Slow Kingdom Coming

I’ve always thought of myself as a justice-oriented, do-gooder-type person, but over the years, I’ve become a bit fuzzy about what exactly that means. For example, most people would say it’s good to donate to charities and worthy causes, but how many times have charities and worthy causes misspent, misappropriated, or misjudged? What about donating goods after natural disasters? International adoptions? Microloans? Many things that sound good on the surface—and that are almost always well-intended—aren’t necessarily doing the good work we think they are. It also seems that far too often when someone says “justice,” what they really mean is good intentions and a quick fix.

In his new book, Slow Kingdom Coming, Kent Annan makes clear that good intentions can only take us so far, and that the work of building God’s kingdom is anything but quick. He writes, “we don’t want to think … that our good intentions are enough, as though God wouldn’t expect us to love our neighbors in the best possible way.” And the best possible way, he continues, is by creating deep and lasting change that, almost by definition, comes slowly.

You can read the rest of my review of Slow Kingdom Coming at Red Letter Christians.

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Our New Life With Lupus

This is not a lupus* blog, and it will not become one. It is a blog, however, about my faith and my family (among other things). As such, it only makes sense that I might, on occasion, write about our new Life With Lupus (LWL).

I don’t know a lot yet about LWL. My dad had it, and passed away from it, so I guess I knew a little going into this. Don’t worry! I don’t imagine my fate will be the same, and I don’t want to pretend oh-so-dramatically that I think that. In the last ten years lupus treatment has grown by leaps and bounds, and 80-90% of those with lupus have a normal life expectancy.

Does that mean Lupus doesn’t suck? Um, no.

Because it does. It sucks a lot. Not every day, but many days. And even when it doesn’t suck, per se, it does impact each day in some way, whether big or small.

There are a lot of things that come along with a diagnosis (finally! A diagnosis!): relief, mourning, anger, denial, frustration, disbelief, etc. It’s really the seven stages of grief. I think I’m in the acceptance stage now because I’ve decided that I can be open about it, and even write about it here.

Honestly, there’s some very good stuff that comes from a diagnosis of a serious chronic illness. I signed up recently for a Lupus support website, and it asks all new members to answer questions for their profile. One question is, “Knowing what I know now, what I recommend to others is…”

My answer?

Love your kids, your partner, your parents, your friends. Love yourself. Love your neighbors, the homeless guy on the street, the business exec on the street, and everyone in between. Learn to say, “there’s no rush,” and truly mean it. Learn to say “no.” Learn to say “yes” when possible, but give the caveat that you might just have to flake. Flake if needed. REDUCE STRESS. Use your community; they truly want to help. Never take them for granted or misuse their help. Find a good rheumatologist, but always do your own research. You can diagnosis in 2 days of googling what might take even the best rheumy three months to diagnose. That said, beware of the internet and what you Google. Take pictures of rashes, swelling, hairballs, splinter hemorrhages and anything else you can. Because, of course, the day of your long-awaited appointment everything will clear up and you won’t be able to make your case. Download the “My Pain Diary” app, and use it not for pain, per se, but for all the other medical things you need to keep up with. Eat right, exercise, rest, and stay positive.

 Sure, there are things I could add (many things!), but these are the bones of it.

I’ve had a lot of loss in life, and so I always assume that I’m already living life pretty well aware of its importance and fleeting nature. I get on my little kids’ level and look them in the eye when they speak. I don’t giggle and brush away the silly things they take seriously; there are too few years they will be honest enough to say what they think, and perhaps even fewer years that they’ll care what I say in response. I try to ignore my cell phone and computer when they’re home (goodness, the two little ones are home a lot!), and I try to drop little tidbits from the past, my past, into the life of my oldest. Someday they will want to know it all; no use beating around too many bushes. I try to have dance parties, and not sweat the small stuff, and have lots of white space so “I don’t have time” are four words I seldom have to say. Do I always succeed? Of course not.

My point here is that I thought I already fully realized and appreciated the time I have here on Earth. But let me just say that there is nothing like hearing certain words from a doctor to make you really realize and appreciate the fleeting nature of things.

