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Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Christmas is an Act of Subversion

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.

But.

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.

The Secret to Healing America

The Secret to Healing America

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.  

Related: 5 Powerful Phrases for An Election Year

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.  

I’m beginning to realize, though, that the non-interference approach to politics isn’t really healing the wounds of our nation. The fight or flight response to political conversation is anti-democratic. We need a better way. Click To Tweet

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.” 

palmer-quote-democracy

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. 

I believe this: we cannot truly love our neighbor without listening to our neighbor.  We cannot truly love our neighbor without listening to our neighbor. Even when we disagree. Click To Tweet

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.

This will be hard, no doubt. Not just because listening is inherently hard but because we’re trying to shift an entire culture. Most of us need to unlearn everything we’ve learned about political rhetoric. And then we’ll need to invite others along on the journey. Somehow, we’re going to have to figure out how to have conversation again—even when we don’t agree. After the election, we're going to have to figure out how to have conversation again. Click To Tweet

But I do believe that the time is right for this.

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.

Raising World Changers

Raising World Changers

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.

 

 

Why God Doesn’t Care About Your Career

Why God Doesn’t Care About Your Career

It’s back to school time, which means we’re all pumping the children in our life for information about “what they want to do when they grow up.” High schoolers get the worst of this treatment. By junior year, the pressure is on them to know what college they want to attend. To know that, they need to know what they plan to major in. And to know that, they need to know the shape of their entire career path.

It’s a great deal of pressure to place on someone whose frontal lobe isn’t even fully formed yet.

It’s not  even enough that our young people have career plans. Their career plans must also be part of a bigger scheme to “live with purpose,” “make a difference,” or “follow God’s call.”

We mean well, we really do. But somewhere we’ve confused the whole idea of having a job with having a purpose. These are not the same, nor should they be.

I’ve spent a great deal of energy pondering my purpose in life. On any given day, I am likely to be having doubts about what I do and whether it makes a difference. And I spend enough time talking to others to know that I’m not alone in this. We are a restless generation, always feeling like there must be something more.

The spiritually minded among us feel this pressure as through the lens of faith. We are ever-searching for God’s vision in our lives. “Should I take this job? Or does God want me to take that one? And how are we supposed to know?”

It is the knowing that seems to be hardest. We all have visions of disappointing a demanding trail-guide. “I clearly marked the path for you but you ventured off on your own. Your punishment is self-inflicted. You will never find your calling; no matter what you do, you will find yourself yearning for the road not taken.”

This is not God’s way. Story after story attests to this. The God of the Bible is constantly calling God’s people back to the path—even when they’ve strayed horribly, far more horribly than taking the wrong job at the wrong time. Or turning down a service opportunity. Or saying “no” to a church ministry team.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that God is less concerned about any of this than we might think. Not because God doesn’t care about how we do good in the world, but because God cares too much to let it be determined by something as arbitrary as a career choice.

Many years ago, Fredrick Buechner’s now-famous formula for determining the purpose of life crossed my path. “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

This was a balm to my soul. All I have to do is find my passion, plug in the world’s need, and voila. And for a while, it was that easy. Then I realized that the framework breaks down at a certain point. Our passions are going to intersect with the world’s needs in far too many places. We’ll never be able to address them all.

The solution is perhaps surprising. In a world that is ever asking us to narrow down our expertise, I think the answer is to remember that when it comes to purpose, God is a generalist. What do I mean by this? Simply that God cares less about any particular Big Deal Choice than we might think.

God doesn’t deal in grand life plans but in the day-to-day choices of our lives. The question isn’t “how will I live out God’s call tomorrow?” but “how will I live out God’s call today?” Will we treat others in a spirit of grace and love in this moment? Or will we become too preoccupied by grand designs to live as God’s people here and now?

I grow more convinced that our life’s purpose isn’t laid out on a trail from point A to point B, where every big decision brings with it the possibility of venturing off-track. Instead, it is more likely a national park of interweaving paths, all of them leading to great beauty and discovery. Whether we achieve our purpose has less to do with what trail we take and more to do with how we walk it.

5 Powerful Phrases for an Election Year

5 Powerful Phrases for an Election Year

I used to love this picture:

optical illusion election

I loved how I my eyes would slightly glaze over as I switched back and forth between seeing the old lady and young woman. I would give myself a headache looking at that picture.

