About Liz Cook

I eat a lot of ice cream.

Grace for the Privileged

I know a girl who calls someone racist, in public, about once a week, and means it. Almost everyone my age writes angry blog posts about fundamentalists. I glare at small children who stare at the disabled, and then follow up with withering disdain for their parents . . . not to mention how I roll my eyes over students who ask to miss class for their frat-boy shenanigans. The internet gives all the marginalized and/or opinionated  a place to stand and voice their grievances, pointing fingers at what is flawed, short-sighted, and unjust.

This is good in so many ways; we keep people honest (Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism, anyone?) and find community outside the limits of our local church–often a necessity for Christians who love the arts, but live at a distance from like-minded community.  However, on a most personal level, I’ve found that an internet platform allows me to flaunt my “outsideness” and “marginalization” like a bully-stick, and shake my head at those who are “privileged insiders,” who dare to neglect, misunderstand, or frustrate me with their ignorance and embarrassingly flawed worldview.

Now, I want to be very clear here: those who have been intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or physically abused should be able to speak out, honoring their formerly-suppressed voices and counting all grief as joy when their stories create community and healing with other walking wounded. But how often do we–do I–join the ranks of bullies by misrepresenting “the privileged” as deliberately cruel, or evading any claims to empathy with the “insiders”? Are we honestly certain that the privileged (whether of intellect, education, race, or religion) have no sincere or good-hearted motives for their errors? Are we certain our motives are sincere and good-hearted when we publicly (and often gleefully) denounce our opposition?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about grace, and my own personal prejudice of distributing it. Students with good attitudes and pleasant smiles might fail my English class if they skip all the time, but I’ll wish them well, and wave hello in the hallways. Students who try to scam me, but forget to change the date and teacher’s name from their unchanged (and absurdly irrelevant) high school essay? Busted, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy laughing at the silliness of it all. The same goes for my most personal hatred: those who fear or mock the disabled, and especially those who claim to have a special knowledge about the disabled, but instead propagate offensive and infantilizing ideas in the guise of kindness. However, a few months past, a friend showed me my own thoughtless hypocrisy with gentleness and compassion. I spoke in naivete and privilege, but she, in person, and not on the internet, responded without rancor or judgement.

Here are the main facts of this conversation:

1) I’m white; my friend is Native.

2) The time was Thanksgiving, which I presumed she would be celebrating.

This would have been a good time for someone to call me out as thoughtless and racist, and I know lots of people who would have cheerily done so, had they been around for the pleasure. But such blows are cheap, and while it’s satisfying to see the accused crumble up into discomfort and unhappiness, we also become cheap in our enjoyment of it. Maybe we have more fun calling people sexist, racist, and insensitive than we would if everyone spoke in perfect harmony, never slipping from the currently-acceptable terminology for difference and diversion.

And yet — my friend did not take that opportunity. She simply remarked that she didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but was glad for time with her family and friends. Then our conversation continued, comfortably, and the matter has never been addressed again. That was that. No history lesson needed, no snide remarks about smallpox blankets, and no righteous stink-eye . . . just a soft reminder that not all people are like me, and the inevitable occasion of carelessness does not require policing as much as understanding.

After going home that night, I imagined the situation reversed–perhaps I’d be responding to people I consider to be “aggressive Christians,” prone to Facebook squabbling and street evangelism, or the people who stare at/are shocked by disabled adults. I’ve often presumed that as long as I am aggressive in defense of the weak, then I am doing well. But I think I sometimes misjudge the type of strength needed for an effective blow. I do believe in hard, fast rebukes for deliberate cruelty and small-mindedness; little can be said about those people except that it is better to have a weak mind than a stunted soul. Still, I am not all-seeing, and no-one can fully perceive the spirit’s intent. Maybe we should give more grace to the ignorant by teaching with gentleness and love.

It makes me remember this quiet truth: being in a state of grace is the true, paradoxical state of privilege, and we are thus positioned to give grace to others.

