In some churches, a Watch Night service is held on New Year’s Eve. While the service likely originated with the Moravians, it has strong roots in the Methodist tradition. However, it gained new life in Black church communities in 1862 as traditional Watch Night services gave way to a literal waiting and watching for the dawning of 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. So strong is this association that some have associated the invention of the Watch Night service with this event.
Since we can’t attend a watch night service this year, I’m creating my own ritual for our family at home. It’s brief, because that’s just practical. While Watch Night was traditionally held to coincide with midnight, much like our secular celebrations to ring in the next year, I plan to do it shortly after nightfall. Mainly this is because I’m battling a cold and probably won’t be staying up late myself. (Who am I kidding, I’m not a late night person even when I’m operating at 100%!)
My plan is pretty simple: light a candle, read a Bible verse, do a family reflection/goal setting time and close with a prayer.
For our reading, I plan to use Isaiah 65:17.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”
(Since one of my goals is to help our daughter become more familiar with the actual, physical Bible, I’ll be having her look this up herself instead of printing it out like I usually do for better flow.)
I created this printable for our reflection time but there’s a bunch of great printables out there. Last year, I compiled these. I like the opportunity to think about the things we liked about 2016 as well as looking forward to 2017. It’s a great opportunity to think about what goals we want to let go of as well as what ones we want to keep.
Lord, give me I pray:
A remembering heart for the things that have happened.
An attentive heart to what I have learned.
A forgiving heart for what has hurt.
A grateful heart for what has blessed.
A brave heart for what may be required.
An open heart to all that may come.
A trusting heart to go forth with You.
A loving heart for You and all your creation.
A longing heart for the reconciliation of all things.
A willing heart to say “Yes” to what You will
– Leighton Ford
God, thank you for a new year. May everyone in our family be willing to begin anew with a clean slate. We know that you are always ready to forgive us. Help us to be willing to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another.
As we begin a new year, remind us of our truest values and our deepest desires. Help us to live in the goodness that comes from doing what you want us to do. Help us to put aside anxiety about the future and the past, so that we might live in peace with you now, one day at a time.
May my life be of use to You this year.
May my talents and intelligence
help heal the world.
May I remember how much I have
by remembering how much I have to give.
May I not be tempted by smaller things
but serve my larger mission of forgiveness and love.
Thus shall I be lifted, God,
and know joy this coming year and beyond.
Bless me and work through me
to bless the entire world.
Thanks for reading along in 2016 and cheers to a new year!
Last Sunday our church had its Christmas pageant. The children dressed up in homemade robes with rope belts and paraded down the aisle. They were adorable in their innocence and my heart overflowed, as it does every year, when the story came to life in their sweet little faces.
I love this tradition. Quite frankly, it’s adorable. What’s not to love? Bonus–it also has theological meaning and it serves a pedagogical purpose. My dream would be to do more church-wide pageants for children.
I’m also aware that this lovely tradition carries with it a danger: we cute-sy up the Christmas story. By making it a feel-good story for children, we put it on the level of all of our other Christmas stories. Santa Claus, Rudolph, the Polar Express. All are cute stories that leave us filled with Christmas cheer and a sense of sweet happiness.
But the nativity story was never a feel-good story.
When Matthew and Luke recorded their versions of Jesus birth, they did so with a particular purpose: to demonstrate that Jesus, born to Joseph and Mary, was the Christ, the King, the Messiah. This wasn’t a cute story, this was a subversive one.
Right from the angels’ announcements to Mary and Joseph, we see God’s agenda is to overturn the world order as we know it. Listen to how Mary responds, not with meekness, but with the rallying cry that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
While we’re oohing and aaahing over the cuddly sheep in the field, with shimmering angels illuminated by a twinkling star, we should be asking ourselves a different question: What if the angels brought the good news to the lowly shepherds because these were the only people who would perceive it as good news? The rest of them, safe and warm in their homes and palaces, wouldn’t so much rise to shout with joy as rise up in anger. News that the last will be coming in first isn’t good news for everyone.
See, when we’re on the side of the proud and the powerful, we’re on the losing side of this proclamation. We’re the ones in danger of being scattered, brought down and sent away empty—and that’s when the Good News of Christmas becomes distinctly bad news. The only way to hear this message as the Gospel, which literally means good news, is to take the side of the poor, the lost, the disenfranchised.