“It’s a young woman!”
“No, it’s an old lady!”

The answer, of course, was that it’s both. This is so obvious, it seems silly to say.  But that was the miracle of the illusion—some amazing artist had created a picture in which two contradictory things could be true at the same time.

Now imagine that camps formed around the different viewpoints. “It’s an old woman!” “It’s a young woman!” The argument might become more and more heated, each side gradually losing its ability to see the other’s point of view. Insults would be hurled, families would sit in “pro-old” and “pro-young” areas at Thanksgiving, friendships would struggle to bridge the divide.

We’re living in a moment in which these kinds of arguments rage on. We could name them, right? It takes two seconds to march right down the list of party platforms and see the places where we are fighting over “either/or” when the obvious answer is “both/and.”

This rhetoric has grown especially tense around the topic of race. Last night, a friend shared a hateful video rant against the Black Lives Matter movement. (Disclaimer: it wasn’t his.) You don’t need to watch it—just imagine the worst. As crass and violent as this video is, it’s gaining attention because people are rightfully upset about the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

For some reason, we seem to be asking the question, “Do black lives matter or do police lives matter?

The answer, of course, is that it’s both. This is so obvious, it seems silly to say.

I’m not saying anything that you haven’t thought already. My friends have been saying this for weeks now. In fact, I think most people know this.

My point isn’t to astonish you with some new truth but to encourage you to stay situated there. Unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better. Election years don’t lend themselves to careful public dialog and this year is a particular kind of mess, with issues of race, gender and safety at forefront.

Those of us who are able to see the picture from both angles have an important, if frustrating, job to do. Keep pointing others to the both/and. I don’t mean that we have to become wishy-washy. The last thing the world needs right now is people who sit on the fence, leaning toward one side or the other depending on which way the wind is blowing. No, the world need bridges. It needs people who are willing to chime in with passion and clarity but still see the goodness in the folks on the other side.

The world needs people willing to listen for love instead of for hate.The world needs people willing to listen for love instead of for hate. Click To Tweet

Living in this gray area will actually be harder than fighting for any one position. It will mean learning a new vocabulary and then using it. It may mean calling out those who benefit by promoting a language of hate, or gently guiding those who have lost their ability to look from another angle. It will mean saying things like:

Do we really have to choose?
Can it be both?
I see it two ways.
I think this is a false dichotomy.
I think that’s true and I think this is true, too.

In case you think this is too simplistic, I’d remind you that culture change happens from the inside out. Every social shift has started small. The good news is this one already has momentum. We just have to keep it rolling.

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Several years ago, as a newly-hired education consultant working for the Department of Human Services, a preschool teacher approached me with a question.

“How do I talk to kids about race and tolerance?”

Being completely unschooled in this topic, I answered this:

“With preschoolers, I wouldn’t worry too much about direct teaching. I would focus more on making it a non-issue. Little kids are so open and accepting naturally. We don’t have to teach them to be non-prejudiced, we just need to provide an environment that keeps them that way.”

My approach here was the “colorblind” approach. The theory goes like this: if we don’t draw attention to race, children won’t either. They’ll grow up accepting difference rather than being afraid of it.

Anyone out there who knows anything about race and prejudice is cringing right now. I know. I cringe just remembering it. Worst. Advice. Ever. Unfortunately, it’s common. A Washington Post article highlights the prevalence of this:

“In a recent study of more than 100 parents, 70 percent fell into this “colorblind” or “colormute” category, and one of the main reasons for choosing this approach was that they did not want their children to pay attention to race and develop biases. More than half of the parents also indicated that they did not perceive a need to discuss race because it had never been an issue.”

Let’s deconstruct a bit.

First, the underlying assumption isn’t bad. Kids are naturally open and accepting. They are actually drawn to differences because their curious little minds are seeking out every bit of information they can find. They are scientists, collecting data about the world.

You know what this looks like. It’s the white 4 year old standing in the grocery store loudly asking, “Mom! Why did that person paint himself?” (A true quote.) Or the black little girl petting a white little girls hair, muttering, “It feels so flat.” (Another true story.)

