Tag Archives: dignity

Seeing

Sometimes I am afraid of faith.

Sometimes I like my doubts, cup them close to my chest, build them one atop the other like blocks of safe cold plastic, a buffer between myself and the howling fire of Spirit and heart that I have come to know as God.

The scariest, biggest change in my Christianity since graduation is that God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Gospel Worldview have spun wildly out of my control. At Princeton, it was nice to think about the Gospel. I sorted things out in neat creation-fall-redemption-glory narratives, applying them to foreign policy issues and my own struggles with thesis and sabbath and relationships.

Most of the time, I had the worldview in my hands. I tinkered with a pair of lenses, zooming in and out, polishing the filters, thinking “Ah, let me upgrade a bit with this theological tidbit, decorate with this song, fine-tune with a verse or two or three…” I delighted in the way things worked out, made sense, fit so well with my Sunday school years of knowing who Christ was and what He wanted.

I liked the Gospel Worldview, but never asked what the Gospel Worldview was really for.
That is, I held a pair of glasses without putting them on.
I got the worldview, but didn’t look deeply at the world.

A little over a year ago, I prayed to see God’s face. A friend of mine had surprised me with a crazy story about seeing Jesus, and I was like, OK man you’re really charismatic, cool. Yet his story caught me off guard. It challenged me, first because my immediate inclination was to scoff, Uh okay SURE you saw Jesus… Sure….  and second to think, Wait, why not? Isn’t Jesus real and risen and alive? Why couldn’t he have seen Him? Why couldn’t I see Him? Why don’t I ask to see Him? Do I really want to? Do I believe enough to even ask?

A huge hunger started to rise in me. If my friend could see Jesus, then to hell with skepticism, I wanted to see Him too. I started praying hard, saying God if You are real, SHOW ME. God if Your Kingdom exists, open my eyes. I want to see it, alive and real, personal and touchable and flowing and afire. SHOW ME.

I used to think, living by the Gospel Worldview means that I will come to the Middle East and be a journalist and tell stories about truth and redeem bigoted American narratives that end up harming our country more than keeping it safe. I will tell people that other people are also people, and in that the broken will be restored. God will be glorified, things become the way they should be and we will all have peace and praise the Lord.

I came here asking God to show me what He saw, thinking it would be simple, that I’d just implement everything in my formula of faith!

Then He answered my prayer.

Do I know that I am seeing as God sees? That’s crazy talk. I really don’t know at all. But I am seeing the world differently from how I ever saw it before, and I think it started around the same time as my prayers. I see myself as smaller and weaker and more incapable than I ever realized. I see darkness and suffering all around. I try to put up familiar defenses, go on Facebook, go shopping, eat something, drink, go out with friends, read a book, go to bed, turn it off,
but I can’t.

I go to fancy Abdoun, the expensive part of Amman where expats drink Starbucks and buy designer makeup. I get a pedicure and start talking to a Filipino woman who quickly becomes my friend. She’s telling me about her family back home and the years since she’s been back. She’s quiet and gentle, light brown freckles on her furrowed-brow face, and paces her words slowly. “I was live-in maid for two years, ma’am,” She tells me. “My madam she was not good. I had no food,” she says. How could you have no food? What do you mean? I mean you lived! Two years! “Just bread, ma’am.” Bread and nothing else, her income withheld, her family on the other side of the world, shut inside a Jordanian house confused and alone,
she scrubs my feet and tells me.

The Gospel Worldview is making my head reel, my heart spin, my spirit gasp for breath.
I want to paint my nails and pay for gloss and walk away fine and free.
The Gospel Worldview is making me look at my sister holding my heel in her hand. It’s raising my heart rate and twisting my guts, a voice pounding in my head: Beloved, don’t be alone. Beloved – I see her in a corner room in the dark, nibbling a piece of bread, afraid – Beloved, you are my daughter.
I see you. 
I know you.
Do not fear.

Christianity has become really scary this year because I often think I’m a psycho. I walk around wanting to ignore the world around me but my limbs and ears and eyes and mouth and hands and feet do the opposite. I want to curl up in my bed or get on a plane to fly away, pretending none of this exists. Instead I go into a refugee camp and sit on a piece of Styrofoam on the floor. I meet little girls and gangly boys who ran across the Syrian border and are thirsty for water and life. They are trapped in a camp in the middle of a desert, and they tell me to tell their stories. “I need baby formula for my daughter,” a twenty-year-old mother tells me. She touches my arm and I nod, grabbing my pen, writing things down. There are sharp rocks beneath the plastic tarp on the ground; there is trash surrounding the water spout outside; the sun is hot and sand is blowing into my eyes; there is not a single piece of green and the air smells like sad and still surrender.