Christmas is ultimately about making a choice. It’s our yearly opportunity to decide which gospel we’re ready to believe in. Are we placing our hopes in the cute-sy baby Jesus of the nativity play? The one who makes us feel warm, cozy and safe? Or are we placing our hopes in the revolutionary God who dared to overturn our world order—which is anything but safe?
It’s easy, of course, to say the latter. With the daily deluge of tragic news from around the world, our souls hunger for the world-changing God. But I am reminded that choosing that gospel requires setting aside our own hopes and dreams in favor of the larger promise of justice and mercy for all of humanity. It requires the daily sacrifice of making the choice against our own self-interest in favor of the World’s.
This is where the going gets tough.
But it’s also where the joy of Christmas comes most alive. While the Christmas story might challenge us to get outside ourselves, it also reminds us that the revolution doesn’t rest on our shoulders alone. That, in fact, the most revolutionary act of all has already taken place. Sure, we’re called to live into this Christmas promise of peace on earth. We’re called to work as hard as we can toward that coming reality. But we’re not called to bear the burden on our own.
So as we move toward our Christmas celebrations, may we feel both challenged and renewed. My we all find ourselves searching for the difference we can make in the world, stretching and yearning for a promise that was given long ago. And may we also find ourselves doing this not out of fear but out of joy and hope.
It feels pretty dark right now, with a bleak November casting its darkness into the holiday season. Some years it’s harder than others to believe that the light is coming again and this has been one of those years. We’d be forgiven if we temporarily forgot that the light always wins. That, in fact, the light is already winning.
The trajectory of the earth in its orbit assures us that the days will get longer again. The sun will shine brighter, longer and warmer. The lingering cold will eventually be pushed away by light so abundant that we will forget we ever feared for its loss. We will delight, once again, in the early seedlings of spring as they push their way through still-frozen earth.
In some Christian traditions, Advent is observed in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s described as a season of waiting. But that’s not quite right. December is not just for waiting, it’s for longing.
It’s for reaching towards a hope we’d almost stopped believing in. It’s for reminding ourselves that the light comes back, that love can’t be stopped, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and that even when things seems bleak, hope is hovering just over the horizon.
Sometimes, when the darkness comes too early and stays too late, we cannot find it in ourselves to hope for the light itself. We have to instead hope for the hope. That’s the best way I can describe longing–hoping for the hope. Holding on to the shred of a ray of light, of a baby born in a manger, of experiences of Love that are so intense that we have dared to claim that God walked among us.
So if this year the tinsel looks like empty promises, or the Christmas lights gleam like shallow smiles, then I will not tell you to have hope. I will tell you instead to have longing. Long for the song of the angels to return. Long for all the childish dreams you gave up long ago, of the fairy magic of Christmas to illuminate dark corners. Long for the crazy words of biblical prophets, for nonsense about Messiahs and Kingdoms of God and wolves lying with lambs on this very earth. Long for the things we sing in hymns on Sunday but can’t quite believe on Monday morning.
Long for these things because longing is the work of preparing the soul for hope.
If “hope is the thing with feathers,” then longing is the work of building a nest. It is the work of pulling the thin threads of promise together with the brittle sticks of despair so that, in time, hope can take residence again.
And this is where we have to be clear that Advent is not for waiting. It’s not for wait-and-see, or hope-for-the-best. It is for crying out with the Psalmist, “I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land.”
March will come, metaphorically and in real time. It will come with a promise of spring but also with its fierce storms and unpredictable winds. And we will be there, ready to do the work of hope then because we have done the work of Advent now.
So if your heart is heavy this season, whatever the reason, then let it be heavy. Don’t try to force hope to take up residence too soon–false hope is flighty and will leave when you need it most. Instead, use this time to reach deep into the heavyness. In that depth, you will find longing and that will be your way forward.
“I know I’m supposed to be thankful in all things but I’m having a hard time being thankful right now.”
The comment came from a patient, a young woman in the hospital from some illness I didn’t understand. I had peeked carefully into our room to introduce myself as the hospital chaplain covering the 4th floor. A young seminary student, I didn’t know nearly enough to be ministering to people in crisis but I did know this: you do not have to be thankful when you’re laying in a hospital and fighting for your life.
