Holy Chatter

The first step is chatter.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey begins her book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by explaining how parents who want to raise anti-racist kids need to abandon promoting “color blindness” and actively teach racial consciousness. Color blindness makes it fearful and painful for white people to talk about race, while a racial consciousness approach makes thinking and talking about race and the effects of racism part of our everyday lives. The very first step from one to the other involves our chatter, that on-going conversation with young children about everything around us: noticing things, wondering about things, defining things, trying out our own interpretations of the world as we experience it. The chatter adds up to confidence for our kids, that adults notice what they have observed too, the differences between people, and that it is safe to process their wondering about those differences with their trusted adults.

It all starts with chatter. Good, because my daughters are 8 and 4, and chatter is my life. But wow, has our chatter changed over time! Our older daughter’s speech developed much later, so at age 3 she would ride in her car seat or swing at a playground, smiling or laughing, but without uttering a word for the longest time. I filled the airtime with songs or lots of exclamations: “Look at the red truck!” “Oooo… birds!” because I desperately wanted her to learn to speak. When our younger daughter was an infant she despised the infant car seat with ferocity. I kept up a running commentary on everything I could manage anytime we drove somewhere not only so my 4-year-old would engage, but to distract the baby from the fact of the Evil Car Seat. Now I am pelted by a regular stream of questions from the back seats, playground equipment or around the dinner table. Their favorites are: “How do people make __________?” and “What does ________ mean?”I tell them “I don’t know” when I truly don’t know, instead of making something up, or give several possibilities and promise we’ll find out more. And no subjects are off limits; I get lots of practice keeping my composure. Often it just feels like we are filling air time, but all the little tidbits are building an affect over time.

This is Dr. Harvey’s premise. When you are chattering about Doc McStuffins, parents might mention how she is a doctor who takes care of her stuffed animals, someone her friends go to for help, a girl, and African-American. Do we know doctors who are women? Our dentist is an African-American woman, isn’t she? Doc McStuffins is very good at observing and solving problems, but also asks for help. When do you ask for help? Racially conscious chatter is just the beginning of raising racially conscious kids. Obviously we cannot stop there (It’s only chapter 2 of Harvey’s book!) but we can certainly start there.

Many mainline Protestant churches need to up our chatter “game” on so many fronts (definitely race, accessibility, loving our neighbors as ourselves), but specifically talking about our faith. This is supposedly the point of a church, but many of us seem so uncomfortable doing it that we’d prefer to be “faith blind.” Evangelism can be one of those ministries that we leave to the extreme extroverts or we cling to the quote attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

But if we cannot articulate that our faith is the reason we live where we do, spend our time how we do, vote the way we do, then there is a disconnect for all those who observe us. When someone calls us – or Christians in general – out on not acting as Jesus did, if we’re so unaccustomed to talking about it, we can only stumble around claiming that we are not part of that group, exactly. We need to learn to casually mention our faith while making decisions,discussing political and social realities, making observations about our neighbors, empathizing with what some people are going through, so frequently that it becomes a normal thing we talk about. We are not doing it to convert people, but to define for ourselves and others what it means to live as a person of Christian faith. Perhaps we could practice embedding a catch phrase into half of our conversations at church or use it at least once per committee meeting: “because of our faith.” It would take awhile to not feel forced (as my observations about Doc McStuffins still do occasionally), and to move from awkward to genuine. But that just means we need practice. That phrase would likely evoke more questions we will need to engage: “What do you mean by that?” Perhaps we could substitute “because of our faith” any time we are tempted to think instead: “but it’s too political.”

We need to talk about income inequality (but it’s too political) because of our faith.

Let’s get into it about immigration (but it’s too political) because of our faith.

If we want our children, or any “child of God” declared so by Christ’s resurrection, to become people of genuinely active faith, then we have to start the chatter, and establish that our faith is something we talk about all the time that it’s present, which is all the time.

Photo by Kenny Krosky on Unsplash

Cross-Training*

*Yes, I am aware of the pun when talking about church, but it is the best term for the subject!

“How do you cross-train, especially in the off-season?” the ballerina with the microphone prompted her colleagues.

