About a decade ago, I was visiting California for a conference, and heard a speaker there talk about his family history of being incarcerated during WWII because they were Japanese American. As I sat there and listened to the story, it hit me: my family was there for this piece of American history. My paternal great grandparents and their children were Dust Bowl migrants to California, and in 1942, my grandparents were children in California.
After the conference, I had time to visit my grandparents. I asked my Grandpa what he remembered. There were Japanese families taken from his neighborhood in Long Beach. I told him the stories our conference speaker had told. And I asked him what my family thought about this at the time, hoping to learn that they had done something to help their neighbors. “You have to understand,” he said, “It was after Pearl Harbor. People were scared.” With hindsight, he knew this was wrong. But at the time, people were scared. My family didn’t do anything.
My ancestors, on both maternal and paternal sides, came to the US from the Netherlands between the late 1800s and early 1900s. They settled in Michigan and Kansas; no one fought in the Civil War; no one owned slaves. (Back in the Netherlands, they were farming families, not sailors, so I don’t think there’s a direct family history of being involved in the slave trade, either.) Intellectually, I know that this doesn’t absolve me, but I recognize that, on an emotional level, I give myself a pass on a family history of racism. Again, I’m working on recognizing how, in fact, even without ancestors directly involved in slavery, I still benefit from that history as a white person.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the executive order that forced Japanese Americans into camps. I live in northern California now, and the reminders of this in the news are very close to home. I live in the place where this happened; I’ve taken my kids to movies at the mall that sits on the site of an internment camp. And as I listen to the news, I can’t forget that my family was on the scene as this executive order was implemented.
But here’s where things gets tricky. I am a progressive Democrat in no small part because of the paternal side of my family. I am proud of my Grandpa (and his father, my Great Grandpa, whom I knew well: he lived until I was a college student). They were Roosevelt New Deal Democrats; they were union people who worked in shipyards and aerospace manufacturing; they were people who, at other times in their life, took a stand for tolerance and diversity. I love the stories about the times they were progressive: Great Grandma was a Rosie the Riveter; my Great Grandpa refused to buy table grapes during the farm worker strikes; my Grandpa used to tell stories about the people on his team of workers with joy and love and appreciation for diversity among them. I remain proud of them for these things.
I suspect, these days, many of us are assessing the state of our country, looking back at history, asking this question of ourselves, “What would I have done had I been there?” For some of us, with deep connections to family stories, we’re also asking what they would have done, or did, as a way to calibrate our own courage to act.
But it’s always complicated. Human beings are capable of great good, and great evil, and of great action, and great passivity.
I sit this week with my family history, and with my nation’s history, remembering that we have so often fallen short of being the people we could be, and hoping we can do better. And, honestly, sitting with the discomfort of knowing that racism is rooted so deeply in our social system that we don’t even realize how deeply it’s soaked into us.
Jenn, who I adore, is doing this 52 pictures in a year project, and I am shamelessly copying her. (It should be noted that Jenn is likely to follow through on this and do it all year, and I might not make it…in an effort to hold myself accountable, I told Zora she can do it, too, and even use my fancy camera. That way she can nag me. A nagging child has potential to be a great motivator.)
The first assignment was to take a self portrait. We’re each our own worst critics. This makes me cringe. I am convinced that I photograph very badly. I have dark skin around my eyes that looks like a makeup disaster happened. The camera adds pounds that I’d like to ignore. I smile weird. My skin looks patchy, or my hair is out of order, or there’s just no way that actually looks like how I actually look. Even when I have an online video conference (I serve on the board of an organization that meets this way quite a bit: it happens once or twice a month at least) I make sure the video camera on my computer is at an optimal angle, and the lighting is good. It’s a little sick, I’ll admit it.
But I still think taking pictures of people is magical. If you do it right, you see who they are. (My uncle takes incredible photos of people, I think because he takes time to see who they are.) Taking a good self-portrait? What an opportunity to think about what you see in yourself.
I thought about showering and doing my hair, but figured maybe I should be a little bit honest about the life and times of the stay at home parent. I settled for a little makeup. I decided to use my little Olympus E-P3 instead of my phone. It has settings that do things for me. (I was sort of robbed of the opportunity to take a photography class in high school. It’s a long story. I’ll tell you sometime.) I don’t have a tripod of any kind, so I stacked little pieces of furniture as a makeshift tripod. (At one point, I used one of the toddler’s socks to tilt the camera just a little bit.)
I tried everything from laying on the floor to sitting against a backdrop. I finally figured out that the living room had the best lighting, but only if I sat on the floor. No where for a backdrop. This was going to have to be in my natural environment. I took about 30 pictures (I love digital.) Then I had to pick.
Some of my favorites:
This was interesting: I didn’t hustle back to my spot quick enough and the timer caught half my face.
This one: a little arty, still with the black and white. Staring off into space like I’m thinking deep thoughts.
Next we have in color, and dreamy because it’s out of focus, and whatever filter I picked made things a little hazy.
This one is good. Too bright, though I like the contrast. And look at my dimple!
And here’s the winner. When I was done taking these, this was the one I thought of as the least bad option. But coming back to look at it, I like it. I’ve got very blue eyes, and great glasses. There are nice warm colors behind me. There’s enough sun coming through the window to light things up, and you know, it’s a pretty good place to be, worthy of a smile.
