It feels pretty dark right now, with a bleak November casting its darkness into the holiday season. Some years it’s harder than others to believe that the light is coming again and this has been one of those years. We’d be forgiven if we temporarily forgot that the light always wins. That, in fact, the light is already winning.
The trajectory of the earth in its orbit assures us that the days will get longer again. The sun will shine brighter, longer and warmer. The lingering cold will eventually be pushed away by light so abundant that we will forget we ever feared for its loss. We will delight, once again, in the early seedlings of spring as they push their way through still-frozen earth.
In some Christian traditions, Advent is observed in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s described as a season of waiting. But that’s not quite right. December is not just for waiting, it’s for longing.
It’s for reaching towards a hope we’d almost stopped believing in. It’s for reminding ourselves that the light comes back, that love can’t be stopped, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and that even when things seems bleak, hope is hovering just over the horizon.
Sometimes, when the darkness comes too early and stays too late, we cannot find it in ourselves to hope for the light itself. We have to instead hope for the hope. That’s the best way I can describe longing–hoping for the hope. Holding on to the shred of a ray of light, of a baby born in a manger, of experiences of Love that are so intense that we have dared to claim that God walked among us.
So if this year the tinsel looks like empty promises, or the Christmas lights gleam like shallow smiles, then I will not tell you to have hope. I will tell you instead to have longing. Long for the song of the angels to return. Long for all the childish dreams you gave up long ago, of the fairy magic of Christmas to illuminate dark corners. Long for the crazy words of biblical prophets, for nonsense about Messiahs and Kingdoms of God and wolves lying with lambs on this very earth. Long for the things we sing in hymns on Sunday but can’t quite believe on Monday morning.
Long for these things because longing is the work of preparing the soul for hope.
If “hope is the thing with feathers,” then longing is the work of building a nest. It is the work of pulling the thin threads of promise together with the brittle sticks of despair so that, in time, hope can take residence again.
And this is where we have to be clear that Advent is not for waiting. It’s not for wait-and-see, or hope-for-the-best. It is for crying out with the Psalmist, “I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land.”
March will come, metaphorically and in real time. It will come with a promise of spring but also with its fierce storms and unpredictable winds. And we will be there, ready to do the work of hope then because we have done the work of Advent now.
So if your heart is heavy this season, whatever the reason, then let it be heavy. Don’t try to force hope to take up residence too soon–false hope is flighty and will leave when you need it most. Instead, use this time to reach deep into the heavyness. In that depth, you will find longing and that will be your way forward.
“I know I’m supposed to be thankful in all things but I’m having a hard time being thankful right now.”
The comment came from a patient, a young woman in the hospital from some illness I didn’t understand. I had peeked carefully into our room to introduce myself as the hospital chaplain covering the 4th floor. A young seminary student, I didn’t know nearly enough to be ministering to people in crisis but I did know this: you do not have to be thankful when you’re laying in a hospital and fighting for your life.
There’s a list of Bible passages that imply otherwise. This time of year, Philippians 4:6 always makes the rounds:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
or, 1 Thessalonians 5:18
“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Now, I believe in gratitude as a spiritual practice. In fact, I think it’s crucial–but not the way we whip it out at our convenience. We are sometimes too quick to point someone toward thanksgiving as a way of avoiding whatever hardship is happening for them. It is not spiritual care to instruct someone who is suffering to “rejoice in the LORD always.” And glib quotes about gratitude should not be used as ways of silencing the hard feelings we simply don’t want to deal with.
But gratitude does have it’s place, even in the midst of suffering. It’s not just some band-aid we put on to cover up an ugly scar. Gratitude is the elixir we drink in order to strengthen ourselves for whatever comes our way.
As Positive Psychology has emerged as a field of science, the research on gratitude has piled up. People who practice the art of regularly giving thanks find that they have:
For people of faith looking for a way forward in troubled times, it’s especially worth noting that gratitude leads to increased compassion and social engagement. I suspect this is because gratitude boosts resilience, which is our ability to overcome challenges. Practicing gratitude doesn’t shield us from sadness, nor does it inspire us to look the other way in the face of hardship. Gratitude gives us the ability to look difficulties in the face and overcome them.
