Getting to Know my White Privileged Self

5002004994_ab6c32ebbe_oA new essay is rising up within me. This is what it feels like when I know I have something to write about but don’t know exactly where this “feeling of an idea” is leading. It’s an exciting journey of discovery—exciting because I know I will learn and grow a lot in the process. But I also know this journey will require a lot of intense work, dedication, and a willingness to confront some painful and disturbing truths.

The topic of this new essay will be race. The journey towards this topic began last winter while reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow with a group of students at my college. Whenever I bemoan how busy my chaplaincy keeps me and how much I desire to have more time to write, reminding myself of all the rich experiences I am offered to learn and grow along with my students keeps me grateful for my career. The fact that I serve a racially diverse college as chaplain is an extraordinary gift that will deepen my exploration into the topic of race and positively influence my ministry with and among our students of color.

Reading James Baldwin (extraordinary! Can’t get enough of him!) Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has taken me further in my understanding of the particular human experience of people of color. I have been confronted and awakened to the disturbing, evil ways white people have oppressed, marginalized, and disempowered Native, Black, and Latino peoples in our society. But as a privileged white myself, I cannot write about race from the perspective of Baldwin, Douglas, or Isasi-Diaz. That would be disrespectful and dangerous. I cannot even begin to assume I could write about the experience of marginalized people. That, to me, would epitomize white ignorance. But I cannot ignore or set aside this issue of race—that would also be irresponsible as a person of faith seeking to live into God’s justice. So I needed to find another way in. An essay by Eula Biss called “Relations” opened the door to a helpful approach.

Biss, a middle-class woman from Iowa, writes about race from her white perspective.  After researching her own family history she writes, “It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries the burden of history without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be raceless.”[1] At another point in the essay Biss directly challenges me and all white people by writing, “We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.”[2] Here, was my way in. A challenge to get to know myself as a white person, to explore what my race has given me, how it has privileged me, and as a result of that privilege, how it has disadvantaged and oppressed others.

So I have begun my research on what it means for me to be born white in American society. My theologian husband has, as always, helped me deepen my thought by turning me to the work of philosopher Shannon Sullivan who has explored the racial habits of white people in two books: Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege and Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.  I’m not sure where this journey into race will take me, but I feel its significance, at the very least, for me, to write about and articulate.

As I progress Thomas Merton’s well-known prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude” feels appropriate:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

[1] Eula Biss, “Notes from No Man’s Land”, (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009), pg. 32.

[2] Ibid, pg. 31.

[Feature Image: tobiwei]

I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.

 

[Feature Image: Bill Selak]

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Woodcarver

wisers-whisky-wood-carver-600-95347My friend and writing coach, Christine Hemp, introduced me to the poem, The Woodcarver.  It has led me to amazing riches.  I keep it taped above my desktop computer in my office as a reminder to “Guard my spirit, [and] not expend it on trifles that [are] not to the point.”  This poem has served as such an inspiration, that I wanted to share it with you.  May we all create our beautiful bell stand.

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood.  When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded.  They said it must be

The work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

 

King replied: “I am only a workman:

I have no secret.  There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit, did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to set

My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days

I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

 

“By this time all thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought

Of the bell stand.

 

“Then I went to the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was to put forth my hand

and begin.

 

“If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

 

“What happened?

My own collected thought

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 

–Chuang Tzu

from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

The Burden of Judgment

burden_of_memoryThomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.[1]

The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words.  More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life.  During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love.  Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.

I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat.  Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.

Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.)  He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space.  It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.

Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation.  The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.”  They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples.  They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.

“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”[2] 

Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people?  Their behavior turns my mood black.  They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.

“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals.  It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”

Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul.  I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion.  They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet.  But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.

“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”

I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him.  And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space.  And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves.  And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well.  I, too, desire to be relevant.  I, too, struggle with my ego.  I, too, am frail and insecure.

Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with.  I don’t want to be like these people.  I want to be better.  And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.

