Humanity at its best

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DonationAt yesterday’s flute recital, I skipped a line in the first movement of the hardest piece we were playing and nearly freaked out both myself and my flute duo partner. Um, never mind the “nearly.” Luckily, it was the kind of piece that no one but the composer and ourselves could distinguish any trouble, and we were able to get back together. We had a good turnout, and took up a collection for Catholic Relief Services’ disaster relief. In this envelope, preparing to wing its way to Maryland, is $850. The generosity shown by the people who attended yesterday blows me away. The news this morning is filled with lives wrecked by gunfire and leaders apparently trying to taunt each other into world annihilation, but the contents of that envelope are a reminder that humanity is made for goodness.

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If You’re Not Outraged…

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Photo by Samovaari, via Flickr

We’ve been angry a lot this calendar year. Last calendar year, too, truth be told. The world seems made for making us angry right now.

But it came to a head in the last week, and in one of those convergences that can only be a sign of the Holy Spirit at work, for three days every single thing that happened served to put a neon flashing light on the message: THIS IS NOT OKAY. Even the weekend’s Scriptures.

It’s not that there isn’t reason to be angry. And as many people note, even Jesus got angry, knocking over tables in the Temple when he saw it being misused.

The trouble is, at some point, we start clinging to anger—we start looking for reasons to be angry, to the point that we become unable to accept with grace any thwarting of our own convenience, any deviation from our own vision of how things should be. And let’s be honest: there’s a whole heck of a lot about the world that is Not How It Should Be.

The convergence of messaging challenges me…my whole family, really…to figure out how to confront the Things That Aren’t How They Ought To Be without making anger an idol enshrined in our hearts.

I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s the start of a new journey.

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.

Staying Home vs. Working Mom

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Last week, we watched the movie Suffragette. I hope many of you have watched it, so I don’t have to explain that it was…sad. Sad beyond expression. But one thing that really struck me in that movie was the fact that Maud worked full time—more than full time—outside the home. She sent her kid off to somebody else to take care of.

For a lot of people, the stay-at-home/working mom debate probably feels tiresomely passé, but I still see the barbs popping up on both sides. I’ve heard the pain expressed by working and stay-at-home moms alike, who feel beleaguered. Judged. Too often by each other.

I always planned to be a stay-at-home mom. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life cocooned in a community that sees it not just as a valid choice but as THE RIGHT choice.

The thing is, I was less than a year into stay-at-home motherhood when I started working. I remember the moment I received my first acceptance, for the octavo Go In Peace from WLP. I was in the basement of our old house, nursing Alex while working on the computer with a repairman in the next room, and I scared both of them by screaming in excitement.

For twelve years I’ve been wrestling with the balance between work and motherhood/wifehood. There’s no question that my presence at home is a huge value to the family. It would cost $7-9K a year per kid for day care in my area, and these days, the cost would be transitioning into money to pay a nanny/chauffeur. The fact that I can do the grocery shopping and cooking while Christian’s at work means we have more time to spend as a family. That’s a value you can’t quantify. And of course, I’ve been able to shape my kids’ world view without worrying about what they’re exposed to or taught in the brief intervals they were away from me as small children.

And yet. I am more than a mother and wife. The gifts that were given to me as a human being who happens to be female were given for a reason. If I suppress them until my kids get old enough, I’m burying my coins. I was given the passion and gift for writing for a reason. I’m supposed to do something with it.

I consider myself unfathomably blessed, because the work I feel called to do can be done from home. It’s stressful and requires a lot of self-discipline, but I actually do get to “have it all.”

But what about women for whom their calling, the talent that they can offer the world, can’t be done from home? Do their gifts not matter?

Even I, working from home, have been tormented by messaging like “You’ll have decades left to have a career; your kids are only little once.” How much worse must it be for women who work outside the home? Those words may be true, but the reality is that if you drop out of the work force for three or five or ten years to raise a family and then try to come back, you’ll spend the rest of your life fighting a losing battle for equity.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize this SAHM mom ideal is really a pretty new construct. Even this book on Our Lady of Fatima that my mother gave me to read to the kids talks about how Lucia was the go-to child care provider for the entire village. Even in a peasant village in the 19-teens, a lot of “at home” moms were sending their kids out to be tended by someone else.

Which brings us back to Maude, from Suffragette. Yes, she is a fictional character, but I get the sense that she was an amalgam of many of the experiences of women involved in the suffragette movement in England. You could argue that it was different for poor women; that families of more means did, indeed, have mothers who stayed home with their kids. Except those kids had nannies and governesses.

Then, too, wrestling with all this has made me realize that without women in the work force, and a lot of them, issues of just compensation and so on would be shunted aside even more than they already are. That might not impact those who choose to stay home, but it sure as heck would impact single moms, who have no choice.

And now that I have a son on the cusp of adolescence—a son who watched Suffragette with us and who stopped the movie more than once to ask questions about what it means to be a woman in this day and age—the importance of this question is becoming ever clearer. I am a Catholic mother. My #1 job is to form my children in the faith. Not some warped version of it that picks the simplest parts to explain and ignores the real challenges the Gospel poses to people living in a real world, where there are no straightforward, cut-and-dry answers, because when you yank on one thread several dozen others move, too.