Gratitude is the antidote for fear. And fear is always the enemy of faith because fear prevents us from taking action.
So, no–I’m not a fan of using passages about gratitude as “clobber texts” against those who are hurting. But neither am I a fan of wallowing in Lamentations, simply listing all the things that are wrong with us or the world. Or job is to hold both of these things together, recognizing that acts of thanksgiving give us the ability not just to lament but to Change.
Reading for the week: Luke 8:26-39, the healing of the demon possessed man
A sermon in the “Questions of Jesus” series
(Editoral note: I don’t usually post sermons here at my blog, mainly because a sermon is very much a living thing. So much changes in the giving. I’ve been persuaded of the value of sharing more online so here it is, along with an audio file if you prefer to listen. May it be a blessing this week!)
My daughter and I, always on the lookout for a good book, have been listening to Madeline L’engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. In the Wind in the Door, the second book in the series, heroine Meg meets a Cherubim, Progo, who teaches Meg about her special gift—naming.
“You are a namer.”
“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”
Progo, whose job it was to name all the stars in the galaxy, says this, “When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a namer’s job.” (79)
This is the truth Meg learns, the truth the possessed man learned in our scripture reading, the truth Jesus knew: names have power.
In Genesis, during our second story of creation, the biblical writers record a parade of animals in front of Adam, with God asking each Adam to name each one:
“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; (Genesis 2:18-20)
Like a child getting a new pet, Adam gets to joyfully inspect each one, play with it, pet it, look it over and decide what to call it. But just as with a new pet, Adam knows this excitement will give way to the long-term reality of caretaking. The biblical writers are pointing us toward a deep, ancient truth–we have been given the power of naming the world, and the responsibility of that is immense.
When we become Namers, we take on the power of shaping reality.
How many of us have been called names that didn’t bring us into our fuller selves? Childhood nicknames that carried wounds for a lot longer than they should have, maybe? In first grade, I lived with the name Amelia Bedelia, which sounds innocent enough but anything said teasingly takes its toll. There was a chant, too, you know–Amelia Bedelia. But maybe for you it wasn’t a silly book character, maybe some of us were called fat, stupid, lazy, ugly? Poor? Rich? Or the worse names, the ones that we can’t even repeat, especially not on a Sunday morning sitting here in the sanctuary.
Those are the names that carry shame—they touch us at our deepest, most vulnerable places and they hurt so bad we can’t even whisper them.
We don’t know what was going on with the man Jesus encountered out there in the middle of nowhere. Possession, I know, is hard for us to wrap our modern minds around. But we don’t have to know all the details to know this: he was outcast. Sent to live alone outside of town, among tombs–literally left for dead. He’d been given some names: Sick. Dangerous. Worthless. Those were reality shaping names, until one day, when he was finally asked his name, he couldn’t even answer. No longer a person, he had become completely his situation–literally demonized, one with the illness that had grabbed him.
We do this to ourselves, too, don’t we? I recently read an article in which the person listed all the things she’d said to herself that day:
You know those things, right? Which of them do you say to yourself? Or are there others? Ones you can’t own up to?
The problem with these labels, these names, is that when we name ourselves, we too often base our names on moments, not on the eternal truth of who we are. We focus on these moments, we tell ourselves that they define us and so they do. We take a great, big, black Sharpie and in that permanent ink, we put a giant X across our true identity.
And that’s why we need Namers. We need people to come along, inspect us, see us for who we are and call us by our truest name. Jesus’ healing ministry almost always–with one exception–came from his ability to see people. “Do you see this woman?” we heard him ask last week. Or, “Zacheaus, Zacheaus,” he called, scanning the trees. Seeing him, naming him. Daring to erase the giant, vicious graffiti that had X’d over his real name and written “tax collector,” instead. Or in today’s reading, confronted with a mad lunatic when all he wanted was a reprieve, Jesus gives a gentle smile, an outstretched hand, “What is your name?”
