Accumulating a Life

Accumulating a Life

I read an interview recently about how small, seemingly inconsequential biases can accumulate to create larger inequalities. Each time a man repeats and gets credit for a woman’s ideas in a meeting because we hear men differently. Each time a black child’s behavior is reprimanded more harshly than a white child’s because we see black children differently without even realizing it. Each time a job applicant is not pursued because of an ethnic name and our preference for the familiar. Small individual acts (“micro-aggressions”) add up to big impacts on both individuals and organizations.

Systems of wealth and credit, education, and the legal system all collect both privileges and discriminations, however small, into cumulative effects. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the impacts cross generations.

It’s a theory that helps us understand how racism and sexism function long after those explicit attitudes may have fallen out of fashion and faded. But it also helps explain much that that is beautiful and good.

Life itself, after all, is an “accumulation mechanism.” Each day builds on those that have gone before it. Each choice, for better or worse, wears the grooves of habit into our character and personality. Evil and hate and fear grow because of what we add to them. Love and kindness and beauty intervene because we do.

Our lives and our world become what we make them because of two things: what we add to them, and what we accumulate with.

So many decisions, acts, and words make up our lives – from what time I get up in the morning to how I great my neighbor on the sidewalk. What I spend, what I eat, whether I take the elevator or the stairs. What I choose to be intentional about and what goes on autopilot – and what kind of habits I’ve loaded into that autopilot. But things I have no control over make up my life as well – from what time the sun rises to how my neighbor greets me.

And there were things given to me before I even knew it that make up my life today. The genes and words of my parents, and their parents. The choices of teachers and friends and strangers, both living and long gone.

So many things come to me whether I chose them or not. But what I can begin to choose along the way is how I receive those things – how I sort them into meaning and significance, and whether I hold onto them or release them.

Consciously and unconsciously, we choose what to collect both of our own actions and the actions of others’. We sift words and acts, holding onto some and releasing others to oblivion. Much of this is unconscious. Early in life, the voices of family and authority – tempered by personality – teach us what to keep and what to ignore, and those filters function with a strong confirmation bias throughout our lives.

But life itself also gives us opportunities to flush out some systems and accumulate differently. Each day is new. Forgiveness and release can transform what has collected. Meaning can be reassessed and rewritten. And while we may never truly start from scratch again, we can change what we are accumulating.

That’s true for each of us as individuals, and it’s also true for us as a society. But that’s harder.

Because the filters that let some of us keep good things make others lose them. And the systems that give some of us room to make mistakes and grow don’t give others those same opportunities. Too many of us are only concerned with how the mechanisms for accumulation work for us, and we insist they must be working the same way for everyone else.

Principles can be deceiving. In theory, they work the same for everyone. But while in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice, there is. Principles have to be judged by their real impact across the board, on a broad range of individuals and an array of different situations.

Too often, in our lives and in our society, the most vulnerable are sacrificed – the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and the most vulnerable among us. And too often, we don’t even want to know it’s happening, so we let the accumulation mechanisms keep running without asking if we really want what they are collecting. If what it’s building are really our best selves and our best world.

Our best selves and our best world are worth building, if we can find the courage to try.

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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.

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

“But what if you’re wrong?”

It’s the question that characterized the religious context I lived most of my life in more than maybe any other. It has its corollary in, “Are you sure you’re right?” and both questions brought into focus what was most important to that community, and by extension to God: we dare not risk being wrong. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Countless preachers urged us not to trust them, but to “search the Scriptures” for ourselves. It wasn’t a responsibility to be passed on to anyone else.

We wanted to be faithful – to love God and obey him and stay as far from sin as possible. The constant questioning of ourselves, of our motives and our thinking, was meant to keep us safe.

More often it kept me frozen – “But what if you’re wrong?”

That question was never more present or profound to me as it was in the days and months when I began to intentionally explore the “issue” of LGBTQ+ Christians.

It was actually the very question that drove me to ask more – “But what if I’m wrong?” I’d been raised by folk for whom that subject was settled absolutely. The Bible was “clear,” and sex was created for marriage between a man and a woman. Period. And they didn’t just believe that, they argued for it loudly and publicly, vehemently attacking the “gay agenda” and “gay lifestyle.”

And while the methods often felt misguided to me, I shared the underlying conviction and straightforward sexual ethic.

But…what if we were wrong? What if, as much as we were seeking to be faithful, there was something we were missing?