That sounds awfully serious given medical advances and that the numbers are significantly on my side. But that’s neither here nor there in the late night and early morning hours when one’s mind turns from all the rational things we focus on during the more civilized hours, to all the irrational things we pretend we’re too grounded to think about.

Because really, we aren’t that grounded. Or perhaps it’s just me.

Perspective shifts. Hermeneutics readjust. And yes, love and appreciation and faith grow.

Most mornings my little kids and I sing Rise and Shine together to get our days going. Often we follow it up by singing Psalm 118:24:

This is the day that the Lord has made,
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

These are the words I will bind to their wrists and put upon their foreheads. These are the words I will live.


* SLE in my case (and my dad’s)

There are tons of resources online, but here are a few:

http://www.lupus.org

http://www.mollysfund.org

http://www.lupusny.org/about-lupus/lupus-links

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Whole Women, Whole Families, Whole Truths: Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say

The number of abortions in the United States may have declined by more than one-third over the past two decades—reaching its lowest rate since record keeping started in 1976—but the issue is far from settled. Today the Supreme Court hears its first major abortion case in almost 10 years, and, barring a 4-4 split due to the death of Justice Scalia, will likely hand down a decision by the summer.

This case, Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, questions the constitutionality of restrictions the state of Texas is imposing on abortion providers—restrictions like requiring abortion providers to hold admitting privileges at a local hospital and for centers to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Opponents argue that these standards are unnecessary and will cause clinics to close, resulting in significant limitations on women’s access to abortion.

This case has far-reaching implications as the Court is set to consider what regulations constitute an undue burden on a woman’s ability to get an abortion. As it is in all Supreme Court cases of this significance, media coverage is intense, and the protestors are many.

Significantly, this whole discussion is taking place during an election year, which is sure to force presidential hopefuls to address abortion head on. A study by the Barna Group has found that while only 30 percent of the general population places abortion as a priority in determining which candidate will get their vote, 64 percent of evangelicals say the same. And that means, because abortion will again be in the spotlight, this 64 percent will have their views heard by a larger audience than normal.

Of course, neither a Supreme Court case nor a presidential election is a top motivator for pro-lifers* to make their voices heard. Still, if history is any indicator, Whole Women’s Health v. Cole will provide a unique opportunity for influence that may not come around again for quite some time.

So the big question is how best to assert that influence.

Public perceptions of the pro-life movement are often significantly and negatively shaped by high profile cases like that of Robert Lewis Dear, the man who last November shot and killed a police officer and two civilians at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. At his first court appearance, Dear proudly professed guilt and claimed to be “a warrior for the babies.” Not much earlier, a pro-life group released highly controversial, sting-style videos of Planned Parenthood executives that resulted in a wide, public debate about federal funding for the organization. And, of course, we’ve all seen the heart wrenching and anger-inducing footage of protestors blocking young women from entering into clinics, making clear their opinion that the young, scared woman will burn in hell.

There is also the perennial issue of conservative politicians taking a hardline pro-life stance, yet seemingly disregarding the hardships that can come from an unplanned or unsafe pregnancy, and eliminating funding for programs that could either help minimize these hardships or stop the unplanned or unsafe pregnancy from occurring in the first place.

It’s a hostile context, with various “camps” pitted against one another. Surely there has to be a better way, a way far removed from pickets, judgment, hate, and hypocrisy.

To this end, it’s important to remember that when hoping to sway public opinion and/or policy to align with one’s belief system, moral credibility is key. That means the pro-life movement must become one associated with believing all life is sacrosanct—whether in the womb or already born. Perhaps it should go without saying, but the most basic tenant of eliminating abortion must be rooted in compassion and love, and not just for the unborn, but also for the expectant mothers. Certainly, pregnant woman who feel trapped by their pregnancy and are considering abortion should think of the church as the first place to turn for help, not as the last.

Thankfully, there are faith leaders who are opening their doors wide to those both considering abortion and those who have already had abortions. Last year Pope Francis declared that women who have had abortions could seek forgiveness from any priest, without authorization of a bishop. President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, wrote of those who have had or participated in abortions, “God has already pronounced what he thinks of this person: ‘You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.’ … Offer [] mercy not only at the Judgment Seat of Christ, but in the small groups and hallways of your church.” There are those who will take umbrage at the notion that a woman needs either forgiveness from a priest or mercy from church members, but for many women, both avenues of grace are desired and significant to their lives.