In the universe Madeline L’Engle crafts in her books, evil is represented by a shadow in the universe. The Murray children see the shadow first on the planet Camazotz, which has given in completely to the shadow. “IT” controls them–but the result isn’t what you think. It’s not chaos and craziness, instead, it’s perfect. The newspaper arrives at exactly the same time every morning, delivered by a child who wakes up at precisely the same time as all of the other newspaper delivery boys. Mothers put dinner on the table at exactly the same time each night. Fathers arrive home from work at precisely the same time each evening. All of them together, walking in rhythm, down the street, whistling jauntily as they let themselves in the door. “Honey, I’m home!”
They have names, I imagine, but none that matter. For all intents and purposes, they are living the same life, with exactly the same result.
There is no hope here, none at all, of a Namer being able to do their job. To be a Namer, one must look at the differences–the particular uniqueness that sets each person apart. Progo says it this way, “A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.”
There is no hope of this if we are all the same.
But if we are not all the same, then none of us can be perfect. And if we are not all perfect, it goes without saying that we have faults. Or at the very least, we have differences. And it’s easy, so, so easy, to let those faults become our names.
The namer has to see the real person, in spite of the differences, in spite of the faults. The Namer, it turns out, must not only see people as they are but see people as they could be.
There’s another time in the Bible when a person is asked for their name…the blessing of Jacob.
Some of you might know this story from Genesis: Jacob is journeying across the desert to reunite with his brother, Esau, and end an ugly family feud. When he camps for the night, he is inexplicably attacked by a man. They wrestle all night. When morning comes and the man asks to be let go, Jacob demands a blessing.
Not an explanation, not an apology, a blessing. And in reply, the man first says, “What is your name?” On hearing Jacob’s answer, the man replies, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 2:28)
That’s it. There’s no other blessing, no other promise of things to come, there is simply a name change. Jacob’s name, you see, was no longer accurate. Jacob means “heel grabber,” or “supplanter,” a reference to something in Jacob’s character that is sneaky, or somehow dishonorable.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.”
You are no longer to be known for your worst trait but your best, for you have wrestled with God and with yourself.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that people are re-named in the Bible, nor is it the last. From Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Saul to Paul, namers are on the loose in the Bible’s thin pages, tromping from story to story, telling people not just who they are but who they will be.
This is not some vague optimism. It doesn’t mean putting on rosy glasses and imagining everything’s just going to be fine. Jesus doesn’t hop out of his boat, see the man possessed by demons and then jauntily wave as he passes by. “It’s ok! Don’t worry! God loves you and it all works out in the end!” Nor does he turn his back on the man in a fit of hopelessness. “I can’t do anything here. It’s all so horrible.”
Instead, Jesus holds the tension between naming the reality of the situation and recognizing the possibility for transformation. Jesus calls the man into being “more particularly the particular star that he was meant to be.”
Well, friends, the world needs more Namers. This is always true, I suppose. But this week, in the aftermath of a divisive election, it feels especially true. We need more people to speak love into pain, to speak solidarity into division, to speak protection into situations of vulnerability, to speak understanding into misunderstanding.
And you, by virtue of being followers of Jesus, are those people.
We cannot compromise on this:
We cannot compromise on our Christian calling to stand up to oppression. We cannot compromise on the fact that language that condones or incites hate is never “just politics,” “just teasing,” or “just grafitti.” Those words X people out.
We have to be clear that we are willing to stand up to this. We are willing to rally around the ESL class that meets in our building to say, “We’re with you, we see you, we call you by the name God gave you.” And we have to be clear that when swastikas are painted on playgrounds, as they have in places throughout the nation including Aspen, Colorado, we will be the first to be there with the soapy water and a paintcan of love to write, “Not on our watch.” We will not stand by when people are called “gay” like it’s an insult, or when the sacred right to love who we want is threatened.
