Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Through

Getting Through

Life is so hard.

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

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

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

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

I’m beginning to learn.

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

I can choose life.

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

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

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

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?

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.

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.

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.