I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

The Lord is my Shepherd, it’s going to be okay (A Psalm for weary women)

Remember playing hide-n-seek as a kid, and after a countdown the seeker would shout “Ready or not, here I come!”? Lately I’ve been feeling like I want to hide away somewhere, too, but my calendar is shouting “Ready or not, here I come!” at me. It’s a crazy season, and sometimes I feel a rising sense of panic about all there is to do.
In the midst of this, I sensed an invitation to lay down my COO-Of-The-House mantle, and spend some time reflecting on being a sheep. The sheep in Psalm 23, particularly.My talented artist friend Corrie (who illustrated my poetry series and the trafficking awareness posts) knows the stress of a family calendar and the invitation of the good shepherd, too, and so together we want to share a virtual cup of tea and an invitation to God’s rest to you.
Psalm 23 for the Weary Woman
The LORD is my shepherd, he will take care of me.
He has me sit down, drink tea, and breathe a while,
     He restores my soul.
He helps and guides me in making decisions, because he cares about how his daughter is faring in this world.
Even though I stare down the shadowed valley of an overloaded calendar, 
     I will not freak out,
     for you are with me;
Knowing you’ll guide and guard me in this mayhem comforts me.
You provide ways for me to be nourished and flourished, even in the midst of life’s demands
You have chosen and called me your own;
       you’ve promised an abundant life, rich with your presence.
I know it’s going to be okay,
       because your goodness and kindness will be with me every single day in this life and this home,
       and for all the days in the next life in your home, too. 
Amen.

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? (some thoughts on freedom, fear, and viewer discretion)

 

“Dear Bronwyn,

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? I have Christian friends who want to get together and watch it, and other Christian friends who think it’s the Show Satan Made. Any thoughts?

 

Thanks,

HBgO or HBnO?”

 

Dear HBOer,

I don’t know if it’s okay for you to watch Game of Thrones (or any other show, for that matter). I’ve only watched the first episode, and I know it’s not for me. Here are some of my thoughts in trying to figure that out, though.

We like binary answers: black or white. Yes or no. Wrong or right. And for sure, there are things that are absolutely black or white: it is ALWAYS wrong to murder. it is ALWAYS wrong to steal (and that includes pirating movies, BTW).

But the Bible also has all sorts of things where the answer is neither black nor white. Rather, the situation calls for discernment. Take this frustrating pair of verses from Proverbs, for example:

When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” (Proverbs 26:4)

followed by,

When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” (Proverbs 26:5)

Huh??

And then there are the passages in the new Testament that talk about how for some, eating a certain diet and neglecting certain religious days is sinful, while for others it is fine (Colossians 2:16, Romans 14). So in other words: sometimes the answer to whether something is right or wrong is IT DEPENDS.

It depends on the context. It depends on your community. It depends on who you are and where you are at in life.

We are coming out of a generation in Christianity that has been bounded up with lots of rules, well intentioned (I think) to try and keep us from sin. Rules about clothing, dating, dancing, modesty, music etc have abounded in church culture, and I do believe for the most part this has in an effort to pursue holiness. But often it’s gone the way of LEGALISM.

In response, I’ve seen so much about Christian freedom: critique of purity culture and some very fundamentalist ways of doing church/discipline etc. But often it’s gone the way of LICENSE.

I think neither legalism nor license help us navigate the complexity of living well in our world. We need DISCERNMENT for the vast area between the “I don’t watch any TV at all!” and the “I can watch ANYTHING AT ALL!” extremes. I don’t know that we talk about (or teach) discernment enough.

Discernment has to mean more than a “do what works for you” policy. I think we do need to have better, wiser conversation on helping one another gauge these things. In between legalism and license, we need WISDOM. “Everything is permissible,” said Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6). So the question is: how do you figure out what is beneficial?

One of the hallmarks of growing in maturity is learning to pay attention to your own sweet self. Listening to your body, being aware of your emotions and thought patterns etc are all part of our journey in discipleship. We are not good at this. We need to be better at this. Rest (and with it, reflection and self-examination) are important parts in us helping live meaningful, intentional lives. We need to pause and take stock on how things are affecting us, what we’re learning, how we’re growing or being shaped by the choices we make… in order to make better and wiser choices.