This is the call we accepted when we took the name of Christ. And it’s the prophetic mantle we put on we proclaimed ourselves “Open and Affirming.” We will not sit here and “be accepting” of difference, we will actively go out to ensure that differences are treasured, invited, loved and protected.
But even while we do this, we wrestle with a tension. We wrestle with the tension that one of the differences that we must protect is the right to see things differently and to take those different perspectives to the polls with us when we vote.
It is helpful, perhaps, to remember that voting for any one flawed human being is by necessity an ethical choice. Ethics, you all know this, are when two or more moral principles collide. Do not steal is a moral command. Take care of children is a moral command. “Do you steal bread to feed a starving child?” That’s an ethical question.
Voters on all sides of issues, parties and candidates in this election made ethical choices. They made choices in which they had to pit several morals or ideals against each other. And so we can in good conscience say that people who voted for Clinton or Trump or Johnson or Stein or one of the other 20 something candidates on our Colorado ballot made an ethical choice. In our families, our circle of friends, and right here in this congregation, many people made choices they believed were ethical that landed them on different sides.
We must not demonize people for that. Just as we will not compromise on standing up for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, we cannot compromise on loving each otherfor the different ideas they bring to the table. And if we can’t do that here, in church, then there is very little hope for being able to do it out there, in a divided world.
There is a lot in this right now. I know, I feel it. We have to hold on to our Christian values as protectors of the oppressed while still loving those who saw it differently. It will not be easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it and the world wouldn’t need us at all.But we are needed, very much, to name the names of all God’s people in ways that call us all forward together, a holy line marching against all that would dare to X out another.
I’m not a politically vocal person, at least not outside the safety of my own home. During this election season, my husband has listened to daily commentary about the state of the campaigns but outside of a couple friends who share my political views, I don’t talk politics. I am, quite frankly, afraid of the potential conflict.
I’m probably right to be worried. A 2014 Pew Study found that Republicans and Democrats were more divided than previously. More troubling, they found that an increasing number of people viewed people from the other party as threats to the nation’s well being. As of that study, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans saw the other party as threats. This is well beyond not agreeing with each other and into outright animosity, suspicion and fear.Given the state of this presidential election, it’s clear that this trend has continued over the past two years.
Lucky for me, my neighbors have largely taken the same approach to avoiding this election. No one is sporting any presidential signs or bumper stickers for me to smile or glare at each day as I head home. A few “likes” on Facebook hint at our political affiliations but it’s not enough to spark resentment. Even my family has enacted a tacit no-politics rule (except, of course, for the various alliances among us who agree on things).
This seems like the wisest course of action in a country of people that are positioned for battle. When Facebook posts can ruin real-life friendships and Twitter wars erupt at the slightest provocation, fight or flight appears to be our only options.
The avoidance approach to politics creates a façade of agreement. Taken to its logical end, it promotes the view that disagreement has no place in our relationships. We can all be friends, as long as we don’t address anything troubling, disagreeable or meaningful. We can all be family as long as we pretend to vote the same way. We can all be a church as long as we act like we’re all the same.
As Parker Palmer says in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, “I will not ask us to dial down our differences. Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisianship is not a problem. Demonizing the other is.”
If this fight or flight response isn’t democracy in action, then it’s certainly not Christianity in action. Our very best values, the values of our government and the values of our faith affirm that people of all beliefs can love, learn from and respect one another. And this means that at a time like this, a time that’s laden with suspicion, fear and even hate we must hear each other into speech.
That’s why the act of listening itself is the key to healing. We’re not all going to agree, not ever. But we can agree to hear each other. And in hearing, we can agree that we are all human, worthy of the basic human dignity of being recognized for the unique perspectives and gifts we bring to the world.
We’re here, with only a few days left until the presidential election. Thank God almighty, because I know so many of us cannot take any more. But while the political ads might end on November 8, the real work of healing will begin November 9. And for that, we’re going to need to put on our listening ears. We’re going to need to ask others to tell their stories and share their dreams. To respond to their anger and hurt with curiousity and love rather than defensiveness. To disagree and then still smile when we pass each other on the street, or over the backyard fence, or across the table.
