Monday, October 2, 2017

My Family's Gun Story (Why I Believe Guns Make Us Less Safe)

Last night a gunman opened fire and killed over 50 people, injured over 400 and once again brought the discussion of (among other things) gun safety into the public dialogue here in the US.

Today, in the midst of everyone’s grief and expressions offering their thoughts and prayers, some have spoken out for increased gun safety (which yes, means increased gun restrictions). The response from some has been, “Today’s not the day, that is a political debate.”


Today IS that day.

Public safety is NOT a political issue. How we achieve it may be, but NO. I don’t accept the argument that today we should not talk about gun control. Today is totally the day to talk about it. Let’s stop having mass shootings, and then sure, any day would be a good day to NOT have this discussion.

I do know that we all come from varied perspectives on the use and possession of firearms. Those perspectives are informed by many things, including how we were raised, the type of area we live in, what we think guns are used for (personal safety, hunting, fun, whatever).

Many people have their story—why they believe what they believe about guns. I believe guns should be harder to get, require more in depth background checks, and be easier to take (from, for example, those dealing with mental health issues or those maybe accused of and certainly those convicted of domestic violence).

Here’s why:

My brother Dan, the second of the four of us (I am the oldest) did not grow up with guns. A few family members had some, for protection (and some worked in law enforcement), but we were not raised shooting guns or generally believing a normal person needed a gun to be safe.

As an adult, Dan became a pastor in the Baltimore suburbs and one day his house was robbed by what turned out to be the druggie son of a church member. His back, basement door was broken during the break in. His church did not fix the door for quite a while. At that time, my sister also lived in the house with Dan. Dan was scared. At first they didn’t know who robbed him, and finding out didn’t make him feel safer. The door was still broken. It would have been easy for someone to get in.

That was when Dan bought his first gun.

In college, Dan had struggled with depression and once had called campus security because he was feeling suicidal. They came, and he voluntarily checked in to a mental health bed at the local hospital for a few days. Then he was released, put on anti-depressants, and he got better.

For years, he seemed well.

That was when the break in happened. By the time (or soon thereafter) that the church finally fixed the door that the robber had broken, Dan owned two guns—for protection. Two guns legally bought.

I later found Dan’s copy of his gun license applications. He had answered everything honestly. One question asked if he had been involuntarily committed to a facility for mental health treatment. He answered no. That was the truth.

Then things started to go horribly wrong for Dan. Our father died suddenly and unexpectedly in his mid-fifties of a heart attack. Dan’s life began to spiral out of control.

And he still had two guns.

There are many, many things I regret about the months leading up to June 2014.

So many things I wish I (and others) had done differently.

But if there was just ONE thing I could have done differently, it would have been this: I would have asked Dan if I could take his guns until he was feeling better. Or even whether, since his door was fixed and he house that much more secure, he could just get rid of them.

I don’t know how he would have responded.

But I wish I had tried.

After Dan’s suicide—using one of those guns he had bought to keep himself safe, the police asked my sister (who was on the scene, supporting my mother who faced one of the most horrific experiences any parent could face) if she wanted the guns. She said no. They pressed, explaining that the guns had some value and that if she didn’t take them, they’d have to be melted down.

She told them to melt the damn things down.

My brother was less safe because he had guns in his house. Guns he bought for just the same reason so many people claim they own their guns—and for a reason I think anyone would be hard pressed to think was illogical (if you’re of the mind to think guns are ever a reasonable safety measure).

There are tons of statistics out there about the risks of guns in the homes of those with mental health issues. Statistics that flat out demolish the argument, “Well, someone who wants to kill themselves will find a way to do it.”

Nope. You’re way less safe if there’s a gun. It is far too effective a tool to end human life.

A little while later, my husband and I, with two young children, were talking about our own safety after some thefts in our area. We were scared. It was the first time we ever had the discussion, “Would we be safer if we had a gun?”

We talked about it. We researched it. We kept in mind we had small children. We decided our family would be less safe with guns than without them.

I don’t know how I could live through what my family lived through, know what I know about gun statistics (what little we do know, since the gun industry has successfully prevented detailed statistics even being kept), I cannot help but conclude that widespread, poorly-limited gun ownership makes each person, and our entire society, less safe.