These are mortifying for parents as we rush to explain that people come in all kinds of skin tones, or that hair comes in all kinds of textures. But overall, they are valuable teaching moments. We make a quick comment about “all people are different and that’s ok.” And we are grateful for our sweet little innocent children who aren’t bothered by these differences at all.

This was the image in my mind as I gave my advice: give children room to be curious, don’t be prejudiced yourself, and kids won’t have to be taught about equality later. Instead, they’ll be reaffirmed in what they already know.

The fallacy is the assumption that this was the only message children would receive. Who knows, maybe this would work in culture that was both diverse and equal. But that’s not our culture–yet.

The truth is, we’re receiving countless, subtle messages each and every day. We see a disproportionate number of minorities working in lower paying jobs. We see more news stories involving people of color in crime. We see more whites in positions of leadership. And our rational, scientific, colorblind-trained brains make the logical leap: this is right. Only the leap is more of a short hop. It’s so subtle, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Somewhere along the way, though, we begin to internalize a message that minorities are somehow “less than” whites.

It doesn’t stop there. We’re fooling ourselves if we think our children aren’t hearing overtly racist viewpoints. They are. As much as I want the age of racism to be over, it’s not. There are still people out there holding genuinely racist views. If I’ve heard it, you know my daughter’s heard it–or will soon. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from cooky uncle Max, or that old church member we’ve never trusted anyway. Kids will hear these messages. And if we don’t offer an alternative view, the message of discrimination will be the only message they get.

Our silence on the topic of race won’t promote unity.
Instead, it will be taken as assent to the message that’s already being received, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly: racial differences should be feared and inequality is justified.

It all boils down to this: we have to talk to our kids about race, prejudice and discrimination.

Last February, my daughter came home from school so excited about a lesson they’d had on Rosa Parks. Her eyes lit up as she told me the story.

“Can you believe that Black people used to be treated that way? That’s not fair, Mama. I’m so glad that doesn’t happen any more.”

And her trusting, excited little 8 year old eyes made it even harder to say what I had to say next.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? And the Montgomery Bus Boycott was so brave, and so important. You’ll get to learn about more things people did to change our laws. (deep breath) But you know what, we still don’t treat people fairly all the time. (I swear to you, her little face fell and I felt like I’d just betrayed Santa Claus.) A lot of times, people with different skin colors are still discriminated against. It’s really, really hard. And really important that we keep working to stop it.”

This was hard, this brief little comment. Harder than it should have been. It was hard for me to overcome my natural tendency toward the “colorblind approach.” It was hard for me to dash her little hopes. It was actually even hard for me to talk about race in modern America, which just proves how ingrained all of this is.

We’re fooling ourselves, though, if we think we can avoid these issues for our children. The truth is, they will have to confront them sooner or later. Either now, under our guidance, or as part of some hard inner work when they’re adults.

I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to avoid these hard conversations. They have to be had sometime–either with me or with someone else. And it’s too important to leave to someone else.

Art, Life and Changing the World {#wholemama}

Art, Life and Changing the World {#wholemama}

We so often think of creativity as the special right of a limited few.  Visual artists, musicians, authors—they’re the creative types.  Sometimes we limit it even more.  Our friend’s cover band, for example, isn’t really “creative.”  They’re just mimicking the creative work of others.  I, for one, rarely consider myself creative.  I explain to others, “I’m a writer but not a creative one.”  I reserve “creative” to apply to fiction writers, those magical geniuses who draw me into new worlds rather than just examining the world we have.

Lately I’ve been playing with a different idea of what creativity means.  What if we said that creativity has more to do with how we see the world than what we produce?  What if we said that creativity has nothing to do with how we spend our free time and everything to do with what we see when we look around.  Let’s give creativity this definition: Looking at the world with eyes for beauty.

If we gave that definition some real weight, we might discover something amazing about ourselves and our relationship to God.  We might just discover sparks of holiness connecting our creative imaginations to God’s.  Why not?  Time and time again we affirm that God is a creative God.  God creates and re-creates the world every single day.  Every single day, God says to us, “Look!  I’m doing a new thing.  Don’t you see it?”

Here’s the secret to the creativity of those who openly call themselves artists.  They see the world with possibility.  A fallen leaf becomes a symbol of grace in the eyes of the photographer.  In the ears of the musician, a single note becomes the framework for capturing love.  In the creative heart of God, a human pain is transformed into a place for healing grace.

