Imago Dei: Dan Baker Part Two

Dan’s interview is the second in my Imago Dei series. I’m interviewing the people who many people in our society demonize. Dan is a married homosexual, and a professing Christian. You can check out part one of Dan’s interview here, and my first interview in this series with Dr. Mustafa Khattab, a Muslim imam here.

  Let’s just pick up where we left off…

The best example was when I was engaged to a woman years ago. 

I wasn't going to ask you about that...

When I was planning to marry a woman, I thought I knew what love was. In hindsight, having found love with my husband, I can say that what I was feeling then wasn’t love. When you are confused about what sexuality is you look to the people around you and try to mimic what you see. The same way I was always trying to change my voice or hand gestures. When you are gay and ashamed you live on a stage where you are constantly acting. The line between what is real and what is acting is so blurred. So you lie to yourself and say this is right.

The main reason I brought up that past relationship is because it’s important for the church to understand that denying, or ignoring, or avoiding homosexuality doesn’t just hurt the gay person, It hurts other as well. So many gay men and women end up in marriages that create havoc in their lives because we think getting married is a way to hide, change, or be godly.

Right after that relationship ended I just got in my car and started driving and ended up in Texas. That’s when I finally said out loud, “I’m gay. I’m done. I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay.” I remember driving and calling my parents, and telling them. We didn’t talk for like a year. It was all kind of crazy, but after that I was done. This isn’t going to work. At that point, I was like I don’t care if I’m going to hell. I don’t care if I’m not a Christian. I don’t care, I’m just done fighting.

But of course, there were more fights to come after that, but that was when I started to really begin to accept that I’m gay. But even in accepting the reality that I’m gay, and there’s nothing I can do about it, I still hated myself for it. I still thought it was wrong; and over time, I thought maybe I’m just supposed to be celibate and never have sex and never have a companion.

 I threw myself into planting churches thinking that would fix me, but of course it didn’t because like I said from the beginning our sexuality is very tied to our identity as human beings. I think eventually, I was traveling through Central America reading Lance Armstrong’s first autobiography about how he battled cancer. I remember thinking I really identified with him in his battle with cancer. Then it hit me. I’ve been living my whole life like I’ve got cancer, and the truth is I’m not sick. I’ve been wasting my time pretending like I’ve got cancer, and I’m not sick. There’s nothing wrong with me. I think that was a turning point.

Once that hit me, my behavior immediately started to change. I no longer had to go out and get wasted to the point where I wouldn’t remember anything. It was amazing to see the transformation. Over the past four years there’s been a shift in my thinking.

 I started to read the Bible through different eyes. At the time when I was traveling and reading Lance Armstrong’s biography, I wasn’t reading the Bible. I wasn’t listening to Tim Keller or John Piper. I remember specifically saying to myself, “I’m not going to put anymore voices in my head” because every thought I had was either Tim Keller, or John Piper, or my dad, or my mom, or Boojie, or Steve Brown, or Ravi Zacharias—all these people I filled my mind with. When I would think about the consequences of my actions and ask myself what do I think? or what do I feel? I would hear other people’s voices.

This is what you should think: or this is how it should go: this is correct theology:  this is systematic theology: or you should filter everything through this. But I remember after that, you could call it an awakening, I heard own my voice in my head for the first time. It was kind of weird. It was the first time I heard me, and it really started to change the way I thought about life, the way I read the Bible, and the way I view the Holy Spirit.

I went back and started re-reading things, and I realized that this whole idea of biblical manhood and womanhood-- marriage. It’s not that clear in the way that I was indoctrinated to believe.  For example, when I went back and read Matthew chapter 19, which is the one time Jesus talks about marriage, He talks about a man and his wife and how they become one flesh. But then, right after that, he starts having a discussion with his disciples.

They’re like, “that’s bulls**t who wants to get married if you can only be with one woman? Jesus, you let Moses divorce people.”

And He’s like, “You know that’s because they were sinners.”

But I don’t think he said it in a harsh tone. I think he probably said it lovingly. They didn’t understand what marriage really was.

The disciples at the end of all this wisdom they say, “Who wants to get married? Who would want to do that? Like that’s f**king crazy!” Then he goes on to talk about eunuchs.  He says some eunuchs are made by God, and some are made by man, but this is something a lot of people don’t understand, so don’t worry about it. This began to set a precedent in my mind, that Jesus isn’t all that concerned about sexuality in the end.

 Then you look at Paul. Paul talks about marriage where the man is the head and the wife is submitting to the head and Christ is the head of the church. We’ve created a whole theology and an entire doctrine based on this one passage of Paul: who wasn’t married. But basically even Paul after he goes on and on he says, “this is a profound mystery”-- it’s not something clear!

So I began to think that if every time Jesus or Paul talks about marriage in the New Testament, the way I understood marriage, and biblical manhood and womanhood, they immediately follow it with this is a mystery, this isn’t completely clear; that began to kind of make me wonder. I thought about how Adam and Eve had a perfect marriage, and then after the fall everything’s broken. I thought about how through Christ we’re redeemed and we become something new. Then I began to think that what if becoming something new doesn’t mean becoming the same.

There’s a progression in the gospel narrative where we’re not going back to the garden of Eden, we’re going to a new heaven and a new earth.  Those things started affecting the way I read scripture, and the way I thought about myself and my sexuality.

 When Jesus left the earth, he left because we were missing the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Holy Spirit was the only way to bring people in the faith closer to Him and His Father. One thing that is very clear is that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, longsuffering, and self-control. I began to wonder, what if my sexuality or my homosexual marriage, what if it does produce those fruits?

Then maybe the Holy Spirit is talking to me in a way that he’s not talking to other people. Maybe other people should listen to me since I have more experience with it than they do. In other words, a heterosexual male can give me theology but if God is redeeming homosexuals than perhaps we should listen to the homosexuals in regards to this topic.

 I think that gave me a lot of freedom, and in that freedom, I met my current husband. Current husband, that sounds like I’ve had more than one. I met my husband about four years ago, and we got married in December 2015. I remember thinking, I don’t know if this is a physical marriage. I don’t know if this is what my parents experience in marriage because I’m not heterosexual.

I’m homosexual and I can’t understand completely what a heterosexual marriage is like. I’m never going to because I can’t completely understand what a heterosexual male is like, I can’t understand what a heterosexual woman is like. I’m somewhere in between. A heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman are never going to understand what I’m like completely.

My parents are very concerned about this marriage idea. They have a great marriage. In the end, I remember saying, “I don’t know if what we’re doing legally before the government is the same thing that you did before God, but I’m willing to take this leap of faith and see if my marriage will produce fruits of the spirit.”

 I said: “I challenge you, because Jesus said you’ll know them by their fruit. If my love and commitment to Gin, our vows to each other before the government doesn’t produce fruit in our lives then by all means you can be justified in your position. But if our marriage produces fruit of the Spirit if we are growing and producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, long suffering, and self-control then wonder if perhaps the Holy Spirit is talking to me in a way that you should listen to. As opposed to listening to the way tradition has taught you.”

 From that I think it really put a lot of things in perspective for not only me but also my parents. You know a lot of people say, “you just changed your theology to match your desires.” I say maybe that’s true, but if it’s producing fruits of the Spirit, I’m not going to complain.

You can tell me my doctrine is off or my theology isn’t systematic enough, but in all honesty, I’ve become much less concerned about the doctrine and the right answers. I’m much more concerned about if I’m becoming a loving, generous kind, patient, self-controlled person. I am trusting God that I can question this tradition, and if I’m wrong then the fruits of the Spirit will dissipate.  If I’m growing in the fruit of the Spirit, then I’m going to trust that more than I’m going to trust a traditional view of the theology of marriage.

 For heterosexual couples, I think it’s a beautiful theology and narrative of marriage that really works for a lot of people. And, like I said, I don’t know if my marriage is like that or not. But what I can say is that my commitment—you don’t have to call this marriage, I don’t care what you call it-- with my partner is producing in me fruit of the Spirit. Because of that I am confident, I don’t know, I guess that God celebrates diversity too.

The Imago Dei: Dan Baker

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Meet Dan Baker, (he’s the white guy in the picture) he identifies as a Christian and a happily married homosexual. He’s also an old college friend of mine. This interview was so long that I’m breaking it up into two parts. He’s pretty candid so fasten your seat belts. Please join us in our conversation about life, faith, and sexuality…

What are you doing as far as work? What are your passions?

 I teach Graphic Design at a national University here in Korea. Before that I was working for the National Broadcaster here called KBS Korean Broadcast Company. 

Well for me, my number one motivating factor is altruism. In any work that I do I need to feel like I'm helping a larger purpose, something bigger than myself.  My major strengths are communication and ideation: trying to think of new ways to do things and then finding the best way to way to communicate it. So for me, teaching at a post-secondary level is really great.

 It's kind of funny actually because, obviously, we're going to talk about our old college ministry a lot. The ministry had positives and negatives. One of the good things that kind of stuck with me is that I really caught that vision. In undergraduate school, you really have an opportunity to shape the minds and opinions and perspectives of students. Right now, it helps me to really affect change for the future leaders of the country.

 Because while I'm working with students who score high in English on tests, they tend to be lacking in critical thinking skills. What I do is try to provide them with outlets to improve critical thinking and creativity. Which is something the country is in desperate need of.

Why do you think the country is lacking in critical thinking and creativity?

When Korea was occupied by Japan in the first half of the 20th century, most of what they did was skilled labor. Then, after the Korean War, the American military took over, and a lot of what they did was again skilled labor. They're very good at replicating processes, but the major industries here tend to be either skilled labor or well…mainly skilled labor.

 Education over the past three decades has been more about giving the right answer. They tend to excel in Mathematics, Science, and things where there's an obvious right or wrong. When it comes to critical thinking or start-ups they're suffering. Right now, the big problem is the economy is suffering because China has a much larger labor force. They're starting to take over in terms of factory work, shipping, and skilled labor. The Korean economy has been booming for the past fifty years, but in the past two years the economy hasn't grown—it’s hit a plateau.

One of the big things they're lacking is that the students haven't been taught to think for themselves. In classes, they want to know the right answer. What's going to be on the test? Because they're only concerned about getting the right answer. There's not much love for education in of itself.

Because Korea has roots in Confucianism, there's also a mentality where individuality is kind of suppressed, and it's more important to focus on the group. The older generation really has that mentality, but things have changed so much in the past four or five decades that the younger generation is kind of like half and half. They want to think independently, but they still feel pressure from the old generation to conform.

It’s really affecting the economy here. Their primary education doesn’t focus on critical thinking skills. They're trying to fix it. There was a workshop, probably six or seven months ago, at one of the major universities here.  They were talking about a government funded program for start-up companies. But one of the interesting things is that in this program what they're trying to do is basically make an algorithm for creativity.

