Is the hard work worth it?

8355036023_f4a5a9eaa7_oOur seven-year-old daughter has been learning to play the cello for the past two years. We are fortunate to have a Suzuki cello teacher at our college who makes learning music fun. But Ella still has to practice every day, even when she doesn’t want to. Being good at something like music takes persistent, hard work. I’m glad our daughter is learning this invaluable lesson early in her life.

The temptation to give up when things get difficult or when you fail to succeed at your goals follows you throughout life. I felt this temptation recently. After working hard at my writing all summer, it was defeating to get a number of rejection notices from magazines and journals that I felt sure would accept my work. But the other day I was reminded that I write for more reasons than the hope of publication. I reshaped my last blog post about the march in Chicago into a talk for our college’s Resident Assistants about how we can and should foster communities of respect and prophetic welcome. I also know that the work I have put into my writing over the past few years has not only made me a better writer, but a better thinker and communicator. Oftentimes what I begin here on my blog finds its way into a sermon or a program or a conversation with a student I am counseling. Is all this writing work hard? Yes. But is the hard work worth it? Most definitely. I just need to remember this when the next rejection notice hits my inbox.

 

[Feature Image: Jeff Sass]

 

Welcome to March with King

IFYC-Logo_SMALLFor the past three years I have sent or accompanied students to an Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago led by Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core. As the Chaplain of a religiously diverse college, I am passionate about fighting rampant Islamophobia and fear of the “other” through positive experiences of interfaith cooperation. But I questioned whether I needed to go to this year’s ILI myself. It’s difficult to be away from my family and the two students I was sending were fully capable of negotiating the conference by themselves.   Right before registration closed, though, I decided to attend because I wanted to support my students, Angela and Diana, in their experience.

It wasn’t until I boarded my Amtrak train headed to Chicago and reviewed the conference schedule that I realized this ILI would be different from others. On Saturday morning we were scheduled to participate in a march, organized by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), memorializing Martin Luther King’s first protest in Chicago. On Friday evening, Eboo Patel spoke to us about this march and its historical significance.

6700965631_4a90496306_oKing moved to Chicago in January of 1966 to highlight the issues of inner-city poverty and the city’s real estate practices that trapped people in rundown housing and overcrowded schools. On August 5th, 1966, King and seven hundred non-violent protestors gathered to march into Marquette Park on the southwest side of Chicago—a neighborhood off limits to African American residents due to racist red-lining practices. Of this march King later reported, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” Five thousand screaming, bottle-and-brick-throwing, hate-spitting counter-protestors met King and his marchers along the route to Marquette Park, yelling at them to “Go home!” At one point, King was struck in the head by a brick and the blow brought him to his knees. Several eyewitnesses reported that, after taking a moment to recover, King stood back up to march again without a hint of hatred on his face.

So last Saturday, August 6th I was transported, along with 250 other attendees of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, by bus to the same southwest Chicago neighborhood where King and his protestors gathered to march. I honestly did not know what to expect when I got off the IFYC bus and I admit that my mind wasn’t completely on history. I had forgotten my sunblock and was concerned about the exposure. The new purple t-shirt all ILI conferees were asked to wear was annoyingly itchy and after two large cups of coffee, I was worried about finding a bathroom along the route. These concerns remained as our purple-shirted crew of 250 interfaith leaders hung together in the middle of the street behind a gathered crowd of about a thousand. We had been told to stay together and didn’t really know what else to do. But then I heard someone speaking on a microphone too far away to see. The voice sounded familiar so I decided to break rank, grab Angela and Diana and move up in the crowd to see who was speaking. We didn’t have to move up far, though, before I realized it was Rev. Jesse Jackson at the microphone.

IMG_1088I have not always appreciated Rev. Jackson’s political moves or aspirations, but when I saw him there in person it was like seeing civil rights history brought to life. “Oh my gosh, that’s Jesse Jackson!” I shouted excitedly to Angela and Diana as I suddenly became aware of the significance of the march to which we had been bussed. A need to share what I was seeing, hearing and experiencing overcame me. I pulled out my Iphone and updated my Facebook status, “Getting ready to march in honor of MLK in Chicago!” I took photos of the crowd that I noted to be incredibly diverse: Muslim parents carrying toddlers on their shoulders, Catholic Latinos marching behind their church’s banner, Jewish rabbis with a cohort of students, black gospel groups and African drummers, proud members of the LGBTQ community. People carried signs that read, “We are home!” and “The journey to justice continues.” I took as many pictures as possible, marching with my phone in the air, snapping photo after photo of the crowd that spanned two or three blocks before and behind me. I wanted—needed—to capture the magnitude and mood of the moment.