I’d been in churches that welcomed those who “struggled with same-sex attraction” in non-coercive ways that were full of grace and patience and hope (and I’d received much healing in various areas of my own life in those communities), but what if there was more? What if we were still missing something?

So when I was introduced to a community of people who were working to build bridges between the LGBTQ+ community and conservative evangelical churches, I got involved. I asked lots of questions of pastors who’d had a change of heart and mind, and I listened to scores of stories from LGBTQ+ people. Some of those stories were told publicly, and some of them were entrusted to me privately. They all changed me.

I realized something was very much missing – we were not loving real people, with their real lives that don’t neatly fit our “biblical” prescriptions. It wasn’t an “issue” for me anymore, it was people. I heard too many stories of rejection by families, condemnation by church communities, and suicide attempted. (The stories of successful suicides are all second hand.)

I was introduced to a very different reality than I’d seen before: the ugly, deeply rotten fruit of traditional church teachings on sexuality. And when the fruit is persistently bad, something is terribly wrong with the tree. Something needs to be reconsidered or even thrown out altogether.

But…what if I was wrong? I’d studied the biblical texts – original languages and contexts. I knew that there were good arguments that those texts decrying same-sex sexual activities shouldn’t be read in the traditional ways. But those arguments weren’t water-tight. They raised questions, but didn’t seem conclusive.

My mind and heart had shifted, but these different possibilities in the text felt shaky to stand on. I could never be sure I was right about them.

I found a mentor in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was deeply committed to non-violence and yet entered into a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was captured and executed a few weeks before Nazi regime collapsed.

In his vast writings on Christian ethics, Bonhoeffer observes that there are times when what is required to keep your conscience clear and what is required to love your neighbor contradict. In that contradiction, it is better to bear guilt yourself in order to love your neighbor.

As I looked at the lives of my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who had found acceptance and affirmation of all of who they are in affirming churches (and more importantly, in their own hearts before God), I saw the fruit of their lives blossoming – love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. 

Looking at the life of Jesus, I realized that maybe we’d been missing the point. Jesus was far more concerned with loving people than with getting it “right” – or even with them getting it right. The Samaritan woman at the well who was concerned about the right way to worship God. Hungry disciples on a Sabbath walk through a wheat field. A woman condemned by the religious leaders for adultery. Outsiders casting out demons in his name.

Even if I was wrong, if I was missing something, I was no longer willing to risk their lives on the altar of being right, whatever the cost to me.

I’ve never regretted that decision. And as time has passed, I have only become more convinced that God’s heart for his LGBTQ+ children is love and complete affirmation and inclusion in the community of his followers. He has called them “clean” and we are in defiance of his Spirit when we insist otherwise.

I don’t believe I’m wrong. But if I am? LGBTQ+ folk are being invited into the embrace of the love of God, and his Spirit is quite capable of guiding them into any change he desires, regardless of their sexuality and/or orientation. If I am wrong? LGBTQ+ youth in our churches will know they can live, loved as they are by God and his people.

If I am wrong? Their lives are worth it.

Let Your Yea Be Yea

Let Your Yea Be Yea

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of two days, pretty much everyone in the church felt betrayed by Eugene Peterson, a man whose life and work as a pastor has deeply impacted and formed so many of us. He is a prolific writer, and everything I’ve ever read from him – whether it was about discipleship, or theology, or ministry, or even his translation of the Bible, The Message – came out of a pastor’s heart. As I worked on my own Master of Divinity degree and considered my own work in pastoring (something that, while I’ve never held the title, I’ve found is nonetheless part of my life), Eugene Peterson has been a significant model for me.

On Wednesday, Peterson affirmed that if he were pastoring today he would perform a same-sex marriage if asked to by Christians of good faith, and millions of Christians who are convinced the Bible condemns same-sex relationships felt betrayed. On Thursday, he reversed that affirmation, and LGBTQI+ believers who have fought for their faith felt betrayed.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop carrying all of his books, including The Message. LifeWay is the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” they said, by which they mean “our interpretation of the biblical view of marriage.” LifeWay has a lot of weight, and they are willing to throw it around.

And on Thursday, Peterson retracted his earlier statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I can only imagine what it is to be Eugene Peterson, and I don’t know why he did what he did. He’s 84 and has spent his lifetime trying to live faithfully as a pastor and a pastor of pastors. I continue to love him, and respect him in many ways.

But he doesn’t get a pass from me on this. I don’t expect him to be perfect, and I don’t expect him to have everything figured out. But I do expect him to take responsibility for his words. All of them.

