Measuring Education for Living

It’s the season of grades and graduations and celebration by students and teachers alike at the end of a long school year. I’ve been reading about honors accumulated, understandable parental pride, and the amount of scholarship money earned by graduating senior classes.

I join in the rejoicing at the transitions that mark  new life chapters and the beginning of summer.

However, I’m also reflecting today on what we laud as worthy educational achievement. Thought I might suggest some additional alternative measures for our educational institutions – I’d like to know how many of your students:

are genuinely kind?

can pay bills on time, shop for groceries and prepare meals, rent an apartment, and file their own taxes?

can balance ambition with human connection, work with the other stuff of living?

see value in the process or journey as well as the end product?

understand the complexities of the governance system in our country and how to participate in it?

engage with respect and sincerity across differences, especially where differential power is involved?

are dedicated to devising creative solutions to care for the earth and halt the rush of climate change?

can drive a car without putting themselves or others at risk of either physical danger or road rage?

can competently care for another living thing, whether that’s a plant or an elder or a pet or a child?

understand that vocational choices need to be made in the context of a realistic assessment of what day-to-day life in that field actually consists of rather than idealized images of any given profession?

know to treat people below them in society’s food chain with respect and dignity as well as those above them?

can locate a reliable auto mechanic, plumber, tailor, dentist, worshiping community, primary care provider, and mental health practitioner?

can identify the ways in which they are always vastly interdependent with the rest of the world?

These things are difficult to measure, you say?

Well, sure they are. But we presume to measure intelligence, aptitude, and achievement as if they were single, easily quantifiable constructs. I don’t think we get that right either, so why should that stop of us from attempting to grade our schools on their capacity to do teach these essential life skills?

Or better yet, forget about measuring them altogether and just teach them as a priority, as a requirement for dignified, decent, and capable human living in the 21st century.

Why can’t we do that?

 

The Work of Creation: Judges 5: 3-7

We have a lot to do tonight.

That fits, right?

Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘

And we’re going to get it done.

That sound like any woman you know?

Plenty to do.

And it’s going to get done.

Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.

Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.

For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.

This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.

You know what I say about that?

I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.

For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.

But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.

So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.

But you know what we are going to do tonight?  We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.

Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.

We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.

Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.

We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.

It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.

This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.

Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.

While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.

Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.

Because the world so desperately needs it.

You get to decide what that looks like.

Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.

The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.

Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.

Women’s work, that is.

We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.

Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.

Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.

And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.

Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.

That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.

A mother in Israel?

We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.

Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.

On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?

It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.

For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.

Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.

What can you give birth to?

Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.

Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.

In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.

I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.

Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.

Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men –  gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom.  Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.

In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.

Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.

In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –

In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.

Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”

Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . .  [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”

Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.

So we have this day.

What do you rejoice in?

What must you grieve?

What you might you give birth to?  In ways traditional or something altogether new.

What will you do?

Amen.

 

On What is Required of Us

My grandmother quoted many things to me when I was a child, but one of the most oft-cited sayings came from Luke 12:47, which in the NRSV reads “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

While I appreciate the inclusive language here, older texts use a (masculine generic) pronoun, suggesting that this is not a general, easily dismissed “everybody” but indeed an actual individual person. That’s how Grandmama said it and that’s the mandate I heard.

I believe she set this passage before me regularly to sing into my soul a dual sensibility: that I was blessed in many ways and that I in turn needed to share those blessings with others.

The communal responsibility of us all, one for another, is so clear in this verse. I suppose you can hear it as a endorsement of individual ambition, but such an interpretation does not do justice to the Gospel message.

I’ve spent my life not only trying to live up to that call, but also continuously refining my understanding of how to do so skillfully. Good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition. The desire to love the world and to be a blessing in it requires not only intent, but knowledge, insight, and relationship. It’s always an ongoing journey.

However, I often see in our culture – then, in my childhood, and now – a refusal on two counts.

The first is of the very idea that we are responsible one for another, that in what we have been granted in this world (and yes, that for which we have worked very hard), we are called to share and love and give, to carry each other along. And that our responsibility increases proportionately with our blessings and freedom.

The second involves going beyond the good intention – so that as we take seriously the requirement to care one for another, we pay attention to the vast web of complex structural forces in play in our culture. We will all make mistakes – and there has to be room for that – but we can at least do our best to treat people not as objects (even as objects of our care and concern), but as subjects in their own lives and deserving of our respect as such.

It’s a start. I think we can do better on both counts. I really do.

My South

Southern states – and most especially Southern state legislatures – are rightly getting a lot of negative attention these days because of a series of regressive moves. Those stories feed the caricature that serves as the popular image of our region. The reality  is more complex, as realities always are. The South belongs to the rest of us too – and we belong to it. So I add this portrait of my South in this moment to the mix.

