Sunday, June 30, 2013

What Do Teenage Girls Need?

Recent conversations with friends about experiences in our teens and early adulthood reminded me of an article I wrote for Youthworker exactly a decade ago. It's appeared online in several places, (in 2007 and 2009) but it occurred to me that it would fit well with recent posts about girls and women, so I'm re-posting it here. And I find myself wondering - since I'm no longer a youth director - how can parents, grandparents, other adults find ways to give girls the things I describe? 

What do teenage girls need? Ask ten girls and you’ll get ten different answers. But a ninth grade girl recently said something that set me thinking. She was emoting about how frustrated she was that so many of her friends had stopped playing our youth group’s active games. “They just sit on the side. They feel like everyone’s watching them. They feel like the boys don’t want them to play, and they feel like they’re in the way.”

So what do they need? “They need for the female leaders to get in the game and encourage them to come play.”

Life is more complicated than that. So is youth ministry. But it’s a good place to start. Teenage girls need permission—permission to play, permission to speak, permission to set their own boundaries, feel their own feelings, stumble along the way. And if their youth leaders don’t give them that permission, too often, no one will.

Permission to Play

I was talking to some girls one evening at youth group when I noticed a group of guys starting a casual game of hackey sack. It started with two of our young male leaders kicking the sack back and forth, and soon there was a circle of boys eagerly joining the game. I noticed, too, that there were several girls watching, not
talking, just watching, as if they wanted to play. I finished my conversation and walked over to the circle. “Can I play?” The guys hurried to make room for me, while I looked over my shoulder to the girls who had been watching. “Hey, Amber. Heather. Come and play too.” “We’re not any good at it.” “Neither am I. Play anyway.”

In our active games too often girls are the spectators. Or cheerleaders. Or they play the Vanna White role—props, accessories. How can we structure the games so everyone takes part? How can we equalize abilities? Sometimes we play two games: one labeled “competitive,” one labeled “relaxed,” so there’s a place for girls who feel they can’t keep up with the bigger, stronger guys. Or we play games like Human Foosball, where everyone is anchored to a specific spot on the floor, so the bigger, faster players can’t swoop in and take the ball from those who aren’t as competitive. We encourage our guy leaders to make sure they’re passing to everyone, to set an example for the boys watching them. But most of all, we try to have a female leader in every active game, so there’s someone giving permission to play and inviting the girls to take part.

Permission to Speak

Girls also need permission to talk, which sounds a little strange considering how capable most girls are of talking. But in a group, especially a mixed group, watch the dynamic. Girls often lose confidence mid-sentence, as if they’ve suddenly forgotten what they were going to say. They start off on a point, pause, and say, “Never mind.”

Too much of this has to do with how often girls are interrupted. Repeated studies done in schools, universities, businesses, and other group settings show that females are interrupted far more often than males. It would be nice to think that male youth leaders are more sensitive to this than the average American male, but I’m not sure that’s the case. In groups with other professional youth leaders, I’ve found myself (often the only female) cut off repeatedly. It’s not hard to start thinking that I’m being interrupted because I’m female. And it’s not hard to start thinking no one wants to hear what I have to say. If I’m feeling that, how much more are the girls in our youth groups feeling the same?

When interrupted, I’ve wondered why no one jumps in to say “Hey, I want to hear the rest of what Carol had to say.” That’s a skill we try to teach our leaders. And we encourage our students to do the same: if someone’s interrupted, wait until the interrupter takes a breath, then say “Interesting point. But first I’d like to hear the rest of what Sarah was saying. It sounded really worth hearing.”
It’s easy as leaders to steam-roll along, making our own points, keeping the discussion going, without paying too much attention to the group dynamic. But it’s worth the effort to watch who says what, to give girls permission to speak, and to affirm their right to be heard, whether they’re wresting with interruptions or with their own flagging confidence. When they trail off, uninterrupted, we can still push for them to finish the thought: “What you said so far sounded really helpful. Can you say a little more about that?”

