Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On bullies, race, and perfect victims

Yesterday I was all nice and encouraging with my "Yay, mountains! You can conquer them!" post. So forgive me if I am about to give you whiplash by calling us all out today, but come sit down with me at my kitchen table because I'm going to say some hard things. Remember that time I said I was going to speak up, no matter what? This is what it looks like when I speak up.

There's been a anti-bullying meme going around for a while now, I just saw it again the other day.

"We will never, ever get rid of bullying. We should teach kids how to stand up for themselves and cope instead of wearing pink shirts and passing anti-bullying bylaws. We are creating a society of victims."
Can we just stop for a moment? When victims of bullying stand up for themselves, it does not eliminate a bully. Perhaps, if the power imbalance is sufficiently close enough, that bully will back off. They will back off and move on down the power chain until they find someone who is too weak to fight back, and there will always be someone incapable of fighting back, whether on the playground or in the work place. The child who learns to cope by fighting back can't exactly employ those same tactics in the workplace, when the bully has the power to fire him and/or ruin his career. Please stop blaming the victims for the actions of someone else. 

This meme also assumes that all bullies are individuals, but the rise in cyber-bullying over recent years has shown us that such is not always the case. This is why schools teach anti-bullying, why they teach children to accept diversity, and to tolerate different ways of thinking and of interacting with life. The only way that we can truly change bullying is to change the bullies.

No, friends, we aren't going to get rid of bullying. We live in a broken, sin-sick world and every day people make the choice to devalue those around them in both big and small ways. But as a church we are called to more. We are called to speak value and inestimable worth into the lives of every single person around us on a DAILY basis. We are called to speak up for the voiceless. The widow. The fatherless. The outcast. The sick and the dying and the ones who are in prison. We fight back in kingdom ways by giving others a voice. When we wear the pink shirts and pass the anti-bullying bylaws we are saying to the bullied "I see you and you matter to me." And don't let it stop there. One of the four key steps taught in the anti-bullying program used by my son's school is "We will try to include students who are left out." Relationship. Friendship. Inclusion.

...

Here's the thing that really struck me, though. I cannot tell you how many times over the past week I have seen people laud the black community in Charleston, SC for not fighting, not rioting, not marching in protest in the face of the brutal, racially fueled attack that took nine lives. In many cases, the same people posting the bullying meme are the ones saying "Good for you, Charleston! You coped. Keep on coping quietly over there in your corner, please." Do you know what this sounds like? It sounds an awful lot like "Good for you, n***er. You know your place." It sounds like the exact same speech that allowed slavery to continue, that allowed Jim Crow laws to continue. Know your place. Don't fight back. Don't expect us to make changes, to wear pink shirts or take down our flags. Be a perfect victim, one who doesn't confront the deep seated issues in our country that fester like a wound ready to burst open at any moment. There is a cognitive dissonance between the two views that is often handled by simply pretending that it does not exist.

I am by no means advocating for violence, but this is the thing that the Church, that you who are seated around my table, MUST understand. When the families of victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church issued statements of forgiveness to the killer, when they wept and prayed and worshiped together instead of rioting they did so because they are people living into a faith and into a Kingdom that is the only hope for this world.

We cannot expect those who do not have the same hope to respond to injustice in the same manner.
We cannot applaud the meek on one day and tell them to fight back on the next.
We cannot neglect OUR responsibility to stand up in the face of injustice. This is our calling as a people of God.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." [Luke 4:14-21 NIV]
This is not just the theoretical hope for a heaven where someday everything will be made right. If it were, the people of Israel would not have been commanded again and again to act justly. God would not have spoken through his prophets again and again, condemning the people for their lack of justice, for the blind eye they turned to oppression, for the mistreatment of the stranger and the foreigner. 

Friends, as the people of God we are called to put on that pink shirt. We are called to befriend the friendless. We are called to speak up for the voiceless. It's not either/or, both/and. Turning the other cheek AND speaking out against injustice. Forgiveness AND listening to the oppressed. If we aren't willing to do that, we need to ask ourselves why. Because our silence often says more about what is in our heart than our words do.

