invites us to draw closer to one another, to be more deeply and fully human, not to atone for some unforgivable, inherited sinfulness. Until we conceive of this cosmic Christ, Christians will continue to conflate sin with death, sin with disability, sin with miscarriage, sin with chronic illness, and sin, quite frankly, with life, thereby perpetuating the disenfranchisement of those who so painfully endure suffering against their own volition.
Before you do anything at all.
Before you write that letter.
Before you tattoo “hevel” on your forearm.
Before you hand in your sudden resignation.
You will always be invited to sit still in the privacy of your soul.
To live with intention.
To love yourself more deeply.
Nobody but yourself.
Can ever take that away from you.
Grief doesn’t play out in stages; that’s a neuroscientific myth. For some of us, grief comes and goes as seamlessly random as the Seattle rain in February.
Pushing what was now my full cart down the lonely bodily hygiene and animal food aisle, I looked to my right and saw the bag of dog treats that had so often been the meeting point of Lucy’s whiskers and my hand.
I stopped for a moment and just stood there looking over at those treats and the picture on the front of the Portuguese Water Dog. I recalled Lucy’s thick black fur and youthful energy, her realist sensibility and sassy resilience, her unconditional wagging of the tail regardless of how late I came home at night.
I remembered the habitual twinkling of her collar tags as she would follow the sound of my guitar to find me playing alone in the living room. And I remember staying by her side after she came home from surgery and nursing her with those same treats.
Then, with that old familiar ache, I remembered with piercing accuracy how it felt to see her bed without her in it. You can carry a wound for a child, a parent, a dear friend, and yes, for a dog; and you can cry, it turns out, even in that dormant aisle of Trader Joes.
Suffering with numerous health complications for most of my life now, I have had great periods of theological deconstruction and re-construction in regards to the nature of God. I would assume the same has been true for Nancy Eiesland as a Christian woman with physical disabilities, and perhaps one could view her book The Disabled God as a sort of deconstruction and re-construction of her own Christology. In the book she repeatedly brings up the fact that degrading Christian mentalities and attitudes, albeit often covertly hidden in subconsciousness, surrounding the physically disabled are “funded by foundational Christian themes such as the conflation of sin and disability, virtuous suffering, and segregationist charity” (93). She gives an example that cut to my heart: People who use wheelchairs endure physical debasement when people refuse to meet their eyes or stand beside the chair to talk instead of before the person” (92).
When we avoid interactions with those in braces or wheelchairs, or when we talk at them—thinking we’ve done our Christian duty—but have dramatically failed to talk with them, perhaps we simply don’t recognize who it is we’re encountering. Do we see evangelistic opportunities and divine mistakes, or do we see the divine itself and opportunities to be evangelized ourselves? I want to argue for the latter.
The degrading manner of (non)engagement with those with disabilities largely stems from an ancient pagan view of God as a distant deity that intervenes with human affairs on rare occasion. When God is this cosmic being orbiting in the Heavens away from embodied humanity, it becomes very easy to situate one’s eyes away from the earthly and up towards the heavenly under the guise of spiritual piety. But anyone who has struggled with their health or who has inherited physical disabilities understands that this top-down theology ultimately enables and perpetuates inaccessible, individualistic, minimizing, and justifying theologies of so-called suffering. This is problematic because it lends itself to model a church hierarchy of privileged able-bodied individuals that seek to help the disabled, as opposed to centralize them in the church as bearers of the imago dei who have a wealth to teach the rest of us about who God is.
Worship of the disabled God is the psychological and theological reconditioning that there is divinity within all creatures great and small, certainly not least of these those with physical disabilities. Leon Dufour writes: “I think, in the end, God is the person you’re talking to, the one right in front of you.” This view of God calls us to rename the disabled as image bearers of the divine Logos and to see in ourselves our own disabled properties not as evidence of our sin, but as our shared humanity through which the holy God became incarnate in Christ and continues to emanate through us by way of the Spirit. This relocation of God out of the sky into what Paul Tillich calls “the ground of being itself” dramatically changes the Christian objective. Relationship is prioritized over conversion. God lies at the heart of life, meaning that God transcends our abilities or disabilities and works not in spite of it, but through it. Therefore, the disabled don’t need the spiritual aid of the Church; the Church needs the disabled to teach her what it truly means to be the body of Christ.
Christians have become so obsessed with looking up at a crucified Christ who has atoned for original sin, died and gone to Heaven, when what we need is a God who suffers, dies, and in his resurrection “calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation” (100). Eieslend’s renaming of Christ as the disabled God repudiates the destructive notions surrounding disability by way of reimagining the holy God as present in and through disabled humanity, rather than above it in heavenly perfection. This is an embodied Christology, which locates the divine as a presence at the very heart of life, and what a much more holistic place for Christian ministry to begin.
