Easy/Hard

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Image by ELTMAN, via Flickr

Why is it so easy to see or hear one detail and leap to the worst possible conclusion about a person’s motivations?

Why is it so easy to give our past hurts permission to control our present reactions, and block out reason when it urges moderation?

Why is it so easy to skip over grief for lives cut short and families in pain, and spend all our energy pointing fingers and hurling accusations?

Why is it so hard to listen to reason when it’s trying to keep us from demonizing others?

Why is it so hard to empathize with people who are different from us?

Why is it so easy to paint them as inherently evil in our minds and hearts?

Why is it so hard for people of faith to recognize when we are doing exactly what we accuse others of doing?

Yes, I am reacting to Orlando. And I’m sending out these questions in every direction—toward shooters and those who are arguing about gun control vs. gun rights and those who are anti-gay and those who are steadfastly, even stubbornly, refusing believe that a Texas politician’s tweet wasn’t a response to this tragedy at all, despite the fact that we’ve all experienced the agony of having said the wrong thing in the wrong moment and not even known it until it was way too late to take it back.

Which is not to say I support the man. I have a feeling he and I don’t see eye to eye on a whole bunch of issues. And I do think tweets like that are kind of self-righteous, and probably do more to drive people away from Christ than invite them in.

But I don’t believe he posted it as a “nanny nanny boo boo” in the face of the LGBTQ community, either. Speaking rationally, it doesn’t even make sense to read it that way. It’s saying you sow what you reap…so the only way it could be a jab at LGBTQ community is if he’s suggesting that the LGBTQ community has been going around shooting people. ???? I’m just not seeing the connection. Although as always, I’m open to being corrected.

All day yesterday, I watched Facebook explode with anger and bitterness and nastiness. It went every possible direction. Terrorists, Republicans, Democrats, Trump, Obama, liberals, conservatives, gun-control advocates, gun-rights advocates, gays…everybody got bashed. It made me want to cry. You have this calling to blog, and you know your reach is small, but you keep hitting the same message over and over: listen to reason, listen to each other, think about how you talk to and about people, think about human dignity…and a situation like this comes up, and emotions erupt, and you think, “Is there any point in me writing at all, if it’s going to make no difference at all when it’s really needed?”

Why is it so easy to think the worst of people who are different than us?

Why is it so hard to see them with the eyes of Christ, who loved and accepted and challenged all at once?

Why is it so easy to give ourselves permission to become a mirror image of what we most despise?

No Easy Answers

In Which A Conversation With A Homeless Man Shapes My Future Self

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Photo by The Digital Story, via Flickr

The light at the top of the exit ramp was red when I pulled up to it. There was a man there. Grizzled. Curly beard. I recognized him. I’ve given him protein bars before. I pulled one out of the box between the seats and rolled down my window. “Here you go,” I said.

“Oh, thank you, ma’am!” he said. “That’s what I’m lookin’ for, is food.”

The light was red. What was I supposed to do now? Roll my window up and ignore his existence?

“Do you…do you have a place to go?” I asked.

He gestured to the opposite crook of the cross formed by four-lane roads. “Naw. I been sleepin’ down in those trees. It’s been pretty chilly lately.”

“I was going to say, it’s not been warm…” I eyed his thin jacket. “Do you have a tent or something, at least?” (Which is not as stupid a question as it might sound. We’ve seen tent communities in highway right-of-ways before.)

“Naw.”

It was exactly the the thing I’ve always (to be perfectly frank) dreaded about making eye contact with the homeless people: the need to have a conversation. I want to help. But an introvert hates trying to connect to new people anyway, and what can I possibly say to this man, who survives with almost none of the things I consider to be basic necessities? As the light turned green, I said, “Well…”

He smiled. He was missing his two middle upper teeth. “God bless you, ma’am.”

