A White Christian Wrestles With Race

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In my Catholic elementary school, there were three minorities, all Hispanic.

I lived in the country, and my neighbors were white. All of them.

My teachers emphasized repeatedly and strongly that skin color was irrelevant in the eyes of God. I remember singing “What Color is God’s Skin?” (this version) in music class. But as I’ve said before, it’s a different thing to believe something in the abstract than it is to put it into practice. I always believed in equality. But for a long time, I failed to admit that inequality is still a real thing.

This summer while I was in Cincinnati for the pastoral music convention, my roommate and I took a couple hours off to walk down to the riverfront and visit the National Underground Railroad museum. What I hadn’t realized before that trip was that when you’re on the riverbank in Cincinnati, you are standing in free country looking at slave country. It gave an entirely new significance to those beautiful old homes across the river.

I said in that last post that I have been wrestling with race my entire adolescence and especially in adulthood. What does that mean, exactly? It means wrestling with unacknowledged attitudes, the essential segregation of my life, the knowledge that I should be trying to bridge those barriers, the introvert’s dread of doing so, the assumptions I don’t even know I’ve made, the “here’s how the world works” factors I take for granted that I assume must be the same for everyone, and especially, the slowly-dawning, horrifying realization that that last is not true at all.

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This structure is the center of the museum. It’s a building where slaves were held between legs of their journey or before sale. We were watching videos and reading signs alongside an African American family, and both my friend and I felt the same need to apologize. We didn’t do it. But we felt the compulsion. I know many people don’t buy into the “reparations” idea, but it’s hard not to feel the weight of your own privileged skin color, hard not to wonder if you would have had the courage to stand up for justice, when you’re face to face with this building.

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In the past few years I have had the incredible privilege of getting to know a handful of families who immigrated from Africa. I love these people. They constantly amaze me with the strength of their faith and their community, their generosity and openness. They have enriched my life and opened my heart in so many ways.

And all the questions of race, profiling, neo-Nazis, violence, police brutality–everything in the news seems so much more frightening to me now that I have entered into relationship with people who are really impacted by these issues.

Because let’s face it: it’s not going to impact me or my kids. Not directly, anyway. And it would be all too easy to sit back and say, “It’s sad, but what am I supposed to do about it? I don’t support neo-Nazis, so none of this is really my problem.”

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This painting, representing lives lost on the crossing from Africa to America, still brings tears to my eyes.

But it is our problem. Because even those of us who don’t want to believe or admit it have spent our entire lives benefiting from being white in a white-controlled world. None of us like to be challenged to examine our assumptions and the biases we don’t even recognize in our attitudes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

And if there are still enough white supremacists in our midst to populate a rally that can turn violent, then we as whites have failed in our responsibility as Christian parents to form our children. We have settled into our mostly-segregated, comfortable worlds and not forged relationships across racial lines for ourselves and our children. We have turned a blind eye to Christ in the face of people whose skin color is different than our own—not for any malicious reason, but because it’s awkward and hard.

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Smart phone camera. What can I say? But I didn’t delete the photo, and I include it here because even for me, a white woman, walking into the room and facing this costume felt like a sucker punch. It’s not okay for us to pretend we have no role and no responsibility in improving the world. Too much evil has been done in the name of preserving “white supremacy.” If we don’t stand up against what is being done in our name, we’re enabling the problem.

But wrestling with things that are awkward and hard is the way of the Cross. It’s the only way we become better—as individuals, as a Church, as a world. Pretending racism doesn’t exist—in the world, yes, but even in ourselves—is simply unacceptable. This is part of our duty as Christian disciples. And frankly, given the state of our country, I think it ought to be considered among the most important duties we have right now.

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When My Life Is Good, But So Many Others’ Lives…Aren’t.

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Photo by KOREA.NET, via Flickr

Photo by KOREA.NET, via Flickr

I dreamed last night that I met Pope Francis. Well, not so much met as happened to be standing right there when he blew by, laughing and carrying, of all things, a part of a broken toilet that needed to be thrown away. I was supposed to be meeting up with a friend from grad school to attend a concert. And I was supposed to be meeting up with my family, too. But I couldn’t find either one, so I was standing at the back of a long, grand church and clerics were processing out, and suddenly there he was: the pope, wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt, covered with a black plastic hair cutting wrap and hurrying by with a big smile and a carefree laugh and an utter lack of concern about dignity.