Yoga, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and more yoga. These responses made sense; they are related enough disciplines. Then the speaker held up a pair of boxing gloves. Why has the ballet company started cross-training in boxing? The lunchtime exhibition did not answer all our questions, but started with the simplest answer: proximity. Our city’s ballet company shares a building with a boxing gym. Obviously no one wants the dancers to be bruised, but boxing training teaches these professional dancers and their neighboring athletes even more ways to be in tune with their bodies’ movements. It builds community in such an unlikely way. Such collaboration explodes the stereotypes of the audience for either group.

What if congregation members and leaders alike improved our fitness for being Christ’s body in the world through cross-training? There are the more obvious ministry-adjacent gifts to develop: storytelling, public speaking, teaching, child and elder care, social work, music, or art. But perhaps our imaginations would be better ignited by engaging the least seemingly “relevant” connections, those that would make bystanders furrow their brows: perhaps city planning, repetitive assembly of products, botany, or the histories of indigenous people groups far from where we live? We could become more agile in expressing our own faith by noticing connections alongside folks with whom we cannot assume a common vocabulary, facing the necessity of always defining our terms. We would need to re-train our own minds and emotional responses to think about how our traditions might affect those who are not accustomed to moving in ways we have practiced for so long. We can certainly all benefit from the humility required to be in the place of students, learning from experts outside of the church.

As our country becomes less religious, congregations need to become increasingly relevant to the multiple needs of marginally-churched people, not less. Maybe your neighbor is not looking to attend worship services but they do really need community. We cross-train in that! In addition to worship, we also hold space for difficult conversations, too rare in the public square. Congregations can be a place for forming inter-generational relationships and surrogate family for those whose relatives are physically or emotionally distant. We could be safe spaces to try out new ideas, try on leadership (where there’s grace if we fail) and where people know we can be “real” about our struggles. We could certainly be more obvious about our cross-training, beyond Sunday mornings, weddings and funerals.

My personal example of reading outside my area is the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. This memoir about the life of a botanist and her research assistant, woven together with a deep knowledge of how trees and other plants reproduce, survive, and flourish, awoke epiphanies in quick succession for this preacher. I know so little about the lives of actual scientific researchers, but they know things that are certainly meaningful to my faith.

Here are 4 starter ideas (definitely adapted from other contexts) for “cross-training” in churches:

  • “Career Day” speakers who share about their favorite parts of their jobs or hobbies, followed by discussion of what insights people of faith might gather from this field

  • Curated YouTube short-video festival: nominate and vote for those that surprised you or taught you something you never would have known about otherwise

  • “Neighborhood Walk-And-Talk”: Get to know the meaningful work of those businesses near your church, in their own words

  • “A Day in Their Shoes” visits to each other’s homes with households from an interfaith partner or congregation with a predominant ethnicity different from your own

As the dancers and boxers discovered, collaboration breeds relevance to a larger population than either parties were reaching before. When we cross-pollinate our interests and activities, folks who do not completely fit in either group get hints – or loud testimonies – that the boundaries between communities of like-minded people are more porous than we thought.

So go ahead, ballerina. Glide into the boxing gym.

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

The Side Hustle of Faith

Wow, my friends are enthusiastic evangelists! Some for the Gospel, sure, but more noticeably for skin care, essential oils, clothing or handbag lines, health supplements and similar side hustles that have changed their lives. I believe my friends are genuine when they say: “This has changed my life – here’s my story – and I am only telling you because I believe that others should have the opportunity to be transformed by it too.” These side hustles are clearly not just about extra income. They are on a spectrum from therapeutic to meaning-making, all the way up to life-transforming, according to their claims.

So, I’ve been thinking: I’d like to market church involvement as the side hustle of faith.

Yes, I would anticipate push-back from people for whom it is everything, who think that church participation should be all-encompassing for others too. Often those people are pastors. So let me be clear: Faith is not a side hustle; relationship with God and our neighbor for Christ’s sake, is actually everything. Yet we all live out our Christian faith in many settings: in relationships, at school, at work, in our community, and in the life of the church. See, it’s in the list? Yet church involvement is not the entire list of ways to exercise our faith. This clarification, although somewhat obvious, would have given me some much-needed perspective when I was the solo pastor of a small congregation. I often found myself frustrated by being the only one for whom the mission or future of the congregation was more than a side hustle.