...

I am as white as they come. I don't feel particularly qualified to speak on deep-seated issues of racism and our response as a Church. All I know is there was a fire in my bones that had my butt in this chair, at this screen, for most of an afternoon. My words cannot possibly be enough. Will you please take a moment to read from these other wise writers who can write from a more personal perspective?

The Only Logical Conclusion by Austin Channing



There is HOPE... by Tasha Morrison


Photo by Howard Arnoff via Flickr Creative Commons license

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

For when the mountain wins


Photo by jk_scotland via Flickr creative commons license
Once I had a goal. Not an earthshaking goal, a world changing goal, or a unique goal. Just a small goal. A friend and I were planning to ride in a century. If you aren't familiar with biking lingo (and until we planned this, I wasn't) that's a 100 mile bike ride. I was a very sporadic rider; in general most of my rides were under ten miles. I had a twelve mile route that I rode when feeling especially motivated and willing to try to out ride the mean dog on Gravels Road (which I assume was named after a person and not by someone floundering for the plural of 'gravel'). A month or two before the ride I decided to take my bike up into the mountains and ride from one entry point on Skyline Drive to a location roughly fifteen miles along the Drive and back. This would be my main preparation ride.

I'd like to point out right now that this was pre-Internet days. Or at least, before it became readily available and widely accessed. So perhaps one can excuse my complete lack of knowledge about how to train for an endurance event. I'm fairly certain that if I had actually gotten around to attempting the century I would have lived with regret for weeks after.

On a lovely September day I strapped my hand-me-down bicycle to the back of my little Dodge Omni, filled my water bottle (singular, first mistake), tossed a few snacks and some tire repair patches into my little bike pack, hopped into the car and drove up into the mountains. The weather was perfect, a Goldilocks day of 'just right'.

When you're riding in a car on Skyline Drive, it seems that the road is fairly flat. Sure, you have to drive up a mountain to get there, but the drive itself winds along the ridge lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. How steep can that really be? As it turns out, it's not so much the steepness, but the fact that a climb can go on forever. And by forever I mean probably only really a mile or less, but it feels like forever when you are on it and the only way you're getting off is to ride the whole thing. As it also turns out, most of the ascending is done on the return trip. It's easy to ignore the long slow inclines when you're headed down them. Or to think that you, who have never biked more than twelve miles at one shot can double that with no problem.

I hit my turn-around point with immense gratitude, and also with a feeling of impending doom. My body was not happy with me. It was beginning to dawn on me that I now had to ride the whole way back. Every mile, in reverse. After a short rest break and refilling of my water bottle I headed off.

I'm not sure at exactly what point I hit The Incline, but it utterly defeated me. If I had had the option to lay down and quit, I would have. I am not sure that it would be possible to pedal a bicycle any more slowly without simply falling over into a heap on the side of the road. I am fairly certain that I actually got off and walked the bike a few times when I thought I couldn't turn another pedal stroke. And as I was chugging along up the incline that never ended, another cyclist flew past me. He rode that incline like it was nothing; like it was fun! And I'm sure that he meant nothing but the best when he called out as he rode past "You're doing great! Keep going!" but I maybe hated him just a little bit for the ease with which he passed me. The jerk could have at least pretended it was hard.

Since I am not lying along Skyline Drive in a tangled pile of bicycle and bones, it is obvious that I DID make it off the mountain. The incline ended at some point. I made it back to my car in one piece. I drank a lot of water when I got home. And I cancelled my plans to ride in the century, citing the lame excuse of "I just started taking Trigonometry this fall and the homework is taking up all my training time." Which was sort of true because Trigonometry was its own damn mountain, but it was also sort of an excuse. The truth is, the mountain won. It was hard, and I decided that I was not up to the task.

So why am I thinking about this nearly twenty years later? Because this morning in cycling class (which is as close to a bike as I get these days) I managed to bump the level of my hills up just a little bit higher, and hold onto them without dying just a little bit longer. I know that indoor cycling isn't half the same as riding outdoors against the wind and up hills that can't be erased with the flip of a lever, but biking up that imaginary hill this morning I couldn't help but think about the time the mountain won and wonder if it would feel differently today. (And then I was so busy thinking profound thoughts and writing things in my mind that I totally missed when the rest of the class sat back down in the saddle for almost forty seconds, which was kind of embarrassing but also why I pick a bike near the back of the room.)

