Autobiography

 

We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors…a statement so true it is attributed to multiple people and whole cultures. When you are the one standing on those shoulders, it can feel wobbly and perilous, as if at any moment you might come crashing down. You might be alone.

The shoulders that hold you up are autobiographical stones that make a wall of shared stories. They hold you by the feet whether you reach for the sky or hover close to the foundation.

Your fear is our fear, your triumph is our triumph, your story is our story.

And even as you grow into your story, another is standing on your shoulders, which are stronger than you will ever know.

Of Men and Statues

There is a bewildering confusion plaguing my social media and news streams. It’s a perplexity of mistaken ideas about what constitutes history, legacy, and the difference between a person and a cause. In short, there seem to be a lot of people – far too many people – who cannot tell the difference between a human being and a statue.

As a public service, I will attempt to clarify this issue, explain the difference between a person and a public monument. The example of Robert E. Lee is timely – let’s take a look at this historical person who is also depicted in statues. Now, Robert E. lee was a real person who lived and died. Like all human beings he had characteristics that were both worthy and unworthy, lovable and disgraceful. I am sure he loved his children. He also owned human beings as property, like many other people in his time and place.

There are statues of Robert E. Lee throughout the United States, not just in the South. They depict the man, but (and this is a key point) they are NOT the man. These statues are public monuments placed in carefully selected sites to make a public statement. The purpose of statues of Robert E. Lee is to honor and represent not merely the individual portrayed, it is to hold up the cause and values for which that person stood.

A statue  of Robert E. Lee is a public monument to the cause in which he was a leader -  the Confederate States of America – and the values of that cause, two of which  are separation from the United States of America and protection of the  institution of slavery.   In other words, public monuments to the Confederacy honor treason and racism.

This point seems achingly obvious to most people, but completely opaque to far too many. “The statues are historical markers,” they claim, “if we don’t have them we will forget our history.” Or, “if we get rid of Lee statues because he owned slaves where will it end?! Will we have to tear down statues of all slaveholders?”

If you understand a public monument as a tribute to a cause and to shared values, these questions are irrelevant. For clarity, look to the purpose that public monuments serve in the life of a community or nation. For instance, most Confederate monuments were erected well after the Civil War and many in locations and at points in time that reinforced racist ideology. For instance, the statue of Lee in Lexington, Ky is located in a former slave auction site. The location of the statue sends a clear message to the community that the Confederate cause has more value than the lives bought and sold there.

When New Orleans began removing public monuments to the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu give an succinct and eloquent explanation of why it was the right and patriotic thing to do. About the statues he said,

“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a report showing the history and location of America’s Confederate monuments – statues, schools, parks, roadways, etc. Of the more than 1,500 such monuments and tributes, a significant number were dedicated around the time Jim Crow laws were put in place to disenfranchise African Americans (from about 1900 to the late 1920s) or as a response to the Civil Rights movement starting in the 1950s. The dedication of 20th century Confederate monuments was intended to reinforce white supremacist laws and principles.
Still, you may say, if you take down a statue of one slaveholder, why not all the others? Where will you stop? Don’t be silly.
Let’s consider some of those statues. George Washington owned slaves, it is true. However, the statues and other monuments that depict Washington honor the cause – the founding of the United States – and values – freedom and democracy – for which he was a leader.
When people gather at monuments of Washington they remember and celebrate the foundational principles that unite the nation. In fact, the cause for which Washington fought ended up being the vehicle by which slavery was eventually ended.
What community or national purpose do Confederate monuments, particularly statues to Confederate leaders, serve today? They are rallying points for racist ideology, sites where white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis gather to promote their cause and values: racial homogeneity and obliteration of their opponents.
A public monument should enshrine the common cause of a nation and the values that build up community. Tributes to the Confederacy do not meet this standard; they rend rather than mend the fabric of our country and our common life.

The 99

Today, the Gospel reading was the parable of the lost sheep. Of course, it is also the parable of the 99 left behind. Poor sheep. Either lost of left.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
Luke 15:4

Or maybe there is another way to see it.

Sheep are meant to be in flocks, not alone. When one goes wandering, it needs finding and a shepherd will go looking. But a lost sheep isn’t home until it is back with its flock. Back with the 99 who stayed. They weren’t left, they were being the flock so the lost one would know where home was.

I was with my flock today. My tribe, my peeps. I hope if I ever go wandering, I’ll know I am found when I am back with them again. And I also hope when anyone else wanders in, they will know they are home. No matter which sheep you are in this tale, you are essential to the whole, made to be with your flock, your tribe, your community. It’s not the same without you.

