Sunday, June 28, 2015

Storms and Stones

It was an unsettling week here in Chester County.

Warnings of storms, tornados, flooding. Over 200,000 households lost power when trees pulled down power lines, crushed cars, ripped into houses. Transportation was scuttled by suspension of mass transit, closed bridges and roads.  

The headlines were also unsettling: important Supreme Court decisions, fallout from the shootings in Charleston, outrage and celebration, grief and remembrance. And fear, with two mass shootings, seventeen casualties, just days apart in Philly neighborhoods I know.

We all have versions of what happened, why it happened, ideas about what should have been.

We all see the past, present, future, from our own narrow angle of vision.

“I don’t know anything about Pennsylvania politics,” someone wrote on my Facebook page recently, “but I still have an opinion.”

Of course. We all have opinions.

Even when we know nothing about it.

Even when no one wants to hear.

Some days I gag on opinions.

And some days I’m overwhelmed by what I don’t know, may never know.

That list is long:

What it’s like to see someone shooting on the street outside my door.

What it’s like to have sick children and no money for health care.

What it’s like to be black in a white-dominant culture.

What it’s like to be at odds with my own body, my own gender.

What it’s like to emerge from decades of sexual abuse, and wonder who might be safe to love.

What it’s like to be ridiculed and labeled for the way I walk, the way I talk.

What it’s like to live in a place where I don’t know the language or customs.

What it’s like to leave home, knowing it’s no longer safe, and head for a place I’ve never seen, where I won’t be welcome, where I might not survive.

What it’s like to live in a household with no fixed address, revolving daddies, no adult attention.

The list could go on, but it’s bringing me to tears so I think I’ll stop.

Life is hard, and the brokenness runs deep.

Creation groans under the weight of our millenniums of sin.

Our selfish choices and idolatrous systems shatter creation’s beauty and unleash harm in every direction.

Chemicals in our water yielding fish and frogs of disrupted gender. 

Marketing strategies that use sex as a commercial commodity.

Trade agreements built on increased consolidation of money and incentivized mistreatment of people and land.

Loss of community. 

Disconnected families. 

Simplistic, deceptive policies that yield deep harvests of anger.

We are far from where this good earth started, far from how things “ought” to be.

There are no easy fixes, and sometimes our most determined efforts miss the underlying issues.

Wrestling with invasive plants in the park where I spend time, I find myself wondering why I bother. Arms stinging from the mile-a-minute barbs, I survey the native plants so painstakingly planted last fall, crowded and choked by mugwort and invasive thistle. In the pond nearby, a member of our Weed Warrior team wades out to gather water chestnut before it spreads and smothers everything in its way. Has our work brought real improvement, or simply made it easier for the spread of thuggish weeds?

On my computer, hours later, I track the progress of the 2016 Pennsylvania state budget. I’ve become involved in advocating for a fair funding formula for public education. The more I learn, the more appalled I am at how inequitable our school funding system is, how much has been cut from schools with at-risk students, how little is given the children who need most. Our state is busy building prisons and courting dangerous polluters while failing to educate our children; too many wonderful young men and women I know have given up on teaching or moved to find teaching jobs in states far from home.

I read my twitter feed and grieve: at the dishonest bits of nonsense, the divisive infographics. Would honest information stem the tide of partisan spin? Is it even worth the effort?

Some people seem to have all the answers. They march with certainty through life, pronouncing right and wrong, dividing the world into camps of enemies and allies.

I watch with sadness. I’ve seen the storms that have bent those friends to one side or the other. I have seen the harm we do when we choose to judge what we’ve been told we cannot judge.

I am not without sin.

And I have no stones to throw.

As always, in times when my spirit grows weary, I turn to the one who said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Sitting in silence with my savior and friend, I am reminded that it’s not my job to judge.

When it comes to sheep or goats, Jesus said, we will all be surprised.

I resonate with a post by blogger Ed Cyzewski
Declarations about the collapse of civilization because of same sex marriage ring hollow when we consider that Americans toss 31.1% of our food while allowing millions to go hungry, [and] fail to ask whether our ridiculously high incarceration rates ruin thousands of lives that could have been set right through treatment programs . . .
 If God is going to condemn us over anything in America, it’s going to be our indifference and inaction when it comes to feeding people, giving out clean water, offering shelter, visiting the sick, and helping the prisoners, not a Supreme Court ruling.
Discernment and wisdom are always needed, yet it’s not my job to judge, or deliver opinions on everything and everyone.

It’s my job to listen well and speak little.

To pray.

To obey in the small particulars of the needs that confront me.

To offer food, help, comfort.

To nurture faith and hope.

To love my neighbor as myself.

With gentleness and humility.

Every neighbor.

Every day.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Violent Unwelcome. Holy Embrace.

The email announcing the June Synchroblog, Hospitality, arrived as I was grieving a blog post I’d just read, Austin Channing Brown’s June 8 post: “This is What It’s Like.” 