I want to close my eyes, but in Christ, who I asked to change me, I can’t.
At nights I teach English to friends and brothers and uncles from Darfur. They tell me they’re sick, they went to the hospital, it costs 3000 JD for an operation, what to do? I have no answer. I’ll pray?
In Zarqa another woman, slender and laughing and dear, asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here, why I am sitting and taking photographs in a Syrian refugee home. “I want stories,” I tell her. “I’m a journalist. I came here because I like stories. Jordan is not great, there are many problems, but everyone has a story.”

She is quiet, then looks up. “Do you really want to hear?”
She tells me about how it feels to huddle in a basement, rocks tumbling over your head as bombs destroy your world above.
How it feels to come up and find that your husband no longer exists – no, that he does, but is lying before you with head and arms separated from body, blood spilling out, staining and clouding your eyes
How it feels to be afraid with no end
To have soldiers come and cut people up, using a knife to saw apart pieces of their bodies, and not letting you cover your children’s eyes
How it feels to then listen to your baby daughter scream
in fear, in terror, night after night

How it feels to come here alone
How it feels to be unwanted and unprotected, because any man could come and take and hurt and rape and force you any day or any night, and no one would do anything, they are too busy, there are too many of you, everyone is in need, everyone is crying, everyone is desperate, we just don’t have enough

How it feels to be so afraid, but to go on, step by step by day by week by month by year,
How it feels.

The Gospel is freaking me out because I cannot stop listening, cannot rip myself away, my eyes are about to bleed yet I sit, I nod, I take notes, I touch her hair, I pat her arm, I kiss her cheek goodbye saying Allah ma3ki, God be with you. God be with you, sister, sister after sister after sister after sister,

I go home and pray.

It’s hard to write about Jordan because half the time I am toppling over with feeling and the other half I am trying to be numb. The numb thing doesn’t work, usually just builds up until I find myself sitting in my room, folding laundry, defiantly calm, and a familiar voice nudges me. Beloved, what are you doing?
I am living, Lord, I am fine, leave me alone, I am fine, I am fine OK just leave me alone.
Beloved, don’t harden your heart
I am not! I am OK! I am folding my laundry and I went to Princeton and I know what I’m doing, I’m writing stories to fix the world and I have a solid Gospel Worldview to keep my good perspective, please do not bother me –
Beloved, open your heart
GO AWAY, LEAVE ME ALONE WITH MY FREAKING HEART OF STONE I LIKE IT THAT WAY I SWEAR
Beloved, who am I?

Then something grips my heart and I am on my floor in tears. My vision is blurred but there is a gasping clarity as face after face after face passes before me, the mothers and sisters and fathers and brothers and friends that I swear I just want to forget but I cannot forget. Their stories and names are blazing in my heart, I try to sleep but cannot because I’m thinking how dark it must be in the camp, how cold it is in the Sudanese homes, how deep and clutching are Loneliness and Fear, yet a voice speaks at once quiet and thundering in my chest,
Beloved, I have not forgotten you.
Beloved, I am for you, not against you.
Beloved, you are Beloved 
Beloved, do not fear, I see you, I hear you, I save you, you are not alone.

Am I insane? I pray more than ever before but in a way I never wanted to, desperate and crying, my voice blending into His, praying things only a lunatic would believe. Things like, The world will spin back into Goodness. Our God is strong and alive and real. Jesus is our Shepherd who hears His children’s cries. My dear ones who are so alone, He hears you! He knows you! Do not be afraid.
Part of me laughs – what the hell are you doing, why are you on the floor, seriously will tears do anything?
Most of me just can’t stop.

I pray until my breath is gone.
I pray, and then ludicrously, ridiculously, I believe.

Christianity terrifies me this year because it’s making me see the world in striking glaring clarity. I see Wrong that weighs me to the ground. I pray without dignity, face on the floor, gross and desperate and blubbery. I want to be steel-hearted, strong and fearless – instead my heart is like baby food, mush soft, feeling in a million directions for every stranger crouching alone on the street. I find myself crouching next to them, asking for stories, inviting another stab into my self. Mouna tells me that her husband beats her. Nabiha says she cannot find even 3 JD for the ointment needed for her right eye. It rolls upwards, glazed over, deformed and glassy, and the Gospel pushes me to ask: What is this? What happened? More stories flood out, alcohol and beating and fear,
I am tired, listening.
But I still see.

