Over the last few years, I’ve been an on-and-off-again member of a local gym. When I first joined, I honestly was looking for reprieve from life as a stay-at-home mother. I had two small kids, very little energy that was left when they were done with me each day, and no babysitter. The gym has a childcare center (SUPER important priority) and a couple of pools. Behind the child care, the pool was the big sell for me.
As a person living with Rheumatoid Arthritis, you get a lot of lectures about the importance of exercise. You hear a lot from your body, however, that exercise is for fools and that there heating pad is your BFF. You can’t betray HER!
Exercise is hard for anyone other than the people who are frighteningly disciplined about it. But it’s particularly difficult to be motivated when you’re already hurting before you even get to the gym. And I don’t care how many professional golfers shill for drug companies, RA isn’t the kind of disease most of us can battle while playing all manner of sport.
By far, the best form of exercise for an arthritic is swimming. The water offers resistance, but also has the added benefit of making you lighter than you are on land. I love swimming. It’s like flying, but wet.
It seemed like a natural decision, therefore, to join a water aerobics class. I had tried arthritis-based exercise once before in high school when I joined a class held at the local office of the Arthritis Foundation. It was called “arhtrobics,” and it was awful. I felt like a big jerk standing there in my limited, but still outwardly 16-ish, body with seriously-old people who could hardly move doing modified jumping jacks (lifting your arms while sticking your legs out one-at-a-time. Imagine a sideways version of the hokey pokey with absolutely NO turning all about). I did not return to arthrobics.
I was a little concerned that water aerobics might be similar, but there’s a nice window you can watch the class through and everyone seemed to be able to lift their arms, etc. It looked like the right amount of challenging for me, even though the only woman remotely close to my age was a pregnant lady.
The first few times I went, it was just like any other first-day-of-school experience. Everyone seemed to know what equipment they needed for class, so I walked over to a giant white bin and grabbed a noodle and two noodle-wrapped barbells and set them down on the edge of the pool. The water was obscenely cold. So I started to bob like the other attendees and soon enough, class was underway.
A svelte middle-aged woman started to play club versions of 90’s songs (Waterfalls, anyone? Pool puns!) and then she told us there would be no “cheet-chat.” I couldn’t discern her accent then, and I’m still not quite sure if it’s German, but when she’s gesticulating and yelling at an old woman to “give me more POWER! POWER!” it sure feels like German.
And it was hard. Water aerobics is that kind of sneaky exercise that just feels like you’re playing around but then, a few hours later, say, when you’re at the grocery store, there’s an overwhelming warming in your arms that makes you think they’re going to fall off, and you start to panic because you bought three gallons of milk that are definitely not going to be lifted out of your cart by you. I was shocked at the pain, but glad that at least that hour of splashing had done something (even if it made me want to end Germany or wherever, once and for all).
But what surprised me most about the class was the camaraderie. While we were all grunting and nearly drowning ourselves with exertion, our instructor got pretty chatty about her newfound love of spaghetti squash. She called many of the women by name, even threatening the class with more reps if one particularly social woman named Millie, starting “cheet-chatting.” We were all supposed to say, “Thank you, MILLIE,” when we got the extra reps. Yep, gotta be German.
As we were cooling down, the instructor mentioned that the class would be having lunch together in a week. She held up a sign-up sheet and encouraged us all to come. I thought about it, but didn’t sign up that first day. I’ve been going for a while now, and I’ve talked to a couple of the women, but it’s always, “Man, the pool’s cold today” level, pre-class chit chat.
Today, when we were done, there was another invitation. My kids are currently home for the summer, so I told myself I’ll just catch up with the Aqua ladies in the fall, when the kids are all back in school. As I was walking into the locker room, I noticed the woman in front of me had a hip scar like mine. I heard several women telling the instructor how much they needed this class: its blend of rigor and the grace to do what they could do. Another couple of them were inside-joking about their book club. I thought to myself, “this is a group of women I get.” It’s always been like this for me with my own grandparents, other people’s grandparents. I know all their medicines, their therapies. And now, thanks to my hip replacement, I’ve had a taste of their surgeries.
One of the women spoke to me while I was getting dressed (still not used to having conversations with strangers in my bra, but that’s gym life). She introduced herself and asked me if I had come to class before. I have. She told me about their lunch group and asked if I wanted to put my name on the e-list for updates about their social gatherings. I told her to sign me up and gave her my address.