Permission to Feel

It’s easy to think “well, if girls feel left out of games, or cut off in conversation, that’s just their imagination.” Is it? Too often girls are told that what they feel is their imagination, or they’re just too sensitive. “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “There’s no reason to get upset.” The heart cry of many girls is that someone, anyone, believe they’re feeling what they’re feeling. If peers have a huge influence in the lives of teenage girls, this may be the biggest reason: at least they understand the power of each other’s emotions.

It may be that teenage girls feel more strongly than any other group alive. Hormones, huge physical changes, fear of the future, exquisitely fine-tuned social awareness, anxiety about crushing expectations, epidemic lack of sleep—all contribute to make many girls emotionally volatile and easily upset. Yet to dismiss their emotions is in many ways to dismiss them. To say “oh, that’s just your hormones” is to minimize them and the things that most concern them.

As I listen to girls, one of the saddest things I hear them say is, “my parents don’t believe how stressed/anxious/afraid/unhappy I am.” Girls whose parents say, “my daughter never tells me anything,” tell me, in tears, of attempts to share their hurts with their parents. Those parents would be amazed at the depth of anger their daughters feel when they’re told, “You don’t really feel that,” or “You’re just saying that as an excuse,” or, “Is it that time of month?”

What happens to those feelings girls are told they don’t or shouldn’t have? They go underground—to resurface in eating disorders, self-injury, deep depression, or the kind of rage that acts out in substance abuse and promiscuous sexuality. How much better to acknowledge the depths of girls’ feelings, to give room for them to be expressed, to look for appropriate ways to relieve them, and to beg parents to do the same.

Permission to Set Boundaries

Parents also need encouragement in affirming their daughters’ rights to set boundaries. Too often girls are taught to be “nice,” which means putting the needs of others above their own. Assertiveness is valued in boys, but questioned in girls, which gives both guys and girls a skewed vision of what it means to be “Christian” and leaves them at greater risk of inappropriate sexual activity.

A parent recently came to see me after a school dance. Her ninth grade daughter went with a “Christian boy,” and the boy made physical advances the daughter wasn’t interested in. The girl told him to stop, told him he was making her uncomfortable, then went to find her mom, who was checking coats. She explained what was happening and asked to be taken home, but her mother told her she couldn’t, that she would hurt the boy’s feelings, that she should be nice about it and handle it the best she could.

The mother was wondering if she’d done the right thing. No. She hadn’t. Her daughter was struggling to establish boundaries, and she was undermined by the person who should most affirm her. Fortunately, that mother apologized to her daughter and agreed to be available in the future any time her daughter needed a ride home in a similar circumstance.

But what are we doing to tell girls that they can say no, that they have the right to set boundaries, that when they don’t want to do something they can choose not to? Not just in the realm of sexuality, but in everything. What are we doing to say that being “Christian” isn’t the same thing as being “nice”? And how are we encouraging guys to set their own boundaries?

Permission to Stumble

From where I stand, it looks like there’s still a tragic double standard at work. Boys will be boys, but girls who mess up find themselves quickly labeled and easily dismissed. The church should be the place where this is least so, yet from what I see of youth groups, there is plenty of space for boys who “wander,” but little tolerance for girls who do the same. The girls themselves are perhaps the reason for this: they inhale an impossibly high standard, struggle under the anxiety that they won’t be able to meet it, then turn with scorn on girls who fail.

Adolescence is hard. The competitive, hurried pace of American life is hard. The Christian life is hard. Purity is hard. Dealing with stress without falling prey to alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs is hard. And when girls decide it’s all too hard, too often they’re judged harshly by those who should be most sympathetic.

As we introduce girls to Jesus, we should make sure they see the side of Jesus that the women of his day loved so deeply: his ability to see beyond the failures, the sin, and the brokenness. Jesus reached out to the woman at the well, to the woman caught in adultery, to the woman with an issue of blood, to women who were cut off, ostracized, untouchable. We need to help our girls see his deep love and forgiveness, and we need to model that same love and forgiveness.