I don’t know if this is the right Gospel Worldview or not. It’s nothing like what I expected. It is 0% orderly. It is the opposite of the control and self-assurance I once had in my understanding of the world and God and redemption, salvation, glory,  etc.

But it’s the Gospel I am finding, the Gospel that I cannot refuse: I see dark in the world, yet I see Christ as well. I see Him bright and strong and lovely in those my former self would have disdained. I see Him in the faces and stories of the lonely and fearful walking numb through life in every direction. I see life as short and terrible and fearful, but then lit ablaze by the beauty of men and women who are so clearly made in His image, who it is so wrong to ignore. I prayed to see God’s face and I think I am seeing it in the people all around me, each one afire with dignity, holy in their reflection of Him. I am believing against all odds that He will beat darkness away from us, that He shepherds those who surrender to Him, that He is great, mighty, real, alive, that He saves.

In that I place all my hope and strength. I rest on my knees, hands empty, eyes open, speechless.

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Academics Need Grace Too

“Great is God our Lord, great is His power and there is no end to His wisdom. Praise Him you heavens, glorify Him, sun and moon and you planets. For out of Him and through Him, and in Him are all things….. We know, oh, so little. To Him be the praise, the honor and the glory from eternity
to eternity.”

― Johannes Kepler

“God, what does it look like to be an academic for you?”

A few weeks ago, God gave me a a very real, tangible picture of what the Christian academic life could be. Dr. Francis Su, a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd college and president-elect of the Mathematics Association of America, was presented with a distinguished teaching award at one of this nation’s largest mathematical conferences. His acceptance speech, was, as he put it, an attempt ‘to explain the gospel of grace in a language academics could understand’.

He later posted the text of the talk on his blog under a post entitled The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, and shared an audio file of the talk . If you only have time to read one blog post today, I would highly encourage you to read his post. It is truly inspiring. 

I came away from the article refreshed and inspired, filled with great hope in the ability of the gospel to transform the academy. It reminded me of two motivations for my vocation that I had previously theoretically subscribed to, but perhaps dismissed as being unsustainable in the increasingly meritocratic and cutthroat ranks of the academy. They were:

  1. To be an academic for the joy of academia; and
  2. To treat others in the academy with grace because of the immeasurable grace we have been shown.

Much of this blog post will be centered around my reflections on Dr. Francis Su’s speech, and how these principles might play out in my own life.

1. Being an academic for the joy of academia

What does it look like to do research for God? For a long time, I let myself be content with some vague notion of academia as a quest for God’s truth. Academia was that pure and perfect path to a fuller enjoyment of His beautiful creation and to a deeper awe at His unfathomable understanding. The more nebulous and indistinct this picture of academic motivation was, the more I could convince myself that it was the driving force in my academic pursuits.

During the first semester of my Ph.D. there came a point when I finally stopped and admitted that I could almost not remember what it felt like to be God-serving, and not self-serving, in my research. But doing so filled me with a great sense of shame. I became paralyzed by a fear that even seeking God through research was at heart a self-serving act, centered on maximizing my personal experience and enjoyment of God. Everything I did became in protest against the selfishness I saw in myself. I was trying to empty myself of the desires of the flesh without filling myself with the goodness of God. And it was a tiring and futile process.

In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch describes three prototypical Ivy League students. There are the ‘legacy students’, those born into privilege and entitlement. There are the ‘strivers’, those who grit their teeth and climb the rungs of the meritocratic ladder. And then there are the ‘children of grace’, those who intentionally assume a daily posture of gratitude and grace. I have always been a little uncomfortable with this classification, because there was always a little niggling voice in the back of my head, wondering whether I was truly a daughter of grace, or an imposter, a striver, striving to no longer strive.

The Lesson of Grace in Teaching reminded me once more that grace is precisely something that does not need to be earned or striven for. Indeed, Romans 5 says that ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’. God’s grace is more than sufficient for all our trespasses and selfish desires. To be fearful of our inability to earn God’s grace, and by extension to implicitly consider it possible to earn God’s grace, is to think too little of it.

But let us go back to the question of whether searching for encounters with God through academic pursuits is ultimately a selfish endeavor. I realized that perhaps I had been approaching the notion of selfishness from the wrong direction. To be selfless is not to be empty of self, but to be filled with someone else. And if I could experience the fullness of God through my research, if I could be consumed by His being and awed at His glory through my academic pursuits, if I could be filled with the joy of the Creator through my intellectual realizations, then what more worthy pursuit could there be for me? As Jesus told Martha when she worried about all the things she needed to do to truly be serving Him, we need only one thing. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he says.