Now I say, embrace the side hustle of faith! We each must find the side hustles that give us life and an escape from feeling stuck. What inspires me with the enthusiasm of an entrepreneur: a community garden or food rescue program; anti-racism training; fair trade; liturgical art? Some of those side hustles could fit seamlessly into the life of a congregation; others could be exciting new initiatives. Since regular attendance now means worshiping once or twice a month for the average church-goer, it is already a side hustle in time spent, but for many it has yet to carry that weight of meaningful endeavor and entrepreneurial energy. What would leaders or congregations do differently if we embraced involvement in church activities as congregation members’ side hustles of faith?

Obviously, churches could strive to not to be the source of burnout. “That’s not even helpful” my two kids say, imitating a phrase they hear me say often enough. It is not helpful to wax nostalgic about when people made church “a priority” or when sports leagues didn’t schedule games on Sundays. Begging people to fill in the slots of somebody-has-to-do-it tasks isn’t energizing at all. Guilt does not fuel the passion for a side hustle.

Surprisingly, neither does money, really. A side hustle must offer something else we desire: to make a difference with our talents, connections and passions. To have our ideas, energy and experiences valued. To lead, not just to consume. So maybe our congregations could consider dropping the umpteenth annual whatever event, and ask instead what new things our people are personally invested in. We could invite entrepreneurship and support the heck out of anyone who tries something new. Maybe this is just a personal bias, because I get bored, but I’d go so far as to say: No more annual events, without a twist to make it new and challenging. It’s very hard to get enthused about a habit.

Practically, the side hustle fits meaningful activity into empty slots in our day planners, including how and when we form community around said side hustle. We might use social media groups to connect with people on the fly, meal meet-ups (people have to eat anyway) or decentralize meeting locations. In order to build relationships we can invite people into the “outside” events of our lives, as if they were all surrogate relatives. Go to Adam’s high school theater production. Cheer Desiree on at her 5K. We might even speak of our faith in those places. And some of those events might just reveal our next great pop-up church event, a side hustle for someone because of their faith, not just as an addendum. Then we’d all share endlessly about that on social media!

Photo by Caleb Minear on Unsplash

While We’re in the Therapy Waiting Room

“We all have tough days.” I say this to my kids, as they watch another kid melting down in the waiting room. They nod, but stare anyway. I say it so that the child’s parent or grandparent can hear it too, whose frustration is likely part exasperation at the behavior, part embarrassment in front of all the other adults whose kids are not acting this way. I know, because I’ve been there. I also say it for myself, as a reminder that all of the thoughts and impulses I’m going to experience during this hour in the therapy waiting room need compassionate reactions from my judgmental self. This is a different place than a playground, church, school, or other public spaces. Here we can escape comparing ourselves and our children against the elusive ideal of “typical” as much as we might everywhere else. Or not. It largely depends on the company.

Most of us have been here regularly enough, and have been frequent guests in other similar ones too. This is a waiting room for occupational (OT) and physical therapy (PT), so the kids who come through here may be working on anything from rehabbing from a physical injury, to working longer-term on coordination, muscle control, sensory-processing issues, social or behavioral skills. We are complicated human beings, and some of the causes of our difficulties may never be fully uncovered, but therapies seem like well-informed experiments with an array of methods that have helped others, to see what could be helpful to us.

It’s not the playground, but my brain cannot help assessing those around me for comparisons. Some days I admit to feeling relief, that my kid doesn’t have the challenge I observe in another. Some days the twinge is probably envy, because I see a child smaller than my own working on something and I wish we were at that point. Other days it’s hope and inspiration as I witness a high-five because it’s somebody else’s last day.

Then one day, my child is the one having the meltdown. Not the child who is here for therapy, mind you, the other one. Her tantrum is not related to anything other than being a kid; her precocious little voice I sometimes hear other parents chuckling over in that waiting room has given way to incoherent screaming. And of course we’re late for our appointment. It is equalizing. The same calm way the therapists and receptionists talk to the other kids’ parents, they then speak to me, getting all the information we need to exchange, over my child’s wails. We all have tough days.