This is not a political debate. Maybe it’s a family argument. And we each have our own stories. But there are too many stories like mine.

This needs to stop.

We need common sense gun laws which limit people’s ability to buy guns, restrict what kind of guns they can buy, make it easier to take a person’s guns when public or personal safety suggests it, and we need to lift ANY restrictions on the kinds of statistics and research officials can do related to gun usage, violence, injury and death.

By the way, I don’t know WHY anyone would oppose any of these (many gun owners support these) but I especially don’t know why we are afraid to study gun violence. After all, if it’s not really a problem, what are we hiding?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

On Crying Out for a King

We are coming up on about a month since my family and I made a major transition, as my husband Chris received a promotion and our entire family moved across the state to settle in and start our own “news”—new job for me, new schools for the girls.

I could make quite a list of all the “news” but if you have ever made such a move yourself, you know.

One of the patterns which has changed for me in this time has been to have come to a place where each week—really each day—I am balancing reflections on at least four different portions of scripture: 
  1. Our family devotion—Chris and I decided for this year to follow the Abingdon Press Deep Blue curriculum with our girls, so we have a text we read and reflect on for each week.
  2. My personal devotion—challenged by my colleagues at this summer’s Pastors’ School in Zimbabwe, I’ve committed to reading through the Bible in a year, though the move slowed my pace and I need to up my game to make that goal!
  3. My sermon preparation—being in a new appointment, I’ve decided to follow the lectionary, and for now at lest, generally preach on the Gospel (it’s hard to go wrong with, you know, Jesus).
  4. My Bible study preparation—starting this week, my church’s Friday eveningBible Study restarts and I’m tasked with teaching, and for the fall I’ve decided to move through a selection of Biblical passages that speak to who are called to be and what we are called to do as the people of God.


Generally I try to have fewer threads out there, but it’s been interesting, as you might imagine, to see these various paths cross, conjoin, and diverge. Already it is feeling like some crazy Biblical cacophony that at times weaves into the most beautiful (or beautifully challenging) symphony.

This week, our family devotion is the story of Samuel anointing Saul as king. (If you’re using the Deep Blue curriculum at church, you’ll know we’re behind a week or so, but hey, don’t tell anyone!)

I have been struck this week, as each morning with our girls we have read a different translation or telling of this story. Our girls’ curriculum has the story filled with repetition—the people calling again and again in words like, “Long live the king!”

If you know this account you know that the people of Israel until then had been led by a rag-tag succession of judges and leaders who primarily saw themselves as those conveying the will of God. But in a move any parent of small children (or you know anyone trying to keep up with the Joneses) can recognize, they see that the other peoples around them have a king and so they cry out to God for one too.

Samuel, being a prophet of God and so a bit wiser and less reactive than everyone else, essentially tells them to be careful what they wish for. And in a move that boggles my mind, God finally concedes and tells Samuel to anoint Saul. (SPOILER ALERT: it won’t go well, for neither Saul nor almost any of the kings which will follow.)

As our nation continued and deepened into discussions of patriotism—specifically whether one ought to be able to knee during the playing of the national anthem at a football game—as well as ongoing debates about the nature of government and its role and most deeply, how we as a nation have been co-opted by the worst, darkest sentiments we carry especially around issues of race and privilege...well, I couldn’t help but be struck each time we would read that story and the people (voiced by my children) would cry out for a king.

We like power.

This is a sad, painful truth of humanity. It is rooted in the darkest part of who we are, as it was seen first in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve didn’t crave community, love, even provision—they HAD all those things. What they wanted was power. Wisdom. To be like God.

And we have continued the struggle. It is as base what Christians for generations have understood as Original Sin. It is on its face today racism, bigotry of all stripes, economic disparity, gender inequality. Human power is always POWER OVER. 

And dammit, if anyone is going to have POWER OVER, it should be ME.

As I watch, read and listen to accounts of our political leaders, our church fights, and even the brokenness in our homes and communities, I hear the echoes of this ancient yet disturbingly contemporary sentiment all around us.