It is simply NOT TRUE that what we can watch/listen/engage in whatever and remain neutral and unaffected. We absolutely ARE shaped by the stories we expose ourself to. In books, TV, movies, pictures and real life – each story we expose to leaves its mark in our formation. The stories in our lives shape the way we approach the world: they sculpt our vision of the “good life”, they spark our imagination, they make us want certain things and hate other things… and if we are not paying attention to what is being sparked, nurtured, or drowned in our desires, we can land up in serious trouble. Like Rom Coms with the underlying message that it’s the “proposal moment” (or the dramatic chase to the airport departure chase) that brings the moment of clarity that you’ve met “the one”. Or like porn giving us really messed up scripts for what to expect in sexual intimacy.

 

I think it’s a healthy practice to talk through our show choices with friends or family and think through questions about what the underlying messages and values of a show are, and how they are affecting you. Naming the issues is a big first step in being aware of the impression they might have. A deeper level of conversation needs to happen in then considering what impact those messages are having on you: how do you feel after watching the show? Turned on? Angry? Riled up? Triggered? Numb? Disappointed and disillusioned with your own life?

 

Here is how this has worked out with me in considering a couple of shows:

  • We started watching New Girl and stopped a couple seasons in – the room mate drama and sex were getting too much for me. I have a high view of sex and I was just getting tired of how often (and how poorly) it was addressed in the show. Sex shouldn’t be the butt end of most of a show’s jokes, and I don’t want to curate a jaded view of sex.
  • We watched 24. I couldn’t cope after season 2, but my husband was okay watching through the end. I think the show really showed how ALL of us are corruptible, but I just so desperately needed someone honest and reliable (a redeemer!) in that storyline. Also, I was continually frustrated that no-one ever seemed to need to use the bathroom or eat.
  • The Good Place has received critical acclaim, but I chose not to watch (and wrote about it) … matters of eternity are close to my heart.
  • I loved season 1 of Crazy Ex Girlfriend: so clever and funny. But when I realized she wasn’t just kooky, but that there were actual mental health issues at stake, somehow it just wasn’t funny to me anymore. I think I’ve just met too many people really hurting from mental health issues to engage that way anymore. I know, I’m a real party pooper. But I’m trying to care for people with these issues and a show which makes fun of them (and where no-one knows the problem is a problem) was a problem for me.
  • I watched all the Friends seasons, and felt aware of (and distant enough from) the very different relationship values in them. My husband, on the other hand, was perpetually frustrated by how the friends lie to each other (or conceal things from one another) as the center point of every episode’s drama. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he’s right. They really do hide things from each other. He didn’t watch.
  • We watched Parenthood. I thought it was excellent. He thought the family arguments had too many people talking at the same time (and shouting at each other) – it stressed him out. He was paying attention.
  • He watched Lost. I can’t. I know my imagination cannot handle the paranormal or big suspense stuff. It makes me anxious and weepy…
  • I didn’t watch (or read) 50 Shades of Gray. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary did watch it and she was fine. Her post makes exactly this point: you need to know what you can handle. And ask questions about what’s drawing you into the story again and again.
  • I watched Outlander, which has plenty of sex. I don’t think this would have been helpful for me to watch in my early 20s (age matters), or maybe if I was single (“don’t awake love before it desires”, is Song of Songs’ advice to young women). But as a now older, married person – it was okay. except for the violence parts, which I absolutely cannot handle. I skipped those parts in the book and the movie.

Which brings me to your question: what about Game of Thrones?

It depends. From the brief part I saw, and from the bulk of what I’ve heard, this is a show with PLENTY of graphic (and unhealthy) sex, and PLENTY of violence. I think we are, in general, overexposed to those things, and thus in danger of being numb to the power of those stories’ shaping power. So there’s a caveat, and there’s a LOT of wisdom in erring on the side of caution in these things. One of the big dangers in movie and TV watching is that you can’t unsee things. So if it’s likely that you will see things you might wish you hadn’t (if you don’t want them turning up in your dreams or your fantasies), then maybe rather not.