To look at the world with eyes for beauty is to see all of this.  The pain and the potential.  The deep, heart-aching beauty that arises with each and every human interaction.  The persistent question rising in your soul: “what can I do with such awe-inspiring potential everywhere?”

When we look with creative vision, we see the beautiful possibility of the homeless man pleading for money.  We see the beautiful possibility of the single mom, struggling with alcoholism.  We see the beautiful possibility of the suburban family, searching for meaning in a life that is busy but empty.  We see all these things as beautiful invitations to join in the creation.  Like a haunting piece of musical improv, we’re invited to appreciate what’s there and still see what’s missing.  We’re invited to add our unique riff to the eternal melody.

The mystery of this creative life, this search for beauty, is that once we see it we cannot help but dive in.  If you’ve ever been moved by a painting or a song, you know what I mean.  You stand in the museum staring at the piece, yearning to make it part of your life.  You feel, for one brief instant, the desire to learn to paint.  It burns white hot inside of you, a flash of inspiration and passion.

Then it passes.  It dies out cold and hard.  You realize that you don’t have the time or money to undertake “real art.”  You realize that you’d never be that good anyway.  You realize, too, that you have nothing else to contribute.  After all, this masterpiece has already been created.  What could you possibly do that would rival it?

That, friends, is the mark of Resistance.  Resistance is that almost physical pull to do something—anything—other than pursue a life of meaning.  In his introduction to The War of Art, Steven Pressfield has this to say about  Resistance and creativity, “If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when [God] endowed each of us with our own unique genius.”

Resistance doesn’t stop with art, though.  Resistance pushes against us every time we pursue beauty.  Resistance tells us there’s not enough time for us to volunteer at the homeless shelter.  Resistance raises its cynical head, judging the poor and outcast and convincing us they’ll never change.  Resistance whispers that we’re too small to make a difference.  Resistance tricks us coming and going.  It tells us one minute that there is no hope.  It tells us in the next minute that everything important is already being done.

Having failed many times in the face of Resistance, I can say with certainty that it’s a powerful force.  Perhaps even more powerful than outright destruction.  When we destroy, whether on canvas or in a more personal way, we at least leave room for new creation.  The very emptiness calls out for new life.  But if we fail to do anything, whether to create or to destroy, we die.  We die because we have failed to respond to beauty.  We have lost our most intimate way of connecting with the ever-creating God.

The call to live creatively isn’t a small thing.  It’s not just a fun way of discovering our free-spirited artist selves.  It’s a call from our very soul to connect with what God is doing. It’s a call to ask, “what’s beautiful here and how can I add more?”  After all, each and every day, God calls out to us.  “Look, I’m doing a new thing.  Don’t you see it?”


At #wholemama this week we’re thinking about creativity. What practice keeps you going?

When Fear Takes Hold

When Fear Takes Hold

Don’t be afraid.

The words came as a still, small voice in my head as I reeled from the Paris attacks.  Don’t be afraid.  I recognized these words, of course I did.  They appear in the Bible a gazillion times.  (365, actually, but not always in context.)  They did nothing for me.  The fear was weighing me down like plate mail armor and the biblical command ricocheted off without making the smallest dent.

I spent two days like this, wrestling with the terror and looking for comfort.  While others were praying for Paris, I sat mute in the horror.  I was sad, angry and afraid but the desperation wasn’t turning me toward God.  It was turning me inward, making me look for a way to shut out the dangers.  I honestly spent some time wondering if it was possible to just check out of this world altogether.  Could we buy a bit of land in some undiscovered corner of the world where no one could find us?  Could we stay where we are but never leave our home?  Was there any hope, when violence lurks in schools and movie theaters, on street corners and concert halls?  “Don’t be afraid,” seemed a mockery, a PollyAnna optimism that has no place in the aftermath of tragedy.  

I never found any comfort.  There are no words of reassurance for this situation, no promises that all will be well, that everything is under control.  What I found instead was the Gospel.  Not the cheap-grace “look at the bright side” version but the real, true, “What are you willing to sacrifice for another” version.  Oddly enough, It came to me via Twitter. It came as people rose up against the news that politicians were calling for a “pause” to accepting Syrian refugees.  (A “pause,” being a lovely, safe way of saying, “We’re going to let them die while we debate this.”)  