Meanwhile, my sermons these weeks have led me and my congregation through some of Jesus’ parables, especially those which challenge us to worry about ourselves (not others) and our own faithfulness. Last week we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable of the workers. Some workers worked all day in the hot sun, and though they received the fair pay promised, they balked that others who worked only an hour also received the same. They felt like they deserved more. But the landowner essentially says, “You got what was fair and what was promised, why should it bother you if I’m generous to others?”

Well, because.

Because otherwise how can we know what we need to do to have POWER OVER others. If God’s grace isn’t based on merit, then perhaps this entire competitive, power-hungry game we’re playing is based on the wrong rules.

And we can’t win. Because winning entails POWER OVER.

But we can’t admit maybe we’re not called to have POWER OVER so we get angrier and more belligerent and we stop listening to each other all together, because we know that to listen often leads to sympathy and even, God forbid, changing our minds and maybe even having to face truths that force us to need to confess and change. Rather than having POWER OVER, maybe we’re called to submit and humble ourselves.

And after all, this Jesus thing is great, but no one told us it might lead us to have to give up some (or all) of what little POWER OVER others we have.




We want someone to come fix everything and protect us and hey, we’re willing to give them some POWER OVER us if only they’ll protect some of our POWER OVER others.

I’ve reached the point in my reading through the Bible that I’m wading into Leviticus (see, I told you I was going slowly)...and so far I’m really struck by how God’s laws are directed at “you.” Now I know God means this communally, but I also kind of take it individually. Like here’s what to do if YOU make a mistake. I know later I’ll read about what to do about other people. But I’m kind of struck now by the ways God’s laws, as absolutely communally-oriented as they are (and should be) also encourage us to STAY IN YOUR OWN LANE. 

Many years later Jesus will remind God’s people of this when he tells them to worry about the plank in their own eye before trying to pull the splinter out of their neighbor’s eye.

This week, as I begin this new BIble Study with my congregation, we’re looking at Joshua 24–Joshua’s speech to the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. The part where he tells them, “Choose this day who you will serve.”

Maybe that’s our problem. From the beginning. That God gave us a choice. 

We’re good at making bad choices.

And given the choice between faithfulness or God or striving for POWER OVER others, we almost always choose the latter.

After all, from the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, faithfulness to God has always been the OPPOSITE of POWER OVER.

So that’s where I find myself this week. Cringing when my children recite cries of, “Long live the King!” Because I know I’ve cried those words in so many different ways.

Convicted by the ways my POWER OVER (both the power I’ve gained and the power I was given through often arbitrary biological traits) drag me into fights and battles I too often feel I have to join without stopping to think whether they are faithful battles to fight at all.

So this week, I’m trying to ask questions of myself about when and how I have chosen the wrong battles, and when I have chosen the wrong sides...and who, this day, I will choose to serve. Perhaps you might join me in the same.

Sent from my iPad

Thursday, September 21, 2017


This past July, my brother got me an Amazon Echo for my birthday. I hadn’t known I wanted one, but apparently he was sure I did. Fortunately, it came just as we were preparing to leave the wilds of the Maryland mountains (with their frustratingly slow satellite internet) for the positively sublime world of high speed internet. And thus the ability to unleash the potential of Alexa.

It didn’t take long for my kids to realize Alexa was just as much at their fingertips too. Call Uncle Jordan? No problem. Soon they were calling without us even knowing. Research the details of the founding fathers (we’re big Hamilton fans)? In a sec. Play that song you love, 54 times in a row? Sure, no problem.

That’s how the song “Seasons of Love” got put on nearly automatic reply in our house for days on end.

Now, any song will get annoying if played over and over, but it must be said that “Seasons of Love” has a pretty high replay-annoyance threshold. Seriously. Don’t trust people who don’t like this song. J

It also felt to me like a fitting soundtrack to what our family has been experiencing over these past two months—the upending and replanting of so much of our lives. New jobs for me and my husband. New schools for the girls. Moving to the other side of the state (kind of). So much change. So quickly.

So it has been good to reflect on seasons. And to take it one step further, to be reminded of God’s faithfulness through all these seasons.

525,600 minutes. One year. Well, a non leap-year. But you get the point.

Some years it is overwhelming to consider the transitions—the changing of seasons—that is possible in just those 525,600 minutes.