There’s a list of Bible passages that imply otherwise. This time of year, Philippians 4:6 always makes the rounds:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
or, 1 Thessalonians 5:18
“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Now, I believe in gratitude as a spiritual practice. In fact, I think it’s crucial–but not the way we whip it out at our convenience. We are sometimes too quick to point someone toward thanksgiving as a way of avoiding whatever hardship is happening for them. It is not spiritual care to instruct someone who is suffering to “rejoice in the LORD always.” And glib quotes about gratitude should not be used as ways of silencing the hard feelings we simply don’t want to deal with.
But gratitude does have it’s place, even in the midst of suffering. It’s not just some band-aid we put on to cover up an ugly scar. Gratitude is the elixir we drink in order to strengthen ourselves for whatever comes our way.
As Positive Psychology has emerged as a field of science, the research on gratitude has piled up. People who practice the art of regularly giving thanks find that they have:
For people of faith looking for a way forward in troubled times, it’s especially worth noting that gratitude leads to increased compassion and social engagement. I suspect this is because gratitude boosts resilience, which is our ability to overcome challenges. Practicing gratitude doesn’t shield us from sadness, nor does it inspire us to look the other way in the face of hardship. Gratitude gives us the ability to look difficulties in the face and overcome them.
Gratitude is the antidote for fear. And fear is always the enemy of faith because fear prevents us from taking action.
So, no–I’m not a fan of using passages about gratitude as “clobber texts” against those who are hurting. But neither am I a fan of wallowing in Lamentations, simply listing all the things that are wrong with us or the world. Or job is to hold both of these things together, recognizing that acts of thanksgiving give us the ability not just to lament but to Change.
Reading for the week: Luke 8:26-39, the healing of the demon possessed man
A sermon in the “Questions of Jesus” series
(Editoral note: I don’t usually post sermons here at my blog, mainly because a sermon is very much a living thing. So much changes in the giving. I’ve been persuaded of the value of sharing more online so here it is, along with an audio file if you prefer to listen. May it be a blessing this week!)
My daughter and I, always on the lookout for a good book, have been listening to Madeline L’engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. In the Wind in the Door, the second book in the series, heroine Meg meets a Cherubim, Progo, who teaches Meg about her special gift—naming.
“You are a namer.”
“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”
Progo, whose job it was to name all the stars in the galaxy, says this, “When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a namer’s job.” (79)
This is the truth Meg learns, the truth the possessed man learned in our scripture reading, the truth Jesus knew: names have power.
In Genesis, during our second story of creation, the biblical writers record a parade of animals in front of Adam, with God asking each Adam to name each one:
“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; (Genesis 2:18-20)
Like a child getting a new pet, Adam gets to joyfully inspect each one, play with it, pet it, look it over and decide what to call it. But just as with a new pet, Adam knows this excitement will give way to the long-term reality of caretaking. The biblical writers are pointing us toward a deep, ancient truth–we have been given the power of naming the world, and the responsibility of that is immense.
When we become Namers, we take on the power of shaping reality.
How many of us have been called names that didn’t bring us into our fuller selves? Childhood nicknames that carried wounds for a lot longer than they should have, maybe? In first grade, I lived with the name Amelia Bedelia, which sounds innocent enough but anything said teasingly takes its toll. There was a chant, too, you know–Amelia Bedelia. But maybe for you it wasn’t a silly book character, maybe some of us were called fat, stupid, lazy, ugly? Poor? Rich? Or the worse names, the ones that we can’t even repeat, especially not on a Sunday morning sitting here in the sanctuary.
Those are the names that carry shame—they touch us at our deepest, most vulnerable places and they hurt so bad we can’t even whisper them.
We don’t know what was going on with the man Jesus encountered out there in the middle of nowhere. Possession, I know, is hard for us to wrap our modern minds around. But we don’t have to know all the details to know this: he was outcast. Sent to live alone outside of town, among tombs–literally left for dead. He’d been given some names: Sick. Dangerous. Worthless. Those were reality shaping names, until one day, when he was finally asked his name, he couldn’t even answer. No longer a person, he had become completely his situation–literally demonized, one with the illness that had grabbed him.
We do this to ourselves, too, don’t we? I recently read an article in which the person listed all the things she’d said to herself that day:
You know those things, right? Which of them do you say to yourself? Or are there others? Ones you can’t own up to?