But that doesn’t make for an automatic no. My questions for your consideration are: what impact is that show having on you? How do you feel afterwards? What does it make you want more of in life? If you think of God being present in the room with you as you watch, how does that change your awareness regarding the content of what you’re watching? What if you were watching with your parents?

 

As disclosed above, I’ve watched some TV that for others, is dangerous or damaging. I think in general GoT has a very high risk of being dangerous and damaging in how it kindles our imaginations. But that’s for you, the Holy Spirit, and wise counselors to wade through. I find the “it may be permissible, but is it beneficial?” grid to be really helpful for me to think this stuff through. I hope it is for you, too.

 

Best,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you want to send my way? Find the Ask Me page… I’d love to hear from you 🙂

Is my child ready for Kindergarten? Should we start school early? Or wait a year?

I had the joy of being a guest on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast this week, talking about the difficult decisions we have as parents of choosing schools for our kids. Public? Private? Home school? Other? (You can check out the episode here… and if you don’t know about C+C and its lovely blog for young mothers, look here!) I got a couple emails after the podcast, with variations of this question:

“Dear Bronwyn,

My kiddo is smart (reading already!) and I think she’s ready for school. She has a (late summer/fall) birthday, and I’m not sure whether to put her in Kinder yet, or wait a year. If we have a choice, should we put her in? I don’t want her to be bored and she seems ready. Any thoughts?

-KinderKonfused”

Dear KK,

The year our eldest was due to start Kindergarten, they changed the birthdate requirements in our state. We had thought we would be waving her off with a tiny pink backpack that Fall, and all of a sudden the rules changed and she we weren’t. And I. Was. Mad.

She was an articulate, confident, smart kiddo… and we were all ready for her to start school. Given that her birthday was so close to the cut off, I looked into lobbying for her to start early, but got shut down fairly quickly. Apparently, I wasn’t the first Mom to feel her child was “special” and should be hanging with the bigger kids. The state then rolled out a “transitional kindergarten” program for those “extra young kindergartners” and I rolled my eyes and enrolled her. What choice did we have?

I mention this to say that if I’d had a choice, we would have enrolled her early. And, in hindsight, I think that if I’d had the choice, I would have chosen wrong. Here’s why:

We are now several years into our schooling journey, and I have never once wished my child were LESS mature than she is for the social challenges she is facing. If anything, with every new year that rolls around, I’m grateful she has that extra year. Academics aside (I’ll get to that in a bit), I think it’s easier to deal with second grade pressures when you’re 7-turning-8 than when you’re 6-turning-7. And in the middle school and high school years, an extra year of knowing-your-own-voice and the extra brain development that comes with growth which is proven stand them in better stead in maturity of decision making (read about teen brain here. Or for the science-heavy paper, read here.) In 100% of cases, 18 year old you was capable of more mature and complex decision-making than 17 year old you… which I think is a great reason to be one year older when picking colleges, jobs, and making your transition into independent adulthood.

But, you ask, what if your kid is smart and gifted and you think they will be bored—and worse yet, a disengaged brat—because class isn’t challenging enough for them?

A few thoughts on this (from someone who finished school at 16 herself. And I wasn’t bored. But in truth I suffered in other ways because of it…)

  • Teachers are fantastic. They have taught brilliant kids and challenged kids and everything in-between, and more and more I’m learning to trust their ability to find ways to challenge the kids in their class. My kid may be brilliant at arithmetic, but he’s never done geography/social studies/reading comp before and there are still many things for him to learn from this teacher and these peers.
  • There’s a world of things for kids to learn about beyond the classroom, and often the task of keeping kids engaged means cracking open new doors and letting them explore. The library is our great friend here. Supervised use of the internet is brilliant too (or if you have the courage, Pinterest. Shoot me now.) And there’s nothing like our great friend BOREDOM to cultivate creativity and imagination in kids, too.
  • For what it’s worth, if our kids want to go further and learn more, we try to encourage them in skills they are not going to learn in school already so that we don’t create or worsen the threat of boredom. Can they learn a different language? Tackle programming? Become the local tiny expert on fly fishing? We have one kid who is awesome at math… but we want to try and keep school math interesting to him as long as possible so we made it a rule that he was NOT ALLOWED TO DO HIS BIG SISTER’S HOMEWORK. Maybe that seems weird. But we put him in school at the same age as his peers (not early!) and we want him to be learning alongside his peers and from his peers as well as he can for as long as he can.