The more I see the deep needs of adolescent girls, and the more I learn of Jesus, the more convinced I am that he is the model of ministry our girls most need. He included women in a way that the men around him found alarming. He listened to their deep needs, even when they were afraid to put those needs into words. He wasn’t disturbed by their deepest emotions, even when others found those emotions frivolous or shameful. He encouraged women to rethink their roles, to put obedience to him over being good hostesses or “nice” people. And he reached out to women no one else would touch. He gave women permission to be whole, complex, valued people. If only we can do the same.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sweet Taste of Freedom

I spent last weekend in a place that changed my life.

I first arrived there on a hot Sunday evening in June, 1975, suitcase and bed roll in hand. I was a thin, painfully shy, quietly angry nineteen-year-old, between sophomore and junior years of college.

I was feeling stuck in more ways than I could count: constrained by family circumstance, constricted by fragile finances, unsure about major, direction, or why I’d signed on to spend my summer in a muggy, unfamiliar place in a muggy, unfamiliar state.

I’d promised I’d never go back to the little Christian camp I’d been part of for the last dozen summers. I’d seen God’s grace and provision there, and I loved the expansive view of Catskill mountains, bright New York sky, rolling cow pastures. But I’d also seen more than I needed of a social construct that said “no” to me at every turn, while guys I’d grown up with were handed privilege and opportunity they hadn't earned, sometimes didn't even want.  

I was tired of being treated as "less than".

Title IX had passed three years earlier, and that June regulations on enforcement were about to be released, but in my little world it was still the case that the least capable, least committed man would be given deference before the most capable, most committed woman.

My plan, that long-ago summer, had been to find an exotic job in an exotic place, and never set foot in a Christian camp again. I needed an adventure, an opportunity to grow. I needed someone to trust me, and I needed a way to shake free of the simple-minded script my culture had drafted for the female follower of Christ.

But the internet had not yet been invented, and exotic jobs were hard to come by. I applied for everything I could find and by the start of May had only one option left: go home to share my grandmother’s mobile home and hope for a job in the local Rite Aid.

I had been invited to apply for a job at Sandy Cove, had ignored the invitation. Another Christian camp? No thank you. 

But just days before the end of the spring semester, I sought out the director to see if there were any openings left.

Canoe instructor.

And two or three weeks of out-of-camp canoe trips.

Maybe some backpacking? And could I help lead an experimental three day horse trip?

Looking back, I marvel. Who would I be if that avenue forward hadn't opened?

I don’t have room to tell all I saw, learned, and still treasure from that summer and the next. The exhilaration of heading out into open water with ten girls, six canoes, and one fellow leader.

The excitement of ten days on the Appalachian Trail with two women I admired and a dozen counselors-in-training. 

The amazement when confronting challenges along the way: they trust me to do this? Me?

The growing sense of freedom in a setting where girls and young women were allowed, even encouraged, to be funny, loud, competitive, in charge.

My months at Sandy Cove were among the most formative of my life, and certainly the most freeing. 

Two years ago I was invited to the first ever “Camp Sandy Cove Girls Camp 70s Staff Reunion.” I said no – for many reasons: I only worked there two summers. It was over three decades ago. I hadn’t stayed in touch. I don’t do reunions. Ever.

But God has been teaching me much about what it means to have my life woven into the lives of others, and when invited to the second annual reunion, last year, I overcame misgivings and went.

And went back again, this year, for the third annual reunion – now more “retreat” than reunion.

Even now, when we gather, there’s an unexpected sense of freedom: freedom to laugh, sing old camp songs at odd times, jump in and lead, or sit back and watch. During a rowdy, creative team game, the group competed without apology, challenged the leader, stretched the rules, improvised freely.

Not all who gather know each other, since some were there during different summers, or worked in different parts of camp, but with new friends and old, the protocol of superficial conversation is easily suspended. Conversations move quickly to issues of substance: What has God been teaching you? What’s been hard? How are you growing?

