Why you don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.

The first day of my first anthropology class, my professor said that he needed for a moment to make us the most uncomfortable we’d ever been made.  It was cultural anthropology, and in the process of that class we’d spend a lot of time talking about cultures that didn’t remotely resemble our own.  Our professor instructed us that we’d have to accept the reality of these other cultures wholeheartedly and not try to rationalize it against our own experiences.  “If you’re dealing with a society that believes the sky is an ocean and the stars are fish and rain is a leak in the heavens, you accept that.  You don’t try to explain to them that their god-fish is really a big ball of gas.  You accept their belief, and accept that it does for them the same thing that your God does for you.  In anthropology there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” society, there are systems of belief that work or they don’t, and if it works for that culture, it is the right belief for that culture.  By depriving a culture of belief, you deprive them of their way of being human.  No one gets to make that choice for other people.”

That lecture, in and of itself, was upsetting for many people, who believed that there was absolute truth and to “accept” the reality that in certain cultures illness was the result of the curses of other tribes, and sacrifices had to be made to out-curse the other tribes in order for a person to get better was somehow inherently wrong.  But my professor held his ground, explaining that for those cultures witchcraft works.  “They believe it works, and it works, and if you want to understand who they are, you must accept that it works.  You must participate in their lives not as an authority, but as an equal.”

Not as an authority, but as an equal.

You may be wondering why I’d introduce a blog post about Caitlyn Jenner with a seemingly innocuous story about anthropology.  Let me tell you another story, this time about the section in the big book of anthropology that talks about gender.  “Male and female anatomy exists, that is undeniable.  And that the anatomy of male and female is proscriptive of our lives to some degree is also undeniable.  Only women can become pregnant and give birth, and in many cultures that by necessity defines a certain aspect of their lives, because we need children to survive,” my professor said, “but beyond that anything you think of as male or female is as much a figment of your culture as stars being the spirits of flying fish in an ocean you’ll never touch.”

In many cultures, male and female roles are defined by what the society needs men and women to do.  That doesn’t mean that in every society women stay at home and give birth and don’t otherwise contribute.  In many cases, women have roles that are just as crucial to moving the society forward as men do.  In some societies, for a man to try to overpower a woman or boss her around is seen as a grave sin, which is interesting.  What is even more interesting is the amount of societies in which men’s and women’s roles are seen as fluid and changeable.  A man can “elect” to become a woman and care for his children, or a woman can “elect” to become a man.  If this happens, it is treated as a good thing.  One story is of a woman whose husband died when her children were still young.  She could either remarry, but then her children would be denied the inheritance of their biological father, or she could choose to “become” a man and never marry again, preserving her children’s inheritance and allowing her to provide for their needs.  (Recently a woman who did this in Egypt was honored for her sacrifice.)  In some cases women who do this take on identities as male and “become” men, in other cases such as the Egyptian woman, it is something they add to their female identity.

In any case, there are many cultures where “male” and “female” are seen more as descriptions of who someone is, based off of how they dress and act and operate within the culture, rather than proscriptive orders about who they can and should be based off of the presence of certain genitalia.

After all, when we start to sit down and define who is “male” and “female” based off of physical characteristics, things get muddy.

What makes a man a man or a woman a woman?  Is it the presence of external sex organs?  Because those can be removed, modified, or even created.  Back in the day when castrating boys was still common practice, did those “boys” become a third gender based off of their lack of either male or female sex characteristics?  Were they male because they were born with a penis, or were they female?

What do we call the women who are born without functioning ovaries or uteruses?  They cannot give birth, thus are they no longer female?  Do we define gender based off of what specific gender roles someone is capable of fulfilling?  Or do we look at DNA?  What about people who are born with one set of female chromosomes and one set of male?  Are they simultaneously male and female, or are they neither?

This is one of those cases where I don’t believe there is a single, correct, answer.  While we may be able to define a set of physical characteristics that mark “male” and “female”, then the argument becomes what happens when those change.  If the characteristics define the gender, then if I ceased to have a womb, or breasts, or a vagina, would I cease to be female?  And these questions cannot be taken lightly, as women who experience uterine or breast cancer often have to face these thoughts.  If I lose what defines my role, my gender, do I lose my self?  Or is the gender, the role, based not off of the body but off of some harder to define, more intangible thing?

Men lose their gonads.  Sometimes their penises fail to function.  Do they cease to be men?

“Ah-” someone may interject, “it is what you are born as.”

I find that hard to stomach.  One’s role in society isn’t defined from birth.  At birth it wasn’t decided that I would be a wife or mother or teacher or Christian or anything else.  Those things that I have become, I have become as a result of my choices and actions.  And while I can say that I feel like a mother, and a Christian, and a woman, I cannot say that when I was younger I even understood what any of those things meant or what it felt to be them.  In many of those cases, those feelings had yet to even be birthed.

I will never be a woman who wears a certain kind of clothes, because when those clothes hit my body I feel instantly uncomfortable.  As an infant, I could’ve been dressed in them against my will.  I would hate for people to point at pictures of me in frilly pink dresses as an infant and say, “see, that is who you are.”