By decreasing social stigma within the church environment, providing non-judgmental counseling and assistance to women suffering at the hands of a partner or family member, and putting in place the go-to tried and true church supports of meals, rides to the doctor, deacon’s fund assistance, and the like, local churches can provide tangible support to women both considering abortion and those who have already had abortions. Shaming, shunning and judging will only drive women from the church.

Of equal importance is the significant contribution of churches and faith-based organizations to social services (the Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the world). One of main reasons women give for seeking abortions is financial. In fact, studies show that women with family incomes below the federal poverty level account for more than 40 percent of all abortions, and this particular demographic has one of the highest abortion rates in the nation (52 per 1,000 women). Given that six in ten women who receive abortions already have at least one child, it seems clear that greater systemic support for families below the poverty line is a prime way to reduce abortions.

These numbers indicate that being pro-life is about speaking up and acting on socioeconomic matters just as much as it is on abortion itself. Recognizing this, faith-based non-profits can and do provide subsidized childcare, job training, financial and material support, housing, and counseling for women in the “at risk” category. These efforts should be seen not just as economic in nature, but as essential ways to demonstrate  one’s commitment to ending abortion.

Similarly, better educational and vocational opportunities, workplace protections for pregnant women, and low cost, high quality childcare would help reduce the stressors on women who seek abortion for financial reasons. Many of the socioeconomic changes needed must be systemically implemented at a policy level, but others are within the grasp of individuals, places of worship, and organizations.

For those interested in having a direct, personal impact, there are many options other than marches and protests, all of which are considerably more effective. The influence of making ones position known to state and federal legislators through letter writing and phone calls, petition signing, ballot measures that increase socioeconomic support of women and families, and an individual’s voting power cannot be overstated.

For those less politically inclined, there are ways to advance one’s beliefs that may not change laws, but will fulfill the primary goal of both reducing abortion and creating more sustainable futures for those lives once they enter into the world.

Pregnancy centers, most of which are religious in nature, make it their goal to support women through their pregnancies as well as achieve long-term self-sufficiency. Women who might otherwise feel there are no options other than abortion can turn to these centers for help not only throughout pregnancy, but also into the future by learning the life skills necessary to successfully parent a child and run a household.

Despite the high number of women served by pregnancy centers, they aren’t without controversy, and some are more reputable than others. Volunteering at or donating to centers with a track record of providing sustainable assistance with long-term implications is a great way to make a local, direct impact. Before partnering with a pregnancy center, affirm that the center has appropriate medical oversight and licensing, as well as non-deceptive advertising, literature, and practices. Some pregnancy centers have come under criticism for these things, and to truly help women and the unborn, maintaining credibility and compassion, not merely pushing an agenda, is key.

Of course, pregnancy centers aren’t for all women, such as those who feel unprepared to parent. For those in this situation, adoption agencies are often presented as an alternative to abortion. Like pregnancy centers, these agencies provide pregnant women with services to help them throughout their pregnancies, but also help match birth mothers with adoptive families. Many provide prenatal care, help with housing and other expenses, and even maternity clothes and rides to the doctor.

Some of these centers are religious- or state run non-profits, others are privately owned and for profit. As with pregnancy centers, some are more reputable than others and must be thoroughly researched before a referral can be made. Each state has its own regulations, but as a general rule, adoption agencies should be licensed, been in business for many years with a well-maintained reputation, have a high number of successful placements per year, and should not pressure clients into making certain choices. Individuals and faith communities should take the time to research near-by agencies and be prepared to make a knowledgeable recommendation to a woman in need.