And I woke up so happy.

Lately I haven’t felt like I could deal with the news, so I’ve been ignoring it. But I knew I couldn’t go on like that forever. All of us who thought, “At least it’ll be over after the election” were totally wrong. I’m beginning to realize we’re entering a time of ongoing struggle for identity in our country. Me and conflict don’t get on well. (Is that grammatically correct? Whatever. I’m supposed to be writing off the cuff this year.) Interpersonal conflict, internal conflict, philosophical and moral conflict—the situation in our country now involves every blessed one.

It’s hard to recognize how good my life is—despite my propensity for complaining—and how, in contrast, many people are suddenly facing situations I can’t even imagine. People who did everything right and are still being penalized for their ethnicity.

I’ve been growing more conscious in recent months of race and wrestling with how to get past the hurdles that separate us. I made a new friend last week who spent a long time talking with me about it, and who affirmed my ability to bridge those gaps, at least on a person to person level.

But since I came home from the composers’ forum last week, I have re-entered the news cycle and found my joy in the immense blessings of my life taking a beating. It feels insensitive to share my joy with my friends when so many people are suffering from upheaval and a fear I can’t begin to comprehend, because my life is so far removed from it.

How can I focus on how great my life is when Jewish community centers are getting systematic bomb threats? When so many people have to tiptoe through their days, knowing people are going to put the worst spin on everything they say or do because their skin is brown instead of white? (This is not made up, by the way, as much as the white community would like to brush it off. People I know and care about have told me about it personally. Just because we don’t have a common frame of reference to comprehend it doesn’t mean it’s not real.)

And then there’s this: at a basketball game on Saturday night, my five-year-old saw two men in uniforms and said, “Mommy, there are police officers.” “Would you like to go meet them?” I asked, and he said, “No. I’m afraid they’ll shoot me.” Of course, he’s also afraid of Truman the Tiger, so maybe I shouldn’t overreact to that comment. Still, what future are we preparing, if this is what our communal actions are teaching the next generation?

How does a Christian respond to the suffering of others? I share your sorrow, all of you out there stuck in situations dire and bleak and getting more so by the day. But I know I can’t possibly feel it as keenly as you do. Nor do I know what to do next. I have no faith at all in politics, and even at a personal level, how do we engage in productive dialogue when so many people only hurl fallacies, biases and out-of-context facts at each other across the great abyss?

Pope Francis’ presence in my dream—the joy, the humility, and above all the fact that he had clearly been fixing a toilet—a symbol of small and practical, un-flashy things—was a signal to me of hope. A reminder that my job isn’t to impact political systems but to be the hands and feet of Christ, person to person, and trust God to put me where I need to be.

No Easy Answers

Syrian refugees: A Christian’s Responsibility

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Friday afternoon, Nicholas sulked and glowered and procrastinated and found a dozen ways to avoid having to–gasp–clean the bathroom sinks.

Image by CAFOD Photo Library, via Flickr

At last I snapped at him to think about the children who were crossing the sea in an inner tube in November and sleeping in the woods because it was too dangerous for them to stay in their homes, and then think about whether he really had any reason to be feeling put-upon.

I never heard another complaint.

In the past week, there has been an awful lot of hysteria around the topic of Syrian refugees, and I decided that my #smallthingsgreatlove act for today would be to take a stand.

To begin with, there’s this graphic:

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With a thoughtful article accompanying it from the Washington Post.

And another, addressing the accusation that the whole line of argument is a non-sequitur.

No matter what we do, we will never…never…never be totally secure. It doesn’t exist, people. It just doesn’t. We can’t live in fear. Nor can we close our eyes and pretend we don’t have a responsibility as the Body of Christ, to the body of Christ.

Because THIS is what we are ignoring.

