Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bullies and Neighbors

"Young man, we don't have have fun by making little girls cry." I made my voice firm as I said this to the nine-year-old boy at the fountain, but my words still sounded hollow. To some boys, making little girls cry is the most fun ever, and we both knew it. Crying girls make such interesting noises! They give you so much attention! You are the biggest person in a little girl's world when you are making her cry!

This boy had staked his claim at the deepest part of the fountain, the only place where kids could sit and submerge their feet, and he was waiting for other children to approach the coveted spot so he could fling water in their faces. They would back off crying when the water hit their eyes, but the siren song of the best spot at the fountain kept bringing them back. All the kids hovered just out of his reach, waiting for him to leave so they could dip their feet. He wasn't going anywhere.

There's been a lot of talk online about bullies lately, and the drift of the conversation troubles me. There is a static quality to the bullies of parental complaints, as though that third-grader with the sneer is a monster of unchangeable nature.

And the bullies are always, always someone else's kid.

This boy at the fountain was no bully. When he made eye contact with me, he recognized an authority figure. It leached the fun out of the experience for him. He did not backtalk, and he stopped splashing. He sat in the water for another minute, and then ran off to play where there would be no inconvenient adults to limit him.

It does not always go this way.  Sometimes there are real bullies, even as children. The last time I corrected someone else's child at this park - a violent child with cold eyes - he kicked me for it.

"No tolerance" policies against bullying will always target boys more than girls. The boy at the fountain who only needed correction will be the object of such a policy, while the truly vicious girl who sadistically wounds with her eyes and words will slip by. Conversations about bullies seem to focus on solutions that segregate and ostracize, cutting off the misbehaving kids from others. What rarely gets owned in these conversations is the parent's fear and unwillingness to risk intervening in the life of a child. After all, his parents could be anyone. They could hate you. They could threaten you. They could sue you.

I don't have a solution to the human heart. People hurt each other. Minimizing that hurt is not the job of a single authority; it's the vocation of each of us who live in community. I look out for you and you look out for me. We correct each other's children. We protect each other's children. And we train our kids to care about the smallest and the weakest, even if it takes a lifetime to make the lesson sink in. My kids, and any kids who play with my kids, will get the kindness lecture. I watch out for spite, and I pounce on it.

Another day, another sunny afternoon at the park. I was waiting for my kids at the park and a group of young men walked by. There were eight of them, walking in pairs, and they had the trim waists and lean muscles of an athletic team. They were catcalling two young women on the street, shouting vulgarities while the women walked faster. The two groups turned the corner, past where I could see them, and the young men began to run. I heard a woman scream. The homeless men on the corner, who could see where I couldn't, stood up straight and threatening and looked toward the scream. No one hates teenage thugs more than homeless men.  The men stood, poised to run, but did not run. I hope it means they did not need to.

I found my children and went that way. The young men and the women were gone from the bus stop, and the only sign anyone had been there was the city's cast-iron trash can overturned on the sidewalk. I tried to to right it, but it was too heavy for me to lift by myself.

My daughters have a friend they love to play with. This little girl lost her father recently. He was a cab driver, and two men shot him in a robbery. They thought he must have money. It was the start of his shift, and he probably only had twenty dollars. I don't have any words for her loss. Devastation and heartbreak silence me. But I wish we were something different. I wish we were a town and a country where we all looked out for each other, and these things couldn't happen. I wish peace were alive in every heart. I wish I could make it alright for her.

But I correct that kid at the park. I intervene when I see heartlessness in my own kids. I walk through my neighborhood and my city, and in every step I say, This is MY home. Mine. This place belongs to me and I will not be afraid. This is a home for people who build, not those who tear down.  Goodness lasts, even when life doesn't. Watch this community grow in peace. See what happens when the people of God are fearless.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Most Important Thing I Know About Parenting


My worst flare-ups as a mother - every single one - happened when I was anxious about someone else's opinion of me. Sometimes that someone else isn't even a real person, merely one of the faceless horde of What Will People Think.  Maybe it was an impending visit from the in-laws, or that time we were getting our house ready for a showing. It could be my kid's tantrum at a playground, or the time she made me look bad in church. But at the core of my worst moments as a mother, an inordinate desire to look good to others is always there.

We intuit this, even when we don't say it out loud. The best parenting advice has this behind it, even when it's not acknowledged. Consider this wise post from We Are That Family. Very sensible. And as I read Kristen's list, I see lurking behind each item a rejection of the urge to look good to other people. Would we overspend if we weren't trying to keep up with someone else? How does your spending change if you choose to be unashamed of what you earn?  Does anyone really plan those party goody-bags out of pleasure, or is it so the other moms are impressed by the way you have it all together?

