Monday, December 28, 2009

Charter for Compassion

I learned from one of my favorite bloggers, Baraka, that the Charter for Compassion has become a reality. It was the wish expressed by Karen Armstrong when she was selected as a TED Prize Winner:
I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.
I remember reading about the process in a fantastic post written by my friend Mike two years ago.

The Charter for Compassion was unveiled on November 12th and is available for all to sign and affirm, online and in their lives. I have signed it because it resonates so much with my spiritual practice that seeks justice and compassion (to feel with) on both a systemic level and a personal level (the second is harder than the first, for me).

In Mike's post, he writes about immigration but his words are applicable to foster care or education or any number of societal ills that are perpetuated by institutions. He writes:
Would you say "Well the law's the law," or would you say "Laws can change, and this one needs to, because justice and compassion ought never to be opposed to one another"?

I think Karen Armstrong says something similar when she writes:
"I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”
It seems to me she is saying that whatever unseen thing into which we put our faith is important to each of us as fuel for our spirit but what we do with that energy is even more important. And no one would claim that we are called to act selfishly when we experience these intimations of holiness and sacredness.

I am excited to see that one of the paragraphs of the Charter addresses our participation in systems of injustice like sweatshops and harmful farming techniques.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
This is the area where I am working the hardest on a personal level, committing to buying organic and fair-trade food(chocolate is a recent tough addition to the list) and buying all of my clothing second-hand or from scrupulous vendors. I will think about how I can live more deeply in accordance with this Charter, which I think accurately describes what God wants for my life.

Please learn more about the Charter below and here and then consider spreading the word to your networks.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Viscious cycle of poverty

When I used to teach high school kids in under-resourced settings, I used to marvel at the stupids mistakes they made. Not on their papers (who hasn't put a stray apostrophe down?) but in their behavior. It was so easy to catch them in their mischief. Sometimes I thought they were doing it to screw with me but the shock on their faces that they didn't get away with whatever petty trouble was palpable. They really didn't expect to be caught. This dynamic was confirmed when they would tell me stories of how unfair the world is to them. So often, their ire was aimed at some consequence that they could have easily avoided.

Today, I found this summary of research here. The first part of the post discusses that people in poverty get caught in the Tyranny of the Moment because there are so many fires to be put out, they can only think of the "now" in order to survive. This completely squelches any ability that they have to plan for the future.

Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, a holocaust survivor who studied the impact of the holocaust and war on children realized that:

If individuals cannot plan, they cannot predict.
If they cannot predict, then they cannot identify cause and effect.
If they cannot identify cause and effect, they cannot identify consequence.
If they cannot identify consequence, they cannot control impulsivity.
If they cannot control impulsivity, they have an inclination toward criminal behavior.

Can you see how the stress of daily life affects how people in poverty act, feel and view the world? What other things can you see being affected by the stresses of daily survival without stable resources?

One of the challenges that the folks encounter at work is that resourced families who take in children of under-resourced parents feel angry that the parents have let the situation get to such an awful place. This kind of research helps them understand where the guest families are coming from.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas tradtions

I recently wrote out the Christmas itinerary when I invited Jacob's brother and sister-in-law and I thought I'd share it with you. I love Christmas.

We typically head out to Mom and Dad's house on Christmas Eve, hang out, eat a bunch of stuff that is casually set out on the kitchen counter and often involves cheese and/or cookies. We go to church, which has candles and whispered jokes. Then, there is dinner. Did I mention dinner? We all head off to bed eventually and wake up whenever we feel like it in the morning. Coffee is consumed and eventually we all wander into the living room where there is a blazing fire. We open some presents, make fun of my dad, open some more presents and then take a break to eat breakfast. My mom traditionally makes a casserole that involves stupendous amounts of eggs, cream and cheese. There is often bacon, as well. Then, we open whatever presents are left and do a short Advent candle-lighting service. After that, lounging in front of the fire is the order of the day unless we rouse ourselves to go see that new Sherlock Holmes movie, or something equally inane and full of violence (one year my mom really wanted to go see Bad Santa).