It seems to me, from my limited grasp of the world and its history, that we in the United States have always been insulated from the problems of our fellow human beings by virtue of those two ponds separating us from Europe, Asia, and Africa. It’s too easy for us to view things as “Not My Problem.” That as long as Those People and the terrorists who must surely be hiding within their ranks aren’t within the borders of the U.S., nothing bad will ever happen to us, and as for everyone else? Well, it’s a shame, but again, Not My Problem.

I get it–I really do. The fear of having our safe corner rendered as unsettled the rest of the world is understandable. But safety is too easy to elevate to the status of idol, and for those who profess to follow Christ, that is, as I frequently tell my kids: NOT OKAY.

Now, I’m well aware that my little blog post is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on whether refugees should or shouldn’t be allowed into our spacious, but insular, corner of the globe. But look, we have very little say on that issue, anyway. That decision is made at the federal level. The entire discussion is a distraction from the real issue, which is this:

If we claim to be Christians, we have a responsibility to act.

This is Thanksgiving week–a time for us to stop and look around and recognize the incredible bounty that surrounds us. That bounty is not ours by some divine, inalienable right. Our very blessing involves a responsibility to use wisely what have been given to help ease the suffering of others. (Remember that parable about the talents?)

So here are just a handful of the ways I’ve seen posted by which ordinary people can make a difference.

This week I learned of Samaritan’s Purse, an international aid organization, through this video shared on Facebook:

Samaritan’s Purse is here.

Travel community Trekaroo says:

Start your all your Amazon shopping from Trekaroo’s Amazon Affiliate Link. Regardless of what you buy on Amazon and Trekaroo will donating 50% of all our Amazon commissions to Syrian Refugee Relief  with World Vision through Dec 31, 2015

If you’d rather skip the middleman, here’s the link to WorldVision (our family has donated through WorldVision before, which means it passed my husband’s rigorous criteria for charities).

Travel-with-kids writer Amy Whitley lays out the reasons why she won’t let fear govern her life.

This woman started a campaign to provide baby carriers to refugees. And to piggyback on that, they now do more than just baby carriers.

And I will close with this: The World is Scary As Hell. Love Anyway.

We aren’t losing people because of worship. We’re losing them because we’re hypocrites.

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And you gave me to Drink

And you gave me to Drink (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

There’s a blog post making the rounds right now about the dismal record of churches, both mega- and traditional, to retain their youth into adulthood. The author and all the commenters have their pet theories about why this is–the age-old argument between “worship isn’t relevant” (i.e. it’s too traditional) and “the worship is too contemporary” (i.e. it’s too contemporary) seem to be the focus of discussion.

Although I’m a liturgist, and I have impassioned opinions on the question of musical style in worship, I actually don’t believe the style of worship has all that much to do with this question at all.

We are losing the youth–and everyone else who’s leaving organized religion–because they think it’s a bunch of B.S. A conspiracy made to pacify the ignorant and keep the masses in line. And why do they think this?

Because we call ourselves Christians, and we don’t act like Christ. We say we believe, but then refuse to act like believing changes everything. We talk big and then we talk trash about others. We act as if the aesthetics and the personal preferences are what it’s all about.

In simple language, we’re losing people because we’re hypocrites. Even, and sometimes especially, those of us who are the most involved in our churches.

In every Catholic discussion, Vatican II seems to be the lightning rod. Someone always says that whatever problem we were facing was caused by V2 because it didn’t exist before that, and if only we went back to the way things were fifty years ago, all our problems would go away. As if somehow people were intrinsically holier then, instead of simply doing what was culturally expected. Fifty years ago, people went to church whether or not they really wanted to, not because they were better Catholics, but because that’s what everyone did.

These days, church is not what everyone does, so people don’t do it. And that’s not a change caused by Vatican II. That happened in the context of a larger world. All matters of faith are lived in and influenced by the context of the larger world, and that is as it should be. We aren’t “of” the world, but we do live “in” it. We can’t possibly hope to leaven the world if we stand apart and wag our finger at it. You have to dive in.

I know that’s scary. Each of us has a vision for the way the world should be, and it’s pretty cut and dried. But the world isn’t black and white. It’s a complex, interwoven mess. You tug on one string and every other one is affected. There are no simple solutions to any of the issues we face.