In so doing, it must be remembered that for adoption to be a truly viable option, women must feel emotionally and physically able to make it through nine months of pregnancy. This means pro-life advocates must recognize that the reasons women seek abortions can take all kinds of forms, including social stigmas, lack of health care, abusive relationships, family pressures, and financial and work or educational limitations, among other things. Those committed to ending abortion should consider putting time and energy toward finding a workable solution for as many of these problems as possible—although certainly no perfect or easy solution exists, nor does this list address the myriad of needs that present when women become pregnant through rape, or when a pregnancy compromises the mother’s health. Those are complicated, emotion-laden, and highly individual cases that I cannot begin to address here.

Promoting and achieving pro-life goals will come from establishing credibility by honoring the sanctity of life, both born and unborn, and taking compassionate, non-judgmental, prayerful and loving action to reduce the reasons women seek abortion in the first place, primarily their belief there are “no other options.” Simply put, we must give them options.

What if rather than creating picket signs and coordinating protests, efforts turned instead toward creating options by caring for women and families in need, and working towards systemic change that does the same? This is not only a third-way of being pro-life—it is the best way. It’s a way that respects and honors all life, at all stages, without judgment, but with honesty, compassion, and a nuanced understanding of the very real hardships faced by women dealing with an unexpected pregnancy.

State laws and Supreme Court decisions don’t change the fact that the real work of making pro-life mean all life often takes place behind the scenes, through small acts of love and kindness that have a big impact on the lives of many, both those born and those yet to be.

 

* I use the term “pro-life” because it is the term most commonly used and understood in public discussion. I find it to be a misnomer, however, as those who are pro-choice are not, in fact, anti-life. Similarly, many who may deem themselves “pro-life” for lack of a better term, are not “anti-choice,” although they would limit situations where that choice might be employed.

 

 

 

Evolving Faith: An Interview With Sarah Bessey

Today we hear from award-winner blogger and author of Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey. Sarah’s latest book, Out of Sorts, recounts her journey through an evolving faith, ending not with the finality of a concise resolution and tidy list of how-tos, but rather the firmly held belief that while Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, she—and we—should be continuously questioning, changing, and growing in relationship with Christ. Sarah’s raw and honest retelling of her evolving relationship with the Church, with religion, and with Christ serves not as memoir, but rather as Sarah’s encouragement to others to embrace their own meandering paths without fear as they work their way through a hopefully-unending evolution of faith.

1) You write that when you were in your twenties, you stopped being a Christian because you didn’t want to be associated with the Church. It seemed to you that in the Church, one could be a Christian without being a disciple of Christ. How do we put Jesus back into Christianity? Into the Church?

For me, everything was reoriented on Jesus and that changed everything. I think for too long we’ve made Jesus just one character or episode in the Bible. If we want to see God, we look to Jesus. In Hebrews 1:3, the writer says that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father. So I think that if we could recapture that centrality of Christ in our churches through our teaching, our worship, our way of life, well then, what would change? For me, a lot of things changed. My opinions, my preferences, my work, my purpose, my reading of Scripture, my place in community, and so on. We aren’t bringing Jesus into our lives: he’s welcoming us into his life. Years later, I still feel like the only place that makes sense is in his presence, the only place I want to be is in the dust of his feet.

2) You once again consider yourself a Christian, and presumably a disciple of Christ. To that end, how do Jesus’ teachings impact your day-to-day life? Is there a particular area of discipleship you struggle with more than others?

You can read the rest of my interview with Sarah at Red Letter Christians.

Loving Hard: In Memory of Gideon Bruce

In many ways it made perfect sense that I would call her at 7:30am, blurry eyed and frogged-voiced, having just rolled out of bed, bone-weary. It was the day after Christmas. All six of us were sick—whooping cough, we’d later find—and exhausted from both the fun and the coughing.

After I received her text—stilted, formal, apologetic for its intrusion—I called every hospital in the area, finally finding her where two of my own four were born.

Her husband answered, his voice making clear his surprise. After all, who calls the hospital phone these days? But I didn’t want to call her cell. At least I was awake enough to think of that.

“She’s with a nurse right now. She’ll call you back.”

Of course, she didn’t. And who can blame her.

She’d been at my house just four days prior, shuffling from one foot to the other the way pregnant women do. Her daughter ate a cupcake. They left within moments—I’m sure she was tired.

He was born a trimester too early, weighing barely one pound. Placental failure. Not insufficiency, but failure. I cried all day.