Merry Christmas, folks!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New job

My first day at work was wonderful. It felt a little like plopping down on the couch. Some of that may be because a few folks are away for Christmas so it’s a little quieter but still, since my office is located in a residential facility for foster kids, I hear them giggling in the hallway quite often and felt so comfortable that I was able to express my delight about the atmosphere to my boss. His response was to roll his chair over to the door and shout, “Hey Davey, comere!” He likes that atmosphere, too.

My office has a soothing and modern paint job but smells a little like farts and old coffee. One of the file cabinets is covered in signs that read, “File at your own risk!” and “Open one drawer at a time!” There are also several sizes of car seats.

I have already been identified as a mark to my colleagues. I think I gave too much away when I talked about my excitement regarding my brother’s child about to be born and my love for babies in general. A few hours later, the social worker who does placements and the head of the program were agreeing that some Friday there will be a baby that needs a place to stay for the weekend and I’ll be helpless. They’ll load me up with equipment and diapers from the store room and that will be that.

A mark.

They see me as a mark.

When I told this story to my husband, while also protesting that I wouldn’t ever actually do it, he said very quietly, “It would probably be OK every once in a while.” I love that man.

I must admit, it’s hard to sit in the office all day and listen to the social worker call around to find a placement from December 23-27 for a quiet teenaged mom of a 3-month-old who is succeeding at getting her life together while she’s living with her current family, who are going away for Christmas. I think, “How hard could that be to take out to the suburbs with us for the holiday? My family would be cool with it? Only monsters would not be.”

This is why I’m a mark.

While thinking about t this girl on the bus this morning, my eyes started to tear a little. This job might break my heart but I think it also has great potential to mend it again and to stitch up the world a little while it’s at it. Because I’m pretty sure that someone will take her in. We have 500 families in the local database who have volunteered to be available for just these kinds of phone calls. How cool is that?

It’s nice to know I’m not the only mark - the only fool for Jesus - out there.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What story are you telling?

So, Meg continues to provoke lots of good thoughts in me. Go read this post about how important the stories are that we tell ourselves. She writes about how so many people in their lives tell them that the choices that they are making (marriage, kids, etc) only lead to boredom and drudgery.

I have to say that this is not my experience and I am grateful for it. When I got engaged this time, I myself felt a little like it wasn't really a big deal. People get married all the time. People get divorced all the time. People live together and it's just like getting married. Gay people can't even get married, for heaven's sake. We're just going to do this thing and get on with our lives.

There might have been just a little bit of self-protection there. You know, if I don't get my hopes up, they can't be crushed again?

But again and again, people acted like it was a big deal. They would get so excited on my behalf. They would ask questions not just about the wedding but about the relationship. They offered amazingly grand gestures of help and really meant it.

Marriage is still sacred in our culture. Why else fight so hard for the right to marry or to retain the definition of marriage that you yourself got married within? If you need further proof, talk to couples that have parties after getting married privately and compare their guest list with couples who wait to get married at the big event. People will plunk down the cash for a plane ticket for a wedding in a way that not all of them will for just a party.

The act of promising scary things for the rest of life is something people want to support and participate in. I was blown away by how even the most jaded and cynical of my friends melted a little when we talked about being married.

My family was recently at a wake where we saw a childhood friend who has now been married for a few years. My younger brother, whose first child is due in April, asked, "So, when are you going to have kids?" He's a 30-year-old guy who waits tables and has come to terms with the fact that he'll never be a rock star but that he can continue to collect novelty wrestling t-shirts. In other words, totally cool and full of sage wisdom that is terribly unexpected because he still looks like a slacking hipster. Afterwards I said, "When did you become that guy? The one that elbows other guys and asks them about kids?" "I don't know. I just think it's cool to have a family and I want to know why other guys don't want to."

I realized that he is also telling these guys the story that it's OK to be excited about having kids. He's doing for them what my colleagues and acquaintances did for me in their excitement about my wedding. When we tell stories with the moral of "life is an adventure; keep reaching for it," we make the world a better place.

