Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children

When I turned 30, I gave myself two gifts: a colorful 1940s era vintage dress handmade in Paris, and finding my childhood pediatrician.

Dr. Dunn was my doctor from the time I was born until we moved to a different city when I was 8. I was prone to ear infections, so he saw me around ten times a year on average. We lost a lot of the men in my life through those years – my daddy, grandpa, and great-grandpa, and my “adopted” Grandpa Duggins, among others. Dr. Dunn was one of the few men who was reliably there through all of those losses.

And he was a wonderful man. A gifted pediatrician, Dr. Dunn was also a Shakespearean actor, collector of African violets, and a musician in a local, old time style band playing the hammered dulcimer. He had a full white beard and twinkling eyes. He was unfailingly kind to me, and I always looked forward to going to the doctor.

More than twenty years later, back in the city I was born in, I tracked him down. When I called and explained who I was, he was delighted I’d found him and invited my mother and I to visit him and his wife in their home. It was a lovely time catching up, and before we left they invited me to join their family at a fiddlers’ festival in the Carolina mountains later that summer.

I took them up on that offer, and spent a wonderful weekend camping with their large family and enjoying the old time music of the region. (Old time is traditional mountain music similar to bluegrass, but while in bluegrass different instruments take turns with the melody, in old time, the fiddle always leads).

It was a beautiful weekend, but it was a conversation at a picnic table one night that shifted something in me.

I was sitting with Dr. Dunn and a couple of his grown sons as they talked. It was 2002, not even a full year after 9/11, and the war on terrorism was never far from anyone’s mind.

“If we want to end this,“ Dr. Dunn said passionately, “Every time a suicide bomber blows himself up, we will bomb their entire family.”

I was stunned. “But what about the children?” I asked. “They’re innocent!”

“Their children don’t matter if they are threatening my grandchildren!” he declared.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man I had only known as kind and gentle, who had made it his life’s work to care for other people’s children, was ready to destroy children for his own grandchildren’s sake.

My head and heart were spinning, and for the first time in my life, I thought that maybe there could be something good in not having children of my own.

I always wanted children – at least one. I love kids. Nieces and nephews, my cousins’ children (one of their girls is the only child I’ve ever waited for in the hospital as she was born), the friends’ children who I’ve known and loved from birth, the neighbors’ kids playing on the beach a few blocks from my apartment.

None of the children I love are mine. And as I have come to terms with age and circumstances, I have accepted the reality that the children I love will always be other people’s children.

That’s something I’ve grieved, but there’s also a gift in it – it means that I can want for all of those children everything I would want for my own. There’s nothing I have to protect, nothing I have to lose, in doing so. Rather than having my maternal instincts captured by this one particular child of my own, every child calls out to the mother in me.

When I heard those words come out of my beloved doctor’s mouth, something shifted for me. Something opened up in the way I look at the world. I saw how the love of “our” children can become twisted into something that is toxic to “their” children.

And the world is full of endless “us and thems.” Once we begin, we will see the threat of “them” everywhere, and it is so easy to harden our hearts. It’s how we destroy each other – kill in spirit and then in flesh.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” must also mean “love your neighbor’s children as your own.”

The children of my friends and family. The children of the stranger. The children of parents who, like Mary and Joseph, brought their children far from home to a country where they could be safe to grow and thrive. The children of my enemies, even.

That day began a change in me – a change in how I look at the world, in how I understand and live out my faith, in my relationships, in my politics, in everything.

I don’t live and work to give a better life to my own children. I live and work to help give a better life and world to other people’s children. To children of every shade and nationality and religion. Children full of hopes and dreams and questions. Children I know, and children I will never meet.

But each of them is equally precious, all of these children who belong to other people.

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Getting Through

Getting Through

Life is so hard.

I have friends facing so much right now. Friends with cancer diagnoses. Friends facing seemingly unending obstacles in their life’s work. Friends reading words of condemnation and rejection from former mentors and colleagues. Friends struggling with depression and despair. Friends wading through flood waters of many kinds, including the literal.

Friends facing so much that is discouraging, demeaning, and overwhelming.