I’m not going to get sentimental about change. There are lots of great bumper stickers and cute sayings about change. I hate at least half of them.

Change is hard. Even when it comes by choice and welcomed, it is hard. But even then, we are reminded of the domino effect of change. The learnings we have from fields like family systems theory that reminds us that because of the interconnectedness of our relationships and lives, a change in one area (good or bad) will reshape other areas. Change is hard. It is also at best controlled chaos.

People have of course been asking me lately how things are going. We’re nearly three weeks into our big move. New starts. So far everyone has gotten to school and work on time, and been fed. Win.

Beyond that, I’ve told people it kind of feels like I’m a soda can that someone picked up, shook, and set down. I don’t mean the “I’m about to explode” part. I mean the, “I’m just waiting for things to settle out a bit” part.

Some people like the changing of seasons. I’m good with the whole idea of changing seasons. I’ve felt God at work in all seasons. I just tend to get impatient with the transition and want to get to the coming “season.” After all, we’ve only got 525,600 minutes. Why waste any more than needed waiting?

So I give thanks for this new season, even as I wait (hopefully just a bit longer) for it to feel a bit more arrived. I mourn for the season past, but I know God’s faithfulness that brought be through the seasons thus far will guide me through this one unfolding.

Maybe I’ll ask Alexa to play that song one more time.

NOTE: If you are interested in other songs that might be reassuring in times of changing seasons, here are some of my recent favorites (there aren’t many—I play these on repeat—my daughters learned well):

Hills and Valleys,” by Tauron Wells
Still,” by Hilary Scott and the Scott Family
Take Another Step,” Steven Curtis Chapman
Rise Up,” Andra Day
The entire Hamilton soundtrack, but especially, “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

Thursday, July 27, 2017

On Zimbabwe, Changing Voices, and Visiting Each Other

I met Virginia a little over 11 years ago as I began my first summer field education place during seminary. Virginia was a kind, Christian woman in her nineties who bore all the gentleness of age and none of its bitterness. If you had met Virginia yourself, you, like I did at first, might have assumed the generations-old log cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina had always been her home. She was a bit of a walking stereotype, one might have guessed.

Well, I guessed at least.

But, life and people being what they are, those first impressions belied her full story.

It is true Virginia’s family had owned and lived in that log cabin—which she now shared with her retired son and his wife—for many generations. It was the place she was born, grew up, and entered adulthood. But soon after her marriage, Virginia left that log cabin. She wouldn’t return to live there with her son and daughter in law until after his retirement, just a few years before I came to spend a summer in that place. To be a pastoral intern. And to come to know her.

The intervening years, encompassing nearly all of her adulthood, Virginia had become a city girl. She had lived in and raised her son up north, mostly, if I recall, in Chicago.

You might forgive me my assumptions if you also knew Virginia’s son, who when I met him wore overalls ALL the time, and sported quite the mountain-man beard. I didn’t know how clean-shaven he’d lived his office-work life before retiring to his ancestral home.

As I came to know Virginia and her family, I was first of all struck by the way our first impressions and assumptions can create barriers between us and who others truly are.

Then, Virginia opened my eyes to even deeper truths and revealed far more ingrained assumptions and stories I’d heard.

One day I set about to really learn about her experience. I expected to hear about the difficulties of living in that mountain area during the Great Depression, and to hear her sense of longing for the good old days. I had heard these stories from others. And perhaps others had so convinced themselves and me of their truth that I almost didn’t even ask.

When asked about the Great Depression, Virginia told me she thought it hardly made a difference. Her family had been so poor, the Great Depression didn’t really matter to them. I thought, “Heck, yeah, I guess if you aren’t really part of the cash-based economy, it probably wouldn’t matter too much.”

Then I asked Virginia if she missed the old days, if she thought of them as the “good old days.”

She didn’t think long and hard, or wistfully, at all.

Instantly, she said no, not at all. She said nearly every single thing about life today was better than when she grew up. Every. Single. Thing.

Except one.

She wished people visited each other more.

Not for purpose. Without agenda. Just to visit. To get to know each other. To spend time together. We are too outcome oriented, she told me.

I think about Virginia often, and the lessons I learned from her.

I thought about her again recently as I travelled to (and then home) from my second trip to Pastors School in Zimbabwe.