IMG_1130About halfway through the march I noticed an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair. Reporters and photographers swarmed her and asked her to hold up an old, yellowed newspaper that she was carrying carefully in her hands. The woman marching beside me noticed my curiosity and leaned over to tell me this woman and the daughter pushing her wheelchair both marched with King fifty years ago. The newspaper must have been a report of the protest that she had saved all these years. I watched them both for a while. In spite of the sun and 80 degree heat that was beginning to dampen my enthusiasm, these two women looked radiant, beaming with joy and pride. Fifty years ago the daughter was only twelve, I learned, and the heat of Chicago was even more intense. They were hit with bricks, separated from each other, arrested, and loaded into different paddy wagons. Yet here they were, still marching, in 2016.

IMG_1064Hot and exhausted by the time the march ended, I got back on the bus looking forward to lunch at our beautiful, air-conditioned hotel. I was more attentive, though, to the changing city landscape as we left the south side. Liquor stores, low-rent apartments, a man selling mangos and avocados out of the back of a truck slowly faded into the opulence and architectural beauty of a high rise, high rent downtown. Leaning my head against the window, I contemplated the mother and daughter from the march and all those who put their bodies on the line for justice. To be in solidarity with the oppressed requires such a bodily “being with” stance. It also requires a willingness to take risks. I wondered to myself if being bussed to a march I would not have attended had I not registered for an interfaith conference would qualify as solidarity. The nagging question of “Did I deserve to be there?” plagued my mind, but it did not ruin the power of the experience. Instead, these thoughts of “deservedness” were subsumed by the grander spirit of generosity and prophetic sense of welcome I felt during the day. Even those who bore hate in their hearts were treated generously. In his speech during the rally, Rev. Jesse Jackson said of the counter-protestors who met them in 1966, “They weren’t bad people. They were just badly taught.” And Eboo Patel, in his speech to us the night before, quoted the French poet Aime Cesaire, who wrote, “There is room for all of us at the rendezvous of destiny.” I was welcomed into a glimpse of that destiny during this Saturday march. It didn’t matter to anyone why I had come. It just mattered that I was there. And being there gave me a taste of who we could be and what we could accomplish if such a generous, prophetic welcome were extended to all. In a day when hateful rhetoric is on the rise and divisions between class, race, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation run deep, experiences such as this remind me that our brokenness does not have to be our reality. Experiences such as this lift up God’s vision for us of beloved community and set my feet marching towards this as our destiny.

 

[Image of MLK by Life Pilgrim]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hell Bent to Persuade: Donald Trump’s Choice of Fear as a Political Tool

44264051_33407bc16c_oWhen I served as the pastor of a Presbyterian church down South, I learned of an event common for local Baptists on Halloween. Instead of a Haunted House, these churches would sponsor a Hell House and invite children and youth of the community to go through. It was scary, and kids like scary at Halloween. So lots of them went. Parents would send their children, even as young as eight, to make their way through the house towards the message at the end. The second to the last scene of the Hell House did not feature ghosts or goblins or any creatures associated with Halloween fun. Instead, it was a passenger jet that had crashed or a brutal car accident. Church members lay around the wreckage, beaten up and bloodied, acting the part of the dead. Before the children left the scene, they were asked a straight forward question. Do you know where you are going when you die? Before given the chance to answer, though, they are shown another scene of the torturous pits of Hell. By the time the children make their way to the end, they are deeply frightened, some reduced to sobbing fits. So when they are asked the final question, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your eternal Savior?” their answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

Fear is an emotion often used (and abused, I would add) as a tool to win over, convert, or control. It’s an emotion ripe for manipulation because when it rises within us we are raw and vulnerable and easily shaped by any potter who steps to the wheel. Donald Trump, a man eager to take the seat of the potter, eager to get his hands into our national clay, is a master manipulator of emotions. I felt myself being manipulated as I sat down in my living room to watch the Republican National Convention and listen to his daughter, Ivanka, introduce him.

