Breaking the Code

Obama cool black manPoor President Obama, he just can’t catch a break. Looking strained and weary, he had to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation and return to Washington because the world seemed aflame with problems both at home and abroad.

His entire second term has been characterized by Congressional gridlock and immigration woes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took shots at his foreign policy in the media, and he’s been criticized by African Americans for not attending to problems in the inner-city, the type of which boiled over recently in Ferguson, MO.

It’s not that the president doesn’t try. Before African-American audiences, he will assume an air of familiarity that some have found patronizing. About Republicans planning a lawsuit against him, he says they should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus (reportedly switching to a preacher’s cadence) to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them.”


That was my reaction until I realized that yet again, our president was “code-switching.” Saying something has crack in it is like saying it’s crazy good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, columnist John McWhorter argued that such relatability was requisite for the presidency today, noting that George W. Bush was often criticized for his Texan swagger.

Many groups code-switch. Italians, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans. We all have “in-group lingo;” something that lets us feel we’re members of the inner circle.

I remember when my then-16 year old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and schooled (and often on the high-honor roll) in rural upstate New York. Now 24, he said, “I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out there I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in. I mean, I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years. But at the same time, I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

Black ministers are often masters of the code-switch. My pastor, the Rev. Arnold Byrd III, a young African-American minister, can easily go from standard English on his job in sales with a major cable company, to language designed to connect with the congregation in his predominantly black church on Sundays. He says he follows the example of Jesus, who used things his listeners could understand – fishing and farming – to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Peter was a businessman; he owned his own fishing business. So when Jesus told Peter, ‘I will make you a fisher of men,’ Peter understood where he was coming from because he uses something Peter could relate to.”

With the news dominated again by the killing of a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, even in the comments section of Christianity Today, we see that black and white Christians seemingly talk a different language. One can see how, if people only hung around with others who shared their views, both on and off-line, deadly misunderstandings could occur when we confront one another in real life.

This shouldn’t be so.

My pastor says that Mark 12:30-31, the famous scripture that tells us to love God with our heart soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is crucial. “In everything about me I am going to show God I love him, which means his ways trump my beliefs, my thoughts or how I perceive a thing,” he told me.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-18 RSV)

As believers we should be masters of the ultimate “code-switch.” After all, we not only are citizens of various nations, but we are citizens of heaven. We should be conversant not only in the language dictated by our differing cultures, but in the language given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column in August 2014:




How to Love a Dying Friend

HowtoLoveI met my friend – I will call her Gigi because she reminded me of a ‘60s actress – a little more than a year before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I actually do not remember how we met; just that it was through a mutual friend, Lydia. My first memory of Gigi is New Year’s Eve, 2010, when she, Lydia and I went out to a buffet at a semi-nice restaurant in town. We had no reservations for dinner, so we perched at the bar to eat.

Over the next months, though, Gigi and I became fast friends. She was one of those people I just quickly bonded to. Was it her love of the arts? Check. Her sardonic wit? Check. The way she could make thrift store finds look like a million dollars? Absolutely.

She was medium height, with wide-set blue eyes. She had a nose that I call pert, small and well formed with a slight upward tilt – the type of nose that people go under the knife for. Her hair was once blonde, but now was streaked with gray, and she wore it short, with bangs that skimmed her brows, and she was slender.

Gigi was always up to doing something. A play. A concert. A Greek festival. An art opening. A movie.

Lydia and I fell into a routine of meeting Gigi at her home Sunday afternoons after church. At first, we would go out: to a rustic restaurant in nearby Vermont, or a lakeside eatery where we would dine under a big canopied tent, and lie on wood lawn chairs, dipping our toes in the cold waters of the lake.

Gigi was always keenly interested in what was going on in Lydia’s and my life. She never allowed the presumed shortness of her own life stop her from “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

In July 2011, we planned a trip to a Vermont playhouse to see “Ain’t Misbehaving.” We sat knee to knee during the production, and when I glanced at her, she was clapping her hands and laughing like an excited child. That’s another thing I liked about her: the ability to live life in the present moment.

