Why We Must Stop Being A Voice For the Voiceless: Thoughts on Privilege and The Single Story

Throughout my past eight years of engaging in social justice, I’ve been drawn to people who have uncanny ideas. Ideas that peace and unity can exist. Dreams that Heaven can indeed be experienced on this planet. People who are unafraid to raise hell and create peace in every single breath.

But often times, in these circles, a buzz phrase kept coming up: “Being a voice for the voiceless.” This phrase is used in many circles, from large Christian NGOs to CNN. It likely means something different to each person. When it comes from voices in the faith community, it’s often rooted in the words of  the prophet Isaiah: “Speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, and defend all those who have been passed over” -Proverbs 3:18.

While I never believed in being a voice for the voiceless, I’ve had my fair share of ethnocentrism. As I boarded a plane for South Africa in 2007 on a service learning trip, I asked the white woman sitting in front of me what she’d be doing in Africa, as though everyone on the plane was going for a visit like me. “I live there,” she replied, flatly. “Oh.” I nodded, suddenly aware that I was projecting my view of Africa as a place where black people lived, forgetting entirely the ugly history of colonialism and apartheid. Because I had what writer Chimamanda Adichie would call a “single story” view of Africa, with a dash of do-goodism naivete.

But behind our do-goodism and voice-for-the-voiceless-ism is a something much harder: checking the place of privilege we’ve come from to be in a position that we can speak for issues without having to experience these issues firsthand perhaps because of where we live, the education we’ve had, the safety we experience, the family we come from, the healthcare we receive.

When we accept speaking for people as a solution to complicated issues like poverty, health, and human rights, we avoid having to ask ourselves hard questions: “If some people’s voices aren’t being heard, WHY aren’t they being heard?” “I am being heard. WHY am I being heard while others are not?” These questions can lead us to uncomfortable things like understanding our power or privilege.

Everytime we label an entire demographic as voiceless, we strip such individuals of their dignity, robbing them of the privilege of being heard. We re-iterate a message of powerlessness, as though to say, “You are voiceless. No one can hear you. No one is listening to you. They might listen to me though. Let me talk instead.” We accept our tongue as an acceptable transaction. We accept our voice, intonation, and inflection as a more suitable microphone while viewing others’ voices as taken away, incapable of talking, much like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, not by poverty, but by power.

Power, as defined by Chimamanda Adichie, is “the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

She continues, “That is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Instead of speaking for people, using our own words and interpretations of people’s struggles and joys, we can do something so much more beautiful. We can create platforms for more people to tell their stories. Or better yet, we can simply listen. Because sometimes we’ve done so much talking that it’s difficult to decipher what information has truly come from the people affected, or if we’re hearing someone else’s interpretation of others’ experiences.  We can share the stories we’ve been given permission to share- not our story of someone else’s story that you may or may not have received permission to re-tell. We can share people’s photos- not our photos of “poor people” in branded catalogs with captions like “voiceless” and “poor.” Photos that some of us aren’t as familiar with—like the stories of forgiveness in Rwanda. We can offer people new ways to see themselves: not as poor, not as voiceless, not as victims, but as strong and tenacious, as victors, as having a voice. And with that voice we can teach each other how to use it for speaking up about love and equality and for building each other up until our hands meet the hands of all our brothers and sisters and know, deep in our core, that each person is being seen as a unique, loved individual, no more, but certainly no less.

 

voice for voiceless jewelry

Photo: Christy Robinson Jewelry

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Faith, Hope, and Bikes: Turning Cyclist Attacks into Community Dance Parties

In light of the Passover and Easter holidays upon us, I’ve been pondering Judeo-Christianity a lot this week. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words about peace and reconciliation, things he talked a whole lot about, while he was silent or had little to say on the heated issues that so often people associate with Church or religion. He said things like “Blessed are the peace makers” and raised the bar on love by saying, “What good is it if you love only those who love you? Instead, love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you.” He talked about creating Heaven on Earth, not just trudging through this life in order to reach some celestial afterlife. He believed we could experience some of that good stuff right here, right now.

And everywhere I’ve looked this week, I’ve encountered these sweet drops of Heaven that I think Jesus was trying to tell us was possible to experience on this side of the planet in our human bodies. On Sunday, I encountered it through Free Hugs at the Farmer’s Market. The next night, I experienced it when someone I never met before not only helped me find my friend’s dog that I lost (I know. Some friend, right?), but gave me a hug afterwards and offered to make me tea, willingly going out of his way at 11 PM on a weeknight for a dog-watcher he didn’t even know. But I think the example that speaks the most to me of all this love and peace and doing-good-in-the-face-of-bad stuff is what’s going on in the Baltimore bike community right now.