Marriage is awesome. Marriage is hard. Marriage is an opportunity that I am glad I didn't pass up.

This is the story that I tell.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A productive member of society

I have the exact same cold that I had three weeks ago. Really. The exact same symptoms that morph into the exact same new symptoms along the exact same timeline. The only good news is that although I know that Wednesday and Thursday I will be in excruciating pain and discomfort, by Friday life will return to normal.

Which is good because I start my new job on Monday!

Wha wha wha what?

That's right folks. I am finally going to be able to dig my fingers and toes into a project and grow with it.

And it came about in the best possible way.

Last week, at an event where I was networking fairly hard, I met my future boss. I had actually attended the gala for his organization three years ago and receive his monthly emails so I started the conversation there. We shifted very quickly to what type of work I was looking for because, honestly, my dad had earlier stood up in front of the 110 attendees of the event and begged them to give me a job.

It was pretty funny.

And full of love.

So, my future boss is asking me about my experience and I tell him about my master's degree. He says, "Oh, I started that program but dropped out."

Probably my humor was unwise at this moment but I said, "Was it the math?" in a mock-empathic tone with raised eyebrows and a knowing grin.

"Yeah but I figured that I already had a doctorate so I didn't need to do all that work figuring out something I wouldn't use."

While we were talking, my dad walked up, put his forehead on the guy's shoulder and said, "Please, please, please. Please give my daughter a job." And I was worried about my professionalism.

The future boss and I continued talking after my dad walked away and then he asked for my card. I gave it to him and moved on to talk to someone else.

Well, he followed up with me that night, sent 2 pdfs describing the program he is working with and asked if I could come in later in the week to talk. After we set up the meeting, he forwards me a working document that he just received from a mutual friend who is helping him with the vision for where the program is going.

I feel pretty attended to by the time I get to his office. I read all the stuff, print out some of it so I can reference it during the conversation and put on my suit for the meeting.

He spends, no kidding, an hour and a half alternately courting me and questioning me on my ideal job. He has an understated personality, which is always hard for me to read since it is so foreign to me. It wasn't until later that I realized that when he said, "It's not very often that you get the chance to actually change the world; it's kind of neat," he might have been persuading me and not just describing his own experience. I don't think he set up the phone call from Katie Couric's producer to come right in the middle of our meeting, but I'll admit, it worked.

I love the work he is doing. I love that it is being recognized as actually creating systemic change that measurably benefits under-resourced kids. I love that he has a secondary goal of revitalizing the Church by entangling people's lives with the lives of the poor. As Shane Claiborne says, "The problem is not that wealthy Christians won't help the poor; it's that they don't know the poor." Jesus knew the poor.

I also love that when he finally offered me the job, he said it like this: "When I met you on Tuesday, I thought, this is someone special. Then I got your resume and thought, here is someone with experience thinking about different forms of organizational design, someone who cares about marginalized folks, and someone with a lot of unique experiences. Also, you're really smart."

I have to admit that I misted up when he said. Professional, I know. It's just that I have spent this entire unemployment feeling like I was uniquely unqualified for every single job that was posted. If the job needed a master's degree, it also needed five years of experience in that particular field. Or they wanted an MSW instead of an MPP. Or it needed supervisory experience. Also, almost half of the reason I went to grad school was to prove that I had the chops and that I wasn't just getting jobs because my dad begged his friends on my behalf.

And here is this guy saying, "I wasn't going to hire staff to expand this program into a nationwide network in a decentralized way because I don't know how to do it, so I don't know how to tell someone else to do it. But I think you could run with this." And it's because of me and the work I've done, not because I'm my father's daughter (although in every other scenario, I am proud to wear that title). And he knows how hard I've worked because he took the same classes I did and struggled with them as much as I did.

After I said I'd go home to my husband and talk about it and pray about it, we bantered a little bit now that the climax of the meeting had been survived. He said that he thought my resume was playing with him since I describe myself as a social entrepreneur and he just won a fancy award for being a social entrepreneur even though he had never heard the phrase before he won the award. I said, "What should really freak you out is that when I reached into my purse to write something down, I pulled out from the linty depths the pen I got at your gala three years ago."

