Privilege Check

“Thankfulness carries an attitude of humility.”
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Privilege is one of those buzzwords that’s become a behemoth of controversy in our culture. The debate surrounding the word seems to have taken on a life of its own on the internet and college campuses. Of course, the word itself, and even the sentiments behind the modern usage of the word, have existed for a long time. To my thinking, the controversy has more to do with its usage and the political power of the word than with the concept of benefits of unearned advantage itself. Take a moment to appreciate the origins of the modern repackaging, and the sentiment behind it: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege.

This is just a quick look into some of the privileges I’ve had in life. I felt compelled to make this list for many reasons. For one, I think it’s a good lesson in humility. Note that I find all of these “privileges” (or blessings if you prefer) to be good things in and of themselves; however, many of them exist as a result of some not so good things. That’s the root of reason number two why I felt compelled to not only create the list, but share the list. It’s good to openly admit the positives and negatives surrounding privileges. Next, I realize that I don’t give nearly enough thought to how these facts impact my life, and how others’ perspectives are equally informed by their experiences. Finally, it’s an exercise in thankfulness. You can’t be grateful if you don’t know what to be grateful for.

1) it’s a privilege to be born and raised in America. America is far from perfect and experiences vary but there’s no denying that being an American in the 21st century means that you reap the benefits of freedom fighters, colonizers, imperialists, and revolutionaries of every stripe that came before you.

This is a strange privilege for me to wield, because I never really thought of myself as American until I began to travel outside of the US. Echoing Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on her Jewishness, being American was one of those indubitable facts of life that I was aware of and would never have sought to change, but certainly never gave much thought to. I was much more conscious of myself as black, or as a woman, before I was conscious of myself as American. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Taiwan a few years ago that I really began confronting what it means to be American.

I’ll say this about being American: due to many factors, it was the most successful at doing what all the other 20th century powers were attempting to do. In the 21st century, that gives you an identity and passport that many would kill for.

2) I come from a comfortable middle class family. Coupled with the first fact, this has afforded me tremendous benefits in life. The older I get the more grateful and frankly the more in awe I am of my parents, that they were able to carve out such a life for my siblings and I.

3) This is one that I don’t hear brought up much in discussions of privilege, but coming from an in-tact two family household has definitely had an overwhelmingly positive impact on my life. The shocked reaction that so many people have when they learn that my parents have never been divorced, and yes, all five of us come from the same parents is a sad statement on the state of marriage in America.

4) I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a degree from one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. But even before that, I benefited from being a part of special programs in high school and of going to pretty good public schools. This educational background gave me the opportunity to travel to China and Taiwan in high school and college, participate in a myriad of competitions, receive research grants, and in general expose me to so much more than I knew existed when I was younger.

5) I haven’t quite traveled the world, but I have done pretty extensive traveling around China and Taiwan. In fact, I’ve been living in Taiwan for about two years now. Experience traveling and learning a new language has broadened my outlook and given me experiences that I never thought I would have.

6) I have been blessed with a healthy and able body and mind. Though I am very grateful for all the blessings in my life, I have to admit that this is one of the blessings I am most grateful for. I have had so many rich experiences in my life quite simply because I am physically able to have those experiences.

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So that’s it. The thing with youth is that most of what you have in life has been given to you, in the developed world at least. But even in the things that we have worked for, there is always the element of unearned advantage lurking beneath the surface. This isn’t a bad thing, but the appropriate response is always acknowledgment and a grateful attitude.

Dance

I’m back! (cue James Brown voice)

It’s been almost a year and a half since I’ve blogged; in fact, I haven’t blogged since graduating from college (woot woot!). After graduation I moved to Taiwan and worked for the year as an English teacher, as well as a missionary at a church. Now, I’m teaching English and trying to figure how to move forward in life.

Not long after moving to Taiwan, I started taking salsa lessons at a local dance school (shout out to Bailalo). Back in the states, I had friends who danced salsa; a couple of friends in particular always invited me to take classes and go out to salsa clubs with them, but I never did. I’m pretty shy by nature and do not enjoy having lots of attention on me, particularly when I am dancing. We’ll get back to that later.

When I saw the advertisement for bilingual salsa classes, I decided to grab the opportunity and sign up for classes. I wanted to improve my body movement, and I thought this would be a good way to. The social aspect of salsa had never crossed my mind, and it did not occur to me that there was a whole community of salsa/Latin dancers in Taipei. I certainly did not expect that I would come to love dancing as much as I did. In fact, from the very first class, I was hooked. Now, a little over a year later, I’m a regular at many salsa events in the city, and I generally dance at least twice a week.

