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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The Children We Owned

The Children We Owned

When I was growing up, one of the things I loved about visiting my grandmother in West Virginia was when she would go to a cabinet in the front room and pull out a box. She’d open the box and very carefully take out a handmade, handwritten cloth-bound book. It was about thirteen inches tall, maybe eight inches wide, around two inches thick, and inside it’s cover, in penmanship that looked like it came off the Declaration of Independence, was the name of my great-great-great-great grandfather, James Fields.

James was a Virginian, a tobacco farmer and the son of a tobacco farmer. The book is a collection of math lessons. It’s full of tables and measures and problems, including:

30 Days hath September
April June and November
All the rest hath 31
Except February hath 28 alone
But when of Leap year it doth combine
the time when February hath 29
for February its fourth year doth Come
Does gain a day from the Traveling Sun

It was the back pages of the book that always fascinated me most. They include poems that were transcribed (poet unknown). Both are filled with Christian imagery and implore the reader to be faithful to Jesus. One stanza reads:

Sweet rivers of salvation
Through Canaan’s land doth role
Bright darling berms of glory
Illuminates my soul
As ponderous Crowns of glory
All set with diamonds bright
And there my smiling Jesus reigns
Who is my heart’s delight

The back pages also include a record of the births (and sometimes deaths) of James and his wife Elizabeth’s children. Beginning in 1815, they had eight children, with the last born in 1834.

Alongside the births of his own children, James also records the births of “black children” – slaves.

George born September 3rd 1826
Malinda born August 12th 1828
Ann born January 9th 1830
Mary born June 15th 1832
Stephen born September 20th 1834

Five additional children are listed as born to Malinda:

Charlotte Elliot born March 5th 1846
Berry Frank born July 29th 1848
Julias Gilpin born May 17th 1851
Sarah Ann born May 27th 1860
Robert Lee born January 14th 1864

That last name gets to me most. Little Robert Lee, born just over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation and fifteen months before his namesake’s surrender at Appomattox.

When I was younger, those names were not much more than a curiosity to me – few slave owners bothered to record slave births by name. I was captured much more by the reality that James Fields had created these pages with his own thoughts and hands, and that they had been preserved and passed down parent to child until they had reached me. It was like a string across nearly 200 years of history connecting me with my ancestor in a way that the abstraction of genetics never could.

The mythology of the South was what I knew – states’ rights, Northern aggression, the prevalence of a benign slavery, freedom from federal government interference, the high moral character of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

And like everything involving real people, the realities of the country, the war, and slavery are incredibly complicated.

But that mythology? It’s just that – myth. Slavery is always inherently violent, the South fought the war to defend it, and southern generals led that violent conflict. That strand that connects me through 200 years to my ancestors is a thread of violence woven through our whole history.

My family owned slaves – children – to the end, and they fought for Virginia and the Confederacy to defend their “right” to own those human beings.

I’m glad I know. Many people with southern roots don’t. I’ll not be ashamed of my family history – I’ll not hide it. I mourn what my relatives did, and what they believed that allowed them to record slaves births and celebrations of their faith in Christ on the same page. I am not proud.

It’s a heritage I’ve seen so clearly at work throughout my lifetime and especially today – that ability to hold tightly to a “Christian” faith and to the way things are at the same time.

I understand it because I lived it myself for so long, and no doubt there are tentacles of that belief still entwined in my life. Those tentacles are woven throughout America – North and South – as well, and too many are blind to them. But I will root them out and repent of them, every one I find, both in my own life and in this world.

Because if there’s a Jesus worth following, his work is to proclaim good news to all of us who still live in poverty of many kinds because of racism and the generational impacts of slavery and its successors. If there’s a Jesus worth following, he proclaims liberty to all of us who are held captive by the normativity of whiteness, and the recovery of sight for all who are blind to the air of white supremacy we breathe every day. And he sets free those whose lives are marked by the oppression of suspicion and violence because of the darkness of their skin.

I come from people who claimed ownership of other human beings to support their way of life, who fought to defend that practice, and who named an enslaved child after a general defending slavery. They were willing to die for it.

What am I willing to die for?

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 We Choose

The Life We Choose

Life is a funny thing. In so many ways, it chooses us. When we live, the family and communities we are born into, and where. The traditions we know, the language we learn.

We choose none of them and yet they form the foundation of who we are and how we see the world.

And for most people through most of history, that was it. Those parameters defined their lives, the choices available to them prescribed already.

But even the most constrained, I think, had to choose to live, choose to be awake to life. To seek beauty and goodness and faithfulness with each breath.