Just yesterday, my rheumatologist ordered a relatively new lab test that can help determine how active my disease is so we can assess the rate of damage being done to my body. When I think about it too much, it’s a strange thing to be physically withering at my age, but I am. I’ve been living with RA since I was little, growing and withering simultaneously. Most of the women in my class have only known the physical pains of aging for a decade or two. I’ve known them for three. It shocks them, but it’s my normal. Like my grandparents, and now my parents, the women lament how “they just can’t do anymore.” I’ve been able to do my fair share, but in some of the more typical ways of doing, there are things I’ve never been able to do.
This would seem to be a sad state, and it’s not fun. It’s not profound nor heroic. But it does give me opportunities to see and be with people that the rest of the world tends to miss (or dismiss). The slow-moving people. And that makes it a little easier to endure. I get to be part of the Aqua ladies who lunch. And that’s not a bad gig, even if a soft-hearted German fusses at you from time to time.
**Though this post was published in July, I’m linking it up for the August #SpiritofthePoor blog round-up. As a disabled woman living with chronic illness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how rest factors in to my writing and activism for myself and others.**
Last week, I got all geared up to begin this new adventure with writing. I had plans, I tell you! Big plans. For once, I had a pile of fodder for this blog, that blog, my other blog, and for pitching to several outlets where I stand a slim chance of getting paid for writing. I was pumped. And then, a flare hit.
In case you’re new around here, I have spent the last thirty-four years battling Rheumatoid Arthritis (yes, kids get arthritis, too). The last couple of decades, my flares are worst in my hands, though I’ve had several surgeries on my lower extremities, including a total hip replacement. I’ve worked full-time, and part-time, and as a stay-at-home mom, all trying to find the right kind of work to suit my particular challenges. I’ve become convinced, over time, that somehow writing should be a part of that.
Now, here I am in all my gumption with a full brain and broken hands, and a looming sense that the world was passing me by. This is what it is to be chronically ill: unpredictably stricken and frequently thwarted. It’s one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to call myself a writer. Because of the inconsistent nature of my disease, I’m reliably unreliable.
In my everyday life, I often push through pain to get stuff done, but then I pay for it with more pain, more damage. I have a few cheats and tricks here and there that can make some tasks easier, but every day hurts. Almost every minute. Doctors telling you to “listen to the pain” doesn’t really work in my case because pain is the constant. That makes it hard to pull back and rest when I need to: the whole idea of “need to” is consistently subjugated to what I think I “have to” do to participate with my family or my community.
Tonight, I read this article on rest as an act of resistance by Rhesa Storms. She writes:
Resting may be the most countercultural and spiritual thing we can do as people who follow God.
It’s as if God knew we would have a hard time with rest. Living a crazy, busy life isn’t just a modern problem, living a crazy, busy life is a humanity problem.
From the very early dealings with his people, God desires to give them rest. That is the beauty of the fourth commandment: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
The word Sabbath means to stop. Full stop. Whatever you are doing, stop. Let your hands rest. Cease the constant consumption of ideas and information and products and simply be.
It is easy for us to get caught up in ourselves and begin to overestimate our own importance. So God gives us rest to set us free.
For weeks (he’d say years) I’ve been lecturing my husband on his work habits and the importance of Sabbath. I should hear myself talk. It’s hard to admit that rest is important when most of your struggles are invisible and can overwhelm you any minute: when one minute you’re hauling in groceries, and an hour later, you can’t effectively turn the steering wheel of your car. How do you stop doing when, at any time, you could be forced to stop doing? Even now, I’m typing notes for this post with swollen wrists and screaming fingers.
[Momentary internal interlude: Stop writing because this is ridiculous and you've caught on to your own hypocrisy here. But I have a point to make! Then get there already, lady.]
Could it be that this is a matter of trusting God? Perhaps. Sabbath usually involves relinquishing control over things we don’t really have full control over. I believe I trust Him with my success or failure here. If He leads me to this new avenue of expression, so be it. I can accept His timing on this writing gig. Truly. I know enough of Him to know that He does what He pleases the way He pleases because He always does good, even when the good hurts.