Dearest church people,
Get ready. In two days it’ll be Christmas Eve, your congregation will welcome people in for one of the biggest nights of the year. Get ready: you may be blessed with an overrun of visitors, and I hope some of those visitors will be children and their parents.
In the spirit of preparation (it is Advent, after all), I write to you with my qualifications as both a minister who has specialized in children and youth and, for the last few years, a pew-sitter: without a full time clergy position, I have done more pew sitting than worship leading.
And this season, I suspect, is the hardest of my pew sitting: I currently have a three lovely children, and we’re doing all the ages and stages right now. The oldest, at 10, is in that phase where she can follow along in church, but sometimes I have to remind her. Sometimes, this results in a little preteen mother daughter drama. The 5 year old wants to move. He has the energy of a Pentecostal, which is perhaps a bit more than your average grown up Lutheran (we currently attend a Lutheran church). And the 2 year old has recently learned that she has pipes, so she will deliver quite the yelp if someone takes what she believes to be her crayon. She’s also a bit of a Pentecostal, occasionally making a dash for the aisle because she thinks that music is for dancing, and she has a hard time waiting her turn when it’s time to go forward to receive communion. Sundays in our pew are sort of like wrestling a squirmy pet monkey, all while juggling hymnals and Bibles, with my husband and I tag teaming the kids when one or the other of us has to attend to something we’ve volunteered for (he’s a frequent worship assistant; we both teach in the short Sunday School pull out that happens during our church’s sermon.)
All this is to say, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to being in the pews with kids during worship. I know that they are not, in fact, the most contemplative pew companions. I also know, from a professional standpoint, that there’s some pretty significant evidence that children who feel welcome during the worship service that’s meant for the entire gathered community are more likely to be involved church members when they grow up. It’s important to me that I leave that legacy for my children, so I’m doing my best to keep them in worship as much as possible. This is why we attend a church that is very welcoming to children (with the occasional lapse: no one is perfect).
And so, here are my requests for Christmas Eve worship, when you may have many children and families in your pews. You may have regular attenders, occasional visitors, first timers, grown up children of the church coming home. There may a be a few kids who have never set foot inside a church before. This is a huge responsibility for a congregation. Please, for the sake of the baby Jesus, try to be as welcoming as possible.
If a kid is loud or squirmy or even gets away from their family, do not stare, give a side eye, or (God forbid) reprimand. Smile warmly. Practice this in the mirror if you have to. If it bothers you that this is disruptive to the peace and quiet you expect of Christmas celebrations, remind yourself that Jesus was a baby, who was probably noisy despite what the Christmas carols claim; and that Jesus born in a stable in a town that was overflowing with visitors. The first Christmas was probably a little chaotic. And the point of the incarnation is that God shows up among us, even with all our messiness and chaos.
If you can see any way to be helpful, do it. Offer to carry a diaper bag for a Dad whose hands are full. Play peek-a-boo over the pew with a kid who grins at you. If you are greeting visitors, go out of your way to talk to the children (sometimes I bend down and introduce myself to a child before a parent), and tell them you are so glad they brought their children. If there’s a nursery, feel free to tell parents it’s available, but add a comment like, “but your children are of course welcome here if that’s more comfortable for your family.” (Remember that, particularly for a family that’s unfamiliar with your church, dropping their kid off with a stranger, even if you have the best nursery attendants ever, might not work.) Think hospitality: how can you welcome every person, with your complete attention, and without any judgment? And welcoming all children on Christmas Eve? It’s a spiritual practice: remember how Jesus said that in welcoming the stranger you welcome him (Matthew 25:35-36)?
If there’s something going on between a child and a parent and it’s not how you would do things were you in that parent’s shoes, create for yourself a mindset of gracious imagination. You probably don’t know the whole story for this family, even if they are regular members of your church. A toddler might be teething. There might be extra stressors in this family’s life right now. Sibling rivalry may be at a high point between two children. A child may have some special needs of which you are unaware. The comment you think is polite, or the eyeroll you thought was subtle might be the final straw for a family that is struggling, a stab to the heart of a parent who is trying their best.
And, if after putting all these things into practice on Christmas Eve, you are still left feeling like something about the presence of children took away from your experience of worship, I’d encourage you to ask yourself two questions. First, are there things about the way your congregation does worship that are, in fact, unwelcoming to children? For instance, worship that is completely un-interactive is incredibly boring for children: they are asked to simply listen, rather than participate, for over an hour. This can happen by accident in some churches around Christmas if we have fewer opportunities for people to sing because we pack the service with as many choir pieces as possible. Not that I don’t love the choir at Christmas…or, when we are so concerned that with so many people in worship any of the times when we might normally have an opportunity to move around (passing the peace; coming forward for communion, etc.) are viewed as a hassle and cut from the liturgy. Maybe there’s a way you can help be an agent for change in your church, and help to ensure that worship engages people at all ages and stages of life: jot down some notes and ideas, and see if you can chat with your pastor (offer to wait until February: most pastors are actually quite busy catching up with the things that just didn’t get done in December, as well as the general business of church in January). Go into this conversation prepared to listen to what the pastor might say (they have some expertise in this area) and prepared to offer to help with implementation.