All my life I’ve tried to fix problems. My brain sees puzzles everywhere and looks for solutions instinctively. Sometimes that’s helpful, but I’ve slowly (too slowly) learned that the things that really matter aren’t puzzles to solve or problems to fix. They are just life. Messy, painful, sometimes beautiful life.

And life is not meant to be fixed or solved. Life is meant to be lived.

I’m beginning to learn.

I used to feel so helpless and useless in the face of pain and problems I could do nothing to resolve. But I’m beginning to understand that even when I can’t fix a thing, I’m not helpless. I still have agency. There’s still something I can do.

I can choose life.

I can choose to sit with pain and confusion and still love in the midst of it. I can name what is wrong and refuse to redefine it as okay. I can have faith for and in friends. I can believe there’s always something more, that nothing has to go the worst way it could. That love is never wasted.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wish I had a magic wand to make everything better. And in its absence, I will still do what I can to heal the wounds of this world and intervene in the violence that creates them. But whatever else I can (or can’t) do, I can be present. Present to this world in all its chaotic pain and beauty. Present to my friends and neighbors as they wrestle with what life has presented them with. Present to each moment I am given.

And one moment at a time, we will get through.

White Supremacy Is My Problem

White Supremacy Is My Problem

I wish it weren't. How I wish it weren't.

As I watched events unfold in Charlottesville this weekend, with friends there attacked because they stand against hatred and violence, I wished it weren't.

I wish that what I believed as a child in the 70s was true – that the Civil Rights Movement had brought equality for all. But the justice of the law is no more just than those who enforce it. And as important as the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement were, there is so much they did not and could not do.

White Supremacy is very much alive, and it's my problem, no matter how much I wish otherwise.

It's my problem.

Every time I've assumed the black woman sitting next to me on the train feels as safe in that space as I do.

Every time I effectively dismissed racism as a "sin problem" that can only be dealt with in individuals' hearts.

Every time I think I've had opportunities only because I worked for them.

Every time I sat in church believing we weren't perpetuating racism because a few black families were there who embraced our theology.

Every time I haven't thought about White Supremacy because I didn't have to, and I had other things to think about.

Every time I believed a person of color was being considered for a job on the same basis I was.

Every time I assumed that a fellow student of color had the same opportunities I had because we were sitting in the same class.

Every time I dismissed White Supremacists as an anomaly, as a fringe element, rather than seeing them as the most visible outworking of a pervasive system, a system I am a part of.

Every time I didn't speak up when someone excused or dismissed white supremacy as something that isn't their problem, or insisted that black resistance is an "equal" problem.

Every time I failed to realize that black friends don't have the same experiences I do when they drive somewhere, or shopping, or taking taxis, or with the police, or doing any one of the many public errands that make up my days.

Every time I was more concerned with protecting me and mine than ensuring justice and safety for someone else.

Ever time I studied "Christian" history and theology without questioning its Eurocentric assumptions and role in establishing the Doctrine of Discovery.

Every time I've avoided speaking up against the assumptions of white supremacy because it might make someone uncomfortable.

I don't believe in white supremacy, but I don't have to believe in it to be a part of it. And if a white supremacist is someone who does believe in it, then I am not a white supremacist. But every time I have acted like white supremacy is not my problem, I'm sure you couldn't tell the difference.

I'm sorry for every time that's happened. I know more than I used to, but I have so much more to learn. I fail in ways I can barely begin to imagine. I will keep working on it, and this is one way to take a step forward.

White supremacy is my problem.

And if you are white, it's your problem, too.

Who Raises Up the Despised?

Who Raises Up the Despised?

(A sermon, on Genesis 29:15-28 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45. Audio is available here.)

Jacob, he loved Rachel,
And Rachel, she loved him,
And Leah was just there
For dramatic effect.

(from Rich Mullins’ “Jacob and 2 Women”)

The way the story is told, it’s not easy to understand what Laban was thinking when he pulled his trick on Jacob, and it’s even harder to know how Leah must’ve felt – whether she was glad to go along or not, she wouldn’t have had much choice in their culture but to do what her father told her to do.

We do know something about what Jacob felt though – we know he didn’t want Leah, he wanted Rachel. It would always be about Rachel for Jacob. It would always be Rachel he loved.