The problem with these labels, these names, is that when we name ourselves, we too often base our names on moments, not on the eternal truth of who we are. We focus on these moments, we tell ourselves that they define us and so they do. We take a great, big, black Sharpie and in that permanent ink, we put a giant X across our true identity.
And that’s why we need Namers. We need people to come along, inspect us, see us for who we are and call us by our truest name. Jesus’ healing ministry almost always–with one exception–came from his ability to see people. “Do you see this woman?” we heard him ask last week. Or, “Zacheaus, Zacheaus,” he called, scanning the trees. Seeing him, naming him. Daring to erase the giant, vicious graffiti that had X’d over his real name and written “tax collector,” instead. Or in today’s reading, confronted with a mad lunatic when all he wanted was a reprieve, Jesus gives a gentle smile, an outstretched hand, “What is your name?”
In the universe Madeline L’Engle crafts in her books, evil is represented by a shadow in the universe. The Murray children see the shadow first on the planet Camazotz, which has given in completely to the shadow. “IT” controls them–but the result isn’t what you think. It’s not chaos and craziness, instead, it’s perfect. The newspaper arrives at exactly the same time every morning, delivered by a child who wakes up at precisely the same time as all of the other newspaper delivery boys. Mothers put dinner on the table at exactly the same time each night. Fathers arrive home from work at precisely the same time each evening. All of them together, walking in rhythm, down the street, whistling jauntily as they let themselves in the door. “Honey, I’m home!”
They have names, I imagine, but none that matter. For all intents and purposes, they are living the same life, with exactly the same result.
There is no hope here, none at all, of a Namer being able to do their job. To be a Namer, one must look at the differences–the particular uniqueness that sets each person apart. Progo says it this way, “A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.”
There is no hope of this if we are all the same.
But if we are not all the same, then none of us can be perfect. And if we are not all perfect, it goes without saying that we have faults. Or at the very least, we have differences. And it’s easy, so, so easy, to let those faults become our names.
The namer has to see the real person, in spite of the differences, in spite of the faults. The Namer, it turns out, must not only see people as they are but see people as they could be.
There’s another time in the Bible when a person is asked for their name…the blessing of Jacob.
Some of you might know this story from Genesis: Jacob is journeying across the desert to reunite with his brother, Esau, and end an ugly family feud. When he camps for the night, he is inexplicably attacked by a man. They wrestle all night. When morning comes and the man asks to be let go, Jacob demands a blessing.
Not an explanation, not an apology, a blessing. And in reply, the man first says, “What is your name?” On hearing Jacob’s answer, the man replies, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 2:28)
That’s it. There’s no other blessing, no other promise of things to come, there is simply a name change. Jacob’s name, you see, was no longer accurate. Jacob means “heel grabber,” or “supplanter,” a reference to something in Jacob’s character that is sneaky, or somehow dishonorable.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.”
You are no longer to be known for your worst trait but your best, for you have wrestled with God and with yourself.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that people are re-named in the Bible, nor is it the last. From Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Saul to Paul, namers are on the loose in the Bible’s thin pages, tromping from story to story, telling people not just who they are but who they will be.
This is not some vague optimism. It doesn’t mean putting on rosy glasses and imagining everything’s just going to be fine. Jesus doesn’t hop out of his boat, see the man possessed by demons and then jauntily wave as he passes by. “It’s ok! Don’t worry! God loves you and it all works out in the end!” Nor does he turn his back on the man in a fit of hopelessness. “I can’t do anything here. It’s all so horrible.”
Instead, Jesus holds the tension between naming the reality of the situation and recognizing the possibility for transformation. Jesus calls the man into being “more particularly the particular star that he was meant to be.”
Well, friends, the world needs more Namers. This is always true, I suppose. But this week, in the aftermath of a divisive election, it feels especially true. We need more people to speak love into pain, to speak solidarity into division, to speak protection into situations of vulnerability, to speak understanding into misunderstanding.
And you, by virtue of being followers of Jesus, are those people.
We cannot compromise on this:
We cannot compromise on our Christian calling to stand up to oppression. We cannot compromise on the fact that language that condones or incites hate is never “just politics,” “just teasing,” or “just grafitti.” Those words X people out.