After, she had to use the restroom to clean her colposcopy bag. When she was diagnosed with cancer after many months of health complaints that were not taken seriously by her health providers, she had had to have several feet of intestines removed.

Yet, I never heard Gigi complain about wearing the bag, or for that matter, about having cancer.

Some people find it awkward to be around the dying. Words fail. You avoid talking about the future, thinking it will hurt them since they won’t be there. You feel uneasy around their suffering. And, yes, the dying sometimes make us uncomfortable because we are forced to contemplate our own mortality.

Lydia and I didn’t have that problem, largely because of Gigi’s great attitude. The three of us single women were always out and about – we called ourselves “the three Musketeers,” although my fiancé preferred to call us – in our mid-50s to 60s – the Golden Girls.

It helped that we all were Christians. Gigi was a Catholic who had had intense experiences with the Holy Spirit. She bought a white wedding gown to be buried in. She wore a silver ring with a cross on her left hand. She spoke longingly of heaven, and credited (or blamed) her Welsh blood for a lingering sense of melancholy that always seemed to hang over her like a veil.

Gigi had come into salvation as a young mother in a troubled marriage. One night, her heavy-drinking husband had disappeared, and she found herself at her wits end, prostrate on the floor, beseeching a deity she only knew at a distance. As she related later, she had a vision of Jesus standing before her, his arms open wide, and he spoke words of comfort to her. She and the husband later divorced, and she remarried and divorced again.

When I met Gigi, she seemed worn out and buffeted by life, although still only in middle age. Two bad marriages, the stresses of parenting a hard-rocking son, and some emotional issues had taken their toll. Many dreams, especially those of serving her Lord, seemed to have come to dust. She had taken chaplaincy courses, but that career never materialized. She had even dreamed of joining a convent.

She was a smart woman with a master’s degree, but before her diagnosis, she worked as a health aide in a nursing home “wiping people’s behinds,” as she wryly put it. The one job she had achieved commensurate with her skills – providing services to recent immigrants – had been short-lived due to a misunderstanding with a client.

The winter before she died, we went shopping for vacation clothes, as she would be spending several weeks in Florida with a cousin she had reconnected with. In the dressing room, watching her try on dresses with flouncy skirts, Lydia and I didn’t want to believe that Gigi didn’t have long to live.

“Nobody who’s that near death has that much interest in shopping!” Lydia had snorted, and I had agreed.

However, there was a turn for the worse when she returned from Florida. Lydia and I still went to Gigi’s, but we would sit around the kitchen and talk instead of going out. Sometimes we would get the “anointing oil,” a bottle of olive oil from the kitchen and pray. I remember that after an especially powerful time of prayer, Gigi called to thank me, saying that she felt, for a moment, the closeness that she had once felt with God. Since she was often wracked with severe anxiety besides the ever-present pain, it was hard for her to feel the presence of God, she’d said.

Two weeks before she died, fluid had surged in her lungs and she feared suffocation. She was rushed to the hospital. My fiancé Morgan and I visited her the next day.

By the time we arrived, she’d had several liters of liquid removed from her lungs. She was looking as pretty and pert as ever, in a satiny blue nightshirt. She told us, matter-of-factly, that the doctors had told her they could do nothing more to make her comfortable. She made Morgan promise that he would befriend her son.

I got the final call in the airport, at a stop between New York and Louisiana. I wept at the airport café table. As I stood in line to board the plane, the agent at the gate asked me what was wrong, and hearing my answer, she gave me a badge to board the plane with the people with special needs. I still remember the older man and his wife waiting there who comforted me.

What did I learn from Gigi? To never be afraid to love a dying friend.

The Bible says no matter how long, our very lives are like a vapor (James 4:14), or like the grass that is fresh and green in the morning, and ready to be thrown into the fire by evening (Mathew 6:30).