Born in this time, to my parents, in a place called the United States, I’ve had the privilege of more choices than most. The privilege to make choices for myself that matter. To choose where I live and how, to know that there is more to learn, and that what I believe need not be the same thing my parents believed.

In so many ways, a field of options has been opened before me.

But in all of those choices, I must still choose to live.

Near the beginning of the movie The Way, Martin Sheen’s character tells his son, “My life here might not seem like much to you, but it’s the life I choose.” His son replies, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

They are both right, of course. We make choices that shape our lives – our homes, families, work, education, worship, beliefs – but we must still choose to live them.
And choosing to live our lives goes far beyond those other choices we make.

There’s an embroidered sampler that hangs in my kitchen. It is the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

There is so much I cannot change.

The faith I was given as an infant, its names and symbols and stories. They are with me – embraced or abandoned, I must wrestle them. But I can choose the shape of my belief and how I live it out. I cannot choose what that faith has done in the world – done to the world – for good or ill, but I can choose what it will do in the world through me.

For the most part, I’ve had no choice in the people I meet. But I can choose who I seek to know, whose lives I invite to shape my own, who I choose to partner in the project of humanity with. And I can choose to put myself in places to meet new people, to learn new stories, to allow my vision of humanity to be expanded and changed.

I cannot choose who will accept or reject me, but I can choose who I accept or reject. I cannot choose who will love me, but I can choose who I will love.

I cannot choose the days that will be given me to live, but I can choose to live them, all of them. The ones filled with the choices I have made, and the ones filled with the choices others made for me, and the ones filled with things no one chose or we all chose in some amalgamated impossible way.

The ancient text presents a choice to the people: “Today I have placed before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Now choose life.”

It is the one choice we have every day, with every breath. Today. Whatever it brings to us or we bring to it, we can choose to live it, to the depth of our lungs and the tips of our fingers and the reaches of imagination and hope.

Now choose life. This life. Your life.

Whatever you do. Live.

My Father’s Voice

My Father’s Voice

I turned forty-five a couple of weeks ago. I’m fourteen years older than my father now. He died from ALS a month after my third birthday. He was just thirty-one.

I don’t remember the sound of my daddy’s voice, but I remember how it felt. He had a deep bass voice and a rounded, barrel chest I loved to snuggle into and lay my head on. I remember the feel of that rumbling bass.

I have other memories of him, but they are all the memories of a small child. The book he read me every night cuddled up on my Bambi sheets. (The same book. Every night. Buzzy, the Funny Crow.) Looking for him early one morning to get him up to make my breakfast, only to find him already in the kitchen at the stove. When he lost the strength to pick me up any more, but I could still crawl up into the big green recliner our church bought for him. The day he fell and couldn’t get up, and I went and got my big stuffed bear to put under his head while someone went to get the neighbor boy to help get him up.

There’s a short clip of tape from an interview the local news station did with him. I managed to find someone to record the reel to reel on VHS years ago. I only watched it once. He could only say a few words before he had to work to breathe for a few more. It hurt too much to hear – there was so little to recognize in his voice.

But there was one time I’ve heard his voice. It was around fifteen years ago, and I was working at the small, fundamentalist Bible college where my parents met. I was helping prepare for our big donor event of the year when my boss introduced me to an alumnus who was there to help with the decorating. We shook hands, and as he heard my name, a startled look crossed his face. “Are you Gene Ould’s daughter?” he asked, and when I said yes, he started to cry.

Will* had been in school with my folks in the 60s, and had known them even before they’d started dating. He’d been friends with Daddy, and they had long conversations in the dorm talking about life and theology – the things most college students talk about but with a good bit more Bible and religion in the mix.

Eventually, they also talked about the fact that Will was gay (though I doubt he used that word then, and when I knew him would describe himself as “same-sex attracted”). “Your daddy was the only person I told who didn’t treat me any differently,” he said with tears in his eyes. “He didn’t need to leave the door to his room open when I was there. He didn’t change the way he talked to me.”

And I heard it. I heard my father’s voice loving his friend, accepting him just as he was. I don’t know what my daddy thought about homosexuality – though it was the 60s, and I know he had a conservative sexual ethic. But I do know that whatever he thought it didn’t change the way he loved his friend.

Nothing anyone has told me about my father has ever meant more to me.

On my birthday this year I was surprised by a message from an old friend of my parents from those Bible college days, a man I knew as a child and haven’t seen or spoken to in over twenty years, though we’ve been connected on Facebook for a bit. He wrote to wish me a happy birthday and tell me how proud he is of what I’ve done with my blog. He talked about how Daddy was always asking questions and about his courage. And he said he was glad to see my father’s DNA in me.