My first trip to Zimbabwe, where we connected with our United Methodist clergy colleagues there, was akin to that conversation with Virginia. Assumptions shattered. Distance (or time, age or space) overcome.

Virginia did not hold me at a distance because of her age, experience, or clearly superior wisdom.

My colleagues in Zimbabwe, were, I have now found twice, also willing to help bridge the gap of the experiences, differences and distances which separate us.

I have written before about my first trip, so I will not do so again here. In many ways, that first trip was, and I suspect will always be, the most formative in my own experience with our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe.

I once again, this trip, found myself trying to walk the path of recognizing and valuing the differences between my own experience and my colleagues in Zimbabwe, but also not allowing my perceptions of those differences to seep into assumptions about their own processing of their (and my) experiences.

This trip, I had powerful conversations which were in many ways even more open than I experienced last trip. Conversations about the future of our shared denomination. Sharing about our families and ministries in ways that require a previous foundation. I don’t know that I had any grand revelations this trip. It was good. It was powerful. It was, I am certain, where God called me to be for that week. And I am still not sure what great insights it will shed. Perhaps we are foolish and arrogant to expect all such experiences to offer us that. Like God has to work in fireworks and theatrics.

I have found that often the most important moments and experiences in my life have come and gone without me understanding until much later their importance. And in so doing, I am constantly reminded of the presence of God in and through the mundane. The routine. Or at least the spectacularly unremarkable changes to routine.

One of my seminar professors told us, “It is best not to sing while your voice is still changing.”

In its context, he meant this to say that we would do well to not try to pastor people while we’re still being formed in seminary. I have the utmost respect for those who do serve churches in seminary—seminary wrecked me. It tore me down, and only later built me back up. My voice was changing.

But here’s the thing. My voice is still changing. For the longest time, I thought some day it would stop. I would settle into me. I think that is happening, has happened. But it is also still happening. And I think—I even hope—it always does.

And so it is with Zimbabwe, so it is as I prepare for a pastoral transition, we prepare to move our children from the only home they’ve known, and the only place Chris and I have shared as husband and wife. My voice is still changing.

I give thanks to God that God doesn’t make us wait until our voice is done change. Indeed, I give thanks for the messy, at times off-key, beauty chorus of our changing voices that God draws together from across time and space to be brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, the family and body of Christ.

And don't forget, we should visit each other more.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On Questioning God's Call

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my call to ordained ministry with some folks learning about the candidacy process in the UMC. I was asked many good questions, some revealing some common misconceptions or assumptions, all getting to some issues which I think are pretty important.

Though it is not the first question I’m often asked (nor was it in that discussion), I want to speak today to this one:

So you never questioned your call, right? Once you heard it?

Oh, I question it. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

Okay, that is an exaggeration.

But I question it. I did from the beginning. I still do. Somedays I question it off-handedly, some days the ability to question it (and argue with God over it) is the only thing that gives enough elasticity to it to keep at it.

My actual response to that question recently was, “Oh, yes. I do. Often. I did today. I think it’s, maybe arrogance, something, to be so sure you don’t question it. I think we should always question what we think God is saying to us—always look for signs and guidance. In the United Methodist Church we value not only an individual’s sense of call but also the community’s discernment.”

I think our notion here is if God’s call is so strong, others will see it.

Indeed, my own call became clear to me not because my father (grandfather and great-grandfather) was a pastor, but because an older woman at the church my father was then serving in Baltimore (Brooklyn UMC, now closed) said to me “It’s such a shame you’re not going to me a pastor like your father.”

A call to ordained ministry had literally never occurred to me before that.

There’s a film I love called Keeping the Faith¸ staring Edward Norton (as a Catholic priest) and Ben Stiller (as a rabbi). They were childhood friends who grow up to be men of God. There’s a woman they both fall for. It’s like a priest-and-a-rabbi-joke meets a romantic comedy meets a coming of age film meets a religious movie.

But in the midst of all of that, it’s got some really great reflections on calls to ministry.