A dying friend needs the same thing that she needed when healthy; and that we all need: love, companionship and an ease in being with her. She needs you to listen when she’s anxious, and to laugh with her when she’s happy. She needs to be able to talk about what will happen when she’s no longer here, no matter how awkward or painful that may be to you. She needs you to be her friend in the same way you would were she well.

Gigi left two checks with her mother after her death – one for me and one for Lydia. I smiled when I cashed mine – for $150. I made an appointment to do my hair, bought some bright orange hoop earrings and a flat of flowers, and Lydia and I went out to an Irish restaurant on Gigi’s birthday and raised our glasses to our friend.

Befriending Gigi, and spending time with her during the last days of her life, was a priceless gift. As my friend Debby noted, it is a privilege to walk with someone up to the gates of eternity.




Lessons from the Royal Wedding

With the birth of the royal baby boy, thought I would post this, which I wrote on the occasion of William & Kate’s wedding.


Prince William could barely contain his excitement as his betrothed, the possible future queen of England (in our world, these things are far from assured) floated down a seemingly endless red carpet, the strains of choral music accompanying her every step. Upon arriving at Westminster Abbey, and emerging from the Rolls Royce that had transported her, she was revealed for the first time as William’s bride – the mystery of “the dress” finally solved.

She floated down the aisle as her 8-foot train unfurled behind her, after having been straightened and draped, oh-so-carefully, by maid of honor and sister Pippa and another attendant. As cameras followed her to the alter, clasping hands with her father, Kate – soon to be Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge – was a vision of pristine loveliness in white; modest lace-covered shoulders, full skirt and veiled face under the 1936 Cartier tiara borrowed from the Queen. She made her way to the front of the church to the strains of the Introit, and words of Psalm 122:1-3: “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go to the house of the Lord.”

While some viewers may have seen a fairytale come to life; the patient commoner finally getting her man, for me, the writings of Paul in Ephesians seemed to overlay the solemn yet joyful event. I started to reflect upon the mystery of the wedding – the symbol of that “mystical union of Christ and his church.”

Kate, the bride, without spot or wrinkle; the joyful anticipation on her face. The waiting bridegroom at the altar, barely able to contain himself from peeking at her as she descended the aisle.

The uncertainties, heartache, breakups and reconciliations are now firmly in the past. The stress of the last mad dash through wedding details is finished. What remains is only this: the enormity of a man and a woman pledging to love one another unconditionally: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse; for richer for poorer; in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part, according to God’s holy laws.” Promising to share all worldly possessions. Pledging, in the prayer they jointly wrote for the ceremony, to live useful lives of service. I liked what the Archbishop of Canterbury had to say: “In a sense, every wedding is a royal wedding, and the man and woman king and queen of creation.”

Later, as she stood on the balcony above adoring crowds before the first kiss, her face now unveiled, she mouthed, “I am so happy.”

Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:25 that marriage is holy, not just because it is instituted by God, but because it is a symbol of our relationship with him. He admonished, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless … this is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church …”

To see the re-enactment of this truth was like seeing a picture of heaven coming down to earth. We too are being prepared for our bridegroom. We have gone through trials, testings, maybe even a vale of tears. Perhaps life got so difficult that we broke it off, tried to throw it all away, and bravely go on on our own, as Kate reportedly did. Yet he came after us to woo us back.

I had a vision not long ago during my prayer time. I was dancing with Jesus, his arm lightly around me. I was dressed in a long white dress and veil; the dance was halting, hesitant. As he led, I tried, somewhat awkwardly to follow his steps.

One day, at least some version of that dance will become real, but all tentativeness will be put aside.  The New Jerusalem will come down from heaven like a “bride adorned for her husband.” According to Paul, we will come to multitudes of angels in festal array.

We, too, will be given a new name. “And we, with unveiled faces [will] contemplate the Lord’s glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

In that day, I like Kate, will tell the bridegroom of my joy.