As I listened to Trump’s beautiful, smart, eloquent daughter, I thought, maybe, I was wrong about this man. She spoke of her father’s company employing more women executives than men and supports family leave. Her father was a man who is color blind and gender neutral, she said, and I found myself wanting, or maybe just hoping to believe her— hoping to believe that this man who has garnered so much support, this man who many want to become THE man, the most POWERFUL man, was actually good and kind and fair. Was the report I read about how he violently raped the 13-year-old girl a lie? Was he not the distractible sociopath who will do anything for attention that his ghost writer wrote of—the sociopath this ghost writer fears will be the “end of civilization” if he has the nuclear code? Ivanka painted a picture of a loyal father, a wise mentor, a man who runs for President only because he wants to serve. Earlier in the convention, Rudy Giuliani spoke of Trump’s anonymous charity and good deeds for which he never wanted any credit. And then, Donald himself walks on stage, begins his speech humbly, gratefully, using the word “we.” But all of this—this picture of a kind, generous, self-sacrificing, good and fair man—faded for me as Trump began to shout.

He shouted that we will be a country of “law and order”, that the “attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” I heard these words and wondered how he could succeed while ignoring, blatantly disregarding, the cries of Black Lives Matter, the injustice of police brutality, the needs of the African American community. He shouted about his way of “Americanism” that would replace the current way of “Globalism” and I wondered how he could succeed while clearly choosing not to play well with others.

He was succeeding, though, by the use of an effective tool. Stoking the fear of white middle-class Americans, leading them rhetorically through his own version of the Hell House, motivated people to vote for him. His claim was bold. He was the strong man, the savior, the hero who can protect and make us safe.

Donald Trump reveals how easily a country’s emotions can be exploited by a man hell bent on getting his way. To witness so many fellow Americans sucked in, manipulated, and emotionally abused by such a narcissist, makes me afraid, very afraid.

So Trump has also tapped my fear, but not to his own benefit. I am determined to speak out and act out against him. Fear, in a sense, is motivating—a heated, pulsing emotion that moves us out of complacency. But I wish it weren’t so effective. Just as I wonder about the damaging effects of fear used to convert in religion, I wonder about the long-term use of fear as a motivating force. The heat of fear cannot be sustained. It eventually burns out, or we do. A better, healthier, less abusive tool for persuasion and motivation, then, would be an appeal to our best self, our sense of justice, our desire—and need—to live in peace, rather than fear.

Terry Tempest Williams hooked me recently in her plea to save our National Parks. I heard her speak at an independent Iowa City bookstore, where she began, yes, by tweaking my chord of fear. “In their platform” Williams began, “the GOP proposes getting rid of all public land. This means all our national parks, monuments, and historical markers.”

As she spoke, I recalled trips with my family to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Those trips were capstone experiences for me as a child, as the beauty of the landscape called to mind the grandeur of our country and our ideals. Even with the boom of our population and our dependency on the limited resource of oil, how could anyone consider doing away with this public, protected land? Williams made me feel the heat.

But, as she continued, she turned to a different, more poetic tool for persuasion. She described beautifully, eloquently, what our public land provides. She shared an experience she had driving through Yellowstone, coming to a bison jam in the road. She inched her car forward, her windows down, her radio set for classical music. The bison, to Williams’ surprise, did not move away from her car, but inched closer, and closer, tilting their heads to listen to Vivaldi. I smiled at the picture she painted, and felt the emotion beauty stirs within, as Williams reminded, “We are not the only species that lives and loves on this planet.”

Our national parks are our “breathing spaces” Williams surmised, where veterans go after coming home from war to heal, learn to trust again, and open their hearts to beauty. They are where children are taken to learn that the world and those who live in it are not to be feared, but respected and cared for and protected. Our national parks are places 300 million visitors appreciate every year, perhaps because they know they need an alternative source of motivation, an alternative to the fear that will eventually destroy us if we do not seek a more peaceful and sustainable way.

Williams appealed to my sense of possibility, tapped my appreciation for beauty, and wove a message that stirred in me a desire to save—not by the threat of hell—but by the promise of heaven on earth, for those of us willing to strive towards it.

 

[Feature Image by mell]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus Cleanses the Temple: A Contemporary Retelling

22834033495_9c77bd31f9_oMy husband, the Rev. Dr. Daniel J. Ott, just wrote this contemporary retelling of Mark 11: 15-18 for his sermon this coming Sunday.  What an important text for what is going on in our society today.  Thanks to Dan for giving me permission to share.

“Today an indigent man shocked the community when he staged a violent protest in a house of worship. Little is known about the man who may have been radicalized by participation in secret cells in a rural area. Earlier in the day, he appears to have been part of another protest that involved blocking a primary highway into the city. As bystanders looked on in horror and fear, the man disrupted commerce by terrorizing vendors and attempting to destroy currency. He was ranting about government violence against marginalized peoples and the hypocrisy of people of faith who would not stand with “the oppressed.” The man seems to have slipped away in the crowd, but religious leaders are calling for a restoration of law and order. A spokesperson said that they would definitely file charges if and when the man is caught. “This sort of lawlessness cannot be tolerated,” one witness said, “if it were up to me, these protestors would be put to death.”