The second question is more important, though. If children took away from your experience of worship, is that because worship is about you, or about the community? If communal worship is your only time for a quiet, peaceful, personal experience of God’s presence, you may need to rethink your spiritual practices. If worship is meant for the entire community of God’s people (which includes people of all ages), it may not be the best chance for you to find peace amidst complete silence and without distraction.
Come to think of it, most of this is pretty good guidance for worship throughout the year.
So, get ready, Church folk: Christmas Eve is an incredible opportunity to open your doors and let the world know who we are. We are a people who believe that God came to us, in the midst of chaos, long nights, and messiness, and came into the world as one of us, kicking and screaming. And because of this, our arms are open, no matter who you are, how old you are, or how well you sit still in a pew.
Here’s my thing about Trump and the second amendment threat.
I filter pretty much everything I hear right now through the perspective of a parent. That’s the main gig in my life.
So, when I heard what Trump had said, it made me think about the fact that, if one of my kids, even “joking” suggested killing someone, or any form of violence, that would be occasion for us to slow down and talk about what was just said. It’s not that they are “forbidden” from expressing how they feel. It’s just that, as a parent, part of my job is to raise children who strive for peace and justice, and respect the life and limb of others. (For instance, of their siblings. Their friends. Kids who are not their friends. Sometimes me and their Dad.) Fine. You can say what you feel, but after you say it, we’re going to get introspective about it. In our family, that’s the standard we’re working toward. And often, I find that Mr. Trump does not measure up to the standards I have for my own five year old. This worries me.
But then last night, I was thinking about this a little more, and I realized: an adult person who is running for president should be held to a higher standard than a five year old.
I’m going to take a risk here and tell a story about a youth group error I made almost a decade ago, no names. It’s possible someone might recognize themselves in this story, and if you do (Hello, friend!), please grant me some leeway? I have some qualms about telling ministry stories, but this is in service of something I think is important.
On a long long long youth group trip bus ride, I made the mistake of not taking hold of my authority as the church staff person and making the adult chaperones sit throughout the bus for the trip. After we returned, we found out that in the back of the bus, there was a pretty serious game of “MFK” going on (in which you name a person and have to say if you would…well, look it up online). Names of other youth group members were used. Word about the game got around among youth group members and it was something that created repercussions in relationships throughout the week.
I suspect (hope?) that the kids in my youth group who were doing this knew it probably wasn’t an OK way to treat each other. And I also suspect that had there been a caring adult sitting a few seats away, that might have served as enough of a reminder of the bounds of caring behavior that this would not have happened.
And this game bothers me for a few reasons. First, it objectifies people. Second, it combines violence and sex. Third, all pretty serious things to talk about as a “joke.” (Also, I do not buy “kids will be kids” as an excuse for this kind of behavior. Why? Because I have worked with teens for years, and I know them to be kind, sensitive, mature human beings who care deeply about other people.) Words have meaning. And even “jokes” have meaning. Sex and life are pretty sacred things, too. I don’t mind when we are playful about those things. But I do mind when we are flippant about them. And I should have known better, not to be present or make sure my adult leaders were present enough to help set boundaries and boost our kids toward a standard of maturity.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a presidential candidate can reach the maturity bar that I set for high schoolers in a church youth group. And by every mark, Trump misses that. He is way too old for people to make the excuse “he’s joking,” “he misspoke,” or, worse yet, “boys will be boys.” I get that there are people who are angry about the state of politics in our country, who feel left behind and shoved to the margins. But someone who can’t meet the basic emotional maturity of a bunch of high schoolers? That’s a horrible thing for our country.
And you know what? I bet he won’t win. It’s such a relief to look at polls and see that this may very well be the case (although I’m terrified at the possibility.)
But those politicians and private citizens who are excusing his behavior as “a joke”? I truly wonder what sort of standard you expect for children; for teenagers; for adults…
…for that matter, what sort of standard of peace and justice do you want for our society? Because Trump cannot be possibly be it. And that’s more important than any sense of party allegiance.
Woodside Road UMC, Redwood City, CA
I’m not going to lie: I spend too much time on the interwebs.
In my defense, after years of being a pastor,
an extrovert who likes being with people,
a thinker who likes talking about big ideas,
I am now a stay at home parent,
and I have been home with my three kids all summer. And by “home” I really do mean “home”. We’re saving up vacation time for a thing this fall. Meanwhile, my kids’ friends are on vacation or in day camps. We don’t live on a block where the neighborhood kids roam yard to yard. Except for one precious week, my kids have not been in camps. So, this summer I have delved full on into the world of intensive parenting.
To keep in touch with a world beyond legos, laundry, and magic marker accidents with the baby, I pop over to facebook and twitter and check how the world is doing.
And the world is kind of a mess.
I am near tears whenever I read about refugees in Europe,
I’m embarrassed at my country’s inability to take care of people who come to us for refuge.
I am so angry about the way that we treat black people in America.
I am sad about the state of politics, Republican and Democrat.
I am worried for my two daughters,
growing up in a world that just can’t figure out how to treat women as equals.
I am floored by the responsibility of raising my son to be a man
who doesn’t believe that he should always get what he wants just because he’s a white man.