In short: I believe there’s a lot to be said for resisting prodigy-culture. Garrison Keillor’s famous line about  Lake Woebegon being a place where “all the children are above average” is funny because it’s so true. We live in a culture which wants and needs our kids to be above average. We all want to know our kid is going to do well in life—better than we did, we hope! We love our special snowflakes (I ADORE mine!) and no-one is better than seeing and knowing and wanting to develop their gifts than we parents are. BUT there is much to say for letting them be a kid. Letting them play. Letting them be bored. Letting them be average (or just a little above average), and if you have the chance… giving them an extra year to grow up before life throws all its non-academic curve balls their way. So much of early parenthood is about worrying your kid “meets developmental milestones” and if possible, exceeds them. I just don’t think it’s helpful to think about kindergarten that way.

That’s my two-cents worth, and if any of that is helpful or encouraging to you… I’m glad 🙂

Grace and peace to you, mama. You’re doing a great job.

-Bronwyn

Photo credit: Pexels.com

Still Flying

I just returned from an incredible week at the Harvest Island Wilderness Workshop: a week with 15 others on a remote island, learning about writing from Leslie Leyland Fields (a masterful writer, as you can see here), and Philip Yancey (!!!). I’ve wanted to go from the first time I heard about it, if we could wrangle the time and money. But there was one more concern: the question of the travel, since I am pretty much the most motion sick person you’ve ever met. In one of our writing exercises, I tried to explain….

A storm is coming in, they said, so we would need to be at the float plane six hours earlier than expected. I reached behind my ear to finger the dime sized patch—scopamine for coping with my ever-queasy-belly. Float plus plane. Two words more scary to me than biological plus warfare. Or kale plus anything. Please, merciful God, let these drugs work.

Before… (also pictured, the lovely Aleah with her trusty GoPro)

“It looks to be a pretty clear day,” our pilot says. The plane roars to life, and I aim my phone at the creamy flare of water fanning up from the fins. I am eye level with the black birches, with the eagle, with the clouds. I breathe in deep. I am okay.

“See in the river bend to our left?,” says Josh, “those are bears. A mama and her two cubs, I think.” I permit myself a smile, surprised to be able to look, to see, to enjoy. Mossy green mountain tips point up at us, mirroring our fingers pointing down at golf courses, at glaciers, at mountain dandruff I am told are actually goats.

The plane lurches and my stomach scoops deep into fear. My knuckles whiten. I swallow and wait. Look at the mountains. See the fjords? Are there any bears? Where’s the barf bag? How much longer?

At first it feels like heat, a sweat slick under my jacket, a longing for fresh air. I unzip a little, willing something cooler onto my body. But this is a well-worn path into the mire of nausea, and I know the stages well. Sweat. Cough. Cough again. Wipe my clammy hands on my knees and focus on the horizon.

Two inlets later, I reach for the baggie behind the seat. There are six people on this plane, four of whom will see and smell everything that happens next. We will live together for a week, and I would love them to think something of me other than “the one who threw up”. Years later, in a crowded conference hall with nametags obscured, perhaps I will say hello, and be met with polite pause as memory is scanned for association. “I’m Bronwyn, we met in Alaska. I’m the one who got sick on the plane.”

But there is no controlling this. I will be remembered as I am, not as I’d hoped to present myself. Humbled, I tumble my pride into the baggie. Once, twice, and once more for good measure. The clamminess abates and I see the island on the horizon.

And we are flying still.

A story and a prayer about Cake

Once upon a time there was a cake. Some travelers came upon the cake, and being hungry after their long journey, they cut it into even slices and shared it between them. Where they came from, the King ate most of the cake, so this was a real treat. Not long afterwards, some local people arrived and said “hey, who ate our cake?”, and the travelers shrugged: “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” they said.