My South has –

  • dogwoods in bloom outside my window as I write this.
  • people fighting to protect Medicaid for our most vulnerable low income residents.
  • awesome Mexican/Vietnamese/Southern/Chinese/haute cuisine/chain restaurant/meat & 3/Waffle House food. We have boiled peanuts and grits and barbecue and farmers markets with watermelon and tomatoes and sweet corn.
  • excellent art museums and public gardens and small & community theaters and opera and dance  and poets and essayists and novelists – all a part of an artistic community with incredible vision and unparalleled talent.
  • one hell of an ugly history of racial oppression – and it’s not just history, it’s now – systemic and individual-level racism are horrifically real.
  • black and brown and white people doing our damndest to rid the world of racial oppression – (and yes, even when we are really trying, we white folks still get it wrong, time and again, because we are so soaked in this from the time we are born. But some of us are determined to get beyond that and will keep at the work of addressing systemic racism at its white source until we either succeed or breathe our last breath).
  • gay bars and LGBTQ+ community centers and Pride fests and passionate, powerful QTPOC (queer & trans people of color) who might yet succeed in teaching us all how to live without crushing the souls of others.
  • plenty of money for prisons, but never enough for teaching children or ensuring access to healthcare or making sure that no one goes hungry.
  • churches – tons of churches – a church home for you no matter what you believe or how high church or Spirit-breathing you’re looking for – (and a whole bunch of sincere, God-loving LGBTQ+ Christians – we are faithful people too).
  • not just churches – we have mosques and synagogues and temples and meditation centers – there are people practicing their faith in myriad ways and Sunday brunch and picnics in the park for the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among us. In my South, we practice live and let live and we learn and work together.
  • no frickin’ public transit to speak of – it’s a shame.
  • music in all forms and venues – songs worth singing and musicians worth listening to – music that moves the soul and the body.
  • undocumented people in indefinite detention in harsh conditions and a general climate of suspicion toward people for whom English is not their first language – and committed, multi-ethnic coalitions of activists working to change that.
  • the most incredible ecodiversity and stunning beauty – these ecosystem treasures that we often don’t even realize are there until after we’ve destroyed them.
  • people who will come get you in the middle of the night when you’re stuck on the side of the road – even if you disagree with them on about absolutely everything.
  • coffeehouses and craft beer and public libraries and parks and bookstores and cafes.
  • far too many people who do not understand the conditions of their own oppression and who thus consistently speak, act, and vote against their own interests.
  • Alabama football – Roll Tide!
  • activists staring at the evils of environmental racism and organizing to overcome it.
  • some of the most assbackward corrupt politicians on the face of the planet, looking after their own power and profit rather than the true public good.
  • my people – blood kin and family of choice and (some of) the friends I’ve made across a lifetime – and an incredible community that cares about all of the above.

This my South.

Crucify Whom?

Today is Good Friday.

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

Black bodies?

Transgender bodies?

Undocumented immigrant bodies?

Muslim bodies?

Poor bodies?

Disabled bodies?

Lesbian bodies?

Addicted bodies?

Refugee bodies?

The body of the earth and its non-human living things?

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

 

On Why It’s Hard to Be a Christian in Today’s World

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could retreat into my little bubble of middle-class privilege and really not give a damn about the suffering of poor people and the ways in which our economic system benefits the very few at the expense of the many.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I and my white self could hide behind some vague notion of colorblindness and ignore the very real violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country and around the world. I could refuse to see and refuse to change a system that feeds on fundamental inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, that enshrines racism as a means of divide-and-conquer.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could skip the outrage at our ravaging of the planet for the sake of human profit, our disregard of life beyond our own, our denial of our complicity in past, present, and future environmental disasters.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could tell homophobic people – all of them – to just fuck off rather than to continue to work toward mutual relationship and meaningful dialogue.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stare at people with disabilities and think there was something wrong with them instead of with a culture that denies their full individual humanity and refuses to embrace them for their diversity and their contributions.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could think that people who disagree with me are stupid rather than working to value them as fellow precious children of God.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stereotype, judge, and dehumanize Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of any other faith or no faith at all and do my best to keep my distance from them.

It’s hard being a Christian – because then I could see people dying across the globe from preventable wars, preventable diseases, and preventable hunger and thirst without losing sleep over it. I could see those problems as some fault of their own rather than of a global system that has for centuries robbed entire nations of their assets and their autonomy, often with the approval and even the assistance of the Christian church.

God, it is hard to be a Christian in today’s world.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Christianity – or any religious perspective – is not the only reason people care about these things. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just talking about where I come from. I fully affirm the idea that non-Christians and non-religious people can have grounded and nuanced ethics. If that’s you, all props to you and peace and strength to you for your work.

And there are certainly Christians who disagree with what I’ve said here – to y’all, I say . . . I say . . . I say that you are my family in this faith and I hope we can be in conversation about what living out that faith looks like in our contemporary world. I will listen to you with an open heart. I hope you will receive me in the same spirit (Spirit).

Stuck and Unstuck: A Lenten Reflection

A gracious, wide crape myrtle stands in our yard near the street.

During certain times of the year, leaves and seed pods from that lovely tree fall in just such a pattern as to block a few critical inches of our driveway. The drainage path to the curb gets clogged up.

