The margins of privilege: a lesson in justice, mercy and humility

As I was driving today, I was putting thoughts together to write a piece about human perspectives on privilege. I thought I might opt for another term, like inherited advantage, since the term “White Privilege” has been used and misused and misunderstood to a point where those with said privilege have conditioned themselves to dismiss it as propaganda.

The thing is, I received a call shortly after arriving at work that my son’s gravestone monument is ready to be set in two days. Something like that will interrupt your thoughts. Makes you stop what you’re doing. Makes you remember a beloved life lost. Makes you remember things you thought you had forgotten.

The movie, “The Jerk,” starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters came out in 1979. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first movie I ever went to see with friends. It opened with Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, stating, “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor, black child.” Well, I was born into a white, relatively middle class (for rural America) family. I am a female, so that created its own set of issues related to power, safety, protection and vulnerability during my formative years in the late 20th century. As a woman, I’ve experienced sexual molestation and physical violence from men I thought loved me. As a white woman, I’ve experienced rejection and abuse because of my relationships with men of other races. I’ve experienced homelessness and isolation and marginalization from some advantages of having been born into a white family. I’ve been terrorized by Klan-minded church members, more concerned about my relationships than my safety. That’s my experience, but not my whole message.

When you are born with advantages that you did nothing to earn other than arriving here on earth by way of your birth parents, you don’t understand what it’s like not to have them. How could you? Why would you even try to imagine it? It would be very hard to convince someone who is born into a white American family with a sufficiently large home – maybe two – who graduated college without paralyzing debt, who landed a great spouse and a great-paying job and who enjoys plenty of food and vacations without being questioned or harassed that those lovely things aren’t due to his or her pious living, belief in God, and otherwise-perfect choices over the course of a lifetime. Very hard. As hard as leading a camel through the eye of a needle. Especially if going through that eye means having to let go of some of those unearned trappings to which we feel attached and for which we feel entitled.

I think “choices” is a great place to pause. Because not everyone has the same array of choices. The very heart of being privileged or having advantages means having a wider, better assortment of choices. Of course, not everyone with advantages makes great choices. I’ve made some pretty rotten choices myself. But sometimes, a bad choice is the better of two pretty awful choices.

My son died by suicide last year. It was a bad choice in my estimation, but I suspect he felt it was the better of his limited array of perceived choices in that moment. He had some advantages: he was smart, good looking, had a decent job, had a family who loves him, had talents and skills that were still developing. He also had disadvantages: he wasn’t able to complete his college degree due to issues surrounding ADD; he was biracial with green eyes and was often mistaken as coming from a nationality or culture that people in America fear post-9/11; he fought mental illness/depression; he had a job with terrible medical benefits that could barely be called benefits at all; and he had limited financial resources due to the types of jobs he was able to secure and a lack of saved resources coming from a single-parent/absent father household. This week, I’ll witness his gravestone being set in place. That shouldn’t be happening according to natural order, but I don’t have another good choice.

Growing up as I did, belief in Jesus was often conflated with American patriotism, local privileges and cultural standards. There was a prosperity gospel element to it, equating poverty with immorality. There was, in my neck of the woods, a racist element, left over from the era of slavery, that equated being from a non-white race to being immoral. I knew something smelled rotten. I rebelled against it, even if I couldn’t properly or articulately identify it from within the context of the rotten smells. I separated myself as best I could.

“Nose-blind” they call it, when you can’t smell your own stink while it surrounds you.

Assuredly, following Jesus requires a complete rejection of those conflated ideas. These are interesting times in which we live. Much is being uncovered in terms of bad theologies that are unjust, unmerciful, unloving and not at all like Jesus’ example. I’m glad to see these things being identified and confronted.

2fd923c2-f0f3-4120-876d-1021d2ea4781

I’m also painfully aware that these core issues still surround us. In light of these previously-hidden-and-protected, and recently-spotlighted sins of our humanity, I recognize and acknowledge that I have more, better choices than very many of my neighbors. Some of that is entirely because of my appearance – something I had no part in creating. I’m not a wealthy woman in our culture’s terms, not by a long-shot. I’m still (again) a single mom working two jobs for pay and two more without pay, just trying to keep things floating. I’ve seen terrible things that have taught me where to look. I know how to utilize my advantages. I also know that, when you see others doing better than you in your most insecure and myopic view, it can make you hold on very tightly to what little you might perceive that you have, fearful of falling lower in esteem or losing traction in some regard.