Salsa classes opened the door to a world of Latin dance. Salsa, bachata, merengue, all of those songs that I used to kind of shuffle around to when they came on at parties in college suddenly make sense to me. But, I also got what I originally wanted from the lessons: improved body movement and decreased dancing insecurity. I still dance to the same hip hop and R&B songs that I would dance to in high school and college, but I no longer dance to them the same way. But what has shocked me more than anything is how much a desire to dance in church has been rekindled and ignited.

1 Corinthians 13:11 says “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” For me, many of my childish things have been wrapped up in insecurities and frankly caring too much about what people think of me.

I grew up in the church, in a family full of pastors, preachers, and ministers. Being a PK puts a peculiar kind of pressure on you, where people simultaneously expect you to be both perfect and a fallen, messed up rebel simply because of who your parents are. I’m not kidding, I literally had people tell me growing up “Pastor’s kids are always the worst behaved” at times, and at other times remind me that I was responsible for representing my family, God, and the church. Now, my point isn’t that I had a particularly troubling childhood: it was filled with ups and downs like any other. My point is that I absorbed these lessons a little too well, and by the time I went to college I was sick of it all.

Most people do not like to do things that they don’t excel in. It’s even harder to watch (many) others excel in something that you try and fail in. For me, dance was like this. Everyone could dance. Everyone. Except me. At least, that’s how it felt growing up. We had a good dance team at our church that most kids participated in at one time or another. Everyone else seemed to have a natural feel for how their bodies should move to the music, whereas mine seemed to jerk about awkwardly. It wasn’t any better at home, where family members could hold their own. I seemed to be the only one that couldn’t dance.

I’ve come to recognize over the last year that a lot (most) of that awkwardness was just insecurity. I can move, but weighted down by the burden of insecurities I could barely lift an arm. After years of hating dance, my parents finally let me quit the dance team when I was around 11 or 12. I continued to love dance but not dancing. I particularly loved to watch praise dance and hip hop. For years, I stayed in a limited box with my dancing. All throughout high school and most of college I never strayed too far from my little two step and a little hip movement. I briefly ventured into the world of choreographed kathak in college, which was fun, but I stopped when I felt like it was getting very difficult, and the other dancers seemed to be grasping it quicker than me.

So, that was it for me for 10 years or so. Until starting salsa classes, that is. By the time I got to college I was sick of my own insecurities, but also the role I had allowed the church to play in those insecurities, so I began the process of intentionally stripping those away. The process accelerated post-college, partially due to my innate love of dancing outweighing and conquering nerves that might have kept me from going out. This love of dancing that I’m discovering even has me wanting to dance in church again. I long to use dance to express my devotion to my Creator, although here in Taipei the options are limited. For now, I have my apartment for that 🙂

Dancing didn’t bring me freedom, but it did signal freedom.

Now, I dance.

Reflection on “He Wants It All” by foreverJONES

One of my proudest accomplishments this semester, and of my Swarthmore career, has been collaborating with other students for the publication of Swarthmore College’s first journal of Christian thought and discourse, Peripateo. Originally the dream of a friend of mine, with the help of many students it became a reality this past week. Last Wednesday we released a couple hundred print copies, as well as an online version of our journal.

Below is my article which was published in the first edition. If you are interested in seeing the online version of the whole journal (and you should because all of the pieces are great!!) click on this link. If you are interested in seeing other journals from the Augustine Collective, the collective of undergraduate Christian journals that we are a part of, click here.

Note: Because this piece was written for a college journal, it is a bit longer than a normal blog post.

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More than Words: A Reflection on “He Wants It All” by foreverJONES

You can listen to the song here.

This is not an aspect of Christianity that Christians like to talk about. We mask it in more savory phrases like “giving your life to Christ.” We sing about it, read Bible verses about it, and even listen to sermons about it. But we are slow to talk about it, slower to give thought to its implications. I’m talking about, of course, the idea of human submission to God.

If I had paid more attention to the songs I sang growing up I might have realized sooner the depth and complexity of the concept of submission. Surrendering to God is more than a song, but for many years I did not allow the message to penetrate deeper than the words I sang. It was not until I was in college that I began to feel the full impact of these lyrics.

Music itself plays an important role in the way the Christian tradition promotes these ideas, and within the black church gospel music has developed its own unique style. I love gospel’s style; its riffs, runs, and big voices shaped so much of my childhood. For me, my faith and gospel music are so intertwined and connected that I cannot imagine what my faith would be like without the experience of the richness of gospel music. Still, for too long I allowed myself to enjoy the experience of gospel music without being captured by the truth of its words. Enthralled by the music, I did not learn to appreciate the message until much later.