Sometimes mountains win. Sometimes we drag ourselves off of them with tired bodies and aching legs. We've seen the people breezing past us and we've decided that we just aren't cut out for this. We were never meant to be (fill in the blank) because surely if we were it wouldn't still be so hard. We give up, put away the plans and the dreams and settle in to our practical lives.

And then, one day, the dream slips back in. Oh, I'm not going to ride a century any time soon (no bike, no gear, no money, no real desire), but I get a sense of satisfaction when I hit a new gear in class. It's my way of saying to the mountain, "I'm coming for you. I'm building what it takes to beat you."

So pick up that paintbrush, sit down at that computer, look up those college courses, sign up for that race. The mountains that won in the past don't have to remain insurmountable.

It will take dedication.

It will take practice.

It will take determination.

It will take a choice.

Go conquer your mountain.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Casting all our cares


Photo by telomi via Flickr

I've been getting up at 5:00 a.m. this week. Yes, I know. Five. In. The. Morning. Some of you probably just unfriended me on Facebook. It was really the next logical step for me, though. I've been waking up at that time for months, every muscle tense with anxiety, nothing to do for it but take deep breaths, and say the Lord's Prayer over and over as I doze off, then awaken again with my jaw locked and my muscles tight. That gets old after awhile.

Anxiety is still a part of my life. A smaller part than it used to occupy, but still there, still sending my body into fight or flight mode at the most unexpected times. I'm starting to accept that this is part of who I am.

For years I've heard the verses...you know the ones:

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.[Psalm 55:22 NIV]

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. [Matthew 6:34 NIV]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. [Philippians 4:6 NIV]


Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. [1Peter 5:7 NIV]

Lovely verses, really, and they make such lovely memes when superimposed over pictures of babbling brooks, majestic mountains, or sandy shores. And for some people, that's what they need. But when you live with chronic anxiety sometimes those verses are a reminder that you've failed. You are a Bad Christian. You've cast your cares on Him again and again and again, but you still feel pretty shaken. You've taken your requests to God in prayer...when you know what your request is. It's not so much worrying about tomorrow that is troubling you, it's the fact that you need to get from point A to point B and the quickest way to do that is via the interstate but you can't make yourself do it because what if your tire blows out while you are driving at 80 miles per hour? (True story...I finally got myself driving on the interstate again and they raised the speed limit to 80. Thanks a lot, South Dakota.)

So yes, I used to think that if I was still anxious I was somehow lacking in faith. I didn't know and stand on Scripture (and yet, I could recall each one of the afore-mentioned verses). I struggled with the thought of taking medication for it because SURELY that reveals a lack of trust, an inability to rely fully on God. (A line of reasoning that somehow never extended to my need for medication to compensate for an under-performing thyroid.)

And then this weekend I was about to jump out of my skin with anxiety when the thought popped into my mind "I need to take a walk." So I did, and although I had nearly finished my route before my brain calmed down, it DID indeed calm down. I think that I had a realization on that walk; that maybe sometimes what God wants from us is the most practical thing in the world. Maybe, just maybe, he doesn't want hours of me wrestling trying to figure out how to 'cast my cares on him'. Maybe he wants me to take a walk.

God has given us a myriad of coping mechanisms. Nature, music, kittens, exercise, talking. Do we do him a disservice when we insist that he remove our anxiety with no cooperation on our part? I'm not discounting prayer, but maybe we miss the whole point of communication with God when we struggle over and over to shift the anxiety off of our shoulders by spending hours on our knees and the whole time God is saying "Go pet a kitten." (Even my ten year old instinctively recognizes the benefits of kitten therapy when he's had a rough day.)