Unloved and unwanted. Leah lived her life as the despised wife, always competing with her sister for Jacob and always losing. It’s hard to imagine a more miserable situation.

But that’s not the end of Leah’s story. Later we learn that because she was despised, God gave her children, and ultimately the line of Christ came from the despised wife.

We have a God who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

Jesus, Leah’s many-greats grandson, always had time for despised women – a Samaritan woman with a less than stellar reputation, a woman caught in adultery, a widow grieving her only son. And it wasn’t just women – Jesus’ whole ministry was filled with the overlooked and unwanted: the men he chose as his closest disciples were all Galileans like himself, and Galilee was considered a backwater by Judean Jews. He spent most of his time with those despised by the religious as drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners, and he went out of his way to help those even his disciples thought were a waste of time – beggars, children, and Gentiles.

His parables were full of unlikely heroes – women, servants, a Samaritan. Over and over again, Jesus urges us to value what is small, hidden, and overlooked. A tiny mustard seed is hidden in the ground and becomes a tree large enough to provide a home for birds. A woman hides a little yeast in three measures of flour – that would be forty to sixty pounds of flour, and it is all leavened for enough bread to feed a village. Treasure and a priceless pearl are found hidden in fields.

This is where the kingdom of heaven is found, Jesus tells us – in small, ordinary things; in overlooked, hidden places. In people and things and places we so easily despise.

We have a God who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

And that makes me wonder, where are those things in our lives? In our communities?

Some of us know what it feels like to be despised – overlooked, unwanted, or even hated and rejected. And many of us really don’t know what that’s like.

I’m not sure which is more dangerous to us.

If we’ve been blessed not to have experienced being despised, that can make it all too easy to miss what we should see.

If we have been unwanted and despised, and have fought to find a place of acceptance and safety, it’s all too easy not to risk what we’ve gained for the sake of someone else who is despised.

We don’t have to hate someone to despise them; we only have to overlook them. To be uncomfortable enough to avoid them.

Who are those people in our lives and in our communities? The people who threaten the places we are comfortable? To be honest, I struggle with the panhandlers in my neighborhood, especially the ones who are more desperate, abrasive and louder, or who haven’t bathed in a long time. It’s easy for me to try to just ignore them instead of being willing to really see them as fellow human beings God loves.

In most communities, we struggle to include those whose language and culture are different. It’s easier to let them have their own spaces than to welcome them into ours. We struggle to welcome those who don’t think like we do, whose lives challenge our beliefs and call us to change. Humans tend to struggle with anyone who is different; we find our family and tribe and keep others out.

Are we willing to be uncomfortable in order to be more like Jesus? To show his welcome to the unwanted? Because that is what he calls us to do – to spread the “gospel,” the good news. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed himself to be “good news” to the poor, and freedom for prisoners and the oppressed.

We have a Lord who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

Jesus is present with us in the bread and wine we will share, but he is present in the world through us, as well. And we take the bread and the wine because it is meant to change us – to give us the eyes of Christ to see the overlooked and the heart of Christ to welcome the despised.

Saint Teresa of Avila put it this way:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

The same God who chose the despised wife is the God who calls us to be the eyes and hands and feet of Christ in the world, who calls us to see the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raise them up.

Amen.

The Life of the World to Come

The Life of the World to Come

We said it in church this morning – that last line of the Nicene Creed. The one that reads, “We look for…the life of the world to come.”

For years that meant the life after death to me, and it held deep personal significance. In “the life of the world to come,” I’d see my daddy again. But it was more than that.

When my grandmother was in the last few years of her life, missing the friends and family who were gone, never quite happy, always wanting more of her only grandchild and unable to enjoy me for who I was, I learned to love her beyond what chafed and hurt by believing that in the life to come, she would finally be everything she was meant to be, full of joy and understanding. When I met her then our relationship would be everything it could be, everything it was meant to be.

That same hope got me through several break ups and many bouts of unrequited love. And as I began to realize that so many of the mentors and teachers who have given me the most cannot understand or approve of where their gifts have taken me, I have hoped that in that “life to come,” they will see their way clear to be proud of who I am.