That's the mindset. They understand intellectually they need to be creative. They need to have critical thinking skills but because of their indoctrination over the last fifty years they say, “Ok, I want to be creative. How do you do that? Tell me step one, step two, step three.” A lot of the creative people in the country tend to do poorly on tests, but everything here is based on tests. The students who think inside the box go to the best universities, and get the most opportunity. The creative students go to lower universities, and they don't have the same opportunities as other students.

 South Korea thinks because of its economic success over the last fifty years, that they are a tiger when they should act more like a fox. The US interests and the Chinese interests here are so strong that they can't diplomatically control much of what's going to happen in their country, but they don't seem to get it yet. They think, “we're strong: we're independent: we're Korean.”  But no, the US basically makes your military decisions, and China is making all of your economic decisions.  Rather than acting like a tiger in a war between the predators, be a fox and be cunning. But that hasn't caught on with the people in power who are in the older generation. 

How long have you been living in South Korea?

I've been back and forth, but I would say I've been here almost a decade since August. August twenty-eighth will be my ninth year. I came here for the first time in August of 2007. Usually in the summers and the winters I'm gone. I travel and do other things. I'm only here in the spring and fall to teach at the university.

What made you move to South Korea?

Let's see. Actually, David Kowalski. David had gone to China when I was still in the states. I think I was working for Bank of America at the time, and I was wanting a change.  I was struggling to fit in with corporate America. Looking at my dad I could see my future. Climbing up the ladder, giving my life away to a company that doesn't actually care about me. I was in a period of flux so I was talking to David, and he was like, " You should go teach in Asia. "

 I'd always wanted to go to Asia and travel. I was twenty-six at the time so I was like, "ok well, I'll just go for a year." I was debating between China, Korea, and Japan but my grandfathers were both in the Korean War. When we discussed as a family my grandfathers were both like, "you're not going to Japan or China that's for damn sure." They hate the Japanese and the Chinese but they were really excited for me to go to Korea. I didn't know anything about any of them so I said," I'll go to Korea, that's fine."

I came for a year, and towards the end of the first year, there was a Redeemer church plant coming to Korea. I contacted the pastor who was going to be planting the church here. Because of that, I decided to stay a second year so I could help plant this church. And then, after the second year, we were starting to get things going when I left.

 We were planning to start a private school business where basically we would have private English schools that would fund church planting throughout Asia. We developed a business plan, and I was going to be the director. But then, at the last minute, the pastor and his wife felt like the Spirit was telling them that wasn't what they needed to be doing.

I had to leave because my visa was expired, so I was in the States for six months. But I felt like I wanted to see the church plant through so I ended up coming back.  I was helping to plant the church, but we had a falling out over some things. The church is planted, but I'm no longer affiliated with it. Something always kept me here.

Then I started helping plant what I call the "gay church.” I was helping to plant a different church, but then that was like a pendulum swinging. You go one way it's too much: you go the other way it's too much: for me, the gay church was just too much. 

For example, we had a Christmas sermon where the teaching was about how maybe Mary was raped by a Roman guard and that Jesus wasn't really incarnate. I was like, "this is just stupid." That was one of the final straws for me. That's fine if you want to talk to me about it. I can talk theology with anybody because I've studied it. But when you have non-native speakers of English and people who are seeking, who haven't had any theological training or anything, what is the point of saying that Mary wasn't really a virgin?

You identify as a gay man and you're married, when did you first realize you were gay?

That's an interesting question. You know I've been thinking about talking to you about this. Thinking what am I going to say about all this? No one's ever really asked me--really.

No one's ever asked you? That's crazy to me.

Not really, no one's ever really tried to understand. Typically, when I come out to my evangelical friends-- especially my male friends--, they'll say, "I love you man." They'll say something like I love you, I'm here for you but they don't actually want to get involved with it. I understand it's uncomfortable for them.

Let's see, I think that tends to be a hard question especially for people who've grown up in the church. When I was six or seven years old, I remember being much more curious about men than women. I remember my friends-- my male friends-- being more curious about women than men. I remember being in church. My dad was a pastor.  He was a pastor originally;  he ended up in business later. But when I was young, he was the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church.

I can remember we had these pews-- old school pews this was the 80's. There wasn't much legroom, so whenever you stood up to do the hymns the men would have to press their thighs against the pews and you would sometimes see their bulge--haha sorry! We're talking about this, so I'm just going to be very frank with you. I remember even at seven being, I don't want to say turned on because you know I hadn't hit puberty but, interested, excited very curious about it. 

 Maybe I was eight or nine-- I don't remember exactly--, but my straight friends, they were much more interested in how tight a woman's top was. Or they would always be talking about a woman's breasts. Those were a big thing for them, and I always remember thinking I wasn't feeling the same thing they were feeling. Even when I was in middle school, the first time I saw a Playboy or Penthouse, or some porn magazine with my buddies, I very clearly remember that they were getting something out of those pictures that I was not. When I saw those pictures, I was like, “This is disgusting!” But I'm acting, so I'm like, "Oh yeah that girl has great boobs" or something like that. They were clearly more interested than I was. 

From an early age, I understood that I wasn't the same as other people. But I also understood very clearly that being gay-- and this is the late 80's early 90's-- was on the same level as pedophilia. I definitely understood that it was the worst thing you can be. I grew up hearing “Love the sinner hate the sin”, and there was a part of me that understood from a very early age that I was gay--but I couldn't say that.

 Obviously, I didn't have the tools to understand how sexuality works, so as a young child I was taught that for heterosexual couples sexuality is like a flower with multiple parts. It's not just the intercourse. It's the affection, the love, the companionship. That was modeled for me through my parents. So I had a very good understanding of what marriage was, and a very good understanding of what the expectation was for myself. Right but homosexuals, they didn't have the same rights, they were only about their sexuality, only about intercourse. There was no consideration for need for companionship, desire for love, affection, and intimacy. They're perverts they're all about sex. I think that's one of the biggest problems in a lot of evangelical churches and not just Christian churches, also Buddhist and Hindus-- just ignorance about human sexuality. 

What is natural for you, a heterosexual woman, you started to understand your sexuality more than likely by saying "OOOh that boy is cute". I want to hold his hand. I have butterflies in my stomach. It wasn't, "I want him to f**k me." You know what I mean? That's the way that people think of homosexuality.

They think it's all about sex, but human sexuality is a very big cart tied to human identity. I was young, and I didn't have those tools to really understand until much later: until I studied more psychology and things. For me it was always, how can I reconcile my sexuality and my spirituality?

I understood that for heterosexual couples, sexuality and spirituality go hand in hand. The way that you and your husband are intimate with each other mimics the church and Christ. Your spirituality connected with your sexuality. But for a gay person, I'm not allowed that freedom in the church. They say you must be either spiritual or sexual. I didn't understand that when I was young. These are concepts I learned in university a lot through Campus Outreach. You know: Biblical manhood and womanhood and how biology reflects the spirituality. The man rises to the occasion, woman invites him in…These were things I understood but not things I felt. Intellectually there was a conflict. Emotionally and psychologically it didn't fit.

So, the best example was when I was engaged to a woman years ago.

I wasn't going to ask you about that...

I'm Wrong. I'm Sorry. I Love you.

The day of our president's recent Executive Order regarding immigration and refugee resettlement I posted an article along with the following statement:

This Executive Order is wrong. Christians who support it are wrong. Many things in the Bible are shrouded in mystery but the call to help the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor are pretty clear. What does it mean to trust God with our lives and take risks to save people? America, who is your neighbor?

In that statement, I believe that I made an unfounded assumption. I assumed that the only motive a Christian could have for supporting the order is fear. Underneath all of the arguments about the vetting process I admit that all I heard was fear. But that's not fair. There's no way  that I could possibly know the mind and motives of every Christian. I'm sorry.

Instead of accusing Christians of supporting the order out of fear, I should have simply expressed my concerns--and I am concerned. During my days working in campus ministry I remember we had a staff training session with a prominent evangelical leader. He shared some solid theological lessons with us and I was genuinely enriched. He ended his time with us by imploring us to get out and share the gospel. He told us that if we didn't hurry, Islam was going to take over our country and the whole Western world.

He told us that our granddaughters would be forced into harems, and that we'd be living under sharia law. I was terrified, and I promptly went home and had a series of dreams about being beheaded. 

I had a similar experience as a newly wed sitting under the teaching of a pastor who my husband and I genuinely respect and felt spiritually fed. He believed and openly taught that Muslims were silently taking over our nation by coming here and having children at a higher rate then Christians.

Make no mistake that kind of teaching has no place in the kingdom of God. These men and those like them may be afraid that Western civilization is dying, but that is not relevant to the teaching or the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Western civilization, like all human civilization, was founded using the tools of empire: genocide, slavery, exploitation, and tyranny. But the kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of men. It is a kingdom and not an empire. It was not founded by it's king's rise to power but by his descent from power. Jesus came into the world as a penniless baby born in a stable. The kings of this world secure their kingdoms by leaving a long trail of bodies. Jesus secured His by offering up His body broken for the world.

The church's preference for Western civilization makes us ill-equipped to aide Syrian refugees or anyone else who will not assimilate to our cultural standards. It can also make us callous to the experiences of minorities who have suffered under our civil "progress" or those we think might threaten the survival of it.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be so. As I hear Christians talk about nuking ISIS and killing the families of terrorists I think we need to remember that in the empire of man might equals right, but in the kingdom of God not one soul is irredeemable--not even the soul of a terrorist.

The truest allegiance of a Christian is not to a civilization, or a country but to the kingdom of God. The inevitable fall of Western civilization might upset your comfort, but it can never shake your kingdom.

And now, because Jesus has promised that his kingdom of peace shall have no end, let us follow him into the world, reconciling men to God and to one another through the trail of our broken bodies.  

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.- Hebrews 13:11-14

 

A Day of Thanksgiving and Rememberance

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“We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience ...

-Dr. Martin Luther King from Letter from a Birmingham Jail 

 Growing up I looked forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a break from school. Learning about Dr. King in history class, and visiting the King Center in Atlanta with my mom and siblings over summer break supplied me with the facts. 

But as a little black girl sitting in a predominately white classroom, situated comfortably inside the white suburb where I grew up, I didn’t understand that the life I enjoyed was impossible without his work.

Now that I’m older, I can’t help but think that I’ve managed to live my whole life in spaces that were never really meant for me. I’m thankful today for the marriage that would not have been legal or possible fifty years ago. I'm thankful for our children who would never have existed.

The America Dr. King describes in the passage above is one where my ancestors lived. There was no idyllic white picket fence. They were considered less than human and forced into hard labor to line the pockets of their masters. For almost a hundred years after slavery ended African Americans were relegated to the lowest caste through legal means.

Old habits die hard, and we forget that its only been fifty years. My grandparents grew up under Jim Crow, and my parents were born into it. My mom and dad remember watching the Civil Rights movement unfold on the news during their formative years.