One of the group challenged us all, last January, to work toward a 5k run, a way to invite us to examine our stewardship of physical health. When do fifty and sixty-something women talk honestly about weight, exercise, ways we use food to deaden frustration, stuff down our sadness, hide from our failures? Yet there we were, chugging up and down hill, some walking, some jogging, a few dancing circles around the rest, while conversations bloomed, about disordered patterns of eating, about places we’re stuck in our efforts to get fit, about ways those who are strong in this can help and encourage those who are weak.

And we’re all weak, aren't we? Women I was in awe of, years ago, are quick to share their places of struggle. Conversations turn freely to areas of need, acknowledged failure, places of doubt, discouragement, uncertainty.

And we’re all strong, aren't we? In a setting where there are no pre-assigned roles, gifts bubble up to serve the group, and everyone has something to offer.

This morning, looking around the circle gathered for a simple chapel service, I found myself giving thanks for the witness of so many strong, joyful, fiercely faithful women.

The funniest women I know were in that circle.

Some of the most adventurous.

Some of the most fit.

Some of the most generous.

Certainly the most encouraging.

How many lives have been touched by gifts brought to light during those fruitful years of girls-only ministry?

How many lives are touched even now by women in that circle: teachers, coaches, pastors, camp directors, lawyers, writers, nurses, mothers, grandmothers, faithful friends.

And then there's the larger circle, the women who weren't with us, readying their own camps for the first week of the season, training indigenous missionaries and pastors on distant continents, serving and caring in ways too many to mention.  

But here’s the question that traveled home with me:

How many other women, other gifts, have been smothered, stifled, shoved aside, in a Christian culture that even now measures women as “less than”?

What enriching perspectives have been thoughtlessly dismissed?

How much creativity and joy has the church, and surrounding world, lost?

Savoring the freedom of a lovely weekend, remembering the freedom of those summers in the seventies, I find myself wondering how to carry that freedom with me, and how to offer it to others, not just women, but men, children, teens, adults, those who follow Christ and those who see the Christian faith as a narrow box to be avoided at all costs.

In a paternalistic, legalistic, highly-authoritarian world, Jesus said "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

I catch glimpses of that freedom, and I want more of it. Not just for myself, but for all of us: freedom to be the people we were made to be, to use the gifts we were given to use, to shred the predetermined scripts and enter the adventure God has in store for those who follow him.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Spoken Word

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

   (T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton V)
I’ve been thinking and blogging about courage – courage to think, speak, act.  

And puzzling about what gets in the way of living into courage: what keeps us from the hard work of whole-hearted living? What fears keep us silent when we know we should speak?

A friend posted about improvisation: the anxiety of attempting something new, the fear of rejection. And then she taped herself improvising on her harp, and posted in on Facebook. A lovely gift of courage.

Poetry is a place where my own anxieties bubble up.  I wrote poetry as a kid, some of it awful, some of it moving toward something of value. Then I retreated from even the thought of poetry: too revealing, too threatening, too hard. I dip my toe back in now and then, shudder and turn away. And yet, I feel the pull of the struggle with words, the attempt to grasp something bigger than words and hold it, if just for a moment.

I recently agreed to review a new volume of poems for Speakeasy, an on-line review community, and then found myself wondering why I’d done it. I’m happy to pass along poems I love. But review poems? Critique them? Offer comment on anyone brave enough to assemble a volume of poems and display them for the world to see?
That seems a bit presumptuous.

But – I agreed to do it.

So here’s my review:

Help Me Be: Praying in Poems, is a slender paperback volume by Dale C. Fredrickson, with forward by Walter Brueggemann (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013; 48 pp.)

The cover displays three paintings included in the book: evocative abstracts by Lindsay McLean which highlight the collection’s three sections: Orientation (Or, Life is Good), Disorientation (Or, Life is Not Good), and New Orientation (Or, Life is Good Again).

“Prosaic” is the word that first comes to mind, both in considering the section heads and some of the poems themselves. They confront their topics head-on, with little of the expected stuff of poetry: metaphor, allusion, musical phrasing, memorable imagery.