Mothers who work outside the home aren’t less-worthy mothers. One woman who’s close to me says, “I am always a mom first, even when I’m at work.”

I’m not belittling staying home. Quite the opposite. For all the hair-pulling moments I’ve experienced the last twelve years of being entirely or almost entirely at home with my kids, I can’t imagine going back and choosing any other path. It has been exactly what I was called to do.

But nor will I stand for a world view that belittles those who do choose to work outside the home. We all have to discern our lives and our vocations based on our individual circumstances, the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of all the family members. And above all, we have to stop minding everyone else’s business.

The Conundrum of Wanting To Be a Christian Nation

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Bald Knob Cross, Southern Illinois. Photo by Nikonian Novice, via Flickr

Right after 9/11, a man I know shared a vision he had. His vision was of the people of the Middle East hearing American planes coming, except instead of dropping bombs, they dropped food and water and medical supplies. (He wrote it much more poetically than that, but that was the gist of it.)

At the time, I rolled my eyes. It seemed, in my infinite wisdom, hopelessly idealistic to think that giving help to people who already clearly hated us–as evidenced by what we’d just experienced–would do anything except provoke derision.

And yet, I’ve thought about it again and again and again over the years, because all our efforts to obliterate terrorism from the face of the earth via air strikes, drones, and military intervention seem to make things worse, not better. Take out Saddam and look what rises from the ashes. Cripple al Qaeda and you get ISIS. The more we sit in our ivory tower, trying to bomb bad guys out of existence, the more plentiful and more determined the bad guys seem to become.

Even the left doesn’t talk about taking my friend’s idealistic track very often. And I’ve never heard the right address it head on and say, “This is why that idea won’t work.” I really wish they would, because it’s getting harder for me to understand why we keep doing what we’re doing, when it seems all we’re doing is creating more people who don’t like us. It doesn’t make sense to me.

Periodically we get a lot of noise from certain quarters about being a Christian nation. But we don’t really act like one. The left says we can’t, because not everyone is Christian in this nation. The right says being a Christian (or at least, Judeo-Christian) nation is what made us great in the first place.

I’ve come to believe that the left is correct on this issue, even though I wish it were otherwise—because personally, I think being a Christian/Judeo-Christian nation would make us very great. The problem is, if you want to be a Christian nation, you have to embrace the whole package. The “care for the widow and orphan and alien” along with the “protect the unborn” and the “pray” thing. The example of the early Christians, who “held all things in common,” as yesterday’s Lectionary said, makes us squirm. For the first time this weekend, listening to that reading, I realized they weren’t setting up a commune, they were creating a family. To be a Christian nation, we would need to treat everyone in the country like family, and all the guests within our borders with the same level of hospitality as we would treat guests coming into our homes. (You can spin that out as far as you would like; I think the analogy holds a rational middle ground on immigration.)

But mostly, I look around the world, at all the places smoldering, needing nothing but a spark to ignite them. I think of the multitude of places where people are treating each other with horrifying disregard for human dignity—including in our own political system and on Facebook and Twitter—and I just wish we’d all stop and take a breath and think for a minute about what it really means to be a Christian, and where we personally are falling short in that regard.

The Gifts I Didn’t Expect

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Photo by Joel Olives, via Flickr

This morning’s daily readings included the story of the man begging by the Beautiful Gate. Peter says to him, “Look at us,” and as the story says, “He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.” Only they had no money. Peter pulled him to his feet and healed him instead.

I’ve always thought of this story purely from the perspective of the miracle—how wonderful for this man, crippled from birth! But this morning it really struck me that a healing like this forces a huge paradigm shift in the life of the recipient. Presumably this man had spent his life earning his living by begging, and it was socially acceptable because he couldn’t do anything else. But now that he’s healed, he has to go find work to support himself. Now the social niceties and expectations he probably could have let slide his whole life are going to come down full force.

This sparked a couple different thoughts. First, it occurred to me that I’ve never once heard anyone say about Biblical beggars the things that are said about modern-day ones. (They’ll just use it to buy drugs; I tried to give a meal to a homeless guy once and he yelled at me because he wanted money for booze, not real help, etc.) It’s like we can assume the best of those in the pages of Scripture in a way we’re not able to do with people in our own time. I’m sure there are sociological reasons for this—the existence of social safety nets, etc. I’m not trying to pick a fight; it just really struck me this morning that it would have been entirely believable that the man at the Beautiful Gate would be like, “Dude, I didn’t ask you for healing, I just asked you for money!”

But he didn’t. He embraced the gift that wasn’t the one he’d been asking for. And this brings me to my second thought, which is about people like me, utterly ordinary middle-class Americans.

It’s easy to get laser-focused on what it is I think I need, and fail to appreciate–or sometimes even recognize–the actual gift I’ve been given. Easy to get rigid in my view of the world and see only the obstacle that’s just plopped down in my path, and fail to recognize that maybe what I see as an obstacle is actually an opportunity. One thing writing has taught me is that brick walls can’t be beat through, but if I go looking for a path around it, it’s even odds that I’ll find out I’ve just stumbled on the path I was supposed to be following all along.