In more ways than one the past five months have silenced me. I simply haven’t found the energy or the words to voice my experience. This has been a season of immense pain, of learning, of hope, and of pain once more. It’s the sort of pain that isolates, apparently even from my own voice, as it seems this dark existential pit of being has no sufficient words. I have journaled mere details of my days without a hint of poeticism and started songs just to scrap them because they have become clichés. I’ve been desperately searching for something to catalyze my healing. But this… this suffering is persistent.
Journeying with me from Tacoma, Washington to Durham, North Carolina and the community of Duke Divinity School, this suffering goes with me more than ever before. I have said over and over again to my poor health, “This really isn’t a good time. Could you please leave me alone?” But at its core is this fundamental insistence on being experienced fully and without reprieve, to break me wide open for reasons unknown, and silence me at a crucial moment when I could be making new connections with new people.
I think there is simply no making sense of our suffering, you just learn to grapple with your two options of resisting your reality or embracing it. Today I break the silence because I’m feeling ready to take up the latter. Perhaps our pain and suffering knocks upon our door not to taunt us away from fulfillment, but to befriend us and teach us all that it can about true love and true joy—those virtues that we culturally unlearn.
now silence your core
heed the knocking wound
and with a resounding breath
prepare a room for a resurrected heart
In Chinese culture, dragons represent traditionally masculine traits like strength and ferocity, but also perseverance, divine spirit, and success through overcoming hardship. For years now I’ve had large dragon tapestries on my bedroom walls and they’ve meant different things to me along the way.
Let me begin by giving a very brief backstory. Towards the end of elementary school and all throughout middle school, I was a victim of racist bullying. To be honest, it’s not something that I’ve given much thought until rather recently with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coming to terms with my own experience of racism has allowed me to better understand the racism of others and work to shake off its roots in our American culture.
My sophomore year of college, I bought my first dragon tapestry at a street market in Fremont, Seattle. I bought it simply for its aesthetic qualities, and didn’t think too much of it. But this was also around the time that I began to reclaim my Chinese identity. I proudly put up my dragon tapestry as a way to remind myself of my Chinese heritage and that I was proud of my family’s history. Looking back, it was also, in large part, a personal permission slip to give up the grudges I had held for so long against the racist bullies of my childhood.
When I moved to Davis, California I met someone who introduced me to a sort of mythic iconography where, in a visible place in your house, you put an animal or beast that represents your weakest traits, and the objective is to have this rich dialogue with it that becomes instinctual as you face the challenges of life. Essentially, one listens to it and learns from it not so much in an attempt to become it, but to become better as a result of it. I found this idea really fascinating. After all, I never fully identified in what the Chinese Dragon symbolized. I had, for the last six years or so, battled with weakness as a result of chronic insomnia and uncorrelated chronic fatigue. I knew that I had already found the perfect beast for this project, and so I decided I would give this iconography a try.
I bought another dragon tapestry at a tibetan store downtown. I paid the quiet and mysterious store owner, rolled it up, put it in my backpack, and biked it all the way back to my apartment.
When I got back, I surveyed the room, looking for a good place to put this new dragon. There was hardly any room in my bedroom for such a large sheet.
“Maybe I’ll put it downstairs in the kitchen. Better there than nowhere at all.”
So I walked it downstairs and found that there was definitely no room for it there, especially since I had another tapestry on the wall, which I had forgotten was there. So I brought it back upstairs to my room.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this,” I said to myself.
I really thought there would be room. I laid down on my bed for a moment out of physical fatigue and looked up at an empty ceiling, and there, just like that, I had found both the physical space for my tapestry, and the perfect location for such a habitual practice of mythic iconography.
That year I spent countless miserable nights awake with insomnia looking at a dragon on my ceiling, and, call me crazy, but I think I became a better person for it. On those nights I would look up at my dragon and he would stare down at me and we would talk. Many times he would mock me and my weakness. He would tempt me to give into hopelessness. He would say, “You’re not a Chinese! You can’t overcome your suffering!” But I would think back to the stories of my grandparents, and remember where they came from and where they ended up. Poverty, prison camps, providing for their entire families just to be deserted by them, then going to college on their own dime, becoming successful lawyers, starting a family and paving the way for the life that would one day be mine. This history was also my history.
A year later, the dragons are up in my bedroom in Tacoma. This is the room where I continue to suffer with insomnia, and where my conversations with the dragons continue. I’m learning to identify with them more and more because I feel that in some small way I really am overcoming my hardship by facing my suffering. It’s through this long and consistent battle with insomnia and fatigue that the importance of fiercely loving myself and powerfully standing up to hopelessness becomes so clear to me. I simply cannot survive if on top of my suffering I am tearing myself down in my own heart. Although the Dragon is, in many seasons, my nemesis, he is also my teacher. He is teaching me that I can in fact become a lot like him, although it might take the subversion of the traditional model of power and success (hint hint… Jesus).