No.  Who I am, I am because I took the time to explore my self and get to know it.  I made deliberate choices about what I wanted from my life, and who I wanted to be.  I am the kind of woman I am, because I feel this is the person I am meant to be now, even if then I could not have understood or expressed that.

When I was younger, I had a female friend who had never felt like a “girl”.  I remember her crying in my arms and saying that she hated her female body and wanted for it to die, it didn’t feel like it belonged to her.  I cannot confess to knowing or understanding how that would feel, but what I do know and I do understand is that I had no right to correct her.  She felt what she felt, and if she had told me that she wanted to be referred to as “he” I would have done it in a heartbeat, because she was the one living in that body.  She was the one whose responsibility and right was to decide how to live with those feelings.

Commanding someone to live with those feelings in a specific way too often leads to death.

The suicide rate for transgender people is very high, and it is even higher for transgender youth.  Some statistics estimate as high as 45% of transgender youth attempt suicide.  The rates of violence experienced by transgender people is also much higher than the population at large, and that number also skyrockets for transgender youth (especially in ethnic minorities.)

This feeling, of being stuck in a body that doesn’t belong, can be a death sentence in too many ways.

So, to paraphrase my anthropology professor, “if you’re dealing with a person who feels like they are the wrong gender for their body, you accept that.  You live with them not as an authority, but as an equal.”

The first day of kindergarten, we all faced a big sign on the wall, usually a nice golden-colored one, that said “always treat other people the way you would want to be treated.”  That is a very basic law of reciprocity in our society:  if you want respect, you show respect.  If you want kindness, you first must be kind.

When people get very belligerent about the fact that Caitlyn Jenner is really a man named Bruce, this is how I respond:

Man:  “He’s not a woman.  He’s just not.”
Me:  “What gives you the right to decide that?”
Man:  “It’s just the truth as I see it.”
Me:  “Well, the truth as I see it is that you’re a woman named Susan.  And I don’t care that you can show me male genitalia and that you feel like you are a man, you are a woman named Susan to me now.”
Man:  “No I’m not.”
Me:  “We’re just having a difference of opinion, lady, don’t get your panties in a wad.”

Who decides who Caitlyn Jenner is?  Well, there are two people.  The first is Caitlyn, and the second is the law.  In terms of the law, a person seeking gender reassignment therapy who is taking hormones and undergoing changes to their physical characteristics in order to reflect a different gender than the one on their birth certificate is legallyable to fill out paperwork as the gender they want to be assigned.  So, Caitlyn may legally be seen as a woman and may legally be entitled to treatment as a woman.  If she can check the female box on paperwork and her driver’s license says “Caitlyn Jenner” and “Female”, then I say the least we can do is give her the correct legal name and legal pronoun.

But even so, who decides what is the fair way to treat someone?

Let me tell you another story.  I was fighting with someone I was in a relationship with.  That person told me, “don’t be such a bitch about this.”  I told them that I was really offended they’d use that word to describe me and I didn’t feel like I was being a bitch, I was just expressing my needs.  They persisted in calling me a bitch.

That relationship didn’t last long, because feeling loved and valued as a human being walked hand in hand with feeling respected, and part of feeling respected was knowing the other party understood the ways their word and attitude effected me.  To put things simply, they had to treat me in a way I was comfortable being treated, or they had no place in my life.

Who defines what is loving treatment?  Who defines what is respect?  These aren’t things that you can turn to a dictionary and get step-by-step instructions for.  In every relationship, to know and to love and to respect are things we learn from each other through communication.  Caitlyn Jenner has expressed that she wishes to be seen and treated as a woman, to do anything less is to disrespect her terms for having a relationship with the world.

Now, this note is especially to Christians:  Do we believe that Caitlyn Jenner, that any transgendered person, is a person that God loves?  If we do, that means we have an obligation also to love.  And if we have an obligation to love, that means we cannot do things that disrupt relationship.  And if we must do that, that means we must start with accepting the person not on our terms, but on their terms.  This is where the Church too often falls woefully short, because we think that we have to accept people on God’s terms and thus we feel obligated to decide what God’s terms are.

It doesn’t work that way.  We express love, others respond, others become open to love in their own lives, and by a very simple reaction that love changes everyone.  It’s hard to be cruel when you love, it’s hard to lie when you love, it’s hard to sin when you love.  Because that love is something we wish to preserve, and that love cannot grow in soil that is poison to it.

So when you are openly disrespecting someone, openly condemning them, openly shutting the door to any conversation with them, you aren’t loving.  You are doing the opposite.  You are destroying the soil that love needs to grow.

What does that matter?  Many readers may say, “it’s not like I’m friends with Caitlyn Jenner.”  Yes, but you’re friends with other humans.  And chances are, at least one of them is transgender or is friends with someone transgender or you have friends who simply care about the human rights of transgender people.  And you know those friend?  Those friends you are injuring by extension.

Our words matter.  Our attitudes matter.  Whether or not we respect other people’s way of being human matters.

We don’t get to decide that Caitlyn Jenner is a man named Bruce.

Why the politics of Gay versus Christian hurts everyone (but the politicians).

Indiana.

Oh, Indiana.