The wounds are still fresh, but the healing is for all of us. Our soil holds a dark and brutal history. It does no good to water down the truth of the past.

 “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” 
―  Elie Wiesel from Night    

I’m thankful for the youthful ignorance that enabled me to be bold in the belief that I belong. I am thankful for the maturity to see that the fight isn’t over--school integration, equal pay for equal work, redlining, and police brutality are still real issues.

But I am a survivor. I am one whose life has been purchased through the sacrifice of others. So today I testify and I remember. Let us never forget.  

 

 

A New Year, A New Outlook

Photo by Renee Henson

Photo by Renee Henson

 

It’s January, and here I am with a blank page of a year all spread out before me. The past few weeks I’ve been drunk on new year’s resolutions and goals. There’s so much I want to accomplish. I’ve worked myself up mapping out all my plans and dreams. I’ve been sure to flesh out my goals so that they’re actionable points I can accomplish.

But here I sit, exhausted and paralyzed with the weight of my own expectations. I’ll admit that there are many things I need to do better in my home and work. As we rang in a new year, I didn’t get a new me.

I am the same thirty something mother of little people who rarely looks in the mirror, puts away the laundry, or calls her siblings. I’m the same crazy lady whose clothes don’t fit quite right, or match in the way that put together people match.

I’m still the woman who has become skeptical of most things religious but whom Jesus manages to hold onto. The one who has managed to reach middle age without outward signs of success or achievement, save for the dear faces of husband and children.

I’m still a woman all bound up in fear. I’m afraid of all the things I can’t see, control, or understand. The anxiety that bears down on me has snuffed out so much of my everyday enjoyment of life. It feels like I’ve been striving to live up to an idealized version of myself and my life: instead of enjoying our imperfect life as it is.

 So I think in this new year I want to stop living out of fear and a sense of obligation. I’m not going to trash all my goals and stop doing the everyday tasks that keep us going. But I want to learn to love the things I have to do and when I have a choice, choose the things that bring me joy.

 The other night my husband told me to get serious about happiness. When he said it the word happiness sounded selfish to me. If I dared to cultivate my own happiness, I thought I might find myself laying around all day neglecting my responsibilities. But laying around doesn’t make me happy, I only lay around when I’m overwhelmed and depressed.

I feel happy when I do meaningful work, and when I’m able to make things beautiful. When I look around my home and into the eyes of my little ones I can’t help but think that I really have been given much meaningful work and a pleasant place to make beautiful. I don't want to waste another day in blindness. My life is a gift, and I can choose to delight in today.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” – Mother Theresa  

Conduit-Channel-Vessel

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 It was the third day of my figure drawing class and the first time we got to work with a model. We all stood around in a circle behind our easels-- dutifully attempting the gesture drawings our professor had instructed us to complete. After a few minutes, she stopped us and told us to turn our easels around so we could see each others work.

I felt exposed. Her request brought me face to face with the tension I feel between my desire to produce flawless work and the fear I have of being seen as an amateur. I wanted to do my drawings but keep them to myself until they were perfect.

My fear kept me in self-censorship mode. I couldn't lose myself in the work.  I was too obsessed with how every little stroke I made looked and what the combination of all those strokes said about me as an artist. Instead of being focused on seeing, copying and creating, I felt the pressure to dazzle my professor with my artwork. I was so afraid that she would confirm my suspicions and tell me I didn't have any real talent. 

But the point of the class was to increase my skill, not to serve me some kind of final verdict about the possibility of my future artist endeavors. Lately as I've attempted more creative work, I find that I'm often tempted to quit creating. I worry about originality, passion, and other peoples' opinions.   

It's funny, sometimes when I go to a gallery and see artwork, or read a book or an article that resonates with me, it inspires me to create. There are other times when I so closely identify with the work that I leave feeling like there's no point in picking up my pen because the art or writing that I want to do is already being done.

Originality

Our species has been around for a long time. All the plot lines have been exhausted, but people are still writing. I've heard thousands of love songs, but no matter how many I hear an earnest singer-songwriter will still have the power to captivate me. What makes us different are our experiences, our personalities, and the way we express ourselves. Though we are all alike in so many ways those three things make every person, and their art, unique.

" Yes. Even if you're telling yourself you're not stealing, subconsciously you are influenced whether you like it or not. Through the Beatles' songbook or Stevie Wonder or all the things that you've heard playing in post offices, elevators, and on the radio since you were 2 years old. But the most important thing is what you do on top of it, and how you make it your own and combine all those influences to make something new. I think of it like Play-Doh: You have all these different colors of Play-Doh, and you hope to make this ball that, by the time you mix it all, it's indistinguishable what the original colors are. And it's hopefully not this ugly kind of diarrhea brown, [but] it's this really kind of interesting thing that people want to listen to." - Mark Ronson

Passion

One of my friends posted this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson last week: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

As a highly indecisive person I find this statement terrifying. The endless well and depth that many people claim lies within each one of us has been for me nothing but a wavering voice asking endless questions.  I've been advised to follow my passions and live my dreams, but those are hollow words for someone like me.

I can't tell you what I'm passionate about but I can tell you what I'm interested in. I'm learning to chase my interests in the hopes of uncovering some passion one day. 

"Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times--a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming and more democratic entity... In fact curiosity only ever asks one simple question: 'Is there anything you're interested in?' Anything? Even a tiny bit? "No matter how mundane or small?"- Elizabeth Gilbert Big Magic

 I've only ever held jobs where I've been required to attempt to physically or spiritually help people. Self-sacrifice is so deeply ingrained into my psyche that the notion of following my own interests and curiosities seemed almost selfish to me. 

For me, being a living sacrifice meant that my life was about finding needs and meeting them without considering my own desires. As I looked out into the world, there was never a shortage of need. After years of ignoring my own interests, I felt like I was dying inside.

A few weeks after I gave birth to my third son I knew something had to change. I had a three year old, a two year old, and a newborn. We stayed home a lot. So I started writing, and I started thinking about drawing again. I started a blog: a little space in the world where I could write down my thoughts. And of course I started worrying about what people would think about me for being bold enough to throw my words out into the abyss of the internet.

Other Peoples' Opinions

 I've always craved the approval of other people, and I've always made an effort to fit in. But, there's something about turning thirty. For some reason I just don't care as much as I used to. Maybe it has something to do with being a mother but I'm too exhausted to keep up a perfectly manicured facade.

I've given up the desire to produce flawless work because that would require that it was produced by a flawless artist--and that is not me, just ask my husband. There are flaws in EVERYTHING I produce, but that won't stop me. 

I've taken some criticism for writing on controversial topics, but part of being an adult is realizing that not everyone sees the world the same way.  It's not my job to tiptoe around so that I never offend anyone.

 Part of putting work out into the world is the willingness to be misunderstood. I'm not saying it won't hurt, but I'm saying that it won't kill you. I've found that the people who scream the loudest are just trying to shut you up. They don't like your thoughts and ideas, and they don't want you to be heard--don't let them win.

I'm not saying that you should never take constructive criticism. But you've got to ask yourself: does this person who is reacting so violently to my work even know me? Are they civilly challenging my argument, or are they attacking me personally? If they don't really know you, and they're lobbing personal attacks, don't be rude; just ignore them and keep creating. 

"The way to take a punch is to practice getting hit a lot. Put out a lot of work. Let people take their best shot at it. Then make even more work and keep putting it out there. The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can't hurt you."- Austin Kleon - Show Your Work.

I'm not a professional writer or artist. I'm just a woman whose head and body feel like they're going to explode if I'm not creating. Seriously, If I spend too many nights watching Netflix I start to wilt inside.

I do it because on some level I have to. But living under the pressure of constantly creating  groundbreaking work can also be soul crushing. Seeing myself as a conduit, a channel, and a vessel has saved my creative practice.  

 For better or for worse my ideas don't originate with me. They come from bits and pieces of my childhood memories: things I've overheard, experiences I've had, books I've read. The really good ones are brain whispered by the Spirit. They drop into my mind while I'm chasing my kids or cooking dinner. And when I act on them, even if my execution is poor, more ideas seem to come my way.  

 

Season of Darkness

"Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing"- Steve Bannon from an interview with the Hollywood Reporter

We've been living in the Pacific Northwest for almost two years now. In that time, I've become well acquainted with shades of grey I never knew existed. In the winter we seem to live in a perpetual half-light that makes it hard for your body to discern whether you've just woken up or whether you should be crawling into bed.

Last year one of my middle sons attended a Waldorf preschool in the city. One of the events my family enjoyed the most was the Winter Spiral. It's a ceremony held in complete darkness-- at a time when we find ourselves traveling into the darkest days of the year. 

Stillness envelops the earth as plants lay dormant and many animals begin their long winters' sleep. A candle is lit in the darkness. One by one the children light their candles and place them along the spiral's winding path. The ceremony symbolizes the introspection and quiet that the season can bring: if we will let it. 

This season of life has been tough for me as a mother. I've got four little ones six years old and under. Little children are time consuming and needy. They need loads of affection, discipline, guidance, and consistency. More than anything motherhood has shown me that I am not the mother (or the woman) that I want to be. 

In many ways I'm struggling in the darkness. I'm struggling somewhere between my high ideals and the reality of my life. I'm living here in the twilight of mind numbing tantrums, repetitive tasks--the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry-- that must be done to keep life moving, and the loneliness that comes from moving so frequently.  The days run together and the months run into one another.   I seem to lose track.

I agree with Mr. Bannon. Darkness is good but not like Darth Vader or Satan. I want my darkness like Jesus who grappled with the thought of death for the sake of others in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked his Father to take the cup of death from him, but in the same breath he submitted. He submitted not out of blind duty, but out of love.  "Not my will but yours be done."

I want my darkness like the children of Israel who spent four hundred years in slavery. In that time of oppression, they multiplied. They came into Egypt a family with twelve sons and left as a nation with twelve tribes. 

I want my darkness like the dark night of my ancestors--the African slaves who came to this country stripped of all dignity, all family, all possessions. They adopted the faith of masters who beat them and exploited them for wealth. They held fast to the promised deliverance they found in the pages of the Bible, even as they toiled with no relief in sight.

With such a great cloud of witnesses I can only say that this season of darkness is fleeting. The thing about darkness is that it's seasonal. The season may last longer than I would prefer, but it can't last forever. Here in the season of Advent, the season of waiting as we approach the Winter Solstice, a celebration of the retreating of the darkness, let’s remember that what now appears dead will someday be brimming with life. 

The Imago Dei: Dr. Mustafa Khattab

Today I'm starting a new blog series called The Imago Dei, it means the image of God. I wanted to talk to people from some of the groups that Americans tend to demonize and misunderstand. The people I've interviewed may not think or believe the same things you do, but they all have dignity and value. There is so much we can learn from one another if we are willing to listen. 