Reading the author’s note on the back of the book, I was struck by the mention of spoken word, and turned to read the poems out loud. Suddenly, they came alive, with the passion of praise, the rhythm of complaint, a sense of verbal play: 
We sigh. We cry. We ached.
Stunned. Numbed, Undone.
Erased. No one can be replaced.
Fredrickson’s poems don’t work, for me, as contemplative reading, as quiet reflections at the end of the day. But as spoken word, or “slam poetry” (poetry written to be performed out loud) they have an energy and rawness that would work well in a public setting, in a worship service, youth group event, shouted aloud on a hillside, read in call and response, or as a congregational chorus.

My first experience of this kind of spoken word was Amena Brown, a gifted poet and performer encountered at a youth conference several years ago. I’m not sure her poems would communicate well as flat words on a bare white page, but as she performs them, they dazzle, sizzle, sing. (Looking for her latest work, I find IVP just released her first book: Breaking Old Rhythms: Answering the Call of a Creative God. Add that to the reading list!)

Looking through Fredrickson’s website, I found some of the poems from Help Me Be recorded as audio files. Another poem is available on youtube. It gives a glimpse of how the poems are used in the context of a creative worship service.

I admire the courage and creativity captured in Help Me Be, and the portrait of a life of faith lived honestly, with passion and real energy. At the same time, I winced at small mistakes a careful editing would have corrected, and the erratic capitalization and over-reliance on alliteration running through many of the poems.

On the back cover of his book, Fredrickson notes: “For me, everything is material for learning how to live well: family, friends,, kayaking, camping, music, surfing and good books. My desire is to engage people with words that shimmer and to ignite in them the desire to be fully what God has created them to be.”

The fear of being less than perfect too often keeps us from the kind of whole-hearted life Fredrickson’s poems model: honest, hopeful, fully human:
Your choice is not easy
Risky freedom or
Safe slavery.
Do you step forward?
Or do you turn back?
(Risky Freedom Safe Slavery)
My friend, considering the challenge of improvisation, wrote: “Sometimes these anxieties take on a life of their own.” And then she moved past it: “I want to be done worrying about this one thing. If only they were all that simple.”

To quote another poem from Help Me Be:
You say you want to live boldly purposefully without fear?
            Dig Deep
                        Push Beyond the Surface
                        Listen the Eternal Echoes in your heart.
You say you are ready?
            Dive Leap Step Start . . .
            (This Is The Year)
Well yes, I do want to live purposefully without fear. So, here’s my own attempt to Dive Leap Step Start: a poem of my own. Feel free to read it out loud, consider it silently, critique it, or applaud.
Spoken Word

Poem of the ages,
macrocosmic enterprise -
equations thrown across the galaxies,
quarks, neutrinos, antiparticles,
drenched in joy, in love, in laughter -
How many yom spent painting sea shells
plying that pearlescent pink
and now, of course, you're picturing a paintbrush –
me! making mud pies!
balanced on a ladder stringing stars.
I poured my very self into a hominid
and now you're searching out the bucket -
silly child.

Say this –
if you can speak at all -
the one who is
dreamed, breathed, propelled, imagined, sang
this universe in place
across time, empty space,
in ways your physicists, inventors, chemists, poets
see as through a darkened cloud
and you
wielding words
so certain of the things you think you know -
charash – be still, be formed,
wait and see.

Each word holds worlds
each world a fragment

of the living Word.

Thank you, Dale Fredrickson, for embracing poetry, and challenging the rest of us to a life more full and fearless.

Message in a Bottle spoken word from Dale Fredrickson on Vimeo.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Courage, Hope, Generosity

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you. . .

Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young,
to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unageing in the mind.

Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
  (Wendell Berry,
         The Timbered Choir)

I spent this past weekend in the company of women of great courage, hope, and generosity.

I have been on an interesting journey, and most recently it’s been leading me into political engagement with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been working on a national agriculture study, leading caucuses and workshops about food and farming, and have just been voted onto the local and state League of Women Voters boards.

So, this past weekend, I went to the biennial state convention of the Pennsylvania League in the lovely town of Lewisburg, PA.