Learning to take things more personally

My daughter is in the 3rd grade so I know a lot of 8 and 9-year-olds. They are silly and creative, loving and infuriating. They take in the world around them and make it all personal. Sometimes we call this tendency self-centeredness, but it is the age-appropriate way children experience and relate to the world around them. The weather is personal because it can cancel a field trip. (It did.) Traffic is personal because it makes a commute long and boring. (All the time.) Chocolate milk is amazing because it is delicious…and also stupid for sloshing onto a shirt. (Yep. Stupid.) My daughter has a love-hate relationship with water that is directly proportional to whether I am asking her to take a shower. The tendency of water to make a person wet is very personal.
Kids this age convey heartbreak more clearly and dramatically than adults. Sometimes it comes across as a tantrum that needs calming, but sometimes it comes across as a wake-up call. Their reactions can tell us that the things we take for granted as background noise are deeply personal.
Yesterday, my daughter told me this: “Mommy, don’t vote for Trump. My friend said if he is president she will have to leave because she is not the right religion, her religion is from another country.”
The xenophobic rhetoric of this election season has become so heated and so infused into everyday conversation that this child’s life is in suspension.
We are better than this.
It is a tribute to this girl’s parents that she feels acceptable and loved by her community. But that doesn’t make it better.
Here is the kicker: this girl’s parents are legal immigrants and the family is not Muslim. Messages aimed at illegal immigrants from Mexico and adherents to Islam have now bled beyond those targets to all those who are “other” in our communities. This girl is not wrong to think she is the target of the fear and hatred she overhears in everyday political discourse – the target has grown to envelope her. And now, it has grown to include my white, Christian daughter as well.
That is what fear and hatred do, they are contagious. We can’t just blame them on a few narrow-minded people, because if fear and hatred are not checked they spread. I’m taking a cue from my favorite 3rd graders. I am taking this personally. Fear and hatred are not background noise; they target and harm real people that I know and love.
Calling out fear and hatred is age-appropriate for everyone. Make it personal, y’all.

Beth in Gambia

Two years ago, a miracle happened to someone I love. My cousin Beth, who had faced the loss of a son, her parents, and her marriage all in a very short period of time, began a new life.

She could have started a new career, traveled, embarked on some self discovery…these are all things that people in traumatic transition do. In fact, she did all three and more. My cousin joined the Peace Corps and became a whole new Beth. Actually, the same Beth, only more. That happens when you open your heart and leap into life with both feet, which is what she did. I am so proud of everything about her experience.

They love her in Sabi.

Beth doing her favorite thing…holding a baby.

She’s ending her two years of service in The Gambia, where she learned a new language, lived with a local family in Sabi, promoted family health, and designed a new health education program that partners with the favorite local soccer club. Below is a reflection that gives the slightest glimpse of her experience. And if you are inspired, there is a link to help provide education for women and girls in The Gambia.

Haja Saray Gerew is a 28-year-old wife, mother, and Sabi daughter who was taken out of school after completing 9th grade to get married. Educating girls is considered a waste when their role is to marry, have children, and maintain the family. Many girls accept and perform their duties with a quiet acquiescence. Some are bitter and resentful. Most have no chance to change their circumstance.

Haja, I think, felt some of all these reactions. However, she did manage to stay involved in her community by being available every time she was asked to assist with development work where literacy and language translation were needed. She worked with several NGOs and government programs aimed at improving conditions in Sabi, helping with everything from registering births to health education to assisting with administrative tasks. She did this willingly and without compensation, always in addition to her duties as a wife and mother. And in so doing she did in fact continue her education.

When I met Haja, it was in response to my search for a language tutor. We had a few lessons and it was apparent that although a horribly inept language student, I would in fact begin a meaningful working and personal relationship with this young woman. Her enthusiasm at the possibilities of using her education and experience to assist in Peace Corps project work was palpable. Her passion for girls’ education was an energy I wanted very much to harness.

Haja spent many a time crying in frustration at her lack of opportunity to continue her education. We talked a lot, much of the time I just listened, feeling rather helpless as to how to help and hoping that maybe just being a friend was something. I remember one conversation, though, where I reminded her that the one thing no one could take from her was her ability to learn. “Haja, you can read, you can write, you are literate…you can learn, maybe not in a traditional classroom but if you are willing I will help you…start with books and start with your own children…teaching them will help you.” It was a conversation we would continue over the next months.

I began to research adult education. If this were America I would know what to do: contact the community college, enroll her in a GED program etc… But this is not America so what to do? I discovered that she could take the WASSCE exams as a “private student” and, if she did well enough, could get “credit” for academic knowledge just like graduates of senior secondary school. That was our first step. Haja contacted a former teacher, got all the necessary information for the process, obtained study material, and took 5 exams in September of 2014. The results were expected in December, but we had to wait until February …3 credits and 2 passes…better than many graduates. I think she was literally walking on air for the next weeks.