“I would rather die at the hands of a terrorist than be the kind of human who turns away from suffering,” someone tweeted.  I don’t know this person, I don’t even know why I saw this tweet but I do know that it hit me with all the force of an altar call at an 18th century revival meeting.  This is the Gospel.

Somewhere along the way, I had confused “don’t be afraid,” with “there’s nothing to fear.”  Those are two different things and only one of them is the way of Christ.  

Look, politicians will be trying to provide comfort.  They are looking to keep us safe.  They will be talking about risks, vetting processes and financial resources.  They do this because they, too, are scared and also because they want to look like they have the easy answer for a complicated problem.  But at the end of the day, we simply cannot let these discussions sidetrack us.  

The way of Christ was never, ever a way of safety.  

Believe me, that comes as hard news to me as I sit in my cozy house, typing away on my laptop as evening settles in.  So you all are going to have to help me out here.  We’re going to have to press forward together, not because we think we’re safe but because we believe that the way of love is worth the sacrifice.

The one bright spot I see in this whole mess is that we have companions on the journey.  I have been proud of Christianity, proud of the larger Church itself, in its response to the refugee crisis and the concerns of terrorism.  I have seen you all posting on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram demanding that refugees continue to be accepted.  I watched the statements from leaders across denominations roll in on Monday and I cried tears of pride and hope.  While the voice of fear is still clamoring, I’m hearing the voice of Christians raising above the din demand that we let compassion win out over fear.   

So let’s keep going.  Let’s walk the walk as well as we’ve talked the talk.  Let’s not let our passion get cold with the news cycle, or our comfortable commitments get in the way of real love.  Instead, let’s keep lobbying our government leaders, looking for ways to volunteer  and flooding relief agencies with donations.  Let’s drop the plate mail of fear and go into the world vulnerable and unprotected, clothed only in the clothes of Christ.  Let’s remember that while it is human to long for safety and comfort, it is Christ-like to long for peace and sacrifice.

 

Hope Is a Pair of Shiny Red Shoes

Hope Is a Pair of Shiny Red Shoes

Hope is a pair of shiny red shoes

The girl next to me in my Intro to Political Theory class wore shiny red shoes. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them. I imagine that a person with shiny red shoes always feels put together and confident. My own shoes often tend toward the practical. You know, black “go-with-anything” boots or the classic brown loafers. The closest I came to red shoes was the year that I bought maroon Danskos. Even though they were comfy and expensive for my young mom budget, they didn’t evoke feelings of luxury. Maroon Danskos are for comfort and ease. Red shoes are for joy.

Right now, my daughter is consumed with my black peep toe wedges the same way I am consumed with red shoes. She eyes them and tries them on, parading around with an air of confidence and elegance. These shoes take her to dances and parties for fancy ladies (we say this in an uppity accent—faunncy ladies). This is almost certainly an improvement over her Mary Janes, which just take her to school and sometimes the grocery store. I understand. Even my nicest pair of shoes only take me to limited places.

Kids' shoes

Of course, if we think about shoes very much, we’re reminded of the old adage “before you judge another, walk a mile in their shoes.” This always makes me think of beat up loafers and worn out tennis shoes. I remind myself of this saying when I’m critiquing a decision someone made, or analyzing whether the man begging at the intersection is worthy of my dollar. “Walk a mile in their shoes,” I whisper before handing over whatever change I happen to have.

The difference between the red shoes of my fantasies and the worn out tennis shoes of my compassion is stark. The red shoes are shoes of joy. They are shoes that invite dancing and laughter, beckoning me toward a life lived enthusiastically and with abandon. The tennis shoes are shoes of sympathy and humbleness. They ground me in realities of the world and remind me not to let me think too highly of myself.

This is probably part of the allure of red shoes. Their impracticality, their shininess, the very joie de vivre that makes them appealing is a bit like a vacation in the Carribean. It’s exciting and exotic but cut off from real life. The real world is practicality and hardship, the need to run to keep up with life and the ability to walk comfortably next to someone who is hurting. Real life needs practical shoes.

Practical shoes

Lately, though, I’m rethinking those red shoes. It seems to me that I might have underestimated them. What I took for reckless abandon and a certain cockiness may in fact be something more profound. Maybe those red shoes are shoes that invite us into infectious living, drawing attention to the way we walk and the love we offer.