On one scene, Edward Norton’s character is struggling with the commitments he’s made as a priest. He’s considering leaving the priesthood, finding his vows to be too tight. He’s discerning. He seeks out his senior priest, who had also been one of his seminary professors, and asks his advice—should he just leave the priesthood? It seems in seminary the senior priest had told the seminarians if they could think of doing anything else, they should. Don’t enter priesthood. Go do that instead.

The problem is, as Edward Norton’s character is finding out, this pure, unquestioned confidence withers in the face of real life. At that moment, he can absolutely imagine leaving the priesthood and settling down with a wife and family and doing something else. So if that’s really the bar, his decision is made, right?

Here are the lines from this scene:
Father Brian Kilkenney Finn: I keep thinking about what you said in seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else you should do that.
Father Havel: That was my recruitment pitch, which is not bad when you're starting out because it makes you feel like a marine. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice that you keep making again and again and again.

Every day you make it. The commitment at ordination (or on your wedding day, or any other major commitment) is perhaps best understood as a commitment to keep making the same commitment.

Until it isn’t.

We all know colleagues who have left ministry. Or, perhaps their call has changed shape, and they’ve moved into extension ministry from local church. Or maybe they started in extension ministry and felt called to parish ministry. Not all of these are the same, but they direct us to consider that God’s will for us may change. May evolve.

If the Holy Scriptures are a living word, surely God’s call to each of us is as well.

Discerning call is a hard thing.

And calls are lived out within the imperfect world of the people of God.

Who can be cruel. And unforgiving. And caught up in their own stuff.

Ministry settings can be challenging. Pastors and congregations can suffer from bad fits. Family commitments can make professional obligations feel like impossible choices. Church politics and dynamics can mean pastors don’t get the perfect church for them and churches don’t get the perfect pastor for them.

(What is perfect? But that’s another post all together…)

All of this and a host of other factors can make us re-examine our call.

Sometimes we need to be reminded what our call was to begin with. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s ok if our call evolves.

The United Church of Christ has a line they used for advertising that I think is helpful here: Never put a period where God has placed a comma.

Hearing a call to set apart ministry (because we are all called to ministry by virtue of our baptisms) is the beginning (or middle, etc.) of the process. God is still speaking. Our prayerful hope is that through the process to actually enter licensed or ordained ministry, the individual, with the help of many others, distills down to God’s call on their lives. I think that call can be discerned. I also think it’s ok on some days to question it.

But I think on those days, we are called to use the same tools which helped us discern that call in the first place: our experience of God, our reading of Scripture, the guidance of the faith community, and our good sense.

May you hear God’s call on your life. May you be open to its continued development. May God give you the strength you need to live into that call. And should God’s call ever lead you to take a left turn or a different path, may God grant you wisdom, courage and patience to do so.

Oh, and never quit on your worst day.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On Sorting

The books came to my office in waves.

First my books. Brought in the days before I officially began here.

July 1, 2014 I was officially the pastor. I’d unpacked my books the day before, taking off the shelves the books left from the previous pastor—orphans in their own right. Books waves of previous pastors left her, then she left me.

I boxed them up, put them out for members to look through, and washed my hands of those orphaned books.

The next wave of books came from my father. Well, along a path from him.

Dad, an avid reader whose library may have rivaled ancient Alexandria’s, died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving his church office frozen in time. And his books sitting organized on his shelves. Ready to be read. To be lended. I never saw the books there, patiently and futily awaiting his return. Instead, months after his death a kind colleague boxed up the best, the personal, and sent them up to me.

Then came my brother Dan’s books.

My husband and I boxed up those ourselves. Scatted, disorganized, and including some Dan had received from Dad.

Dad was like that—I think he loved lending books as much as reading them. Many of my own books were borrow from Dad or given as gifts.

There had been no time to sort Dan’s books, so we had packed them all. Waiting for some later date to be sorted.

That’s how Dan left us.

Waiting for some later date to be sorted and put back into order.

Dan committed suicide. My mom discovered his body on a Sunday (Father’s Day—just shy of a year after Dad’s death). By Tuesday we were packing those boxes. That Saturday we were emptying Dan’s parsonage.

We needed time we didn’t have to sort things out.

Maybe Dan had needed that too.

Thus came the books.

And in boxes they sat.

And sat.

And sat.

Until today.

I cannot tell you how many days “sort books” was on my to do list. Too many.