The start of the weekend was a wild caravan ride to see some natural gas drilling sites in the hillsides near Loyalsock State Forest. Guided by a local member of the Alliance for Responsible Drilling, our group drove down steep back roads, stopped along roadsides, counted waste water tank trucks in caravans of their own, then hiked across a muddy field for a birds-eye view of six active fracking wells.

One of the members of our group, a woman well into her seventies, carried a small note pad and jotted notes at every turn.

Another, just weeks after hip surgery, gratefully accepted a hand to climb a slippery slope, eager to see and understand further a topic she’s been studying for years.

The conversation never stopped: How many gallons. What happens to the waste water. How far is the nearest stream. How many trucks per day.

From there we went back to our convention site, for meetings about judicial reform, industrial farming, the broken party system, how best to advocate for more open primaries.

Some of those in attendance were younger than I am (57, if you’ve been wondering).

Many were older.

Some much older.

One woman spoke of working for thirty years to find a way to promote a more impartial, well-prepared judiciary.

Another has been studying Pennsylvania politics for almost as long, looking for possible points of reform, showing up for hearings, offering testimony, meeting with legislators, tireless in pursuit of something approaching a more open democratic process.

I sat several times next to a woman working to protect lakes, farms, and a fragile wetland area from the dangers of fracking wastewater being dumped into old, crumbling wells just miles from her home, not far from Lake Erie.

I spoke with another woman working hard to ensure adequate funding for education in rural schools far from any center of political power.

At one meeting we talked about the Pennsylvania Justice Bell and the 1915 statewide referendum on women’s rights. While my county and many western counties voted for women’s right to vote, the majority of state voters (all men) voted emphatically “no.” We were reminded of the 72 years between the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, hosted by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the final ratification of the 19th Amendment in August, 1920.

At another meeting we recognized fifty-year members – women who joined the league to work for Civil Rights, to advocate for the still-unpassed Equal Rights Amendment.

I was struck by the energy and resolve of these women, and the endless hours they give, showing up to register new voters, writing letters, making calls, trying to understand issues. One meeting paused over a motion about sales tax: Who is harmed by higher sales tax? Who benefits? Why should it matter?

Listening to the passionate discussions over morning coffee, over lunch, between meetings, late into the night, I found myself thinking about this month’s Synchroblog topic: ordinary courage. 
“In her book, The Gifts of ImperfectionBrené Brown has this to say about ordinary courage:
'The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.'
“The great thing about ordinary courage is that it leads to wholehearted living.”
We live in a world that encourages us not to care: 
Don’t vote, they’re all the same. Give up, things will never change.
 It’s all too complicated, so why bother?
 Look out for yourself, it’s the best you can do. 
It seems unwise to engage our hearts, to let ourselves care too deeply. Somehow it’s okay to be passionate about a TV show, a new restaurant, a hairstyle. But keep your voice level when you talk of politics. Don’t say too much about poverty or prison reform. Don’t offend, don’t insist, don’t dig too deeply.

Please, don’t think too much.
This past weekend, one of the women I was with spoke laughingly of a reporter who wrote of “whip-smart women in comfortable shoes.”

Well yes – it’s hard to visit fracking sites in anything but comfortable shoes. Or to run down hallways lugging laptops and projectors in a pair of narrow high heels.

What kind of culture is more interested in women’s shoes than in what chemicals are in our water, what toxins are in our food?

I’m reminded of a passage from Wendell Berry’s essay “On Difficult Hope”: 
"We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others . . . deplore the whole list and its causes.
 "Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvements and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protestors who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal.  .  .
 "Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” (Wendell Berry, "On Difficult Hope")
Both hope and courage are qualities of the heart, essential to whole-hearted living, worth preserving no matter the stupidities of the age.

Yet, as I think of the women I came to know this past weekend, I see in them something beyond the  the perseverance Berry describes. I turn back to the poem I started with: the idea of generosity.

What motivates these women of courage is the wish to give something better to those who come
behind us.