While mentally walking in another’s worn out tennis shoes is helping me learn compassion, fanciful strolls in red shoes are calling me to something even bigger: hope. They remind me not of a light hearted optimism (“oh, everything will work out, tra la la”) but of a fierce grounding in a God of abundance.

Faced with this abundance, this love, this joy for life, we might start asking new questions. We might stop looking for the bare minimum we can do for another person and start looking for the most we can do. Why walk in another’s shoes when you can dance in them instead?

Why stop at easing suffering when we could be bringing joy?

I know, that’s not an easy idea. It’s a red shoe idea—an idea that makes our hearts flutter but seems unattainable. Maybe, though, we need more red shoe ideas. Maybe tennis shoe ideas—practical, safe and helpful as they are–aren’t cutting it anymore. Or at least, aren’t cutting it all the time. Maybe we need to open ourselves up to the possibility that there’s a place in our closets for red shoes and tennis shoes.

I’m into experiments so I’m going to suggest this one. Let’s practice looking for red shoe opportunities. Let’s practice looking for opportunities to bring joy and real hope to others. Let’s practicing dancing, not just walking.

My running shoes are sitting by the door, reminding me that ideas are great but its feet-on-the-pavement actions that will make a difference. So here are some questions I’m going to be asking to help me make the shift to red-shoe living.

Red Shoe Living2

You see the difference in the questions, right?  Both are important, really, they are.  Sometimes all I can do mentally, physically or emotionally is try to summon up a bit of compassion.  But those red-shoe questions are coming from a place of abundance.  They’re coming from a place of hope–a place that trusts that there is enough room for everyone at the party.

On Stars, Talents and Light Pollution

On Stars, Talents and Light Pollution

stars

Sometimes, if you’re standing in a city at night you will look up and realize that you cannot see the stars.  They’re crowded out by all the other lights–lights that appear bigger and brighter.  These street lamps and house lights seem to be lights that really do light the world while the stars just softly twinkle in the distance, providing a little bit of atmosphere but otherwise not doing very much for anybody.

I sometimes worry about being a star trying to shine in a brightly lit city.  I sometimes worry that anything I could offer to the world will be overlooked due to the brightly shining lights of those around me, lights that appear to be bigger and brighter than my own.  It’s like light pollution of talent.  How can my small little twinkle compete with the brilliant shine of a halogen bulb or a meteor shower?  Sometimes the question plagues my days; sometimes it even keeps me awake at night.

The story goes that Jesus once reminded his followers that lights do not belong under baskets.  Lamps are to be placed on lampstands, where they can provide light to an entire room.  The meaning is clear: it takes courage to provide light in a dark place.  It takes courage to stand out and let your light shine, as the children’s song goes.

I’m discovering that sometimes it also takes courage to let your light shine in a place that is already populated with shining lights.  Sometimes it can feel like your little light (emphasis on little) is too small to matter at all, not because the world is too dark but because it’s too light.  It’s so easy to become convinced that our talents or contributions are just too small to matter when people are curing ebola and fighting hunger in big, newsworthy ways.  For those of us who care deeply about the world and the things God is doing in it, this is a singularly depressing feeling.  It is enough to make a person want to turn off all those other lights so that we can shine through just a little.

Of course, we know that’s ridiculous.  We know that no good comes from running around blowing out other people’s candles.  We know that when Jesus said not to hide our lights, he also meant that we ought not smother and discourage the lights of those around us.  The kingdom of God is not Game of Thrones.  We do not want to be the kind of people who can only shine in competition with others.

So perhaps the only answer is just to keep shining no matter how big or small we may feel.  Whether my light is distinguishable from everyone else’s may be beside the point.  Whether my light shines as I masterfully prepare dinner for 500 in the local shelter or shines as I smile and gently hand a dollar to the hungry man standing on the street corner, it is still a light in a hurting world.  Perhaps in our earnest desire to do good in the world, we put too much emphasis on letting our light shine when the emphasis is on letting light shine.  Maybe the goal, after all, is for a pool of light to spill out, blending together with no sense of where it begins or ends until we are all illuminated and illuminating in one giant display of radiance.

Wherever you are today, may you have courage to let your light shine.

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