I am grieved for children in other countries
AND in the urban US who live in places where bullets fly.
I could go on. You could, too.
And sometimes, I just want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head because it is all too much, this echo-chamber of everything that is wrong with the world.
But, I suspect that Jesus wants me to do something about it. So instead of burying my head under a pillow,
I try to fit in time to write a letter to my congressperson,
or to make a little donation here or there.
I contemplate throwing on my clerical collar and heading to a protest, but it often interferes with the baby’s naptime, or the 5 year old is just too squirmy to make it practical.
What I can do to fix the world seems pretty insignificant. I’m supposed to love my neighbor.
But there are so many neighbors to love, so many injustices to address. And in the meantime, I still have to do the laundry.
How much can I really do?
It is almost backwards that I find some comfort for my pessimism in this passage from Jeremiah. This is a word written originally for people who were too optimistic. I
t’s written to the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon, who are hearing from some prophets that the return to Israel will happen soon. Don’t get too comfortable: we’ll be going home before we know it.
But Jeremiah has a different take. This exile is going to be a little longer than we expected.
And so, this is our reality,
We need to settle in and do what God would have us do in the place where we find ourselves.
Plan a wedding.
Plant a garden.
Put down some roots.
I think it’s pretty common that we do not find ourselves in exactly the place we wish to be.
It might be that we are in exile from the place we always imagined for ourselves.
Or perhaps our relationships aren’t what we envisioned.
We are living life without someone who was central to our being.
We are not where we ought to be financially.
And sometimes, that feeling of exile also extends to our sense of what we’re supposed to be doing for God.
We find ourselves in life circumstances where we feel like we just can’t do enough to work toward the justice and peace that God desires for the world.
Now, there are times when our circumstances become a cop out. I certainly acknowledge that. We probably could do more.
But we also need to recognize that it is OK to be called to rather mundane things.
Like doing the laundry.
Being an excellent lawyer.
Coaching a kid’s baseball team.
Taking the kids camping.
Repairing the fence.
Planting a garden.
Here’s where Jeremiah 29 helps me.
We might need to peel our eyes off of the internet, out of the newspaper, and off of cable TV to be reminded of our current location.
What am I called to right now?
And where am placed right now?
Who has God placed next to me and who does God ask me to recognize as my nearest neighbors?
What patch of earth is mine to tend?
In a way, this is what Jeremiah is telling Israel:
you are so focused on the big picture
that you are losing sight of your own backyard.
So, what can you do
in the mundane world of your own backyard
to help God’s Kingdom come?
Or, for that matter, at your work desk,
during your commute,
with your morning exercise group,
in your bookclub?
Because love and compassion begin with every person you encounter.
I’m struck by how Jesus, in his life, was headed for a show-down with the greatest earthly power of his time, not to mention a show-down with cosmic forces of sin and evil…
and yet the radical acts that get him to that showdown?
Everyday love and compassion for the people he encountered along the way.
What does that look like for you?
Take a moment to think of the people you might encounter in a regular day.
Some of them are people you know and love well:
partners and children and parents and friends.
Some are people you encounter in the business of your day and don’t always slow down to notice:
Your kids’ teachers;
The neighbor who is not really your favorite.
Some of them are the people you might overlook:
the checkout cashier;
a family living out of their camper in a parking lot;
What happens when you see each of those people
with the eyes of Jesus?
What happens if you love them because God loved you first?
Doesn’t it shift the world just a little when we slow down, take notice, and show compassion to the person who just happens to be next to us in the moment?
What if I remind myself that, just as much as any protest, my call right now is to raise these three children to look at people as Jesus looks at them, with love and compassion? That might bear fruit as much as any protest.
Maybe this is my patch of ground for the time being.
And what happens when you have a conversation with someone, and there’s a moment when grace, compassion, or justice might be spoken?
A few weeks ago, in my morning exercise class, our 24 year old instructor, rather bravely, I thought, said, “Did you all see the latest news about a black man shot by the police?!?” And then, for the next 10 minutes, in between ab exercises, a bunch of us, affluent suburban white people talked quite honestly about race in America.
It was so small. But it was like a fresh shoot in the garden. I thought, maybe we are going to be OK.
There is so much we could do. But maybe in trying to do too much we miss the places where we are deeply called. Maybe in doing too much, we miss our garden.
My friend Cat reminded me of this quote this week. It’s from Thomas Merton, who was an early 20th century society mover and shaker… until he became a monk, and lived a quiet, contemplative life.
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
So, here’s Merton, reminding us with Jeremiah, that we need to take care of our own gardens. I love this. Because it’s not just about “inner peace” (our OWN inner peace). But a reminder that we need to take care of ourselves in order to care for the world. We can get sucked in and do too much, and miss the true, concentrated places to which we are called.
And if we kill off our inner roots, we lose our connection to the source of love and compassion, the God who calls us to the places where our God-given gifts are most needed.
Friends, there is so much, and it is overwhelming.
But there are so many of us, so many whom God is calling. And each little patch of earth that we tend? It becomes a toe-hold for the kingdom of God.
And all together? Where we see a patch of justice and peace cultivated here and there? That’s just the picture we can see. In the mind of God, it is so much bigger.
May it begin with the smallest seeds.
And may it end in a new creation.
