Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Non-Heated Discussion about Race and Violence

There we were, an interracial, intergenerational group of about twenty something people represented by Caucasian, Asian, African Americans and Hispanics, huddled in a large circle in the basement of a pub, having a rational discussion about the hot button topic of race and violence in America from a perspective of faith. We were attending part two of a discussion on this highly emotional topic, and likely there will be a part three, based on the way the conversation grew in vibrancy and ended too soon. 

We managed to keep emotions in check, but we also had to admit to the presence of an elephant in the middle of the room, with its large trunk and body nearly tipping over food plates and drinks, evidenced by the way the conversation began awkwardly, tentatively, with a palpable fear of offending someone else in the meeting.  
We touched on Affirmative Action, Christians appearing condescending when we want to help, the need for whites to give up their power, show mercy and build relationships rather than appear as the “white saviors.”
I left the talk with more questions than I arrived with, and I don’t consider myself someone unengaged from this issue. I searched for any hidden motives on my part for why I give, why I care, why I try and build bridges to be part of the solution rather than the problem. But this conversation turned in directions I didn’t anticipate.
Many years ago I read an article in ByFaith Magazine by a former New Orlean’s pastor, Mo Leverett, who spent decades in the poorest housing project in that city, investing in the lives of its residents. In the article, he challenged the church to “get their uniforms dirty” by serving the poor and under resourced. The analogy is based on his love of baseball as a child and how the greatest shame for him would be to walk off the field at the end of the day with a clean uniform. He wanted to slide into home plate, covering himself in dirt and feel proud that he had behaved like a warrior.
For years, I’ve held onto Mo’s article and returned to it again and again, feeling his words to be a call to the church.
At Pub Talk, we touched on the church coming into the city bearing gifts as opposed to just giving a check. Personally, I struggled with the idea of giving checks only and forgoing the relational aspect of ministry. But to quote Mo, “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to just write a check, I want to get my hands dirty.’ But it’s a good idea to start by writing checks.”
In the book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the authors address the issue of the church (and the government) hurting the very people they are trying to help. We may have good intentions, but we bring naiveté to ministry and service which inflicts harm sometimes. Pub Talk was a brief forum for educating both sides and creating a dialogue among people committed to helping rather than hurting.
The Caucasians in the group were challenged to consider why we want diverse churches, why we want to go into the inner city and partner with minority churches. We were told Black and Hispanic churches don’t look around on Sunday mornings, wringing their hands, wondering why more white folks aren’t joining them.  This perspective felt unsettling to me, and I woke the next morning wondering why I felt so troubled. I had to do some soul searching, and came to the conclusion interracial services feel so powerful because they are the very representation of reconciliation, and not an example of lording power over someone else. They represent the whole Kingdom of God, which is not exclusively white.  
We need these discussions because minorities need to know many people care and want to live intentionally in their communities as friends and neighbors. Folks want to share in their experiences, seek justice, and show mercy in any way possible. And Caucasians need to know our help can be perceived as condescending. Despite the misunderstandings, we need more awkward, elephant-in-the-room conversations until we uncover the misconceptions and wounds.
Despite being an amicable group of people who came together over a common passion, some misunderstandings arose. And if a group of folks intentionally seeking racial reconciliation could feel a bit out of sorts, then how much more difficult would it be for people outside our circle to engage in productive conversation?
Talks are hard work. Listening is hard work. But both are oh so necessary. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Longings Never Cease

My son returned from three and a half years in the Peace Corps and has been living in our home as he searches for the new pieces needed to rebuild his life here. We are watching his roller coaster adjustment, and he’s filled with the emotions predicted by the Peace Corps before he ever left this country all those years ago.