But alongside the comfort, there was also a kind of stuckness. Hope was out there, not here. The great reconciliation, true healing, and abundant life were all beyond the scope of this world.

And sometimes they are.

That’s the first line of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s important, that bit. The whole prayer is named for it, after all.

But that’s pretty much where it stopped for me. God was sovereign, in control of all things and working them all together for good. What could I possibly do in light of that other than show my trust in him by waiting as faithfully as I knew how?

But there’s more to the prayer than serenity. There’s courage. And wisdom. And when it comes to it, serenity isn’t worth much without her sisters.

In the past year, I’ve also learned to hear those words in the Creed another way.

The “life of the world to come” starts tomorrow. And tomorrow is what we are making it today.

This life to come is the second part of the prayer – “the courage to change the things I can.” To change the things we can.

“We look for the life of the world to come.”

If the “arc of the universe bends towards justice,” it does so through us. Because we bend it that way. Because the life of the world to come is not yesterday, and tomorrow does not need to use the road maps of the past.

We look for the life of the world to come because we know there is more than this. More than death, yes. But also more than this, more than today. More than what we find ourselves with. There can be more, we can do more. We can make changes. We can take a step in the direction of justice, in the direction of Love.

And it’s never wasted. That’s what the concept of karma is really about. It’s not just that what you put out there will come back to you. It’s that what you put out there contributes to something greater than you. We are shaping the “arc of the universe” every day. We are making “the life of the world to come” – a life and world we will share.

So I have begun to look for life in this life. I look for life in each step, in each choice I make: what will bring life in the world to come? What will bring life to the world tomorrow?

And there’s always something. Something that in the midst of all the things I can’t change, that I can. It is wisdom that helps me do what I can rather than camp out at the door of all I can’t.

I lived there too long. It’s time to begin moving into the life of the world to come. Today.

Walking the Wild Goose

Walking the Wild Goose

When I think back on my years attending the Wild Goose Festival, I think of walking.

The first year I attended, I came to speak with a friend. I was still a somewhat conservative but curious evangelical, recovering from my hardcore fundamentalist roots. My friend and I participated in a pre-festival retreat for the speakers, and I remember sitting and listening to Frank Schaeffer, a fellow recovering fundamentalist, speak (or more accurately, rant) and wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Frank felt angry to me, and wherever I was going, I didn’t want it to be an angry place. I was troubled.

Later that evening, long past dark, the retreat ended with a prayer walk through Shakori Hills (where the festival spent its first two years). Gareth Higgins handed me a flashlight, and we all began to slowly venture into the night, a flashlight here and there to help us along. It was hard to see much of anything, but as we walked, silent except the scuff of shoes on the dirt path, my eyes began to adjust. I realized that Frank and Genie Schaeffer were walking beside me, following the light of my flashlight.

And I knew in that moment that we were walking the same path in a much larger sense. My journey would not look quite like theirs, nor theirs like mine. But we had found ourselves here, walking alongside one another and doing our best to find our way forward.

Our paths crossed several times that weekend, and I began to know the whirlwind that is Frank and the calm that is Genie. I heard Frank talk about struggling with the anger he’d brought with him from his fundamentalism, of not wanting his granddaughter to know him as that “angry man.” I sat with Genie in the heat of an afternoon as we talked of transitions and changes and grace.

As year followed year, I’ve walked with many different people at the Goose, renewing friendships and adding them. As I moved farther from traditional evangelicalism, I found new “elders” for my life when the old ones could no longer understand the path ahead of me. I can’t count the times I’ve greeted someone and heard the reply, “Where are you headed? Can you walk with me?” And wherever I was headed, my answer is almost always yes.

I walked alongside Vince Harding one hot afternoon, and was left with an embrace and blessing I will always remember. I’ve walked many times now with my friend Nathan, a young man who I saw come out publicly for the first time during the Q & A of a Goose session, and who the next year told me about his new boyfriend and plans to start seminary. I’ve walked the Goose with Paula Stone Williams, a fellow recovering fundamentalist and one of the bravest people I know. I’ve walked with a newly-out and newly-single father and helped wrangle his two young children.