 I traveled to Egypt almost 10 years ago and spent time in the homes of many hospitable Muslim families. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but times have changed and the major sentiment towards the Muslim community in our nation is fear. A few months ago I spoke to Dr. Mustafa Khattab: a Muslim imam who ministers in Toronto Canada. He has recently written a new translation of the Quran (which is the historical Muslim religious text) called the Clear Quran

Image Courtesy of Crystal Tompkins

Image Courtesy of Crystal Tompkins

Can you tell me where you were born and where you grew up?

Well, I was born in a small village in the delta which is about 70 or 80 kilometers to the north of Cairo. It's called Kom El-Dab’.

What was life like for you as a little boy in a Muslim family? What kind of religious training did you receive, and what were your relationships like with your family and your siblings?

I have three brothers and two sisters, and we have a long, long tradition in the village of not going to school, so I was lucky to make it to school. My mother fought for me to get an education. So I'm talking about being the first person in the history of my family, we're talking about hundreds of years here-- I was the first one who was ever educated.

Then I made it into college in Cairo: and I got my bachelors', then my Masters', then my Ph.D, now I'm here in the West teaching about Islam. And my family, they're basically all farmers, they still live in the village in Egypt.

And what kind of religious training did you receive?

In Egypt we have two types of education. There's the public system: you go there to study science, math, Arabic, and different things. Then there is the Islamic education which is called El-Azhar. The El-Ahzar system is very popular in the Muslim world. People come from different parts of the world, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, to study El-Azhar. So this is where I got my religious training, from the age of seven all the way to getting all the degrees they have.

I know there are different types of Islam, can you tell me which sect you are from? 

Normally in the Arab world we don't go by sects; we just call ourselves Muslim. But recently because of political issues and conflicts in the Middle East in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, people have started to identify themselves as either Sunni or Shitte. Technically, what makes a person a Muslim is their belief in the Five Pillars of Islam: to believe that there is only one God and that Muhammad (peace be upon him and all prophets) is a prophet; pray five times a day; fast during Ramadan; give to charity; and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

All of them agree on the same thing and the have the same version of the Quran. Maybe there are political differences but not much of a religious difference. They do exactly the same basics of Islam, so I don't see the difference between Sunni and Shiite like I see the difference between Protestants and Catholics, for example. Most of the time they pray together at the same mosques, and do the same functions and services together. Here in Canada--and even when I was in the US-- Sunnis and Shiites were praying together. My previous mosque in St. Catharines, Ontario, was built by a Shiite, and the majority of the worshippers are Sunnis. However, in places teaming with political tension—like Iraq and Iran—each group prefers to have its own mosques.

A little bit of history, the reason why we have the two groups is because in the year 632 C.E, when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and all prophets) passed away, there were two groups who disagreed about who should be the successor of the prophet as the ruler of the Muslim community. So the majority of the Muslims who are now called Sunnis (they make up more that 90% of the Muslim population in the world) they said that the most qualified, the most knowledgeable, and the most righteous man in the community should become the ruler. Then there's the smaller group who are now identified as Shiite. They believe that someone from the prophet's bloodline, namely his cousin or his son-in-law, Ali, should have been the ruler of the Muslim world. This is the reason why they had the disagreement.

Growing up did you always want to be an imam?

When I was younger I was wishing to become a writer or a journalist, and I ended up becoming an imam. But I author books, so I do both now.

What do you do as an imam? I'm totally not in the Muslim world, is it similar to being a pastor?

To the best of my knowledge, pastors mostly work on Sundays and Wednesdays if there are lectures, but in my case, like many imams, I work 24/7. Especially in the West, because we don't have as many mosques. So when I was in Niagara I was one imam serving 7,000 Muslims. When I was in Edmonton I was serving at least 30,000 Muslims in the city.

My responsibilities are primarily religious. I conduct the Friday services like Sundays for the Christians, the holiday functions, and also when someone dies, I lead their funeral prayers. Then there are the educational duties like teaching lectures, and giving reminders after prayers. If there is a school in the mosque, then I help with curriculum, and I help the teachers, and I give talks to the students.

I also lead tours and do chaplaincy work if my services are needed at the hospitals. I also help with the local colleges if there is a Muslim Student's Association. I go and give them talks and answer their questions. Then there are the social services like marriage, divorce, and counseling. So these are basically the duties I do most of the time.

I'm a Christian, and within Christianity there's a pretty strong message of future dominance. In our Scriptures it says, "Every knee will bow and every tongue will proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord." And in our Scriptures God also promises to crush his enemies. Would you say that similar themes can be found the Quran?

Well, it depends, The Quran is a neutral book. If you would like to do good, serve humanity, be courteous, kind, and good you will find support in The Quran. Also if you would like to spew hate and become violent and evil you will find ammunition in The Quran--just like The Bible.

You can interpret the same verse your own way for your own interests. This is something we--as human beings--have done throughout history, whether we're talking about Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews. We just look for proof for whatever we like to do, whether we're talking about good things or bad things.

How do you think hateful themes affect religious extremist groups?

Again, I believe that these are political groups, and for them to win political support from the masses, and for them to have credibility; the easiest way is for them to quote (or rather misquote) the scriptures for their own interests. This is the easiest way for them to build a base for themselves: to use religion as a smokescreen or a disguise for whatever agenda they may have.

Here in the US many people are afraid of terrorist organizations that associate themselves with Islam. Some politicians have suggested that we should fear all Muslims and all immigrants, do you agree?

No, because the same thing was said about the Japanese in WWII, the Italians, and the Germans. And now, many years later, they came to regret and apologize for what they have done. You don't take a whole group and punish them or demonize them because of the actions of a few. If we take the Klu Klux Klan or some Catholics who do certain things-- and you see them in the news all the time-- and you demonize all of Christianity.  This would not be fair. My main problem is that in many cases, the actions of some who claim to be Muslim are perceived as representatives of Islam whereas the actions of good Muslims are not.

Have you, yourself met any imams who are radicalizing people?

I don't think so, because the imams that I work with, and the imams that I associate with, teach the true message of Islam. On how to become a good citizen, and how to become a good Muslim at the same time. 

I think radical groups and some politicians share the same views that Islam is violent and Muslims are on a mission to dominate the word. They always say that you cannot be a good American and a Muslim at the same time. It's either one or the other, right!? But this doesn't make sense. This is like saying, you can either be a good father or a good husband. I can be both at the same time because there is nothing in Islam that is against being a good citizen. Early Muslims they used to travel, they lived with non-Muslims, and had good relations.

Image courtesy of Crystal Tompkins

Image courtesy of Crystal Tompkins

Tell me what you believe is the true message of Islam?

Islam just like any faith is based on two things, your relationship with the creator and your relationship with the creation.  So if you look at the Ten Commandments the first four say worship God alone, serve Him alone and so on and so forth. From five to ten, don't kill, don't lie, don't steal--be a good guy.

Every single prophet says the same thing: good relationship with God and good relationship with people--and by extension all of his creations. If you take the golden rule: love God with all you heart and love your neighbor as yourself, it's all about the creator and the creation. So this is what Islam teaches and I've seen a lot of people come to Islam because of the simplicity of the teachings. You can always explain the concepts of Islam. They make sense whereas-- I'm not trying to put down Christianity or anything-- but I've been breaking my head for over thirty years now to understand the concept of the Trinity. It still doesn't make sense to me. Again, the teachings of Islam are very simple: your rights and your obligations. Like in the Ten Commandments: have faith in One God and do good. You communicate directly with your Creator, no intermediaries. Because of its practicality, because of its common sense-- this is why a lot of people find peace in Islam and they are able to understand it and apply it to their lives. 

Can you tell me about your translation of the Quran?

 I think this is the first translation done in Canada, and I think I am the youngest person to have translated the Quran at the age of thirty-seven. This is also not actually my first translation. I did one over ten years ago at the age of Twenty-six. I'm not trying to brag or anything, but this is my specialization.

 I've been studying this for many years, and I've been in this field for over thirty years. I've read almost every translation the Quran in English of and there are basically two reasons why I decided to translate. I'm not going to talk about non-Muslim translations of the Quran because for over 1,300 years, the Quran was never translated by a Muslim into English.

The first translation done by a Muslim into English was done in 1905. So for over 1,300 years Muslims believed that the Quran should only be read in its original language--Arabic. This is why so many translations were produced in Europe by missionaries or linguists. This is also why you still see some words in old translations like ‘holy war’ and ‘infidels’. We don't have these words in the Quran in Arabic. These words were introduced in translations by non-Muslim translators.

Now fast forward to 1905 with Muhammad Abdul Hakim.  He made his translation and then there were hundreds of translations made by other Muslims. But most of the time, I will tell you, these people didn't speak Arabic. I would say that more than 85% of the translations done by Muslims were done by non-Arabs, so they didn't have a proper understanding of the source language. You can't translate the Quran like you translate a newspaper. It’s a totally different standard of Arabic. The Arabic has a lot of metaphors and imagery, and when you use the dictionary to translate it you make many mistakes. This is something I faced when I studied these translations.

In 2013, I was in Toronto giving a Friday speech, and I was dressed up in traditional Arab garb. On the way to the hotel I was in the cab with a non-Muslim. If you know about Toronto, there are many cab drivers who are Muslim here, like it's part of being Muslim in Toronto to be a cab driver.

This was the first time and probably the only time where I got a cab and the driver was non-Muslim. I don't normally talk to people about Islam unless they ask me a question, and that day I get a comment from the guy and he said, "Muslims are good people but Islam sucks."  

And I said," Ok why do you think Islam is evil?"

And he said, "Because your book, the Quran calls me an animal."

I said, " I know the whole Quran by heart in Arabic and in translation,  I don't think I've seen this word anywhere in the Quran."

And he gave the reference Chapter 8 verse 55. And I told him that the word in Arabic is "dabah". Dabah doesn't mean an animal. It's a very general term in Arabic we use, and it means any living being. Any living creature. It can be a human. It can be a peacock. It can be a squirrel—anything (see Chapter 24 verse 45).  I'm sure he's watching too much Fox News because this is something they say. "Muslims are good: Islam is evil."

There is a website that gives you forty different translations of the same verse, and the man was right most of them said either animal or beast, but this is not what it says in Arabic. So that day I decided to do my own translation. For the next three years I was immersed in the translation, and I think we have produced probably the most accurate, and the clearest version of the Quran.

The first reason I did a new translation is accuracy. Those who previously translated the Quran didn't have adequate knowledge of Arabic. The second reason is that those who did know the Arabic language seemed to complicate things for no reason. They basically used an old, archaic style. Maybe they were trying to imitate the King James Version style.  They made it very difficult and inaccessible to the youth and people who would like to learn about Islam. This is why our translation is clear and it's accurate. It's accessible and it's smooth. There is good flow in the translation. Sometimes I talk about the translation too much because this is my passion (you can actually order a free copy in the US: http://sendaquran.com/the-clear-quran-by-dr-mustafa-khattab/).

