Being in a relationship helps me understand God in new ways. As I understand my boyfriend better, I am stretched to be more patient, observant, and thoughtful. I also see God in him, not only in how he treats individuals but also in the ways his personality differs from mine, highlighting fresh aspects of God’s nature in his image.
We gather for people like Devon.
We hurt for young men like Devon.
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
The Lord gives strength to his people;
the Lord blesses his people with peace.-Psalm 29: 10, 11 (NIV)
It was at a prayer vigil around the turn of year that I received my words for 2018: delight and grace. Around me echoed free-form, one voice prayer and worship, church members both walking in large circles with their eyes closed as they spoke with God in Swahili and slumped against the wall as they struggled to stay awake. I decided to express myself and not worry what people might think, so I joined in. Thus came the words delight and then grace, and on a later day, “Look up.”
In 2018, I remembered those words regularly. I took delight in the little things, like pine cones, which I found so beautiful. Spaghetti, too, and dancing in the kitchen while cooking, often brought me delight. And of course, I delighted to spend time with my friends, the kids.
Delight finds beauty in things, and for me those were often simple things. But more than a smile, delight is a deep kind of joy, a desire-being-fulfilled kind of joy, an I-want-to-be-with-you-always-because-you-make-me-smile kind of thing. Sometimes it’s a moment; sometimes it’s a relationship, as with the kids; and always it is excited and joyful.
Delight also comes with the freedom to express yourself, because why does it matter what others might think? More likely, they’ll find your joy infectious, and even if not, your joy can continue.
Grace is another word for “gift,” which, side note, is the meaning of my Swahili name, Neema Zawadi (translated Grace Gift; my friends in Goma, DRC, named me a few years back). I found everything to be a gift this year. Honestly, the year started out rough and held many unexpected challenges, some frightening, some difficult to bear, some enduring still. But the year did improve greatly over time.
Some of the gifts I was blessed with were the Sault family and their home, where I lived for the second part of the year. I was blessed with the gift of dear friends as well, for which I am extremely grateful.
Grace also travels with forgiveness. This is something I am working on as I realize new people I need to forgive as well as the grace I need to have for myself.
Finally, God often reminded me to “look up” this year. Most often this was a message of hope and confidence.
It translates to something along these lines: “Look up, for I am the lifter of your head. You don’t have to make yourself small or hide because of shame or embarrassment. (Remember, grace.) You are significant, and people want to see you thriving. Be confident and lift your head. Look up.”
I especially took these things to heart as a woman growing in my faith and learning about expressing myself with confidence.
Be confident and lift your head.
I do not yet have any distinct words or phrases for next year. Usually I discover a theme as it happens, like God’s faithfulness that was so evident during my senior year of high school, though it has always existed and continues to impress me today, or “abundance,” which described my first time in Goma and the riches, beloved-ness, and fullness from that experience, though I did not put the word to it until I was about to leave the Congo. But I am glad that God blessed me with the words in advance to guide me, focus me, teach me this past year.
All I know so far is that 2019 will contain challenges and suffering but that God will be with me through it. I’m not claiming any false blessings of a million dollars or some new car. He hasn’t promised me these things, and I won’t claim a false Facebook prophecy that declares them to anyone who finds it appealing.
Yet I can take courage in God’s constant presence through the Holy Spirit and in the knowledge that despite any troubles, no matter how severe or long lasting, Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33).
Praise God for His Holy Spirit!
Have a blessed new year.
Live in harmony with one another…If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. -Romans 12:16a, 18, ESV
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. -Psalm 119:13-15, NIV
Norma took the stage, her voice shaking as she shared her story.
Through pauses and tears, she told the group about growing up as a migrant worker, not fitting in with her Texan friends because of her Floridian accent, and experiencing microaggressions because of her brown skin. She joined the church in Denver, thinking it a safe place, but still did not fit in. Her stories of regularly being tailed while grocery shopping, for example, are not believed.
This she shared on stage in front of the church itself. Norma pleaded to be believed and understood, said her Latina sisters there felt the same way, and called for unity. Being in a white space can be exhausting when that means people cannot relate to you, or when they question your experiences.
Our church is actually very multicultural,
especially for an evangelical church – that’s why I love it and why I want to share about it with you today. The worship team is equal parts black and white with one or two Asian or Latinx musicians completing the group. Mixed race children zigzag around the aisles after church while their parents mingle.
Yet many people in our community still feel as if they cannot fully be themselves or be known and believed.
We are working on it. We have a diversity committee. We, an evangelical church in a predominantly white denomination, are an example in our intention to be racially inclusive. Though we are still imperfect, the attempts are showing results.
The diversity committee is about two years old, and I have heard women of color say that it has been helpful. The committee is part of the reason why we recently had an untold story event where people of color were able to share some of these microaggressions they experience, and it is why we had a service dedicated to discussing racial diversity.
The space last Sunday allowed for testimony, listening, and lots of applause. The speakers were honest. The message was about unity. You can watch all of the service here. In addition to testimonies, one of the older men who leads worship explained the history of Negro spirituals and shared one.
Unity is important, but we need to dig deeper into what that means.
Harmony, too, is necessary. We do not need to put aside our differences to get along; we need to put aside our division.
A song is made stronger by its different, cohesive sounds – the harmonies. We, as disciples of Christ, need also to embrace who we are and build each other up using our unique gifts. If we try to fit in or suppress the parts of us that have caused us trouble because they stand out, we hurt ourselves and the Body of Christ. We suppress the Spirit within our bodies by suppressing how God made us to be.
Some of those gifts from God are our identity and our very appearance. We are God’s beloved children, designed according to his specifications, just as the Tabernacle was designed with physical measurements for utmost holiness and beauty. Let me share some examples of these gifts:
- For Sho, it means her dark skin and bald head, her understanding nature and loving spirit. All of that is intentional. She is tall for a reason. She is black for a reason. She is strong, lovely, wise, and holy.