I can really make a difference for kids in this job. I believe deeply because it's been proven to me by all sorts of dry and boring research that the answer to society's problem can mostly be solved if we make sure that all kids are nurtured during their first 5 years. During that time, they learn non-cognitive skills that are crucial for learning cognitive skills later. Skills like delaying gratification to achieve a task, a desire to learn, the ability to sit quietly and listen, the rudiments of language acquisition. This job is preventing trauma in the lives of young children on a measurable scale, which allows them the chance to fulfill the potential that God gave them when they were born.

How could I say no?

So, I have been frantically finishing the Christmas presents that I thought I had another two weeks of unemployment to finish and trying to squeeze in some of the volunteer work I have been doing on my church's behalf.

I have been coughing at night, which keeps Jacob and I awake, so tonight I took the medicine my doctor prescribed which was a cough syrup with codeine.

Apparently, codeine keeps me awake so you all are the beneficiaries of the crash I'll feel tomorrow.

I hope things are going as well for you as they are for Jacob and me. Chag Sameach!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Institutionalizing fluidity

When I tell the story of my faith journey, sometimes I begin to doubt that I was rejected as much by traditional church people as much as I felt like I was. Sure, I have some specific anecdotes. For instance, I clearly remember being told by my friends from youth group that marrying my first husband was wrong because we would be unequally yoked and realizing that such an unsupportive comment was indicative of a deeper judgment that those friends felt for me. I remember being angered by Sunday School classes where volunteer teachers insisted that the interpretation of Revelations in their book were the only possibility. I remember arguing with the new youth director when he brought in a guest speaker who cared more about declaring "right teaching" than about how unwelcome he was making my friend Nels feel. I remember the condescending tone of voice of the member of Intervarsity who told me I used scripture incorrectly in the fundraising letter I had written as a favor to him. I also have a slew of experiences with my extended family (who I am quite close to) where they used dirty argument tactics to try to convince that my liberalism wasn't right in God's eyes. My aunt once told me that if it was right to make condoms available in schools then everything she believed was wrong. That's a heavy weight to put on an 18-year-old's shoulders if she wants to stick to her convictions. An uncle was so insulting as he argued that we celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday because it was literally the day that Jesus was raised from the dead that my father left the table in and announced his protest of the way I was being treated.

However, the vast majority of experiences that I have had with traditional church people have been strikingly positive. I have felt safe and loved and supported in most of my life. People who welcomed me into this world at my baptism are on my Christmas list and show delight at seeing me when I show up at Christmas Eve services. The church I attended in my early twenties welcomed me and valued my participation in the choir and asked me to be a deacon.

Still, by then, I was learning only to bring part of myself to church. I had doubts regarding the fallibility of translation or my thoughts about homosexuality not being a sin or my discomfort with the idea of good people going to hell simply because they hadn't acknowledged Jesus as their lord and savior. I knew, just knew, that if I discussed these thoughts, I would be labeled "heretic" and a gulf in the relationship would widen between the church person and myself because I would now be viewed as the sheep who had wandered from the flock and needed to be rescued rather than being part of the in-crowd. Since I was desperately looking for community, I left these parts of myself at home when I went to church. I did this with all of the churches I attended before I found the emergent movement. And it didn't work.

I was still lonely.

Unless I was being loved for my whole self, it just wasn't enough to feel like actual community.

However, once I reached adulthood, I didn't give any of those three churches even the chance to love me. I had my defenses up and didn't want to give them the chance to hurt me with their rejection. So I don't really know how they would have responded.

So, I come back to my original statement that I wonder sometimes if I'm not remembering my history with the bias that comes from my insecurity. Once bitten, twice shy, you know? Do I think that my experiences were worse than they really were?