“Take care of yourself,” I said. Lame. Totally lame, when it’s perfectly clear that this guy has almost none of what he needs in order to take care of himself, and I, even I who am driving around in a van with 130,000 miles on it and making do with one TV (which is still a picture tube)—I could easily buy him a tent and a sleeping bag and a backpack to haul it all around in, if I hadn’t bought, however unwillingly, into the narrative that says These People might just trade it for drink and drugs anyway. And if I hadn’t used the truth that “you can’t fix someone else’s problem” as an excuse not to bother trying.

My insides writhe to admit I’ve allowed my own practice of mercy to be so small, so petty, and so accepting of blanket judgments.

But as I made the left turn and headed for home, I thought of Jesus saying, “The poor you will always have with you.” And how I’ve heard people who work with the poor say the goal is to provide today’s needs. That we don’t have to feel guilty because we’re not providing an ongoing monthly budget and a 401(k).

And I think of Oskar Schindler in the movie, crying, “I could have done more. I could have saved more.”

And I thought, this is what it means to practice mercy. To know it’s not enough. To feel uncomfortable in recognizing the extent of my own privilege. To live with that discomfort, and let it shape my choices today, the ones that build the person I will someday be.

Find more “Mercy on a Monday” posts here.

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We Need a Thoughtful Discussion About Birth Control (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersThere is a reason I generally don’t post about headlines: it takes me time to process things and make sure my first reactions all hold water. I hate the tendency to react without thinking, the way it leads us to view everything in black and white and fail to acknowledge the nuances in every situation, and the fact that if you stop and reflect for a while before posting, the topic has passed and no one cares anymore. But usually I choose to sacrifice timeliness in the service of thoughtfulness.

All this as a preface to the fact that my sister, the lawyer, pointed out that my post on Zika and contraception included a rather major flaw that, in my attempt to react in a timely fashion, I somehow overlooked. Namely, the whole flap about Zika really is about preventing pregnancy, not just about preventing disease spread, so the whole argument about barriers vs. hormonal birth control doesn’t hold up.

I feel particularly embarrassed because the topic of sexuality and its relation to family planning is so important to me, and I get so frustrated when people of faith end up turning off those they’re trying to convince by reacting without thinking things all the way through. It’s called shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think I shot myself in the foot, and I spent half the weekend cringing about it.

However, I do not delete the post, because I still believe most of what I had to say is important to have out there. Every single article that touches on the Church’s teaching on contraception emphasizes that “Catholics aren’t paying attention to this teaching, anyway,” as if that proves anything other than that people do what they want to do and always have—screwing around on their wives, cheating their customers, spreading rumors, and a host of other things the Church has always taught are wrong. Yet there’s not one of those other cases in which anyone would even consider suggesting that noncompliance = an institution “out of touch” and a teaching in need of change.

Birth control is one of those topics that people on both sides—myself included, apparently—just don’t seem to be capable of thinking rationally on. We can all project some semblance of reason, but there are conversations we ought to be having but which are considered to be non-starters.

For instance: if Church teaching on contraception is so universally ignored, why do its opponents get so bent out of shape about it? Why do they feel this compulsion to bring it up at every possible opportunity? What possible threat could it pose to them?

And another one: Is birth control actually good medicine? Isn’t it possible that it’s actually bad medicine, disrespectful to the dignity of woman, to go in and shut down a part of her body that is working just fine?

And related, but distinct, because sometimes the body isn’t working just fine: Is it truly good medical practice to use pharmaceuticals to mask symptoms of problems like PMS, endometriosis, PCO, thyroid deficiency, etc.? Shouldn’t we default to “Let’s figure out what’s wrong and fix it,” and only go to “mask the symptoms” when all other efforts have failed?

These are questions that truly puzzle me, and on which I truly would like to see thoughtful, non-polemic discussion take place. Perhaps there are things I don’t see that would make a difference to my view on them.

Can we have that discussion? Are there any people out there willing to read through a post on birth control and get to the end of it willing to engage?

For other posts in the No Easy Answers series, click here.

The Difficulty of Forgiveness (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersSomeone hurt me this weekend.