This all seems so simple, this idea of listening to one another to bring greater unity. But we’ve tried out-yelling each other and that didn’t work. We’ve tried name-calling and that didn’t work. We’ve tried avoiding all “hard topics” and that didn’t work. Actually listening to each other is the only option left. (I’ve said something similar before: Meeting Real Pain with Real Love: On Same Sex Marriage and the Way of Christ.)
Thich Naht Hahn says this about the importance of listening to each other in times of conflict:
The other person has wrong perceptions about himself and about us. And we have wrong perceptions about ourselves and the other person. And that is the foundation for violence and conflict and war…Both sides are motivated by fear, by anger, and by wrong perception. But wrong perceptions cannot be removed by guns and bombs. They should be removed by deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving space.
I believe that people are crying out for it, desperate to create a place where diversity is valued.
This is where we can find courage for our healing movement: once we get started, with just a few of us here and there taking the time to reach across political aisles, it will snowball and grow, becoming an avalanche of world-changers. All just hearing each other.
I was in fifth grade the year I discovered that girls were supposed to be squeamish. This was a painful and puzzling thing to find out. Up until then, girls and boys mostly played together. The cool girls were the ones who could keep up with the boys. They were athletic and daring. They rode horses and chased cows, had beat up jeans and practical t-shirts. The rules of our universe were that everyone competed to be bravest and toughest.
Until one day, all the rules changed.
It happened like this:
After school, we were all waiting for our respective school buses when one of the boys found a garter snake. A garter snake! We’d all been catching garter snakes for years—and really, they’d sort of lost their appeal in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. But this was a whole year later and when one of the boys advanced on the girls, holding the snake out at arm’s length, the rest of the girls knew to squeal and run, acting for all the world like the snake was a dangerous weapon instead of 5 inches of harmlessness.
I didn’t know the new rules so I failed to squeal and run, a social mistake that it took me weeks to recover from. I was left out while all of the others repeated versions of this game—brave boys finding overrated items in nature and torturing frightened girls, only to be rewarded with giggles once the threat had passed.Eventually, though, I learned to shriek and run along with all of the others, convincing myself that I was so grossed out by grasshoppers and spiders that I’d lost my senses.
The message was reinforced in subtle but life-altering ways over the next few years. Girls began to list “shopping” as one of their hobbies. We giggled about how hard math is , asked boys to help us in science and dreamt about when we’d be allowed to wear make-up.
Middle school passed in a haze of uncertainty. It was impossible to pin down my identity when the rules kept changing so quickly. Being smart wasn’t cool. Being athletic was—but only if you were daintily athletic, and never quite as good as the boys. The lines we had to walk were more like tripwires, always shifting just as we began to figure them out.
I probably would have stayed adrift well into high school except for a speech given to us by an 8th grade teacher. On the last day of school he gave the entire class a lecture about the importance of staying true to ourselves in high school. It was pretty standard stuff—remember your values, don’t get too caught up in the search for popularity, stay away from alcohol—except that he added a crucial element, just for the girls.
“Ladies, do not dumb yourselves down just to fit some stereotype. I have seen the most amazing, talented 8th grade women go off to high school and when I see them later, they’ve become empty-brained giggling idiots. Do not do this. It’s not worth it. That’s what you think people want from you but it’s not true. The people who matter want you to be your best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.”
In that moment, something clicked. All of a sudden, I understand what had been happening. For the past 3 years, we’d all been participating in the gender-ification of our brains and interests. Not only did I understand but my puzzlement and frustration suddenly made sense. Someone had named what I didn’t have the wisdom to recognize. I was being pushed to embody someone else’s idea of who I should be.
Gender roles are complex precisely because they develop in this way. They are insidious, seeping into our identities at a time when we’re most vulnerable. Like racial biases, gender biases need to be called out. As researcher Marianne Cooper says, “We have different expectations for boys and girls, and for men and women, and those different expectations lead us to think that different goals are appropriate for them.”
