Reassessing Motherhood

Amy Chua is at a dinner party when she tells the story about how her daughter is disrespectful to her, and she responds by calling her daughter “garbage.” The reaction of the guests is intense. She is ostracized and one woman breaks down in tears and has to leave.

I wonder what I would have done if I were at that party. Depending on how much wine I had that night, I very well could have been the person to cry and leave. I’m a very weak woman.

I’m also like so many moms who are fascinated by Amy Chua’s article comparing Western and Chinese moms. As I read her column (I don’t think there is any way that I could make it through the book without a bottle of wine, which means that crying and leaving would quickly ensue), so many thoughts swirled around me. Guilt seems to be my most accessible emotion. I’m always worried that I’m messing up somehow.

I’m a pastor in an affluent area. Most pastor parents and preacher’s kids know what that means. We make one-fourth of what our neighbors make. We are not powerful. We have a lot of conversations with our child about the inequities in Christmas gifts. We have access to this world of influence, but we’re not exactly a part of it. Our parenting looks different sometimes. We don’t have the same educational expectations of our child. We don’t have the money for private schools or tutors. Both my husband and I work a lot of hours, juggling numerous jobs to make ends meet, so we don’t even have a lot of our own energy to be funneling into forming the perfect prodigy. In all of it, we are constantly trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not important in parenting.

As I read Amy Chua’s article and the responses, that question kept ringing in my mind. What is the most important in our parenting?  What do we want for children? Is it success? Is it happiness? Is it something else?

For me, because of my faith (and maybe even because we simply can’t keep up with the Joneses), it is something else. As a mother and a Christian, my greatest hope is not that my child will be a gifted concert pianist by the age of fifteen. It is not even that she achieves academic success that reaches far beyond her peers. It is not that she attends an Ivy League school. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an anti-intellectual. I would be incredibly proud of that sort of success, but it is simply not the most important thing that I want to model or instill.

I’m not even sure that my greatest hope as a parent is that my child will be happy. Happiness is noble goal, but it also seems fleeting. On most days, I’m a happy person. But with the burdens of humanity there are times, in the face of death or tragedy, that happiness is not even appropriate.

No, my greatest goal as a parent, the thing that I hope to model and endue is love. I’m not merely relating that I want my child to know that I love her, even if I call her “garbage” in front of a dinner party and a million readers. What I’m saying is that I want to instill a notion that we are to love our neighbors. No matter how successful they are, no matter how much they accomplish, we care for one another because all humans have dignity and worth. When a person doesn’t achieve in our Western society, we already have a culture that already denies them food and a place where they can relieve themselves. My hope is that within our home, within our church, in our neighborhood, our children will be able to develop a sense of compassion, care, and empathy.

And, my faithful hope is that each child will be able to love him or herself. I’m not talking about a child developing a narcissistic gluttony where she devolves into Hannah Montana rockstar fantasies or someone who gains affirmation through amassing friends on Facebook. I am not talking about a bloated sense of entitlement, or the often-shallow pursuit of self-esteem. No. I hope that a child would learn to love herself so deeply that she is able to look in the mirror and appreciate what’s staring back. I’m talking about growing into a comfort with her own skin, even when it stretches and changes beyond recognition. I am talking about a love that is so fierce that when a child fails, she is able to know that she is still a good and worthy human. When a child is able to perform beautifully, or when she can never quite succeed, she is able to love. I am talking about having the internal strength that she is able to say “no” when she needs to, that she will be able to negotiate exactly what she needs in her job. I hope that a child would be able to love herself enough that she would never put up with abuse from any other human. And I hope that she loves herself enough that she would never inflict any abuse upon herself.

I have no doubt that Amy Chua loves her girls. I agree that we have a different notion about what that parental love might look like. And I’m thankful that Chua has given moms a chance to pause and to reassess. Success, happiness and love. These are all good things, but for me, the greatest is love.