- For Fabian, it means his ability to speak both Spanish and English, his passion to care for his students and to fight for their best interests, his athleticism and his servant’s heart. He is American for a reason. He is Hispanic for a reason. He is in Colorado for a reason. He is considerate, kind, and intelligent.
- For Lee, it means his Dragon Ball Z-esc hair, his endless knowledge of everything that exists, and the way he interacts with people. He is Korean for a reason. He is white for a reason. He gets caught on subjects that fascinate him for a reason. He is encouraging, dedicated, and thoughtful.
- For Djeffrey, it means his big, welcoming eyes and bright smile, his energy, his commitment, his voice, and his body that was made for dancing. He is Haitian for a reason. He is a man for a reason. He is black for a reason. Regardless of how he does his hair or how much energy he has on a particular day, he is serious about people, crazy about Jesus, compassionate, and giving.
- For me, it means my light skin, my ability to shift between cultures and build relationships, my short stature, and my voice. I am white for a reason. I always seem to be the one who doesn’t quite fit in the crowd, and that positioning is for a reason. I am inviting, knowledgeable, hospitable, and beloved.
David, a Korean-American man who shared his testimony last Sunday, recapped a story where a friend told him not to be “that Asian guy.” He initially agreed with his friend and then thought about it later with curiosity. A woman who shared her story told of the teen girls around her also being told not to act their race.
“Don’t act black,” or “don’t be that Asian guy” is like saying “don’t be the way God made you to be.” It is spitting in the face of God! It is also racist.
God made you in your skin and placed you with your kin for a reason. If you are black, God smiles upon you. If you are Native American, he sees you. If you are Latinx, he is proud of you. If you are Asian, he knows your innermost thoughts and desires. If you are white, he loves you too.
I am proud of my morning church for its efforts to be racially inclusive.
Some ways we can continue to improve are to incorporate Spanish songs into our worship to benefit our large Hispanic population and add some Korean, French, and Creole songs as well. We sing a little bit of Gospel and have recently learned a couple spirituals, but the majority of the worship is still CCM, aka white Christian music. As a white attender, I think we are doing pretty decently, but I know we can definitely push ourselves more for the love of our Body, who is Christ.
Although our church is multiracial and the people on stage represent that, most of the elders themselves are white, and they are all men. Adding more people of color to our leadership (and women, but I have intentionally left gender out of this because that is a different story at our church) will change the way our church is run so that we can grow more harmonious and united and reflective of Heaven.
To other Christians who may be reading this, and church leaders especially, consider taking our model as an example for how to grow your church in the glory of God, and share with me how you have harnessed the strength that comes from the diversity of God’s Kingdom!
“Coka mucie, that’s what he said to me, rudi nyumbani, doesn’t matter what you did. Ningwedete, that’s what he said to me, mi nakupenda, doesn’t matter what you did.”
“Return home,” the song calls. “I love you,” it declares. “Doesn’t matter what you did.”
I’ve been singing this song by Stacy Kamatu and Dira the Band all day. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s God’s message of hope, forgiveness, redemption, endless love.
God is loyal and faithful, as is his Church. Jesus gave himself for you, and the Church emulates that.
So you’ve slipped back into sin. Return home.
So you can’t see your way back to the path yet. Jesus still loves you and offers you both an advocate and companion for your journey.
Friends, advisors, and the Word itself – these too can guide you in wisdom and righteousness.
Return home. You are dearly loved.
Rudi nyumbani, mpenzi.
Last August, just before the solar eclipse that crossed the entire nation, I shaved my head as a sign of mourning the sins of racial and social class inequality in the United States. I had in mind the way poor people in this country are treated on structural levels, for example.
The way black teenagers have to fear for their lives when knocking to ask for directions to school and it’s not an isolated incident or unfounded fear; the way black and white men are given vastly different court sentences; the way the KKK was allowed to riot in Charlottesville this summer, a century after the Jim Crow Era; the way low income families are ripped out of their decades-old trailer homes to make space for expensive, new developments, because the Denver owners lusted for more money; the sin of gentrification – the list goes on.
At the time, I was reading the Biblical book of Amos, which references a solar eclipse and the shaving of heads because of the nation’s sins of injustice and inequity, similar to the ones I mentioned above. God convicted me as I read this timely passage, so as a prophetic move, I went to the hairdresser and asked her to shave curly locks, which are such a part of what I perceive to be my beauty and identity.
As much as we may often be going for style, women’s hair is not merely a part of our bodies or attire; it is symbolic. From owning your afro during the Harlem Renaissance to going natural as a black woman in the American workplace today, many women can identify with this.
Today I stumbled across this article from the New York Times. It discusses the politics of hair and references gun control activist Emma Gonzalez as well as the fierce warrior women in Black Panther, both with their buzzed heads, and it’s worth a quick read. So is the book of Amos, which remains relevant to the USA.
A few passages stand out:
“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.”
-Amos 5:10-15, NIV
After referencing much doom and punishment, Amos 8:3-10 (NIV) continues:
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
“Will not the land tremble for this,
and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
it will be stirred up and then sink
like the river of Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.”
God does leave space for repentance; the nation can change. Then there can be hope.
But since August, things have only gotten worse here: established immigrants expelled and new ones not accepted, violating God’s welcoming way of treating foreigners throughout the Old Testament; low and even middle income families in a bind with insurance (I currently have none and my family had to move to a co-op type of plan in order to maintain any); the continuation of the urban camping ban in Denver, which prevents many homeless people from covering themselves in the night; and so forth.
My curls are growing back, a sign of beauty and life. But will America also grow in righteousness (justice) or love?