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Progressive Christians: It’s Time to Get Louder

Progressive Christians: It’s Time to Get Louder

I’ve been a “progressive Christian” for as long as I can remember. (Ok, I did a brief stint of evangelicalism in late high school/early college, which led to a crisis of faith and is the subject of a much longer post.) The point is, that for as long as I’ve been Christian, I’ve been a Christian who isn’t “like that.” After I was ordained, I felt like the only way to introduce myself was “I’m a pastor, but not that kind.” Because, you know, I had to get that last part in before people started worrying that I was going to ask them about where they’d be when the rapture came, or launch into an exposition denying science, or perhaps talk to them about how gay marriage is a sin.

You get it, right? So many of us have been defining our Christianity in terms of what we’re not.

And because we’ve been defining ourselves by what we’re not, we haven’t been saying what we are. At least, not what we are as Christians. Most of us have been fighting for the kin-dom of God in all kinds of ways: volunteering at homeless shelters, showing up at city council meetings, voting our values at the polls and holding our reps accountable to our vision of a world where all are truly recognized as Beloved.

But we’ve been doing it quietly.

For sure, in some ways this doesn’t matter. After all, if the hungry get fed and the prisoners get comforted and the sick get healed, it doesn’t matter much whether they knew the person who offered the help was religiously motivated or not. And, I think, in many cases we withheld our religious convictions out of respect. With so many people using religion as a weapon, we wanted to be sure we didn’t accidentally inflict harm ourselves.

But there has been a downside and it is this: with our lack of speech in the public sphere, the only voices proclaiming Christianity were voices of exclusivity.

Now, those of you who are active in mainline or progressive evangelical traditions know that there are churches and churches full of Christians who are eager to make America a more just place. You know that there are churches that are intentionally multi-cultural and are creating rich conversation to heal a racially unjust nation. You know that there are churches who have been on the front line advocating for marriage equality. Or churches who see taking care of the planet as a central part of their mission. (This is Creation Stewardship in church-speak.)

But most people don’t know this.

The other day, in Boulder County, Colorado, where there are any number of progressive churches, someone said to me, “I would be Christian again if I could find a church that was in line with Jesus.” He went on to describe a church that would welcome all kinds of people, work on issues of homelessness, healthcare, racism, religious tolerance or do other things that Jesus actually talked about. (emphasis his)

Here’s the kicker–I could name 5 churches exactly like that within a reasonable Sunday morning drive from his house.

I can only assume that we’re not being loud enough to cut through the noise that is the Christian culture wars today. Honestly, I think it’s because many of us have our own spiritual wounds–the thought of going up against the evangelical machine makes our hands shake and our hearts race.

But people are hungry to experience a community of faith where they can explore this side of Christianity. And more importantly, if this is what we truly believe about God-in-Christ, then it’s our Christian witness to get out there and share it.

So what does that look like? I think it’s mainly about bridging the gap between our faith-selves and our secular-selves:

  • Try showing up in the regular world in your religious t-shirts, hats, and lapel pins. Do it especially in the places where religious conversation has been hurtful. I wore my clergy collar to an anti-racism training a few weeks ago and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t comfortable. There were a few suspicious looks, probably from people wondering what my agenda was. Plus, my ironed shirt and skirt stuck out like a sore thumb in a group of hip Boulderites in their carefully grunge-clothes. But it also meant that I got to have conversations with people that never would have happened if I’d shown up in my civilian camouflage.  As Carol Howard Merritt says, this is our Pentecost moment. We have to “[dress] up, show up, stand up, and pray up, whenever possible.” And while she’s writing mainly to clergy, I’d say this is true for all Christians right now. We have to do whatever we can, in whatever big or small way, to show that while stories of hatred perpetrated in the name of religion might dominate the news, they’re not dominating in real life.
  • Use your digital space. Post articles from faith leaders who are confronting issues of injustice.  Show pictures of yourself at Peace Rallies with a hashtag about following Jesus. Share your denomination’s stance on the issues of the day. Maybe you’ll get trolls. Delete them and forget about it. But not everyone who disagrees is a troll; be willing to enter into respectful conversation and share your views as a person of faith.
  • And if you’re part of a church, see about using your church space to raise your voice. The church I currently serve has a rainbow flag on the bell tower. Another church has a Black Lives Matter sign on their front lawn. A Mennonite church started those wonderful “we’re glad you’re our neighbor” signs that branched out and became a Big Deal.