The woman living near the waste-water wells, organizing town meetings, writing the EPA, protesting, once again, a dangerous practice she fears will do great harm, said emphatically:
“It’s not about us. Or even our children. It’s our grandchildren. And the children after them. What happens when those well-linings break? What happens when those chemicals leach into the water table, into the lake?” 
It takes courage to look past the economies of today, to spend time, energy, resources tirelessly, generously, in hope of passing on something of value to generations to come.

In a world of self-protectiveness, of turning inward, of looking out for number one, I admire, celebrate, and am happy to walk with those tireless, fearless, generous women who refuse to settle for a life in stylish shoes. 
Every day you have less reasonnot to give yourself away.

This post is part of the June Synchroblog. There are lots of links this month - take some time to visit them and join the conversation.
This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury
Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster
Everyday Bravery: Overcoming the Fear of Being Wrong by Jessica
Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier
How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager
Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen
The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig
The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers
Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie
All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols
I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer
What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl
Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion
Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin
The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub
the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar
It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman

Sunday, June 2, 2013

With All Your Mind?

It’s graduation season. College graduations are over, high school ceremonies just ahead.

I attended one this year: a lovely, outdoor celebration of the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies, complete with bagpipe processional. It reminded me of my own UPenn processional, almost thirty years ago, walking down Locust Walk in full doctoral regalia.

I spent seven years at Penn, studying literature, theory, the life of the mind in poetry, fiction, essay.

Before that I attended Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college in rural western New York. I minored in math and double-majored in English and humanities, a cross-disciplinary study of philosophy, history, literature, and art.  

I’m thankful for both institutions, thankful for the chance to read, learn, study.

Thankful I grew up in a state, New York, that took higher education seriously, and funded it generously.

Thankful I reached college at a time – the seventies – when the public will considered education important, and provided ample scholarships and grants for capable students eager to learn.

And thankful – beyond thankful – for the women along the way who encouraged my mind, gave me books to read, challenged me to plan for college, modeled a life of thoughtful engagement.

The churches I attended as a child and teen were not so encouraging.

While Jesus said, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37-38), the message I heard, in various forms, was “We’ll tell you what to think.” “Questions are dangerous.” “Women should be silent.”

I remember coming to a point where it seemed impossible to be an intelligent female Christian. It appeared to me, in my late teens, that I had three options: a lobotomy, a sex-change, or a speedy exit from the Christian faith.

Then, at Houghton, I attended a lecture by a writing professor, Nancy Barcus, on the topic “God doesn’t think I’m dumb.” She’d recently written an article on the subject for a Christian publication. I don’t remember the specifics of her discussion, but I remember listening with relief to her insistence that God intends us to use the minds he gave us, that no question is out of bounds, that Christ’s interactions with women demonstrated a repudiation of the patriarchal diminishment of women’s gifts, intelligence, or contribution.

Not long after, I found myself in my first history class with Dr. Katherine Lindley, head of Houghton’s history department, advisor to its pre-law students, a woman of huge intellect, fierce faith, and ferocious engagement. She started every class, promptly, with a brief reading from her own devotional study: a paragraph from Calvin, an excerpt from Brother Lawrence, an anecdote from Francis of Assisi. Then she’d be off on the subject of the day, moving fast, asking hard questions, the most purposeful, insightful, demanding teacher I’d ever had, or would have.

“Ideas have consequences,” was her mantra. All ideas. Any idea. The universe revolves around man? Trace that out. Watch where it leads. Survival of the fittest? Follow that across decades – down to our own economic times.

Students weren’t late to Kay Lindley’s classes. They didn’t doodle or daydream. They sat at attention, scribbling notes, thinking hard.

I took two semesters of Western Civ from Dr. Lindley, then tried to squeeze in others. She was one of three professors overseeing my Humanities Senior Seminar, the best class of my life: six students, three professors, reading and discussing Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Camus, Sartre, Freud.

Dr. Lindley, and other professors at Houghton, talked often about the integration of faith and learning, and repeated often the idea, paraphrased from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and others, that “all truth is God’s truth.”

The role of women?

Age of the earth?

Creation / evolution?

Comparative religion?

If you start with a narrow, predetermined framework, those can be threatening topics.