I’m not saying to sit down and watch the weak be oppressed. The weak need protection, from both physical aggressors and the loud voices who would seek their harm. But I am saying this: instead of always adding to the vast sea of pointed fingers, let’s share grace–yes, even with the accidentally cruel, or the unconsciously racist, or the misguided fundamentalists promoting sexist ideology. It’s a lesson Jesus taught us many times: be strong, and flip money-changing tables. Or, break bread and speak soft words to a tax collector. What does that mean for us as bloggers and readers and commentators in an easily-offended age? Maybe breaking bread with a pharisee means considering with all seriousness and respect the argument of someone whose opinion annoys us. Or, instead of looking for occasions to find the error in someone else’s thinking, keep in check our own error of philosophical vigilantee-ism. And, lastly, we should remember this: we, too, will give offense, and have given it. Give thanks for the people who said nothing, in grace, or responded in kindness. Because although we cannot always see the heart of the person who frustrates us, we can pray for open hands of kindness and grace . . . no matter the person’s earthly privilege.

Creatures of Contact: First, Do No Harm.

“Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

I think what it means is that central to living

A life that is good is a life that’s forgiving. 

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.”

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By David Rakoff

St. Francis reputedly moved snails from his path. St. Sebastian died twice for God’s glory. A poet in my grad classes scoops spiders up, and drops them outside. Perhaps it’s my pride, or perhaps because I’m human, but I find it particularly difficult to let someone slap me, then turn the other cheek, never even mind the inconsequential spiders that make the fateful error of spinning webs in my domicile.

It’s not a literal slapping that wounds me; I teach college freshmen, and there are zero toddlers within a ten-mile radius. Still, I’m in a grad fiction workshop, and I’m sure you can imagine the angst that involves. And even when considering the past, and former friends who snubbed, hurt, or angered me, I can sometimes sense frustration bubbling inside. Not hurt so much as irritation. To think that I once gave them the power of intimacy! How annoying, that they may still believe their arrows rankle! These feelings are simultaneous with a desire to stab a bit at their pride with well-wrought pokers of disdain. I may imagine a cool encounter in the grocery store: “I’ve got to run, the Guild of Impressive People is waiting for me! Toodle-oo!” Or perhaps a story in which the despicable main character bears an unfortunate resemblance to the one person who reamed my work so harshly the month before.

A dear friend expressed a similar feeling a few months ago–the frustration of never having “got back her own” after a suddenly cancelled marriage. I was angry, too. Her ex-fiance had no business carrying on in life, I fumed to myself, and he probably thought his actions were so all-fired powerful. I imagined that he remembered, with a certain amount of satisfaction, how he had been so cool and strong, whereas she was mystified, crushed.

Of course, I don’t really know. And if he does strut about, self-satisfied with his power to woo and slay, woo and slay, ad nauseum, then he destroys himself. When gazing wholly upon ourselves, whether in self-loathing or self-satisfaction, we miss the wonder of the world that streams beyond our clouded eyes.

I know sometimes we think the first one to act possesses the most agency, believing the strong are those who lash out, break up, snap at, mock. My friend gave a man the emotional space to wound her, and he chose to do so. But she is the one wreathed in glory. For she, even stumbling from hurt and surprise, refused to hit back.

As the Hippocratic Oath famously states, “First, do no harm.” Our bodies are spirit and flesh bound together, and though I’m not a physician, Christ, the greatest healer, resides in me. If we Christians were to claim an oath, swear to it with our hands shaping the cross over our hearts, then surely we should speak the greatest commandments: love God, love others.

The most gracious among us live in the wake of other people’s needs, and continue to give despite cruelty, or ingratitude. Often, they give invisibly. Mothers packing school lunches with apples and napkin-notes before morning light cracks the night sky. Fathers coming home exhausted to sooth the squabbles of teenage children. The single men and women who prop up churches with book-keeping, nursery-cleaning, and prayer. The physically and mentally disabled who struggle through the social context we create everyday–the context that resists their comfort and inclusion. The stray puppies with paws on the chain-link cage doors at the animal shelter.

“The least of these” are those who have power to harm, yet temper its use through wisdom and love.

“The least of these” are those without power, who thus live in the glory of grace.