The travelers liked this land with its good ingredients for cake, and worked very, very hard to make as many cakes as they could. A strong workforce was kidnapped imported to come and make cake. But the workers were not allowed to eat any of the cake. Not at all. Every now and then the workers would try to run away, or complain that they, too, liked cake – but those workers were punished and killed for their insolent cake-wanting ways. Some of the more heroic people who quashed uppity cake-wanting workers even had statues erected in their honor. Freedom, independence and liberty to eat cake. That was worth celebrating.

Many years later, some realized that women liked cake too, and some years after that, that black people should get to eat cake as well. The self-evident truths that all men are created equal needed to include all of mankind: men and women, people of all colors. This was a huge celebration.

But, in the years that followed, some of the original cake eaters began to complain that they didn’t feel the portion size of their cake was what it had been before. “We deserve 20oz cake servings,” they said. “Make our cake great again!” When others protested saying, “your expectations that you deserve the biggest slice of cake were set by a very flawed history…”, they got upset. “Are you calling me racist?” they said?

“No,” said others. “we’re just saying that we need to acknowledge that white people have always got the biggest pieces of cake, and that wasn’t right. That’s what privilege is: expecting a piece of cake without anyone questioning your right to it. We need to recalibrate our serving size. We need to make sure that those who have never had cake before get some. We need to watch out for bullies at the table who want to snatch others’ cake away. We must oppose leaders who fail to condemn militant whites-only-cake-eating-groups.”

There’s a lot of cake. There’s more than enough to go around. We don’t need to be greedy.

//

When Nehemiah asked for news of what had been happening in his home country, people told him of “great trouble and disgrace”, of “broken walls, and gates burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3) When Nehemiah heard these things, he sat down and wept. He mourned and fasted, and prayed to the God of Heaven: “O Lord, who keeps his covenant of love, please listen. I confess the sins we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”  (Nehemiah 1:4-6, abridged from NIV and ESV)

I stopped still when I read these words earlier this week. Nehemiah was a generation later than those who were most directly responsible for the tragedy that had befallen Jerusalem: he wasn’t the rebel, surely? But Nehemiah knew something I—we—have been slow to learn: there can’t be any petition for help or any hope of praise until we have lamented the wrong and repented of our individual and group participation in it, both now and in history.

Even I and my father’s house have sinned. Even I have expected a bigger piece of cake. I did so because my whole life I’ve been told that I deserved cake. Work hard, and you will get cake. I worked hard, and I got cake… but I also believed that others who didn’t have cake maybe didn’t deserve cake, or didn’t work hard, or didn’t like or want cake. Their cakelessness was surely their problem, or worse yet – their fault. White people have always had cake, and we have teased and punished others for asking for a slice. We may not live in a time when it’s illegal for some to eat cake, but when we refuse to look at our portion sizes or to acknowledge that we’ve become fat from cake while others starved, then we continue to perpetuate skewed slicing.

I have been silent when people have pointed out inequalities. In my social media feed and in our churches, we have been silent, and the elephants in the room have left people trampled and bleeding.

And so, I’m lamenting and repenting.

Oh God, my failures in seeking justice have been explicit, implicit, and complicit. I have done wrong things, and I have failed to do the right things. I have benefitted from a system which gave us so much cake at others’ expense, without showing humility and gratitude and compassion to others. I have not listened to others’ stories, or I have nit-picked and found fault with them and in doing so, dismissed them when they pointed out the size of my slice. I have been ashamed to have the size of my slice noticed. We have been hoarding the cake. We have stayed silent in rebuking cake-stealers. 

Lord, you know I don’t hate people of color, but you know the ways in which our cake-hoarding has hurt people of color and I’m sorry I’ve been so slow to own that. We have been so slow, and so silent, and our passivity has perpetuated the problem. God, you have made and love all people. You own all the cake. You forgive and redeem the hardest of hearts and the worst of situations. Please teach us to share. Please give us humility. Please make us better listeners. Please teach us to lament wrongs and repent. Please dismantle our defensiveness. Please would you fill every plate and every heart and every stomach by your grace. 