“The return is rough,” he heard from numerous people.    
We’ve all expected his adjustment to be hard, so his father and I move in close, then slip into the background over and over, trying to delicately find the balanced dance that will allow him to heal and live here with a new, bilingual heart that now beats in both English and Macedonian.
And this mother’s heart wants to tell him the pain will subside, the longings will cease. He’ll move on, and all those people he fell in love with in those simple mountainous villages will drift into his memory along with the Call to Prayer he heard chiming throughout the day.
Kenzie with his good friend, Nikola.
But I’m too familiar with longing to know those words would be false.
I’ve never lived overseas, and the places I long for are accessible by a very long car drive, but I may never live there again. As a born and bred New Englander, I feel haunted by shadows of antique coastal towns with sea kissed breezes, but it’s likely I’ll only return for the occasional visit rather than the four-seasoned life. Not impossible, but unlikely.  
 Two men playing chess in the mountains
I miss the gentrified Virginia city of Richmond where we spent eleven years and where one of my sons has found and built a satisfying life. Some days, I drive imagined roads of the city and remember the rising curves and falls, so different than these Illinois flatlands. I remember the lilting sounds of Southern accents and the history so foreign to this Yankee girl.
But living in any place for an extended period of time seems to invite us to adopt the local history as our own, because who really owns history anyway?
And even more than places, I long for people who have passed. People who strongly shaped me and my memories, for better and for worse. Some days I’d love to tell them how it all turned out, how I healed, how life became okay. Instead of speaking, I dream of them, engaging in one-sided conversations from my imagination and wake in tears as I recount the dreams to my husband.
Kenzie's original host family. They remain close friends.
So my son will long for friends, for a gentle culture, for family-centered community that he experienced in Macedonia with many he now considers “brothers.” He engaged and connected with the unrest from their nation’s past and now carries their lives within as he makes his new way. 
His longings are invisible to most, but they’re living with a raw power beneath the surface. The most we can do is walk this painful road with him, enjoy the memories he chooses to share, encourage him to visit, and watch as he takes their history on as own.
But likely this longing will never cease.


Monday, July 27, 2015

An Unlikely Friendship

I loved this article in the recent issue of Time magazine about the relationship between Bill Clinton and the Bush family. In an era of hostility from both sides of the aisle, this cover story painted such a picture of grace shown by both men. The article tells how these former presidents show acts of kindness to each other, even while maintaining their differences.


When George H. W. Bush left office after a difficult campaign, he left a gracious note for Bill Clinton as he began his presidency: “You will be our president when you read this note. I am rooting hard for you.” Bush had Clinton as a guest at Kennebunkport, Maine. Bill Clinton escorted Barbara Bush to Betty Ford’s funeral. George W. Bush and Clinton rib each other and show far more understanding toward each other than the general public often offers.  

Is it just me or do we only hear of the animosity between politicians?
We have become so partisan and uncivilized in our discussions that I doubt any of us on any side have maintained the power to persuade. Our postings on Facebook remind me of people standing nose-to-nose, screaming their views, but never listening, never caring, never respecting the thinking behind someone’s stance, often assuming there is no thinking. This isn't a call for us all to be the same, but could we learn to be respectful in our disagreeing?
At times, I’ve wondered what would happen if all my Facebook friends were forced into the same room. Would World War III break out, or would we learn some diplomacy? It’s so easy to write a snarky, disrespectful comment online, but it's a little more difficult to do so when looking into someone’s eyes as you sit across the table from them.
Must we demonize? Must we name call?
Here is a question for all us: When was the last time we invited “the opposition” into our home for a meal, or asked them to coffee, just to build a relationship? I suspect for many of us our panic sets in that we might be compromising our values or sending the message that we endorse their stances. But if we sat down for coffee together, could we possibly use diplomacy to find common ground and grow respect for the passion behind the other person’s views?
Our leadership today certainly models this name-calling and disrespect. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes relationships are far warmer than we’re allowed to witness, but we don’t know for sure. We have dysfunctional leaders who have bred dysfunctional kids. That’s us. We model their behavior by believing we must say nasty things, assuming anyone who doesn’t think like us is “an idiot” or “evil.”
That behavior is bad for the country, as Clinton states in the Time article.
As most of us know about dysfunctional families and systems, they are generational. The next generation has been barred from seeing healthy disagreement and debate, which results in more unproductive arguments and battles—like gridlock, and elected officials who can’t get along. Then, as the product of this dysfunctional system, we model that behavior in how we speak and treat one another.
More bad for the country.
So I propose a solution. What if George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton invited all of us dysfunctional kids to Kennebunkport or New York for  a good old fashioned family visit? Either we would learn to find some commonality amidst the differences—building some unlikely friendships—or World War III would break out. Anyone game?

