You Matter. by Sarah Schwartz

"He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?" Declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 22:16)

Yesterday found me squeezed into a teeny tiny aisle seat on a flight from Portland to Los Angeles, my body doubled over with grief.  A busy weekend at home had not allowed me the space to process the national conversation surrounding women, but upon being alone with my thoughts in 22E, I crumbled under the weight of this brutal election cycle, this last blow finding the cracks in my dam and causing me to shake with sobs.

My grief is two fold—first for the flesh and blood image bearers who have consistently been disparaged and debased in the public square over the last year.

And second, for the manner in which the gospel, this good news of Jesus—where the last are to be first and the poor called blessed—for the way this "good news" has been bastardized to support and animate the injuring of the vulnerable.

I grieve for those hurt (myself included) and I grieve that the name of Jesus—who inaugurated his ministry by declaring that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the captives be released, and the oppressed set free—I grieve that his name is being used as a tool to defend that which is unquestionably evil.

Oh, Church, how quick we have been to sacrifice the defenseless on the altar of power.

***

So let me say this clearly, because it is not being said nearly enough.

Racism is not just yucky or unpleasantit is an affront to the gospel.

Sexism is not just distasteful or uncomfortableit is an affront to the gospel.

To dismiss or minimize or stand idly by while the image of God is maligned in the least of these is an affront to the gospel.

In the words of James Cone, a Church that does not lend their whole selves to the defense and dignifying of the vulnerable is to be charged with theological bankruptcy. 

***

And so let me say this clearly, to myself and to the countless others who have been humiliated not only by words and deeds magnified over the airwaves, but by a church that has deemed us acceptable collateral on the path to worldly gain:

You matter more than politics.

You matter more than power.

More than tax cuts.

More than Supreme Court Justices.

More than poll numbers.

You matter more than any party or label.

More than wealth.

More than trade deals.

You matter more than the comfort of the powerful.

More than the comfort of the already comfortable.

Your dignity is non-negotiable.

You matter.

You matter.

You matter.

***

"I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning...No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless." (Isaiah 1: 14-17, MSG)

 

Everything Lives by Sarah Schwartz

Several weeks ago, I stood at the front of a church on the east coast, a former Methodist sanctuary that had sat empty for a few years before the faith community that invited me to speak began to use the space. I made note of how it effortlessly possessed the aesthetic so many "hip" churches on the west coast work to create, what with gorgeous stained glass windows that colored the worn wood floors with streams of light.

Wireless mic tucked carefully behind my ear, I began the morning's service by describing my affinity for the gospel of John. While the other gospels are just as inspired and important, I qualified, John reads like a book written by a man undone, a man intoxicated by what he has encountered in the life, death, and resurrection of this itinerant preacher from Nazareth.

I invited the community to turn to John 7, where in verses 37-39, Jesus makes the outrageous claim that those who are thirsty can come to him and drink. This startling announcement, John tells us, happens on the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, a water celebration that centered around the rain that kept the ancient community alive. 

However, I expounded, the people understood the festival to be just as much about spiritual water as it was about physical water. Yes, they were celebrating God's past and present provisions, but this was also a gathering of a marginalized and weary community longing for their promised future, where, as the prophets of old described, God's Sent One would come, lift the heavy burden of foreign occupation from their shoulders, and make things right. 

I moved on and explained how the Jewish priests would read from Ezekiel 47, where the prophet describes rivers of water rushing from the Temple and flooding miles of seemingly godforsaken desert between the house of worship and the Dead Sea, and how that water would make the salt laden sea fresh.

People will fish in it, and fruit trees will grow on it's banks, and the fruit will serve for food, and it's leaves for healing.

It was here that I stretched my arms open wide, and quoted Ezekiel,

For wherever the water goes, everything lives.

***

Perhaps there is a place in your life, or in your realm of influence, that you have deemed to be as hopeless and godforsaken as the desert between the temple and the Dead Sea, I said, bringing the message to a close.

Whatever you have given up hope of being made well, that you’ve written off as too damaged or broken to ever be beautiful again, whatever you have stopped praying for—here I motioned for the congregation to join me in praying, with upturned hands—come Lord Jesus, quencher of thirst, source of life.

***

I can't tell you exactly how a desert becomes a stream with fruit trees on it's banks. All of our stories are different, with their own time tables & mismatched pieces. I'd venture as far as to say that healing consists of equal parts showing up for ourselves and being shown up for, of miracles mixed with hard work. 

I can tell you that a stretch of my own desert, an old wound I had fought with every inch of my small frame to make well in my early twenties, recently transformed into a scar.

I had done the work, I had leaned into the pain and let it shape me into a stronger, wiser, more vibrant person than I had been before. 

I had made my peace.

And yet.

This kind Jesus, the source of living water, saw fit to grant me a piece of healing I could not receive on my own.