The reality is that it doesn't matter if people were as inhospitable as I thought they were. What does matter is that I perceived them to be that way and acted on that perception. If I felt that way even though most people were nice to me most of the time, then other people are also feeling alienated from God and alone in this world even though most Christians are nice to them most of the time. (And this doesn't include people who feel alienated from God and alone in this world because most Christians think they are an abomination just for being who they are.) If I felt this way when maybe I shouldn't have and other people feel this way when they don't have to, they why do so many people feel disaffected with the Church?

For my experience (which is probably generalizable), I believe my fear of being rejected stemmed from two sources:

1. A growing sense that I didn't like the person I was becoming when I did things that traditional Christians were supposed to do. The greatest shame of my life is telling my best friend that I thought she was going to Hell. In addition to feeling remorse that I had hurt her, I slowly (so slowly) began to realize that I was damaging all of my relationships by practicing a faith that was so judgmental. So, I feared rejection from other Christians because I myself had been repeatedly judgmental.

2. The larger Christian culture and the traditional institutional framework that churches function within emphasize insider and outsider statuses as a means of reproduction and survival. They need people to profess the same beliefs despite different experiences, and those beliefs need to create an "other" so that folks within the community will bond together more cohesively. This is the definition of ideology, isn't it? A system of living that protects individuals from the hard work of dealing with a changing environment? Traditional church policies ensure that our experience with God is predictable: we will be buried the way everyone else we know was buried, we can raise their children the way we were raised, our spouses expect the same things out of life that we expect. And for most of history, this worked for Christians because the world changes only gradually. However, with the introduction of instant communication, the world changes quickly and traditional church paradigms no longer comfort everyone but instead push out more and more people for the sake of the few who remain within. So, I feared rejection from other Christians because Christian ideology made it very clear that I could be rejected for the sake of the group.

So, although it's possible that many of my fears would never actually come true, I believed they would and that caused me to leave part of myself at home when I went to church, a completely unsustainable habit if I ever wanted to feel fulfilled.

I have since found a church and a movement that are trying to create new Christian norms and new church infrastructures that do not rely on some people being on the inside and other people being on the outside. These inclusive churches try to make everyone feel welcome to bring their whole selves to church, without fear that they need to change in order to be fully loved. These churches know that encounters with God rarely leave folks unchanged but we are content to leave that work of transformation to God and focus on the task we have been given: to love one another.

I have found great healing in being part of this movement and being part of the leadership team of my church, which might be a model for a new generation of churches that are trying to remove the systemic obstacles that our culture has put up to block access to God except to those who are "approved" and safe.

I know that I have healed deeply from my fear of rejection because I have recently begun re-engaging Christians who still function within the old model. I am meeting monthly with a group of pastors who have good hearts and are friendly and want to serve the poor with humility. They know that my theology is comfortable with being married to a Jewish man and they know that I am active in the emergent movement but I'm comfortable enough in my differences from them that I don't need to throw it in their faces.

Occasionally, though, I get surprised. Today I was talking about the new community of young people in which one of the young men was participating. He earnestly described for me his struggle to keep them from "heretical ideas." I think I did a physical double-take. I have spent so much time now with emergent folks who sometimes reclaim the label "heretic" to make jokes about themselves, like gay people call themselves queer or women call themselves bitches. I have spent so much time with people who believe that our understanding of God will never be complete and so the only way to know right from wrong is to be in community, groping for the right path while we keep in sight of each other to make sure that no one goes haring off down the wrong path. I have spent so much time in this new paradigm that I forgot people still talk about "heretical ideas."

I said, "Wow. That is so outside of the framework that I work in that I'm intrigued but don't want to start a fight." (Yeah. I really do talk like that.)

He acknowledged my motives and I asked him for an example. He said that yesterday was the celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which is the celebration that Mary was also born and lived without sin and so was as divine as Jesus.

He expressed discomfort that by saying that Mary was also divine, folks were putting her between them and Jesus. He never used the word, "idol," but I think that's what he meant.

My mind was swirling because I live in this spiritual place where I see Christ as a tool that God used to communicate infinite love and to bring people closer to God. Again. After trying to communicate love and to bring people closer to her in a billion other stories throughout the Old Testament. I guess I don't see Christ as an end onto himself so if some Latino Catholics can get to God through the female-friendly door of an immaculate Mary, I don't really mind if that bypasses Christ.