 

Image credit: Pexels, common license C00

Eeny Meeny Miney NO (talking with my kids about rhymes and race)

 

My kids were figuring out whose turn it was to do something this morning, and instead of their usual game of rock-paper-scissors, busted out that ubiquitous kids’ rhyme to solve their dispute:

Them (chanting): “eeny meeny miney mo, catch a tiger by its toe. If it hollers…”

Me: Now wait just a minute. We need to talk…

My eldest understood fairly quickly why the rhyme was offensive: until fairly recently, “tiger” wasn’t the word in the rhyme, and she is sensitive to (and appalled by) the stories of slavery and oppression she has read. My boys were a harder sell. I told them that tiger kind of rhymed with a very hurtful and mean word people used to use to describe black people, and then thought of an example to try and make it relatable:

Imagine that a while ago there were a group of bullies who used to hurt you and tease you on the playground, and they had a special song they made up just to tease you. They would kick the ball at you and sing “Jacob’s a loser, Jacob’s a fool” over and over again. All the kids on the playground knew that horrible, teasing song. Now imagine you were at your new school and the bullying had stopped, but one day at recess you see some kids who also used to go to the old school, and they have are kicking around a soccer ball and singing that same old tune, but just with different words: “Bacon’s a loser, bacon’s a food.” How would you feel if you heard that?

Even my five year old got it. “Bad,” he supplied. “It would remind me of the teasing,” said the other.

What if the other kids said they were just joking and it was just a song about bacon? 

They looked perplexed. “My feelings would still be hurt,” said my son.

“Yeah,” I said. “And I think when people of color hear that rhyme, for some of them it reminds them of the yucky version of that song, even if people don’t use the words. And we don’t want to sing songs that make other people feel yuck, right?”

My eldest shuffled on her feet a little: her question unspoken between us: “If it’s so bad, why didn’t you tell us before?” I told them they weren’t in trouble, and after all they probably learned that rhyme from me because it was something I’d heard and sung as a counting rhyme all my life. And that, until recently, I didn’t know that it hurt people’s feelings. But now I’ve had some friends of color and parents of kids of color tell me their stories about how that song made them feel… so now I do know, and I want to do better. Mom is also learning. Unlearning. Relearning. Once we know better, we need to do better.

They nodded and got back to their game. “Rock, paper, or scissors?” my youngest asked, and the morning continued.

Honestly, I sometimes wonder what we can do to raise respectful, kind, compassionate kids in the cultural climate and privileged bubble we live in: it feels like a Herculean task. But we can nix that nursery rhyme, and that’s a small start.

 

 

Feelings are our Friends

I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”

Yep.

Me too.

As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:

Feelings are our friends.

There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.

Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.

For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.

Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.

This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.

I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.

I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:

“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”  

He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”

It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.

 

Fueled by laughter

Driving home from a laughter-filled evening last night, my good friend told me a story about a seminar she’d led where she was asked, by way of introduction, to describe her sense of humor. This struck me as a most marvelous question: sharing what makes us laugh is surely a better way to get to know one another than sharing our favorite toothpaste or where we grew up?

It also got me thinking: how would I answer that question? The answer came fairly quickly: my sense of humor is fairly indiscriminate. As in, I will laugh at just about anything.

My husband describes me as a cheap date this way: not only can I not handle more than one glass of wine anymore, but I also have a rare combination of having both a great love of and also a terrible memory for jokes… which means, he cane buy me a $7 glass of merlot and tell me the SAME set of jokes every month, and I will laugh just as much. Every time. When I started this blog and had to come up with a tagline, the first thought that came to mind was “fueled by grace, caffeine, and laughter.” I think this is still true. I can’t imagine a day without any of these.