No, it was so good for me to hear. I've briefly studied Islam, and I felt like there were some words that I saw written in the Quran that I thought were really strong and harsh. I would love to go back and kind of look and see in your translation what you've come up with.... Also, you grew up living in the East, what are some of the critiques that people living in the East have of the West?

Most people admire the advancement in science and technology and the relative respect of the law and human rights. Many of those who condemn the West are desperate to get a visa to the US or Canada. But generally the Western foreign policy—especially that of the US—is perceived as unfair towards the Muslim world, particularly when it comes to the suffering of the Palestinians and other nations before and after 9/11. Many people in that part of the world think that you guys are trying to force your democracy on them.

Keep in mind that many minorities have been suffering in the US, take Japanese Americans as an example. Now imagine if back in the 1940's or 1950's another democracy in Europe—say France or Britain—was not happy because of the way you guys treated African Americans or Latinos or the first nation, and they decided to invade you to impose democracy on you, to show you how to treat people equally.

It doesn't make sense you know!? People are saying, how can you force democracy on us when still to this day, many minority groups are treated like second class citizens? You see all the time the shootings: white police officers shooting black people in the street; even in the court system if a black guy does something wrong he will get a very severe sentence. Whereas, if a white guy does exactly the same thing, his sentence will be much lighter.

Getting a sentence in the US probably has less to do with the crime itself and more to do with your skin color. So when we look at all these things back home, you still have problems in your democracy but still you want to force it on our people. And also, all these unjustified wars like the horrible mistake that was done in Iraq, and you know all the misery and all of the horrible consequences that came from that which led eventually to the creation of these radical groups that we see now.

This is what people think over there--we'll be better off if you guys leave us alone. Again, if you watch Fox News--I did my PH.D. dissertation on Fox News and my forthcoming book is titled Outfoxing Fox News--this is a common theme they have: that these Muslims over there, they hate us because of our prosperity and because of our freedoms. Well the answer is, Japan has freedom, European countries have freedom, Canada has freedom. So why do Muslims in those countries have no issues with Canada, with Japan and other democracies in the world? Maybe because they leave them alone, they treat them with respect? This is part of the argument back there. I don't know if it makes sense to you.

I think it's really good. I think that forcing democracy on other people is not something that Americans view as a bad thing, because we believe that democracy is the best system of government. I think that comes from our education. We've been kind of trained and indoctrinated to believe that we are the best even when there are gross injustices happening all the time here. So I think a lot of Americans are delusional about the greatness of America, does that make sense?

Yeah, and I'm not saying that the countries in the Muslim world have the best political systems, but what works for you doesn't work for other people. This is just like when you have ten sick people: one has cancer, one has diabetes, one has a headache, one has a tumor and you give them all Tylenol. I'm not sure if you use Tylenol in the US, but it doesn't work for everyone right!? Everyone should have their own system that works for the people.

Can you tell me about your own personal dreams and aspirations for the future?

Just like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream that I will see people treated equally, and that everyone will have access to education, clean water, food, and human rights and good treatment with dignity as human beings.

 I believe that the earth is spacious enough, and it has provision for everyone. But it's because of the greed that some of us have that many of us don’t have access to all these rights. They aren't privileges. They are rights! Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their faith, race, orientation, or ethnicity. In our time many people are not treated with dignity or equality. If you look at the situation in Syria and Iraq right now, and how people are being killed on a daily basis and no one cares about them. It’s heartbreaking...

Here in the US we hear a great deal about the abuse of women in Muslim countries. Can you tell me about the role of women in the Quran and in the Muslim community? What do you think about equality for women?

The Quran makes it clear that men and women are equal before God and the Law (16:97 and 33:35). Abuses against some Muslim women (e.g., honor killing and forced marriages) are cultural practices in some Muslim countries that contradict Islamic teachings. Islam has given women the right to inheritance, education, to have a say in marriage—some of these rights are denied to some Muslim women in some cultures in the Muslim world, but Islam has nothing to do with it. Have you ever wondered why in Islam women keep their last names at marriage? There are many prominent Muslim women in every field: education, science, business, etc. Several Muslim women have been elected president and prime minister in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey (I’m not sure if Hillary will be able to make history in November. Bernie Sanders is the best of all). The high status of women in Islam explains why 75% of reverts to the faith are women.

 

 

 

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

- Emma Lazarus

This poem has been my heartbeat as I've witnessed the great theatrical we call the 2016 presidential election. Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883 as part of an art and literature exhibition whose proceeds paid for the pedestal where the Statue of Liberty rests. The poem was later engraved on the pedestal.

The idealized version of America she writes about in this poem has never existed--at least not for all Americans. Our country was founded by Europeans who were looking for religious freedoms, prisoners looking for a fresh start, and aristocratic younger brothers who had no inheritance and were on a quest for fame and fortune. 

They formed a nation where misfits could rise in both station and wealth. With a lot of hard work and a little ambition, a man could rise far above the place he and his family held in their old country. On the international scene, America was a place of wild freedom: a place to throw off the constraints of traditional society and embark on a life full of possibilities-- as long as you were a man, and as long as you were white.

I love this poem, but this ideal America only exists on the pages of sanitized public school history books. European immigrants established a strict racial and sexual hierarchy. In their new country they became like the very oppressors many of them left their old lands to escape.

The United States, like many other countries in the world, was built on the backs of the weak. Much like Greece and Rome our forefathers, who were in many ways noble also acted as predators: stealing and lining their own pockets. This expanse of land we call home was seized from the Native Americans--most of whom were killed through a government policy of genocide.

In order to civilize their new world European immigrants needed labor--cheap labor. At first they employed indentured servants but soon found it cheaper and more expedient to purchase prisoners of war from Africa. Through their labor, American cities were built, agriculture flourished, and wealth was amassed.

I'm convinced that the new colossus Lazarus speaks of in the poem above is really about a kingdom: the likes of which the world has never seen. Today people from every nation are already longing for and participating in this kingdom.

 The ethics of the new kingdom are: world-wide welcome, a shunning of greed and exploitation, arms that are open to the poor, the enslaved, the homeless, and all the people who are considered trash; these are the people who are sought out and given a place. This new world is coming, and try as they may, no one can stop it.

If America wants to endure, we need to answer some questions that no one in the current political contest are considering. How can our nation make amends for the atrocities that we have committed? How do we make restitution for genocide, slavery, and oppression? How can we repair all we've broken in our international crusade for democracy? How can we be a part of the healing of the nations, starting with our own?

 We Americans have inherited a degenerative disease. If we refuse to apply the remedy our nation will continue to unravel from the inside and be battered from outside attack. We must go back and sure up our shaky foundation.

Ignoring our brutal and bloody past has only sown division within our own country. We must find a new way forward, we must listen to the weak among us and the weak who we've victimized around the world. The most important question for America today is: how can we humble ourselves, apologize for our all our wrongdoing, and work to make things right? 

What Does It Mean to Be Educated? A Guest Post by: Laura Wilder

image by Laura Wilder

image by Laura Wilder

As I’ve scrolled through Facebook these past couple of weeks, I've enjoyed seeing the photos of children as they head off to their first day of school. As with anything in the beginning there is so much potential, so much excitement, and perhaps some anxiety.

 “This is the year my child will learn to read. Just think what that will mean for him!” Or, “This is the year my child must learn to read. I can't help but think what it will mean for him if he doesn't.” 

 There is potential either way. There is seeming success and seeming failure. While I am not a state licensed educator, I am a person who has been educated via both a private school and a state school.

 I've been through our modern education system. I experienced failure and success, but was ultimately deemed an educated and successful product of the system upon my graduation. 

 But what does it mean to be educated? As children start back to school, how do we determine if they have been properly educated?

 Think for a moment, as a parent, what are your educational goals for your children this year? Learning to read? All A’s?  Obtaining a certain scholarship? Just passing to move on? 

Think for a moment, as an educator, what are your educational goals for your students this year? To be a safe place for them during the day? To help them learn basic life skills? To exceed the pass rate of standardized tests by a certain margin?  

 Whatever our goals, they reflect our philosophy regarding what it means to be educated. Perhaps we view education as knowing a certain set of facts and information. Maybe we take it a step further and define it as knowing a certain set of facts and information in order to develop original ideas. 

 Charlotte Mason, a great educator said, “The question is not, - how much does the youth know when he has finished his education- but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” 

We can agree there is no way to know everything. Google would not exist if we could know everything! Knowing a certain set of facts is not the determinate of being educated. 

The truly educated person has only had many doors of interest opened. He knows that life will not be long enough to follow everything fully.
— Susan Schaeffer Macaulay- For the Children's Sake

As a young girl I remember riding to school one morning complaining about having to learn. My dad tried to explain that learning is lifelong and a wonderful endeavor. But I wasn't buying it. I thought learning throughout my whole life sounded awful. “When would I just KNOW?”   

This was a long time ago, and my thinking has changed now, but how sad for a young person to feel tired of learning.

 My hope for my children, in regards to academia, is that they will always be curious, have an appetite for knowledge and not choose apathy. I am aware they will not love every subject. It’s not my desire that they do. They are individuals with unique personalities, interests, and gifts. 

My hope is to “spread the feast of a delectable education” before them in order that they keep their curiosity, grow a love for learning, and become the persons God made them to be, for his glory.

In my attempt to open many doors for them I plan to expose them to great works of art. I plan for us to listen to beautiful music by gifted composers. I plan to read, read, read! And not just read any thing but to read truly good books and poetry. I am selective in what we read even now as they are very young. 

Henry David Thoreau said, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” 

 I love being a mother for countless reasons but one thing I am enjoying most is learning with my children. I get to discover new books, see great works of art, and enjoy new music and poetry that I missed during the years of my formal education.

I get to really dive in to those subjects and ideas that may have just been touched on in my school days. My own children will have areas of interest that they will want to explore deeply as adults. Learning is an exciting facet of all of life. 

 As this new school year gets going, let’s consider what we want for our children and students. I agree, concrete goals can be good. Certainly aim for acquiring that new skill, aim for obtaining that scholarship. 

 But keep a higher ideal in mind, “The life of education has to include the whole of our humanness... His mind is the instrument of his education...his education does not produce his mind.” ­ Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

 Or as Miss Mason so strongly believed, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a LIFE.” May our children and students be truly educated this year. May they live life well and care. 

 

 

Your White Jesus Can't Touch Black Hearts

Why should we work to integrate the church? It seems like most believers, both black and white, are content to live and worship in separate communities. Why risk disrupting the peace of existing churches?

This is not a problem that can be solved easily or overnight. First we need to talk about why desegregation is necessary, and then how to move toward that goal. We must consider: why the church was segregated in the first place, why we are content to stay segregated, and what the segregated church says to the world.

How Did We Get Here?