Over the past few days, I’ve drowned in a barrage of posts from my Indiana-based friends expressing outrage and dismay at a legislature that doesn’t represent them.  The comments I’ve heard have ranged from the mild, “I never thought this would go through” to the brutal “I feel like the state senate has turned against us, and they aren’t going to stop until Indiana is stripped down to nothing but spare parts for big business.”  For those who don’t currently live in Indiana and aren’t terribly immersed in state politics, let me just say that Indiana has a well-storied history of it’s people being ignored.  I can’t say precisely why the idea of a representative democracy is so far from a reality in Indiana, but over the past 10 years there have been a number of significant changes to the state’s operations and laws that the people have openly fought tooth and nail, yet have been celebrated in the press and true victories.

So, many Indiana citizens watched the drama unfolding as what would become SB 568 came into being, in horror.

I’ve seen people asking where the Christians who opposed it were.  They were in Indiana, actively fighting against the law being passed.  Many churches, from the Disciples of Christ to the Mennonite Church to the Episcopalians, did in fact organize and fight the bill being passed.  A common fear they expressed was that the bill could not only be used to discriminate against gays but could also be used to discriminate against other Christians.  This may seem like a ridiculous idea, but let’s not forget that the Mennonite church, highly prevalent in Indiana, found itself in the United states after it’s founders were being burned at the stake for heresy by other Christians.  The common idea of “religious freedom” touted in America today may be the freedom to not participate in society at will, or to discriminate when the Bible can be cherry picked in defense, but that isn’t what free religion meant in the days when this country was founded.  There are some of us with a long enough memory to feel like freedom is still the right to not be persecuted by others of our same faith.  

No one has the right to dictate to an individual what their faith should be: not the government, and not other parishioners.

Now, post-passage of the bill, people are asking where the Christians are.  “Business men are speaking out, sports organizations, but where are the Christians?”

Well, for one, they are still speaking out.  Many churches and religious leaders have openly denounced the law, but a google search for this won’t yield much, since most news organizations have focused not on the religious opposition to the bill, but to the possible ramifications as businesses and public organizations cancel events which quickly rack up millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue.  It’s been said before that dollars talk, and that is the same here.

The sad, bitter reality is that no one cares about the spiritual ramifications of the bill or whether or not the religious support that Pence has touted is actually real.  The tone of the story, from the beginning, was carefully controlled.  Yet major news organizations aren’t asking some very real questions about why.

Let’s look at some of that now:

  1. Politicians have, for years, used fear mongering tactics to pose a false “battle” between gay rights and Christian ones.  This is never more apparent than in the tales of poor elderly Christian baker-ladies who are dragged to court and reduced to Victorian-era poverty when their religious scruples don’t allow them to bake a cake for Adam and Steve’s wedding.  While there have been cases of bakers being sued for refusing to make cakes, what is interesting is that we rarely hear about the baker sued for not making an ANTI-gay marriage cake.  Not to mention the fact that these lawsuits are only possible because the Civil Rights Act ensures that any business offering services to the public at large must not discriminate in their practices.  If you are going to make a cake for Susy and Bill’s shotgun wedding, or Mary and Mark’s atheist wedding, or Jane and John’s jewish/Christian wedding (oh, hey, the Bible openly condemns that one) you’ve got to bake that cake for Adam and Steve’s gay wedding, too.  If you don’t want to bake cakes for weddings that offend your sensibility, maybe stick to just baking cookies.  After all, I can guarantee you’ve baked cakes for sinners.
  2. The news media has very little motivation to cease posing any issues over gay rights as a battle.  Conflict sells, and the more heartfelt the conflict, the better.  There’s not much news to be made from stories that read like this:  “Religious leaders form coalition to lobby for equal rights for gay people.”  Why?  Where’s the conflict?  On the other hand, “religious organizations picket funeral of public figure to protest gay rights” almost always makes the headlines, even when numerous groups have condemned such things and even staged counter-protests that outnumber the original anti-gay gathering.  The truth is that even amongst well-established religious communities, support for gay rights has become nearly ubiquitous, but there’s no headlines to be made by saying that religious opposition to gay rights is becoming a minority belief.
  3. Politicians have everything to gain by continuing to monopolize on gay rights as a campaign tactic.  While gay rights may have widespread bipartisan support, the people who oppose gay rights are loud, rich, and politically motivated.  Political science majors the world over are familiar with a very simple truth:  even if the majority are middle-of-the-road, campaigns can be won by a very active minority who feels there is an immediate danger to the other side winning.  No one fights harder than someone who feels outnumbered and as if their way of life is at risk.  So what do we hear from the politicians?  That “sacred” marriage is at risk, that the “family” is eroding, that the American way of life is ending, that society is on the verge of collapse, that homosexuality led to the fall of Rome, and as the numbers become more marginal the rhetoric gets more hateful and louder.  But let’s look at Indiana specifically.  How did this particular bill get passed?  Again, you have a very vocal minority.  The amount of Christians in Indiana who truly felt their personal liberty needed defending from gays may have been minimal- but they were there, and they were loud.  The bill was originally introduced as a necessary protection from contamination by secular sources.  And as soon as the bill was introduced, concerns were raised.  Often by other Christians who felt that the legislation was too problematic and unnecessary.  (A common quote was, “why defend rights that already exist naturally?”)  In order for the legislation to pass and the minority, who have huge political clout, to be appeased the tenor of the debate had to be carefully controlled.  It’s no wonder that even as evidence mounted that Indiana as a whole did NOT want this bill passed, the legislature continued to stonewall and repeat the basic message that this bill was wanted by the people and absolutely necessary.
  4. Once a tone is set, it continues. Like the basic physics concept that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, once something has hit the news the story tends to stay the same.  The people with the loudest voices tend to be heard first, and the people with the loudest voices tend to be the ones with the most political clout or money.  As an example of this, think about the woman who burned herself on McDonald’s coffee.  By the time the story had hit the mass media, it was reduced to a handful of words that made it sound as if someone had spilled coffee on themselves, was annoyed, sued, and somehow wrongfully was awarded millions.  The actual facts in that case (that the burns were so severe they were disfiguring and the woman had to be hospitalized) were overlooked.  The media had decided from the moment the story was first aired that the tone should be that a corporation was being wronged by fatuous lawsuits.  The actual story?  Irrelevant.  There are hundreds of cases of this where by and large the national coverage of a story is one-sided.  That is also the case with Indiana, where the only coverage of widespread opposition to the bill is from small local reporters who know their cities well.  National news coverage doesn’t seem to know, or care, that the people of Indiana themselves feel wronged.  The only local voices being heard in the national stories tend to be ones who support the bill, or gay people who oppose it.  Where are the Christians who oppose the bill?  Unheard of, despite existing.  How can I be so sure that’s the case?  I’m originally from Elkhart county, Indiana, and my friends and family there are deeply concerned that the bill will make things worse, instead of better.
  5. The outcry that Christians who oppose the bill are staying silent is a false story.  Like Muslims who condemn extremism, Christians who condemn extremism in their faith seem to be largely ignored.  Everyone listens to the Pat Robertsons of the world calling gay rights a steamroller obliterating the faith, but when Christian groups band together to support gay people, no one listens.  This is no different than the constant outcry that Muslims don’t condemn extremist Islam.  Muslims do, regularly, both publicly and privately.  So why isn’t it heard?  One reason is because, like moderate Christianity, it just doesn’t make good headlines.  “99% of Muslims go another day without participating in or condoning violent acts” just doesn’t push papers, does it?  Plus, there’s a lot to be gained from continuing to pose the dialogue the way it is.  People who want to remain with their prejudices aren’t going to seek out evidence that they are wrong, similarly, the people involved in the political wrangling between ultra-conservatives groups and gay rights don’t have a lot to gain from realizing that the moderate middle ground is growing.  So what do they do?  Continue the conversation as it is.

One could question if when the Moral Majority first entered politics if they were a majority at all.  What they were was a political powerhouse that monopolized on both a certain brand of politics and flavor of faith.  That amount of political clout has incredible power to guide the national narrative and quash any minority voices.  And while the “moral majority” may no longer exist as such, the truth is that they forever changed the landscape of politics for moderate, socially liberal Christians.

The best way forward, both for gay rights and for Christian freedom, is to take back the power from the political machine.  And we have to do that by partnering together and no longer allowing the dialogue on the national stage to pit us as natural enemies.  After all, we aren’t enemies.  Moderate Christians want the preservation of basic civil rights just as much as gay people do, and we as moderates also have much to lose if moral extremists are the ones making laws.  The same people who want to keep Adam and Steve from marrying have proposed laws that would force me to be investigated for infanticide if I don’t carry my child to term (even if I miscarried naturally!) and have said such vile things as that “rape is like the weather, and you’ve just got to relax and enjoy it.”  (No link, google “republican politicians on rape” if you dare.)  Moderate Christians fear legislation that will punish single parenthood and women who work outside of the home.  Moderate Christians question the logic of tying together religion with lax gun restrictions or other questionable stances.  One of the greatest of these is the policy of rewarding corporations with generous tax write-offs while cutting back social services to the mentally ill, disabled, and poor.  We need to be partners in fighting the political ideology that uses religion as a crutch while spitting in the face of some of the basic principles of brotherhood and good citizenship that Christ so fully embodied. If moderate Christians are going to take their voice back from the politicians who have bent and twisted the faith for personal gain, we need the support of others.  So if you are talking about cases like the Indiana Religious Freedom law, be sure to point out that moderate Christians do not support it.  If you are a journalist writing about divisive politics, bring gay and moderate Christian voices together.  If you want to see more moderate voices in the political landscape, donate to churches like the Disciples of Christ, the Mennonite Church, and the Episcopalian Church, specifically to their political action committees who have a well documented history of supporting gay rights.

We can take back our fair country from the hands of bigotry together.

time for a time out.

How many arguments end with both people still believing the same things, and just hating each other more?  You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it.  People yell and rage at each other until they run out of steam and then they retreat into their respective corners to lick their wounds.   The inevitable result is that while no one “wins” the argument, their disdain for the other side grows increasingly strong, and the next time the topic arises the furor with which it is debated is only stronger.