But any response to others that is birthed in fear is probably the opposite of what you’re being asked to do by Jesus.

Choose to give generously to people outside of your social circle and sphere of influence. Expect nothing in return.

Choose to speak up when you see someone being mistreated, regardless of who the offender is. Offer help and encouragement to the one in harm’s way.

Choose to go out of your way for a suffering friend or loved one or stranger. Yes, go out of your way. He or she is likely unable to make a move toward you or any other help.

Choose to be a good listener and lay aside any defensive responses when someone says you’ve hurt them. Be willing to reconcile differences without attempting to make another person into some alternative version of you.

Choose to love people first.

These things are just, merciful, kind and humble. These are great choices that anyone can make.

A Changed Mind

On the first Sunday of Lent 2018, I was asked to preach for my congregation. It’s always an honor to preach, but I LOVE the process of exegesis, studying scripture and allowing it to speak its truth (as opposed to the way so many others approach scripture, using it to “prove” what they think or believe.)

This is an edited video, but still nearly-full-sermon-length. Will you take a few minutes to listen?

 

Our inherited understanding of repentance would teach us to focus on our sins, promise to stop doing bad things, go forth and do better and believe in the good news of Jesus. But there’s a disconnection there. And that’s because of what we just learned about the word actually recorded in Greek that Jesus used: metanoia. Jesus said to be of a changed mind (by way of baptism of the Holy Spirit.) There’s certainly a place for contrition for sin, but, for Jesus, walking away from sin was about a changed mind. And it isn’t something we do for ourselves – this is what God does in us! There’s a lot of room for failure in our concept of “repentance” because, well, humans. As stated before, with a changed mind and a new understanding of God’s relationship to mankind, our behavior will most certainly change also. We can’t hope to reflect Jesus in our behavior, however, if we are not first like-minded with Jesus. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit that brings us to metanoia.

So, if I could offer my amplified version of “repent and believe,” it would look like this:

Let your mind be changed (about the way you relate to God) and be assured that what Jesus’ ministry accomplished (relating to God according to the new covenant) is, indeed, good news for you and me and the entire world!

During this Lenten season, may I suggest that you focus on three things as you seek to allow the Spirit of God to change your mind?

  1. You are a beloved child of God. Let that sink in.
  2. You have a God-ordained mission. Seek to grasp it fully.
  3. As the Spirit of God leads you into your time of preparation, integrating your mind, body and spirit toward your mission, allow the Spirit to change you in any and all aspects of self.

Our Holy God, thank you for the good news that You do, indeed, reign, and help us to be of a changed mind, making us more and more like Jesus. Amen.

Legacy Drive

I remember the feeling well. I was in my late 30s and engaged to marry a man I had loved since we first met when I was only 17. It was an overwhelming feeling – more like a need than a feeling in many ways. I had two children who were by that time teenagers. I knew they would leave home in a few short years. Another child – just one more. I needed to have a child and it needed to happen soon or it might be too dangerous or else too late. This thought wouldn’t relax nor relent. It was persistent and insistent. It wasn’t a drive my husband shared and was a source of tension between us. Whether by my undeniable charm, clever persuasion or God’s divine will, our son was born when I was 39. His given name means “God has heard.”

There is no satisfaction to compare with a human drive that is thoroughly satisfied. I was as happy and content as I’ve ever been in my lifetime.

Fast forward 12 years. I have lived in a mixed bag of great life experiences and trauma: divorce (mine), graduation from Divinity School, marriage and subsequent divorce (my daughter’s), birth of two grandsons, death of two grandsons (pre-delivery), death of my mother and, tragically, the death of my oldest son. Within and during all of these things – both the good and the bad – I have tried very hard to continue to function within the realm of what I understand to be my identity and calling. It’s difficult to keep living well in the face of so much loss.  It’s also impossible to continue living the same way as before. I don’t care about winning arguments or fans any more. The only thing I really care about is being true to what I understand about God’s design and calling on my life. Sounds like a cop-out to anyone who wants me to be more immersed in daily dramas. I just can’t.