From the point of view of 15 year old Dajerria Becton, Channing Brown described the incident at the Craig Ranch pool in McKinney, TX, that ended with Officer Eric Casebolt throwing Dajerria onto the pavement, then kneeling on her back.

This is what it’s like, Channing Brown wrote, to be a black girl in America: 
We know things. We know things about hair and patience and waiting. We know about love and laughter and dancing and joy. We know things about beauty and we create it together. And we know that beauty can be shattered. We know about ugliness. We know too well about dehumanization and violence. . .  We know about being suddenly and violently unwelcome. 
I’ve been praying over those words “violently unwelcome” for the past week or so.

And even more so since that sudden, violent unwelcome shook the nation Wednesday night when a young white man walked into a church in Charleston, sat for a while, then stood to shoot nine men and women.

Grief bubbles up inside. Lament rinses my eyes, floods through my tightened stomach, as thoughts swirl inside and storms gather overhead. 

I don’t know exactly what happened in McKinney, Texas last week, who said what first, or why a police officer chose to use force on a group of obviously unarmed teens.

And I can’t begin to understand what evil vision compelled Dylann Roof to open fire on a congregation of African Americans gathered for prayer.

I do know this: God’s love demands that all who claim his name serve as agents of his own radical, extravagant welcome.

And I know this: when we exclude others, hold them at arm’s length, assure ourselves that somehow we are better, more worthy, of greater value, we rip holes in the fabric of community and set ourselves apart from a deep, sure knowledge of God’s embracing love.

Jesus, days before his death, said “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”Matthew 23:37

Not willing to be gathered under the wings that offered shelter to prostitutes and lepers.

Not willing to share the embrace than included Samaritans and sinners.

So the violent unwelcome that killed prophets and stoned God’s spokesmen turned against Jesus himself, who experienced in his own hands and feet the violent unwelcome of those who dare to draw the lines and call themselves the inside group.

On Thursday, Austin Channing posted about the sin of white supremacy, the lingering belief that somehow white is better than black, the assumption that this nation most belongs to descendents of Europeans rather than the medley of races and colors that share our ragged, still unfolding story.
The sin of white supremacy is thriving in this country because white Christians refuse to name it and uproot it, refuse to confess it and dismantle it, refuse to acknowledge it and repent of it, refuse to say the words
“Its in my family”
“Its in my church”
“Its in my soul.”
Every time I write about race, someone white says “just know it isn’t all of us,” believing this will bring me comfort. It is offered as balm, but fails miserably. I would much rather people say, “I see this sin in my own heart, my own life, my own church and I am working to uproot it. I don’t want to be this way, and I will do the work to submit this ugliness before Christ.” That’s what I want to hear. Creating distance from it doesn’t serve me, doesn’t bring me comfort. Because it is in all of us. White supremacy has infected all of us who know America. If I have to deal with the white supremacist notions within myself, than I don’t want to hear about how “its not all of us”. It is. It is all of us who must learn to love blackness as an equal and authentic image of God. 
She’s talking here about something deeper than color.

Visions of beauty that reject certain body styles, hair textures, facial features, affirming others as inherently better.

Ideas about ways of speaking, acting, moving that fit the white predominant culture and label and exclude those that differ.

The inexplicable blindness that assumes its okay to lock up huge populations of young men of color while young white men accused of the same crimes post bond, hire lawyers, and walk off free.

I cringe from the label – but yes. We are riddled through with white supremacist notions. 

Sick to the core with the age-old notion that God loves “our kind” best.

Channing continues:
There is this pervasive belief that Christians can simply choose to be tolerant, or polite, or even kind. There is this sense that as long as certain lines aren’t crossed, that you’re okay. As long as you don’t tell the racist joke, as long as you had a really good reason for moving into an all white community, as long as you never say nigger, as long as you do charity work, as long as you go on the mission trip, as long as you never do anything mean- then you’re alright. Not so.
Jesus has two commandments. “...You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind and with all your soul. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37-39). The second is like it. So loving your neighbor as yourself is like loving God with all your heart and all your mind and all our soul. Love. 1 John 4:20 says this, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Cannot. 
I need you to know that these two verses fly in the face of the sin if white supremacy and racism. To not uproot white supremacy from the mind, heart and soul is to miss the mark on loving your neighbor as yourself and is hatred toward God. I repeat. The sin of racism is hatred toward God. Racism is hatred toward and denial of blackness as an equal and authentic image of God. 
In our church last Sunday, I watched the dearly loved walking forward to receive the bread and wine that are our share in the death and life of Christ.

We are not a perfect congregation, yet we welcome the strange, the stranger.

We have members from every continent, from many languages, many backgrounds.

Tattooed, teased, arrayed in mismatched suits and tattered jeans.

Carrying the burdens of depression, addiction, unemployment, lingering illness.