Today I sorted. I had long had this awful feeling that the task wouldn’t take long.

Even as I flipped through each book in the dozen or so boxes, it still went quickly.

It seems to me that two lives defined by books, ideas, beliefs and commitment should take a lot longer to sort through.

Yesterday we were reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Dad and Dan were dust. They were also, in some ways, books. Those books recall their lives. Their studies. Their passions in ministry.

The fact that some boxes I had to double check whose office the books had come from reminds me how tied together they were.

And so sit the boxes destined for sale or trash. The boxes are a bit lighter for their few I have kept. Part of the remains my father and brother left me. Reminders of conversations we had. And conversations we never got to have. I had hoped there might be some great message left tucked in the pages of one of their books. But no. Their messages, their lives, were not there. Maybe glimpses shine forth in the notes in the margins. I think Dad would find great power in the view of our lives seen in our notes in the margins. 

Sometimes we all need some sorting out.

Sometimes we are able, by God’s grace, to do this ourselves.

Sometimes we must rely on others to do this.

You are dust. To dust you shall return.

May God sort us all out in due time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Call to (White) Parents On Privilege and Diversity

Over two decades ago, my father came back into ministry after a sabbatical (due to his diagnosis, fallout and treatment for bipolar disorder) to serve as pastor at a church  in southern Baltimore City. The church, Brooklyn UMC, was situated in a neighborhood bearing the same name. We even had our own Brooklyn Bridge—a train bridge painted in the colors of the rainbow.

I had never lived in a city before. And here I was, entering seventh grade, in a new place, our family still reeling from the couple of years our lives fell apart as Dad had spiraled down then fought his way back up (which took many years yet), heading into a culture shock I imagine any expert would predict.

Except it never really came. Not that I remember today. I had completed sixth grade in a small town (Thurmont) in rural Maryland where the KKK still stood on street corners passing out literature from time to time. As I recall, we had one kid who was ethnically mixed in our grade. That was our diversity.

When we arrived in Baltimore, my mother quickly set to getting our schooling straightened out. When the neighborhood middle school curtly refused her request to visit the school before enrolling me, Mom knew something was amiss and dug into school system rules to find a little-known provision allowing students from Brooklyn to enroll instead in the STEM magnet program a few neighbors over, FSK Middle School (a fitting name for a school just blocks away from Fort McHenry).

At FSK, most of my teachers were African-American. Our student body was very ethnically diverse, and we even had some visiting teachers from a Japanese sister school. I can still sing the chorus to Boyz II Men’s song “End of the Road” in Japanese. It was awesome.

One year we did a months-long study on the Harlem Renaissance, crossing all classes. It never occurred to me that African-American history had a month. Heck, we couldn’t have even covered the entire Harlem Renaissance in a month. It was just history. Our nation’s history. So we studied it.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to grow up in a wildly diverse community, attend middle school in yet another diverse community, then attend high school (Western High School) in a setting where I was an ethnic minority in a school filled with some of the strongest, fiercest, most amazing women.

This was my normal. It is what I lived, but it was also what my parents taught me was normal and ordinary, because of what they said and did, and because of what they didn’t. Because of what they never pointed out was a remarkable experience for a middle class white girl. It was a gift of the United Methodist Church’s itineracy system and two parents who in the midst of our own family’s pain had some lessons about life and the world and people they wanted their kids to learn well.

Today our country is reeling from racial, ethnic, geographical and nationalistic tensions that we feel at times might break us. These tensions are not new, and it is hard to tell whether they are stronger or merely now more visible. They are the worst parts of us. They may seem normal, because we are used to them…or used to glancing away from them, but they are not the normal, the truth, of the kingdom of God. There is nothing about our tendencies to diminish others and promote ourselves which is of God.

Not. A. Single. Thing.

We need to craft a new normal.