William james quote.jpg

In this context, a new drive has emerged in my life. At face value, it may seem to have grown out of a focus on death. It’s really focused on living, though – living the best life I can live while I’m here. Death surely informs life when we acknowledge its inevitability. The new drive has to do with legacy and leaving behind something that will matter. I realize that my children don’t listen to everything I say to them. They don’t remember half of what I’ve told them and they don’t know many of my life stories prior to their birth. How could they? And, if the children I raised have so little to remember about me as I know me, how much harder will it be for my grandchildren? But, I want them to know me and to learn from my mistakes. I don’t want to be remembered only for things related to what I cooked or what I liked to eat or something I would say often or a job I did well (or not.) I want to share wisdom with them and spare them as much of life’s pain as I can, particularly the avoidable stuff. I want to tell them in a million different ways that God is love and Jesus is our hope for now and eternity and that our lives and callings do matter because we all have been made in the image of God. I want all of my family and everyone in my sphere of influence to know that they are deeply loved and cared-for and that our life together is meaningful. I want to leave things behind that can be read and held and seen and heard to remind them of these things.

As I live each day now, I want to share my heart intentionally. The best ways I know are through writing, singing, preaching and having 1:1 conversations.  I don’t always do these things well and not every encounter is what I would want someone to carry around as their lasting memory of me. Not even close. But, I remain mindful and hope to be more lavish and free in the ways I choose to spread love and hope every day that I’m here. And, similarly, every day, I hope to grasp more and more the truth that I am loved in amazing ways that don’t require any quid-pro-quo efforts on my part. God’s gift of love is pure grace. It’s who God is. And it is available to everyone. That includes you and it includes me. That kind of love changes who you are and it changes how you live.

Oh, that these thoughts would have prevailed in the years that I already lived. But, who knows how many years you or I have ahead? My grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 102. Perhaps? Regardless of how many, I pray that all of my years are lived fully and richly – truly abundantly – in the spirit of love and grace freely given and freely received. If my children’s memory of me is only that I love them abundantly – that I strive to lead them to know of God’s love, embodied as Jesus and followed as our road map for living well, then that will surely be enough. But, a few more decades of writing and songs and conversations can only drive home the point, right?

I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” 3 John 1:4 (NRSV)

 

An American Christian Identity Story

I’ve learned a lot in the last few years about losing things that shook my very identity. Losing both of my parents caused me to feel like an orphan, even at 50 years old. I was frightened by the lost sense of security, no longer knowing there was someone on earth who would always take care of me after my mother died. Losing my first-born son this year caused me to feel like a failure as a parent, even though my son was a beautiful, talented, loving adult and father when he died by his own hand. I was shaken by the lack of control I could have over someone I loved so, so dearly. Losing my husband (to divorce, not death) several years ago caused me to feel like a failure as a wife and as a godly woman. I lost my passion in many ways when that relationship failed and still worry that I may never be completely unguarded.

I am in no way fully healed from any of these things. However, I will say that I have some new understandings. I see ways in which I’ve misplaced my anchors. For the most part, the thing that I am holding on to, the little thread that I attach myself to that saves me on most days, is the knowledge that I have an unfolding identity that over-rides all of the ways I identified myself by previously. It isn’t unfolding in the sense that it is being created as much as it is unfolding in the sense that great sculptures are made … in the chipping away of everything that is not “it.”

Luke 9 23

I have to get to know myself in ways I never did before. I am more than my parents’ child. I am more than a loving mother. I am more than a wife or an ex-wife and even more than a woman. We all are so much more than the circumstances to which we are born and live through. I am more than all the ways I’ve failed in so many areas of life and more than all the failures of people I have loved. I have to learn to see myself the way God sees me. Unique. Formed for a purpose. Forgiven. Loved … immensely… and driven to love others in spite of ourselves. If I don’t learn to identify myself in God – in the Christ who rescued me and teaches me to let go of the me I thought I knew – then I will learn to hate. Because when I identify myself by the brokenness I’ve endured and the pain that surrounds me in this world, it’s hard to see or understand love.

