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.


Prophecy and Patterns

Prophecy and Patterns
When I was a kid, every classroom I was in had maps and charts that pulled down in front of the blackboard at the front of the room. Whether it was a Sunday School room or a classroom at the Christian school I attended, there was one chart I remember seeing most. It was a timeline of history that focused on the end of time – the “tribulation,” as we called it.

I grew up in the heart of Dispensationalism. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. We didn’t often talk about it by name. We just read the Bible the “right” way and “took it at its word.”

Dispensationalism was the first attempt at constructing a “biblical theology” – which doesn’t mean a theology based on the Bible so much as a theology which takes the whole Bible into account. But what we focused on most was “eschatology” – the study of the end times, particularly from the book of Revelation.

Dispensationalist eschatology tells a story, and a gripping story at that (as the success of the “Left Behind” series of books that was based on it illustrates).

There will come a time when a political leader will arise who is the very antithesis of Jesus – the “Antichrist.” He will convince people, including the people of God, that he is committed to their interests, and they will be grateful for him. But there are forces of evil behind him, and the people of God (along with everyone else) will be destroyed, except a remnant of those who resisted him and will be saved by Jesus in the end.

The Antichrist is a deceiver and manipulator who presents himself as a savior. But he is a false savior who is the very opposite of Jesus.

In the version of Dispensationalism I was taught, all the true believers would be raptured up into heaven before things got that bad, but the “rapture” isn’t part of the story Revelation tells.

The Antichrist was the boogeyman of my childhood, which is not to make light of him. He was (and is) a deeply scary figure to be taken very seriously.

Which is why I have been baffled to see so many of the folks who taught me about him support or at least defend Donald Trump over the past months.

I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Antichrist who brings about the end of days. The Bible speaks of multiple antichrists – false saviors – who will come. And Revelation is a unique genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature,” which should not be understood as straightforward prophecy in symbolic language.

More than a road map for the End, Revelation is describing a pattern for how God’s people – as well as everyone else – will be deceived and destroyed. Such leaders have come before, and they will come again.

I’ve just never seen a political figure in my lifetime fit that pattern like Trump. In his personal behavior, leadership, and in the powers behind him, what I was warned about is clearly on display, supported and defended by the very people who warned me. (And he hasn’t even tried very hard to cater to them.) He is a deceiver, ready to turn justice, right, and truth upside down and inside out to serve his own interests.

I don’t believe we are fated to see the pattern play out, though.

The other message of the Book of Revelation, the more central message, in whatever way you interpret the book, is that Jesus is King. Jesus is the Victor.

Jesus is the good news in a book full of dire warnings and deadly news.

And the people the Bible calls “the Body of Christ,” those who are willing to be “little Christs” (the original meaning of the word “Christian”) in this world, can be that good news in the face of any Antichrist that shows up.

Defending the voiceless and the vulnerable. Speaking truth in the face of power and privilege. Standing up for the kind of love Jesus exemplified – “to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19 quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).

The pattern will always repeat. But so does the good news.

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.

The Problem of Identity Politics

The Problem of Identity Politics

There’s been a lot of discussion since the election about “identity politics.” Political pundits both Democrat and Republican as well as ordinary folk are discussing the “failure” of identity politics.

I have come to see this differently.

The problem with “identity politics” is not that it goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough.

Those of us who are white have experienced our race as a neutral, and we have trouble connecting to the reality that the experiences of people of other races in this country is very different. Our race doesn’t matter to us (most of us, at least); why does it need to matter so much to others? It can look like they’re creating an issue unnecessarily.

But that’s actually the blindness of our position. Society hasn’t forced us to be constantly aware of our race, to shape our lives around it. We haven’t had to be be hyper vigilant about the impressions others have of our race.

Identity politics fails when it oversimplifies the experiences of an identity – when it fails to acknowledge that every person has the experiences of multiple identities intersecting in different ways.

The benefits I have because I am white and straight intersect with my experience of being treated a certain way because I’m a woman. And there are differences in the spaces I occupy as a woman – my female identity meant something different in the fundamentalist church culture I grew up in than it did in the Republican congressional campaign I worked in during college.

Other friends experience much more complicated intersections – a bisexual, black, Christian woman; a Hispanic, gay man. There are countless intersections and experiences, and it’s important to keep space for those different experiences, while understanding strategically where there are cultural and systemic issues at play with particular identities.

One problem with identity politics is that we (whites) think they are about other people. We don’t want to acknowledge our privilege (which we didn’t ask for) or accept the responsibilities that go with it, responsibilities to use a privilege we can’t simply divest ourselves of to benefit those who don’t share it (something that take humility and continual learning).

Identity politics fails when we allow it to stereotype others. It succeeds when we let it show us that others’ experiences are not only different from our own, but also different than we understand them to be.