Maybe there was a time when being able to tell a joke straight-faced was seen as something cool to aspire to, but I gave up any hopes of being cool a long, long time ago and have since come to embrace that I am a person who laughs at her own jokes. I laugh at dumb jokes, pun jokes, and knock knock jokes. I laugh at slapstick humor and charlie chaplin. I laugh at cats on youtube who misjudge their jumping distances. I laugh at stand-up comedy (check out Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King on Netflix if you haven’t already as a great example.) I laugh at satire and SNL sketches and stories on podcasts. I laugh at clever turns of phrase (the Hamilton lyrics had me chortling throughout.) I laugh when anvils fall on cartoon character’s heads. I laugh at googly eyes on milk jugs and—I say this with some parenting shame—I laugh when my children fart. I know I shouldn’t. But I do. Every time.

And, I am no longer embarrassed about this. I used to be. I used to be embarrassed that often I was the only person laughing, and I would blush CRIMSON red on realizing. I still laugh when I’m embarrassed, and I still blush, too… but I’m a little older now and teasing doesn’t feel as heartless as it did then. My Mom always used to say there was a difference between laughing with you and laughing at you, and one of the delightful parts of aging is realizing she was right and even so… much of the time, it doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it does, though. I may find a thousand things unapologetically funny, but one thing I no longer find funny is humor that is made at someone else’s expense. I have no time for jokes with racist and sexist slurs. Political satire is different, I think: clever humor can add give both insight and levity to serious conversations. But jokes aimed at people of color or different cultures or where women are mocked as sex objects or men are vilified as dummies won’t get any laughter from me. People are made in the image of God and it just isn’t funny to me anymore to joke as if anyone is anything less than that. In these things, I’m decidedly NOT funny any more. Don’t you dare pull a sexually aggressive move on someone and then, when called on it, tell me “you were only joking”. Hell no. That isn’t funny anymore.

“So what are you, the funny police?” you might ask.

Not exactly. But I think of it this way: if humor is a grassy field – then I think of my sense of humor as being a big, wide, green expanse. Lots and lots of room for funny. Internet funny and book funny and fall-down funny and youtube funny and fart funny and pun funny. Bring it on. But my field has some distinct boundaries. Jokes that make anyone feel shamed or less-than fall beyond those fences.

But inside those parameters? Bring on the funny.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Howard.

Howard who?

Howard you like to hear another joke?

YES, PLEASE. And this time next month, you can tell me the same joke again 🙂 I promise, I’ll laugh.

Terminal and Loving Every Minute

My guest today is Andrew Budek-Schmeisser. Andrew is a reader of this blog and his comments have left me deeply moved so often that I asked him to write a post for us. Andrew is terminally ill, and it has changed the way he views the world in remarkable and beautiful ways. I want to take notes on living from the dying.

Yes, I’m terminally ill. My wife went to the doctor last week, and the receptionist asked, tentatively, “Your husband…is he still alive?”

That was a weird feeling, when she told me.

The doctor himself thinks I’m pretty far past my sell-by date…and he’s always surprised, too, that I’m still here. He’s thinking of writing a paper for a medical journal.

Really weird feeling, yeah?

But it reflects the truth. I’m losing ground steadily, and now spend large parts of each day lying on the floor in a fetal position, waiting for the pain to, well, not pass, but moderate to the point that I can get up again and do something. If nausea, incontinence, and fatigue allow for it. And if I remember what I wanted to do in the first place.

Something like writing this. It will take me quite awhile. I run out of physical and mental resources pretty quickly now.

And I still love my life. I would not trade this life for anything, including having my old health and vigour back.

It’s not because I’ve overdosed on Scripture like James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, your afflictions and trials…”) or Romans 5:3 (“…rejoice in your sufferings, because suffering produces endurance…”)

Make no mistake, James and Paul are right, but it wasn’t something I could take on faith. I had to learn these lessons myself, through facing the abyss, day after day. Looking for blessings in my life became vital for survival, a necessary antidote to the despair that could so easily overwhelm me.

Yes, illness brought blessings, and the fact that it seems like there’s no way out makes them even more precious.

It took time to recognize them, those blessings that came in frightening garb. I was a high achiever, and always had multiple projects going on, projects which I thought defined me, and validated my worth.

But now…those aspirations won’t come to pass, and it’s OK.