What I struggle to accept is the idea that the world ISN’T passing me by when I rest. That there isn’t some big empty scorecard or a shot clock that dwindles while I sit. I’m using sports metaphors here and they make me feel more inadequate because I don’t *do* sports. Based upon what I know from living here, not just in America, but in my own eroding bones, we value output. We value forward motion. We don’t value stop. We don’t value wait. I’ll be judged by those values. I’ve been judged by those values.
I’ve been told by people, “you’re so lazy.” “Get up and *do* something.” “All you did today was watch TV/play on the internet/talk on the phone.” “What have you even DONE today?” “It’s nice you get to lay around while the rest of us work our butts off.” I suppose to people who don’t have the luxury of forced rest, the sight of me sitting or laying down is cause for contempt or even anger. My slowness reminds them of their own hurried pace. It interrupts their agendas. Hey, I get that. It interrupts mine, and that is infinitely frustrating.
What I’m wondering though, is can I embrace the disruptive nature of my disease? As much as I enjoy being the up-front person or the woman with a soapbox, it’s always been difficult to shine a spotlight on the broken parts. I’d rather make you angry with a rant or make you laugh with a joke than invite one moment’s pity. And talking about arthritis this way, explaining how it messes things up for me and makes life hard, violates everything I’ve done in life to make all this look easy and fun. Everything I’ve done to be less of a burden on the world because the worst thing in the world is to be “needy,” or so the bootstrappers tell me. The sight of me “just laying there” is unfair, not because I’m laying there, but because they’re not. It’s unfair because we all feel pressed to live this way, as productive citizens on one big assembly line that never stops churning out who-knows-what. Laying here reminds you and me that life should be different. I shouldn’t hurt, and none of us should keep chasing after the wind.
I want to accept these limitations and frailties for myself, and see the good they can bring about in temporarily disrupting the selfishness in me and in the people in my community. It’s a risky thing to willingly become the [often unwelcome] speed bump in the lives of the people you love. But the idea that rest itself can be an act of resistance is an empowering thought. As someone who gets weary from fighting to participate in a race I cannot possibly win, it might be a nice change of pace to take the fight to bed with me. I’d like to think that as a disability rights activist, I would be more consistent in how I treat myself in this regard, but I’m not. In many ways, I’ve internalized ableist attitudes about my own worth, and that’s a whole load of crap I’ll have to keep working through, particularly if I want to set a better example for my children.
Perhaps I can wrap my head and hands around all that tomorrow. Tonight, the therapeutic ice packs and heating pad await.
I went clothes shopping last night. Lord have mercy, I hate it with a passion. In this case, I went to Kohl’s and did the usual pack-mule routine:
- Amass forty-eight items, besting the “six items, please” policy of most places eight-fold, make sure to get two sizes of everything you remotely like.
- Hurry into the dressing room before you catch the eye of a re-stocker or another shopper trying to beat you to the last stall.
- Sift through the stash and put the favorites on top, hopeful that at least five of these items will fit and be a reasonable price.
- Pause every six or seven items to just breathe and give myself a pep talk, “You’re going to make it. Yes, you really should have worn different shoes/pants/bra/hairstyle today.”
- Make sure the coast is clear before putting forty-six of the original forty-eight things on the rack at the front of the dressing room.
- Give the rack a once-over in case someone your size left something decent.
- Buy the two things that fit, neither of which you came here to buy.
I know I’m taking a risk here that one of you, my beloved readers, works in retail and just reading that list lights in you a fury that burns with the heat of a thousand suns. But it’s what I do. And I’m going to play the disability card here because walking laps around a store, fastening and unfastening countless buttons, bending over to find the last size 14 on the rack, and everything else that goes into clothes shopping is a pain in my…well, everything. So, I call arthritis. Sometimes, I can’t get those sliding, pinching things closed over pants either, and I just leave the hanger in the dressing room and the pants in a bin. There. Now you know I’m a horrible customer. If you see me coming, at least you’ve been warned.
I cannot remember a time when I had fun clothes shopping. There have been moments of satisfaction when more clothes fit than usual: like when I lost some weight, or during college when my boobs finally arrived. But historically, it’s been a nightmare. Perhaps this is why I wear so many fandom shirts?