The world is messy, and the more you get down in the muck, the more you realize your pat answers don’t–can’t–stand unassailable in the face of the real world. You find yourself forced to reconsider, to shift your dearly-held philosophies to make room for circumstances that don’t fit neatly into the box you’ve made.

Nobody likes having to do that. But if you just keep confirming yourself in your own rightness, it pretty soon becomes self-righteousness, and self-delusion. And then your faith, strong as you think it is, ends up ringing very false to others. They might not know why, but they’ll sense the underlying conflict.

And then they figure, if this is what faith is, I don’t want any part of it.

We can’t ever stop seeking deeper truth. And that search is exercise for the soul. Like physical exercise, it hurts, because it begins with breaking down the boundaries of the muscle in order to make room for expansion.

photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales), via Flickr

But at its basic level, that spiritual exercise begins because we go out and we do something with our faith. It’s in the doing that we experience the things that challenge our presumptions and assumptions. Don’t tell me all the reasons it can’t be done. Do something about it. You may not succeed, you may fall flat on your face, but do something.

This is what Pope Francis keeps saying over and over. Sure, worship is important, but worship is not the most important thing; worship is the spiritual food for doing the real work of Christianity. Do something.

If all of us who call ourselves Christians heeded his call, it would be a game changer.

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A Ministry Manifesto

Blessed Are The Merciful (TLL Review and Excerpt)

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ThisLittleLight_Beatitudes_CoverChapter 5 of This Little Light of Mine: Living the Beatitudes ties together the idea of mercy with the 4th through 10th commandments–as I like to call them, the “rubber-meets-the-road” commandments. Today’s excerpt comes from the section for children.

Have you ever heard that old saying, “What goes around, comes around?” That’s kind of what Jesus is getting at here. God is good to everyone all the time, but people have trouble being nice to those who are mean to them.

The last seven of the Ten Commandments tell us how we should treat other people. Here are some things to think about:

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“You shall not kill.”

Most of us are never going to kill anyone, but that doesn’t mean this commandment is an easy one to follow. There are people we just don’t like, and sometimes we say mean things to or about them. “I don’t like playing with you.” “You’re not very good at sports.” “I’m a better reader than you.”

The way we talk to other people and what we say about them when they aren’t around can make them feel that they are important and loved, or it can make them feel like they are worthless. When we hurt other people’s feelings, we are “killing” their spirit. God wants us to talk about other people with respect and not trash their reputation.

Just live it

How can you tell people they hurt you without doing the same thing to them?

(Excerpt from This Little Light of Mine: Living the Beatitudes, chapter 5)

Today I have TWO reviews to share! Here is Ellen Gable Hrkach’s review at Amazing Catechists, and Carol at Simple Catholic Living has both a review and a giveaway in process! Hop on over!

Did Mary Suffer From Powdered Butt Syndrome?

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Mary

Mary (Photo credit: aphotoshooter)

Financial guru Dave Ramsey often talks about “powdered butt syndrome.” Once you’ve changed a kid’s diaper, he says, you aren’t interested in being lectured about sex or money by said kid–no matter how much of an expert they grow up to be.

I’d hazard a guess it’s not limited to sex and money, though. A parent spends so many years being the authority figure, it must be really hard to let your kids grow, and then let them go, to make their own decisions and, at length, to recognize that they know more than you do on some subject they’ve studied and you haven’t.

Maybe this is why most people are called to the vocation of marriage: because we need to become parents. Parenthood is a constant stretching of the soul, an unending lesson in humility. Who doesn’t need that?

I wonder if Mary had to deal with powdered butt syndrome. It seems almost inevitable, raising God Incarnate. But if she did, she handled it with tremendous grace.

Moms are used to serving, to fixing whatever’s wrong, to being hostess. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone else’s party: if a mother is there and realizes there’s a problem, she wants to do something to fix it.

So Mary goes to a wedding with her grown son and realizes the hosts are out of wine. This isn’t modern New York, where you can just run to the corner liquor store. I’d imagine the bride and groom were pretty much out of luck. Mary’s heart swells in empathy; she wants to fix it, but she’s helpless. So what does she do? She turns to her child, the baby who nursed at the breast and probably blew out a few diapers, who had diaper rash and teething crankiness and got into things, pulled down shelves in the name of exploration, the whole nine yards. (I am not one of those people who believes the child Jesus was exempt from normal little kid mischief. Being human means you have growing pains to get through, even if you are also God.)