So, if you find yourself identifying strongly with cultural symbols or ideas that don’t lead to the narrow way of love, take the time to see if this might be an area of misplaced identity in your own life. Is there eternal value and virtue there? Is God building a kingdom of love through this aspect of your self-built or inherited identity? To whom are you truly loyal? In whom (or what) do you actually place your faith? There is nothing harder that we face in this world than “dying to self” while still walking the earth. But, if you believe Jesus, it’s what we all must do.

When healing doesn’t come

When healing doesn’t come … what do the faithful do?

I think we all have our ideas about how we are supposed to manage our faith. If we have faith in God, then we believe God will do what God promised to do. But, for Jesus followers, did Jesus promise to heal every ailment we pray to have removed? Sometimes, it seems that is exactly what Jesus said: “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Paul might argue the opposite … while Paul pleaded with God to remove “the thorn from his flesh,” God insisted that Paul would experience sufficient grace because God’s strength is made perfect through our weakness.

My mother struggled with healing that did not come for her, as faithful and trusting as she was, and regardless of how many of us agreed in prayer with her for her healing. My son struggled with healing that he was unable to find, regardless of all of the prayers, treatments and lifestyle changes he made. Therein lies the tension that shows up in all things – when do we recognize which direction to adjust our sails? What exactly are we supposed to have faith in if not God’s amazing ability to give us what we ask for, like a magically powerful vending machine?

Many believers crumble under an undue pressure to somehow increase their faith in these times, but the main object of our faith – the target, the goal – is what gets lost. We have to place our faith in God, not in what God can or will or won’t do. We have to trust God in life and in death and in eternity. I’ve never been more wildly or rudely introduced to a concept before in my entire life. We have to trust God in life and in death and in eternity. I think about all three of those statuses often these days, as I attempt to reconcile the life and loss of my son. I prayed so fervently for him … I and many others. I have to trust that God answered our prayers in ways we may never understand while on earth.

As we dig in this spot, let’s ask a deeper, more difficult question: how do Christ-followers uphold faith in the face of mental illness? What is the distinction between our soul and our spirit and how does our spirit maintain a strong connection with God-inside-us (Holy Spirit) when our soul becomes so sick and broken? How do we reconcile death as a result of mental illness as opposed to physical illness, which seems to be more revered – a more honorable way to die? I believe strongly that the Church is faced today with figuring out how to encourage, embrace, pray for and support its members and community members who are struggling with mental illnesses. If the statistics are correct, about 25% of the population is affected by depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder or other personality disorders – which often occur together in the same person. If we’re honest, we know we are surrounded by these hurting, beloved people and we don’t have a clue how to properly support them.

We don’t know how to offer hope, because we don’t often feel hopeful for them or we attribute their words and actions to bad character flaws or bad choices – but if we can’t do anything else, we must offer the hope that is found in Jesus. If Jesus only offered one thing to humanity, and if that one thing was hope, then that is all we need. Hope heals. But if that hope doesn’t keep us on earth longer, then that hope in Jesus will take us into our eternity. The Church must be the source that offers the hope of Jesus to our broken members, communities and world. Healing and restoring a broken world is the mission Jesus initiated in His ministry on earth and it is the work He will bring into completion through eternity. That is also our mission and our hope.

Broken pieces 

Another poem from my journey through loss and tragedy:

 

The things that almost killed me

The things from which I’ve run

Could be the things that will fulfill me

Broken pieces joined as one

 

Holding on to the wrong fragments

Digging in to rocky soil

Grows a lost and lonely sadness

That from light and joy recoils

 

My desire is for true wholeness

And my hope is in The Truth

May I speak and sing with boldness,

May I rediscover Youth

 

When joy came with such ease

And worries were but few

When doors flung wide with “please”

And every day felt new

 

Let me not sink in despair

Let me not forget myself

Let me always be aware

And not put love upon a shelf

 

So much I have forgotten

So much from which to hide

Reconciling what’s besotten

With all the things I have denied

 

Now, face to face with nakedness

Nowhere else to run or look

May I see and love the awful mess

That until this point I forsook

 

The things that almost killed me

The things from which I’ve run

May they somehow now fulfill me

Broken pieces joined as one

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NRSV)

A Story of Death and Dying: Seeing the Unseeable

portalview

You’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth millions for me.