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Listing of a Year-Long Health Crisis

June 2014
Healthy and active gym member
New seizure medication
Severe muscle pain
ER, MRI, CAT scan, x-rays
No diagnosis
Ice pack hidden under scarves at work
Chiropractor, primary care physician, neurologist
August 2014
Pain continues
Useless over-the-counter meds and muscle relaxers
Work at 8 a.m. sharp
Numbness in arms and legs, vertigo, jackhammer tapping in ears
Unable to hold books without limbs going numb
September 2014
Pain continues
Writing packet due to graduate mentor
Heating pads hidden under scarves at work
Pain in sitting; pain in lying down
Reruns of Law and Order while standing until 1 a.m.
Debilitating dizziness
ER again
Massage therapy
EMG, blood tests
Scary blood test results
Tested positive for scleroderma (elephantitis, The Elephant Man disease. Like the movie, like the play)
Reading due for grad program
Work at 8:00 a.m.
Grateful for legs that move pain-free  during a walk
Scared and sleepless
Reruns of Law and Order
November 2014
Pain and stress continue
Son arrives home from overseas
Oxycotin please? Nope.
Change seizure medication
Cancel gym membership for the first time in 20 years.
A second positive test for schleroderma, The Elephant Man disease
Remember gratitude:
Healthy eyes absorbing snow covered trees outside
Healthy ears to absorb music

Kind friends joining me in the ER
And the sound of sons laughter during a visit
Legs that walk pain-free
A sweet, concerned husband
A meal cooked by a thoughtful neighbor
The prayers of many, near and far
December 2014
Everlasting pain?
Heating pads tied to head and neck
Four more MRIs
Walk in the snow like a slow old woman
Magnesium, epsom salts, vitamin B, special diet
More Law and Order re-runs
Work at 8 a.m.
Christmas shopping in pain
Generous co-workers donate vacation time
Christmas in bed
Disheartened, worried, scared, distracted
Stranger in the mirror
Copyedits due for graduate thesis
January 2015
Pain continues
Unable to sit, even in doctor’s office
Third test for Schleroderma. Negative!
Hopeful words from the rheumatologist: “Someday you’ll slowly walk out of this.”
A laugh
A smile
Intermittent Family Medical Leave from work.
March 2015
Decreasing pain    
Three steps forward, two and a half steps back

Toxic seizure med clearing my system
Muscles returning to normal
Finish graduate thesis
May 2015
A new chiropractor. Occupational therapy. Physical therapy.
Three steps forward, two steps back
Pain-free sitting, standing, lying down
Three steps forward, one step back
July 2015
The end in sight