Here is the most important thing I've learned about motherhood: know who you want to be in yourself, alone, before God or in the interior of your soul. Then know who you want to be in your relationship with your kids. When you look for community, choose a few moms whom you respect. Seek their counsel when you need advice.  And other than that, disregard the entire prating world. Disinvest yourself from the babble of opinions, real and imagined, and live by what you yourself are determined to be. Let that wave of opinionated nonsense rise and recede without sweeping you away with it. Stand firm in who you are. That's it.

The Mommy Wars are manufactured, of course, and patronizing and pointless and destructive. But they have an effect, to be blunt, when we allow them to.

 There is a scene in A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More, knowing that arrest and possibly death is approaching because of his religious stance against the king, urges his friend Norfolk to abandon their friendship. More picks a quarrel on the subject of the king's demands when he knows he and Norfolk are observed. More says, "I will not give in because I oppose it. Not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites, but I do -- I.  Is there in the midst of all this muscle no single sinew that serves no appetite of Norfolk's, but is just Norfolk?"

What part of you as a parent is just you? Not the club you belong to or the people you want to please or the public image you want to cultivate, but you? Not the ideas that enrage you or the puffery that entertains, but the identity that sings in your soul and calls itself right whether anyone is watching or not? Who is the parent you choose to be, not because others are noticing, but because you yourself have determined this is what a parent is?

Love is, in its essence, the meeting in delight between you as you really are and the beloved as they really are. Love is the opposite of pretense. The joy of parenting comes from getting to know  children in their fascinating selves - all the ways they are like mom or dad, and all the ways they are different; the things about them that are fixed traits, and the qualities that are pruned and shaped. There is joy in learning who a child is meant to be, and knowing you helped get them there.

When the words of others help you see your children better, show you new ways to recognize them or shape them for the good, then those are wise words to be cherished. When the words of others, real or imagined, interfere with that face-to-face knowing and instead encourages affectation and shamming, then they are only noisy gongs or clanging symbols. Turn them off and shut them out. Be the person and the parent you decide to be, and be at peace.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Husband in Winter

My husband says I love him more in winter. The heat does not stay in our drafty old house, and I scoot closer on the couch. He wears big quilted overshirts, and when I walk into our kitchen on the cold, cold floor each morning, he laughs at me and spreads his arms wide, that roomy, unbuttoned overshirt opening for me to tuck myself inside.

When there is snow on the ground, his warmth feels meant. Despite all scientific facts to the contrary, I feel certain the heat from his body is intentional and directed. It reaches out to me on purpose and stops the shivers. Every year I deny that I love him more in winter, but when the windows frost, I find myself settling into marriage like a quilt. I can't help it. Or I don't want to.

I have been working on a novel for years, the slow, sneaky kind of project that throws sand in my face when I think I've got it pinned. To write it, I have to remember what I thought love was when I was young. I set myself the chore of listening to young music and I try to remember. I recall being lit up by conversation and the certainty I was understood, that piercing feeling of affinity, the belief that I had finally found my kin. I remember the hollow longing that never got filled up. I remember that intensity that makes every roadblock an outrage and an ending of the world. But as I sift through my memories, I am surprised at how bodiless it all is. I remember the longing, but from this distance of decades, it looks pointlessly consumed with my own interior self.

But marriage is carnal. The man in my kitchen stands there, solid even when I'm not paying attention.  There is no moment he is safely framed and contained in my thoughts. In our own demanding story, dammit all if he doesn't shock me with his stubborn plot points. I shuffle into his arms on a cold winter morning and see how memory and future track along his hands, his neck, the grizzle of his beard. He is always past and always present, and I am never merely left inside myself.

Warmth is personal, no matter what the physiology textbooks say. He warmed me by meaning to, and I sometimes hope that winter lasts forever.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Snow Day

There is no snow on the ground, but we have a snow day today. We are expecting a winter storm to blow through this afternoon, dropping freezing rain on us and leaving 3-7 inches of snow. Cincinnati only gets snowfall like that once or twice a winter, so the schools usually close for a day.

I love snow days. The light is different. Everything is quieter. Even with four children in the house, currently arguing over the precise placement of the figures in the nativity scene, the day seems hushed. We know our job today: it is to stay inside and stay warm. Nothing would please us more.