These days, it’s the first thing I do once I’ve settled in – begin walking the paths looking for friends. Looking to learn what the Goose will have to teach me this year. As the years have gone by, I attend fewer and fewer sessions, my time filled more and more with conversations along the way.

I’ve walked with heroes and strangers. I’ve hugged friends as we’ve passed, and had the joy of introducing and connecting people. This year, I look forward to walking with friends I’ve yet to meet in person, as well as an old friend of my parents who I haven’t seen in around thirty years. I’m eager to see friends from around the country whose faces are dear to me and too rarely seen.

The Wild Goose is far more than a destination; it’s a journey each one of us walks in our own way. And for a few days in July, we have the gift of walking together.

 

I’m thrilled to be speaking at this year’s Goose July 13-16! Join me and save 25% off weekend pass with the code BEMYGUEST.

Holding the Door

Holding the Door

Driving to work this morning I heard a story about Nashville artist Jason Isbell. Isbell is from rural north Alabama near the Tennessee state line (a couple of hours west of where I grew up). He’s a thoughtful and curious songwriter whose songs are full of the nuances of humanity and real life, and he feels the tensions of the history-haunted south.

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her momma knew better

…I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through their burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton

I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Oh, the times ain’t forgotten

…I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation
I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation
I still have faith, but I don’t know why
Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes

(from “White Man’s World,” by Jason Isbell)

Isbell has found an audience beyond country music, and that audience is growing. “Doors are open to me and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna walk through ’em,” he says. “But I’m also gonna try to hold ’em for somebody else before they slam in their face. And at the very least, at the very least, discuss it with people.”

It’s a good image: holding the door open for somebody else. He sees what’s happening for him, and he recognizes others aren’t getting the same opportunity.

When I was in college, I took a class in Apologetics. I attended a fundamentalist Baptist university, and that class was part of the theology program. It was a large class, and I was one of only a few women. Apologetics is about how Christians answer hard questions, and I had lots of questions (that had something to do with why I took the class!). But I could sit forever with my hand in the air and never get called on by the (generally good natured) professor. He was never rude or unkind to me, but it was like my hand was invisible. After a few weeks of this, the student who sat behind me, Nate, started raising his hand if mine had been up a while. When the prof called on him, he’d act confused and defer to me to ask my question first.

He held the door open.

Later, in my first real job, I worked as the one-woman office staff for my pastor’s speaking ministry. I had a great relationship with both my pastor and my boss and a good relationship with the other men on the ministry’s board. When they decided to launch a national radio ministry, we began to work with an agency that produced and distributed many of the most well-known evangelical radio ministries. Things were still in development when the president of the agency, Jon, and I met at a conference, and we hit it off. He began to informally mentor me, and when it was time for him to fly in for his first meeting with the board, he asked if I would be in the meeting. I’d never been in a board meeting before, but it was clear Jon expected me to be there. My boss decided I could sit in a chair in the corner of the room and take notes.

Jon arrived, and after the introductions and greetings had gone around the room, he spoke up and said, “Before we get started, can we find another chair? I’d like to make room for Jennifer here at the table.” He shifted things around and held a chair for me right beside him.

He literally and figuratively made a place for me (the only woman in the room) at the table and was intentional about including me in the ensuing discussion.

When it was time for our people to fly out to California to meet with the agency production and distribution teams, Jon told them, “Don’t bother to come if you don’t bring Jennifer!” So off I flew. I learned a lot on that trip, and future board meetings included me. Jon saw I had something important to contribute, and the men started to listen when I spoke up.

Jon held the door open for me.

Doors don’t open the same for everyone. For some of us, generations of access to education and systems that were designed for our benefit turn a lot of doors into the kind that see us coming and slide open with a whoosh of anticipation. We hardly even know a door was there. But those doors don’t recognize everyone, and others of us have to exert a lot of effort to push and pry them open. Sometimes it just requires more than we have. And sometimes the doors are locked to us.

If I can pay attention and recognize the doors, if I can notice when those doors that open for me aren’t opening for someone else, that’s when I can hold the door for them.

And maybe if enough of us notice, we can get the doors re-programmed, or just take them out altogether.