It was like a sucker punch to your most vulnerable spot. It felt calculated. Cruel. And completely unnecessary.

I reacted as most of us do when we are hurt. I got angry. So angry. I stewed over it, prayed over it, lived with it, and over and over I came to the conclusion that no response was appropriate or even possible. I simply had to forgive and move on.

But forgiveness is a hard, hard concept. It is an act of will, and in the face of repeated injury, will fails. There’s a reason the saying is “forgive and forget.” The only way to move forward in relationship is to truly leave it behind, to start anew, without the baggage of the past changing the shape of the future.

And yet there’s a line, a point at which you have to flip into self-preservation mode. Or is there? No matter how you spin the numbers, that Gospel passage is pretty clear: seven times seven times, seventy-seven times—in Biblical numerology, seven is the perfect number. There is no upper limit. There is no line of self-preservation.

We’re just supposed to forgive.

But after a certain point you can’t forget anymore. And then the question is: if you haven’t forgotten, if you’re still hanging onto it, if you’re just waiting for the next injury to drag it all to the surface again…have you really forgiven at all?

The Trouble With “The” (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersThe timing seemed a little ironic.

An old post, called “Words Matter: A Disability Primer,” was in the process of sending my blog views through the roof, and where was I? I was sitting in a ballroom listening to a priest share a piece of advice he was given when beginning a challenging urban assignment:

“Lose the word ‘the.’”

Not the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill. Because that terminology is a label that builds walls. Just as calling someone a “Downs kid” reduces them to their disability, referring to the homeless or the mentally ill reduces people to whatever struggle they face. It makes them “Those People,” which is to say, “Not Like Me.”

I am 100% guilty of this.

It’s easier to deal with the things that make us uncomfortable when we can compartmentalize them. We can all sympathize with Those People as long as They are kept at a distance. As long as all it requires is to feel sympathy and maybe toss some money at the problem.

Except there’s this inconvenient, deeply convicting truth I once heard, and which has stuck with me ever since: The Homeless are not a problem to be solved, but people to be loved. You can substitute any number of other troublesome issues and the same is true.

Love is not practiced at a distance.

Love is practiced person to person, eyes meeting eyes and hands meeting hands. Which adds additional inconvenient truths, because when you get to know someone it’s a whole lot harder to pass judgment on them.

The next morning, as I ran by the river beside the hotel, I passed at least three people who had clearly slept under viaducts. It was hard for me not to examine my own conscience.

Because this call to love is a nightmare for an introvert. It’s hard enough for me to walk into a gathering of church musicians, people who have similar training and interests and passions, and get to know people. To try to bridge the chasm between me and people whose life experiences and choices and circumstances have landed them in a place so far removed from mine? I can only say again: nightmare.

Now, here’s my problem. There are good things in the world, and the fact that suffering exists elsewhere does not render those good things bad. They’re still good.

But we live lives so insulated from the suffering, we don’t even recognize our own sense of entitlement anymore. I’m dancing at Jazzercise to music performed by people who have millions of dollars to throw at nothing, and I count myself more righteous because I don’t throw money at nothing. Except, well, Jazzercise.

I mean, think about the way we live. We have so much wealth that we hold eating contests where a person wins by consuming ten thousand calories’ worth of hot dogs in ten minutes. Five days’ worth of calories. For a Westerner. For someone in the developing world? Maybe a week and a half’s worth of food. In ten minutes.

The candy store sells fudge only by the slice, a slice so big that six of us could eat from it twice. The portion sizes at restaurants everywhere are so big that Christian and I can split one between us and count it as more than a full meal.

And because we consider this “normal,” we have to pay even more money to go to exercise classes and tuck our tummies and buy weight loss supplements.

And upon this sort of attitude does our entire economy hinge.

I can’t escape the conclusion that we’re all, collectively—even the most aware and convicted among us—completely, sinfully clueless. The “consumer culture” that Pope Francis took to task in Laudato Si is something that every one of us participates in. And those of us who profess to be Christians should be really uncomfortable with that.