Pretty soon, all you have to do is mention the topic and all the sudden you are drowning in a sea of bile, which once expelled leaves everyone exhausted and in pain.

I saw this recently with gay rights.  Someone posted, on Facebook, a fairly innocuous plea for people to show Christ’s love and compassion when discussing the recent outcry over Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty’s comments. Within seconds, what unfolded was not a “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” show of support, but a heated and bloody argument that left the original poster in tears.

“What’s left,” another friend later said, “but the “unfriend” button?”

I have to wonder, whose needs are met by this disturbing trend?  What is really being served?  We often assume, when we retreat to our respective corners, that out there is a world that agrees with our assumptions.  Yet today I’m feeling like it’s far more likely that we are actually alone.

corner

I think we need to take a time out.  I think instead of rushing from our corners like a prize fighter hungry to land the killing blow, we need to take the time to look around us and simply be aware.  Who are we fighting?  Why?

A dear friend of mine said, in the midst of the heated discussions of the past few days, that’s it’s easy to say something isn’t all that bad if it’s not being said about you.  Often the kneejerk response to her quiet plea to be understood was further defensiveness or accusations that she simply took things to personally.

I have to wonder why, never once that I heard or saw, someone didn’t turn to her and ask, “can you help me understand why you’re upset?”

We need to keep our eyes and hearts open.  Instead of viewing every argument as a chance to bury our own hatchets, why aren’t we seeing an argument as a chance to further our understanding of the world around us?

I believe this is doubly, triply, infinitely more true for Christians.  After all, as Christians we act not as ambassadors of our past grudges but ambassadors of the love and grace of God.  When we see an argument, our first response should never be to start drawing lines in the sand and throwing punches.  We should see them as opportunities to express a unique grace and compassion, defending those who are in pain and showing compassion to our enemies.

So why are we still fighting?

Photo by Nasrulekram

“You work and go to school? Who takes care of your kids?”

So I’ve seen this blog post getting linked around Facebook, and I’ve mostly scrolled by it with a good-natured “harrumph”.  It’s Matt Walsh writing about how his wife is doing a bang-up job of raising his kids, what with the birthing life into being and instilling of morals and hygiene and societal values while staying at home and never having a career anymore.  Most of the people I’ve seen linking to it are stay-at-home moms, and I don’t want to disparage what they do.  But one friend of mine took exception to Walsh’s tone because it seemed really patronizing to the mothers who do work, and that made me think about a lot of things.

Let me start by saying that being a stay at home mom is hard, incredibly hard.  I did it for five years, and looking back I think it was more emotionally draining and difficult than parenting while working.  You never get to clock out of being a parent, especially when your kids are on top of you every second of the day and a good bit of the night.  It’s hard to deal with feeling unappreciated and unproductive.  It’s nice to get a pat on the back every once in a while from someone who affirms stay-at-home-mommyness as something of a sacred calling.  But being a working mother is a whole different type of hard, and while I can’t say the two are equal or unequal, what I can say is it takes a strong-ass woman to do either with any amount of grace.  Women who manage to actively raise their kids into productive members of society in today’s world deserve praise REGARDLESS of their employment status.

My family needed me to have an income, so I went to work.  Then, I went to school and work.  And it’s funny, because while my professional life post-stay-at-home-mommydom has gotten me many “god bless your heart” pouts and shoulder rubs and people with wide eyes saying, “how do you MANAGE?”; there’s a lot less of a sense of screw-everyone-else solidarity amongst working women than there was in the stay at home mom world.

I suppose there’s a feeling that we’re betraying someone, or something.

It doesn’t help when people, in feigned congratulations of my courage, say things like “so you go to school AND you work?  Who takes care of your kids?”

Um, I do.  And their dad.  We raise our children together, thanks for implying that I am somehow crippled as a mother because there are hours I am not home.  No, I can’t always pick them up from school or tuck them in to bed.  But I am present in their lives, the moon that pulls their tides, regardless of if I am available to them every second of the day (including bathroom breaks) or if I am only with them for two hours.  What matters is if the connection to them is actively nurtured.  What matters is when over dinner I ask them what the happiest and saddest moment of their day was.  What made you feel victorious?  What made you feel like you failed?  What will you work harder at tomorrow and what you do differently?  What can I do for you?  Is there anything you want to talk about?  Want to cuddle and read a book?  Need me to mend the sleeve of your dress?

I mean, I may have to boil a days worth of parenting into a few hours sometimes, but there are other days I’m home all day.  There are days where I give my essay project the middle finger and decide to make cupcakes with my daughter or play Minecraft with my son.  I still actively work at being a parent.  I do not shove that responsibility off on anyone else (except their father, who actively shares it).

Being a mother is hard.  Being a parent is hard.  It’s hard whether or not you work.  All of the reasons to stay at home, or to go to work, belong to the parent and not to society.  Stay at home moms need to ask themselves if they have the patience.  Can they go for a few years without even peeing alone or reading a book uninterrupted?  This is a serious question, because child abuse happens when they cannot.  Working moms have to ask themselves can they feel connected to their child if someone else is the one seeing the first steps, hearing the first word?  Can they marvel at their children without having to know every detail?  These are serious questions.  My dad got a lot of Monkeypants’s firsts.  That was really difficult for me.  But you know what?  I get her everydays, and her everydays do not suck.  They amaze me.