The goals are not what made the dreams worthwhile. They never were, and I’m so glad I saw that ere the end. It was all about the process, and the marks that the process made on my soul.

Each moment is a gift from God, and like the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert, each is perishable. Moments can’t be hoarded for later use, and they’re not intended for replanting in the hope that they will raise some of some future harvest.

We can come to each instant in our life fresh, with the heart and eyes of a child, taking hold of this precious uniqueness of now in wonder and delight…or we can choose to be jaded, and to pile the moment in with the past wreckage that attends present circumstances.

I choose wonder. I choose delight. And I choose to hold these tiny time-intervals dear, and as a direct line to the God that loves me in spite of my mistakes, and through my current ordeal.

It is an ordeal. The pain is real; I could see it as a prison; I haven’t been off the property in eight months. Riding in a car hurts too much, and there’s nowhere I can sojourn in comfort. I can’t do the things I would have liked to do, and much of the time is spent trying to build strength and resolve to do the things I have to do.

It isn’t a penitentiary, though. It’s more of a hermitage, a place in which the fires of adversity can temper my soul to become an instrument of God’s love, and the hammering of pain forges my heart to become that love.

Each moment from the Almighty that I choose to treasure, and which I choose to do my best for His sake, it adds to the storehouse of love that I can show.

Each stab of pain builds compassion for those who are worse off; there are so many suffering with no place to call home, no one to love them. I have a wonderful wife, a group of devoted dogs (some of whom know how to save my life, doing a canine version of CPR…they’ve done it several times), and friends I’ll never meet in person but whose hearts have reached out to me through the Internet. How can I complain about a small thing like dying?

Each realization that yeah, this could be the last day, it makes the sunlight brighter and the air sweeter, and the touch of a cool breeze on a summer day a gentle benison from Heaven.

With all this, how can I keep from singing? And more importantly, how can I keep from loving?

Achievement is nice, but it’s not for this that God made us.

Success is grand, but it isn’t God’s ultimate plan for our lives.

A bright future is wonderful, but it’s not something God ever guaranteed.

What we have is now, and we have a simple mission statement – to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

We learn to love God through the practice of loving others, and we can only truly love others when we let go of ourselves. Jesus was and is the servant and sacrifice to those He loved and loves. He laid the stones along the path we are to take.

And in dying, I have learned to let go. I have let go my earthly hopes and aspirations, giving them over to God. I’m sure He’ll treat them with care; He saves each tear we shed, and can we expect He will do less with the dreams He gave us, that we couldn’t fulfill in this life? They’ll be waiting.

I’ve learned to let go of my concern for myself. Yes, it hurts, but it’s OK that it hurts; I was never in control of this, though I tried to pretend through defiance and will that I was, but God is in control of it all.

I’ve learned to let go of possessiveness in relationship. I don’t want my wife, who is quite young, to make the rest of her life a monument to our time together. I want her heart to go on from the point where I leave this life, hurt for sure but healing, and hoping. I don’t want to see her lonely.

And may be most important, I’ve learned to let go of my preconceptions about God. I wanted to believe that I was favoured in that things went ‘right’ for me; the breaks fell my way.

And then it was me that broke.

I saw that favour was not the good job or the research contact or the book deal. Favour was being led by the hand by the Almighty, into a place where I could accept, without resentment, the hand that is dealt me, and embrace, without anger, the further pain that will surely be mine before this life is done.

By not looking back in resentment or forward in sullen dread…only along this road can I fully love in the now.

And as I love, so am I Loved, and so, further…I’m terminal and loving every minute.

 

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser is the author of two novels, “Blessed Are the
Pure Of Heart” and “Emerald Isle“, and three short e-books. Formerly a
security contractor and teacher, he lives on a remote mesa in New
Mexico with his wife and a number of rescued dogs and cats.

I am very grateful to Andrew for his willingness to share such hard-won wisdom and perspective with us. Live in peace, brother: in this life and the life to come. Readers, if you’d like to respond to Andrew – leave him a comment below or reach out to him via his blog. He is house-bound but our words can reach his living room, and our prayers can reach on high.