Lemonade and Sponge Cake

Lemonade and Sponge Cake

When I was a child, a terrible thing happened to me. It wasn’t my fault and I had no control over it, but I was still left to find something to do with it – some way to survive. In my childish wisdom I decided that I could refuse to let it define who I was and that I did not have to let it affect my life. So I set it aside and ignored it, trying to live my life as though it had never happened.

That instinct wasn’t all bad – what happened to me indeed did not define me – but it was like trying to pretend I didn’t have a bad sprain, while the injured tendons and muscles continued to tear and never had the opportunity to heal. I ended up living a life adapted around the injury, designed to ignore the reality that something wasn’t right.

And that worked, until life required more of me than the damaged muscles or my work arounds could handle. I don’t know if my path of healing at that point was harder than it would have been when I was a child, I just know it was necessary, particularly if I was going to live a life that truly isn’t defined or restricted by my traumas.

I thought of that this morning as I listened to an interview on the radio and the woman being interviewed said something: “Life is full of suffering and disappointments; the art of living is to use them to make something that nourishes others.” (Those may not be all her exact words, but that was the gist of it.) She was explaining something she’d learned from her grandmother who, when an egg fell out of her overstuffed refrigerator and broke, would respond by exclaiming, “Ah! Today we will make sponge cake!”

I like the story, and the lesson the granddaughter took from it. It’s a better metaphor than the one I’m more familiar with, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That one has never worked so well for me, the lifelong lover of pickles and lemons and things tart and sour. Lemons aren’t necessarily bad; lemons keep things interesting. And the downright bad things? The “manure” of life? I realized a long time ago that while it might be useful to help flowers grow better, it’s no less manure for that and it’s only helpful to name it as such.

But broken things, lost things, things I had hopes and plans for? Those I’ve had to work on what to do with.

That egg I’d meant for breakfast, with bacon, now I need to learn how to make sponge cake with it.

And I’ve worked at that – with a good deal of success. There’s little in my life today that looks anything like I dreamed years ago (though I do get to live in a wonderful city, and I always dreamed of that!), but I love my life and the people in it. As my dreams broke or disappointed me, I learned how to make new dreams. They don’t feel like settling, either.

While I don’t have children of my own to invest in and pour my life into, I’ve discovered that gives me a freedom to invest in others and their children, sometimes in ways that are riskier than those with families can afford. And my perspective on what is good for all children doesn’t have a trade-off with what’s “best” for my own, even theoretically.

Is it the same? Of course not. But that’s the point – it’s a different kind of purpose with its own meaning.

There are ways this world expects us to use our lives to nourish others. Mostly, it expects us to nourish those who are our own – our children, spouse, parents, siblings. I don’t have the first two, and the later are doing well without much help from me beyond a listening ear. And so I am free to use my life to try to nourish those who are not already mine. Those who are different from me in all kinds of ways.

The LGBTQ+ community calls this “chosen family,” and that gets at some of it. But it’s something beyond that as well. I can risk what I have for the friend who is working to change the world, and I can risk for the stranger as well. Of course I have chosen family, people I’m close to and share life with, but I am free to give beyond that circle. I actually believe we can all be free to give and risk beyond us and ours.

The lemons and broken eggs of life can either cause us to double down on protecting our own, or they can give us an opportunity to make something nourishing for others.

And lemonade and sponge cake sound like a wonderful offering for company – neighbors, strangers, maybe even new friends.

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Finding Justice in Voting

Finding Justice in Voting

I don’t think we have a vision for what racial justice in America would actually look like. At least, I haven’t, and I’m sure I’m far from the only one.

I always believed racial justice looked like each person accepted and judged for who they are and what they’ve done regardless of the color of their skin. And maybe that particular vision would reflect justice more accurately if it’s where we’d started from – if that’s how it had always been.

But it’s not. And that vision of justice tries to erase history, as if each day and each person starts with a clear slate rather than one filled with the scribblings and scratchings and scriptures of those who have gone before.

The history that’s gone before – the good, the bad, the biased, and the bigoted – is part of each of us. We bring it with us into community, faith, politics, family. And because we’ve always carried it, we can’t see it clearly – or sometimes at all. But it still shapes (determines, even) what our ideas about justice and fairness look like.

As I was taught is true of the Bible, “Context is king” for justice as well. I’ve been asking myself what would a context of justice in America look like?

We would need black and Native American and Asian and Latinx voices and decisions in the foundations – in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Black and native men and women would have been shaping education, finance, industry, religion – all the structures of society. But instead, they were silenced, and what we have was shaped and prescribed almost exclusively by centuries of white male voices and decisions.

That foundation matters. Inviting people of color and women to participate in white male systems isn’t justice. The rules are already set, and they were designed for white men to flourish. Everyone else starts the game at a disadvantage. If it were Monopoly, white men would already own all the property on the board before anyone else even started to play. They set the terms for admission, they wrote the rules, they decided how the game is won.