[Feature Image: Sean P. Anderson]

A Virtual Placeholder

3368979605_70ec416e7f_oLast night I ransacked my recently cleaned home office in search of a poem I wrote two years ago about a sweet moment with my daughter. During a week when I am trying to write a sermon, a wedding homily and a first draft of my new essay, I thought it would be the perfect, easy blog post. I literally paged through ten notebooks full of writing (wow, I’ve written a lot in the last two years!) before I found the poem that turned out to be not as beautiful as the moment that inspired it. But I will still post it. I remember how the urge to write came to me after my then 4-year-old daughter gave me a hug and kiss goodbye before bouncing off to daycare. I wanted to put words to that sweet moment so I could remember how it felt when my daughter is grown.

Here’s what I wrote:

She leaned in for a delicate kiss,
her arms, wrapped around my neck,
as we said our morning goodbyes.
She’s longer now, at four years,
the pudge of her belly
not as pronounced.
But her eyes still round with
innocence—innocence I fiercely desire
to protect. Her laugh is wild
and stubborn. Her head strong.
I couldn’t love her more; my wild,
woman child, who will grow to be
I don’t know what—but surely amazing
in all her feminine glory.
Watch out world, my Ella Grace,
is a lioness in the making.

A few friends and a blog I have enjoyed following recently shut down their sites. Blogging isn’t for everyone and there are lots of different reasons to keep at it. I think what keeps me going is that Something to Say is mostly for myself—and if anyone else gets something from it, that is a wonderful bonus. I really love, though, how my blog is a virtual placeholder for my thoughts and memories. This poem, which I wanted to save, would have soon been tossed in the trash in a de-cluttering frenzy. Now that it is here on my blog, though, as well as other memories (like this post about my son putting on his sunblock) I can search for it, pull up this post and reread it anytime. Who knows, maybe even my children and my grandchildren will be searching through this blog someday. Scrapbooking was never my thing. This is. Thank you, WordPress.com, for the space.

 

[Feature Image: Kari Bluff]

Perspective

2558321055_9b324ab0a4_oI recently stole away for a quick writing retreat with my friend, Melissa Earley. We sat across from each other at her dining room table typing away on our matching MacBook Pros. It was great accountability because I knew Melissa could see me every time I distracted myself by checking my email on my smartphone. About thirty minutes into our first hour of writing, the following dialogue occurred:

Teri, loudly, face in hands: “Ugh. Writing is so hard!”

Melissa, immediate, straight-shooter: “No it’s not. Don’t you remember. You posted that article to Facebook a while back that said writing is not hard.”

Teri, defiant: “What? No I did not. I don’t remember that.”

Melissa-who-knows-better: “Here. I’ll find it and read it to you. It was really good.”

“Writing is not hard work. Let me tell you what hard work is: bending over in a field of low-bush, wild blueberries, your back arced so you can slide a forty-tooth rake like fingers under the bushes and pull back, settling the berries and tiny green leaves into the rake, then dumping them into a five-gallon bucket at your side, only to lug the bucket three hundred yards to the sorting machine where you lift it onto a wooden trailer and the man stamps a star-shaped hole in the card you keep in your back pocket, the card already soaked through with sweat and eight more hours to go, the sun like hot coals on the back of your neck, your shirt already tossed on the ground beside the gallon of water you froze the night before, the only thing that will keep you going through the wasp-riddled, poison-ivy laced field.”

Teri, chagrined: “Damn. You’re right. I did post that.”

Melissa, gloating, keeps reading:

“Writing is not hard work.  I’m talking about writing, not Facebooking, workshopping, copyediting, tweeting, submitting or, my least favorite activity, writing cover letters, but writing, that essential listening, that patience with words, hearing the voices come, seeing a scene come to life in front of your eyes, sitting at a computer until the computer falls away like the page of a good book falls away, until the screen becomes clear like the surface of a pond after rain so that someone looking into the water can see the rotting logs and Budweiser cans on the bottom and the fish swimming around.  The act of creation has nothing to do with hard work.  Writing is, to me, a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.”

Teri, humbled: “Yeah. This isn’t really hard. It’s not like I’m out picking blueberries in a field all day. Certainly puts things in perspective.”

Melissa, smug, returns to her typing.

Teri, distracted, checks her email.

 

**Read the full article “Writing is not Hard Work” by Mike Minchin.

[Feature Image: Brendan DeBrincat]