At its best, identity politics doesn’t depend on stereotyping and setting different groups of people in antagonist positions. Whites often hear the complaints of others as turning them into the enemy. Naming what is wrong is uncomfortable for those who didn’t intend wrong yet somehow allowed it. We should instead hear a plea (or demand) for empathy, compassion, repentance, and justice.

At its best, identity politics calls us to celebrate the differences that make us strong together. It calls us to make room for the other and really listen. It calls us to give priority to minority voices – those who society has left vulnerable.

Encountering identity politics is inherently uncomfortable, even painful. Acknowledging divisions that have been there all along can feel like creating division to those of us who have been unaware.

The answer isn’t to say, “But what about all we have in common?!” Erasing uniqueness erases individuals. American doesn’t treat us all the same, and we won’t get there by insisting what makes us different doesn’t matter. We will get there by valuing our diversity for the gifts each brings.

The answer isn’t to reject identity politics. The answer is to press in deeper

Acts and Intent

Acts and Intent

I was taught that it is a fearful thing to judge another’s motives. Only God knows the heart.

And yet I have watched the very people who taught me this basic principal abandon it at increasingly disturbing rates.

People I love insist President Obama wants to destroy America. Not just that they believe that his policies are destructive, but that he wants to destroy our country. 

And people I love believe that those who voted for Trump are bigoted, misogynistic racists. Beyond the few that are indeed proudly and outspokenly just that, I believe most found some reason that, while not directly misogynistic, and racist, justified voting for someone who expressed those sentiments. Some believe he didn’t really mean those things. Is that a risk? Yes, but their willingness to take that risk is not necessary motivated by bigotry.

There is a difference between intentions and actions, and it’s a difference that I’ve seen sincere people struggle with again and again.

I usually see it most clearly when I venture into a mediating role. I once told a friend that their interaction with another friend over a difficult issue had left the second friend feeling like the health of their marriage had been questioned. The first friend responded by accusing me of lying. In that moment they couldn’t consolidate their intentions with the actual results of the actions, and it was the veracity of the result that must be in question.

I see this same pattern play out continuously on all sides of social issues. 

So many of us intend only to live our lives in peace, with freedom to pursue our business and interests. It can feel like an attack on our goodwill and personal integrity when someone calls out a consequence of our actions that hurts others.

So many of us, while trying to expose injustices we see or experience, miss things. We want to address problems, and it can be hard to hear how our best intentions can misfire.

The thing we thought was safe instead draws blood.

Whether on a personal level or societal, intentions just don’t always equate with outcomes. As important as it is to acknowledge the intentions of others and examine our own, it’s even more critical that we be open to identifying and owning unintended consequences.

That requires empathy. It requires the compassion to hear and really listen to people who are different than us, who experience the world in ways we can’t conceive of.

It requires the willingness to adjust and change for others’ sake – to let go of things we may cherish for the sake of those we may not understand.

Love is intention wedded to action. Always both together. It’s all too easy to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by the results of their acts.

If we really want a more loving, just, and generous life and world, perhaps we should switch that.

Work and Pray

Work and Pray

It’s been a hard week, and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.

I live in the most diverse neighborhood in the country. I have friends and neighbors who are afraid for their lives and their families. I’m afraid for them, too. One friend who lives a few blocks from me said she wants to wrap our neighborhood up in bubble wrap, to protect them. There’s a lot I’d love to protect us all from right now.

And I come from Trump country. I worked for a Republican in the “Gingrich Revolution” over twenty years ago. I know that many family and old friends may have voted for Trump while still disgusted by his character and words. And I know that many of them felt this kind of fear eight years ago.

Fear doesn’t have to be rational to be real.

The outward expression of my faith has changed over the past decade and a half. It doesn’t look the way it used to in many ways. Following Jesus called me down different paths than many of my family and friends who also love and follow Jesus.

I trust him with that.

And I pray. I tell him my fears and doubts and hopes and wishes and loves. And I do my best to listen.

I pray, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, even if I’m missing it altogether.” I pray, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I pray, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they are doing.” And sometimes, “Father, forgive them, even though they know exactly what they are doing.” I pray “Lord, have mercy!” and “Help!” a lot. And I breathe, “Thank you!”

As an only child and life-long single, who else would I talk to most of the time? I can’t ever remember not talking to Jesus. It seems he likes listening to my stuff, and he can handle my anger and doubts.

There are a lot of people talking about praying this week. And they’re not wrong – those of us who pray should be praying, for ourselves and others and for our leaders.

But we shouldn’t let our praying hold us back from doing.

Yes, everything is in God’s hands, but he’s seen fit to put a great many things in ours. Jesus prayed to sustain himself for the work. He prayed and did stuff. And he told us that after he was gone, we would do even greater things. Then he left, and now we are called “his body.”

We have a lot of his work to do. Proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind. Set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18).

For followers of Jesus, that’s our work. Whoever you voted for, this is your work.