The older I get, the more sense my mother makes to me. The woman has been going out in public in a muumuu for decades. She slips on some shoes, puts on the appropriate undergarments, and heads out to Harris Teeter or the hardware store in what she politically refers to as “a patio dress.” She won’t go out to eat like that (unless it’s a drive-through situation), but she gets the paper, waters the lawn, and generally gallivants in that thing. In the winter, there’s a button-up over-muumuu.
As a young woman, I was mortified that my twangy Southern mother would play to stereotype this way. Now, as a mom in her mid-thirties, I have come to believe that the woman is a bonafide genius. She’s not playing by anyone’s rules with her muumuu. Heck, it’s practically a form of protest to dress this way. There are women I know who won’t leave their house without make-up. I labored in that Kohl’s last night trying to find something, anything, that fit and fashion-wise could be placed in this decade. But my mama’s patio dress is timeless. It never goes out of style because that sucker was never in style in the first place. Well, maybe long ago…
Speaking of, the main reason I was in Kohl’s today looking for shorts is because, for the weekends, I have decided to participate in the #offTarget effort of Moms Demand Action. The group has been identifying businesses where gunslingers have been showing up needlessly armed to the teeth. And Target has been in the news lately for such antics. At a store in South Carolina, a customer found a loaded gun in the toy section. So far, Moms Demand Action has been able to get Chipotle, Sonic, Chili’s and several other large chains to change their policies about open carry in their places of business.
Given how often I’m at Target (hint: it’s more than I’m at church, which is saying something), I felt I could easily give up weekend shopping for the sake of our families’ safety. Still, it’s so hard. We had to buy bedding today and we actually went to the mall for it. The mall! Target is our go-to for almost everything. But, I believe in this effort and it has everything I love in a good protest: clever use of social media, personal sacrifice, and endless pun/slogan potential.
Several of my friends who are defenders of a more generous interpretation of the 2nd amendment than I have told me that they find these open carry parades ridiculous. Even the NRA denounced them, but then they retracted their denouncement.
I hope you’ll consider joining me and other citizens in this #offTarget effort. I don’t mind shopping for clothes in a store that has a Pizza Hut in it (that’s actually a win-win in my mind). I draw the line at buying shorts in a saloon.
Have a great weekend and as Johnny Cash says, don’t take your guns to town.
These last few months have been a bit tumultuous for me. I’ve been finishing a two-year term as PTA President at my children’s school, which was a stop-gap attempt at dealing with a painful job loss two years ago. God was gracious giving me that time to recover my confidence, and my convictions, but it’s left me here, once more at the point of “Now, what?”
I’m honestly now sure I’ve answered that question yet. But I’m walking in a direction, and that direction is my writing.
I started a new blog where I can explore some of my thoughts on social justice and biblical misunderstandings about compassion, mercy, humanity-at-large.
In some ways, I thought that start might help me grow out of my smart-alecky Becky phase, but it’s showing me that I really am the person this particular blog is about. I’m sassy. I’m a mom. I’m challenged by chronic pain from Rheumatoid Arthritis. I’m the perennial weirdo navigating conservative, white, evangelical circles. And because God has made me to be this things, I’m learning to like it.
I have more to say about my life than I thought I wanted to, so I plan on keeping this Becky not Becky thing going a while longer. I’m not sure where it will end up, but ain’t that the way faith journeys usually go? Here’s to enjoying the ride.
If you look back at the history of this blog, you’d quickly see that I’ve been less-than-committed to posting with any regularity. In fact, I haven’t written a thing (other than short responses on social media) for a year. The writing life is hard, and I’ve taken a few knocks personally over the past two years. As a result, I lost confidence in my voice as a woman and as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Several friends have encouraged me to get back to the things I love and in the last year, God has shown me time and again the calling He has for me to be a witness for mercy, compassion, reconciliation, and justice. Yet the fear was (and is) persistent. Several years ago, when I attended a leadership conference sponsored by Willow Creek church in Chicago, I heard Bill Hybels teach about calling. He described his own passion as the feeling that Popeye used to get watching Brutus bully others. Popeye would hang back, waiting on the situation to resolve, then inevitably, he’d roll up his sleeves and say, “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” You can guess what happened next:
A week or two ago, I reached that point. In honor of Women’s History month, I’ve been sharing facts and bios of overlooked women in history on Facebook. Several friends have remarked to me that they’ve learned a lot, but they want to know more. Specifically, they want to learn about the “F” word: feminism. [Cue Spinach]
For me, this is the perfect on-ramp back into writing. We decided to call it our Social Justice Boot Camp on Feminism. As much as I disdain militarism, I kinda dig it. (What can I say, I contain multitudes of contradictions, y’all.) I hope for you, dear readers, that it will provide you the opportunity to engage with concepts that might be new to you. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at Scripture, history, and current events to articulate my own understanding of feminism. I invite you to join me and interact in the comments. I moderate responses on this blog because that’s just good sense to me, but I will review them as quickly as possible so that you can give and receive feedback if you’d like.