But as one wise teacher pointed out, the people who really matter want kids to be their best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.
This is what kids today need, as much as they needed it 10, 20, 60 years ago. They need more people to name for them the truths that they can’t yet name for themselves. They need wiser, braver, kinder adults to point out that gender stereotypes are still shaping lives, for men and women. Because sometimes, simply naming the game is enough to kick start a change.
Doing a New Thing Again: A Back-to-School Prayer Time for Families
The idea for this family prayer time comes from several muses. First, I’m doing a blessing of the backpacks this week as kids in our area are heading back to school. Second, I’m always on the lookout for ways to incorporate prayer and Bible reading at home. (To mixed results. Please do not think that this goes perfectly!) Third, Cindy Brandt shared this liturgy from David R. Henson and I was inspired by his reminder that we need to honor both the joys and the difficulties of going back to school.
So I’m offering this up for you to use however you see fit. Say the prayers in your own words. Choose different Bible readings. Ask different questions. There is no right way to pray, be family, or “do church.”
Candle, campfire or backyard firepit
Bible, if you prefer your own version or want different verses
Conversation sticks (below)
Ingredients for s’mores
Ahead of time, create conversation sticks. Use popsicle sticks and write one question on each:
What are you looking forward to this year?
What are you nervous about right now?
What were you most proud of last school year?
What goals (personal, academic, sports, home) do you have for this year?
What would make this year easier for you?
What friends are you looking forward to seeing?
What have you heard about _____ grade? (fill in with entering grade level)
What is your favorite memory from this summer?
Begin by lighting a candle or gathering around the fire.
Read Isaiah 65:17-19:
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
Say, “The book of Isaiah is about God’s promise to the Israelites, who were living in exile. They had been conquered and didn’t have a land of their own to live in. God promises them that they will be returned to their land. Even though we don’t live in that time, we still read this passage to remember that God is always working.”
Have each family member (even adults) draw a conversation stick from the jar and share their answer. If needed, remind everyone that all answers are good answers.
“God of new beginnings, you know that every new adventure comes with both excitement and fear. Tonight we lift up all of our joy and our anxiety to you. Guide our path this year. Bless us with new friends, joyful learning, kind teachers and wise parents. And when times get tough, when we’re overwhelmed by tests and homework, our friends are unfriendly or our parents impatient remind us that you are with us. Amen.”
Say, “No matter what happens this year, remember this promise from Romans 8:37-38. ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We can trust that God is with us all as you go back to school this year. Amen.”
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.
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)
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.
We just finished the last Harry Potter book when I heard about Orlando. We’d been listening to it in the car and then stayed up late on Sunday night to listen to the last 30 minutes. When it ended, my daughter cried and said, “NOW what are we going to listen to?”
Then I checked the news and wanted to cry again because I wished so badly to be in a Harry Potter book, where the bad guy was defeated and Good won and the world was put back together. Because this real world that I’d come harshly back into is broken.
And I don’t mean one person–as in, “that shooter was broken.” I mean us. We are broken. We are broken because we continue to allow this to happen. Because we sit back and debate policies without offering alternative solutions while other people’s children are shot like pop-up characters at a carnival shooting gallery, again and again and again. It’s broken because our response is to lash out at the victims: they were out late, none of them had their own gun to shoot back, no one tackled the shooter, the club should have had better guards.
We’re not immune, none of us. Sociologically speaking, it’s our human response. When we’re scared, we resort to blaming the victim because it gives us the illusion of safety. If we can somehow qualify what happened, then we can continue to pretend that it can’t happen to us. We can tell our children, “It’s ok, that doesn’t happen here.” We don’t have to face the fact that it does happen here, and it could happen to us—that it could even happen to them.
Then, sometimes, we do something equally human, and equally wrong: we’re silent. We’re silent because we’re too far removed. We’re silent because this act of horror happened in a nightclub at 2:00 a.m. and we’ve never even seen the inside of a bar at that time of night. We’re silent because it was Latino night, and we’re not Latino. We’re silent because it was a gay club and we’re not LGBTQ.