Too many of our neighbors got a very clear message this week from white Christian America: we don’t want you. Just because that’s not what you believe or how you feel doesn’t mean that’s not the message we sent.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Stand with those being attacked – even if you think they’re wrong. Jesus did (John 8:1-11). Really listen to the disadvantaged, and be willing to let them change your mind (Matthew 15:21-28). Hang out with people who would never be comfortable in church. Speak up for those who are on the margins of your community. Look around – who’s missing? Find them (Luke 15).

Don’t just pray for them. Don’t just pray about it. Do the work.

Coming Undone

Coming Undone

We are growing less and less intelligible to each other. Republicans and Democrats. “Liberals” and “conservatives.”

That’s hard for me.

My first brush with politics came in 1976. I was four and the Democratic National Convention was on TV. I remember seeing a large group of men in dark suits moving through a huge crowd. At the center of that group was a warm, smiling face I immediately liked. My mother told me it was Jimmy Carter.

It wasn’t just that his was the only smiling face (it was), but it was the quality of that smile. Warm and and gentle and personal and welcoming – something a four-year-old instinctively recognizes. I knew he was a loving man, and I think forty years has only proven that intuition true.

At the same time, a beloved great aunt was a long-time volunteer for Jesse Helms, and for years my favorite sleepwear was a yellow, extra-large t-shirt that dragged the ground and read “Student Leaders for Jesse Helms” on the front and “Give ‘Em Helms!” on the back.

Before I started school, I’d spent hours at a travelling Lincoln exhibit that came to our mall – I remember his glasses, and a plaster cast of his huge, gnarled hands. I asked endless questions. FDR and Eleanor fascinated me as well, after I watched a miniseries about their life together (and apart). We visited his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia when I was in first or second grade, and I soaked in the paradoxes of his life.

I wasn’t fascinated by these men as presidents, but as people. As history that I could somehow reach back and touch. My earliest encounters with politics weren’t about division.

But I also grew up alongside the Moral Majority, and in my family, as the 70s became the 80s and 90s, it was increasingly a given that there was only one right position on anything political.

In college, I worked for a Republican candidate for Congress. He was a warm, genuine man of integrity and conviction, and while I’ve come to reconsider many of the positions we fought for, I do not regret our friendship or my support of him.

I remember spending one long Election Day holding a sign outside a polling place. The older gentleman doing the same for the opposition and I struck up a collegial conversation and eventually came around to the topic of abortion. As we talked, I realized we were really talking about two different things. That one act – a woman walking into a clinic to get an abortion – had totally different meanings to each of us. Both of us were motivated by love for people we didn’t even know, and the conversation undid something in me. I listened, and he made me think about things more broadly. Love began to have more complicated implications.

Twenty years later, the lesson I learned that day has only held and deepened. My own politics have changed, not because I found out most of the things I believed then weren’t true, but because as I’ve continued to listen to an ever broader diversity of people (love always begins with listening), I found out lots of other things were also true.

The thing that changed most for me wasn’t truth; it was priority. What has shifted most for me is what I believe is most important. What I love.

Caring for and protecting the vulnerable – those on the social or economic margins. The orphan, the fatherless, and the widow. The stranger and immigrant. The refugee. The person treated with suspicion because of the color of their skin. The prisoner. The poor. The worker being taken advantage of. Those who’ve been ostracized because of who they love, or mocked because of their gender expression. Those whose voices are dismissed.

Giving love, creating beauty, and finding peace for all of them.

And I don’t know one conservative who would disagree that any of that is important.

What we have come to see differently is what comes first. How to go about it. What the necessary foundations are that will result in the care and protection of the vulnerable. That will bring more goodness into the world. What it is that gets in the way.

Some of that difference stems from a theological and political commitment to the principle of either individual responsibility or communal responsibility, and which takes precedence – a tension rooted in the founding of this nation.

But we no longer see those who hold the other position as equally committed to the common good, as equally committed to love.

As I sit writing this in my favorite neighborhood sidewalk café, an apparently homeless man called to a waiter and asked if he could order a cup of chili, some cornbread, and a slice of onion to go, which he had the cash to pay for. (The slice of onion is a detail that sounded like home to me.) The young waiter started to say yes, when another employee told him no, he couldn’t.

I was upset, wondering why this man, however unconventional, couldn’t be allowed to order his meal.

Then I saw someone else from the restaurant, not the wait staff, come out and sit down beside the man. He spoke to him respectfully and with kindness for several minutes, and when he got up to come back inside the restaurant, it was clear the order was coming.

And I am ashamed of how quick I am to doubt another’s commitment to the common good, to loving the uncomfortable other.

It seems it’s who we’ve become: so ready to believe the worst – of those we disagree with, in particular. So afraid of what our world might become (or maybe of really seeing what it was all along). So slow to love and quick to reject.

Our differences are real. Our fears are real (even the ones that don’t turn out to be so rational).

Love is stronger, if we can let it undo us.