I don't want to make it sound like I am discounting everything that is taught in the church about anxiety. Some of it has its place. But so often I think it is disconnected from the real work that it does in us. Many of us have been handed a list of verses or statements to meditate on. The "I Am" list that affirms who we are in Christ. The verses about casting our cares on Him. They are handed to us like some magic formula; if we just recite them enough, just believe them enough we will be healed of all our anxious thoughts. It leaves us frustrated when they don't work.

Lists and verses can be helpful as part of a regular relaxation or meditation technique. Much like any other technique they can become a key that reminds your brain to slow down, your body to breathe, your muscles to relax. Practice it often enough and your body will recognize and respond to them quickly when you call them to mind.

And yet often when I'm struggling most with my anxiety I find that the most helpful scriptures aren't the ones that tell me what to do with it, but the ones that just let me feel what I am feeling. The Psalms are beautiful examples that run the gamut of human emotions. Fear, anxiety, sorrow, anger...the Psalmists deal with these without holding back the full weight of what they are feeling. And, in the end, sometimes like a whisper and sometimes like a victory shout, the authors remind themselves that God Is. Maybe that's what it really looks like to cast our cares on the Lord. It's not some easy shifting of a burden, a casual "Here God, you take this." It's walking through the fire and even in the midst of it, when the smoke is choking you and you can't see the way out, reminding yourself that God is here.

Psalm 13

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.




Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Fire and bones

 But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. [Jeremiah 20:9 NIV]

Photo by Lon Martin via Flickr Creative Commons License

A friend of mine posted this verse from Jeremiah the other day, and I've been thinking about it ever since. Thinking about fire and words and how it seems that we flip between two extremes, letting our own words burn inside or letting them out to lay waste and burn others. I know Jeremiah is speaking about prophetic things and Words from God; I lay no claims to being a prophet or hearing Words, but don't we all still sometimes walk that line of trying to figure out when to speak up and when to shut up?

We'd speak up, but then we'd know where we differ from our friends and isn't it safer to keep the silence and the friendship intact?

We'd speak up, but we aren't articulate like that person over there.

We'd speak up, but what if we're wrong?

We'd speak up, but we're confident in our stance and don't want to start an argument.

We'd speak up, but we're ashamed of our brokenness.

We'd speak up, but what if our words aren't worth saying?

We'd speak up, but we feel alone.

We'd speak up, but we don't want to waste our time.

We'd speak up, but we don't trust others to hold us and our words gently...or maybe we're afraid that we won't be gentle with theirs.
 .....

I learned early on how to be silent; I think that many of us do. We hold our words in; we stifle our thoughts, our feelings, our opinions, and our dreams. Everyone else seems so certain, we just defer to them because it's simpler than risking words. Easier than risking laying our feelings bare.

I was good with that for a long time. The silent introvert, hovering on the edges, never really taking a stand, never saying anything of great importance because the specter of disagreement was a frightening shade.

But then there's that fire burning within us.

Shut it up too long and it melts our bones, it wearies us. We exist as incomplete people because it's the being known that completes us. And yes, disagreement bears the potential to melt the bones and wear us out; I've been there, most of us have been there. But there's always that potential for new life to flourish when the dead has been burned away, when the heat brings new seeds to life, when the air and the sun can finally reach down and touch new growth.

I'm weary of keeping silence in the name of keeping peace.

I want to speak up, to wade into disagreement with my friends, trusting that the God of peace can breathe unity in the midst of all our disagreement, trusting that friendship doesn't call us to be mental clones.

I want to speak up, in all my inarticulate fumbling, trusting that it is the heart that reaches out, that other hearts will understand.

I want to speak up, even if I'm wrong, because if we all waited for absolute certainty little of value would ever get said.

I want to speak up, but be humble enough to listen.

I want to speak up, to share the brokenness and the being made whole so that others can see hope.

I want to speak up, because we all have worthless words sometimes, but more often they are the words that someone needs. And we don't know the difference unless we speak them.

I want to speak up, because that's how I become known.

I want to speak up, because I don't want my thoughts to waste away.

I want to speak up. To hold my own words gently, an offering of warmth and not a wildfire of judgement.

It's time to speak up, because that's where community forms.