Thanks be to God.
I bought a fitbit a little over a year ago with the goal of getting back to running. Baby number three really did in my exercise routine: three kids to take care of, lots of nighttime feedings, and I was feeling all tapped out energy-wise. I’d go for a few short “runs” (timed, running for a few minutes, then walking for a few), and then give it up. It needed to be more consistent. And I was out of shape: I needed to start somewhere other than running.
I bought the fitbit to make sure I was walking enough. We spent most of Hazel’s first year renting a home that was far enough away from Zora’s and Abram’s schools and my church that I was spending more time in the car driving back and forth, less time walking. Our new neighborhood was arguably more walkable than the last (fewer giant hills; more sidewalks; a park a block away), so I figured I could take advantage of that and walk more to get to the point where I could run more.
Enter the fitbit. Again, with some starts and stops, some months being better than others, it did its job. I walked more. When I used it, I knew how much I was walking. (I will admit to discovering that I got credit for steps sometimes from things like swaying and bouncing a fussy baby, but, hey, that’s physical exertion, too, right?)
Finally, this spring, I decided to take another big step: I enrolled in an early morning bootcamp and committed to a couple weeks of extra walking. And then, I would really make a serious effort at rebooting the running. A few weeks of bootcamp and the walking, and I got brave and registered for a half marathon at the end of the summer. I wrote in a schedule of three runs a week into my planner (I decided to keep up with the bootcamp for 2 or 3 mornings a week).
I feel much better. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve lost much weight, but I’m finding the scale demoralizing these days (according to BMI, I am obese, and this just makes me feel bad right now). What I do notice: I am stronger. My upper arms maybe don’t look better, but I feel better about them. So, I’m just going to sit with that sense of satisfaction about my body and eventually the scale and I will get reacquainted.
A few weeks ago, I thought I’d lost my fitbit. Turns out I’d just misplaced it. But in the days where I couldn’t find it, I decided to stop wearing it. I noticed two things.
I wasn’t pegging the worth of my day to how many steps I’d taken. For instance, a couple weeks earlier, I’d actually gotten halfway to bootcamp when I realized I’d forgotten (HORRORS!!!) to put on my fitbit (I don’t wear it all night: I never got into the sleep functionality part because when I started wearing it, as a nursing mother, my sleep stats were just awful). I turned the car around and went home to get it, and missed 10 minutes of my class. Because I needed those steps. The sheer crazy of this hit me later. I missed 10 minutes of exercise because I was somehow convinced that it wouldn’t count if I didn’t track it. (Yes, I had, prior to this, had a some evenings where I ran in place before bed time just to add a couple hundred steps to reach some sort of goal.) The fitbit was making me a little bit of a crazy person.
Then, my 9 year old started talking about how she wanted to wear a fitbit. I’m not sure I’m ready for my kid to feel the need to track her steps. “Honey,” I said, “I think you are active enough. Or, if you aren’t and you want to take more steps, you should be active for the fun of it, not just the number.”
And that’s when it hit me: I also want exercise to be partly about playfulness, and mindful enjoyment of the moment. (In fact, one of the things I like about my bootcamp is that it’s a little bit like gym class for adults. There’s some play to it.)
And then I read this article about all of our smart devices. Now, I am the greatest of smartphone lovers. The smartphone allows me to traipse around with my kids and do stuff outside of the house and still answer emails and jot down notes and read newspapers and take pictures, yes, check facebook. Yes, I use it too much. No, I’m not giving it up. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with every detail of my life being tracked by every single device in my life. I draw the line at a smart blender. And my fitbit had accomplished what I wanted it to do. Why was I still bouncing in place in my bedroom at 10pm to get those extra 472 steps when I was sore from a couple consecutive days of bootcamp and running?
I ran six miles today. I ran it at my tortoise-slow, 12 minute per mile, run five minutes, walk for a minute and a half pace.
So I’m retiring the fitbit, in exchange for a little more running, and more bootcamp. If I can get my pace up enough, hopefully it’ll start looking like this:
We had a great little family road trip last week. We skipped church in order to drop Zora off for her first full week of overnight church camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I figure church skipping is defensible if it’s in the service of getting your kid to go to church camp.
The day included: visiting a couple of wineries, one of which Erik decided he loved and wanted to get a year long “membership” (in other words, we’re buying several bottles of their wine every quarter…come visit us: we’ll have great wine!). This was out of character for Erik, but I think it happened because he was smitten with their school-themed marketing and with the fact that the wine maker, who looked like just your average guy wearing 4th of July shorts on the holiday weekend, walked past our kids, who were rather sweetly sharing an iPad, and complimented Erik on how wonderful they were. The key to Erik’s heart is clearly to compliment his children, in case you were wondering. Then off to drop Zora off at camp. When did my little peanut become old enough to confidently spend a week away from home? That’s another blog post!
An hour at a park, and burgers for dinner. Then home by way of a windy trip through the mountains, with breathtaking views of the marine layer rolling in from the Pacific.
But the highlight of the trip? Our encounter with probably-not-George R.R. Martin (author of the Game of Thrones series) outside of a coffee shop in a little touristy mountain town.