We have to be clear that we are willing to stand up to this. We are willing to rally around the ESL class that meets in our building to say, “We’re with you, we see you, we call you by the name God gave you.” And we have to be clear that when swastikas are painted on playgrounds, as they have in places throughout the nation including Aspen, Colorado, we will be the first to be there with the soapy water and a paintcan of love to write, “Not on our watch.” We will not stand by when people are called “gay” like it’s an insult, or when the sacred right to love who we want is threatened.
This is the call we accepted when we took the name of Christ. And it’s the prophetic mantle we put on we proclaimed ourselves “Open and Affirming.” We will not sit here and “be accepting” of difference, we will actively go out to ensure that differences are treasured, invited, loved and protected.
But even while we do this, we wrestle with a tension. We wrestle with the tension that one of the differences that we must protect is the right to see things differently and to take those different perspectives to the polls with us when we vote.
It is helpful, perhaps, to remember that voting for any one flawed human being is by necessity an ethical choice. Ethics, you all know this, are when two or more moral principles collide. Do not steal is a moral command. Take care of children is a moral command. “Do you steal bread to feed a starving child?” That’s an ethical question.
Voters on all sides of issues, parties and candidates in this election made ethical choices. They made choices in which they had to pit several morals or ideals against each other. And so we can in good conscience say that people who voted for Clinton or Trump or Johnson or Stein or one of the other 20 something candidates on our Colorado ballot made an ethical choice. In our families, our circle of friends, and right here in this congregation, many people made choices they believed were ethical that landed them on different sides.
We must not demonize people for that. Just as we will not compromise on standing up for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, we cannot compromise on loving each otherfor the different ideas they bring to the table. And if we can’t do that here, in church, then there is very little hope for being able to do it out there, in a divided world.
There is a lot in this right now. I know, I feel it. We have to hold on to our Christian values as protectors of the oppressed while still loving those who saw it differently. It will not be easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it and the world wouldn’t need us at all.But we are needed, very much, to name the names of all God’s people in ways that call us all forward together, a holy line marching against all that would dare to X out another.
Whatever shape you’re in right now, take a minute to congratulate yourself. This was a tough week. Lord have mercy, let’s figure out how to do democracy better by the midterm elections, shall we?
I, for one, have emotional whiplash from all the hurt and pain I’m seeing. (And feeling, because I’m not a robot.) I’d planned to write more about listening and healing our nation this week but we’re not there yet as a nation. So what I’m offering up instead is your game plan for the weekend. No cute graphics, no tweetable quotes, just find yourself on the list below and use the steps as a starting place. If you change “categories,” that’s fine. Just check in with your new game plan and use it instead.
You’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it. This is a good action position heading into the weekend but your challenge is going to be slowing down. Here’s your action plan:
1.Sleep. Staying up all night stewing won’t accomplish anything.
2.Find something concrete to do this weekend. If you can find a group that’s meeting to plan next steps, join them. If not, make a list of your friends, family and contacts. Who on that list might feel vulnerable right now? Ask them, “Are you ok?” Then listen. Do not attempt to get them involved in planning right now. They aren’t ready, you’ll both be frustrated and you’ll burn out because you’ll feel like no one cares. They do, they just can’t care this way yet.
3.Make a donation to a group that does the work you’re worried about getting done. I donate to the ACLU, my local LGBTQ outreach and a low income health care organization.
You’re sick, sad and haven’t stopped crying.
1.Sleep. On Tuesday night, as I watched the election results, I texted my husband in disbelief. “I can’t even understand what’s happening.” He gave me the best advice ever. “Make some Sleepytime, read some fiction, go to sleep and figure it out in the morning.” (Well, almost. He actually said, “take a sleeping pill, wash it down with a glass of wine, read some fiction and figure it out in the morning.” But that advice was time limited. It’s not a good long term plan.)
3.Take a walk. If you can’t be outside because you don’t want to see anyone, do yoga. I recommend Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube.
4.Look at your calendar for the week and ask yourself, “What is the bare minimum I need to do to be ready for the week?” Do that much and no more. The rest of the time is yours.
1.Assess the risk. Are you physically safe right now? If not, get somewhere public and assess next steps.
2.Call two allies. These are people you think you can trust. They may be friends, a local safe house or a church. If you don’t have one,message me. When you call, say this, “I’m really scared. If I need anything, can I call you?”
4.Make a safety plan.
You voted for someone other than Donald Trump and you think everyone is over reacting.
1.Check in with someone who is struggling. Say this, “I know this is hard for you. I’m so sorry. If you want to talk about it, I will listen.”