One hundred and ten days later—on her birthday, no less—he came home. Still tiny, still feeding through a tube, still too cold for his own good.

I finally met him at five and a half months, found him not yet the weight of my second the day he was born.

“Are you kidding, he’s huge!” His mother protested.

I was embarrassed at my gaffe.

“Yes, yes! He is. Of course.”

He was beautiful. I held him as long as I could, only putting him down when I ate my burger. So warm… he had finally learned the trick of self-regulating his temperature and he performed it masterfully.

He was beautiful.

A mere three weeks later, I cried again. This time the news came by mass email, one I read at least three times before feeling it settle, hard, between the shoulder blades, the eyes, the heart: “Almost zero chance of normalcy… Leave us alone. We’ll let you know. We don’t need anything. Just… let us be.”

“Should I come home?” A text from my husband.

“No. It’s fine. I’m praying.”

I’m praying.

I prayed to God, to Google, searching every avenue for an answer, but finding none.

I emailed a client—world-renowned pediatrician, a fellow congregant at my church. He would know.

“This will be difficult. No matter what, this will be difficult.”

The next day a follow up: “Be patient and hope that some sort of answer will come in the years that follow.”

And the next day: “Do they go to our church?”

No.

When I lost my son, eight months old, flaming hair, world’s most gummy smile, I thought those answers would never come. No years would follow—the earth stilled, and with it, my heart.

I know her days are frozen—she’s said as much. Each day she lifts him, tries to gauge if he’s gained an ounce. Half-an-ounce. A stack of envelopes in one hand, a baby in the other. How do they compare? Which fatigues her muscles more?

She looks at his head. Measures it’s circumference. Eyes it against her daughter’s .50 cent bouncy ball—the kind on end caps at grocery stores, drawing the sticky eyes of children, begging meter money from purse bottoms. She’s refined the skill—can tell you the weight and width of a fly these days. She and her husband take bets; they’re experts now.

I pray.

Google frustrates me with its ambivalence, God tries my patience. I keep living. Cooking, cleaning, writing. My daughter hits her first single. My oldest lands an internship and the youngest just won’t quit climbing the stove. We are living.

She’s living too. Living in fear, in doubt, in the hollow place between inhale and exhale. She watches him breathe. Smooth, warm, the way he should. Air fills small lungs, routes oxygen to all the necessary places. Escapes in sighs so sweet a flower bears its name.

But his name is not sweet. His name is that of a warrior who dared ask God for more. More miracles, God, and I will do your bidding. Do not be angry, God, but I simply must have more. God relented and the trumpets blew and the idols fell. And when that warrior died, years later, the alters were resurrected and the false Gods rose.

Let him live, God.

Full and healthy, conqueror of enemies. Bearer of swords and trumpets and weighty things of glory. An unlikely warrior, God. Let him live.

**********

I wrote this prayer in July of 2014. Four months later, on November 28, 2014, Gideon passed from this world and into the next. He was not quite one year old.

Today, on this one-year-anniversary, my household is where it should be: in a time of board games and late nights, of midnight pie with cream, and just one more game of pool before heading off to bed. We’re enjoying the smell of simmering soup while the just-put-up tree glitters with fresh-bought lights and tip-top star, and the littles dance to a singing snowman we plot to sneak away as soon as their heads are turned.

We are living life as it should be lived. As Gideon’s mom would say, we are loving hard.

I can think of no greater tribute to a boy so loved and missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Immigration: A Matter of the Spirit

Marco Saavedra is an artist, poet, writer, and sometime-dishwasher at his parents’ restaurant in the Bronx. He’s also an undocumented immigrant and one of nine Dreamers who, in 2013, turned themselves over to border patrol at Nogales, AZ to lift up the plight of two million deported immigrants under the Obama administration. The previous year he had put himself in the hands of Florida immigration agents to infiltrate the Broward Detention Facility and expose the abuses occurring there. Dozens of detainees were released as a result. Today Saavedra’s deportation case is still pending, but he continues to make art, to voice protest, and to lift up the urgency of the lives of those around him. He speaks with us today about how faith has influenced his actions past and present, and how the current debate over immigration is not simply a matter of politics, but rather a matter of the spirit.

