Tillich for Today’s Headlines

I took this picture while contemplating Tillich on a walk near my home.

A week of study leave has me returning to read one of my favorite twentieth century theologians, Paul Tillich, and his book Dynamics of FaithTillich was devastated by what he experienced in World War I as an army chaplain.  In war’s aftermath, his work sought to address the emptiness and anxiety of meaningless people felt.  He was a humanist and a lover of literature, poetry and art—which is probably why he is my favorite.  Tillich speaks of God in language like no other; his words are lyrical, poetic and hopeful. Turning to Tillich today, it is eerie to resonate with a man’s words about Nazi Germany, the idolatry of nationalism, and all its consequences.

Tillich defines faith as the “state of being ultimately concerned.” We, as human beings, have faith in many things—faith in family, money, education, institutions, the strength of our military, our nation. Tillich’s definition, though, raises the question of what is the “ultimate” or final state of our faith? What have we placed on top?  Whatever we humans prioritize as our ultimate concern influences everything else.

For instance, Tillich writes:

If a national group makes the life and growth of the nation its ultimate concern, it demands that all other concerns, economic well-being, health and life, family aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice and humanity, be sacrificed.

Our nation’s new isolationist mantra, “Make America Great Again,” comes to mind as I read this warning from Tillich with the sacrifices of truth, justice and humanity playing out daily in the news.  I, like many of you, am at a loss for what to do about this evil except find ways to recognize, address and overcome the seeds of isolationism, racism and white supremacy within myself and actively resist it in the society of which I am a part.

In light of this week’s news of children separated from their parents and locked in detention centers along our Southern border and the U.S. backing out of the United Nations Human Rights Council, my prayer is that we, as a nation, might give ourselves to something larger and higher than our own or our nation’s welfare—something more like Jesus’ ultimate concern from Luke 10, that leads to life, rather than tragedy, injustice and death.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Do this, and you will live.

Luke 10:27-28

We are all “Cracked Pots”

Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner was Monmouth College’s 2018 Baccalaureate Preacher.  Shannon was called to be the pastor of Chicago’s iconic Fourth Presbyterian Church in March of 2014.  Ever since hearing this news, I have been cheering for Shannon and celebrating her success.  Very few women serve as senior pastors of churches over 5,000 members.  With amazing grace and extraordinary talent, Shannon has broken what we women clergy refer to as the “stained-glass ceiling” in church leadership.”

While she was on campus, I interviewed Shannon on our college’s radio station.  I asked her about her religious and spiritual upbringing, how it feels to be a breaker of  ‘stained-glass ceilings’, and what advice she had for our new graduates.  The interview, like Shannon herself, was full of grace.

In her Baccalaureate sermon, Shannon reflected on Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  “We are all just a bunch of cracked pots,” Shannon told our graduates, “cheap jars, fragile and porous.”

“Clay jars in Paul’s day” Shannon went on to explain, “were the most imperfect vessel one could choose.  Whatever one was carrying would just spill all over the place because those vessels were literally cracked pots.  They were absolutely inefficient and a bad choice for carrying anything valuable.  Any yet it is precisely into our cracked pot selves that God has purposely chosen to place the treasure of God’s grace and the promise of of God’s healing and wholeness for the world.”

Shannon appreciates this description of us as clay jars because “it acknowledges the truth that none of us has it all together.  Nor should we ever expect to.  This verse gives me some breathing space.  The Good News is that we do indeed contain a treasure, but it is rooted in something much larger than ourselves.  The world’s healing and justice does not just rest on our shoulders.  God’s got you and God will work through our cracks and imperfections to shed extraordinary light on the world.”

Listen to my interview with Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner by following this link to WPFS–Proud Fighting Scots Radio.

Follow this link to watch a video of Monmouth College’s 2018 Baccalaureate Service and to hear Rev. Kershner’s sermon which begins at about the 40 minute mark.

Diversify your Summer Reading with Free Books!

Dear book lovers:  This offer was too good not to share!  Celebrate World Book Day with Amazon Crossing by downloading free Kindle books by authors from North Korea, Greece, Sweden, Japan, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Spain and Chile.  This offer is good until midnight tomorrow (April 24th.) I’ve downloaded them all and am really enjoying The House by the River by Lena Manta from Greece.  The story is taking my mind all over the world!

Follow this link to download your free books today!

More Bass; Less Treble

I’ve started reading a poem a day from the Poetry Magazine to which I recently subscribed.  I keep the magazine on the nightstand beside my bed so I will reach for it as soon as my alarm goes off.  When I get the chance, I reread the poem throughout the day, sometimes out loud, to find and feel its rhythm.  Every morning I wake up craving my new poem.