Mothers shouldn’t have to stay at home to be congratulated and praised.  Fathers should be praised, too.  You know why?  Because like Matt Walsh says we bring life into the world and we rear it… regardless of whether or not we have another job.  We worry about our children and we do our best to raise them well.  We give ourselves to them, we center our efforts around them… and, yeah, sometimes we make getting or keeping or furthering careers a priority because as a parent we have a responsibility to ourselves as well.  We have a responsibility to model how to be a good member of society, and sometimes that means learning how to be a doctor or a schoolteacher or a nurse or an accountant or what have you.  And sometimes for financial or spiritual or personal reasons that means staying at home.

Sure it does.

But whatever being a parent means, we shouldn’t all have to be competing with each other to prove that we are somehow good parents regardless of how we live our lives.  We’re good parents because of who we are to our children and who they are to us.

 

Meffing Goatsheads: or, all I need to know about sin I learned from my garden.

Goatshead thistles, or puncture vine, is the most obnoxious weed in the world (according to myself) and one I never had the acquaintance of until I moved into our current home.

goatshead

 

That’s a picture of a bucket of the stuff.  I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to get rid of it. I suggested burning all of the stuff growing in the driveway and was met with laughter.  Why?  The seeds are so waxy that burning them only helps them germinate faster.  You can spray the vine with weed killer but if it has already seeded, the weed killer won’t affect the seeds.  You can pull it up as it grows but you’ll be doing that for years, and years, and years.  The seeds can live for ten years or more in the ground, and it’s only a matter of weeks from germination to seed.

So what do you do?  There’s one thing that most of the gardening blogs seem to agree on:  Goatsheads thrive in acidic or base soils but don’t do well in soils that are well balanced.  They do poorly in competition with other plants, so planting another kind of groundcover and fertilizing the hell out of it will quickly crowd the weeds out and prevent them from seeding.

Yep.

The best way to get rid of them, to put it simply, is to make sure that your yard is a healthy place for other things to grow.

Which is tidily the best analogy I’ve ever heard for how to deal with sin.  Want to get rid of anger?  Focusing on your anger will never work.  Focusing on your anger will only amplify it. The only way to get rid of your anger is to make your heart the right condition to cultivate gentleness.  Want to get rid of judgmental attitudes?  Trust me on this, focusing on sin will only lead to more judgment and deep hypocrisy.  You weed it out by planting other things there: understanding, love, trust.  This is true of so many other things.  Greed can be treated with giving, addiction can be treated with self-control or self-knowledge, jealousy can be treated with self-care, and bitterness can be treated with grace.

If I had an empty plot in my yard and I thought I had to get rid of all the goatsheads before I started my garden, I’d spend the rest of my life cultivating nothing but mud.

It’s gotten easier to keep them at bay the more the garden has grown in, and for the most part now they are only growing at the edges where they are easily pulled.

And I think about the times I’ve spent in dark depression spiritually, growing nothing but figurative mud as I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole I thought I’d never grow out of.

And the whole time, God was throwing me situation after situation full of the seeds that I needed to hold onto and cultivate for myself.  Constantly I threw the seeds back and then petulantly asked God why he wasn’t helping me.

I imagine God was much like I can be when I serve my kids a great healthy meal they just don’t want to eat.  An hour later, their plate is still sitting on the table full of food and they are whining, “what can I eat?  Mom I’m hungry!”

And I’m trying very hard not to roll my eyes and very patiently saying, “you can eat the meal I have made for you.”

God must shaking his head and trying not to tap his foot and saying, “you can grow the things I want for you.  Seriously, kid, stop worrying about that sh**.”

So you can spend your life giving yourself splinters and sores pulling up a weed that can multiply faster than you can kill it, throwing acid and poison on it and killing everything good and beautiful while it burns and doesn’t even care,

or you can think about what kind of garden you want to grow.

Like I said, it’s all I feel I ever need to know about sin.  Because, like with my yard, it’s not the bad things that you should be focused on anyway.  It’s the good fruit that you can grow there anyway that really matters.

It’s all that matters.

Don’t tell me about what needs to be killed.

What needs to be cultivated?

Book Review: Zealot, by Reza Aslan

(I received a promotional copy from Netgalley)
link to the book on Amazon

Have you ever really wondered what Jesus was like?

Growing up, I can remember seeing one too many pictures of Jesus as a blondish haired Caucasian man snuggling with a lamb, and thinking, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”  I read through the gospels very slowly, really trying to understand Jesus’s tone.  Not his words, so much, as his tone.  What did he sound like?  What did he look like?  What did he act like?  Who was he, not in the sense of was he the son of God or not, but who was he as a person?  I can remember the first time I told my dad, rather proudly, that a lot of the time I thought Jesus was being ironic.

“What?” Dad replies.

“I think he was teasing the disciples.  Being ironic.”  I felt proud of myself.

Dad laughed and said, “so you think the Messiah had time to joke around?”