And then I find myself pulling up during a rainstorm to step out of the car into ankle-deep water. I slosh across the driveway to that one corner and, in my already sodden shoes, kick the minuscule, problematic bundle of leaves, seed pods, and twigs out into the water flowing along the gutter.

As I make my way inside to shuck my wet shoes, the driveway begins to drain.

We could pull all sorts of lessons out this story, but there’s one that really interests me during Lent.

Every one of us gets stuck sometimes. Sometimes it’s a huge thing and we have to figure out an appropriate way to address that. At others, however, it’s something small.

Sometimes we get stuck on the small things.

They might mess with our capacity to show compassion and kindness in the world. They might keep us from seeing the pain of a neighbor. They might cause us to get mired in a muddle of self-condemnation. Or we might just feel stuck and not even know why.

This time in the Christian year allows us the opportunity to slow down and pay attention. Somewhere in that process of prayer and practice, we might notice what’s got us stuck.

Lent invites us to consider the small things that could make a big difference. Sometimes it’s exactly those small things in our lives that block us in our quest to follow Jesus.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37 

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Parenting for a Better World

When my daughter was around a year old, I took her with me one evening to a peace movement meeting. Never one with much patience for quietly sitting still (can’t imagine where she got that from), she wiggled and wriggled and made all the quiet and not so quiet noises that little ones make. We got a couple of looks from people.  I ended up trying – and failing – to slip away silently, reflecting with some sorrow on the seeming incompatibility of parenting and social justice work. It wasn’t just this episode, but that night epitomized the complexity of trying to be dedicated to so many things.

A few days later, I encountered an older-than-me activist friend and I told her about my dilemma. “What am I supposed to do?” I mourned, “I feel like I can’t be everywhere I am supposed to be. There’s so much to do.”

I can still see us standing there on the sidewalk, me in my angst and her with her kind smile and thoughtful energy. “It’s okay,” she said, “take care of your daughter. Do what you need to do. There will always be work to be done.”

While it counts as a tragic fact that the need for social justice organizing may never end, what she said is true. It brought me necessary peace and new clarity about pacing myself for the long haul.

It’s like this – now that I’ve been a parent for 15 years, I can assert with confidence that good parenting is an inherently important, albeit ever-challenging, task. Dedicating our time and love and energy to raising the next generation matters. These are the people – even if it’s hard to see it while they’re in diapers – who will guide the steps of our world long after we are gone.

Our humanity begins at home. It’s the crucible from which we find our place in the world, whether we are 3 or 23 or 53 or 93. Creating a home that fosters love and kindness and justice and mercy is a gift to the world. It is a moral good to do that work and no one should feel guilty about it.

At the same time, It’s a continual invitation to see beyond the boundaries of one’s own family.  You remember the whole “it takes a village to raise a child” concept? It’s true. And we are all a part of that village for other people’s children (and everyone who is breathing on this earth is someone’s child).

Parenting is an intimate lesson in our interconnectedness. It is an immersion course. And while the intensity of daily routines, especially with young children, may consume every waking moment, it is possible to view that work as both intrinsically morally justified and as unique preparation for an ongoing lifetime of loving the world and the people in it.

You don’t have to do all of the work at once. The fact is you probably can’t. That you are concerned about this problem reflects the depth of your commitment to both your family and the cause of a better world. That helps to keep you from sinking into the pernicious view where the only thing that matters is you and yours.

But please let go of the guilt and frustration about what you can’t do in this moment. Just put it down. You’ve got enough to carry without it.

And by all means, when it seems the right thing to do, carry your kids to meetings and protests and lobbying days. Let us as a movement cultivate connections and community among social justice-oriented parents and between parents of young children and the other generations around them.

We as that movement have the obligation to create kid-friendly spaces and to nurture both the young children in our midst and the families that care for them. That is a part of how we offer concrete care for those around us.

What I am saying is not limited to biological and adoptive parents, for there are many ways that people care for others. A lot of parenting gets done by people who are not the actual mother and father of any given child – and that is a huge blessing. We also care for parents and grandparents and others who at any given time may need some extra help.

That too is necessary. It is vital to our very humanity as well as the needs of the moment. It should be seen as a part of the work for a better world, not as a distraction from it. The methods connect on every level to the ends we seek.

These days when we get home after school, my daughter sets herself up at the kitchen table and disappears into hours of homework. Since I’m now the mom of a disciplined and independent-minded high school student, I have a little more time to be involved in social justice work. I’m glad of it.

But some things don’t change. When my daughter, having a hard week in the way that can happen with GEOMETRY-HOMEWORK-IS-IMPOSSIBLE-I-DON’T-KNOW-HOW-TO-DO-IT (yeah, that’s a quote) wanted me to stay home last night instead of attend a community event that was on my calendar, I had no trouble making the choice. Balancing obligations can still be tricky. I continue to regularly examine my own priorities and their effects on the people close to me, on my broader community, and on my commitment to justice in the world.

But I long ago put down that parental guilt (well, at least that part of it) to claim the challenging and satisfying role of social justice parent. I invite others to do the same.