My voice is my own. And my journey has gone far beyond where my daddy’s life allowed his to go. But I hope that somewhere in that undeniable DNA, when I speak, the echoes of my father’s voice still rumble in this world.

 

*Name changed    

Too Much to Bear

Too Much to Bear

“God won’t give you more than you can bear!”

No. Nonsense. Hogwash. As one of my heroes, Fr. George Clements, would say, bull excrement.

If you’ve ever personally told me something like this, I’m not holding it against you. I’ve learned to hear the care and desire to encourage it’s intended to express.

But…no. Just no.

God – or life – gives people more than they can bear everyday.

The ones bombarded and decimated by war, running from one nightmare to another? It’s too much to bear.

That child being molested by a trusted adult? It’s too much to bear.

The five year old whose mother just died? It’s too much to bear.

The child who knows their body doesn’t fit who they are, forced to pretend year upon year they are someone else? It’s too much to bear.

Those parents who lost their child in a terrible accident? It’s too much to bear.

The kid being vocally rejected, mocked, and bullied at school every day? It’s too much to bear.

The one watching their mother trapped in an abusive marriage by abusive religious rules? It’s too much to bear.

The litany could be endless. The things life does to us – the things we do to each other – can be unspeakably brutal. Adults and children in this world are given too much to bear every day. And it’s different for each of us – what destroys me may leave you relatively unscathed. But whatever the cause, pain, unrelieved, is too much to bear.

It crushes us. It kills something in us, part of who we are. Something goes dead to avoid the pain that is too much to bear.

Jesus felt it. In Gethsemane, praying again and again for relief, for a way out. But he didn’t get it. His friend betrayed him. He died excruciatingly, and in the end, while he didn’t lose his love for others or his compassion or his ability to forgive, he did lose his faith that God was with him.

It was too much to bear.

Even for Jesus.

The Bible says that eventually angels came and “ministered” to Jesus in Gethsemane. I don’t know what that means. I know it didn’t change anything. But maybe, when his friends fell asleep on him, it just helped not to be alone.

Too many of us stay alone – because either no one comes or because we’ve been so hurt we refuse to let anyone get that close.

But we can try. We can try to stay with each other.

And then there’s Jesus’ resurrection three days later. Too many people never get that either. Never get to feel the pleasure of the breath of life filling every inch of their lungs again. Never get to feel a heart beating for all it’s worth again.

But sometimes they do. Sometimes things that were dead come alive again. Too many times they don’t, but they can. We can hope for that, if we can bear to. And we can work for it.

The longer I live the more I think that if Love and Life show up in the face of what is too much to bear, in the face of all the deaths, it’s because we show up for each other and bring them.

Because, yeah – sometimes it’s just too damn much to bear.

The Shapes and Spaces of Love

The Shapes and Spaces of Love

Love changes us, or at least it does me.

Being loved has changed me. It’s helped me recognize who I am and dive deeper into who I’m meant to be. Seeing myself as capable of inspiring love, regardless of how life may get in the way, has been profound.

It’s impossible to quantify, but sometimes it feels like loving has changed me even more.

Loving someone makes room in my heart for them, a space that grows to accommodate and welcome a particular person. And the thing is, that’s not a generic space – it’s a space uniquely shaped to who they are. Other things get adjusted and changed to make room as the space takes shape.

And it goes beyond the person themselves.

I notice things I would have missed before. I ask different questions – of myself as well as of the world. I’m continually inspired to try to see things through a different perspective that is not my own.

And in the process, how I see changes. What I see changes, and how I understand it. I’m stretched and grow into – not someone else – but someone who is both a broader and a deeper me. I become more myself in ways I never imagined, and I find things in myself I never knew were there. I love that journey (even while it’s scary as anything).

Venturing into love is always stepping out into the unknown. It will always show us things we didn’t know about ourselves and the world. And all those things won’t be pretty.

I’ve discovered things within myself I’ve wanted to look away from and forget, but love means facing them and dealing with them, as hard as that may be. I’ve encountered things in our world, things that wound and shape others, things that should never be. But love doesn’t look away. Love steps up and steps in closer to embrace it all.

Kiss the demons and name their lies.

But I also discover profound beauty, both in myself and others. Strength, kindness, generosity of spirit, courage, forgiveness, hope, longing. Minds that are dreaming a better world and turning those dreams into reality.

Love is always an adventure. If you’re in it for an outcome you already have all the architectural drawings for? Well…then you’re in love with an idea that’s dead. Life is always changing – growing and fading and creating something new along the way.

Love creates shapes and spaces that weren’t there before. It recreates our lives and it recreates the world. We can enter and embrace that with wonder or with fear (mostly we can’t help but have a mix of both).

But if we can let the wonder win out…the possibilities of the journey are glorious.