Parents—we need to cast a vision for our children that confronts that which we want their futures to avoid. A vision rooted in God’s kingdom—this kingdom we pray and read and sing about but which we are also invited to get bound up in. This vision must also include positive emphasis on what we want our children to face. I know it is daunting to know what to do, what to say, but parents, you have so much power to shape your children. Here are some tips I learned from my parents:
  • Help your children be firmly rooted in scripture. I cannot change people. You cannot change people. God can. And God’s word falls clearly and consistently on the side of the opposed and excluded. Help your children be so grounded in scripture that they have no understanding of the distorted theology which calls them to use God’s word to oppress or discriminate against others. If you do this well, your children will one day challenge you on the biases you have yet to fully face. Then you will know you have done well.
  •  Honor others’ traditions. Actively and intentionally. Learn about other faith traditions, other areas of the nation and world, people of different economic classes and ethnic groups. Read books that have illustrations reflecting all these diversities. One of our girls’ favorite books is about Ramadan. I’ve learned a lot from it too. I love that it not only shows children and adults talking briefly about what Ramadan is, but it also shows an ethnically diverse cast of characters, including some women wearing the hijab. To do this well, you will probably need to raise your game. Learn some yourself. That’s ok. You can probably use to raise your game. We all can. By the way—no, you’re not going to make your kid Muslim by reading a book about Muslims…if that’s how it worked, all kids would become a farmer like Old McDonald. If doing stuff like this makes you uncomfortable, that’s totally fine. Do it anyway. That means you’ve found one of your own growing edges.
  • Immerse your children in diversity. Take advantage of the diversity around you. Make an effort to involve your children in activities and take them to events where they will not only see but also interact with people who are different than them. Let them see you in friendships, working with, worshipping with and being with, people who are different than you. Related to the above, make an effort to surround your children at home as well with books, toys, tv shows, movies, etc. which reflect diversity.
  • Teach your children history. Your children hopefully are already learning this at school—whether they’re lucky enough to be at a school which studies the Harlem Renaissance, or as our Anna did this year as a kindergartener (at a wildly non-ethnically diverse school—yes, in rural MD) come home and tell her father and I all about Ruby Bridges and ask us when Ruby integrated school in relationship to the timeline of Dr. King’s public work. Encourage curiosity and make an effort to build learning about a diverse history into vacations, museum trips, days out, etc.
  • Be willing to confess your own mistakes, biases and faults to your children. Help them thus to learn that we all are responsible for our beliefs and actions and that when we make mistakes (which we will) there is a path to healing and wholeness and that path requires honesty and humility. Teach them that being the most important or right person in the room is not the goal. Being the most gracious, love-filled, image-of-Christ person they can be is.

Parenting is difficult. And at any given moment we’re trying to keep a dozen things in mind while also keeping our own sanity. But our world challenges our own and our children’s efforts to care for the other. The world tells us to fight for our own, hold our ground, and fight to be in control. It’s not going to get easier. As adults we need to find ways to speak up and speak out. Our example speaking up and out is indeed part of the lessons we teach our children.

As parents, we also have immense power to shape the future though our children. We also have the ability to shape our children’s futures.

Parents of white kids (I’m one, remember), keep this in mind: our nation and world are getting more diverse. If valuing all people and make sure your children grow up without hate, prejudice or anger are not a moral imperative for you, consider the practical reality that your children will live as adults in a world which is far more connected and diverse than you have experienced, and even than you can probably imagine. If you teach your children to be scared of foreigners, angry at minorities, bitter about cultural changes, and ignorant of the experiences and histories of others, you are dooming them to futures of their own bitterness, isolation and exclusion.

It is a privilege to be able to decide whether you will teach your children to value diversity or not. If you’re white and you can’t wrap your head around what your privilege looks like, you may find (some of) it here. That your child could go through their entire childhood without having to take a serious look at the history and example of people who are different, or without valuing people who have been historically oppressed—that is possible. Hopefully much less possible now in a world where educators may understand better than you about the world your children will inherit, but probably possible.

So use your privilege wisely. Prepare your children well for their futures. And you know—do what Jesus calls us each to do, which is love and value each other, reach out to the stranger, be willing to be broken in places our hearts are hardened. Allow God’s grace to change and reshape you. Grow into the image of Christ. And help your children be set on the path to do the same.

If you would like resources to help support you, or if you'd like to learn more about specific things Chris and I have and do try (and we are not perfect either) please let me know. If you're still not convinced you need to find ways to confront your bias and teach your children to appreciate and value all, check out testimonies of those whose lives have been broken by hate, including Frank Meeink's Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.