Instead of seeking to always raise our own stature, let’s delight in the least of these.

When Work Gets Weird: Or, Is Groveling A Christian Virtue?

For the first time, I am experiencing what most of you have experienced before: a vengeful boss, bizarre job expectations, and the oppressive feeling of powerlessness.

Currently, I teach at a private school in South Korea, where the system is infamous for its flaws. Still, my situation is probably well-known to most people back home in the West.

Aside from the stressful environment and sense of paranoia at work, my work struggle strikes me right where it hurts the most: my pride. No employer has ever called me a bad worker before, and I have felt wounded, as if my skills were betrayed and unappreciated. Still, in the midst of all this frustration, I’ve had amazing coworkers to share their own horror stories (hidden nanny cams, thieving bosses), and offer me seasoned, measured advice.

So, at the end of the day, I can feel two things: one, a huge sense of relief as I check off my calendar of rapidly shrinking time left in Korea (twenty or so days), and two, the personal satisfaction of knowing that I can exchange simple, unmediated pain for a transformative suffering. Every day is another struggle to forgive, and another blow to my pride, and that’s a good thing. To loosely paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the layers of happy childhood, amiable personality, and good digestion are being stripped away, revealing the bones of the matter: Capital-F Forgiveness is . . . not easy.

As a person prone to mysticism, I’ve found this education interesting despite its practicality. As an ode to this comforting practicality, I’ve made a list called “Reasons I Should Be A Tiny Bit Grateful For My Horrible Bosses.” Some points are counsel shared by friends, others are my own; knowing that I’ve been forced to ferret out wisdom and advice is, in its own way, a reason for paradoxical joy.

Reasons I Should Be A Tiny Bit Grateful For My Horrible Bosses

  1. I am not as forgiving as I thought I was. Good to know, because now I have the opportunity to really “seize the day,” and forgive some unlikeable people who will probably live their entire lives thinking I am in the wrong . . . and I have to, without resentment, accept that they will never understand.
  2. I can be gracious without groveling. Groveling is still self-serving because it’s about trying to relieve myself of pain. Right now, trying to smile in the hallway is good enough, even when they don’t smile back.
  3. I am not powerless. To quote a friend, I have the power to be a bigger person, and even beyond that, I have God’s power of peace, love, and a sound mind. As of a few days ago, I’ve stopped having nightmares, and while work can still be tense and miserable, I’m trying to remember–stamp-on-my-heart-Awana-style-remember–that no one can can tear power from God, the ultimate director of my life.
  4. In this situation, where I’ve become a school scapegoat for every minor infraction against a cloud of unwritten rules, my fellow teachers (who are also my dear friends) could have distanced themselves to salvage peace of mind and reputation. But they didn’t. When I go home in 24 days, I’m carrying more than an unfortunate end to my year of work; I’m going home with friendships that have already been tempered and strengthened by fire.

But, more than anything, and more than ever, in the tension of every day, Praise Him. So blessings to whoever forces me to remember.

Broken Bones, Sacred Hymns: The Vulnerability of Sharing Grief

When I say that I recently learned how ironic and self-defensive I can be, I am also saying this: last week, I watched as the eerie magic of an overseas phone call transformed my friend, in the space of two minutes, from a typical expat with a fat itinerary of sights to see into a young woman without a mother.

I was the only other person there for this conversation, and even though it was short, there was a sense of heavy infinity about it . . . and I also remember the slight shock of realizing that, even after witnessing the most painful moment of another’s life, I could still think of my own self.

A few moments later, she said, “Do you promise me. . . will you please promise me that you really believe we have a purpose for being here? And do you really believe–do you promise that you believe–that we will see the people we love again?”

Yes, yes, yes. I do believe it, all of it. But . . .

Thoughtlessness is not usually a positive term associated with grief, but self-forgetfulness should be. Still, I hesitated to spread out the contents of my soul as the situation required. It wasn’t that I questioned my beliefs. It was that I questioned the danger of speaking them out so earnestly, in that moment of naked honesty between two friends who were, still, almost strangers.