It (this picture) seems rather ordinary before hearing the story, so I’ll share it. I have told a few people of what I experienced here, but I have not told most people because it’s one of those stories that make people assume you’re more than just a little eccentric. Let’s go ahead and get one important point made: I believe in the in-dwelling Holy Spirit and I live in submission to that Spirit, meaning, sometimes I see or say things that I don’t fully understand. What I’m speaking of is a sense of being overwhelmed by the omniscient Spirit of God who seeks to share tidbits with me when it’s most needed. With that disclaimer, perhaps my experience (and my interpretation of it) will be a little easier for the 21st century mind to digest.

As difficult as it is to properly capture or describe, I have to document this so that the experience is not lost, for it will likely become an anchor for someone else just as it became an anchor for me.

As my mother’s decline from an ALS-related illness known as bulbar palsy went from bad to worse, my siblings and I developed a care-giving schedule that rotated in ways that each of us could manage so that someone could be with her as we figured out the trajectory and our long-term options for her. Being unable to speak or swallow, Mother reached a point where intervention would become necessary for proper nutritional intake, etc. and she decided against that option. So, as painful as it was (for us), she embraced the path that would lead her to her eternal home. “You’re going to have to let me go,” she said as I explained to her what she must do in order to continue living at home.

Please understand, my mother was also a very Spirit-minded believer in Jesus. She also experienced speaking in tongues and seeing things that we aren’t necessarily supposed to see. She couldn’t wait to finally see Jesus face to face and she showed me a picture of my father (who died in 2004) in his earlier years that she believed he would resemble in heaven. She was ready. And we were trying to stop her from boarding her train.

As hospice became engaged in mother’s end-of-life process, we received her medications to help ease her through her transition late on Saturday night. My middle sister stayed up with her, administering meds and calming her as she attempted to get up, disoriented by the realities of the transition from her physical body into her eternal form. I woke up around 5 a.m. in the living room as I slept in a recliner with my son nearby on the sofa. As I oriented myself to the truth and the gravity of where we all were, I went to Mother’s room to relieve my sister in hopes that she could sleep some. It had been a difficult night. (That’s an understatement.)

As my sister went to join her husband and get some form of rest, I stood in my mother’s bathroom to gaze out of the window. It was pre-dawn, so it was quite dark outside. The view was clear as I looked across the Albemarle Sound. My heart was sad and my mind was numb as I had never experienced death so up-close-and-personal. As I stared across the water, in a prayerful state of mind, yet not conjuring any words, I became aware of a change in one of the lights I was seeing from the other shore. Street lights from the Edenton side had a pinkish-orange hue and were lined up fairly neatly. But one light began to change and grow. It grew into a large circular shape and appeared to be coming toward me as if coming across the water. As it approached and I could see it more clearly (all the while rubbing my eyes and blinking, because surely this was some sort of odd effect I could rinse away), I could see what appeared to be three circles inside the larger light circle, which I interpreted as heads, along with several wing-like shapes, again, to my best ability in interpreting what I was seeing. I remained locked in to the view, while remaining keenly aware of my mother’s breathing and other noises and slight movements she was making. As I stared at this object, I asked (silently to myself) if it/they were coming inside. The response I sensed was that it/they were not coming any closer but that I should understand that they were very close by. With that, I reached my capacity for spiritual encounters and retreated into my mother’s bedroom to stare at her and cry about my own senses of loss and bewilderment.

As the sun rose and I walked back to the window, wondering if there would be some remnant of the earlier sighting, I couldn’t help but notice a pair of binoculars resting there on the ledge. I wondered then if Mother had at some point seen something similar to what I witnessed.

Mother’s death came within 27 hours of this experience. When she passed, I was overcome by the Holy Spirit and mourned and wailed in that “heavenly language” for what seemed like many minutes, but was probably only a few. While it was powerful and emotional, it was also peaceful and affirming for me because I was so aware of Holiness and eternity in that experience. The takeaway for me was a new sense of death and dying that is more exhilarating and less fearful than I previously imagined. The pain from physical loss on this side can be excruciating, but there is definitely something to look forward to on the other side where Jesus has “prepared a place.”

I’m thinking about keeping a pair of binoculars in my own bathroom window, just as a reminder.