Before we launch into full introductions, however, I would like to start with a few caveats:
- I am not the gatekeeper for feminism. As we will discuss later, there are lots of feminisms and historically, certain groups have been excluded from so-called “mainstream” conversations. I want to be as inclusive as possible, but I do have my own perspective. I will do my best to point out sources when my knowledge or viewpoint falls short.
- There are a TON of resources on feminism. There are NOT a ton of resources on feminism from a Christian perspective. That’s not to say that there aren’t Christian feminists (whoa, Nelly, there are a jillion). But there will be times when I’m talking about things that maybe only a few other Christians are publicly talking about. And those people and I may disagree. (dum dum DUUUUM) That’s okay. We’re in this together. Feminism, like any other work of justice, can be a lonely place. I want us to do our best to hear from people who don’t necessarily agree with us.
- I believe Scripture is inerrant. I do not believe its interpreters are. We will be cautious in how we handle the Bible around here because many of us have experienced firsthand injury from other believers who thought they needed to wield the sword of the Spirit in dangerous ways. I am, frankly, more frightened by this than any of you. I take the Bible very seriously, and I believe my worldview to be based upon its principles. Still, there are times when Scripture flies in the face of “conventional” thought, and when it comes to feminism, you can bet your buttons that the Bible has been used to beat back efforts to disrupt or dismantle patriarchal tradition. So there will be moments of controversy around here.
The closest historical analogy for this that I can think of is the abuse of the book of Philemon where Paul writes,
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
For centuries, these words were used to justify slavery. You might wonder, how can that be since it clearly says Paul considers him “a fellow man” and a “brother” or a “son”? The short answer is: people do that. We want the Bible to support our bias or lifestyle or comfort, or we read the text without meditating on it and internalizing it .
I want us to be careful not to read more into the thing than can be textually supported, but I will be bringing contexts like culture and history to bear when we talk about the Bible. I will be judging the characters’ behavior with my modern sensibilities (can’t always help that), but I will be cautious about all of it because the Bible is not a sociological textbook. We learn how to live, but a lot of that is learned through example, metaphor, parable. We can’t always get a straight answer from the Scriptures, but we CAN get to know God and understand who He wants us to be in light of that knowledge. We live in an age where, ironically enough, the orthodoxy squad are just as bad as the feminists sometimes about policing for non-compliance. I’m going to occasionally be non-compliant with the dominant parties in any of the camps. I’m always going to be non-compliant with somebody. That makes me nervous, but I’ll do this scared because that’s the life of faith. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.
So with those things out of the way, let’s have a quick introduction.
Why do we need to talk about feminism? Because we humans have a fundamental problem. Sin. We sin as individuals, we sin in herds, and quite often, we institutionalize sin. Solomon said, “there’s nothing new under the Sun.” As we look at the narratives in Scripture, we’ll see that for women and other marginalized groups, the song remains the same. Societies have organized themselves differently throughout the ages: dictatorships, oligarchies, monarchies, republics, democracies, etc. but there has been a persistent alienation of certain groups of people. We see them most often referenced in Scripture as “widows, orphans, and strangers/aliens/foreigners/sojourners.” But Jesus included others, too:
[T]he King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Here Jesus identified Himself with the poor, the stranger, the criminal, saying whenever you serve people on the margins of society, you serve Him. Many of us see this and immediately think, “Okay, so Jesus told us to help these people, let’s go do it.” We don’t really look into why Jesus is asking us to do these things. We assume it’s because He’s loving, good, a nice guy. All true. But there’s more to it than that. He tells us to recognize these people and see Him in them because He knows these are the people we ignore. These are the people we exploit. These are the people most vulnerable to our individual and collective pride, cruelty, contempt…sinfulness. I once had a professor tell me that we don’t really have to address poverty completely because Jesus said “the poor will always be with you.” The problem with that thinking (aside from the fact that he was taking that Scripture out of context) is that by saying so, he was interpreting Jesus’ statement in a way that would absolve him of any responsibility. But isn’t that what all of us comfortable people do with marginalized people? We take for granted that the world will be this way. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
When God tells us us to care for widows and orphans, it’s because in every place and time on earth, women and children are dominated, exploited, and abused. That’s not to say that the same doesn’t happen to men and boys. It does. This is where people often get justice wrong. At it’s core, justice work, including feminist work, seeks to reimagine a world in balance and harmony: a world of mutuality and concern for one another. A large part of that reimagining and engaging means pointing out the places where things are wholly out of whack. That’s what God is doing when He tells us to advocate and serve those on the outs. He’s restoring the order that He intended from the beginning. The order that was thrown into a chaotic eat-or-be-eaten paradigm because of our sin.