In a brilliant panel on “Making Room for Essayist Thinking in Hard Times” at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, I listened to Heather Lanier quote pastor Rob Bell:

Progressive Christian pastor Rob Bell describes a yearning specific to our culture right now: “I call it the bass note,” he says. “We are craving bass notes right now. The treble is the squeakier, higher frequency note, and then there’s the bass note. And something about modern culture, and something about the way the Internet has worked on us,… the way in which blips and squeaks are coming at us faster than ever, the way in which news is sensationalized, the headlines that demean actual news and journalism and reporting, this TMZing of our world, it’s sped everything up so that everything is happening right here in this moment. Have you seen this snapchat? It can easily disconnect you from things that are older than five minutes. Life can become all treble, no bass.”[1]

At the end of her presentation, Lanier encouraged us to spend time with the bass notes—with things that resonate deeply and take a long time to make.  Like trees and books, Lanier suggests.  Like poems, children, art galleries and churches, I’d add.

How about you?  What bass notes do you crave?  What resonates deeply within you?

[1] Bell, Rob. “What is the Double Down.” The Robcast. May 14, 2017. https://robbell.podbean.com/e/what-is-the-double-down/

[Feature Image: Squeezyboy]

Raising White Kids: Book Review and Giveaway

While reading Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s latest book, both my kids asked me separately, “Mommy, why are you reading a book called ‘Raising White Kids?’”  The conversation this question sparked advanced Harvey’s hope for the book—that parents of white children will talk about race (and racism) early and often in their children’s lives.  Such conversations, Harvey acknowledges, are unfamiliar, uncharted, and, at times, uncomfortable, but necessary in order to move us beyond the “color-blind” teaching of the past and towards “race-conscious” parenting.  Harvey believes “race-conscious” parenting will deepen our active commitment to everyone’s children by drawing more of us into the larger movement of social and racial justice—a movement that Harvey says needs “all of us to be all in.”

A few memorable takeaways from this book:

The old “color-blind” approach does not work for the simple reason that we cannot NOT see race.  Harvey writes that teaching children to be color-blind is an inadequate strategy because as early as age five children recognize that different groups are treated differently.  Noticing differences and developing prejudice are two distinct processes, though.  Prejudice is learned, Harvey writes. “Prejudice is the step taken after one notices physical differences in which differences are assigned meanings—negative ones.” These prejudices need to be interrupted and counteracted with specific teaching.  “Generic teachings,” Harvey writes, “such as ‘we’re all the same inside’ or ‘we’re all equal’ do not serve our children any better than does silence.”

White youth are ill-equipped to participate in conversations about racism and respond to such conversations with anxiety, guilt, cognitive dissonance, or even anger.  Upon reading this, I immediately thought of my white students who go silent whenever the topic of race or racism arises.  I had interpreted this silence as a lack of courage to engage a difficult topic or a lack of interest. Harvey, who teaches at Drake University, offers me a more empathetic understanding.  She describes how her white students struggle to find a meaningful place from which to participate fully in conversations about diversity and race, even while they get pressure from adults to do so as they grow older.  Her white students are often aware that racial tensions exist. Many of them also know or sense that these tensions have to do with injustices white people have committed.  This awareness—combined with the absence of nuanced, supportive, complex discussions about race—reveals itself as anxiety, guilt, cognitive dissonance or anger when the topic of race arises.

“On top of all of this,” Harvey writes, “that whites are behind when it comes to race makes racial tensions worse.  For example, when these same white students are reluctant to talk about, are ill-equipped to understand, or show anxiety and resistance to honest engagement with race, students of color in the room get the message that their white peers just don’t care.”

 Having a sense of what white growth looks like along the way is useful.  In her book, Harvey spends a whole chapter explaining white racial identity development as identified by psychologist Janet Helms in her book, A Race is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life.  Helms’ six stages of white identity development are:

  • Contact: Race is not perceived as a meaningful difference.
  • Disintegration: What do you mean we’re not all equal?
  • Reintegration Stage: Blaming People of Color
  • Pseudo-Independence: Something is Wrong with Society
  • Immersion / Emersion: Changing my Relationship to Whiteness
  • Autonomy: I have a sense of my abilities, agency, facility, and language around race and antiracism.

Having a sense of what white growth looks like along the way helps us have better conversations about our antiracist development—what it looks like, how we get there, and how our children can get there.