Here’s how it went down. We were stopping at a coffee shop for their (deservedly) famous chai. Three doors down there’s a ukulele shop that I’ve tried, thrice before, to visit. But my visit has always been foiled by odd hours or some minor calamity with my kids (including, one time, an ER visit). Erik was working to get Hazel out of her carseat and Abram had already bounded out of the car. He’s a wiry ball of five year old energy at this point, after an hour spent getting Zora through registration lines at camp.
“I’m just going to take Abram down to the ukulele store and see if it’s open today.”
“Great,” says Erik.
“Abram, there will be breakable things. How do you look while we’re in the store?”
“With my eyes not with my hands,” he says, while leaping up an unusually high curb. “You know, I still need a new ukulele. My red one is gone. Maybe they have one just like it. But only a red one like the one I had before.”
A guy at the table outside the coffee place is watching this, and starts chuckling, “Ukulele got lost, huh?” (I’m thinking this guy looks familiar but I’m not sure why.)
“Well,” I say, “it was more of a Jimi Hendrix kind of moment on his part and then the thing may have disappeared when his room got organized…”
“How old is he? Six? I have a four year old nephew. They’re something at this age.”
And then I run to catch up with Abram, we get to store, and I realize that I’d be best off drinking my chai in a hurry and returning without Mr. Destructo.
While we’re sitting in the coffee shop, Erik says, “What were you and Abram talking about with George R,R. Martin out there?” We start googling images because he does look shockingly similar. Maybe he’s visiting Santa Cruz. Who knows? I’d go there on vacation!
Erik is sure it’s not him. His hat is not quite right. The hat is apparently always the same. He’s probably right.
We finish our drinks. We wipe ice cream off the kids. We head out to the car. I discover the ukulele shop closed 10 minutes ago. Foiled again.
Erik is trying to load kids into the car. Abram is taking flying leaps off of that unusually high curb and asking questions, “Mom: why is this curb so high? Do you know what? I think it’s here for the cars to not get onto the sidewalk. How do you make a pipe? And how do you put it under the ground? What would happen if there were an earthquake? Or what if someone jumped on the pipe?”
Not-George is barely containing his laughter. “Oh, it’s really not about the answers with this one, is it? It’s all about the questions!”
I’m helping Abram with a seatbelt. Erik, across the car strapping Hazel into her seat, catches my eye. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I imagine George R.R. Martin would say,” he loud-whispers across the car.
Not-George, still quietly guffawing at Abram, shouts to him, “Hey! Who do you think I am?”
I’m not sure if I hope Abram hears him or not, if I sort of hope Abram and has put together what Erik and I have been talking about, and would yell back, “George R. R. Martin!” He doesn’t yell.
We get in the car. Erik and I agree he isn’t George R. R. Martin. He’s probably a sweet guy who works as a nice upscale mall Santa in the winter.
“Although,” says Erik, “I think you quit reading the books before you got to the point where you’d understand the significance of this: the name of the coffee shop?”
The White Raven.
I’ve been totally distracted by the news about the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. We talked about it this morning at bootcamp class in my affluent, mostly white suburb. The fact that people there are angry is, I think, a small glimmer of hope. Erik and I lamented it before he left for work. My kids have spent the day with altogether too much screen time while I putter around a wonder what on earth I’m supposed to do about this. I tried to write some other things. I read an article about reforms to policing and drafted a letter to local politicians (but I’m not sure it’s a good letter…I need to let it sit).
And among the wisest things I’ve seen today? What can white people like me do, people who have the privilege of dipping in and out at will of our frustrations about the state of race relations in America? We can talk about race, and most specifically, we can talk about white privilege and racism. (Link to Denise Anderson tweet.) And we can best talk about it not by pointing to the speck of dust (or, for that matter, log) in another white person’s eyes, but by paying attention to the log in our own eyes. We can name racism and white supremacy in ourselves.
So, here goes: the story of the time when I discovered for certain that I am racist.
For two years, I taught at Providence-St. Mel School in Chicago. My students were all African American. I was not trained as a teacher, so I learned how to teach while I was there (well, sort of…I like to think I learned a bit about education, if only because the principal and my supervising teacher were amazing and wise women who were patient with me and taught me what they could).
But the most important thing I learned there? I am a racist. I had never in my life been the only white person in the room for the majority of my waking hours. And in spite of the best intentions of my upbringing by loving, respectful, progressive parents, well, the culture of race in America is really damn pervasive. It just gets in there, whether you want it to or not.
I remember the exact moment that I recognized it. We used seating charts at PSM. The seating chart was the cornerstone of my classroom management plan. I had to know who was sitting where, who would do best sitting or not sitting next to whom, who needed to be in a seat where I could quickly and easily stand near them while lecturing in case they needed some incentive to pay attention. All those things. I poured over my seating charts every month, making changes, rotating kids. I was deliberate with those charts, thoughtful.
One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk reviewing some seating charts, and a few conversations I’d had (with other teachers and with students) and articles I’d read recently clicked. Here were things I’d heard recently, that suddenly moved together in my head like puzzle pieces (I’m sorry, as I recall this, that I cannot remember which things came from conversations or which from articles or studies):
Students with better grades tend to sit in the front. Sometimes by choice. Sometimes by assignment.
People tend to favor people with lighter skin. Even when you take a group of people of the same race, the lighter the skin, the more advantages given to the individual.