In 1816 Richard Allen founded the first black denomination in the United States-- the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was a freed slave who was allowed to purchase his freedom. After being freed he became a minister and was eventually employed by St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia as a pastor to its black members.

As the number of black church members increased, their presence in the church became troubling to the mostly white congregation. First the church forced the black members to leave their normal seats and sit around the wall.

Then one Sunday morning the black church members sat in the balcony above the area where they regularly sat.  As they knelt to pray the trustees of the church rushed toward them and telling them to get up because they "must not kneel here". 

After the prayer the black members left, never to return. In 1794, Richard Allen founded Bethel A.M.E. so that the black believers could worship freely. According to the AME church website, In order "to establish Bethel's independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution." 

The AME church was the first of many black denominations founded by Christians unwilling to accept segregated seating and unequal treatment in the house of  God.  

 Why Are We Content to Stay Here?   

1. We Underestimate the Power of Our Inherited Baggage

Historically many denominations used the Bible to justify slavery. As a result the general public believed that black slaves were inferior and that the slave trade was doing them a favor by allowing them to serve in such a great nation.

Slaves were kept in their place by a Biblical interpretation that commanded absolute obedience on their part, while simultaneously giving their master's the divine right to view them as property to be bought and sold like common animals. 

The church's Biblical interpretation made it impossible for white Christians to accept black Christians as equals: especially inside the church. Not unlike today there were separate churches, separate neighborhoods, separate schools, and separate realities.

We are still paying the consequences for the misinterpretation of Biblical passages. We can't seem to shake the attitudes, actions, and in some cases the actual verses that aided the church in sin.    

2. Fear of Interracial Dating and Marriage

After the emancipation of the slaves there was an overwhelming fear that the races would intermarry-- particularly black men and white women. Black men were cast as rapist animals intent on forcing themselves upon white women. You can see it in movies of the time like the popular Birth of A Nation which was released in 1915. 

This fear fueled countless lynchings and unjust imprisonments during Reconstruction and in the time leading up to the Civil Rights movement. This view of African American men still haunts our church and our nation today.

Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist, anti-lynching advocate and women's suffragist who lived from 1862-1931, explained the situation in her famous pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases .

"Ebenzer Fowler, the wealthiest colored man in Issaquena County, Miss., was shot down on the street in Mayersville, January 30, 1885, just before dark by an armed body of white men who filled his body with bullets. They charged him with writing a note to a white woman of the place, which they intercepted and which proved there was an intimacy existing between them. Hundreds of such cases might be cited, but enough have been given to prove the assertion that there are white women in the South who love the Afro-American's company even as there are white men notorious for their preference for Afro-American women. There is hardly a town in the South which has not an instance of the kind which is well known, and hence the assertion is reiterated that "nobody in the South believes the old thread bare lie that negro men rape white women." Hence there is a growing demand among Afro-Americans that the guilt or innocence of parties accused of rape be fully established."

Interracial dating and marriage are still touchy subjects within the church. Many believers tolerate interracial couples but would discourage their own children and grandchildren from marrying believers outside of their own race. 

 "Show me one place in the world where interracial or interethnic marriage is frowned upon and yet the two groups still have equal respect and honor and opportunity. I don’t think it exists. It won’t happen. Why? Because the supposed specter of interracial marriage demands that barrier after barrier must be put up to keep young people from knowing each other and falling in love. They can’t fellowship in church youth groups. They can’t go to the same schools. They can’t belong to the same clubs. They can't live in the same neighborhoods. Everybody knows deep down what is at stake here. Intermarriage is at stake." - John Piper- Racial Harmony and Interracial Marriage

3. Failure to Address Racial Issues Within Local Congregations

I've attended white Southern evangelical churches my entire life-- churches pastored by intelligent white men. But in the first 32 years of my life, I never once heard a sermon from the pulpit addressing issues of race or racism. I thank God for pastors like John Piper who are willing to tackle the subject. 

As one of the only black members in those congregations, I've experienced many things that have convinced me that racism is still an acceptable sin within the white church. A sin that many white pastors either fail to see or refuse to address.   

These issues of race affect just about everything in the church: bias towards communities of affluence in our church planting, who we choose as our pastors, elders, and church leaders, what programs are offered, and which projects our churches take on.  

4. Our Churches Are Focused On Personal Piety

The churches I've attended and the Christian organizations I've been a part of have largely been focused on discipleship. I think discipleship is very valuable. Learning to read, study, meditate on, and memorize the Scriptures is a good thing. Taking advice from people you respect is a good thing. Applying scripture to personal issues is a good thing, but it's not the whole of Christianity. 

We subconsciously believe that the good works God has called us to can be easily summed up in a regimen of good behavior and sound theology. We believe that the Church should only tend to the spiritual needs of the people who come through her doors. But how does God define pure and undefiled religion? 

We are supposed to be disciples of Jesus. He came down from heaven. He became poor for our sakes. He set aside his own glory to become like us, so that He might save us. He healed the sick, and caused the lame to walk and the blind to see. He cared for tangible needs as well as spiritual needs.

We may not live in heaven but for someone who grows up in the ghetto or in a poor rural town, our suburban enclaves look pretty stinkin' close. It's too easy for us to turn a blind eye to the poverty and other types of neediness within our communities and offer people an ethereal heaven in the future but no real hope for their present situations.

 We wait for the world to come to us with its needs instead of searching out people in need.  We prefer to gather a following of likeminded believers who will pat us on the back for our theology to getting our hands dirty helping people whose problems are so big and complex that we find ourselves in need of God's help.

I believe that as Christ's followers band together in prayer and action aimed at a broken world that desperately needs good news, there is a unity that surpasses color and denomination. We are able to get over ourselves and our preferences and get on with the hard work of true religion--looking after orphans and widows in their distress and keeping ourselves unstained by the wealth, power, and cultural preferences that have long ensnared the church.    

  What The Segregated Church Says To The World

 Unfortunately, White Jesus only cares about people who look like him. White Jesus eagerly gives money to aid foreign missions but often fails to consider the ghetto downtown as an area worthy of his attentions. White Jesus forcefully points out the sawdust in his brother's eye while living blissfully unaware of the plank that blinds him. He says "Let those gang bangers in the city kill each other, I don't care as long as my children are protected." What White Jesus doesn't see and understand can't really exist.

His arrogance prompts voices from around the world to cry out in frustrated unison that our White Idol is no more than a figure of our collective American imaginations. 

The Most Segregated Hour In America

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither slave nor free, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.
Galatians 3:27-28
"The church is a whore, but she is my mother"- St. Augustine

I love the church. Growing up it was my home away from home and the place where I made many lifelong friendships. It has also been a place where I've felt the most awkward and out of place because of my race. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, Growing Up In Black and White, I grew up attending a Pentecostal church full of predominately white families. For the most part, I loved it, and I never heard a racist comment from the pulpit.

But I did become very fluent in the Biblical passages that pertained to race. Every couple of years, a Sunday school teacher or a peer would dust off the old curse of Ham passage (Genesis 9:20-27) and create an uncomfortable half an hour for me.

The last time I heard that Genesis 9 passage taught, I was 25 years old at a single staff retreat with a Christian organization I worked for at the time. My staff partner's mother and grandmother used it in their lesson to the single women. I was the only black person there, and no one seemed realize what they were saying. I said nothing.   

Now there is a general consensus that slavery was wrong and needed to be abolished as an institution. But the Biblical passages used to justify slavery are still deeply ingrained in the psyche of American Christianity. While the passages are no longer used to justify slavery, they are still used as justification for the "inferiority" of the formerly enslaved.

My husband and I spent the first few years of our marriage attending a PCA church in Montgomery, AL. Before we were married (I'm married to a white Southerner), a former pastor and a few of the elders advised him not to marry me. They did this before they had even met me because they learned that I was black. We were married in 2009.

Thankfully, there were also elders who encouraged him to openly defy any racist advice he received: regardless of the source. There were also many families whom we loved and who welcomed me into the church with open arms.    

The church ought to be a place where every man and woman regardless of their class or race can stand as an equal before their Maker. But the church has been polluted; it became polluted when Christians began to use the the Bible to justify slavery. This justification made it difficult for believers in Southern churches to support the civil rights movement of the 1960's, and it makes it hard for them to accept black people into their church communities today.

"The unfortunate reality isn't that evangelical theology in the South was muted when it came to racial justice, it's that it was actively used to undermine justice and to perpetuate a demonic system. And that's the cruelest historical irony of it all: those who loved the "old rugged cross" were often also those who torched crosses in protest of desegregation."- Michael J. Hall (Ph.D., University of Kentucky, dean of Boyce College)    

There is real animosity between the white community and the black community. At the bottom of it all, I don't think it's about culture or worship styles. I think it's about unresolved issues that no one wants to talk about.

Our culture desperately needs to see a place where repentance and forgiveness bring about real change. They need to see a place where groups who have long been at odds can find real justice and true reconciliation.

The Church in America has forfeited much of its place as an agent of social justice. In many instances, we are known not for championing the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the oppressed, and the physically and mentally disabled, but for using political clout to mandate morality and our "Christian" schools to protect our children.  

It is time for judgement to begin with the house of God. It will not be easy, but I believe it's time to intentionally desegregate our churches.   

 

 

 

It's Not About White Guilt

I can feel that something's not right
I can feel that someone's blasting me with hate
And bass
Sendin' dirty vibes my way
'Cause my great great great great Grandad
Made someones' great great great great Grandaddies slaves
It wasn't my idea
It wasn't my idea
Never was my idea"

- Ben Folds- Rockin' the Suburbs

The Sins of The Father

Most white people I know aren't conscious or deliberate in their prejudices. These things are passed down almost unconsciously from generation to generation.  

In my opinion, one of the biggest barriers we face in having honest conversations about race is the idea that if whites acknowledge any injustice against the black community, black people will try to hold them personally responsible for it. 

For the most part black people aren't fighting for retribution, they're fighting for equality. It's not about feeling guilty for being white, or feeling sorry for what you have.

It's about acknowledging that the system of laws and rule and the social hierarchy that has afforded you some measure of success has also actively and intentionally held African-Americans back.

It's about using your advantage to partner with black citizens to change racist systems so that they can have as much opportunity and freedom as white Americans.  

Systemic Racism

Intellectually everyone knows that discrimination and bigotry are wrong. But all of us, myself included, carry around prejudices we are blind to.

 When prejudices are held by groups with power they become ingrained in institutions like the government, churches, and businesses.  Groups of people stay unemployed and poorly educated.  It becomes a system of racism: a system designed to make sure African American men and women don't get ahead.

Everyone wants to avoid angry black people. Why are they angry? They are angry because there has been no sustained justice in their struggle for equality.

They are angry because when they point out inequality in the educational system, the housing system, in job hiring practices, and in interpersonal interactions they are accused of talking about a make-believe problem.