We reacted intensely to Columbine, and Sandy Hook, and Aurora, and Paris because we can imagine ourselves in those places. We go to movies, we go to work, we were children once and some of us have children now. We were outraged and grief-stricken because it could have been us. But this—this is outside of our experience. As someone commented, “I’m sad but I’m not horrified the way I should be.”
I have no judgment of this. In fact, I’m in awe of this generous soul who could recognize his numbness as a spiritual failing. Friends, this is exactly why we have engage. If we “weep with those who weep” only when the dead look like us, then we’re failing. If we only love our neighbors only when our neighbor loves like us, then we’re failing. If we sit back and let minorities bear the brunt of changing a world that oppresses, marginalizes and endangers them, then we’re not followers of Christ in anything more than name.
Over that past two days, I’ve had the immense privilege—and it is a privilege—of hearing the stories of some of my LGBTQ friends and I am emerging a changed person. I didn’t understand all of this: the taunts, the looks, the bullying, the unacceptance, the fear of openly being yourself. And I had to hear these stories in order to understand why they are shaken to the core. Every single day they have faced fear while doing the things that straight folks do without thinking twice. Things I do without thinking twice. Holding hands at the movie theater, renting an apartment, grocery shopping as a family. And now they know how right they were to be afraid.
These stories of fear are also stories of courage and bravery. Above all, I hear that. But strong and brave as they might be, they shouldn’t have to bear this burden alone.
By the time you actually read this post you will have already read many other blogs and articles on the topic. This is the blessing of the information age. And perhaps in doing so, you will have begun to feel saturated, or hopeless, or resigned. Perhaps, like me, you will even feel like it’s not worth jumping in at this point—all the words have been spoken, all the ideas have been shared, all the caring has been done.
You would be wrong.
This isn’t the time to fall silent, trusting that others have spoken already. This is the time to be loud. It’s the time to be redundant. It’s the time to say over and over and over again that we are a people of love. Because as long as the voices of love are willing to be meek and humble, the voices of hate will drown us out.
So do something today, anything. Call your local LGBTQ outreach center and find out what they need. Tweet, Facebook or Instagram a message of love. Call your Congressperson and demand a bi-partisan solution to gun violence epidemic. (Honestly, I don’t care whether you think we need more guns or less guns, I care if you act in a real, tangible way to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Research, maybe, would be a good place to start.) Listen to an LGTBQ person. Teach your children about love, acceptance and differences. Do it today and then do it again next week.
Whatever you do, don’t do the easy thing. Don’t remain silent. Because like the old camp song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love” and love doesn’t retreat. Love is loud.
I grew up praying the traditional way. There was always a blessing before meals and two prayers before bed: The Prayer of Protection and The Lord’s Prayer.
In church, I would hear the pastor praying prayers with complicated names like “intercession,” and “invocation.” I appreciated his beautiful words but felt removed from the process. These were not the prayers of my heart.
It wasn’t until I was with my church’s youth ministry group as a college student that I realized that there were many, many ways to pray. Prayer was blown wide-open for me when I saw the leaders teach kids to pray in all kinds of ways: singing, clapping, yelling and yes, even quiet. While I still relish the traditional prayers of my childhood, that experience changed the way I teach prayer. It wasn’t just that the prayers of these middle-schoolers were “fun,” although some were, it was that these prayers clearly respected the ages and personalities of the young people we were mentoring.
Children need a way to connect with God that fits their developmental stages and growing understanding. Because God and prayer are such abstract concepts, it helps them grow in faith and maturity to have these ideas connected to concrete practices. Further, because their little bodies are bursting with energy, using prayers that engage rather than suppress this energy is key to helping them develop their own relationship with God.
This isn’t to say that memorizing the traditional prayers has no value for children. While an ultimate goal is for children to turn to God in prayer in all things, children often need words to get started. I am reminded of this every day when I pick my daughter up from school.
“How was your day?”
“What did you do?”
It is only later, when we’ve had time to unwind and reconnect that the details of her day begin to emerge.