Among students of color, students with lighter skin will often have higher grades.
Wait, I thought. What about my seating charts? I pulled up my grades on the computer. I set my seating charts next to it. Yes, there were a few outlying “A” students who sat in the back. There was a student hear and there whose skin tone didn’t correspond with grades.
But, I looked over my seating charts and it was right there. The majority of the time, the VAST majority of the time, I was seating students with lighter skin color closer to the front of the room. And, in general, the students who were closer to the front of the room had higher grades.
I had no idea I was doing this. My bias was buried so deep in my brain that I did it without knowing it.
But now I knew it. I was racist.
Yes. I worked hard to make my seating charts better.
And, yes. I’m still racist. The lies about race are still rattling around in my brain, and I still have moments like that one, where I am appalled to realize the judgement I am making based on someone’s race.
I am part of this awful, horrible system that judged people by the color of their skin. And the most evil part of this system? How it just sneaks in everywhere, how we don’t even realize how pervasive it is.
I don’t think we’re anywhere close to rooting this out of ourselves, and out of our culture. I’m going to keep looking for it in myself, though. I’m not going to despair. Because despair would be pulling the covers over my head and trying to ignore it.
And ignorance clearly isn’t working.
Photo by Deepak Adhikari, used under creative commons
Yesterday morning, I voted in the California Democratic primary. I voted for Hillary. And if you still want to read rather than throw rotten tomatoes at me, please do. This is less about politics than it is about what it means to be female in roles that are historically male. I know more about that situation than I do about politics. So, Republicans, please put aside your tirades about what you can’t stand about Hillary and Democrats in general (you all have your own problems to deal with right now). And Bernie Sanders supporters? I am in total agreement with Robert Reich on this, and that’s all I’m gonna say about it.
I’ve had moments of being on the fence between Bernie and Hillary, but what pushed me over the edge was, I’ll admit it, gender bias. Watching the primaries roll on for months and months, it became clearer and clearer to me that the deck is stacked against Hillary because she’s a woman. I don’t think Bernie Sanders did it intentionally. (I think a few of his supporters did.) I expect nothing less than month after month of subtle, and sledge-hammer, attacks by Trump on Clinton based on gender.
But, over and over, little things added up. And I know a little about what it means to be an early woman. In 2003, I graduated from seminary in a class of about 45 MDiv students. If memory serves, 5 of us were female. Those are slightly better stats than the 15% of women in Hillary Clinton’s graduating class from Yale Law School, but not by that much. In 2003, I was the 23rd woman ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (which had started ordaining women in 1994). I really don’t consider myself a trailblazer, because there were other women ahead of me in those numbers who went through much more than I did. But, still, I dealt with things like being the first woman ever to preach in a pulpit; only getting a student internship one summer when the seminary could quietly offer the church a financial incentive; scrambling to find opportunities to fulfill my required Sundays of student preaching (often because the few churches that would take a female student in their pulpits were asking if they could please have a man since they were getting all the women). I was actually barred from preaching in the pulpit of my home congregation while I was a student (until the old ladies of the church banded together and called out the male leaders of the church on that one). I had a very hard time finding a position that was a fit for my gifts. So, in a very teeny tiny way, I get what it’s like to be start breaking maybe not the glass ceiling, but at least starting to lob a few things up there to start it cracking.
I left that denomination in 2007, because I’d found a call in the Presbyterian Church (USA) (which just celebrated 60 years of ordaining women.) But even in denominations with a longer legacy of ordaining women, there is still an incredible amount of sexism. (This book is on my reading list for this summer.)
Hazel will grow up, I sincerely hope, with her first memories of a President of the United States being a woman. She was toddling around my ankles while filled in that square next to Hillary Clinton’s name on my ballot.
I get nervous about dynasties in American politics, but honestly, maybe that’s what it takes right now for us to overcome the implicit bias of our culture against women (I wrote this about the dynastic aspects of this about a year ago.) I get nervous about the fact that we seem to have a political ruling class in America, but, again, I think the first woman to pull this off will likely have to be a part of that establishment. Political and policy implications aside, it’s a big day for the United States when we have a woman who is about to be a major party’s nominee for President.
And it means more to me than I thought it would.
listen to mp3 of “Jesus Saw Her”
1 Kings 17:1-24
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
When people ask me what it’s like to live in the San Francisco area, I tell them about the wonderful things: the weather, the mountains, the ocean, the city. I say, “I can be at the beach or in a grove of redwoods or in one of the most wonderful cities in the world in 45 minutes.”
But I also tell them I’m afraid that our region is a canary in the coal mine for income disparity in America.
One night about a year ago, when we were renting a place in Redwood City, I put fussy Hazel in a stroller and went for a walk. It was a pretty nice neighborhood we were living in. But I remember noticing some people and places I hadn’t before.
I walked past a house with a beautifully redone garden, all pavers and drought-resistant plants. A couple were laughing and drinking wine in the brightly lit living room. Just next door was another house, windows lit, shades open. Every room had at least two bunk beds: a house packed with migrant workers, the men who trim our orange trees, and do our renovation work.