By reflecting on the lyrics to one of my favorite gospel songs, “He Wants It All” by Forever Jones, I hope to pay homage to the music that played an important role in my spiritual formation and development. This is a song that I’ve consistently turned to since first hearing it some years ago. Its lyrics continue to have meaning for me, and are a constant reminder of how much God desires of me: He does not want a part of me, but rather all of who I am.

The song opens with a depiction of a God walking along the earth, crying out, searching for children who will love him completely—a striking image that echoes Jesus’ words in Luke 19:10¹  and those of the Apostle John in John 1:10-13.² What is particularly poignant about this image is that God is not remote, distant, or emotionless, but actively searching for those who would love Him. This is a God that chose to step into the world, to seek, and to do what it took to save those he created. Furthermore, God wants it all. All means all: our lives, thoughts, words, emotions, choices, dreams, education, relationships—everything. The Bible exhorts us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”³ and to “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.”⁴ Our lives are to be presented to God as living sacrifices, meant to be continual abandonment of self to His will. With these words, God has laid claim to all we are.

The song gives no reason or basis for why God asks for so much, and assumes the ultimate goodness of God’s desire. But the truth and goodness of God’s request for everything, even for a Christian, is not obvious. In fact, I spent most of my life believing that God wanted little more of me than that I be happy. I’d sat in church my whole life singing lyrics such as “I surrender all,” and “I owe it all to You” countless times without giving further thought to the implications of those words. The message of surrender, submission even, had never truly, deeply penetrated my mind: I had completely missed one of the most central and key aspects of Christianity. It is a chilling thought: you can sing words about relinquishing your whole life to Christ, and even feel that you believe them, but when you examine your life you see that you really aren’t surrendering much at all.

For me, this process of examination really began after I entered Swarthmore. I first heard “He Wants It All” the summer after my freshman year of college, riding in the car with my parents listening to our favorite gospel station. The song’s lyrics did not immediately strike me; rather, it was the beauty of the music itself that first grabbed my attention. But as I heard the song a few more times over the summer I began to pay more attention to its words. That summer in general was instrumental in my spiritual development, as I began to ask myself what it meant to be a Christian and to develop a relationship with God independently of my parents’ faith. I questioned what it meant to call myself a Christian, and what it meant to say that I had “given” myself to Christ. In effect, I was beginning to take seriously the words of the song, that God in fact wanted more of me than I had previously been willing to give.

Though the theme of submission to God runs throughout scripture, in some sense these concepts seem so remote to life at Swarthmore, and certainly in the U.S. at large. We value independence, self-determination, and self-sufficiency. We are told and we tell others that when something wants all of us it’s a scam, cult, or just dangerous. When friends give too much of themselves in a relationship we worry about the toll it takes on their emotional health and social lives. All of these things make it hard for us to conceive of how a god could justly require all of a person’s life. And anyone who claims to be completely led by a god must surely be “naive” or “insane” not to recognize that “God wanting it all” is simply a proxy for your church or religion wanting it all from you.

But the beauty of God is that life with him is meant to be a reciprocal, loving relationship. He wants everything because He has first given everything, in creation, in sacrifice, in dedication. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”⁵ The action of love was first taken by God; we are not meant to make the first step in the relationship, because God has eternally taken those steps for us. The appropriate response to love is love, and as we give love, love is given back to us again. The proof? After telling us to seek first the Kingdom of God, the Bible promises that “all these things will be given to you as well.” ⁶ The reciprocity of the relationship is more than merely edifying for me; it is fulfilling in the most wonderful way, because it gives purpose to everything I do. Submitting to God’s will is not about giving up things in life; it is about allowing Him to take over and infuse life with purpose, and yes, to realign priorities.

It is with this understanding, then, that I began to let go of my “idols.” The word “idol” might bring celebrities to mind, the idols our culture reveres and emulates. But this song illuminates so much more than our misguided choice to idolize celebrities. My idols were those things that kept me from giving all of who I was to God, those things that I continue to look to over and above God in determining how I make decisions. Idols can take the form of the things in life that we love the most and mold our lives according to. They are the things that get in the way of us acknowledging God fully. Again, it goes back to our values. As an American I have been taught implicit and explicit lessons my whole life on what to order my life around, from family, to education, wealth, acceptance, etc. And while all of these things are good things, they all miss the point. God is, or should be, the point of what I aim for, while the rest are just points along the journey. When they become my main focus, then they become idols. And for most of my life my main focus was anything but God.