Anyway, Mary is able to recognize that her child has far outpaced her in holiness. She turns to him and says, “Honey, they need help, and I can’t do it, but you can.”

I pray that as my children grow, I may be humble enough to admit when they know better than me. When they can do something I can’t. And to give way gracefully when that moment arrives.

Losing Our Religion: A Response

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Religious symbols

Religious symbols (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NPR did a series last week called “Losing Our Religion.” In this storythe only one I heard in full–the interviewees talked about their ambivalence and in some cases rejection of faith. The ones that really struck me were those who experienced suffering and untimely death in their families, and concluded that God couldn’t exist, because deity is not compatible with suffering.

“So at some point, you start to say, why does all this stuff happen to people? And if I pray and nothing good happens, is that supposed to be, I’m being tried? I find that almost – kind of cruel, in some ways. It’s like burning ants with a magnifying glass. You know, eventually, that gets just too hard to believe anymore.”

It’s hard for me to put my thoughts together on this, so it may be a bit disjointed, but here goes.

In some ways I understand doubt very well. Like many others in the modern world, I respect reason and am skeptical when people claim things just are because they are. I want to know things for certain, and the things taught by faith cannot be known for certain.

Another quote that really stuck me was this one, from Daniel Radcliffe:

I have a problem with religion or anything that says, ‘We have all the answers,’ because there’s no such thing as ‘the answers.’ We’re complex. We change our minds on issues all the time. Religion leaves no room for human complexity.”

How did he come to that conclusion? In my experience, religion is excruciatingly nuanced and complex, if you take the time to dig into it. And yet an awful lot of faithful people do paint religion exactly as he says.

Maybe it’s human nature to try to simplify the world so you don’t have to wrestle with it anymore. But faithful people have done the faith a real disservice by trying for so long to make it into something that provides “all the answers.” Because Christianity is a constant wrestling match between belief and doubt, between the best and the worst of your nature as a human being.

Here’s what I know about faith:

  • I doubt all the time. It seems irrational to believe there could possibly be Somebody out there bigger than everything, with a Capital-P Plan. And yet there are moments in each of our lives, regardless of religious belief, when we suddenly become overpoweringly aware of something Bigger Than Me. Motherhood provides those moments to religious and non-religious women alike. And I have found that when my brain quiets and I become open to the power of nature around me, I can feel God. Perhaps one reason faith has suffered such a beating in the modern world is the fact that we are never quiet, never free of music and texts and tweets.
  • Faith that you can claim by words (“Are you a Christian? Have you been saved?”) or wearing a pretty little cross, is okay as a first step, but if it doesn’t challenge you and make you uncomfortable two or three dozen times a day, then it’s pretty immature. Faith is something that should always be needling you, challenging you to be more than you are. Not affirming your own self-righteousness.
  • Faith can be a comfort, but that’s not its purpose. Anyone who thinks religion’s purpose is to make us feel better, I submit, is completely stagnant in their faith, and when tough times come calling, it will shake the foundations of that faith. Why do bad things happen? Because people do bad things. Blaming God for it is a copout. But if people–especially children–are given an insipid, watered-down, feel-good kind of Christianity, how can we be surprised when they recognize it as woefully insufficient for the real world?
  • There is much more commonality between faith and science than the current monologue would lead you to believe. Faith and reason do not stand at odds. The underpinning of my advocacy of natural family planning is the belief that a human’s body and soul/mind are connected. That where the body goes, the mind tags along for the ride. How often does science demonstrate the same thing? All the time. Thus, a woman who is raped has not only bodily injuries, but injuries to the mind and soul. And how many times have studies shown that when you exercise and eat healthier (physical), you feel better, too (spiritual/mental)?

Even many people who have sworn off formal religion still recognize the inherent spirituality of these last two examples. Shouldn’t this tell us something important? Namely, that there is something beyond us in this universe? Whether it’s God or The Force, something is out there, built into the very fabric of our beings. Let’s at least start from that point of commonality, and seek truth beginning from that point.