Other appreciations:  Overall, I recommend this book not just to parents of white children, but also teachers seeking to help their white students engage in topics of race in the classroom.  I especially appreciated the examples of real conversations Harvey has had with her own children.  Harvey is not just a scholar writing a book, but also a parent trying her best to raise her own white children to be antiracist advocates.  Finally, Harvey includes an invaluable list of resources for further study and support.

**Interested in reading Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children In A Racially Unjust America for yourself?  Well, SURPRISE, I have a free hardcover copy to give away! The first person to leave me a comment below saying they want the book wins the prize. I will contact you for your shipping information.

What story does our budget tell?

I am taking a creative writing class where we are learning how to discover and tell stories.  Last week, our professor passed out an excerpt from The Art of Creative Research where Philip Gerard encourages essayists to examine even the most mundane document, like a budget, for the story it tells.  He writes:

As an essayist, you love ideas and events and might balk at examining, say, a budget—yet a budget is a statement of the values of whatever organization adopts it, as well as an expression of hope that the future will turn out according to a given prediction expressed in numbers.  A budget is an expression of philosophy—ideas—and also a blueprint for future events.  It expresses an ethical stance.  It makes sense that we reveal our priorities by what we are willing to spend our money on—and how much: Battle tanks or famine relief? Affordable housing or a new sports stadium? A special education teacher or another administrator?  You just have to practice reading such a dry document and learn to tease out its inherent drama.  Once you have trained yourself to do that, you have essentially learned a whole new language with which to listen to stories.

This got me thinking. What story does my personal budget, my church’s budget, our national budget tell? What do we spend money on? What do we save money for? What is our ethic of debt? Does our budget reflect a value for others and others’ lives? Or is it just for ourselves? What kind of future does our budget predict? Is it a blueprint of hope?

My peace activist husband wants us to ask more questions about our national budget.  Dan keeps posting quotes like this on Facebook:

“Military budget is around $825 billion – more than the next nine nations put together (and those include China and Russia). U.S. debt is at $20.5 trillion. Just sayin…”

And this from the Washington Post:

The U.S. government will spend about $500 billion more over the next two years, the largest increase in federal spending since the stimulus during the Great Recession. The bulk of the extra spending would not be paid for, meaning the United States’ $20 trillion debt would get worse…More than 60 percent of the extra funding would go toward military spending.

The drama inherent in our national budget speaks to the fear and anxiety of our time. Clearly, we feel the need to protect ourselves. We need to arm ourselves nine times over the other guy. Clearly, we have faith in our weapons, but not enough faith to cap how much we spend on them. We hope our guns will save us, while also knowing deep down that they won’t.

This story is disturbing—especially when I consider all we could fund if our military budget was reasonable. Public Education. Health care. Housing developments for the poor. Community centers. Playgrounds and parks. Public transportation.

Capping our insatiable addiction to weaponry would alter our budgetary blueprint. It would also offer us a new national story—one I would be proud to tell.

[Feature Image: Simon James]

Living the Questions with Amy Frykholm

Amy Frykholm, author of Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography; See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity; Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America; Christian Understandings of the Future: The Historical Trajectory and Associate Editor of the Christian Century magazine visited my campus last week and spoke to us of her call to “live the questions.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, writes:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

This passage inspired Frykholm to pursue a vocation of writing, or as she sees it, a life spent living the questions.

I was able to sit down with Amy for an interview on our college’s radio station.  During our thirty minutes on air, I asked Amy about her religious and spiritual background, her call to write, and how writing might serve as a spiritual practice.

Listen to our conversation here on WPFS – Proud Fighting Scots Radio.

Waking Up White: A Book Recommendation

I have been reading and writing a lot about race lately.  The Black Lives Matter movement got me going.  Trump’s presidency stoked the fire of urgency. Over winter break I finished, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. I highly recommend this book.  In fact, I wish every white person would read it.  Irving does such a good job highlighting issues of race that people of color deal with every day, but to which we white people remain oblivious.  Irving’s tone is not teacherly or patronizing, even though she is a diversity educator.  Instead, she is autobiographical and self-effacing.  She shares stories of mistakes she has made in her efforts to become a more racially-aware person.  Some of these stories made me cringe, because I have made similar mistakes.  But the only way to learn is to face these mistakes.  Here are just a few of the valuable lessons I gleaned from this book:

White people need to educate other white people about race.  Honestly, before reading this book, I thought I could only learn about race from people of color. (I’m embarrassed and ashamed to have just typed that sentence.)  White people often fail to recognize that “white” is also a race that we need to understand.  If we can understand whiteness and white culture, then we can better understand the challenges we pose to people of other races when we expect them to act like us, speak like us, learn like us, etc.