Where’s the possibility of justice in that?

The rules of the game have to change, and the way it’s played. New voices need to write new rules, and new players need a real way to catch up. The board has to change if there’s going to be a chance for justice to take hold.

And some of us are going to need to step back, shut our mouth, sit on our opinions, and listen to those who have been silenced if we’re ever going to cleanse the windows of our souls enough to even see justice for what it should be, much less contribute to it.

Maybe if, for the next fifty years, no white people could vote. And then white women could vote, but white men would need to wait another hundred years. Maybe then we’d have a shot at an America that would be truly just. An America actually shaped by all her people.

Can you see it? I’m trying to, but it’s not easy. It flies in the face of everything I was taught to value about my voice, my vote, and how important that is – critical, even.

But I can’t get past the need to at least see – to have a vision for what actual justice in America would look like. It’s not a utopian vision. It’s not Dr. King’s dream, as beautiful as that vision is. It’s not all about achieving a particular outcome. It’s about the justice of the journey. It’s about giving those who had no choice in what they were forced to build for others a chance to rebuild for themselves, for all of us.

And it’s not going to happen. I know that. White men and women are not going to give up their votes en masse for generations. And in light of that, the best thing I know to do is to give my vote to a person of color – to vote the way they direct me even, especially, if it makes me uncomfortable.

The highest thing I can do with my vote as a white woman is to use it to represent the voice of someone other than myself, someone whose voice has historically been silenced, discredited, devalued.

So I’m listening to native people, and Asian and Latinx and black people – especially to the women. I’m listening to particular people, some I know personally and some I do not, and I’m voting for their concerns and interests as they themselves understand them. I’m supporting the candidates they are supporting, with my money and voice as well as my vote.

It’s what I can do.

It’s what you can do, too. It’s not easy, though. It’s not easy to let go of something we were taught is sacred. But I think perhaps my vote may only become sacred if I can loosen the grasp my own interests have on it and let it truly serve justice.

Cursing a Vigil

Cursing a Vigil

It was a vigil. A candlelight vigil for a seventeen year old black young man who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

The week after the verdict came back guilty in the officer’s trial, a friend of mine hosted the vigil at her small church in the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Her church is part of a coalition of churches in the area who came together to promote racial justice when a woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her shirt was harassed at a local park. They wanted to remember Laquan McDonald as more than a symbol, and stand with his family and friends in their grief at his loss.

No verdict can bring him back.

The church where the vigil was held meets in a train station in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a lovely spot in the center of a small park filled with trees with a picturesque wrought iron fence around it. I arrived early and was startled to see bright royal blue plastic bunting tied to every post in the fence and an apparently semi-permanent sign firmly attached next to the sidewalk that said “Blue Lives Matter.” I wondered if all this was normally there (it wasn’t), or had just been put there because of our vigil (it had). As I walked up the path to the train station, every tree was wrapped in the blue plastic bunting.

It wasn’t subtle. Far from it.

Laquan McDonald had just turned seventeen when he was killed. Raised mostly by his great-grandmother until her death, he’d talked of becoming a nurse. He was back in school and had a part-time job learning to rehab properties. He liked working with his hands. He loved his little sister fiercely.

He was like my brothers, yours kids, our nephews – if they had the early childhood trauma of a mother struggling with addiction and abusive foster homes, if they grew up in a violent neighborhood with poor schools and few opportunities where people survive by self-medicating with readily available street drugs, if they had the symptoms and struggles common to those who suffer with PTSD.

His family loved him like we love our kids – by age five he was living with his great-grandmother, with a large extended family nearby. His mother worked to get her life on track and built a loving relationship with her son. His family misses him – like we would miss our kids.

In the face of obstacles I can barely imagine, Laquan was a kid trying to survive and find his way to a good life.

We met to remember Laquan, to pray for his family, and to pray for change in the system that resulted in his death.

And that was something part of the community could not stand.

When we walked outside with candles lit, the men (I saw no women) gathered along the edge of the small park began to yell. “SHUT UP, B****!” I heard that more than once above the blare of truck horns. They’d lined the block with trucks (some had more signs) and set of all their alarms. It was meant to be threatening, and it was. Particularly to the handful of black women who drove in from their neighborhoods to join us.

I kept wondering, what are these men so afraid of?

When I listen to friends who are concerned that “Blue Lives Matter,” they are worried that we are minimizing the risks police officers take in the course of doing their jobs. But our society clearly believes that the lives of police officers matter. We protect them with body armor and armored vehicles. We give them weapons to use and latitude to use them – batons, Tasers, guns. And when officers are killed in the line of duty, we honor them with funeral parades, salutes, and memorials.

(Where are the memorials for young black women and men who should still be alive?)