Seriously.  How could you walk around for three years being the freaking Messiah and NOT take time to joke around?

All of that to say, I appreciate Reza Aslan’s deliberative attempt to paint a picture of Jesus not just as the Messiah, not just as a person in a historical context (but brace yourself for five exhaustive chapters of that) but as a man, who had a family and friends and kids that he ran around snot-nosed on the street with, and had a tone of voice and a sense of self that went beyond “I’M GOD, YO.”

This book is as intimate a portrayal of a somewhat secretive man that died thousands of years ago as could be done, I would imagine.  The author pored over texts and other historical documents.  He puts Jesus in a setting that is well-fleshed out, and answers a lot of really nagging questions about the use of language and theater that Jesus must have had reasons for.  Why did Jesus call himself the Son of Man?  What in the world was up with riding the donkey, waving the palm fronds, or turning over the tables of the money lenders?  What would life have been like for a carpenter living in Galilee?  Where would Jesus have worked?  Whose circles would he have run in?

While some aspects of Aslan’s work will probably raise eyebrows (for instance, how in the picture was Joseph as Jesus’ father?  Was the virgin birth a literal story or a fictitious cover for the fact that Jesus was really just Mary’s son?) there is a lot of real gold to be found in the midst of the rubble of broken assumptions.  My favorite theme was how much the tensions between the Priesthood, the Romans, and the Messiah really all boiled down to money.  Did Jesus threaten the temple’s ability to fleece the illiterate farm workers?  Was that why they hated him so much?

I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  It’s in depth enough to be really illuminating but short enough to not eat months of your life (you are on notice, NT Wright).  While Aslan does challenge a lot of assumptions his tone never becomes patronizing or flip.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves curious about the nature of Christ as a person.

I give this book 5 Jesus-Cuddling-Lamb bookmarks.

Highly recommended.

In all seriousness, what would Jesus do?

Sometimes I feel like I get upset about the wrong things.  Let me explain, there’s this meme going around that talks about a new pastor’s first sermon to his shiny megachurch.  The story goes that the pastor pretended to be a homeless man and everyone ignored him, even when he begged for money.  He was asked to stand in the back of the church, and when he was finally introduced everyone was horrified, until he preached a really scathing sermon which culminated in his asking the congregation if they were ever going to choose to be disciples.

It seems like most of my Christian friends have been forwarding this meme around.  A lot of people say things like, “wow,” or “so humbling!”

My first reaction to it was to be sick to my stomach.  Then, I was angry.  Then, I was angry-sad.  Then, I had a headache.

There’s a part of me that thinks we all need reminders that Jesus told us that we would be judged by how we treat “the least of these.”  So why don’t I like that meme?

Okay, let’s go through it step by step:

  •  It isn’t true.  This is a story that someone made up, probably to try to put some of the things that Jesus said into a more modern day context, making the church analogous to the pharisees.  I’ve made that analogy myself, so why does it bother me so much in this context?  While I am a little bothered by the meme’s assertion that only a handful of people out of 10,000 would acknowledge the pastor’s presence, I’m more bothered by the pastor himself.  Here we have a well-to-do man with his suit and tie concealed under homeless man’s clothes.  He isn’t really a man of the street that lives off charity, but he pretends to be one.  When Christ said, “What you do to the least of these you do to me” he wasn’t saying it from a comfortable position as a pastor of a megachurch whose tailored suit was hidden under beggar’s clothes- he was saying it as a beggar.  He lived off of the charity and hospitality of others, so when he said, “do it as you would to me” that could be taken quite literally.  If you would welcome Jesus into your home, welcome the beggars in.  If you had food to share with Jesus you had food to share with the lame.  If you would offer Jesus a cup of water, offer it to the sick.  Every offering as such Jesus would accept as an offering to his own person- not because Jesus didn’t need the offerings, but because he did.  These days, we as Christians are far distanced from the reality which Jesus had to live.  I don’t know if we really understand the fact that Jesus didn’t have a pension plan, couldn’t file unemployment, and couldn’t ply his trade while traveling and teaching.  He didn’t have a trust fun he was living off of, he lived off of the goodwill of others.  When we feed the hungry and care for the sick and give room to the homeless, we are remembering that God himself once shared their lot.  This meme?  It doesn’t seem like a humble reminder of that reality, it feels like the opposite.  It treats the reality of Christ’s life that he lived for us as a charade, to be put on and then taken off at the most humiliating moment.
  • It’s a “GOTCHA” moment, not a humble reminder.  Jesus doesn’t deal in shame, so why should we praise those who do?  This isn’t the case of a pastor humbly searching for truth in the guise of a homeless man, like this one, this is a pastor knowingly setting a trap to catch his congregation in.  The whole story hinges off of the judgment that Christians, as a whole, aren’t choosing to be disciples.  That churches do ignore people who aren’t dressed right.  That parishioners with cash in their pockets for the offering basket would give no change to a hungry, needy man sharing their pews.  The pastor, prior to ever preaching a sermon to his new congregation, has already decided they aren’t following Christ and need a scolding.  And rather than, say, inviting actual homeless people in to be cared for, he pretends to be one just to hammer a point home.  No, no thank you.  Jesus didn’t contrive situations to shame his followers.  He lived his life as a genuine example.  Those teachable moments the Bible is full of?  They happened as a natural consequence of how Christ lived.  The only time he set up “traps” for anyone was in response to the traps that had been set up for him.  Jesus didn’t trade in shaming his followers, so neither should we.
  • Who made it up?  What was their motive? We don’t know.  Rather than putting their own name and face to the tale, someone made up a story just to prove their point.  I’m all for parables, Jesus himself was known for them, but this doesn’t feel like that.  This is a lie parading as the truth.  The internet, yes, is full of such things.  Pictures of babies born with deformities meant to shame you if you don’t share them.  Mangled fetuses.  Abused dogs and cats for whom some unnamed stranger will donate a dollar per “like.”  To put it plainly, bullshit.  But this bullshit I’ll take personally, because this bullshit is about the church.  This bullshit about the church hinges off of the fact that no one will question the idea that a congregation of ten thousand are ready and willing to reject a homeless man.