Whether religious or not, it is a useful exercise to examine our lives and to contemplate what exactly our actions point toward. Why do we do the things we do? What do our choices say about what we value? I think we all live more for our personal enjoyment than we choose to admit. Personally, for a long time I claimed to keep Christ “first” in my life, but in reality I had not learned that true submission does not place my personal enjoyment above all else. My personal enjoyment of life is fine, but should not be my main aim in living. Instead, submission to God should be a realigning of my life in such a way that my priorities become second to His. I have come to the conclusion that if the words I sing point towards God and surrendering to his will then surely other areas of my life should equally point in that direction as well. Of course, this is an ongoing process; I’m still growing and learning and falling short of my ideal.

From there, our next question should be, what should we be living for? What are those ideals outside of ourselves that are worth submitting to? For me, I found my answer in the words of this song, to love God with my whole heart and to serve him with my life. It was almost a relief: after giving so much of my time, emotional and mental energy, and money towards everything else in life, I finally figured out that is so much better to direct these things towards a relationship that gave purpose and fulfillment in return. I found that as I submitted to God I did not lose, but instead gained so much more.

End Notes:

1 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10 (NIV)
2 “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:10-13 (NIV)
3 Matthew 6:33 (NIV)
4 Romans 12:1 (NIV)
5 Jeremiah 31:3 (NIV)
6 Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

Stress

I’ve been stressing out a lot lately. Between an impending graduation, final papers, honors exams, and fundraising for my move to Taiwan in a couple of months I have been struggling not to feel overwhelmed. And I’ve been struggling trusting that God will bring me through, that I will do well on honors exams, raise the money I need to get to Taiwan, and succeed as an adult.

Today, I was having a conversation with a friend over dinner. As we discussed Jesus in Matthew, the multiple stories of Jesus feeding multitudes of people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread was brought up. I made fun of the disciples, and even felt frustrated over them, that after watching Jesus miraculously feed the 5,000, they still worried the next time they did not have enough food for 4,000. How could they so easily forget what Jesus had once done right before their own eyes? And how could they forget the many other miracles they had witnessed Him perform?

It only took a second for it to hit me just how hypocritical it was of me to deride the disciples for something I do every day. Even though time and time again I’ve seen God come through and make a way where previously I thought none existed, I still continue to doubt Him. I’m happy that He performed the last miracle, but I’m far from confident that He’ll perform the next one.

So this is what I must work on during this (stressful) season: confidence that God will come through, and not living in stress that He won’t.

My song for this season: “Let Go” by DeWayne Woods

~Tiffany~

On Finding Balance (and contentment)

It’s incredibly hard to find balance at Swat.

Students often joke that there’s a “trilemma” at Swat — between good grades, a good social life, and sleep, you can only have two of the three. I wish I could say that as a senior I’ve proved this to be wrong, but sadly, in my experience at least, it’s been the truth. I have always sacrificed sleep to grades and friends, as well as to extracurriculars and pursuing a relationship with God. And I’m tired. Really, really tired.

Lately, the pressure has been even greater because I’m a second semester senior. I feel like this is my last chance to see certain people, do certain things, and have certain conversations. So I find myself again sacrificing sleep, and in some sense my sanity, to other things. Something I really wanted to focus on this year is being more self-reflective. Plato’s statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” really resonates with me. And I’ve definitely seen how unhealthy my own life is when I’m constantly going, going, going and not spending any time just relaxing alone or thinking. So I told myself that this semester I was going to take time to myself, going to reflect on life, and going to write it down. I’ve largely failed.

So I’m again at the point in the semester that I always reach where I feel unreasonably angsty and over-worked and just generally not satisfied with my college experience, but not really knowing what to do about it. Except this time I do know what to do about it. It starts with getting some sleep. And taking some time to myself. And thinking a lot more about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. And making the choice to just ignore all the different voices around me and feel comfortable about where I am in life. And finally, I simply need to stop feeling so angsty. It really is unreasonable. I have great family, friends, education, a comfortable life, and a million and one possibilities and opportunities for the future. And most importantly I have a God that loves me. Could I ask for anything better?

When my life gets really out of balance (which is true for most of the semester) I often find it very hard to be content at Swat. It’s good to remember that while Swat is far from perfect and while I’m not completely satisfied with my life here, I should not allow that to consume my happiness. And I should not map that frustration onto the school.

I’d like to end with this thought from Paul: “For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry,whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

~Tiffany~