Sunday, May 17, 2015


“All work is honorable.”  - Bill MacKillop

During my college years, I prepared to go to work at the midnight hour while my roommates prepared for bed by climbing under their warm blankets and turning off the light. Sunday through Thursday evenings, I packed up supplies for my graveyard shift job and left the house at 11:45 p.m with 8 hours worth of food and books for studying. I drove the empty roads of Tallahassee with darkness serving as my only companion, except for the occasional glow of a television set coming from passing homes, or street lights illuminating my way. At work, I answered phones all night long at an answering service for doctor’s offices, plumbers, and AAA. 
Without this income, a higher education would have been out of reach for me. I accepted the position because it allowed me to be a full-time employee while attending college full-time by offering the opportunity to study on the job. Phones don’t ring constantly in the wee hours of the night. 
As a former graveyard shift worker, I’ve always loved Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks,” even before American Family Insurance brought it to life in a commercial. The lonely darkness outside that diner resonates with me, as do the individuals inside, reminding me of my own isolated nights on empty streets, passing empty businesses where the employees had locked up and gone to a comfortable home for the night. Alone with my dreams of an easier day. Dreams propelled my younger self forward when sleep eluded me and classes required my presence at 9 a.m.
Maybe I’m injecting dreams into the subjects of the painting, but I wonder if the man with his back to us is looking at want ads for a job. Maybe the counter help wanted to open his own restaurant, but couldn’t afford the investment. The couple on the far side of the diner has no place they need to be and lounge around, drinking coffee in the midnight hours. The darkened building across the street from the diner hints of ghosts who only came out during the daylight bustling business hours.
And maybe dreams aren’t the subject at all. Maybe the counter help loves serving folks, making small talk, feeling a connection with customers. Maybe the guy with his back to us just got off work at a hospital and needs some downtime before going home. But I tend to attribute dreams to people, because so often I hear those dreams and longings expressed in conversations. 
A few months ago, our pastor did a sermon series on work, telling of the many people who arrive in his office for counseling around their unsatisfying work situation. Sometimes people feel a call to a very different life than the one they’re living, and they’re confused. They’re desperate for change, longing for the opportunity to do this other thing, follow that other passion. He counsels people to look at their jobs as “the economic engine” that allows them to pursue an art, a passion, schooling, whatever.
For others, the economic engine provides the opportunity to buy airline tickets to visit loved ones, live without financial stress, contribute to worthy causes with generosity, etc. For me, working full-time from midnight to eight in the morning, forty hours a week during college, provided the economic engine to earn a degree.
But let’s talk about dreams. Not all hard work guarantees our dreams come true. How many folks really land in the perfect fitting job for a lifetime? I graduated from college, and eventually found a job as a television engineer, but I wouldn’t count that as my dream job. All those graveyard shifts and middle of the night studying failed to produce the path I created in my mind. But was the work on my part just a waste? I think not. An education is never wasted. Eventually, I stayed home and raised my sons. Now, that was my dream job. But the sons grew up and moved away, and I needed to find different work. And the cycle continued.
Work arrived in the very beginning, according to the book of Genesis. There was a lush garden and the inhabitants were told to work the garden – for their benefit. Then that nasty little incident happened with the apple, resulting in banishment from the garden to go and work and cultivate the fields forever more outside paradise.
But to the unemployed, would banishment to work the fields sound all that bad?
Yes, if working the fields meant you now had thistles and weeds to battle, and poor yields, invading storms, etc. Haven’t we all experienced those weeds and thistles in the form of unresponsive management, poor quality products, boring work tasks, shortage of needed funds, hard work that never seems to bare the kind of fruit you imagined when you accepted the job?
My husband and I often find ourselves talking with people about their lack of work, unsatisfying work, make-do work, and tenuous work—those jobs someone would never choose for themselves, but that are needed to pay bills for a season. All those pesky weeds and thistles. Many of us will likely have a season where we must make ends meet in ways that are less than fulfilling.  So we share the quote above, that all work is honorable (as long as it’s legal!), especially when someone feels demeaned by their circumstances. It’s honorable to work at an answering service, in a restaurant, or a warehouse, or office. It’s honorable to work in a home and care for a family, forgoing a paycheck. It’s honorable to show up and do something—sometimes anything—that is deemed productive and helpful in some capacity.
Everyone should be honored for being helpful.
What does it say about our work values if people feel demeaned in certain positions? Recently, I’ve met a limo driver who was a veterinarian in Poland and a lab tech worker in a hospital who was a cardiologist in Lithuania. Talk about being overqualified for your jobs. But I did not detect bitterness because sometimes the work isn’t the only dream people hold.
Not only is all work honorable, but work is necessary. We need the workers and positions out there to keep a country and a world moving, to keep folks fed, and healed, and taught. But we often morph work into something else: our identity, our place in the sun, our satisfaction. Bertrand Russell once said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”  
But work is important, with the right perspective and a sense of balance. Ask anyone who hasn’t been able to find work. Ask about their empty days, the hours that feel endless, the repetitiveness of getting up and watching the hands on the clock go by while cars pass your house filled with drivers, coffee mug in hand, traveling to their jobs.
I know those feelings because my husband has experienced the punch-in-the-gut experience of unemployment, the phone call announcing your company has been sold, gone under, decided to downsize, that takes your breath away momentarily as your son’s college tuition bill passes through your mind. But Bill learned to stay busy during those brief seasons. He learned to find meaning, to find “work” that didn’t necessarily provide a paycheck but gave him a purpose at the start of the day after the coffee pot had been drained. He worked on friends’ houses or on our house, mentored young men, job hunted, and met in a huddle with neighbors from the high-tech field who found themselves in the same uncertain season. He just stayed busy.
Leo Tolstoy had it right when he said, “A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
             If you are one of those folks who find your job meets with your passion and giftedness, you are blessed indeed. For the rest of us, there can be a paycheck, there can be joy – or not. But some task that includes “work which one hopes may be of some use,” now there’s a goal we can all attain.