So what does that tell us about the person who wrote the story, and what does it say about those who share it?

Judgment, and shame.  We’ve all judged the church as having fallen on it’s sword, and we all believe that it needs to be shamed.

What.

 

The.

 

Hell?

 

I spent one of the most fulfilling years of my life working as the site supervisor for a homeless shelter.  That shelter operated based off of the goodwill and cooperation of a couple of handfuls of churches surrounding a relatively small, but active, community.  Volunteers stayed with our guests overnight to make sure their needs were met.  Volunteers prepared and delivered hot meals for them twice a day.  Volunteers cleaned up after them.  Volunteers often picked them up and drove them to church on Sunday mornings.  Volunteers talked to them.  Volunteers let them know about job openings in the community, sometimes offered them small jobs, brought gently used clothing to hand out, made Easter and Christmas baskets, and donated thousands of dollars every night to pay the staff who served them.

None of those churches would have ignored a homeless person on a Sunday morning.  Quite the opposite.  Their attention and interest brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it to this day.

Let’s be evenhanded.  If we all agree that most churches don’t give a crap about the people who walk in their doors, what does that say about us?  Our faith?  Or, even more important, what does it say about our belief in God?

Essentially, what that meme says is not that we need to be reminded that Jesus asks us to care for the “least of these”;  what it says is that faith is pointless.  That no one is getting anywhere.  That two thousand years after Christ’s death, the church is useless.  That Christians are, as a whole, hypocrites.  (With the exception of a few self-righteous pricks waiting around for “gotcha” moments to humiliate us all and remind us how little we’ve grown.)  The meme doesn’t remind us of Christ’s love, it reminds us of our own selfishness.  What it offers isn’t hope but condemnation.

I have seen a pastor preaching shirtless in the streets because he gave the shirt off his back (literally) to a street kid.  I’ve seen a poor woman wander into a church in the middle of a service and seen everything stop while the congregation found out what she needed and got her help- including people running to the store to buy her baby diapers and formulas, and her having so many lunch invitations she had to choose who to turn down.

That’s my faith.

I’ve seen people give away the dinner they just cooked for their family and have toast for dinner instead because they heard that someone down the street lost their job and couldn’t get groceries.

That’s my faith.

I’ve seen families take in kids whose parents were arrested so that those kids wouldn’t have to go into foster care.

That’s my faith.

I’ve seen so many people show up at the hospital to pray for a sick relative that some of them never even got in the room.

That’s my faith.

That’s my church.  And I’m not just speaking about one church, but many.  All of the truly genuine people whose example brought me back to the feet of God after I thought I’d left him forever.  I may speak about the judgment of the church making me question my faith in God, but never let it be forgotten that it was the genuine love of the church that brought me back to him.  This is a sword that cuts both ways and cannot be ignored.  Yes, some Christians are assholes.  But there are still many who truly seek to follow Christ and emulate his love, and the only cure for the one is the praise of the other.

If we want people to stop being assholes, we shouldn’t be assholes towards them.  We should seek to be as loving, open, genuine, and kind as they are not.

The solution for a church that ignores the homeless isn’t a heaping helping of condemnation- it’s a loving example of the proper way.

*

Do I sometimes have harsh things to say to other Christians?  Yes.  I believe some of the attitudes I’ve seen towards the poor, towards single mothers, towards gay people, are incredibly destructive.  But I speak against it not because I believe the majority of Christians are selfish assholes but because I believe the opposite.  I believe that if most Christians realized the impact their attitudes had on others, they would willingly and quickly change.  And guess what?  In the six years I have helmed this blog that is what I’ve seen, time and time again.  I have so many stories of hope and change and trust and love that I could spend the rest of my life writing about them, and I’m only just getting started.

So, yeah, I had an allergic reaction to this particular meme.

That’s not my faith.

You, dear reader, you are my faith.  And you deserve better than to be shamed by a lie.

*This cannot be overstated.  If you want a church to take interest in the homeless, the best way is to bring the actual homeless into the church and take care of them.  People respond to love with love, and when they see you loving others their natural response is to do the same.  This is far more effective than shame could ever be.  Give the church an example to be like Christ, and if the church is full of Christians, it’ll happen.