Particularly their pastoral implications on the real lives of real people who are rejected and ostracized by the church every day.

When I was in grade school, I was the opposite of popular. I was bullied – overtly rejected and ostracized day in and day out. The other girls weren’t interested in playing with me, didn’t even want to be seen with me. But my parents were friends with some of their parents, and most of us went to church together. When our families were visiting, or we were alone for some reason, some of them would play with me. We would have a good time together. Sometimes they even seemed to actually like me – for a little while. Then we would be back at school and it was like those times never happened.

There was one girl in particular – she was one of the most popular. We both had to walk to where we would wait for our parents every day after school. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, and she agreed to let me walk with her, but told me I had to walk half a block behind or in front of her so she wouldn’t be seen with me. Once we arrived, we’d play and have fun together while we waited, but not if any other friends were around.

After college, I found myself at the same church with her, and we became friends. I asked her about it once. She didn’t even remember any of the things that were so painful to me. “All I remember,” she said, “is how afraid I was they would reject me.”

It gave me a certain sympathy for her – she’d been a child acting out of her own insecurities. She was too afraid of what others would think to be a friend to me, and she let those who would reject her control how she treated me, the one who was rejected every day.

Eugene Peterson is no child. Lives are at stake, and those lives aren’t those of straight conservatives with traditional views on gender and sexuality. LGBTQI+ kids in non-affirming communities have exponentially higher suicide rates than those in affirming communities. And every voice makes a difference.

We all have journeys. Change is a process, and it’s sometimes appropriate to honestly say, “I don’t know – I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s one thing to be in process. It’s another to say yes or no.

Either Wednesday was true, or Thursday was. Either way, Eugene Peterson owes an apology to the LGBTQI+ community.

The Biggest Picture

The Biggest Picture

It was a good question.

I was sitting in a friend’s living room with a dozen or so others, and we’d been talking about faith. One friend, Michael, isn’t religious, but in his vocation as a sign-language interpreter, he spends many Sundays in a variety of different churches. He listens more carefully than anyone I’ve ever known, and works hard to (literally) embody the words he translates, and all those sermons in all those churches had left him with a question.

“If God gave his people the Bible –inspired by him in some special way, and the Holy Spirit who dwells in every Christian gives you the ability to understand it, why do Christians understand it so differently? Why do you disagree about so much?”

As I said, it was a good question. One I’ve wrestled with for years.

I grew up in a staunchly fundamentalist family and in proudly fundamentalist churches and schools, but the deeper my relationship with God grew and the more I studied the Bible, the further I’d been drawn from that context. Where God was taking me gradually went from just different to contradicting many of the conclusions and beliefs of the faith that had nurtured me.

That was hard, emotionally as well as intellectually, and I wrestled with it.

Whether they are differences in denominations or theology, we who are Christians have very different understandings of the Bible. You can parse those out by philosophical commitments or cultural biases, by tradition or personal inclination or translation, but Michael’s question holds.

Why, with one Bible and one Spirit, do we believe and live so differently?

I don’t deny that some are reading wrongly, with unexamined commitments shaping their understanding of both what Scripture is and what it says. And some may well be defiantly disregarding the Spirit to do what they want with it.

But those explanations aren’t adequate. Not when people who love and are devoted to Jesus, whose lives show the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work, understand the Bible in such different – even opposing – ways.

I’ve seen that fruit in the lives of fundamentalists and in the lives of progressives. In the lives of Roman Catholics and in the lives of Baptists. In the lives of all kinds of people with contradictory theologies and convictions.

And I believe the witness of that fruit.

I do believe the same Spirit is at work in all of our lives. We all come from different places and are walking different journeys, and none of us are following perfectly. But following perfectly was never the point. We follow faithfully, doing our best, and God works.

I answered Michael’s question that night in the best way I knew how. I talked about my family and my own struggles with the same tensions and contradictions.

I do believe God’s Spirit is at work in both them and me, as well as in millions of other people who disagree with each other. I believe God has an end game bigger and better and more overflowing with goodness and justice and love than we can come anywhere near imagining.

We can barely catch glimpses of it from where we are. And we each come to those glimpses from such different places. But I believe Love is pulling it all together in the end, weaving what we see as contradictions into a tapestry that leaves no one out and nothing undone.

And here? Now? There are people, like my family, who are introducing people to the Love that is God that I could never reach. And, hopefully, there are people I’m helping to meet that Love who they could never make that connection with.