From the Reconstruction Era until today, history is littered with half measures that gave the appearance of offering equality to black citizens but in reality did very little to help. From the Forty Acres and A Mule initially promised freed slaves, to the failures of Brown vs. the Board of Education, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 the problems of oppression and inequality have not been solved. We are still a nation of separate and unequal.

"Most of us do not share life space with other races or classes. And we do not own up to the often gaping inequality that results from this separation because, being physically removed from those who most suffer the costs of separatism, we cannot acknowledge what we do not see." - Sheryll Cashin, law professor at Georgetown University in The Failures of Integration

Resegregation

I find the inequality in educational opportunities particularly troubling. Many powerful people believe that the days of educational inequality are done and have moved to lift court orders that require integration.

In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools according to an analysis by ProRepublica - Nicole Hannah Jones, reporter for the New York Times Magazine in Segregation Now

If you want to know what happens in 2016 when black families try to secure a better education for their children in affluent school districts, I cannot recommend The Problem We All Live With highly enough. 

It's not so much that minority students need to be close to the white skin of their peers; they need the benefit of the opportunities, the experienced teachers, and the funding they don't receive in their inferior neighborhood schools.  

We are all in this together. The inequality and instability that have become the hallmark of black urban neighborhoods threaten the stability of our entire country. We must come together to find solutions to this pressing problem.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, feel free to comment below and check out my previous writing on this topic: Growing Up In Black and White and I Make No Apologies for Black Urban Culture.

I Make No Apologies for Black Urban Culture

 "It's not that I don't like black people. I just dislike the way they talk, dress, behave, and carry themselves."

Many white people I know are disgusted by urban black culture. They have an inordinate fear of black men and an assumption that black people are mostly lazy, loud, disrespectful, crude, entitled, unrefined, and culturally inferior in every way. 

Who Are These People In Our Streets?

A people of sorrows who are well acquainted with grief. The music and movies that depict life in the ghetto are gritty and full of profanity and lewd situations. From the outside they seem to glorify gang violence and drugs, but what if the music and movies are simply a stark reflection of what everyday life looks like for people who grow up in these forgotten places?  

In 1619, the first African slaves were sold to British colonists in Jamestown, Virginia. Forty-three years later, Virginia passed the Law of Heredity; it stated that any child born to a female slave inherited their mother's slave status. 

After 245 years of legal slavery here in North America ex-slaves found themselves no longer African but also barred from taking part in the America they had helped to build with their own hands. 

A People Without a Place

Many ex-slaves migrated to cities across the country in search of work; many were attempting to escape the clutches of Jim Crow. But the federal government stepped in and made sure they were unable to get ahead.

"The major reason we have ghettos in every metropolitan area in this country is because federal, state, and local governments purposefully created racial boundaries in these cities. It was not the unintended effect of benign policies. It was the explicit racially purposeful policy pursued at all levels of government, and that's the reason we have ghettos today. We are reaping the fruits of these policies."- Richard Rothstein (research associate at the Economic Policy Institute)

Public Housing under the New Deal

During the Great Depression, whites and blacks alike were in need of jobs and housing. The government provided segregated housing. Unfortunately much of this segregated housing was built in areas that were integrated, creating segregation where none existed before. 

Federal Housing Administration

Around the same time the Federal Housing Administration financed loans, with low interest rates, for builders who were mass producing homes in the suburbs. They attached clauses in the loans that kept black families from buying the homes. They also prevented white families from reselling their homes to black families in the future. 

The GI Bill and the Making of White Suburban Enclaves

After WWII, the GI bill allowed many lower class whites to purchase homes and secure jobs in the suburbs. Unfortunately blacks were prevented from both buying homes and securing jobs outside the city.

Black families were quarantined in ghettos, and because there were so many of them in such a small space, housing prices rose. They paid much higher rent than white families in comparable living conditions. There was also high unemployment because there were few job opportunities for blacks.

People living in the ghetto didn't have equal access to public services. The police department frequently ignored complaints of vandalism and robbery. The Sanitation Department often did not pick up trash. 

Fair Housing Act of 1968

In the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther KIng Jr. the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Making it illegal to discriminate "in the sale, rental or financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin," according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While the act was a great step forward, many blacks could no longer afford the appreciated homes in the suburbs. And those with the means to move out of the ghetto still had to deal with zoning laws, committees on segregation, neighborhood associations, and city governments who were working together to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.   

For more information about housing discrimination please read:

The Making of Ferguson - By: Richard Rothstein

The Case for Reparations - By: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Redlining: Still A Thing - By: Emily Badger

Living In A Poor Neighborhood Changes Everything About Your Life - By: Alvin Chang

"If black people would just work harder and learn to speak maybe they could do better for themselves."

This attitude reflects a severe disconnect with the history of our country. We need to stop blaming teenagers with sagging pants for centers of urban poverty. Black people never chose to live in these conditions.

Many blacks feel like American society will never be willing to accept them as actual Americans. I've been corresponding with Jason Jett, my brother and one of funniest, and most intelligent black men I know about the issue of race. Here's some of what he had to say,

 "For example, when I was a teenager, one of the big topics was the confederate flag. Many of the people who I grew up with said it was a part of their heritage and not meant to be racial. Cut to last year when that kid murdered those black people in church and NOW everyone wants to cut their confederate ties because the world watched it happen. So which is it, heritage or hate? In my opinion, a lot of their heritage is hatred. 

One other example, our family goes back literally hundreds of years in the Louisiana. I was born in New Orleans, raised 30 miles north of Atlanta, and now I live in Florida.  My grandfather was one of the first 5-6 black attorneys in Louisiana and one of the first to have his own practice. My other grandfather fought in Europe during WW2 and served his country as a postman for almost 50 years in the South. Both of my parents graduated from Tulane University.  And yet no one would consider me to be Southern. Especially "Southerners".  It is also a label that I have never wanted and looked on with scorn. That's race in this country to me. It is not based on any form of reality.  

Now if I try to be honest with most white people about this or anything else that they don't understand or makes them uncomfortable, I become a troublemaker. Maybe I am. They ask me to ignore race and keep working hard. But race is what I am. It is the paradigm that I have been placed in by American society."

There is a pervasive myth in America, the myth that we live in a colorblind society where everyone has equal opportunities. That myth can only be perpetuated in affluent enclaves that teach a whitewashed version of history.

Don't like black culture? It may be because you are unwilling to face the truth about America. The truth is that this country and its wealth have built been through the enslavement and oppression of minorities.

I've got more to say, so I'll be back again next week to talk about race. I've been overwhelmed by the emails and messages I've received in response to this series on race. I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions. This is an an issue that affects us all.     

 

 

Growing Up in Black and White

Race is something I’ve done my best to ignore for the greater part of my life.  I've always wanted to keep my head down, work hard, and be above using the "race card."

So why I am I talking about race now? Slavery was abolished 151 years ago. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960's helped to bring down legalized segregation. Can't we put this topic of discussion down to rest?

No, not when school districts across the country are being released from their desegregation orders and 53% of black students attend schools where at least 9 out of 10 students are minorities according to a study by ProPublica .  

A big part of the problem lies in the denial that there is a problem.

"I'd hate to be black", "You're the whitest black girl, I've ever met", "We always laugh and call you Hilary Banks." These are a small sampling of the remarks I heard from friends and teachers growing up. It was these off-handed comments that first made me think something was wrong with me.   

My parents grew up in a black neighborhood in New Orleans, but they moved to the predominantly white suburbs outside of Atlanta, Ga when I was a baby.

They are both professionals-- an engineer and a speech pathologist: a fact that always seemed to amaze and sometimes offend the parents of my friends. They have always been hardworking and frugal, so my siblings and I were well provided for.

I only ever knew a handful of black families besides my own. We lived, worked, worshiped, and received our educations in a community filled with white families. And I’m not complaining: I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood.

I never felt like I fit the mold of the white culture around me, and I didn’t really see myself in the stereotypes of African American, urban culture either. However, I was always fortunate enough to find people to love and people who loved me.

The issue of race became more pronounced as I entered middle school and high school. People started coupling off, and I was pretty boy crazy. I never met a set of parents who were happy when their southern white son brought me home. 

 "I can’t believe you like white guys," I heard it more times than I can count.

I would have dated a black guy but, unfortunately there were about four black guys in our school and one of them was my brother.  Why would anyone care-- unless of course they viewed one group as superior and the other as inferior? 

I grew up being the "exception" to many people, and as such I was able to get to know and love many people who are racists (everyone has their issues). In many cases I became a sounding board for them to air their grievances and frustrations about the black people they work with and the blacks in and around their communities.   

My friend’s parents loved telling me how different I was from the other black people they knew-- thinking they were paying me a compliment. They didn’t realize that by telling me how great I was they were telling me that they didn’t think my people were worth anything.

The only people who think that race is no longer an issue are the people who are benefitting (even if they don't realize it) from the oppression of minorities. The good old days were only good for the people in power: the oppressors. I've heard it said that, "privilege gained from oppression feels like discrimination when it’s taken away."  

The animosity between white and black communities is as commonplace as breathing here in the US. It's one of the many ways that our society is broken. Many would say that we should leave the issue alone and leave the communities to live segregated. But without seeking to fix this problem, we will never experience real peace.

I'll be writing about race again next week. Do you think true integration can work in the US? What do you think are the biggest barriers? 

 

 

 

Reaching Across the Divide

Anyone living here in the United States will tell you, there are mounting tensions playing in the background of our lives. As politicians gear up for another election year their claims, promises, and perceptions of life are driving an already fractured country apart along lines of socioeconomic class, religion, gender, and race.  

 It has become clear that ordinary people have little say in what goes on in Washington. Voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the polarized 2 party system. According to the Gallup Polls in 2015, 42% of Americans identify as independents while 26% identify as Republicans, and 29% identify themselves as Democrats. 

The current political landscape is ripe with fear mongering and power plays. Politicians are winning votes by keeping voters distracted and discontent.

So what are we to do? What should we fight for? I am certainly not here to tell you who to vote for, but above it all, I believe we should be fighting for understanding and openness within our local communities and within our country. 

Love and Kindness are Radical Forces

We are one nation. If we want to stay united the only way forward is together.

The talking heads are trying to get us to place blame. They want us to blame the other side (whoever that may be) for all the ills of society. 

For several years our nation has lived with a political system that views the inability to compromise as a strength. If you will not compromise then you must believe that you are 100% right. No one in their right mind can make that claim.

We are All Wrong

We all have much to learn. In one way or another we all have blind spots. We all come to the table with unique life experiences and perspectives. It's impossible to see the bigger picture of what's really going on in our nation without each other.

Fight the Power

While our "leaders" are doing their best to tear us apart, we must refuse to hate our supposed enemies. Instead we should resolve to try and understand them.

Start small. We must seek out people with viewpoints that offend us and befriend them.