Irving, whose suburban upbringing was a lot like my own, helped me identify a variety of beliefs and behaviors indicative of white culture, such as: conflict avoidance, emotional restraint, a sense of urgency about time, a habit of asking social locator questions like “What do you do? Where are you from? Where did you go to school?” to determine what box we should put people or gage the level of success they have achieved.  I am guilty of this white judgmentalism and am determined to break this habit of asking “social locator” type questions.

Fair does not mean equal.  Equality starts with equity.  “Equity,” Irving writes, “means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.”  In other words, equity is a way to level the playing field and equality cannot be achieved without it. She illustrated her point with a hypothetical:  If there was a test that involved students writing their answer on a line on the board—a line five feet above the ground—what would you do for the shorter students who couldn’t reach the line?  You’d make the test equitable by giving the shorter students a step up so they could meet the same expectation as the taller students.  Such steps—like affirmative action—level the playing field to make it more equitable.

When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral.  Irving writes, “When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral: either I’m intentionally and strategically working against it, or I’m aiding and abetting the system.  As historian and activist Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’”  Irving correlates this idea with her antibullying training as a teacher.  “Antibullying pedagogy describes three distinct roles: (1) bullies, (2) victims, and (3) bystanders,” she writes. “Traditionally the approach has been to reprimand the bully and console the victim while ignoring the bystanders, those who witness but neither partake in nor stand up to the bullying.  More recently, however, educators and psychologists recognized that the real power rests in empowering bystanders to become allies in the fight to eliminate childhood bullying.”

I am convicted by Irving’s words, realizing that I have lived most of my life as a bystander, as someone who has aided and abetted the system of racism because I was SO unaware and because I lacked the courage to do anything about it.  Irving shares that her ultimate goal is to interrupt racism, advocate against it, and educate without doing more harm than good. Even though I know I will make lots of terrible mistakes, I’m committed to this goal as well.  The burden to right this wrong is on those of us who benefit from this unfair and inequitable system.  Will you join me?  Reading “Waking Up White” with your friends, co-workers, or church groups is a great place to start.

[The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Co-Moderators, Rev. T. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, have invited churches to read and study this book.  They’ve also published this curriculum to guide and encourage your study.]

Honoring what is Within

When our son, Isaac, was about a month old he began to scream and cry each night for about an hour.  Nothing would comfort him.  Our pediatrician helpfully explained Isaac’s behavior to us as a period of PURPLE crying, an acronym for:

Previously referred to as colic and treated as if there was something wrong with the baby, PURPLE crying was a way to help parents understand this period in their baby’s life as a normal part of every infant’s development.  As our pediatrician explained it, Isaac took in stimuli all day long and at night he needed to release that stimulation in a big, emotional cry.  I remembered this trying time of parenthood a few days ago when I sat down to meditate for the first time in many months.

My daily meditation practice faltered because I decided I preferred to use my quiet morning time to write. But then life handed me some change and new challenge.  Our beloved 14-year-old German Shepherd lost the use of his hips and after a few months of trying to help him live with dignity, we decided we had to put him down.  In the midst of this, my 45-year-old body presented me with changes to which I’ve had a difficult time adjusting.  It was the holidays, so I coped by eating and drinking too much.  My exercise routine also faltered.

Finally, while trying to run on the treadmill at the gym I noticed that my insides felt all jumpy and wrangly.  This is how stress feels to me—like my insides are filled with Mexican jumping beans. I should get back to meditating, I told myself.

That night, after the kids had gone to bed, I sat and breathed through one rotation of my 108 mala beads.  (Mala beads are great for meditation, by the way.  Read more about them here. Watch a video about how to use them here.)  It was a fruitful meditation, because what arose as I sat quietly with myself was all the emotion I had been avoiding, emotions I finally could identify during this time of meditation as anxiety, sadness, frustration, grief.  All this had been welling up inside of me, but I had been disregarding these feelings in my effort to just…keep…going.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from meditation is how sitting with ourselves and honoring what is happening within is essential for healing and spiritual wholeness.  The Buddhist practice of sitting with your suffering has become very valuable to me.  My emotions, like the ocean tide, need space to rise and flourish before they can ebb and recede.  Too often, though, I avoid these uncomfortable emotions and go to great lengths to push my suffering aside.  Like an infant’s period of PURPLE crying, the emotions that arise within us are a natural part of the human experience and should be respected as such.  By honoring what is within me, by attending to even the most painful of emotions, I’ve discovered that their power over me diminishes.

What about you?  What is within you?  What have you been avoiding?  And what might happen if you honored and attended that which is within?