Children of every color dance toward the priest in the front of the sanctuary, tugging at a parent’s hand, waving to a friend.

Dearly loved children  - all.

Old and young.

Black and white. 

Broken and almost whole.
Who can say what thoughts of welcome or unwelcome travel through our minds.

And who can say where violent unwelcome will next stand in our midsts, blasting a hole in our longing for at least a superficial peace.

I pray our church will be a place of genuine, lasting safety and welcome.

Pray God’s people, near and far, will hear and receive the cries of the excluded.

Pray our embrace will reach beyond our walls to a waiting world of hurt.

Pray we will practice hospitality to in a way that makes visible God’s encompassing embrace.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

God’s Economy: A New Metric

As I wrote in my last post, what we count is what we get.

Or, as Dan Ariely, Duke University professor of behavioral economics, explains:
Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.   
Unfortunately, what’s easiest to count is rarely what we wanted most.

Education is one arena where this truth is increasingly evident.Teaching to the test in young grades may yield brief academic advantage, but those advantages don’t last, and what’s lost is hard to measure and harder still to regain: inquisitiveness, self-directed learning, play, joyful social interaction. Research documents the loss in both student and teacher motivation when intrusive assessment undermines real learning. 

Educators at every grade level object to over-reliance on standardized testing, and suggest that focus on test scores has made real education more elusive. According to Steve Nelson, of the Calhoun School in Manhattan:
Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors. . . This simple statement succinctly characterizes why the American education system continues beating its head against the wall. . . 
After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I'm convinced that this simple statement -- "Measure the wrong things and you'll get the wrong behaviors" -- is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).
Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured, even if only in our hearts, the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors (reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery, daydreaming, recess, music, cooperation rather than competition). And, as the research in early childhood education makes clear, our children would be better at reading and math too.
 I’d like to see better metrics for education.

I’d also like to see better metrics for our economy.

As I noted last week, our current reliance on GDP and GNP to tell us how we’re doing fuels an economy focused on unsustainable growth, unwavering consumption, and a push for productivity that outweighs any hope for work-life balance or family-friendly policy.  

Robert Kennedy spoke eloquently about this in 1968, just months before he was assassinated:  
Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  
Last week I mentioned Bhutan’s interest in measuring gross national happiness (GNH) , and the launch of the GPI, the Gross Progress Indicator, in Maryland, Vermont, and Oregon.

Oxfam, Scotland, has been instrumental in creating yet another alternative: the Humankind Index, measuring access to housing, education, health care, safe outdoor environments, satisfying work.

All the indices I’ve seen move closer to honest assessment than the current GDP, but they also seem to miss the heart of what I’d want to measure.

I’ve been writing for the past few weeks about God’s economy, and the ways that scripture, read in context and thoughtfully applied, critiques and challenges the current strange trust American Christians place in consumptive capitalism.

The GDP measures how well we line up with the values of that economic model but says little about how well we adhere to the "oikonomeia," or "economia," literally "household law," described in both Old and New Testaments: an economy based on care for creation, fair treatment of livestock and workers, welcome and provision for the poor, the weak, the outsider.

If the numbers we heard each day were not about the rise and fall of stocks, the rise or fall of GDP, but instead the measure of our generous giving, our forgiveness of debt, children moved from poverty toplenty, immigrants embraced as part of a fairly-paid workforce, how would our behavior change?

As I’ve been thinking, praying, researching metrics, ways of assessing a different kind of value, I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
It occurs to me that I’ve been invisible to the GDP for almost half a decade: no income, very little spending. Doing things that don’t compute on any economic scale. Working very hard, almost every day, for nothing that the GDP can measure.

Yet, according to the Well-O-Meter™  I found in my hunt for a new metric, I rate a 9.53 in the Human Development Index, a composite index that has become one of the most widely used indices of well-being around the world. 

There are measurements that tell us almost nothing of importance (like the GDP).

And measurements that get closer to what might really matter (like the Human Development Index, or Oxfam’s Humankind Index).
But there will always be things we can’t measure.

The things of greatest value.







How do we keep ourselves moving toward the things God values most, when all around us the measurements point us in the opposite direction?

Maybe the first step is refusing to believe the numbers.

And looking beyond them to a different way of being. 
Don’t live the way this world lives. Let your way of thinking be completely changed. Then you will be able to test what God wants for you. And you will agree that what he wants is right. His plan is good and pleasing and perfect.   Romans 12:2 
UK Measures of National Wellbeing screenshot

This is the last in a series on God's Economy. Other posts:
Fruit that Will Last April 19, 2015
God’s Economy: Subtract or Multiply?  April 26, 2015
God’s Economy: Inescapable Network of Mutuality  May 3, 2015
God's Economy: Generational Investment May 10, 2015
God's Economy: Managing Anger Assets  May 17, 2015
God’s Economy: Muchness and Delight May 24, 2015
God’s Economy: What You Count, May 31, 2015