A few blocks later, on a stretch of sidewalk with a hedge overgrowing its yard, a woman with her entire life loaded onto a shopping cart walked toward me. Before we meet, she apologized in broken English for taking up too much space, as if the baby in the pricey jogging stroller was more deserving of the sidewalk than she was.
And just a few blocks from our rental, in the community center parking lot, there was just one car left: an older model, two-door sedan, dented and dusty. I walked past and noticed: the seats were reclined, and two people were curled as best they could into the car, their bed for the night.
I know you’ve all seen this. I know you all have hearts that take in the world with compassion, eyes that notice this sometimes. I suspect you’re all like me, too, and have times when you need to ignore it because it’s too much, too overwhelming.
The stories we read today remind me of one of the names given to God in Genesis. This name is given by one of the people who is often unseen and forgotten in the story: Hagar.
Hagar is Abraham and Sarah’s slave, and when Abraham and Sarah despair of ever having children, Sarah’s plan is that maybe Hagar can have them for her. But Sarah, even though it was her idea, winds up jealous, and she mistreats Hagar and Hagar runs away to the desert. God finds Hagar there, and tells her everything will be OK. And Hagar says, “You are the God who sees me.” I love that. Hagar, the one who was the least and lost and one who was used and abused in Abraham and Sarah’s household? God sees her. What a name Hagar gives God here: Lhai Roi the Living One who Sees Me. (Not just the God who sees. The God who sees me.)
This is a truth that comes up over and over in the Biblical stories:
God sees those who are unseen.
And the apex in these ancient cultures of being an unseen person?
The widow, the orphan, and the alien.
In these ancient cultures, a woman had to be under the care of a man. First your father; then your husband; then a son. To be without any of those three meant you had nothing. No safety. No security. No place. No people.
And to be an alien, a stranger in a strange land, was to be cut off from your identity and your place in society as well.
So we hear the reminder, over and over, in the Hebrew Scriptures: care for the widow, the orphan, the alien.
The least and the lost
Those who are sick and those who are tired
The used and abused
God sees those who are unseen.
I imagine that Jesus was often pressed on every side by crowds, that it was a hassle to walk to a different town because he was hemmed in on every side by people who needed him. I imagine that Jesus had a big heart, that he felt for people, that he felt with people. I imagine it was exhausting for him, to walk with these crowds, and to see and hear and understand the suffering of people.
But Jesus was also the God who sees.
And when Jesus and his disciples approached this city of Nain, grief crossed their path: the funeral procession of a young man.
Jesus was moved. And not just on the surface. The word Luke uses for Jesus’ compassion? The closest thing we have in English is “gut-wrenching.” That’s how strongly Jesus felt the grief of this dead man’s mother. Jesus saw, and even reached out to touch the funeral bier, a move that contaminated him with death.
He saw, and reached toward the grief and sadness instead of recoiling.
And what he saw was not just the sad fact of a man dying young. Jesus saw someone who was made invisible by this death: a widow, now completely unmoored from society by the death of her son.
Honestly, that seeing is the greater thing to learn from this miracle. I do not know, often, how to square myself with the idea that Jesus did miracles and healed so many people, and the heartache it causes when we pray and pray for a miracle and it doesn’t happen.
But the seeing, and the compassion, that I understand.
And the power of what Jesus does after the miracle? The text says: he gave him to his mother.
This was not just a miracle of life and death. It was also a miracle of justice. In that moment, this woman was seen, and her own life and security was restored to her.
In fact, this is exactly what happens in 1 Kings as well. Elijah revives this boy, and gives him back to his mother. It’s another story where God sees, where there is compassion; and where justice and security are restored.
Theses are miracles of restoration: these sons are restored to life; these mothers are restored to security.
The world is restored to the wholeness that God intended in creation; and that God still intends for the New Creation.
God sees the unseen. And God moves us to see, too.
I’ll be honest: sometimes I think it is a necessity of our lives to not see everything. We can be overwhelmed by the weight of the world, by how much hurt and injustice surrounds us. We are not, in fact, Jesus, and we cannot simply say the word and know that the world will be healed.
But for many of us, being able to turn off our awareness that the world is an unjust place is a great privilege. We can retreat to our mostly secure lives. Other people cannot do that. We need to own up to what a privilege it is to be able to take a break from the troubles of the world.
But the Christian life, this life where we have died and have risen with Jesus, is a call to see, to see with God’s eyes, and to be moved to act for justice. We cannot ignore.
There’s a hymn from Cuba that says this so well:
Sent by the Lord am I;
my hands are ready now to make the earth
the place in which the kingdom comes.
The angels cannot change a world of hurt and pain
into a world of love, of justice and of peace.
The task is mine to do, to set it truly free.
Oh, help me to obey; help me to do your will.
It’s a weighty task to which we are called.
But, again, we are called by the God who sees.
And here’s where I find comfort in that. This is also the God who sees us, sees every one of our griefs that remain unseen. This is the God who intimately knows our hurts and pains, the things we bury too deeply for others to see.
This is the God knows and understands what it is to human, what it is to experience gut-wrenching pain.
This is a God who can reach out to the most grief stricken parts of our lives, who can say a word, and comfort us, and heal us.
Friends, we are blessed to be a blessing.
We are brought back to life that we might bring life.
We are called to look at the world with the eyes of our God.
Thanks be to the Living One who Sees.
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