This is not to say that every time I sit down to think about my research problems, I am consciously seeking God and filled with joy and awe and ‘holy’ thoughts. I will be the first to admit that I am probably stuck in a weekly cycle of trying to prove something worthy of being shown to my advisor. I also do not mean to dismiss the reality that the modern day American academy thrives on meritocracy, on the notion that you can only increase your value in the eyes of society by demonstrating either your perseverance and effort, or your innate ability. But I know that even if my version of the academic life is not perfect, an ideal exists, and God in his immeasurable grace is drawing me closer to it every day.

2. Treating others with grace because of the immeasurable grace that we have been shown

One of my issues with the academic profession is how systemically self-serving it is. It is hard not to feel indignant or wronged when someone we view as less deserving or less capable receives the very thing we had been striving to achieve. At bible study the other week, our pastor, Charlie Drew, challenged us to consider whether we were really seeking God and truth through research, or seeking our own glory. How would we feel if someone else proved the theorem we’d been working so hard to prove? How would we feel if someone else gained the academic recognition that we felt we had either earned or deserved?

This issue is perhaps best encapsulated by the tenure system. Most budding academics have a love-hate relationship with tenure. It promises a lifetime of security and comfort, freedom to live the cushy life and do whatever you want, so to speak. But the road to tenure is long and arduous. You spend five to six years grinding out paper after paper, trying to prove that you are of value to the university, either because you consistently produce good work, or because you are moving towards some great result in the future. But you are not guaranteed to get tenure. There is the very real possibility that after those six years of toil, you will be hovering just on the wrong side of the line, classified as ‘not quite valuable enough’ and dismissed.

In fact, most of higher education is based on the premise that you must earn and be worthy of everything that you get, because there is just not enough recognition to go around for everyone who deserves it. Most people in the higher education system learn this early on, and so spend a lot of time and energy separating their self-worth from their achievements in academic circles. I definitely believed, almost with a perverse pride, that I was able to separate my own identity from my achievements. My mother raised me to believe that my abilities were a gift from God. never praising me for my achievements,or berating me for (what I perceived to be) my failures, but instead always rejoicing with me in God’s continued goodness to me. I was a child of grace. I was grounded in my personal identity as a child of God, given many good gifts in His grace.

But meritocracy was still a fundamental part of my worldview. Although my personal achievements did not heavily influence my self-worth, I started measuring the value of my classmates and peers in terms of what I perceived to be their intelligence and work ethic. That guy who always asked questions during class? They’re usually not very good questions, so he’s probably not the best mathematician in this class. That guy who always makes comments? They’re always insightful and highlight the fundamental structure of the mathematics we’re looking at, so he will probably go far. Almost all of my human interactions in the mathematical sphere reflected these value judgments to some degree.

Contrast this with God’s judgment of our value and worth:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. …

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.

Isaiah 40:11, 26

Reading The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, I realized that I had been so busy learning to accept grace for myself, that I had forgotten to extend it to others. By not giving grace to others, I was helping to perpetuate the view that in the academic system, a person’s value was measured by their academic achievements. I was complicit in enslaving others to the very same measure of self-worth that I fought so hard to free myself from.

The irony is that the world of academia does not need to be self-focused. The university was designed to be a place of collaboration and community, of collective learning and discovery. Professorships have two main components, research and teaching, one of which encourages collaboration within the established academic community, and another which aims to build up the future academic community. But somewhere along the line, man had perverted this system and made it about the self and the individual.

Francis Su demonstrates that we can live out the gospel of grace by treating students as worthy because they are human beings. Students do not need to be the most hard working, the most intelligent, the quickest on the uptake, the most receptive of our material, to be worthy of our time and attention. And for me, maybe I can live out the gospel of grace by treating my classmates and peers as worthy because they are human beings. They do not need to be more hardworking than me, smarter than me, quicker than me, with deeper academic understanding than me, in order to be worthy of my respect and attention.

I am still slowly working through what a gospel of overflowing grace may look like in my day to day life. The Lesson of Grace in Teaching brought home to me that there are many parts of the gospel worldview that I have become good at articulating on an intellectual level, but don’t believe to be fully realizable in our broken world. I hope that you will be able to join with me in further exploring what the gospel looks like in the academic life through this and my future blog posts.

Irene graduated from Princeton in 2013 with an A.B. in mathematics. She is currently in the first year of her Ph.D. in IEOR (equivalent to ORFE) at Columbia University, where she spends her time pondering how to serve God in the academy and pretending that she knows how to be an engineer.