I know the objection: these are “political” signs…why can’t we just hang something Jesus-y like “all are welcome” or “God loves everyone” and stay out of the political fray? The simple answer is that it’s that’s not clear enough. “All are welcome” is an important theological statement for sure but the casual passer-by can’t tell your “all are welcome” sign from the mega-church down the street’s “all are welcome” sign. And they’ve been around long enough to know that when a church says “all are welcome,” they usually mean “all are welcome to come be just like us.”

Getting louder is going to have to mean stepping outside our comfort zone a bit. Personally, I kind of hate the idea. But I really, really hate the idea of living in a time when people associate Christianity with exclusion. That was never the goal–you know it and I know it. So it’s time to show it to a world that needs to know it, too.

Stop Searching for Security and Start Building Confidence

Stop Searching for Security and Start Building Confidence

If you happen to be up late at night surfing the internet or watching television–or maybe even both at the same time (as one does to relax after a long day), you’ll find yourself inundated with ads like this:

  • “Protect your future, buy gold!”
  • “Protect your home, buy insurance!”
  • “Protect your children, see a financial planner!”

All of these, of course, are accompanied by bleak visions of what happens when we fail to do any of these things. By the end of the evening, you’re likely left with a deep sense of foreboding and a resolution to see a financial planner, an insurance agent and a gold broker tomorrow.

If advertising as tells us anything about ourselves it’s that our deepest desire is to be insulated from life’s ups and downs. We want to rest secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens, we’ll be ok.

Well, here’s the biblical truth, offered in the hope that it will set us free, as the truth is supposed to do:  no one can promise security. Not the announcers on late-night television, not political leaders, not our bank accounts—not even Jesus.

Sometimes Christianity has tried to paint the Christian path as though it is one of security—that faith might insulate us from grief, illness, sadness or even promise “prosperity” but a cursory look at the life of Jesus shows us this simply isn’t true.

Not only does Jesus reject security in pursuit of the more daring life but he calls his followers to do the same.

Now, I want to stress that security is closely linked to survival. It’s literally a life and death matter to have food, housing, health and loving friends or family. We’re not a congregation that’s about romanticizing poverty or economic insecurity. And, in fact, romanticizing life’s hardships is another way that we protect ourselves from experiencing them directly. As long as those struggles can remain “other people’s walk with God,” we’re protected from having to walk that path ourselves.

Take for instance the Beatitudes. We so often read these as words of comfort for people who are struggling. And they are at least that. But we make a mistake when we point them at other people–they are words directed at all of us. Comfort or challenge as the case may be, they are also a call to a new kind of lifestyle, one that embraces “blessedness” over wealth, health or even safety.

In Where the Red Fern Grows, grandpa sets a raccoon trap to catch one of those masked bandits. The trap is just a hole in a log, and in that hole is  a shiny object. The raccoon reaches in, grabs the object but then the opening of the hole is too small for him to pull his fist back out. This is his trap: because he won’t let go, he’s stuck to the spot as sure as if he was actually in a cage.

While there’s much to be said about the virtue of persistence, we want to make sure we’re hanging on to the right thing. I can certainly recount times in my life when I’ve held onto some shiny object of security rather than choosing the adventure and freedom that comes with relaxing my grasp. And so the search for security becomes it’s own kind of trap because we can never achieve complete security in a shifting world.

Now, if you had time to look at the bulletin and noticed that our topic today is confidence, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with that. What’s “confidence” have to do with “security?” Well, the answer is simple: nothing.

Confidence and security aren’t related at all. Which is exactly the point. As humans, we face a great deal of insecurity. Economic, social, biological even cosmic insecurity. So while it would be logical to believe that the cure for insecurity is security, it’s actually not.

The cure for insecurity is confidence.

Security is outward facing. It’s a set of circumstances. And because we can never actually control all of our circumstances, we can never achieve full security. Confidence, on the other hand, is an inward trait. It’s the inner disposition to believing that we can handle whatever comes our way. For religious folks, confidence is the inner discipline of believing that we can handle whatever comes our way with the help of God.

Now, the importance of this spiritually is that we are called to risk taking faith. As individuals and as a congregation, we’re asked to continually push the boundaries of our comfort zones. That’s what it means to be a progressive Christian–we believe God is on the move, creating winds of change that are blowing us toward a new heaven and new earth. Our choice, always, is whether we’re going to choose the security of keeping things the same or the confidence of stepping out with God.