2.Listen. Do not say, “it will be ok,” “the sun will come up,” or “God has this in control.” Say this, “I’m so sorry.” “This is not ok.” “I will stand with you.” “What can I do to help you get through the next few days?”
You voted for Donald Trump and you don’t understand what all the fuss is about and/or your feelings are hurt because everyone keeps calling you a bad voter/American/Christian.
1.Take a deep breath.
2.Call a friend who is struggling. Say, “I know this is hard for you. I’m so sorry. If you want to talk about it, I will listen.”
3.Listen. Do not say one single thing. Nope. Not one. You are in the position of power here because you won. You’re happy. That’s awesome. But the loser doesn’t have to comfort the winner. This is how we help each other: the people with the most emotional strength help the people with the least emotional strength. Right now, you’re in group A, even if it’s not fair that people are mislabeling you. I know, it sucks. I’ve been there. Next week, you can talk with them about it. Not now.
4.If you’re really up for it, ask what you can do to help. If not, that’s ok. Offer a hug and listen if they say no. (Again with the over-reaction, I know you’re thinking that. But one of the issues on the table here is how we treat each other’s bodies, so some people are in need of a safe, loving hug and others want to huddle down. That’s ok.)
I’m not a politically vocal person, at least not outside the safety of my own home. During this election season, my husband has listened to daily commentary about the state of the campaigns but outside of a couple friends who share my political views, I don’t talk politics. I am, quite frankly, afraid of the potential conflict.
I’m probably right to be worried. A 2014 Pew Study found that Republicans and Democrats were more divided than previously. More troubling, they found that an increasing number of people viewed people from the other party as threats to the nation’s well being. As of that study, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans saw the other party as threats. This is well beyond not agreeing with each other and into outright animosity, suspicion and fear.Given the state of this presidential election, it’s clear that this trend has continued over the past two years.
Lucky for me, my neighbors have largely taken the same approach to avoiding this election. No one is sporting any presidential signs or bumper stickers for me to smile or glare at each day as I head home. A few “likes” on Facebook hint at our political affiliations but it’s not enough to spark resentment. Even my family has enacted a tacit no-politics rule (except, of course, for the various alliances among us who agree on things).
This seems like the wisest course of action in a country of people that are positioned for battle. When Facebook posts can ruin real-life friendships and Twitter wars erupt at the slightest provocation, fight or flight appears to be our only options.
The avoidance approach to politics creates a façade of agreement. Taken to its logical end, it promotes the view that disagreement has no place in our relationships. We can all be friends, as long as we don’t address anything troubling, disagreeable or meaningful. We can all be family as long as we pretend to vote the same way. We can all be a church as long as we act like we’re all the same.
As Parker Palmer says in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, “I will not ask us to dial down our differences. Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisianship is not a problem. Demonizing the other is.”
If this fight or flight response isn’t democracy in action, then it’s certainly not Christianity in action. Our very best values, the values of our government and the values of our faith affirm that people of all beliefs can love, learn from and respect one another. And this means that at a time like this, a time that’s laden with suspicion, fear and even hate we must hear each other into speech.
That’s why the act of listening itself is the key to healing. We’re not all going to agree, not ever. But we can agree to hear each other. And in hearing, we can agree that we are all human, worthy of the basic human dignity of being recognized for the unique perspectives and gifts we bring to the world.
We’re here, with only a few days left until the presidential election. Thank God almighty, because I know so many of us cannot take any more. But while the political ads might end on November 8, the real work of healing will begin November 9. And for that, we’re going to need to put on our listening ears. We’re going to need to ask others to tell their stories and share their dreams. To respond to their anger and hurt with curiousity and love rather than defensiveness. To disagree and then still smile when we pass each other on the street, or over the backyard fence, or across the table.
This all seems so simple, this idea of listening to one another to bring greater unity. But we’ve tried out-yelling each other and that didn’t work. We’ve tried name-calling and that didn’t work. We’ve tried avoiding all “hard topics” and that didn’t work. Actually listening to each other is the only option left. (I’ve said something similar before: Meeting Real Pain with Real Love: On Same Sex Marriage and the Way of Christ.)