This week I am not at home. I am in Winthrop, WA with my father and there are no dragon tapestries here. But last night, I had insomnia again and discovered that there was one hiding in the shadows.
2:45am. I leave my room. It’s better not to stay in one’s bed tossing and turning all night because of negative conditioning. So I go to the dimly lit living room where the fire place is still on. I sit for a moment with my head down in defeat.
“Why me? What did I do wrong today to throw off my sleep cycle? Why the hell can’t I just be like other people and sleep like a normal human being? My vacation with my dad is going to be ruined if I don’t sleep.”
And like an avatar from another reality, this dragon suddenly appears with a fierce gust of wind directly above me to my right. I look up at it and it says,
“You’re weak! You will never know success. You will never be able to help others if you yourself are in need of help! You embarrass me. You bring no honor to your family. You are worthless!”
It takes me only a few seconds tonight to spit back with my own sleep deprived but fiery conviction.
“No!! Dragon, don’t you see? This is the only way to retain my true identity! Without facing my own pain I will never come to see the true gift that my life is. For as long as I drink this cup of suffering, I proclaim my victory until it comes.”
The Dragon usually gives up when I start to make parallels to my experience with the scriptures of my faith tradition. In this moment I feel victorious. However, to be honest, I felt a little lonely once the Dragon left. I enjoyed having a conversation partner at that late hour, even if it was a bit of a contentious dialogue.
I realize that the Dragon stops talking to me when I have all I need to accept my conditions, retain my power to see myself as beautiful and worthy, and remember that I contain a piece of divinity, a piece of God’s sacred spirit inside of me. I’m thankful for that because I need every reminder I can get that all the tools for success, for inner peace, are already within me. This capacity for love and peace is in me because it’s in all of us. I believe that. And I’m trying to infuse every facet of my life with this belief and am endeavoring to live like it moment to moment authentically whether it’s with my experience as an insomniac, my service to others, my friendships, my letting go of grudges, or my relationship with my family. To unlock these treasures within us requires only a subtle shift in perspective, although it has dramatically huge implications. For me, that has everything to do with the way I view my suffering in the context of success.
As Rumi said over seven hundred years ago, what cleans the dirt is dirt itself. It’s only in my present circumstance of my chronic insomnia that I have begun to understand this. What if the “dirt” of our finite, mortal lives is actually the path to heal and transform the dirt we see in the world? The exploration of our own dirt, our own ugliness, hate, aggression, fear, and weakness is where the journey begins. May we find our own creaturely teachers and tempters, and may it be a journey of healing for each and every one of us.
As I continue to walk this path of dealing with my insomnia head on like never before, this desire to live and breathe without regret grows deeper and deeper within me. When this health crisis has subsided, and I do believe it will, I so want to look back on it all without an ounce of regret or self-loathing. I want my story with insomnia to be one that brings me and others some sort of hope.
I was thinking the other day about suffering, about the pains in each of our lives and how so often we view them as detracting us from the progressive plot-line of our lives. I know I’ve viewed my own struggle with insomnia as a detour from the narrative of success that I trace in my own life. Things like getting a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, winning skateboard competitions, being in a band, graduating from college. All these milestones are easy to place in my life story. They make my life seem exciting, and most of all, they portray me as someone with talent, someone who’s never struggled to accomplish one’s dreams.
But a consistent, miserable, deeply personal struggle with sleep is so hard for me to accept and reconcile with the rest of my story because of how uninspiring it often seems to me. It’s one of those topics that make party conversations fall kind of flat. Do you ever feel that way about yourself? Like you’re a natural conversation ender, for lack of a better term? I feel like people just often feel bad for me, and that’s actually really hard for me to deal with.
But, whether I want it to or not, my insomnia is largely what makes me who I am. Naturally, every aspect of our lives is the fabric of our very being.
I find myself dwelling on things like how I can’t pursue my dream of being a long distance runner, or how I can’t play live shows anymore, or how I presently can’t keep a normal job. But, the other day I drew this straight line of dots on my hand and as I sat there looking at it I was struck with this thought that maybe a better way to think of our lives is as a continuous trajectory towards self-awareness and inner peace. That seems to be a much more sustainable metanarrative, as opposed to viewing one’s life as a means of accumulating worldly success. (This reflection doesn’t end with a cute little Bible verse, so you can ease up.)
Don’t get me wrong, I think we should still make goals for ourselves like publishing a book, running that 5k, or landing a cool job, because doing those things can make us better people. My point is that no matter what happens to us, our stories get to include all of it, suffering and all, and we have the gift of making the most of whatever comes our way even if that is chronic insomnia, or the death of a loved one, or a battle with a disease, or spiritual doubt. Our pain isn’t a deviation from our lives; it is our lives.