I’ve always felt sincerity was simple; my pale, flushing complexion billboards my emotions on a constant basis, so there’s no point in even trying to hide. However, in this most urgent and necessary moment, I still felt the urge to make qualifications for my own sincerity. I wanted to speak with a protective hedge of irony, or to act as if my beliefs were contained within me, rather than making that bold and sweeping hymn to the glorious reality of redemption.

A grieving person might not have the luxury of his or her most intimate companion’s presence; in this particular story, the most trusted friend was, with terrible clarity, also the mother who had died. But if I am to love someone with that wide, encompassing depth that transcends personal knowledge, and if I want to offer the kind of love that the first plunge into grief demands, then I must hold out at least a mustard seed of grace: offering self-forgetfulness with both hands, and summon the bravery to tell as much felt experience as I can muster.

After that first step, perhaps a wobbling one, I can leave these efforts to God, who will expand the meager flour and oil into food that can offer comfort. But for me to do this, I cannot self-protect; I cannot hedge my spirit in veils, or speak with the gentle, self-deprecation that, at many other times, makes the passion of my beliefs tolerable in the world of work and casual friendships.

By laying out our wounds, or our most tender experiences before a mourning friend, we can participate in that promise of the Psalms: the bones He has broken will rejoice; there’s a hum of hymns in the shared poverty of spirit. The sutures and scars of our past, or the ill-set bones that still ache when it rains–in the community of sharing grief, moments of sincerity, whether stories of pain or earnest, unironic belief, will glitter like gems for the newly-impoverished.

Sharing scars and promises will not compound emptiness. In the face of suffering, vulnerability does not pare away the self; rather, it suggests hope’s final incarnation: when Christ wipes all tears from our eyes, and all eternity proves redemption.

Vapour-Trails of Joy: My Wintry Education in Delight

I am not living in the expectation of death, I am living in the resurrection that is born of the preceding second. I am living in a kind of vapour-trail of joy.

–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,  Flight to Arras

Winter in Korea is bone-shakingly cold; on the weekends, I waddle out the door in multiple pairs of pants, sweaters, jackets, scarves, and, occasionally, a hat or two. Only my insatiable itch for bottomless mugs of drip coffee and American-style brunch leads me from safety towards the bus-stop. (Literally speaking, I’m led by my boyfriend. In order to not freeze, I wrap scarves across my face and over my eyes, so he has to hold my hand and keep me from wandering into traffic.)

By the time I grab a seat aboard the 9800 bus going toward Seoul, I’m a shivering, shuddering mess, and the fierce winds and -7 C temperatures have effectively shriveled my sensitivity to beauty and delight down to the size of a mustard seed.

Still, I believe this weekly ritual–my slavish devotion to eggs benedict and fluffy pancakes, distance be damned!–nourishes me spiritually as well. For the past few weeks, my world has been strictly limited: teaching and sweating over grad school applications. When the aforementioned boyfriend makes me mac-and-cheese, I don’t even do the dishes–just shove my nose further into whatever documents demand my attention.

But, oh, these magical weekend mornings . . . beginning with the long bus ride to Seoul, I finally have time to reacquaint myself with delight–a neglected book; smart-phone chess; shared headphones and jazzy tunes.

Ever since I read The Great Divorce, I’ve been fascinated by how our actions in this life prepare (or do not prepare) our tender, transparent feet to step on the real, diamond-strong grass of Heaven. Usually, I think of this almost entirely as a process of suffering and self-sacrifice, or stewardship of a rather painful variety.

For me, remembering that pain forges our being is easy; we feel shame so markedly, and those moments of anguish, whether for ourselves or others, embed themselves in our consciousness without effort.

But when we forget ourselves in delight, our souls also expand–perhaps only one breath, but still, a lesson in breathing the good, perfect air of heaven. God created minutia, but I need practice to appreciate it.

Yes, Christ breaks our bones to heal them, but I require more than just an education in suffering; when the scales finally fall from my eyes, I want to look about and nod, thinking, “I’ve seen this goodness before.”

The luminescence of suffering makes us Christ-like; the love of good and perfect things makes us like our Creator–the God grand enough for both mountains and minutia.