I don’t know where to draw the line between a healthy enjoyment of the goodness of modern life—$100 hotel robes, king-sized beds, Wii and weekend getaways—and sinful cluelessness.

But maybe that’s all right. We, the comfortable, need to be afflicted sometimes, because we need to be shaken awake every so often and realize there’s a bigger world out there and we have a responsibility to it. Even if there aren’t any clear cut solutions.

Love Speaks The Truth (a No Easy Answers post)

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No Easy AnswersIt seems to me that people come to blogs looking for one of three things: answers, inspiration, or solidarity.

I have my moments for providing answers–at least, as they have revealed themselves in my life–and inspiration. But the truth is that I often wrestle with questions that have no easy answers.  This is my place to think through my fingers and figure things out…and sometimes to conclude that there’s no solution at all, only the need for awareness.

I decided it’s time to codify that into a formal series: “No Easy Answers.” Not something regular, but at least something recognizable.

It begins with a half-remembered quote heard at a convention last summer. It went something like: “Friendship is the birthplace of conversion.” (Or was it the catalyst, or the crucible, or the garden of conversion?)

When I heard that quote, my heart whispered, Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Because I have a friend who calls me to be better than I am now, who meets my rants with a challenge to step back and look through things  from someone else’s point of view–someone whose love for me, in short, allows her to speak the truth to me, and helps me bend toward others and become a better human being.

This is true within my marriage, too. Love not only allows us to speak truth to each other; it compels us to do so–to lead each other along a path to betterment. Put another way, speaking the truth is how we bring each other closer to God.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, because if this is love, then it speaks to all relationships that we approach out of love–which is all of them. English really only has one word for “love,” and we shy away from using it outside of the romantic or family context, but the truth is we care about people because we are human and we are built to be in relationship. That is love.

Given that, the ability to speak truth is an ideal we should strive for in all our relationships: parent, child, friend, colleague, sibling, cousin.

But that’s where the hard part comes in. Because not all our relationships are strong enough to handle the speaking of truth. Sometimes love is twisted. Sometimes love is damaged by repeated instances of another person lashing out from their own pain. Love is still there, but the connection lines are not solid, and if we speak truth through those damaged lines, conversion gets twisted into something much less healthy.

In those instances, when we see someone we care about doing, saying, or holding attitudes that we can see are damaging to their emotional or physical or relational health, we have a choice to make: how to respond.

But there are no good options.

Option one is to speak the truth as gently as possible. But when relationships are damaged, this will only cause further division.

Option two is to ignore the elephant in the room–just not to address it–in an attempt to avoid sounding judgmental. But affirmation is built into human interaction, and the withholding of affirmation speaks volumes on its own. The person on the other end always knows he or she is being judged, whether you say it or not, so this, too, widens the divide.

Option three is to bury your own integrity and shower them with insincere affirmation. And I think we can all see what’s wrong with that one.

Christian has been reading Dave Ramsey’s book on leadership, where he talks about the root relationship between the words integer, integral, and integrity. It had never occurred to me until Christian read a paragraph to me, that these three words were all related to wholeness. Integrity is when everything you are is everything you are, and you don’t set some of it aside in different circles, because you can’t. This is what I have been trying to put words to for quite a while, my hope and my goal for passing the faith on to my children: that it becomes so integral to who they are that they can never fall away, because it would mean abandoning their very identity. And yet at the same time, it is not a facade polished up and worn like a jewel that you have to show off, but instead it’s something so integral that you don’t really have to talk about it all that much for people to know it’s there.

A beautiful vision for my children, but it does create this impossible situation when relationships are not strong enough. Because the reality is I have to make a bad choice between looking (and maybe being) self-righteous and failing to be true to who I am and what I believe.

And I think that everyone has faced situations like this. Which is why I bring it up. (There’s that “solidarity” piece.) We’d like to think there really are solutions to every problem we face, but the reality is, this one doesn’t have one. There are no good solutions. Only picking the one that seems the least damaging at any given time.

No easy answer.