If you start from a belief that the world is God’s, the truth is his, and our role is to understand more fully, those topics become intriguing, richly rewarding, fertile ground for awe, amazement, investigation, deep humility.

Jesus said:
 “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) 
Books have been written about the strong anti-intellectual tendencies of contemporary Christians. In 1994, historian Mark Noll wrote about The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with a much-quoted assertion: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

Ten years later, reassessing his earlier work, Noll admitted:

"Some readers have rightly pointed out that what I described as a singularly evangelical problem is certainly related to the general intellectual difficulties of an advertisement-driven, image-preoccupied, television-saturated, frenetically hustling consumer society, and that the reason evangelicals suffer from intellectual weakness is that American culture as a whole suffers from intellectual weakness."

But pointing to an intellectually lazy culture doesn’t excuse intellectually lazy Christians.  Os Guiness, in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, wrote: 
"We evangelicals need to confess individually and collectively that we have betrayed the Great Commandment to love God with our minds. We need to confess that we have given ourselves up to countless forms of unutterable folly. God has given us minds, but many of us have left them underdeveloped or undeveloped.
  • God has given us education, beyond that of most people in human history, but we have used it for other ends.
  • God has given us great exemplars of thinking in Christian history, but we have ignored them or admired them for other virtues.
  • God has given us opportunities, but we have failed to grasp them because we have refused to think them through before him. 

That last point hits me hard: what does it mean to be one of the best educated women in the history of the world, in a culture with instant access to every kind of information, in a nation whose policies influence poor farmers, hungry families, frightened citizens in every nation on earth?

What opportunities do I have for influence, engagement, investment, that demand an active mind?

How can I love God with all my mind, and my neighbor as myself?

To me, loving God with my mind means reading and reflecting on his word, rather than expecting someone else to tell me what it says. I’ve read the Bible straight through on my own, but these days use Scripture Union’sEncounter with God, available in booklet form or online. (Full disclosure: my husband, Whitney Kuniholm, is president of Scripture Union USA, writes regularly for Encounter with God, and also blogs about the Bible at The Essential Bible Blog.)

This blog is also part of loving God with my mind – a record of questions I’m exploring. My "What's Your Platform" series last fall was an attempt to view political issues through the lens of scripture,and I've also been exploring healing and prayer. Right now I’m thinking about mental illness, and the role of pharmaceuticals in treatment. Agriculture and food, and the way federal policy has shaped our diet and undermined small farmers. Invasive plants, and creative ways to help restore diminished habitat.

But loving God with all my mind, and my neighbor as myself, suggests a need to help others receive an education like my own. I’ve written dozens of college recommendations for young people I’ve come to know through youth ministry and missions. Our family has financially supported a Ugandan student through medical school; it’s sobering to think that what we spend on coffee or entertainment could provide an advanced degree in a country where a year of tuition, fees, and living expenses cost less than one Ivy League course credit. 

I’ve also invested in helping friends go back to school, watching their kids, offering academic advice, proof-reading papers, talking through difficult concepts.

I’ve found ways to engage my own mind in loving God and neighbor, and ways to support neighbors, near and far, in training and using their minds.

And yes, my own vote is shaped, in part, by a candidate’s willingness to invest in public education at
every level, and sensitivity to the needs of low-income students.

But I find myself wondering: what would it look like to be part of a community that loves God with all our minds, together?

What could Christ’s church accomplish, if we chose to use the minds God gave us, with humility, grace, wisdom, discipline?

Greg Jao's Your Mind's Mission (an IVP minibook, available as download or in print) might be an interesting place to start - either alone, or with a small group. It's short, practical, and offers interesting application assignments. 

And the Hearts & Minds booknotes blog offers resources, encouragement, occasional discounts on books that could point the way. (Here's a post with more resources on loving God with all our minds, and one on Resurrectionary Reading, with ideas for "resurrectionary reading groups".)

What has helped you most in learning to love God with all your mind?

Where do you see the church helping to make this happen?

What next steps would you recommend?

Please join this conversation!