An old friend told us a story from the seminary she attended. One of the international students was from the tropics, and had never seen snow before. His first winter at this northern US seminary, the first snowfall had come silent and swift in the night while he was sleeping. He woke in the morning and looked out the window at a world completely transformed. Everything was blanketed in white. The sight was so stunning, the student was convinced something apocalyptic had happened. It was a seminary, after all, and he leapt to one conclusion. He ran down the halls of his dorm shouting, "Jesus has come back! Jesus has come back!"

I love that story, even though I wasn't there. Maybe it isn't even true. But I can see myself in it. That's how snowfall feels, even after four decades of living with it. Snow is so ordinary, and so shocking. The sky opens up and stuff falls out and covers the land. If I had not acquired this adult veneer of propriety, I could run through the streets like Chicken Little, announcing every flake. But I am a respectable grown-up, trained to refrain from embarrassing others, so I sit quietly with my ankles crossed and my hands folded, and only my children know my eyes are open as wide as theirs.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Why I'm Reformed: Original Sin

(This title makes me giggle. See? Calvinists laugh.)

Original sin is the Christian doctrine that people are prone to sin and cannot, by their own effort, be perfectly good. We are stained from our origins, from the very beginning of humanity. This is described in the story of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. The picture drawn in scripture is that their sin - the "original sin" - became a corruption that is passed down in the nature of every person. Some Christians read this metaphorically, and some read it literally, but every Christian church teaches that sinfulness is part of our nature before we are even able to make choices.

The Reformed church is not unique in teaching original sin, but it has insisted that original sin is a force alive in us, rather than something canceled at baptism. Our sin is forgiven in Christ, but it remains a force we must resist in this life. The Reformed church insists with a devout skepticism that we cannot, in this life, achieve perfection. We will not get better and better until we do everything right.  Hard work will not make everything good.

Instead, the Congregationalist novelist Marilynne Robinson calls original sin "our inability to refrain from doing harm." The Anglican author Francis Spufford, whose book Unapologetic I highly recommend, abbreviates it as "the human propensity to fuck things up (HPtFTU)". Harm is entangled in our best actions. We do not and can not invent a sure method for separating out our admirable actions from our selfish ones. The flaw is alive in everyone.

So why on earth does this speak to my soul? Original sin (and the consequent "total depravity" - more on that later) is one of the most ridiculed of Reformed beliefs, often portrayed as a kind of theological meanness, a neurosis of the soul. This caricature seems to depend on the notion that sinfulness = worthlessness. When the Reformed church calls people sinful, the accusers claim, we are calling them worthless.

My father always taught me that the only fair way to criticize a belief system was in response to its best adherents. If you want to intellectually engage Hinduism, for example, you look at Gandhi, not a murderous mob in Orissa. The stereotype of the harsh, disapproving Calvinist who despises his fellow man might exist somewhere in reality, human nature being what it is (see what I did there?), but villains of that sort do not inspire Reformation. When we look at the best of the Reformed church, expressed in its historic confessions, we find that the doctrine of original sin seeks to confirm Christians three things: humility, mercy and giving glory to God.

The doctrine of original sin demands that I be humble about my achievements. I have not filtered out all the bad in my soul. It is still there, sneakily influencing me, and claiming otherwise is pretense. I am dependent upon rescue by a loving savior at every stage of life. In practical terms, I should be open to the correction of wise and holy people who see things I don't. The possibility that I am wrong or doing wrong should be lively in my mind. Until the world-to-come, I do not reach a point of settled perfection. I still screw up.

Knowing this - not merely my harm, but the inevitability of some harm - also demands that I show mercy to others who harm me. Cherishing slights and offenses is forbidden. I cannot demand of others a level of perfection that I know I do not possess myself. This is invaluable in congregational life. The bumps and bruises of life together can abound, and like a kindergarten teacher, this doctrine prods us all to forbear and forgive. The ordinary bumbling hurts of life tempt us to a shocked cry of "How could you?!" Original sin suggests instead a gentle, disappointed laugh, and an "Oh crap. Here we are again." This does not mean that evil goes unresisted, but it does mean that we frankly recognize perfection will not happen in this world.

Lastly, original sin acknowledges our inability to save ourselves. God has responded to this helplessness with the gift of Jesus, whose death and resurrection offer forgiveness for sin to all who receive it with faith. Our goodness is a gift from God, and shows his loving character. "Giving glory to God" is not an unpleasant duty, but an expression of joy. It means rejoicing in a continual relationship with God, receiving him, and participating in the wonder of his infinite goodness. We are welcomed into it, and we never have to leave.

The doctrine of original sin is a way to acknowledge the flaw ingrained in humanity, without becoming numb to its significance. It is a method for functioning within the dysfunctional human family. Without it, every sin becomes a Fall of Man, catastrophic and devastatingly unique. With it, we are invited to make forgiveness a habit of life, a regularly shining light in a darkness.