I expressed some of this and expressed my discomfort with the idea of heresy since it created a divide between people on the inside and people on the outside. I said that if it were my community, I would wonder why people needed to define Mary that way and examine whether or not the God we were worshiping was too small to fulfill them since it was a strictly male god.

He agreed with me that God was neither masculine or feminine but protested that our theology should not be informed by our experiences. I asked him to expand on that chicken and egg idea. He expressed that theology (what we believe about God) should come from what we find in the Bible; that we shouldn't change the Bible to suit what we think the world should be like. I agree with the idea that we shouldn't just justify our desires with new interpretations of Scripture but I do not agree that Scripture is straight-forward enough to extract God's will from it whole, like Athena being born from the head of Zeus. I'm a mystic at heart. I think you can only glimpse truth with peripheral vision. So to believe that Scripture alone can dictate doctrine is a heinous denial of the human element of interpretation. And once you deny that humans are involved in the process of creating doctrine, all sorts of exploitation and oppression can get by unchallenged.

At this point, I must have given off some non-verbal cues of consternation that maybe made him fear a little bit. Or, at least, he should have picked up that vibe because I was nearly bursting to tell him how wrong he was. I am relieved I was able to refrain from talking about translations of the Bible and how they can be used as tools of the hegemony or no one knows what the Bible really means and we're all doing selective interpretation and isn't that a cotton/poly shirt he was wearing and doesn't Leviticus tell us that is an abomination, also? I stayed quiet, though.

Before I could figure out what to actually say, he quickly changed tacks and asked if he could give background about why he was saying those things. I really respected his desire to let me actually see inside of him instead of just insisting he was right. He talked about how he was an Anglican (which set me raging on the inside again but I am constantly groping for a non-judgmental habit so, again, was relieved that I said nothing) and told me a few stories about his experiences that lead him to be disgusted with the Episcopals on their side of the schism. He said two things that sounded like alarmist propaganda and would surprise me very much if they were true. He sounded like a little kid complaining to his parents that his 58-year-old, established, much-beloved grandma of a teacher told him he was dumb and would never amount to anything. It just doesn't make sense within the larger framework of what I know is true. She wouldn't be all of those other things if she went around telling little kids they were dumb and would never amount to anything. The child's statements shouldn't be dismissed out of hand but they should be evaluated with skepticism about his motives. So, the man today said that Episcopals are now stating that unless you are Episcopal, you are not going to heaven. Then, he said that Episocpals have literally re-written the Bible to make it fit their world-view about homosexuals. Actually, I don't think he ever mentioned The Gays out loud but since that is what caused the schism, I'm not sure what else they would have re-written the Bible to support. Neither of these extreme acts seem to fit within the context of what I know about the Episcopal denomination. It felt like the complaint of someone who was trying to recruit others onto his bandwagon because he is feeling a little unstable up there alone.

So, I actually could have gotten pretty righteous at this moment since I would definitely qualify as someone who literally re-wrote the Bible because I look at the historical context of those 6 Bible verses that seem to oppose homosexuality and come to the conclusion that they are not describing homosexuality as we know it in our culture. Luckily, a few more people arrived and I was able to thank him for his story and blow him off a little about finishing the conversation later. Actually, now that I think of it, that wasn't very loving of me. I should probably try to have coffee with him soon and give him a chance not to reject me.

That kind of growth and chance for more healing is why I want to stay with this group, in addition to the other good things I get there. I'm not afraid of their rejection anymore because my spiritual home accepts my whole self. If they reject me, I have a safe place to retreat to.

My church is the kind of place that I want to support and also to dive headlong into building infrastructure to build capacity so that it is sustainable and can make a lot more people feel as safe as I have felt. My pastor calls it institutionalizing fluidity and no one has figured out yet how to do it. I want to try. It's crucial if we want everyone in this world to have equal access to God. It's work worth doing.