Sometimes parents melt down in the waiting room too, or come close. I am simultaneously impressed and irritated by the young adult nanny who brings one child, because she seems so well-regulated – this kid can’t push her buttons like a parent. The nanny regularly uses the techniques we’ve all learned but just have trouble implementing in the heat of the moment, talking calmly but firmly about the steps they need to take or explaining why we don’t do something that could get us hurt (instead of giving orders). The 5 minutes after a session, when kids are getting out and others are coming for the next hour, is like the Olympics of self-control for parents. The kids know they have us in a bind. They are hyped up by the transition, seeing their siblings again, showing us a sticker – all during that critical time we need to hear the report of the therapist and get instructions for activities to practice at home. They get in our faces, or chase each other around the room. They do not get their shoes on to leave. Ignoring them does not make the disruptive behaviors dissipate, but neither does interrupting this critical conversation to bark orders, threaten consequences, or be like that exemplary nanny. Usually the session after this exiting behavior has been particularly raucous, I remember to talk about expectations ahead of time, before we get to the appointment. Sometimes that works. Finally, we leave the therapy waiting room.

Part of being a healthy parent is admitting when we need help. That’s why we spend so much time here. But maybe what we (I) need most is someone to talk me through it. We all have a complex tangle of emotions, just like our kids, and some issues with self-regulation of our behavior. The solidarity of others who get it is always welcome, especially in the waiting room.

Binge-Reading the Bible

A writer friend asked me, “So, what have you been reading this summer?” Writers have to (and love to) be readers; it’s part of the craft, and feeds the creative juices. I paused just a moment to think of the last book I’d read. “Oh, that’s right,” I replied, “only the Bible.” That only is meant not in a belittling sense, but the opposite, because I’ve read such large swaths of Scripture every day that it is literally the only book I have had time to pick up since Memorial Day weekend.

I’ve been following a B90 schedule, created by a pastoral colleague for reading the Bible in 90 days. Shortly before he started leading his congregation through this adventure, he organized a “Rostered Leaders” cohort via Facebook and Zoom, to check-in among ourselves on a weekly basis just like his congregation members. This is how and why, since Memorial Day weekend I’ve read nothing else but the Bible.

I read my travel Bible (which I used to take on hospital, nursing home or home visits) now at the playground with my kids, during their swimming lessons, in the lobby during appointments, while the little one was napping, in the car on our epic road trip, and after they went to bed at night. 75% of the time, I was a day behind, but I rarely let the gap widen much more than that, because I thought it would be insurmountable to return to the task if I did. The short attention span availability of our road trip fell during the Psalms, which are hard to read through in big chunks anyway.

I’ve read much of it before, of course. But this time, this method, showed me some things the typical seminary deep-dive into smaller portions of Scripture just couldn’t do. Here are a few of the themes:

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is 2/3 of our Bible. Yet, we don’t give it that weight or importance in Christian worship, do we? The historical books are SO long, and although I know length is not synonymous with worth, the emphasis on the trajectory of the Israelites in a good portion of Scripture probably means that it should bear weight in our faith identity more than it does (which is almost not at all in some cases).

There are stories in there that I did not realize are repeats, which I had only merged into the one most memorable one. Three examples:
1. bargaining with God not to wipe out an entire city (not just Sodom/Gomorrah)
2. mass killing of false prophets by one of God’s prophets (not just Elijah with Ba’al prophets once)
3. victory over the Philistines by felling one of their number descended from the Giants (but it’s not Goliath)

1 & 2 Samuel are basically 1 & 2 Kings all over again. So other than making me think I’ve picked up in the wrong spot and started reading material I’d already read before, it begs the question: What was the purpose of keeping both in the canon? As one colleague said in our discussions of this, perhaps it makes a stronger case for the Holy Spirit at work in pulling the Bible together, over a group of editors or council with their own agendas.

We mostly read the uplifting Psalms in worship. But there are so many more that are violently vindictive. If you’re reading it right through, the vengeance this poetry calls down upon enemies gets pretty oppressive. We are clearly choosing a certain perspective by what we use for public reading, which is in itself a tool of interpreting Scripture.

If God never changes (there are a couple verses one might choose to make that point) then clearly human perspectives on God, recorded in Scripture, are what have changed over time, because God “behaves” quite differently in different part of the Bible.

The prophets are very concerned with the political realities of their time, in explicit, specific detail. When we take a verse or two here or there from them to interpret as a prediction of Jesus, it’s quite far from the message of reading the whole prophetic book in which it appears. But…

Speaking of cherry-picking favorites, even Jesus himself takes characters or stories from the Hebrew Bible out of context, bordering on cultural appropriation in his preaching.