It’s not an easy hope, and it doesn’t resolve anything now. But I trust that there will ultimately be a resolution beyond all the ways we think about such things. That while contradictions are no illusion, there is Something bigger than the contradictions, and it’s going to make them irrelevant one day.

And I’m doing my best to trust Love and live into that future I can’t see yet.

Hidden Roots

Hidden Roots

The days when things felt good were the days when the systems of injustice and bias were already in the ground we walked on, the ground we built our homes and families and careers on. The ground we built our communities and churches and safety and sense of well-being on.

What we see happening – the rise of overt racism, the excusing of bigotry and bias, the anger of those who have borne it – these are not something new. They are the green shoots of those roots finally breaking the surface of the soil and showing themselves in the light of day.

We cut off the weeds of racism (or many of us thought we did), but we didn’t pull it up by the roots. And that root system spread. And because we didn’t see it above ground we thought all was well. We went about living our lives, even building good things, on ground that was pervaded with evil.

But the plants broke the surface of the soil again, here and there, and too many of us thought (think?), “The last vestiges.”

It’s far more than the occasional bad apple, far more than the isolated incidents we’d like to believe it is. Instead it is the outworking of the whole system of roots we’ve been building everything on all along.

Just because we were blind to it, didn’t realize, even meant well, doesn’t change the reality.

Yet we keep chopping at the weeds where we can see them, because we don’t want to think about what it would mean to dig everything up and clear the roots.

My folks live in the country (its suburban-ish country, but one of their neighbors is a horse farm with a rodeo, so…), and when my mother goes out to weed poison oak in their yard it’s no simple task.

It’s not the plants that are really the problem (though they are the reason she weeds with every inch of skin except her face covered), but the root system that produces them. It spreads from plant to plant, far deeper than you expect. And if you don’t get it all it spreads again.

The poison we see is the outgrowth of those roots. The poison hurts us and it needs to be cleared.

But the roots, the roots are under everything.

Telling Our Stories

Telling Our Stories

Last Monday, I went to a storytelling open mic in my neighborhood.

I heard stories of middle school crushes and bullies (sometimes they’re the same), of fighting through remarks from family and friends to love yourself the way you are, of becoming a clown (complete with the red nose) and realizing that openly listening to and engaging with others is a lost art, of an introvert whose extroverted mother thought letting her daughter’s friends kidnap her for a surprise slumber party was a great idea, of the unexpected connections that a political canvasser made with strangers. I even told a story of my own for the first time.

Then on Tuesday I went to OutSpoken, a monthly LGBTQ storytelling event that I never leave without feeling challenged and encouraged. There were stories of finding your own identity in the face of others’ assumptions, of bad dating decisions, of respecting where others are and still challenging them to learn. And there was a powerful story from an African-American woman in her seventies about owning her life again after being raped as a child. She named the childhood stolen from her, the mark left on her soul, and claimed her life and the girl inside her.

Stories have power. Words do things.

When we tell our stories, we shape our lives. The things other people told us about ourselves, the stories family gave us – they can all be rewritten into a story that is our own. As we tell our stories we begin to learn who we really are, and as we learn who we really are, we are freed to tell our stories.

But something else happens, too. When we tell our stories, we shape other people’s lives as well.

The crazy thing about telling our stories is that even as they are asserting our individuality and uniqueness, they are also confirming our common humanity. I’ve never heard someone else’s story without finding some sliver of myself in it, of my experiences or my feelings. And that openness to commonality with people very different from me has changed me.

I love Outspoken and identify with the stories told there. They are stories of standing on the outside – of family, religion, society. And even as a straight, cisgender woman, they resonate with me. I grew up as an outsider with my peers and – even though it took me many years to understand this – with the fundamentalist community of faith I called home. I continue to come to terms with what it means to belong to a community where you don’t fit, and Outspoken has become a safe place to explore that.

Even beyond Outspoken, storytelling communities are some of the most generous and accepting I’ve ever encountered. The story being told is always more than a performance – it’s a piece of someone’s life. It’s a community that values listening and encouragement, and applauds the courage to bring what you have. Storytelling is like the potluck of life. Whatever you bring will only expand the meal!

My life was opened up by the stories I read growing up – in the Bible and in so many other books. And the stories I encounter embodied by their tellers each month continue to draw me open in new ways. I feast as I listen and always walk away full.

I’ve barely begun learning to tell my own stories. I hope they teach me how.