The response from her community of family, friends, and Sabi leadership has been overwhelmingly positive.  I was a little surprised at her reluctance to share the information with her husband’s family. In her community, pursuing education makes her “different” and therefore a target to very real, though subtle persecution.  Sameness and fairness are highly valued in this culture, therefore to be educated and literate can be seen as “different” and “other” and a threat. In spite of all that, Haja has embraced the challenge to continue and move forward. She wants to be a nurse.

Haja is committed to helping Sabi, her village, but it seemed the best short-term option was for her and her children to move to the Kombo area where she and her children could continue their education. With financial support, she and another Sabi friend found a residence to rent and we enrolled all the children in school at Grace International a well-developed private school with an excellent reputation. Their progress has been amazing.

YOU CAN BE A PART OF THIS MIRACLE! Beth started an education fund to help Haja, her children, and other women and girls in The Gambia pursue education – it is called Gambia Rising. You can get information and make a donation here. All of the money goes directly to educating girls and women in the Gambia. On the website you can read stories about some of the girls you can help – and direct your funds directly to them.

Thank you Beth! And thanks to all of you who make miracles happen.

Bench-Pressed

Today it is Syrians. In days past, it was Iraqis, Central Americans, and Cubans. I’ve meet some from Burma and Sudan in my hometown. They are refugees, asylum seekers. Even with the sound turned down on my screen, pictures of families making long, harsh journeys across continents is jarring – whatever they are fleeing must be horrible to go through that.

And it is.

By the time we meet them (in the media or in real life) refugees are far from home, disoriented, disheveled, and desperate. But once, they were people with families, jobs, and hope. They don’t come here because they want to leave home – they come because they are fleeing for their lives. This story from Morning Edition on September 21 puts it in perspective – when your persecutors come for your children, staying home is not an option.

As I’ve listened to stories of the newest waves of refugees and asylum seekers, I think not only of their journeys, but of their prospects once they arrive. And thanks to my friend Susan Yarbrough’s wonderful book Bench-Pressed, I have a better understanding – and a softer heart – for persistence and faith it takes to both seek and provide safe haven.

For nearly 18 years, Susan Yarbrough was a United States Immigration Judge and heard thousands of asylum cases each year. The five cases she describes in the book – one for each of the statutory grounds upon which she could grant asylum – are heartrending and as a reader you can begin to understand why she says the work “changed the course of my emotional and spiritual life.” When I met Susan, I was immediately struck by her commitment to radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, which is something she both brought to her service on the bench and also something that developed as she encountered the people who came before her.

The name of the book – Bench-Pressed – has a wonderful double meaning. She describes her years of training with weights and the vulnerability one feels lying on a narrow bench lifting a heavy metal bar straight up above your body. The work of hearing asylum cases is like that, a heavy burden that makes one feel vulnerable under its crushing weight. Yet she recalls that the Yiddish word bentch, which means “blessing,” is also an apt description of that work. Reflecting on her time as an immigration judge she writes, “all the people into whose faces I had looked as they sat on the witness stand near me had indeed blessed me in some way or another.”

And so she tells the stories of Esteban, Josué, Khalid, Elena, and Daniel. Their struggles are particular, yet they have happened and are still happening to thousands of people around the world. People crossing the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean – and streaming into Europe from Syria – today are also fleeing persecution on of account of race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion.

Bench-Pressed is moving because of the individual stories, and also because of the compassion we see in the way the cases are handled. I don’t always have a sense that the slow-moving systems that “process” immigrants and refugees have any humanity to them, but these stories and Susan Yarbrough’s witness of her own experience teach me otherwise. Get this book. Read it. And then go out and offer some radical hospitality of your own to the strangers among us.

Love’s Banquet

Once, she sipped from the cup we all shared
Now, we gather round the same table without her
Yet with her, in her memory
Table extended, chairs added
An overflow crowd of lives touched
This banquet is a foretaste
And even in grief, we can taste the sweetness
of the next cup we will share

__________________________________________
This weekend, I went to the funeral for a woman I knew at my former parish. There were a mix of people – some I knew, some I did not – all of us connected because of Cynthia and her daughter. I was asked to read one of the lessons and here is what Isaiah told us:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The first reading at the funeral was about rejoicing at a lavish banquet. It makes you take another look at your surroundings to hear words like that. On the way into the service, I was ready to share grief with everyone else there. The sense of loss was there, but there was also a palpable sense of abundance. It was more than the number of chairs in the room (and we had to keep adding because more and more people came) and more than the cookies eaten at the reception afterwards. The abundance came from all of us together being more than the sum of our parts. That’s what love does.