In the only interview he has given, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald said something that gave me chills. He said, “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

It’s something I’ve heard again since the verdict in interviews with other officers and representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s part of the reason for our vigil after the verdict.

I suspect it’s a large part of the reason those men yelling expletives at us are so afraid.

Norwood Park is 80% white (down from over 90% in 2000) and home to many of Chicago’s police and firefighters. They see a colleague convicted and going to jail for doing what they consider to be his job, and it scares them.

The power to kill makes them feel safer (and we wonder why gun violence is so prevalent on Chicago’s west and south sides), and that power is being threatened by outside accountability and consequences.

And so they cursed a prayer vigil. They beat their chests and roared their roars and blared their horns and tied their blue bunting in a message that could not have said more clearly, “Our lives matter more than Laquan McDonald’s.”

Which is why we must continue to insist – Black Lives Matter, too.

Laquan’s life mattered.

Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater Majors. It’s not like being raised by wolves, but in that context….

People usually either laugh or look confused or bemused when I tell them. But it’s true.

After being largely rejected by my peers through elementary, the beginning of seventh grade was no improvement. I attended a private Christian school, an elementary and high school that was owned by our church and shared a campus with the large Baptist university it also owned. Seventh grade was the first year of junior high, and we shared a building on campus with the high school.

Seventh grade began for me with the same survival strategy that had gotten me through elementary: reading through lunch and pretty much everything else. But after a few months, I found myself sharing a table with another lunch-reader, a junior named Lisa. She was new to the school, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing book recommendations and her dad’s amazing oatmeal cookies.

Lisa’s older sister was a theater minor at the university, and their family lived only a couple of blocks from campus. By eighth grade I was part of the family, and Lisa and I were hanging out with her sister’s music and theater friends. When Lisa graduated and enrolled in the university, my entire social life moved with her.

I spent four years of high school (and then most of college) in the world of those theater kids (young adults, really), and to an awkward teenager, they were talented, glamorous, confident – everything I wasn’t. But more importantly, they were kind.

It was a season of years when the university’s theater program was thriving with an excellent faculty and some amazingly talented students. I saw musicals, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Chekhov, among others. I learned every note of the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. I loved it all, absorbing other lives in other worlds.

But even more important than the escape of the plays and the songs, those theater students welcomed me as one of their own and gave me a space to begin to figure out who I was.

I’ve thought about them a lot over the past few years. As I’ve sung the songs I learned with them at Show Tunes night at Sidetrack in Boystown, and as I’ve walked alongside Christian gay friends and their wives as they unpacked their faith and undone their marriages to recreate their lives and families.

I’ve thought of all the stories they were trying to pour into those plays. All the things they had to keep in. How much we learned to hide. So many of them were gay. Not that they told me then, and I chose not to speculate – I saw the damage that could do. But as we’ve reconnected on Facebook, and I’ve seen many of them out, finally living out loud, I haven’t been surprised. I’ve been glad, and grateful.

And in retrospect, the journey my own life has taken over the past several years shouldn’t have been so surprising. Thirty years ago, I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors – gay and straight, creating a family that welcomed outcasts and gave them (me) a place to grow up, a place to be ourselves that was probably as safe as we could make it in our context.

They lived in inherent tension – all of the contradictions are there in the description: fundamentalist Baptist theater majors. And I learned to be at home in that space – however ironically, to feel safe there in a way I imagine many of them never could. But they gave that gift to a “kid sister” who showed up one day in need of a family.

I grew up with preacher boys and theater kids, sometimes one and the same, and when I look around at Gilead on Sunday evenings, I see the same kinds of folks. Only now no one needs to hide a thing.

Radical Welcome

Radical Welcome

Welcome others as you have been welcomed. That’s right up there with “Love others as you have been loved.” (John 13:34, my paraphrase)

It’s a bit harder though when you haven’t been welcomed yourself first. I’ve always wondered and struggled with that. I was so definitively not welcomed by classmates and peers growing up, and it was agonizing years of unrelenting rejection. By nature, I’m almost a pure extrovert, but I was so isolated for so long, I spent years functioning as an introvert to survive. It was an experience that taught me to assume I’m not really welcome, which can make it hard to realize I am.

You’d think that, knowing how it is to be on the outside, I’d be all the more welcoming of others as a result, but it hasn’t always worked that way.

Sometimes my natural extroversion exerts itself and I welcome all comers with a more-the-merrier enthusiasm. But other times I fight an instinct to raise the drawbridge behind me and repeat the pattern of exclusion that kept me on the outs for so many years. And far too often, I struggle to feel like I have the right to welcome others – like I’m still a guest and only have probationary status at best. It’s not always easy to find the space inside of me that knows how to welcome others.