In her TED Talk on creativity, author Elizabeth Gilbert says, “You should never be afraid to do the work you were put on this earth to do.”

And assuming that we were all put on this earth to co-labor with God, which is of course a central part of our beliefs, then I have to ask: how often are we letting our insecurities get in the way? How often are we choosing not to live fully into the future God is creating because we’re afraid of taking a risk, however big or small it may be?

So, that’s all well and good when it comes to a pep talk from the pulpit but what does it really mean when we walk out those church doors? How do we take this idea–that we should have confidence in ourselves and in God–and make it a reality?

I know from experience that haranguing myself to “have more faith,” or “trust God more” or tell myself, don’t work well in the long run. So I’d like to offer some wisdom inspired by therapist and author David Richo.

Richo categorizes 5 basic fears and some possible responses. I’m calling them our “security response” and our “confidence response.”

  • First basic fear: we might lose everything we have. Security response: becoming less committed and stoical. The confidence response: learning to grieve and let go.
  • Second basic fear: Our expectations won’t be met. Security response: Plan every detail and try to stay in control. The confidence response: accept what happens and learn from it.
  • Third basic fear: We might not get our fair share. Security response: Blame those we perceive as getting “more.” Confidence response: Have an attitude of “you win some you lose some” while working for social justice.  My observation is that there’s a second possible security response: to become competitive. The confidence response here would be to practice generosity of time, money or emotional support.
  • Fourth basic fear: We won’t be able to handle pain when it happens in our lives. Security response: Be on guard to avoid pain. Confidence response: Allow pain that is natural and learn not to add to pain by attempting to control it.
  • Fifth basic fear: We will be hurt by others. The security response: stay away from closeness. The confidence response: Learn to speak up when others hurt us while not retaliating.

Hopefully you recognize yourself somewhere in these 5 responses because that means you’re on the growing edge.

Confidence only comes when we conquer insecurity.

We can’t grow in confidence in either God or ourselves if we’re not venturing into the place we’re feeling insecure. We all have at least one shiny object we’re learning to let go of. But with practice, and with the assurance that we don’t walk this path alone, we might find that we learn to let go just a little bit sooner each time.


Sermon given at United Church of Christ, Longmont on August 27.

My “security vs. confidence responses” are mostly drawn from David Richo’s book The Five Things We Cannot Change and How to Embrace Them, although he doesn’t frame them this same way.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The Fine Art of Presence

The Fine Art of Presence

“You have nice teeth.” Ellen peers into my mouth with the studiousness of a scientist. “Who’s your dentist?” She asks. I explain, again, that my dentist’s office is in a nearby town. She responds, again, that she doesn’t know him but her husband was a dentist right down the street.

Ellen is a hospice client I’ve been visiting. I know her only through the veil of her dementia, which caused her to be sullen and angry much of the time. On this day, though, she’s in good spirits.

“You have nice teeth.”

“Thank you.”

“Who’s your dentist?”

We repeat our lines as though we’re practicing for a play and then I try to redirect. “Oh, look, the cherry tree is beginning to bloom.” I say cheerfully.

“It is, isn’t it?” She says this in a half-hearted way. It’s the same tone parents use when they’re only half-listening to their children. Then, more excitedly–as though she’s trying to redirect me, “You have nice teeth! Who’s your dentist?”

By the time I left the senior living home that day, we’d had the conversation so many times I’d lost track. It’s a special kind of challenge to stay present in a nonsensical situation. Parents know it well; it’s why so many of us struggle with activities of “let’s pretend,” where the rules are always changing and the game has no apparent goal, or when there’s endless word games and silly questions.

In Jan Richardson’s book Sacred Journey’s: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayers, she reflects on the work of being present. She calls this the art of “with-craft.”  

Like any art, I believe the art of with-craft must be practiced. It comes more easily to some than others but we all grapple with it in our own way. We grapple with spending hours in pointless conversation when time is limited and tasks are not. We struggle to prioritize people over projects, or someone else’s needs over our own. We wrestle with simply slowing down enough to sit with another.

Practicing presence requires the same slow attention that meditation does, the same deliberate breathing, the same centeredness. It requires, too, the same willingness to embrace paradox. In with-craft as in meditation, we learn an amazing secret: that the times in which we appear to be doing the least–sitting, talking, breathing–are really the times in which we’re doing the most.

Ranier Maria Rilke says it well, “I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity.”