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UnCo11

This year, I am again helping to host the unConference (#unco11)! It will be held at Stony Point Conference Center on May 16-18.

What is it? The unConference will be three days of worship and open-space discussion on the church and its future. With an eye toward intentional diversity, we will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge at the gathering. The leaders, topics, and workshops will be harvested from the participants. During these discussions, we will share ideas about planting communities, writing liturgy, creating art, innovating technology, crafting wine, or wherever our passions and insights might lead us.

Who’s going to be there? Many interesting leaders will be there…. Presbyterians, DOC, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Emergents (and I would love that to grow. C’mon Methodists and Lutherans!) from the US and Canada. I hate to list people because I know I will leave fascinating and creative people out… but since we don’t have a “keynote and workshop leaders” list,  I want you to get a sense of who’s going to be around if you’re interested in attending. If you’re planning on being there, please leave a comment. Here’s the Host list. Landon Whitsitt (Presby Vice-mod) and Shawn Plunkett of God Complex Radio will be there. HCX will be sponsoring, so we can bask in the goodness of their crew. The academics will be there Margaret Aymer Oget and Katie Mulligan. Of course, since it’s at Stony Point, Rick Ufford-Chase will be around. Both the Friars and the Fool will be there (and I’m looking forward to finding out who the friars are and who the fool is….). There are people who are going into seminary, students, and those who have recently graduated. There are plenty of church leaders who are attending who are not ordained, and they’re not even thinking about becoming ordained…

So, please, if you’re a church leader, consider this your invitation. It would be lovely to connect with many of you in real life. If you have questions about how it will work, how you can explain this gathering to your church, or logistics, please let me know! (carol at godcomplexradio dot org)

If Walls Could Talk

Slowing down for a stoplight on a main street in Bethesda, Maryland, I immediately see the new signs for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church where David Wacaster serves as the Assistant Rector. While driving into the parking lot, I hear the loud buzzing of renovation. The smell of sawdust lingers in the brisk air as I greet my friend.

I am visiting David because of my interest in what our church buildings say to our communities and particularly to adults under the age of forty. Our congregations teach and preach explicit messages when we gather for worship and Christian education, but we also communicate implicitly with our physical spaces. In other words, our walls talk.

(To read the rest, visit Evangelism Connections)

Illuminating the Darkness

Text: John 1:1-18

I write regularly for the Huffington Post, and this week, they asked for nominations for the Religious person of the year. Since I was on vacation, I didn’t do any research or nominate anyone, but the question did occupy my thoughts when I was in Florida. Who made the greatest impact in religion? I thought of the many Muslims who have not hidden in the face of discrimination, but they have worked for deeper understanding. I thought of Jews who have worked for peace. But on the site, I represent a Christian perspective, and so I began to think of Christians who have impacted our faith, and the question grew for me, from the past year to the past decade. Who made the greatest impact on religion?

And I imagined all of those men and women. I don’t know their specific names. I could only recognize their shaky voices and blurred profiles. They were the people who have stood up and turned in their priests, pastors, or missionaries who were predators. I thought of all of those who risked the suspicion and disbelief of their friends, loved ones and community. They were brave enough to stop the lies and cover-ups, and they told the truth. Now that I have worked in churches for thirteen years, I know how good they are at suppressing secrets. They are like families, businesses and other organizations. Powerful forces arise when someone has a complaint of this magnitude. And yet, these men and women did what John describes: They shined light into the darkness.

Since the day when those victims began to raise their voices, they became survivors. Many people have had the courage to step up and shine a light in that deep darkness. Now, in our church and in most denominational congregations, we have strict rules to protect children. One adult is not allowed to be alone with one other child. We try to keep two Sunday school teachers in the classroom, and if we can’t manage that, then we have our Christian Educator who floats and checks in on all the classrooms. In our nursery and classrooms, we have clear glass on the doors so that parents will know that their children are being cared for properly. In our denomination, we have strict rules on how a report is to be made, and how the perpetrator will be disciplined. We have men and women who work to make society safe for children. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. It is a struggle in all walks of life to protect the vulnerable and those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet, many have become aware of what can happen when we try to hide things, and they have worked tirelessly to bring those things in the deep darkness to the light.