Although fairytales speak of happily ever after, we know in this world there is no such thing. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Even if you never divorce, one day one of you will abandon the other through death.

But when we are joined to our heavenly bridegroom, there truly will be a happily ever after, because finally, all things will be made new.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, now the dwelling of God is with men, and he shall live with them … He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the order of things has passed away. ” (Revelation  21:3 -4)




Pomp and Circumstance

Thoughtful Obama


By Hope E. Ferguson

Like many Americans, I was glued to my TV set for the pomp and pageantry of President Obama’s inauguration. I woke up Martin Luther King, Jr. day and flipped on CNN even before I did my daily devotions, something I never do.  I couldn’t wait to see if the president’s speech would match the fiery and soaring rhetoric of his groundbreaking introduction at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I couldn’t wait to imagine myself among the million on the Washington Mall, hoisting their little American flags. I had been to the mall for the rescheduled the MLK dedication in Oct. 2011, so I knew something about the palpable energy that would be there.

Then, there was the biggest question: What designer would the first lady be wearing?

As the president and first lady left the White House, two Marine guards, in their starched dress uniforms, stood on either side of the door, still as statues. “I wonder what they’re thinking,” I asked my fiancé. “Probably just about doing their jobs,” he replied.

I judged the president’s speech okay. There was no soaring rhetoric, but I liked how he spoke of the amazing diversity of our nation: a truth that hit home this fall when he was re-elected by a majority of people of color and just 38 percent of the white vote. I loved the imagery that poet Richard Blanco evoked with his metaphor of the sun rolling across our multi-hued, multi-faceted nation, and the near-final image of the moon shining on our windows. I loved the patriotic songs sung by James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé, who abandoned her skimpy garb for a dignified-looking black lace-armed gown.

I relished watching the parades from the different states – the president’s Hawaiian alma mater, Punahou School, trailing their volcano, the precision of the military bands, the playfulness of the dance troupe from Nevada, the rhythm of the Isiserettes of Iowa, whose irrepressible beat had the first lady and daughters shaking their shoulders.

I loved how the president turned one last time, to savor the sight of nearly a million American flags flickering in the wind.

Then leaders of both parties sat down to an American luncheon of steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce, bison, and Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey made with New York apples.

As many a commentator said, it was a day that gave one goose pimples, and only the most hardened partisan could fail to be moved. This is how we do it, they intoned; we transfer power peacefully, every four to eight years, no bloody coups, no uprisings in the streets. Whether we voted for him or not, we honor the office of the Presidency, and the orderly march of time from the first to the 57th  inauguration.

For one cold winter sunny day, coincidentally, on MLK’s birthday, we join together as one nation under God. We openly invoke his blessings. We rejoice in our diversity. We break bread together. We stand on the mountaintop.

For this bright shining moment we are Americans joined by ideals, not by blood. Never mind that tomorrow we will be back to the fights over the debt ceiling, gun control, same-sex marriage. Never mind that the name-calling will begin again, that the heels will be dug in again. That things will grow ugly again.

Human beings, made in the imago dei, long for the sense of unity and purpose evoked at the Presidential Inauguration, where a young, white likely-Republican male dances with a Black Democratic first lady. Where the liberal Commander-in Chief  is cheered by a conservative U.S. military.

We long for the beauty of unity.

Maybe that’s because we really long for the One who will take government upon his shoulders. The One who not only can negotiate for peace in the Middle East, but who is the Prince of Peace. The One for whom every tribe, tongue and nation can exalt and praise with abandon, knowing that he will not prove to have feet of clay. We long, indeed, for the one whose government will have no end.

And the human pageantry we witnessed last week, no matter how beautiful, orderly and well-staged, is only a shadow of those things that God has placed in our hearts; for he has set eternity in the hearts of men and women.

And by the way, the dress our statuesque first lady wore?

A Greek column in red by immigrant Chinese-American designer Jason Wu.