 

A little community

Ball moss isn’t really moss. It is an air plant that lives off of humidity and dust, water and soil – the same stuff of which I am made. These botanical spheres seem self-sufficient,  they don’t really need any other plants for their survival. Yet, they usually live in trees. Maybe they do it for the company. That little ball of thin leaves is really a community of plants holding tightly to each other, and also shooting out long-stemmed flowers to share themselves with the wider world. Island plants that are really not islands at all.

I’ve been using a different lens lately to consider human nature. One view I’m seeing is the nature of our physical selves – humans are both corporal and corporate. We are separate bodies and connected communities – at the same time. You and I can’t be truly human without being both. Our nourishment comes not only from water and soil, but also from holding tightly together and sending our blossoms out to the wider world. It’s how we are made and what we are made for.

Well Spring

Here are the ingredients for a great retreat:

First, the drive. It was supposed to be just over an hour away through the Texas Hill Country just outside of Austin. On a gorgeous sunny day I was listening to James Taylor’s new CD and driving down a stretch of highway toward a couple days of relaxing with new friends. But because Google didn’t really know what the heck it was talking about and a bridge was washed out on one really important turn, I got lost and it took 2.5 hours. Still – a gorgeous day!

True friends find you when you are lost.

(If you are going to get lost in the Hill Country, I suggest you have a friend like my buddy John who tracked me down, got lost (again) with me and then found our destination with time to spare before dinner was served.)

Next, setting. We stayed in a lodge at the Wellspring Retreat Center which has retreat-worthy sofas, rocking chairs, porches, and views. It was impossible to look the wrong way – every direction gave up vistas of rolling hills and climbable live oaks. At night, the sky was filled with stars and it was dark enough to see them surrounding the crescent moon. Probably best, at least for this sun-weary Texan, was a full day of cloudy weather. A rare treat.

View from the porch – and clouds to make it perfect.

But really, the heart of any retreat is the people. All of us are just meeting each other, just starting out on our theological educational journey in a new environment. Even those of us (like me) who already live in Austin are making huge adjustments and jumping into the unknown. So it was important and also comforting to get to know everyone in a setting other than campus – with its proximity to classrooms, library, and  work-study assignments. The slow rhythm of group meetings, relaxed worship, and down time made it possible for us to know a whole lot more about our fellow travelers and the amazing life experiences each brings with them. That, a multi-day game of Risk, and nightly parties in the parking lot.

I’m still not sure any of us is ready for classes to start on Monday, but they will whether we are ready or not. And in addition to all the information we received during orientation, we now have each other. Game on!

 

dis- re- oriented

All this week I am in orientation for seminary, but as our Academic Dean observed today, it feels more like disorientation. Life is being turned upside-down as I go from my old life-rhythm to a new one. I am taking in so much new information it is overwhelming – I know I won’t remember it all. There is excitement and grief in all these changes. I love being a student and being on this beautiful campus, but am getting teary thinking about the time I will lose with my kids when I am all the way across town as they get off the school bus in the afternoons. By the end of September, we will all have a new normal, but for now things still feel out of balance. Unsettled.

I was thinking about all of this today in the first of three chapel services. (That right there is a big change.) The chapel is an architectural metaphor for our life here at seminary. There is a firm floor and a strong stone wall on one side. But the cross, instead of hanging on a wall behind the altar, is on the other side of a large window, not inside the chapel but pulling our eyes to the world outside it. It is a visual reminder that all of us here are preparing to leaving this place from the moment we enter, we are being called into other roles, other lives.

As you sit in the chapel, you can’t help but notice that across from the stone wall is a wall of windows. So, in this quiet space while you sing or pray or check your phone for email, you can’t help but notice squirrels playing in the trees or butterflies checking out the flowers in the garden or other people walking by. The busy world is out there with the cross, calling for your attention.

At times it seems like all the activity on the other side of the window is a distraction. But at other times, it feels like a reminder, “Oh yeah, that is why I am here.” None of us is here to remain in a permanent blissful, contemplative state, we are here to get information and hone skills that we will practice out there on the other side of the window.

So, in fact, my new friends and I are being oriented to a new environment and disoriented because everything is new and unsettling. But we are also being reoriented, turned to face a new direction, learning to pay attention to the same old things in a new way and from a new perspective.

Of course, it occurred to me as the day was ending that when I leave this place next spring, I’ll have to do this dis- re- orienting all over again.