From the beginning, God spoke to this problem. In ancient Israel, He called the nation to implement a justice system that to us Americans looks downright preferential. Greg Ogden writes in his book, Discipleship Essentials:
…the role of judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemptively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful., So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and righteous.
This idea offends us. God is partial toward the poor? He encouraged them to consider the poor innocent? Yes. God is striking a balance here. Despite what we’ve learned from American iconography, justice is not blind (nor is justice a white lady).
This is a huge hang-up for a lot of us. We want God on our side. And we can have God on our side, when we get on His side. His side is full of a lot of people that we’d rather not hang out with, but it’s where Jesus Himself went. It feels threatening, though. To call us to identify with the marginalized, to consider them better than us, to look at them and see Jesus seems unfair. I didn’t do anything wrong! I have privileges, but I earned them, or maybe I don’t think I have privileges at all. Life is hard for everybody, right? But God invites us to change our point-of-view. To see things we don’t want to see because then we might have to give up something, or apologize. We might have to upend our lives and swim upstream.
The beautiful part of working for justice is that in upending everything we think we know, we begin to see things set right. Contrary to popular belief, justice is not a zero sum game where if one person benefits, another person loses. What might feel like a loss is but a loss that heals, like the excision of a cancerous tumor that is slowly killing our own soul and taking others down with it. When we work for justice, sharing power or resources or our voice, we see God repay beyond anything we thought we were giving up. Because in God’s kingdom, when justice prevails, everyone wins.
This is especially important to understand as we undertake a conversation about feminism. Many continue to resist feminism because they see it as a war between the sexes. They say women just want to be men or women want to be in charge. Feminism rejects the idea of dominance and rejoices in the full spectrum of gender identity and expression. Feminism doesn’t argue that women should be the priority at the expense of men. It says the marginalized should be a priority because they are unfairly and consistently excluded.
I also want to include a word about those in a position of privilege. We all have some measure of privilege. Very few of us are utterly devoid of some measure position or advantage in society. One of the biggest challenges when working on any issues of justice is that when we finally do see and understand the plight of the oppressed, we are tempted to view the privileged as the enemy. Frankly, the privileged often act like the enemy. As believers, we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against supernatural forces that separate us from God and one another. So, we have to pull back a little and see the big picture. We keep our eyes on the oppressed, but we also see how injustice afflicts the soul of the oppressor and those complicit in oppression. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time about racism:
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain…Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace-not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
We have to be willing to take off the masks of our privilege and humble ourselves in solidarity with those who are made humble by society. But our God wants freedom for all: the oppressed and the oppressors, the privileged and the marginalized. This can only be achieved when we commit ourselves to seeing the injustices in front of us, eschewing privilege as our birthright or an endgoal. As we begin our conversation here, let’s start asking key questions about how we can better serve one another and how we can open ourselves up to have our ideas challenged, our feelings hurt, and our worldviews transformed for the better.
Note: This series is continued over at Spice Tithers.
Last Friday, my first instinct was to run to this blog like it was the Bat Cave. Surely, something must be done. Something must be said! The noise and violence of the Connecticut shooting had gotten too loud for me to take. I wanted to scream above it all. Drown it out. But I didn’t. Instead, I took time to hold my own children, to talk with them about what happened. To weep alone, to pray corporately and in solitude, and to rant at my husband (who already agrees with me and cannot echo back his own thoughts for grief and disbelief at what we all have seen).