By purposefully placing yourself in the hands of border guards, you could have been deported to Mexico, a place you haven’t been since you were a baby. How did your faith impact your decision to take such a personal and possibly life-altering risk?

Yes, of course, faith has always been crucial in my migration journey. The last words I said before turning myself over to border patrol two years ago were:  “There is no fear where there is perfect love” (to loosely quote St. John), and I meant that. And to go further into my past, faith was the only thing left after my parents and I first came into this country illegally 20 years ago; we had already left behind our language, native home, extended family, culture and everything known until that point. Our migration started (as I believe most all do) with faith and was sustained by it. And so when I turned myself over to immigration 20 years later—in order to raise up the plight of the deported—it was only adding to that faith that instructs us to “love one another as [Jesus] has loved us” (John 13:34).

Is social justice activism of this extent the province of the young? What about the middle-aged, the old, those with small children, aging parents, etc. Do the social justice teachings of Jesus require such action from these folks as well? Why/why not?

You can read the rest of my interview with Marco at Red Letter Christians. When you’re done there, check out the remarkable photography of Steve Pavey of Hope in Focus.

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A Non-Book Review for Ordinary Radicals

For better or worse, I grew up in a variety of faith traditions.

My childhood was spent in Southern Baptist and Methodist churches—the Southern Baptist part came from my dad, but I still don’t know how or why I ended up attending a Methodist church to which we had no apparent ties. As a teenager, I faithfully attended every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday service/youth group at a First Baptist church in Arkansas. After a move west, I found myself attending Charismatic services, then after yet another move, a church of the Nazarene. Both came about because of friend- and family ties. As an adult, Collin and I church hopped from place to place, trying to find a home. We ended up attending a Lutheran church for quite a while, then finally settled into the Presbyterian tradition, which is where I now make my denominational home.

One of the many benefits of experiencing a variety of traditions with vastly different ways of being is that I’ve come to disregard many doctrinal differences as irrelevant. You’ll seldom find me caught up in debate over finer points, and though I struggle to reconcile some conflicts in teaching, I mostly follow the creed of “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Having begun my faith journey primarily in denominations that eschew ritual, I’ve long viewed liturgy as something that just isn’t for me. But at the start of this year, I began following Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. What is today…. January 9th? Yes, it is. And in these 9 days, I have felt the benefit of this to such an extreme that I want to shout it from the mountaintop.

In addition to the daily prayers and readings, there are other benefits. After the shooting in France, instead of our normal, brief dinner blessing, we prayed the Common Prayer for a killing in the neighborhood (isn’t the whole world our neighborhood?). At night when my daughter has said she “doesn’t know what to pray,” we’ve prayed the evening prayer together and sung songs from the back of the book, which, like me, come from a variety of tradition. So while we may start off with the Doxology and the Magnificat, we also make our way through Nothin’ but the Blood and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Of course, much of its benefit likely comes from this being a liturgy for ordinary radicals, of which I hope to be one. Keeping with the teachings of my yellow-dog Democrat dad, and living the life I devoted myself to somewhere around age 17, I am reminded daily of my commitment to the finer things in life: Justice. Mercy. Love. Peace. I never “forget” these things, but often I find myself too busy to do anything but remember them in my mind, never letting their truth reach my heart and hands. But in these last 9 days, I have found myself living more joyfully, more honestly, and with growing rededication to my long-ago chosen path.

Lest you think I am replacing scripture or individual prayer with ritual, let me assure you I am not. In fact, quite the opposite: I have found it much easier to fit both these things into my day, something I’ve been struggling with for years given the too-busy life we often lead. But that, too, is changing.

So why am I writing this non-book review? I don’t know. I’m not so presumptuous as to say others would definitely share a similar experience–I know we’re all different. I suppose it’s like when you eat at a really good restaurant: you want to go out and tell all your friends how great it was, how much you enjoyed it, and that maybe they should check it out on their next date night.

It’s only been 9 days. So either this resurgence will bottom out or it will grow stronger. I am so dearly hoping for the latter.

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