Gluesticks and Grace

Dear Internet Citizen,

You don’t know me, but you probably assume that I possess three doctoral degrees, mile-long legs, and a perfect sunflower-farming husband and organic-cotton-wearing, multi-lingual toddler.

Sorry to disabuse you of such a pleasant image, but in reality, I am simply another twenty-three year old ex-pat living in South Korea, eating jajungmyeung and teaching small children to read, write, and dance to early 90’s rap tunes. This hardly sounds glamorous, and I haven’t even told you about the sneezes in my face.

Technically, I’m not trained to be a kindergarten teacher. I did help teach English 101 for two years in grad school, and I’ve encountered many a child in my twenty-three years of life, but I first stepped into my kindergarten classroom armed only with my creativity, my language, and a shamelessness capable of fascinating small children for approximately five hours a day.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the strange, cult-leader-admiration that is the territory of teaching small children. I am thoroughly, profoundly, goo-ily loved by my tiny students. Every morning before school begins, they start filing up to my desk to make obeisance. The Liz Teacher (myself) smiles goonily down as they extend offerings: crayon drawings, poorly-spelled messages, linty bits of candy, strange-looking stickers, or pieces of grass they found outside. Sometimes, the girls bring me Disney Princess paraphernalia, or ask to share their purple Barbie lipsticks, which they then apply to my face with grave, thoughtful expressions.

If you could see these children shuffling towards me in perfect faith to give their gifts, I think it might break your heart. At five years old, my students are already shuddering under a cultural burden to perform; when Rebecca or Julia or Andrew hands me a home-made card, trusting perfectly that I will love it so much I might suffer a fainting fit, that is when I feel the heavy burden of faith.

There are two facts you should know:

  1. At least 50% (and probably more) of Korean women have received plastic surgery. Many of those who can’t afford it, fake it. Eyelid tape–look it up. Ten-year-olds wear it to school.
  2. South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the world. High schoolers, young adults, celebrities, businessmen . . .

South Korea is an amazing country that has pulled itself from the rubble of war to become an economic powerhouse. Unfortunately, the sacrifice required for such a transformation seems, at least partly, to have been the South Korean people. The ethos is that everyone can (and should) work harder, better, and faster. Even five-year-old students are expected to out-read, out-write, and out-sit-nicely their peers. Essentially, my students are learning how to measure their worth by their output.

But, back to the burden of faith. As I dispense glue sticks and hugs, I’m looking into perfect children’s eyes that, statistically speaking, will be carved into a new form by a plastic surgeon in only eight or nine years. I wonder, with a sense of heaviness, how I can make grace drip from my fingers and into their five-year-old hearts. I want to fill their spirits to overflow with it. When I help Brian hold his pencil, I am hoping that the truth of his own soul will sink somewhere deep in his very marrow; or, when Anne, who’s wearing a plastic tiara because it’s her birthday, tells me how she slept with Mommy last night and cleaned up her father’s puke in the morning, I want to hug her so hard that my arms will leave a permanent, invisible shield: a shield to make her remember that her body is not a landscape to refashion, but the most perfectly sacred, perfectly designed house of the spirit. I want her to feel, even if she can’t objectively know, how God formed her tiny Korean nose with her soul in mind, and how Christ himself wore a sacred body so we, also, could be holy in our skin.

But in the end, by trying to love so hard that grace will ooze, invisible and permanent from my fingers, I find that God reveals my own doubts and corrects my faith. In class, I always wonder, “Can I really give enough?” Even if I pour a little grace into these children’s lives every day, how can I pour enough to keep them full for years to come?

Then I remember that I, too, incarnate something sacred. I remember that God stretches the heavens, the flour, the oil . . . my imperfect gropings towards grace.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Arise, go to Zaraphath . . . behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” 

So he arose and went to Zarephath, and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks; and he called to her and said, “Please get me a little water in a jar that I may drink.” 

As she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 

Then Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.’” 

So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty. . . 

Christ breathes eternity. He does not make a thing to watch it perish.

He will not let our offerings be exhausted.