Many people did run to their blogs, to the presses. My social feeds and email notifications have exploded with conversations about guns, God, and illness. One post cannot possibly contain those multitudes, but I am compelled to address some of those ideas in one place, my place, at this point.
To start, I have seen many, many people reiterating and defending comments made by Mike Huckabee, etc. that things like this happen because we’ve taken God out of the public square. I find that to be rhetorically ridiculous, given that even at times other than Christmas, He still makes the news constantly as part of political and social conversations. Not only is that a wholly inaccurate assessment of our culture, it’s an entirely bad theology. You cannot “take” God anywhere. He’s not a mouse in your pocket. He’s not a treasure in your heart. He’s the living, holy, omniscient, omnipresent God of all Creation! I think that demands an exclamation point.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139: 7-12
Anyone who needs further Biblical evidence of God’s all-everythingness is invited to consider and meditate upon His response to Job in chapters 38-41 of that book. Godly Job lost everything, even his children, and once he reaches the point of questioning God, “Why? Where ARE you?” he gets a nice long set of questions back that explain exactly where God was.
Now, I know this “kicked God out of public schools” thing has become part of common evangelical discourse, but I just have to say, once and for all, stoppit. Stop it right now. Last spring, when I found myself an aimless stay-at-home mom, I prayed about a new opportunity to head up the PTA at my son’s elementary school. I thought, “I’ll do a little good and bring some Kingdom to my boy’s school.” When I got there, I saw that God was already there. He was in 98% of the teaching staff who renewed their contract at a Title I school instead of bailing for a school with fewer poor children. He was in the Monday afternoon Bible study, 70 kids strong, that happens after school is out. He was in the churches that supply sack lunches for our schoolchildren to take home every weekend because their families are food insecure. He was in the office secretary who, despite her naturally surly personality, loves Jesus and offers my daughter conversation every time we drop in on PTA business. He was in the principal who endures endless bureaucracy and parental inanity and yet still believes in the democratic mission of public education and has confidence in God’s call that she be there to love and serve families. He was in the music teacher whose Newsboys hoodie gave her away as a Jesus freak while she taught all our kids, a whole SCHOOL of children, the dance to Thriller. I was not surprised to see Christ in our school, I was shocked only by my hubris that I would be the one, or one of the few, to bring Him there.
I can confidently say that God was in that Newtown school on Friday. He was weeping. He was whispering in the teacher’s ears and welcoming children home. Stop telling me and the world that we can kick God out of anything. He will not be mocked, especially not in a frikkin’ sound bite that garners favor with the fearful.
Some of those comments re: God are an intentional distraction from the very real conversation and reform that needs to happen around our healthcare system and weapons availability. I know some advocates for gun control and mental healthcare have been pitting those priorities against one another, but I’m a girl who wants all of it. We need sensible gun control in this country. MORE guns is a stupid, stupid solution and should not be tolerated at this tragic and important moment. The rest of the world is looking at us like we’re the wild West and I for one don’t want my kids going to any school where a teacher is packing under his/her petticoat. No sir. We don’t make schools less vulnerable by making them more dangerous. We make them less vulnerable by making guns less available. Will it make them unavailable? No. But less available is good. Always.
I know some have said that evil men can do evil with or without guns. Well, let’s have them doing evil without guns for a change. This weekend, a story out of China provided a stark contrast to our own. A man, armed with a knife, injured as many children as were killed in Connecticut. It was horrific. It was evil. It was not fatal. Gun control is for me, a moral priority. Jesus was born into a world of violence. A world that killed children of His day. A world that would one day take His life. He calls us to be people of peace, not people of heat. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a gun. Too many of my brethren are living in fear of government, predators, intruders. Jesus made Himself vulnerable, wrapped Himself in mortal flesh and entrusted Himself to God. He never carried a weapon. When His followers did, He told them “that is enough!” or “put [it] away.” Those messages weren’t advocating conceal and carry, they were calling His disciples to a different way of life. He’s calling us to do the same and influence our violent society for peace.
We also need serious reform for those battling mental illness. A wise friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday:
It sure would be nice if we had a national conversation about access to mental health care for the vast majority of people with mental illnesses who will never shoot anyone.
One blog post in particular by Anarchist Soccer Mom has made some headlines. In it, she openly talks about her struggles and her fear for her son who has yet to be completely and accurately diagnosed. She writes:
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.