***

I can't tell you, exactly, how a wound becomes a scar. 

But I think it tastes like a vanilla latte, too late in the day to be drinking, and it looks like blue eyes on the face of an old friend with whom you forgot it was so easy to laugh.

It sounds like apologies and affirmations of who you've always known each other to be, laid over the hum of a crowded coffee shop.

And it feels like the hard wood of your apartment floor as you lay face down before the Lord, undone by the way he can make a desert turn into a river, and cause trees to spring up & bear fruit in what was once hard and lifeless ground.

Everyday Victories by Sarah Schwartz

Remember when I used to blog?

I promise, I'm not done writing, not even close. These last 6 months have been among the busiest of my life, and that has meant writing has gotten the short end of the stick, but I'm hoping to have more space for the-stringing-words-into-sentences-thing this fall.

I must confess, I've hesitated to write about my recent good news, dear reader, as it feels almost irreverent to do so in the midst of the tragedy and chaos that has marked 2016, both locally and across the globe. I live a life of privilege in so many ways already, that I wondered if it was right to celebrate my own small victory with the backdrop of such tremendous suffering.

But maybe that's when the darkness wins, when we stop telling our stories about the light, even if they seem small in comparison to the monsters in our midst. Maybe it's possible to hold the tension of all that is hurting and broken, with that which is good and right and beautiful. Maybe it's more important than ever to give thanks for everyday victories.

***

My Grandfather died earlier this year, and my family and I often caught our selves saying things like, "Well, he had 90 good years, so there's not much to complain about." We had to take turns reminding each other that being grateful for his good & long life did not mean we were not or could not experience grief, and that experiencing grief did not mean we weren't grateful for his life.

Grief and gratitude can, and in fact, must, coexist.

So here is my small miracle, the candle I'll light in response to the darkness. Here is my answer to many moons of prayer.

***

I've written before about how I have not cared much for my early twenties—they have not been kind, or, frankly, anything that I have wanted them to be. They have not been all bad, to be sure, but I have wrestled deeply with feelings of inadequacy and discontentment, overwhelmed by the sense of being "behind" in life, both personally and professionally.

These feelings started eeking out rather undeniably around Christmas, when my best friends and I gathered to exchange gifts, and I dissolved into sobs about how I was never going to finish my masters degree (and that it didn't matter anyway because what the hell are you supposed to do with a masters in Theology), and that I was alone and broke and unhappy while the rest of them were pursuing their fulfilling careers, getting married, and all around "succeeding" in life.

I whimpered about how maybe it was stupid of me to think that the Spirit had led me to seminary, and that my grand ideas of completing school and advocating for women in faith communities were little more than naivete. It was time for me to grow up and decide on some more realistic goals.

I had a similar episode a few months later when I turned 25, a number that seemed to mock me and fill my head with thoughts of not having much to show for my life thus far. I started to wonder if the reason I couldn't get a new job or make any necessary changes to my life was because I was a failure.

(I know. The above paragraphs are all kinds of messed up, and dripping with first world white girl privilege, but humor me. These feelings, however unfounded, were very real to me at the time.)

My birthday came and went, and I wrapped up another spring of working full time and going to school, not sure if I was doing anything right.

***

And then, last month, as I was preparing to return home to Oregon for a few weeks, an old and dear friend approached me and offered me a part time graduate assistant position with a program I worked for (and loved) as an undergraduate, which would allow me to dedicate more time to my masters program, as well as gain valuable experience in the field I ultimately want to pursue.

Oh and I would get to work with some of my very favorite people on the planet and love on college students and still pay (some) of my bills.

As you can imagine, I lost it.

This all may seem small to you, and that's ok. But it was—and is— a game changer for me.

***

One afternoon last year, after yet another failed attempt to make things change, my best friend Katie & I were driving to the beach, when she turned to me and said, "You weren't supposed to get that job. You'd be great at it, don't get me wrong. But it would distract you from what you are supposed to do."

And this position? Not only is it going to be something I love, but it's allowing me to focus on school, that thing I'm "supposed to do", that thing I've been worried is impractical and silly and naive.

Who am I, to think I can study theology and advocate for women and change the world?

And yet that mysterious Spirit nudges me forward, making a way where there once was none, reminding me to heed that improbable still small voice that first called me to this work.

And as if He hadn't shown off enough with this unfolding of events, I then received an email from the dean of my school, outlining the changes being made to reduce the number of classes in my program, allowing me to complete my M.A. much sooner than anticipated.

***

So here is my small candle in the darkness, lovely readers. Here are the ways God's goodness and mercy have pursued me as of late.

Your girl has a new job, and will be graduating with her Master of Arts in Theology in December of 2017.

After that? Who knows. But if this latest provision is any indicator, I think I can trust that the path will be cleared before me.

Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I've come.

 

Here by Sarah Schwartz

I.

I walk through the door, sporting black yoga pants and a ratty tank top, and throw my gym bag down the hallway before heading to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine.

With my phone lodged precariously between my ear and shoulder, I pour the Zinfandel I found on sale at the grocery store last week into a clean glass. The number I am dialing is saved under Grandparents in my contacts, which is a little unnecessary, considering it is one of the few phone numbers I know by heart. As I swirl the wine around the glass with my right hand, it occurs to me that the name attached to the number is no longer correct.

Grandparent, singular. Grandmother, to be precise.

She answers on the third ring, and I identify myself with, "Favorite granddaughter speaking," the way I have with every phone call since I moved to California nearly seven years ago, from the home I shared with her, my Grandfather, my parents, and my sister, since the first grade.

I ask about her trip to the beach, and she inquires about my weekend with friends. I am tempted to open my mail or sort through my laundry as we speak, but decide against it, and settle into the corner of the large navy sectional in my living room.

This year is the busiest I have ever been, what with a full time job and a heavy graduate course load, and in order to survive, every minute is accounted for.

Get up, take a shower, go to work, come home, work on research paper, finish reading chapter on ecumenical councils, wrap up lecture on dispensationalism, put in a load of laundry, maybe exercise, empty the dishwasher, attempt to eat something not out of a fast food bag, sleep, repeat.

On the rare occasion that I find myself with a few minutes that have not been designated to the accomplishing of a task, I get antsy.

Surely, surely there must be something I need to do, achieve, or produce with this idle time, my mind spins.

II.

Growing up with my Grandparents taught me, among other things, the art of being present, slowing down, and making space—a skill I am in desperate need of rediscovering.

The summer I was 8 or 9, my Grandpa cleaned up a little plot of earth next to his vegetable garden for me to try my hand at growing California Poppies. My tiny fingers and short attention span could never quite rid my small garden of the weeds that sprouted there, but Grandpa? His quarter acre kingdom would be covered in weeds in the morning, and by that afternoon, boast nothing but dirt and vegetables.

And after weeding, pruning, and watering, he'd take up his post in a green plastic chair, a watered down glass of whiskey in hand, and admire the snow capped silhouette of Mount Hood in the distance. As I grew older, I made it a point to join him from time to time, hoping to share in whatever magic he had found in that moment.

Summer nights growing up often began with my Grandma shouting from her kitchen, "Come and get it!" which was our signal to gather plates and utensils from our kitchen, and walk them over to dish up in hers. The six of us would then make our way to the patio, where we'd swing legs over benches found on either side of the dining table made of refinished barn wood, with the perfect view of the sloping south field, sprinkled with fruit trees.

We'd sit and eat, recounting our days, or listen to Grandma and Grandpa simultaneously argue and tease each other over the details of a story from some summer past, long before the rest of us were around. And we'd linger, after plates were clean and bellies full, just to watch twilight settle over the clover.

III.

I returned home six weeks ago for my Grandfather's funeral, a mere three weeks since I had been there for his 90th birthday party.

That's another thing I learned growing up with my Grandparents—life is fragile, and so are we.

Go home for birthdays and Christmas and summer, call every Tuesday, put cards in the mail, and from time to time, make space to sit in silence for a while.

Memorize the way your people smile and smell and laugh, tell them you love them, and don't be quick to get up and leave.

You don't want to reach the End and find yourself aching over time spent, rather than savored.

And so in the hours following his service, we made our way out to the patio, and the table made of barn wood. We surveyed the landscape and made predictions about next year's blueberry crop, lingering until the sun extinguished itself in the inkwell of the horizon.

“...And we pray, not for new
earth or heaven, but to be quiet
in heart, and in eye clear.
What we need is here.”

Wendell Berry

Sexual Violence Prevention Week by Sarah Schwartz

Last month, Biola University's Student Development Office dedicated a week of programming to educating our community about the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses, in our nation, and across the globe. I had the privilege of working on the task force behind the events, and was blown away by the candor, grace, and wisdom of our speakers, as well as the actions taken by our community to address these injustices.

Below, you'll find Professor LaDawn Johnson discussing the tale of Dinah in Genesis 34, Amy Buckley examining the prevalence of abuse in Christian homes, as well as how we ought to respond, Eugene Hung, on the ways men can best understand and combat gender violence, and Dr. & Mrs. Noreen Muehlhoff, on cultivating healthy relationships in an age of abuse.

I hope you'll take a listen, and wrestle with how you might serve as a beacon of light and hope in your community, because as one of our student leaders said before Professor Johnson took the stage, there are countless people around you who are desperate for someone to understand and care about the stories behind these statistics.

(If you are a survivor of sexual assault in need of resources, please click here for confidential and swift support.)