King David can interpret the Word of God, the prophets do it, Jesus does it, Paul does it. They take Scripture out of context and apply it to their own situations. Rather than directives to limit our interpretation, perhaps what Scripture really is then, is a jumping off point for our myriad interpretations of how God works in the world and our lives. We can certainly check our interpretations against the whole body of Scripture, but there is also ample permission here to riff on the messages that come out of our contexts.

Having read the whole in such a short period of time, I know I would preach smaller parts of it differently. I will be compelled to check my interpretations against larger contexts, AND also find the freedom to make even more creative interpretations, because hey, all the best preachers in the Bible did. But for now, please excuse me because I’ve got to read…something else.

God wants us to vacation

God wants us to take all our vacation, AND to find pleasure in the midst of toil. Pleasure is built into the design of human beings. That’s the message I glean from the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes.

That is not the takeaway I expected from any book in the Bible. Christianity may be more commonly associated with dour endurance of life than exuberant delight in it, as diligent as certain persuasions of Christians have been at defining what we should not do. But we cannot let what is, stand in the way of what could be!

Wisdom literature in the Bible (largely found in Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and parts of Job) imparts more than information; it is less descriptive of what is, and more aspirational: urging us to become who God calls us to be. For example, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat and who can have enjoyment?” (Eccles. 2:24-26). In one way, this is a description of life as it seems to be: nothing better is to be expected than eating, drinking, and searching for enjoyment in the midst of toil. But also: these things are from the hand of God! God gives us daily bread and also enjoyment, as gifts for our growth and well-being.

We are designed to enjoy creation and each other, and delight in what our bodies can do. We are designed to be thankful, but when we are frazzled or oblivious, we are far from thankful. In short, we need time out of our routines to remind us how to enjoy every part of life.

But let us not pursue enjoyment at the expense of others having abundant life too. The insidious trick of consumerism is that by trying to get things for ourselves better, faster or cheaper, we might seek our own relaxation or adventure or pleasure at the expense of others. Everybody needs time to rest, laugh, and be someone other than the worker they are every day, especially those who are over-worked. The fight for earned sick and safe time recently prevailed at the legislative level in the city where I live, but not without considerable resistance (even given the self-interest of not being infected by sick workers). Guaranteed vacation time is only a dream.

How then, could all children of God aspire to time for pleasure? How will we help our neighbors to keep from brooding over the days of their lives, and instead stay occupied with the joy of their hearts (Eccles. 5:20)? What might we do? We who can take vacation, should take it all, for God wants us to be people who enjoy life. Know what it is like to have respite, things provided for you, worries lifted even for a short time. Then strive to create that respite in the lives of our siblings who cannot stop working for fear of losing much-needed jobs or caring for relatives that requires constant supervision.

To take pleasure in our toil is not an oppressive command, but a wise inspiration. We can let the refreshment of fresh air and sunlight into workplaces. We can discipline ourselves to be in good humor in our interactions with those who provide customer service. And we can make ourselves advocates and allies for a better quality of life for those who work, especially at the minimum wage.

A Tribute to the Teens of (Our) Summer

I know it is just a summer job to you

A way to earn some cash for gas

Or back-to-school clothes

But you are also

Making a lasting impression on my kids

 

When you soothe the pre-schooler’s fear

Of splashing during swim lessons

Or notice the 2nd grader who cannot quite

Break into a group of friends at camp

You are shaping their childhood

 

They squeal with delight when you arrive to babysit

And triple-check when you’re coming back

So they don’t miss it

Don’t miss you

For you are a celebrity to them

 

The one who manipulates with her sweetness

And the one who seems quiet unless you make the first move

They are taking it all in

They are taking you in

Making you part of who they are

 

Their excitement is contagious when they report

You both had the same sandwiches for lunch

Or that you can kick the ball SO FAR

And that you didn’t smash the lady bug

But helped it escape out the window.

 

They will talk about you for months

They want to be you when they “grow up”

The words you utter, even under your breath

Will be spoken in their high-pitched voices

Long after they forget who first said them

 

From you they start to imagine that in-between stage

Between child and adulthood

They start to aspire

From me:

Thank you.