It’s hard to move yourself from outsider status to belonging. It’s something we need help from others with.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

Late each Sunday afternoon I head the two blocks east to a neighborhood bar where Gilead Chicago meets, a quirky bar church where we tell each other our stories, sing pop anthems like hymns, and welcome all sorts (including a surprising – or maybe not – number of former seminarians who weren’t sure they could ever feel really good about church again).

It’s a place where I’m learning more about welcome, but it’s not the only one. Most of the places that have taught me the most about welcome have been queer spaces to one degree or another. The LGBTQ storytelling night I go to each month. The classic Episcopal church in my old neighborhood where the gay families came around me as my own family began to reject my faith and life. Gilead.

There’s a common experience of being outsiders that is shared in those spaces, and with it, a radical welcome. Conservatives (including me when I was one) often complain that they aren’t welcome or tolerated in these spaces, and thus dismiss them as hypocritical. It feels clever, like playing a trump card, but I’ve come to realize it’s an exercise in missing the point.

Every community gathers around something, and these communities gather around a radical welcome. If you are unwilling to extend that radical welcome as well, you have excluded yourself.

It’s like a baseball enthusiast wanting to join a soccer league in order to play with baseball’s rules, and then complaining that no one will play ball with them.

It’s disingenuous at best, gross presumption at worst.

Radical welcome excludes no one, but it also doesn’t include everyone, because it leaves room for some to exclude themselves. It wouldn’t be very radical otherwise.

Ironically, it was fundamentalist separatists who first taught me that, with their insistence that God’s love welcomes all, but that those who persist in false beliefs exclude themselves. They removed themselves from all who held and acted on such beliefs –hence the identification as “separatists.”

That’s something Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t walk away from anybody, turned no one away – even the ones with good reputations who would only come secretly at night (John 3). And the one outsider he tried to turn away? She called him on it and he changed his tune (Matthew 15). Everyone was welcome with Jesus – including the scandalous, but many walked away.

It broke his heart, but he let them.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

So many people still need that radical welcome of Jesus, and the only way they’ll ever know a welcome like that is if it comes from you and me. “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” as the poem says.* I’m grateful for those who’ve given me such welcome. They continue to challenge me to broaden my own welcome of others.

And I ache for the day when no one any longer feels the misguided need to exclude themselves.

 

*Usually misattributed to Teresa of Avila, the poem is actually the cumulative work of a Methodist minister and young Quaker woman in the late 1800’s.

Obscene Generosity

Obscene Generosity

God loves with obscene generosity.

The lengths God is willing to go to, the depths God is willing to stoop to – time and time again it baffles, even offends, those who think they know God. Ninevites are loved, prostitutes, pagans, drunkards, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, terrorists. The wrong people. The wrong kind of people.

Whatever else they are or were, they are other. Outsiders to whatever inside we’ve laid claim to. Normal; perverted. Legal; criminal. White; black. Civilized; uncivilized. Smart; foolish. Spiritual; worldly. Clean; dirty. Legitimate; illegitimate. We’re right; they’re wrong.

Yet God forgives them and blesses them and talks to them and hangs out with them. God likes them.

And it kills us. Because we want to believe we’re special.

And we are.

But so are they. They aren’t like us and they are special. Those other people who missed the boat, who get it all wrong, who mess up and hurt other people and make bad choices. (Or just choices that aren’t the ones we’d make.) Who are for whatever reason just the wrong people.

We want a “but…” on that. But…they repented. But…they changed. But…it wasn’t their fault. But…they were deceived. But…they learned. Maybe they did or do or will or were, but that’s not the point of why and how God loves.

If there were ever a foolish lover, it’s God. Loving those who turn their back again and again and again. Loving those who don’t get it, who assume they are just that lovable. Loving the selfish, in it for what they get. Loving the hurt and angry, who lash out when you get too close. Loving the ones who push away. Loving the ones who don’t care, who don’t want your love. Loving the ones who are too busy. And loving them all beyond reason or what is reasonable. This is no measured love – it’s impetuous and inappropriate.

It’s just too much!

It crosses all kinds of lines, how God loves. It’s not reasonable. The priorities are all over the place. It’s indiscriminate, wasteful, disorderly, prodigal. It even crosses the lines we understood God drew!

It makes us so uncomfortable. Maybe not in theory, where, after all, we can readily affirm that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” But in practice?

Yogi Bera is quoted as saying, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” And it’s so deeply true. Theory stays safely abstract – love stays safely abstract. But when we actually see the obscenely generous love of God at work, in practice?

It disgusts us.

“That’s just the easy way.” “Shameless!” “Oh come on, you’re smarter than that!” “I can’t believe you’d even consider it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of that disgust. I even remember feeling it myself at times, that profound disapproval of others who I believed were foolish at best, defiant at worst.

We don’t want something that’s so easily given. Its “cheap,” we say, “You’re too easy.”

As if God could do anything that isn’t priceless. Some things are of such immeasurable value that they can only ever be gifts.