I grew up knowing that our former pastor was a pedophile, and so it was often hard for me to go to church. Even though I realize that pastors and priests are human, the depth of hypocrisy that it takes to carry out something like that is astounding, and so I always had a difficult time with religion in general.

I have watched people take different positions when the church betrays them or their family. They can reject the church altogether. Or they can proclaim that they are “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they appreciate the goodness, teachings and practices of spirituality, but they cannot abide the darkness of church. They don’t see much good in the professional clergy, the buildings, or the governance.

I understand this thought and I would never try to argue with someone who has made that determination, but I have made a choice to be a religious professional, in spite of all the darkness that I know is in our midst. The reason is because we are human. There is no way to have a spiritual experience apart from our humanity. And with every human endeavor, there is light and there is darkness. Even when we try to be good, even when we try to be noble, even when we try to do the very best and right thing, there is some darkness.

I have read discussions on MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s blog when it comes to the environment. In order to help the environment, she employed the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” tactic. And yet, she found that she had to use harsher chemicals when cleaning her toilets. A commenter was concerned the hamburger that she bought everyday, and how bad her beef consumption was for the environment, so she decided to order salads instead. But then she became frustrated to find that her hamburger was served in a small piece of paper, but her salad was served in a giant, plastic dome. I heard a story on NPR recently that said that many dishwasher detergent companies took phosphates out of their soap, because of the terrible things that they can do to the environment. But the story explained that there was a concern about how it was taking more water to wash our dishes now. We buy CFLs, but then we find out how toxic they are when they break.

We can see the same thing when it comes to technology. The community and relationships that can arise through social media fascinate me. Men and women are able to talk to other people who have the same hobbies. They can share ideas. Artists can sell their art. People with the same political passions can create constellations of hope around their causes or candidates.

But at the same time, we have also seen how people can be bullied to the point where they have killed themselves. Men and women, who may never be so uncivil to a person face-to-face, can become nasty with the anonymity of the Internet. Racism can thrive. The darkness of the technology, having your face hidden in those shadows, seems to create monsters out of some people.

We see it with science. Incredible discoveries were made. We learned about atoms, and then we figured out how we could split those atoms. And the world has never been the same.

We even see it with the medical profession. When wonderful achievements have been made to prolong a person’s life, sometimes we begin to wonder, “Does this person have the right to die?” We appreciate ground-breaking medications, but we also realize their side-effects.

Over and over again, our technology, our science, our advancements have led us to new problems. But does that mean that we should give up on caring for the environment, on technology, on medicine, on science? Of course not. As progressives, we will keep working for the good of all people and the care of the earth. We will work for education and freedom for all men and women. We believe that we will keep moving forward and pushing for a better world.

With every advancement, we understand that there will be light and there will be darkness, and we keep shining the light, even when deeper, darker corners arise. In each of our professions, in each of our passions, we cannot give into the complacency of walking away and in giving up. But we need to keep striving and moving forward.

And I feel the same way about religion. It is my passion and my calling. I have seen religion do incredible harm to women, men, lesbians, gays, and children. But I have not been able to walk away from it and I have not been able to separate “religion” from a spiritual life. I have not been able to sequester myself into an individual spiritual practice, devoid of our life together in this sanctuary. Because I know that we can do more when we are gathered. We have more light to feed homeless people, to care for prostitutes, to teach art to children, and to provide medical care for people in Ethiopia.

There is darkness among us. I cannot deny that. And I realize that my comparisons are faulty in many ways. I am not saying that pedophilia is the inevitable outcome of something that is well-intentioned. No. Not at all. But I am saying that there is darkness that I’m not willing to walk away from, and many of us have been called to the diverse and colorful beauty that our collective light can bring.