So it is when we find ourselves tied up with “meaningless” interaction–the conversations that have no storyline, the childish games that have no winner, the conversations that meander. These moments carry with them the most power precisely because they lack purpose. They are transcendent, defying words and resting purely on the Mystery that drew us together in the first place.

This is the antithesis of our typical interactions. Too often, our exchanges are purely transactional. We communicate in order to get something. “Please get your shoes on.” “Can you do the dishes?” “When will that project be done?” Even our “how are yous” are often rushed through as a means to an end.

Practicing with-craft means learning to see relationships as ends-within-themselves, not the means to an end. This seems simple but it’s a bit revolutionary. After all, we’re people who hold networking events, which are after all nothing but relationship mining. In the business world, we even refer to people as “resources,” which of course we must carefully allocate.

With-craft demands another way. In practicing this powerful art, we learn that presence has power. I don’t know what, if any, good I accomplished for Ellen that day. I’d like to think that for an hour or so she experienced the pride of her younger years, before her independence was robbed along with her mind.

But I know that she did me good.

There is some ineffable joy that comes from sitting with another, just being people on a journey together. This is why I think that with-craft isn’t primarily about us helping others, as though our attention is an allotment that should be carefully doled out. It is just as much, if not more, about us being open to their presence. It’s about the amazing mystery of the incarnation: that God is with each person we meet in a new and unique way, which means each and every encounter is an opportunity for grace.

Transformation Begins in Slowing Down

Transformation Begins in Slowing Down

Well, it’s over.

By the time you read this, you might have eaten 6 weeks worth of chocolate or binge watched Netflix or put away whatever spiritual practice you took on. Me? I plan to put Easter decorations away and finish projects that got set aside the hubbub of Holy Week.  

Life will be back to normal, hallelujah and praise be to God.

This is, of course, exactly not the point of Easter. Every year I do this, though–invest all my energy into the preparations so that by the time it’s over I have no energy left for the actual transformation. Someone (perhaps N.T. Wright, although I can’t place it exactly) writes about this phenomenon. They make the point that Lent isn’t meant to be the main show. And yet, year after year, we exhaust ourselves “doing Lent right” or at least “getting ready for the Easter holiday” and forget about living Easter right.

It’s like gorging yourself on appetizers and leaving no room for dinner.

On Maundy Thursday, our church held a service of lament. Using Jesus’ last words from the cross, we cried out our pain and suffering, naming all of the ways our hearts are heavy for this world. We had plenty to cry out. Bombs are being used, water is being polluted, children are starving and the things seem very dark indeed.

We are desperate for transformation–literally dying for it.

So on Holy Friday, I devoted my prayer time to this question: how do I move forward from this place? How do we all move forward into Easter, not just as the celebration of a holiday but as a way of life that can transform the world? How do we keep believing that the world is being transformed, when the news cycles and our personal stories too often point to the contrary?

Per usual, God didn’t hand me The Great To-Do List, with all of God’s plans clearly laid out. This is always frustrating for me but after years of experience with it, I’m getting better at handling my irritation. So instead of leaving Easter with all of the answers to life and death, I’m leaving it with only a sense of longing.

But then maybe this is the answer to my prayer for transformation. Maybe instead of running around desperately trying to fix all the things, we need to get comfortable with the heartache. Indeed, I wonder if our desire for the “quick fix” is the thing standing between us and God’s reign.

Last week, many Christians immersed themselves in a story that quickly move from the cries of a happy crowd to the shouts of a blood-thirsty mob. It’s hard to overlook the fact that a grand desire for expediency drives the entire narrative. We love Jesus as long as he’s promising to take on the empire but our disappointment runs deep and vengeful when we realize his plan involves a lot of sitting around with the poor. And the authorities fall into the trap too–trying to solve a problem too quickly, rushing through late night meetings and ignoring the advice of the more savvy members of their staff and families. Resorting to action that is swift, decisive and violent.

So maybe this year transformation starts with rejecting the quick fix. Maybe it starts with spending more time in prayer and less time in planning meetings. Maybe it begins when we  embrace ambiguity and let go of urgency. Maybe it even starts when we agree to stay small, and make time to see God in other people, and do good where we can.

Maybe transformation happens for us all when we stop looking for our to-do list, and start looking for our center.

I don’t know. These are all maybes. But I do know that the tragedy of fast action and quick decision making has been playing out for at least 2000 years, not just in politics but in personal lives.  And so maybe, just maybe, it’s time we tried another way.

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.