Thich Naht Hahn says this about the importance of listening to each other in times of conflict:
The other person has wrong perceptions about himself and about us. And we have wrong perceptions about ourselves and the other person. And that is the foundation for violence and conflict and war…Both sides are motivated by fear, by anger, and by wrong perception. But wrong perceptions cannot be removed by guns and bombs. They should be removed by deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving space.
I believe that people are crying out for it, desperate to create a place where diversity is valued.
This is where we can find courage for our healing movement: once we get started, with just a few of us here and there taking the time to reach across political aisles, it will snowball and grow, becoming an avalanche of world-changers. All just hearing each other.
Most Christians affirm that God is neither male nor female: God is God. The challenge is in our language. I speak from the experience of someone who tries hard to refer to God only as “God” and avoid the gender issue altogether. It gets tedious. “God told God’s people to move into the land God had prepared for them.” It’s fine for a sentence or two, an entire sermon or article that way is a struggle to read and listen to. Quite simply, we need a pronoun.
That’s where things get tricky. In a patriarchal society, like ancient Rome, Medieval England, Renaissance Spain or most other place Christianity has spread, the default pronoun is male. And so while we affirm that God is neither male nor female, we say he/him/his. “It,” as a pronoun for God has never been seriously considered, for good reason
So we press on, calling God “Father,” trusting that we are intellectual people who can appreciate that the maleness of God is simply a matter of language. It is a matter for the head, not the spirit.
The mistake we’ve made in this debate is assuming that our intellectual understanding is really separate from our spiritual understanding. The truth is, what we call God shapes how we think of God, and how we think of God shapes how we connect with God. We can’t divorce our heads from our hearts quite so easily.
We would be better served, I think, if we dropped the emphasis on God’s lack of gender and began emphasizing instead God’s encapsulation of both genders. It is biblical, right from the story of Genesis: male and female, both created in God’s image.
Where we have tried to teach God’s “nothingness” in gender, many of our spiritual role-models have taken the opposite approach. Julian of Norwich, for example, regularly referred to God as both Mother and Father, using the terms interchangeably as she wrote about her deep experiences of God’s presence. While she frequently used the traditional language for God: Maker, Lord, Father, she also wrote of being nurtured at God’s breast, of Mother God pulling her close and even used feminine imagery in speaking of Christ. “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
I’ll be the first to admit that gender-bending language like this makes me pause. And yet, it is also a fuller, deeper, richer image of God as One who encompasses all things instead of a remote, heady image of God who encapsulates nothing.
This is why the first question I ask people who are stuck in their spiritual lives is how they address God. I’m not primarily interested in whether they think of God as “man,” most don’t. I’m actually interested in how they’re addressing God in the intimate moments of prayer: the quiet of their bedtime prayers, or the depth of their souls as they watch the sunrise in the mountains. For many people, the traditional male language for God has become removed and rote; it fails to capture God’s fullness and nearness the way Jesus’ daring language of “Father” or “Dad” once did.
I have come to believe that God continues to reach out to us in the ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Our spiritual journey to “find God,” isn’t about finding God in prayer once but finding God in prayer over and over and over again–and sometimes, this means changing the very way we pray.
My daughter “got in trouble” at school a couple months ago. “Got in trouble” is in quotes because, like all sensitive children, her perception of trouble is a far cry from any actual trouble. Still, the recess teacher did talk to her and that counts in her book.
The problem happened during a game of 4-square. There was a disagreement over whether the ball was in or out of bounds. Eventually the disagreement escalated into a full-blown argument and my daughter weighed in on the side of the underdog, a fellow new-kid in school who was now in tears over being yelled at by the others.
By the time the teacher got involved, both girls were crying. When my daughter relayed this part of the story, the hurt and outrage was still fresh in her voice. What really got to her wasn’t the disagreement about the game or the boundaries, it was the response of the teacher. In a reasonable effort to calm down two crying girls, the teacher said to them, “This isn’t a big problem, just let it go.”
But bless her heart, in my daughter’s eyes this was a big problem. Someone had been treated unfairly. “She’s new, mom! And no one would listen to her. They’re all friends already so they just believed what they wanted to believe.”
Several weeks ago, a fellow parent asked me how we’re supposed to raise children in a world like ours. With acts of violence splattered all over the news and fear running rampant, what can we do to keep our children safe?
I hear this question with a mother’s heart. My first instinct is to say, “Lock them up in a safe-house.” And when that turns out to be impractical, maybe we could let them out on occasion, with full-body armor and clear instructions to stay away from any trouble.