Thoughout these days of Christmas, may we remember the light that was born within us, and may we be called to keep illuminating the darkness as Christ did.

Through our Creator, our Liberator and our Sustainer. Amen.

If Only You Were More Educated, Then You Would Agree With Me

I was sitting with a woman—a Mainline Christian woman—and we were chatting about my background. I explained to her that my family is politically and theologically conservative but that I had changed many of the views that I grew up with as a young adult. She shook her head, sighed, and said, “Well, people just need more education, that’s all.”

It’s a common mistake that progressives make, but I really wish we would stop it. More education did, indeed, make me become a more progressive Christian. But I always cringe when I hear progressives say, “Well, they just need more education” when it comes to political, sexual, or theological issues. Why?

•We are assuming that conservatives are uneducated, and that is not true. We are way past the point in our country when we can make those assumptions, and it’s naïve to do so. In D.C., there are plenty of conservative religious think tanks, with highly skilled and educated men and women who have been pumping out articles for decades. But I cannot think of many progressive religious think tanks. Only a few come to mind. Please correct me if I’m wrong about this…but religious progressives seem to be woefully inadequate in this area.

•When we assume conservatives are uneducated, that makes us arrogant and unattractive. I write for the Huffington Post, and often, when I put up a positive article about religion, inevitably a rash of atheists will break out to tell me how unintellectual I am. The logic is that if I were educated or if I were an intellectual, then I would think like they do.

Does this make me want to run out and join the Dawkins book group? No, it does not. It just makes me roll my eyes and think rather poorly of atheists. Which is too bad, because I rather like the atheists that I know in real life. I am not anti-intellectual, anti-science, or anti-education, and false assumptions that I am are annoying.

We do the same thing as progressives. Imagine a Midwesterner who went to work as a car mechanic instead of going to college, because he realized that he could make a whole lot more money as a mechanic in his town, and come out with a whole lot less debt. Would it be attractive to him if we said to him, “If you had an education, you would think like us”? No, it would not. We need to begin to accept people for who and what they are. We don’t need to go around imagining that if they would better themselves than they would look like us.

•If we really believed it then we would be better at resourcing education. If you’re a church professional who has been to seminary, it’s easy to find wonderful, scholarly work on all sorts of areas that are important to progressive ideals.

If you want to hand something to your members, if you want to educate them, you’re out of luck. I often hear people on Twitter asking, “Does anyone know of a progressive resource for (fill in the blank—marriages, same-sex partners, parenting, finances, devotions)?” And then the only response is “if you find out anything, can you let me know?” When I bring this up to people who might provide the resources (scholars, publishers, etc.), they say that they don’t want to “dumb down” their material. They are providing resources for a scholarly audience.

The problem with this idea is that the people in our pews are not dumb, they are just not educated in the same things that we are. I could not pick up a biology textbook and get much out of it. Why do we expect that the biologist in our pews should have to pick up a theological text, written for a handful of people at AAR and expect to understand it? Why do we expect that mechanic–who can fix my car when I have a difficult time finding the dipstick–to understand it? Sometimes the books only seem to be written so that other scholars can check the index to find out if their names appear in it.

When I met a representative from a denominational publisher, the first thing he told me was, “We would never publish one of your books.” It was a strange thing for him to say, since I had never sent in a proposal or even made an inquiry. I mean, to get a rejection out-of-hand like that seemed odd.

I laughed and said, “Why?”

He answered, “Because we only publish scholarly work.”

On one hand, it felt like a personal rejection that I’m still reeling from a couple years later (I’ve told the story countless times to others who have received rejections). But on the other hand, it was a clear statement of strategy on behalf of denominational publishing that had nothing to do with me, personally.  And so it also made me wonder a deeper “why.”

If we believe so much in education, if we believe that it is transformative, why aren’t we providing education for anyone but those who are already highly educated?