These days I’ve been attempting to pull my hardship back into the center of my story, not in an effort to dwell on negative energy, but to acknowledge that my life isn’t on hold now because I am suffering. Of course, this is hard to do considering the circumstances. I wake up with a level of fatigue that prohibits me from driving anymore. I don’t get to see my friends and I feel very alienated as a result. I have to cancel lunch dates with my grandparents, my cognitive faculties of memory, problem solving, and decision making seem to be depleting the longer my chronic insomnia persists, and my depression comes in large, sometimes unexpected and unfathomable, waves.
But I remind myself that every day is another opportunity to respond to my pain with increasing love for myself. Sometimes I literally have to tell myself, “None of this is your fault.” I tell myself to relax. I get the opportunity to make something of my pain. And I’m finding that my biggest joy through all of this is the process of learning how to love myself more and more. This chronic insomnia is providing me every opportunity to care for my self in ways I have neglected all my life.
I’m sure you’ve heard before that our experiences with hardship can make us stronger. It’s become somewhat of a cliché, but I suppose there’s a bit of truth to that sentiment. Our suffering can ultimately bring us together if we adopt the spirit of transparency and extend empathy towards one another. They can even begin to heal our deepest wounds that would have been otherwise untouchable without our painful experiences. So I ask myself, “What can I do to care for myself today?” “Is there a way I can begin to allow my pain to heal me?” And who knows, perhaps meditating on those questions can help you as well.
When it started to get dark I went for my second run. The first run was shorter, but it was a run nonetheless, and it was a huge deal for me because I haven’t had the energy to run in a really long time. Like years. Mind you, I walk like half the way, but that’s progress for me. There’s not much right now that feels as freeing as putting on my old running shoes, getting out of the house, and jogging with nothing but the ground and the cold air to keep me and my thoughts company.
I think about a lot of things, but this is a different kind of thinking than I do the rest of the time. The other kind of thinking can keep me up at night. It can be 4am and I’m doing nothing but agonizing over what my future could or could not be. Or it’s somewhere between 6 and 7 in the morning and I’m still thinking about what I want to do when I get out of bed. That sort of thinking isn’t always healthy, which is evident in my extended absence from my running shoes. But the sort of thinking I’ve found myself taking part in on these first couple of runs reminds me of when I was younger and so certain that regardless of what career path I ended up choosing, I would have fun doing it and I would help people in need. Those were my core values. Having a good time and making a positive difference in the world.
Tonight’s run allowed me to admit to myself that I really am unsure and, frankly, scared about my future. I still believe in those two core values of my youth, but there’s another part of me that really questions whether or not I am wasting my young adult life. I always hear people saying that your twenties are the best years of your life—that you have the most freedom. You can go wherever you want. You can travel the world. You can party with your friends. You can fall in love. You can live out of your car. All of these wonderful adventures just waiting to be had. But then, here I am, in my twenties, an occasional insomniac struggling to figure out who God is, uncertain about my career path, wrestling with my health, and trying to make the most of my younger years all at the same time. If this is the best time of my life, then a miserable existence awaits me.
See I can’t just stop thinking like other people apparently can. There’s too much for me to imagine. I wonder what it would be like to be healed, to sleep deeply every single night and to be a long distance runner. I think about reliving my high school years with the knowledge I have now. I picture myself on a beach in Hawaii with all the time in the world to just swim and nap in the sun. I imagine what it feels like to fall in love. Would it be any different than when I dream about it? In my dreams I’ve fallen in love with so many girls. These dreams are so vivid and sometimes it takes me years to forget a particular dream like this. So, as you can probably imagine, I spend a lot of my time wondering if, for one, she exists, and secondly, if I am looking at her every time I see someone who makes me look twice. And you can save it because I already know I’m a bit obsessed.
Tonight my mom found a dog on a busy road by our house. It’s a black lab and it looked to be about 4 to 5 months old. She was getting dangerously close to oncoming vehicles, so my mom picked her up and took her home. We made signs and put them up around the street on freshly rained on stop signs and telephone poles. This dog is very sweet and to my surprise looks quite okay with being “lost.” So tonight I wonder what it would feel like to be a lost puppy. Would I actually feel lost? Would I be waiting for my human owners to rescue me from this cruel world? Or would I revel in the reality of being lost, this opportunity to go my own way, to make my own decisions, and to forge my own future? I suppose what being lost has to offer is the rare occasion to choose your own direction with full ownership. You, in a sense, get to create your new home.
After approximately thirty minutes of running in the early night among an orange and red sunset and a crisp autumn breeze, I return to my “real” home, a home that doesn’t seem real so much as it seems in rather desperate need of healing.