If this is true of children’s conversations with their parents, how much truer is it in their relationship with God? As we expose children to a variety of prayer forms, we give them conversation starters for their life-long relationship with God. With this in mind, here are 5 child-friendly prayer ideas:
Gratitude Box: The importance of a thankful attitude is well-researched. Studies have shown that gratitude leads to greater happiness, more energy and eases depression. For Christians, thankfulness is also meant to be a spiritual practice. It is a way of living that draws us closer to God. Encouraging a prayer practice that focuses on gratitude is perhaps the most important foundation we can lay for children. Happily, it’s also quite easy. Begin by creating a classroom gratitude box with the children. Before the group meets, cover a shoebox in plain paper, cutting a slit in the lid as you would for a Valentine’s Day mailbox project. Give children old magazines or newspapers and invite them to cut out pictures of things they’re thankful for. You can explain this to children as “things that make you happy.” Children can glue their pictures to box. Label the box, including a Bible verse about gratitude, if you like. Each time the children come together, have them write down something they’re grateful. It’s ok if it’s the same thing week after week! The important thing is that they’re beginning to learn the practice of being thankful. Here’s the gratitude container we made last year:
Bucket of Blessings. This is a great way to model intercessory prayers and blessings for children. Begin with a small metal bucket from the dollar store. Using colorful craft popsicle sticks, write the name of each family member on a stick. Children select a popsicle stick from the container and then spend a moment in prayer for that person. Older children may be able to craft a prayer on their own but some guidance will still help. You might provide them with an idea like, “God, please bless _____________ today. Give them ______________.” Take a look at Happy Hearts for her take on the idea!
Digging Deep. This is a fun and meditative activity for children. Using a permanent marker, write down prayer concerns and joys on medium size sea shells. (Small rocks work for this, as well.) Bury the seashells in your sensory table, small sandbox or a dish tub filled with sand. Provide children with a small shovel or spoon and let them dig for the seashells. As they find each one, they can offer up a prayer for that item. Encourage them to simply take a moment to hold the seashell while they picture the person or thing for whom they’re praying.
Candle Devotions. Set up a small table with candles. Write several prayers on an index card under each candle. Include the Lord’s Prayer and any other prayers your children know by heart, or select a few verses from the psalms. Psalms 91:1, 5:8 or 18:2 are all good devotional verses for children. Encourage children and other family members to use the space throughout the day by praying the written prayer and lighting a candle. While kids love high-energy activities, they also appreciate the interplay between quiet and loud. If your routine includes a lot of group activities, this quiet devotional time invites kids into stillness. The ancient and meditative act of lighting candles resonates with children. Adapt this for pre-readers by using prayers they know and draw a picture rather than writing the prayer.
Prayer Cube. Prayer cubes take many forms but the basic idea is the same. It is simply a small box shape, the size of a large die or a rubix cube, with prayer ideas written on each side. For an even funner version, make your own prayer cube from a large moving box. Write a prayer prompt on each side of the box: “I’m sorry for _____________.” “I was happy when _______________.” “I’m worried about ________________. “I need help with _______________.” “Please bless ____________________.” “Free choice/roll again.”
(No box? Print this pattern from Enchanted Learning and make a cube from paper.)
One by one, children take turns rolling the prayer cube and following the prompt they land on. Expect children to need help thinking of their prayer ideas, especially at first. This is a developmental skill! Young children have a hard time remembering events of their day and emotions. However, the more they do this and other prayers, the better they’ll get at reflecting on their lives, joys, hurts and concerns for others. Children’s Ministry has this one with just dinner time prayers–another great id
As adults, we realize that everyone prays differently. Allowing freedom for children to explore their own prayer styles is a way of recognizing and loving the God-given uniqueness of each person. By engaging children in a variety of prayer practices, you guide them down a life-long path of prayer. While these ideas are good starting points, they are certainly not the only options. Explore different modes of prayer yourself and teach them to the kiddos in your life. You may even be surprised at your own expanding conversation with God!