This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” (Doubleday, New York, NY, 1965), pg. 156.

[2] All italicized quotes are from Thomas Merton’s, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg.

about a daily spiritual practice

sprouting-seedWe can hardly get Christians today to observe a weekly spiritual practice, let alone daily. This was my response to the teacher of the meditation conference I was attending who claimed he had never visited a church that encouraged a daily spiritual practice.  My teacher was a writer whose writing flourished once he embraced Buddhism and a daily meditation practice.  His statement irked me – as a Christian, as a leader in the Church, as a pastor who immediately questioned herself.  Had I ever encouraged my parishioners to a daily spiritual practice?  I had.  Hadn’t I?  Of course I had.

Why was I so defensive?  How many churches had my Buddhist friend actually visited?  He’d never visited mine.  So why did I take his criticism so personally?

I just finished my sermon on Luke 10: 38-42 where Jesus tells Martha that she needs to spend time sitting and listening at his feet.  Working through this text I felt as if Jesus was speaking to me as well as Martha.  I do so much in my life.  I am constantly doing.  But everything I am doing is expected of me.  I can’t stop parenting my children, nurturing my marriage, or investing myself in my vocation as a college chaplain.  Jesus expects me to do these things.  I know he does.  He’s the one who, I believe, called me to marriage, parenthood, and ordained ministry.  But in the midst of all this doing he also wants me to have a daily sitting practice, a time of listening at the feet of Christ.

Throughout my life I’ve tried a variety of spiritual practices.  I’ve prayed the liturgical hours.  I’ve meditated, contemplated, walked the labyrinth, invested myself in centering prayer and lectio divina (sacred reading). I’ve gone on spiritual retreats, spent time with monks and nuns, and worshipped in a wide variety of communities. All of this spiritual practice has been wonderful and incredibly edifying.  But when I get busy, it all slips away.  The doing takes over the practicing and I become like Martha, envying all the Mary’s of the world.

There is something not right, though, about the guilt I feel as I fail in these daily spiritual practices.  My Christian faith is my life, a life incredibly full of meaningful work, healthy relationships, and amazing opportunities to serve and give.  Why, in the midst of all of this, must I feel like something is missing?

My husband, Dan, is one of my greatest inspirations.  Also a Presbyterian minister, Dan feels most at home in the academic world.  Prayer is not really his thing.  He can do it, of course.  And he is often called upon to pray.  But his preferred spiritual practice is cerebral.  He is awakened by reading the words of Thomas Merton, Bernard Meland, Paul Tillich and John Cobb.  I liken Dan’s theological reading to the deep contemplation Thomas Merton describes that leads to the gift of awareness, or “an awakening of the Real within all that is real.”[1]  Over the past twelve years of our marriage I have observed Dan’s daily practice of deep theological contemplation gift him with a wonderful awareness.  He is the most spiritually mature person I know.

I’ve come to realize that each of us, as children of God, is unique.  Therefore, our practices can be unique.  Practicing our faith together, in community, is tremendously important.  Faith that is only practiced alone is a self-centered, static faith.  We must gather together around some commonly held rituals and practices.  But it is just as important to have our own, unique, individual practices that open us up and awaken us to the divine.

At this point in my life, I’m awakening to the idea that writing is my spiritual practice.  Writing is what leads me to a deep place of contemplation.  It is my path to awareness.  Oftentimes, I don’t know what I know until I write it out.  I also don’t know what I believe.  Writing is the practice that brings spiritual seeds to the surface for me.  God plants these seeds as I walk through the world, noticing life.  Writing brings the seeds to bloom.  I can only know and appreciate their flowers if I am diligent in my practice.  When I am diligent, I feel the satisfaction and the peace that comes from, again in Merton’s words, awakening to the Real within all that is real.

How about you?  What is your unique daily practice?  What leads you to a deep place of contemplation?  What helps awaken you to the Real within all that is real? Whatever it is, do it daily.


[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 75.