Friday, November 15, 2013

7 Quick Takes




1. This is the year my kids' educational experience imploded. I could write the details, I suppose, but living through them was enough. After one suspension, many, many meetings, some disappointing report cards, and several visits to doctors and psychologists, we seem to have leveled out at a manageable chaos, at least for the present. In the process we have acquired ADHD diagnoses for two kids (with another in the works), one dyslexia diagnosis, and I have learned more about the bureaucracy of learning disabilities in the public school system than I ever wanted to know.

2. Besides the school troubles, our church has been facing some difficult decisions. Our congregation votes on Sunday whether to stay in our denomination. The process of coming to this decision has taken more than a year. I serve as an elder in our congregation, so I have had many, many meetings and emails and conversations, often at the expense of spending time with my kids on their difficult schooling.

It's been a rough year.

3. I have been marathon-watching the Inspector Morse/Inspector Lewis series on Netflix while I'm doing housework. I am utterly taken in by its lugubrious charm. And if you didn't know lugubrious and charm could go together, you haven't watched Inspector Morse.

4. Speaking of marathons, my husband and I signed up to walk the Flying Pig half-marathon in May.  Walkers are welcomed in all the races. My husband turns fifty soon, and this is how he wants to celebrate. So we take a five-mile walk along the river twice a week, and we'll try longer distances in the new year. It's been nice to spend the time together. If you ever want to spend a pleasant morning in Cincinnati, try the riverwalk in the fall. It's lovely.

5. My children have decided they like salmon. Given the price of salmon, I'm not sure this helps us all that much. But when you have skinny, picky kids, any food you can add to the "Will Eat" column counts as a win. We buy a package of frozen salmon fillets, throw a couple (still frozen) on top of some mixed frozen vegetables and olive oil, bake it at 450 for 25-30 minutes. Serve it with rice. Easy dinner. Not cheap, really, but not that terrible either. Serve it with tortillas as tacos and it goes further.

6. I found my dyslexic child reading a book for fun this week. This has never happened. I tiptoed by and pretended not to notice. It was a comic book, but she was reading the words out loud. I'm not sure what she was saying. It was hard to hear over the sound of angels singing.

7. Have you read Francis Spufford's Unapologetic yet? It's wonderful. My favorite read of the year.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why I Am Reformed: Overview

Months ago, I promised to do a series of posts on why I belong to the section of Christianity that calls itself Reformed. And then I slipped into the world of fevered children and adult root-canals (there's a post on that coming soon), and this blog became a no-man's land.

I kept meaning to post. As an added nudge, I've been asked to teach a Sunday school class this fall on Reformed theology. Then this week I read another post about an abusive church that called itself Reformed and I decided I shouldn't put this off any more.

So where to begin? As I worked on this post, I realized I was trying to write a one-paragraph description of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation. If you've never tried that, don't. The experience made me nostalgic for those root canals.  I could tell you the Reformed church is the branch of the Reformation that clustered around theologians like John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger and Ulrich Zwingli. Or I could talk about the different historic emphases between Calvin and Luther, or Calvin and the radical Reformers like Menno Simons. But I don't want to write that post, and you don't want to read it.

So I'll go for too simple, rather than too complicated. Reformed theology is an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes the omnipotence of a merciful, holy God. God's power over all things - often called his "sovereignty" - is systematically affirmed in whatever theological issue is under discussion. All goodness is seen as the result of God's action, not human effort. Even the good things we do are ultimately caused by a sovereign God.

In Reformed theology, God is the one who acts. I receive the grace and mercy of God. I don't achieve it or earn it. Even the part of me that acts to receive it, is in fact God moving in me to allow me to receive. Reformed theology is an expression of Christianity organized around the persistent reminder that things ain't up to me.

If I were to sum up why I am Reformed in something short enough to fit on a t-shirt, it would say, "I'm here for the Sabbaths." I mean that figuratively (though literal Sabbaths are pretty great too). The Sabbath is the day of rest. In the Sabbath we acknowledge that our labor, whatever we may tell ourselves, is not necessary to the running of the world. In the Sabbath we submit and receive rest, even when a thousand insistent impulses are screaming out to us that our work is essential. I make my home in a Reformed church (see that little c in church? That's important. I'll write about that another day) to worship the Lord of the Sabbath, who gives my soul rest. I stay here because of the freedom and joy I have found in knowing it doesn't depend on me.

Next post in Why I Am Reformed: Original Sin! Why a phrase that makes you feel doom and puritanical gloom comforts and encourages me.