Listen. We should delight in listening to their funny stories, their hopes and dreams for the future, and the places where they have been wounded and hurt. Revel in our shared humanity. Only then can we engage in friendly conversation and debate. Be open to learn.

Fight. We have to fight to love our neighbors. Fight against the very human tendency to think we're better than the people we demonize. 

Let's let our love be bigger than our outrage and fear

 

 

 

This is my mom

Becoming a mother has made me appreciate my own mother in a new and beautiful way. Mostly, I've realized how much I've taken her care, love, and support for granted. 

The sleep she lost when I was sick, the time she spent driving me and sometimes my friends around from activity to activity, the cleaning of my poopy diapers, and the time spent listening to me talk incessantly about middle school drama, then eventually highschool drama, college drama, and now motherhood drama: these things I haven't thought twice about are things that were costly for her. 

When I think back on my childhood and growing up years I can't help but notice that my life bears the deep marks of my mother's presence. 

I remember her voice. I can't remember a day of my life when she wasn't reading to me. She's always had a way with words. She was always making up little songs and playing word games.

She loves to talk. I spent half of my childhood waiting for her to finish conversations in church parking lots, backstage at my dance recitals, and in school hallways.

Eavesdropping on her conversations became a hobby of mine, and what I learned mostly was how to empathize with and encourage other people. 

I remember coming home from school in the second or third grade curious about a new batch of words I'd heard from some friends. She was ironing shirts in the kitchen while I rattled off the four or five cuss words I knew. She matter of factly told me exactly what the words meant and kept the conversation moving, no nonsense, no judgement just honesty. 

I remember her small hands and the way her thick gold wedding band looked against the pigment of her brown skin: and her well manicured fingernails . Her hands were never very still. They were washing dishes, cooking meals, mopping the floor, cleaning bathrooms, and writing in her journal. She was either a flurry of activity or fast asleep.

She wasn't perfect . At times she yelled and got frustrated, at times she misunderstood and misinterpreted. But so did I. We didn't always see eye to eye but she was always there. 

Now living thousands of miles away from my mother I can see how much of my life has been shaped by all the quiet hours I spent at home with her: working beside her, telling her all of my troubles and fears.

It's easy to get anxious about whether or not I'm doing enough for my children, but thinking back the thing I needed most from my mother was her presence and that is what she gave me.       

I love you mom!

A Letter To Myself (Postpartum)


Dear Renee,

You had a baby two months ago, don't expect to look like a supermodel today. Stop cringing when you catch your reflection in the huge full length mirror in your apartment's lobby. Stop checking skinny women out and pining for their flat stomachs and thin thighs. That's just not where you are today.

Self loathing isn't sexy or productive. It usually just drives you to down a pint of ice cream or way too much chocolate...and the cycle continues. You're not getting much sleep, and you're living on the fumes of sugar and caffeine. 

It would be easy to fall into one of two camps. You could become super obsessed with the way you look: count every calorie and become an exercise Nazi. Sure the weight would probably fall right off, but would it be sustainable weight loss? 

 Or, you could throw in the towel and quit caring altogether. You could trade all your cute outfits for shapeless clothing and forget about ever getting made up again: because who even sees you these days besides your kids (right!?).

There is another way, and it is simple but not easy. Eat healthy whole foods in proper portions and get plenty of exercise. Everyday. Don't get over zealous and cut out every food you enjoy. Enjoy sweets and treats in moderation. 

You'll have bad days. Your kids will all be screaming in some kind of chaotic disonate symphony, and you will eat your entire chocolate stash in one sitting.  Your husband will persuade you to order and eat pizza with him late at night. It's ok, just don't give up.

The truth is that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and gluttony coupled with inactivity will kill you. 

It's ok to want to get back into your skinny jeans-- that's not vain. Don't worry about it. Try to be faithful and be a good steward of the body you've been given. Let that be enough.

Keep it simple; you've got other things to deal with,

Renee 


  

This Pregnancy Thing

I have finally hit the sweatpants, yoga pants, and all things jersey knit portion of my pregnancy. Being a stay at home mom, I usually like to dress cute. It makes me feel good, and I'm always more productive when I don't feel like I'm wearing my pj's.

 Pregnancy is a different bird. I have had round ligament pain, back pain, or sciatica during all four of my pregnancies. By the time I'm feeling as big as a house, I have to seek comfort where I can find it--be it in yoga pants or key lime pie.

This pregnancy has been a difficult one for me mentally. After giving birth to our third son, we knew our family wasn't complete, but I had decided to take a year or two off from the baby-making because I was feeling a bit rundown.

Constantly being pregnant or nursing for three and a half years can really take it out of you, and my body was feeling it. But being the Fertile Myrtle that I am, we ended up pregnant again VERY much on accident.

I'm incredibly happy to have this sweet baby girl, but I must admit that the first couple of months I felt trapped. It's not that I didn't want the baby, I just didn't want to be pregnant. My reluctance to suffer through the initial pregnancy nausea and exhaustion only amplified my discomfort.

I was kicking against the goads: fighting the inevitable and losing every step of the way. I didn't have an epiphany or a turning point that changed everything. I've struggled off and on with every change and pain my body has endured. Pregnancy is just not easy.

I enjoyed my first pregnancy immensely--partly because everything was new and exciting. But each subsequent pregnancy has felt harder and harder in part because I've had more little ones to care for and less time to relax.

All that being said, pregnancy is a perfect prelude to holding that bundle of preciousness in your arms. Pain and joy seem to be inseparably intertwined in the mystery that is motherhood.

In my experience, there has been no growth or maturity in my children without discomfort on my part. This is true of both physical growth in pregnancy and their general growth outside of the womb. Sleep training, potty training, the "terrible" 2's or 3's, and training my babies to obey: each stage and milestone is difficult to achieve, but there is so much joy on the other side of the pain.

Once that baby has been conceived, (in most cases) there is no turning back. I remember standing in the bathroom with my husband the night we found out we were pregnant with our oldest son. He was ecstatic, and I was just standing there in shock thinking: "This baby is inside of me right now, and there is only one exit ramp."

The weight of being someone's mother is something that no one can ever fully prepare you for: the worry, the responsibility, all the mixed emotions, the mommy guilt, the mommy comparison trap, the attachment, the love, and the pride.

 I took my two oldest sons to the playground one day when I was pregnant with our third son. Owen, our oldest, ran up to a group of kids who were running around together and tried to strike up a conversation.

The other children tried to ignore him, but when he didn't get the picture they started running away from him. He had no idea what was going on, so he proceeded to chase them. Finally one of the older kids said, "Everyone can play except you." Then he pointed at my son.

I quickly grabbed him and told him that we were leaving the park. I packed my babies into the stroller and headed home. While I was sprinting away, I heard the bully's mom put the smack down on him (thank goodness). She even yelled an apology to us, but I was booking it because I didn't want anyone to see me sobbing.

After everything, it never really registered with my three year old that the kids at the park had rejected him. I couldn't help but think about all the rejection he will inevitably face in his lifetime without me there to shield him from it. I hate that my children are growing up in a world where they will experience hurt at the hands of others.  And where they will inevitably also turn their hands to hurt.

Things that I would simply ignore and gloss over if they happened in my own life take on fresh meaning and significance when they happen to one of my children. 

So when they delight in a new friend, blow bubbles, or wrestle with their daddy, I am as elated in their delight as I would be if it were my own experience. 

Its like my babies are attached to me with an invisible emotional umbilical cord that no one will ever be able to sever.

In the same way that  pregnancy softens my body, every stage of raising my children has softened my heart. Dealing with all of their needs, joys, issues, and hurts has opened my heart to more love than I can contain at times. 

Trying to understand my little people has given me a greater understanding of myself and other people along with a wider capacity for compassion. 

Swimming Lessons

Now that summer has wound down for all intents and purposes, I've been reflecting a bit about what we did and learned. One of the more harrowing summer events for both me and my oldest son was swimming lessons.

 There's a great indoor pool within walking distance of our house that offered swimming lessons all summer long for $30 a session. The price could not be beat! So I signed poor Owen up since he was the only one of our children who fit within the age requirements.

 I knew it would be bad, we had him in lessons this winter and he cried and complained the whole time. I braced myself for the worst, but even I didn't realize just how bad it would be this time around.

The thing is, our son just wasn't comfortable going all the way under water. In the classes he took a few months ago they were more gradual with the whole process. They blew bubbles in the water, kicked, started to learn some basic floating; then the very last skill they practiced was jumping in the water. When they jumped in, the teacher would let them go under for a brief second before catching them.

Because of our travel schedule this summer, I was only able to sign him up for the final session of lessons: so maybe they were a bit more gradual in the first weeks. His teachers started every class off by making each child bob under water 3 times. This sent my boy into hysterics! He screamed his head off and refused to do it--so his teacher did it with him. Afterwards he continued to scream, cry, and refuse to do anything his teacher asked of him.

Owen became very skilled in the art of stalling. Once we got to the pool he would immediately request to go to the bathroom (which confused me because he always went before we left the house). One morning, I decided to be all tough love on him, and I told him "NO". He then promptly proceeded to poop in his pants.

I was humiliated. I considered just giving up on the lessons, but what kind of lesson would that teach my child. "Son, when things get hard, when you feel like you're in over your head, and you feel out of control, just give up." I knew this experience wouldn't kill him (maybe just scar him a little), so I decided we'd soldier on.

The first person I had to deal with was myself. Of course I wanted my boy to succeed in swimming, but mostly I just wanted him to stop screaming, crying, and causing a general ruckus in the middle of the aquatic center. I was embarrassed. I was annoyed. I was angry. How had I failed in my mothering and nurturing of him to such an extent that he was afraid of the water?

Whoa now Renee! This whole thing is not about you and your real or imagined failures. Stop thinking about what all the other moms with the adventurous and fearless little tykes think of your parenting chops, and start actually helping your son.

Well, telling him to stop crying over and over again was NOT helping. I tried assuring him that he wouldn't drown since mommy and his teacher were both watching him like a hawk. We talked about being brave at home and prayed on our walk to the pool every morning, but fear still had him  paralyzed.

Then one morning my neighborhood mom friend randomly came over and talked to Owen while he was having one of his mini panic attacks. Instead of telling him to calm down and assuring him that everything was going to be ok, she asked him to tell her the names of his classmates. Then she showed him how to cheer for them and encourage them while he was waiting to get in the water. Genius I tell you!

Immediately he calmed way down. He watched his classmates, and he got to know a few of them. It was like a giant light bulb went off in his head--there are other people in my class besides me and they are going through the same thing I am. That realization was enough to break through his shell of self-pity and fear.

I'm not going to say that everyday after that was rainbows and roses, but it was a start. Finally I knew where to start. Helping him to get his eyes off of himself, and onto others was the first step in overcoming his fear. By the end of his sessions, he hadn't mastered every skill, but he had been able to attempt to do everything his teachers asked of him calmly; that was HUGE!