God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.
God can help her. His people can get involved. I think of a new friend who works with patients that struggle with intense illnesses like schizophrenia, etc. He is governed by His trust in God and is committed to seeing His patients through the worst moments of their lives. Another friend wrote this weekend about her brother’s illness and left her readers with a call to engage:
[Most] of us, whether we have an awareness of this or not, are in a position to be very helpful.
Pray for this issue continually.
Pray for the mentally ill in general – that they will know the healing power and peace of Jesus.
Pray for any specific people that you know of who struggle with mental illness. Pray that they’ll be spared from the worst symptoms of these diseases.
Pray for their families, especially their parents. Pray for them to be sustained by God’s wisdom and mercy to us all.
Pray for those people who venture into the field of mental health. Pray that they’ll be granted knowledge of – and the ability to put into place – real solutions that are both effectual and merciful.
Pray for those saints who engage with the mentally ill in their ministries. Pray that they’ll be rewarded for their great work and that they’ll see results in this world.
Since we are commanded to give thanks for all things, give thanks that you’ve been placed in a world currently dealing with this issue. And, especially give thanks if you have the privilege of ministering to specific families of mentally ill persons.
Second, minister to anyone you know who struggles with mental illness.
Treat them with kindness.
Third, minister to the families of the mentally ill.
Do not stigmatize. Having a mentally ill family member is not an embarrassment. Are family members with cancer embarrassing?
Do not pretend there isn’t a problem.
Do not pretend you understand the problem.
Do not ever let the sentence, “well, if he was my child, I’d…” come across your lips. You do not know what you would do. I grew up with it, and I do not know what I’d do.
Do not attempt to diagnose.
Ask if and how you can help. One great way is to minister to any siblings. Grab them for the day. Any respite is welcome when chaos is a reality.
Food is always a ministry. Always. Second only, of course, to laughter.
Follow the lead of the person in your life about how much and when to discuss the problem. Some folks are very open and benefit from people checking in. Some are tired and want to talk about the BCS standings. Provide openings without prying.
Talk to your children about emotional struggles that all people have. Talk to them about right reactions to their own emotional struggles, and reactions to those folks who they encounter who have much more acute problems.
Always remember that, but for His grace, there go we all.
Honor the truth that sick people can do evil things. The deeds are no less evil because they are sick, and the people are no less sick because they do evil things.
Remember that the vast majority of those who struggle with mental illness are not on the verge of engaging in destructive behavior.
I’d add that we can also look into ways to educate our public leaders about mental illness and to secure funding for research and long-term solutions that go beyond the incarceration that the Anarchist Soccer Mom fears may be inevitable.
In 1963, when a bomb was launched into an African-American Alabama church killing four little girls attending Sunday school, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a eulogy that is relevant to our situation today. I’m truncating the eulogy because much of it is unique to that event, but as with any sound preaching, the whole of it is wonderful and true:
This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came.
These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
And so my friends, they did not die in vain. (Yeah) God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. (Oh yes) And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force (Yeah) that will bring new light to this dark city. (Yeah) The holy Scripture says, “A little child shall lead them.” (Oh yeah)…
May I now say a word to you, the members of the bereaved families? It is almost impossible to say anything that can console you at this difficult hour and remove the deep clouds of disappointment which are floating in your mental skies. But I hope you can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.
I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. (Yeah, Yes) Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. (Yeah) And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him (Yeah, Well), and that God is able (Yeah, Yes) to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
And so today, you do not walk alone. You gave to this world wonderful children. [moans] They didn’t live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives. (Well) Their lives were distressingly small in quantity, but glowingly large in quality. (Yeah) And no greater tribute can be paid to you as parents, and no greater epitaph can come to them as children, than where they died and what they were doing when they died. (Yeah) They did not die in the dives and dens of Birmingham (Yeah, Well), nor did they die discussing and listening to filthy jokes. (Yeah)…(Yes) Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet. And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare: (Yeah, Well): Good night, sweet princesses. Good night, those who symbolize a new day. (Yeah, Yes) And may the flight of angels (That’s right) take thee to thy eternal rest. God bless you.
Let’s take solace in the God of all Comfort and let this moment give us the courage to bring His Kingdom of peace and justice to bear on our hurting and hurtful world.