Of course this isn’t the response of my best self. This is the voice of my fearful self, worried about my child. This is the part of me that wakes up at 3 a.m. to worry about how I’ll keep her safe when all I see is danger. But that part of me forgets that there’s a whole world of children out there and every one of them is precious.
This is why the real secret to raising children in today’s world isn’t to create safety, it’s to build courage.
The world is full of unfairness. It’s full of people banding together against the powerless, watching out for their own interests. But it’s also full of people who are standing together to create a new power structure. It’s full of people who are willing to cry over injustices that aren’t their own, and to demand that people listen when they might not want to otherwise.
Raise those people.
When my daughter told me this story, I just hugged her and assured her that I knew the teacher hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” I said.
What I wish I’d added was this: you did the right thing. Standing up for someone who is hurting is the best way to be human. Sometimes people won’t listen. But sometimes they will. That’s what makes it worth it.”
This is how we raise children in a world like ours: we do it bravely.
I was in fifth grade the year I discovered that girls were supposed to be squeamish. This was a painful and puzzling thing to find out. Up until then, girls and boys mostly played together. The cool girls were the ones who could keep up with the boys. They were athletic and daring. They rode horses and chased cows, had beat up jeans and practical t-shirts. The rules of our universe were that everyone competed to be bravest and toughest.
Until one day, all the rules changed.
It happened like this:
After school, we were all waiting for our respective school buses when one of the boys found a garter snake. A garter snake! We’d all been catching garter snakes for years—and really, they’d sort of lost their appeal in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. But this was a whole year later and when one of the boys advanced on the girls, holding the snake out at arm’s length, the rest of the girls knew to squeal and run, acting for all the world like the snake was a dangerous weapon instead of 5 inches of harmlessness.
I didn’t know the new rules so I failed to squeal and run, a social mistake that it took me weeks to recover from. I was left out while all of the others repeated versions of this game—brave boys finding overrated items in nature and torturing frightened girls, only to be rewarded with giggles once the threat had passed.Eventually, though, I learned to shriek and run along with all of the others, convincing myself that I was so grossed out by grasshoppers and spiders that I’d lost my senses.
The message was reinforced in subtle but life-altering ways over the next few years. Girls began to list “shopping” as one of their hobbies. We giggled about how hard math is , asked boys to help us in science and dreamt about when we’d be allowed to wear make-up.
Middle school passed in a haze of uncertainty. It was impossible to pin down my identity when the rules kept changing so quickly. Being smart wasn’t cool. Being athletic was—but only if you were daintily athletic, and never quite as good as the boys. The lines we had to walk were more like tripwires, always shifting just as we began to figure them out.
I probably would have stayed adrift well into high school except for a speech given to us by an 8th grade teacher. On the last day of school he gave the entire class a lecture about the importance of staying true to ourselves in high school. It was pretty standard stuff—remember your values, don’t get too caught up in the search for popularity, stay away from alcohol—except that he added a crucial element, just for the girls.
“Ladies, do not dumb yourselves down just to fit some stereotype. I have seen the most amazing, talented 8th grade women go off to high school and when I see them later, they’ve become empty-brained giggling idiots. Do not do this. It’s not worth it. That’s what you think people want from you but it’s not true. The people who matter want you to be your best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.”
In that moment, something clicked. All of a sudden, I understand what had been happening. For the past 3 years, we’d all been participating in the gender-ification of our brains and interests. Not only did I understand but my puzzlement and frustration suddenly made sense. Someone had named what I didn’t have the wisdom to recognize. I was being pushed to embody someone else’s idea of who I should be.
Gender roles are complex precisely because they develop in this way. They are insidious, seeping into our identities at a time when we’re most vulnerable. Like racial biases, gender biases need to be called out. As researcher Marianne Cooper says, “We have different expectations for boys and girls, and for men and women, and those different expectations lead us to think that different goals are appropriate for them.”
But as one wise teacher pointed out, the people who really matter want kids to be their best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.
This is what kids today need, as much as they needed it 10, 20, 60 years ago. They need more people to name for them the truths that they can’t yet name for themselves. They need wiser, braver, kinder adults to point out that gender stereotypes are still shaping lives, for men and women. Because sometimes, simply naming the game is enough to kick start a change.