Last Saturday evening, a cyclist was attacked by a group of youth while riding home along Guilford Avenue. This cyclist bikes with a video camera attached to his helmet everytime he rides in light of a friend who was a victim of a hit and run. Since then, he bought a video camera and regularly records his commutes, unaware, I would imagine, of just how handy this would come this past Saturday when a group of young kids attacked him, punched him, and tried to steal his bike. He caught this 1:20 clip of the event before his camera shut off after the camera battery disconnected. It’s hard to watch, and even more personal knowing it occurred on an intersection used by so many bike commuters, my friends and I included. Attacks have occurred previously in this area, though at random.

The cycling community is one in which finding a friend, an ally, someone to connect with is never hard to find. In fact, most of the time when I bike throughout the city, I regularly make some form of human acknowledgement with other cyclists I see. A head nod, a wave, a hello, a “Hey, isn’t this a great day for a ride?” while we’re stuck at a red a light. Oh, and my favorite, the guy who gave me a peace sign as he rode by on a fixie.

So news travels fast in our little-but-ever-growing cycling community and it wasn’t long before we were dialoguing with each other in person and on social media about the event. I was amazed at the discourse because it seems as though all of the advocates get the fact that if kids just had more community inclusion and opportunities for recreation and play, they wouldn’t be out here committing crimes like this. Crime not being the problem, but the output of what happens when opportunity and meaningful activity cease to exist in an area. So instead of creating an us-vs them blaming mentality, activists decided to booth volunteers in the area in which the attacks occurred to “Bake some cookies and sell them! Make balloon animals for kids! Have a dance party! Whatever – the point is to be out on the street, watching for potential trouble, and nipping it in the bud before it happens!” (source: BikeMore google group). It’s ok to get angry about crime, in fact, humans harming other humans should arouse that emotion inside of us as a protective instinct to look out for one another. But what’s more beautiful to me- and to the other activists I know, is to turn something tragic into a reason to bring the whole city together to dance in neighborly love. That’s beauty. That’s Baltimore. That’s why I now almost come to expect activists to show up when injustice happens because everywhere I go around this city, I meet people whose hearts and voices refuse to be quelled in the midst of violence or oppression.

I think that’s what the Prophet Isaiah meant when he said, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will study war no more” (Isaiah 2:4). Except instead of swords, we have present day street violence. And instead of plowshares, we have creativity. Creativity to create bake sales, balloon animals, dance parties, hula hoop contests, and community interaction in place of violence.

Earlier this evening, I stopped by one of these volunteer booths for a Cyclist and Pedestrian Appreciation event that members of  the Greenmount West community organized. Community members waved to cyclists and passer-bys and invited them over for snacks and conversation. Said one of the women I spoke with at the event, “We don’t like our community being known for violence. This is a chance to change that.”
This is what I love about the biking community.
This is what I love about Baltimore.
This is why I doubly love the Baltimore biking community.

Members of the Greemount West community with cyclists and advocates. Photo: MO 2014

Members of the Greemount West community with cyclists and advocates. Photo: MO 2014


While the media shouts of violence and drugs, we are out here, out here in these open spaces linking arms and bike locks singing of something else possible.

While the cynics are out there saying “the city would be great if it weren’t for these hoodlums” (unfortunately, those are actual words I read on Facebook about this particular incident), we are out there finding these kids so that we can introduce them to you by name and not by label. We will learn their stories and they will learn ours and together we’ll ride our bikes at Bike Party or maybe down the street to the nearest bike collective. Or maybe I’ll teach them how to change a flat and they can show me how to pop a wheelie. Because we can all learn from each other, no matter our age or background.

The Cyclist and Pedestrian Appreciation event today indeed reminded me that it was Good Friday, that violence, much like Jesus’ death, doesn’t have the last word, and that faith, hope, and love are not just quotidian metaphors, rather, they are tangible exchanges we can choose to give every moment, every day.IMG_0662

My heart is so full.
And my stomach is too, thanks to the snacks the Greenmount West community brought today.

But we’re not done.
Because like BikeMore said, we can run with this.

So next Sunday afternoon April 27th, I’ll be out there with hula hoops and water balloons. Another guy I met today offered to bring his guitar. And another said that while he couldn’t play music, he could bring a bunch of his friends.
So come join us Sunday evening April 27 on Guilford and Lanvale, say 4:30.
We’ll stack our bikes up next to each other’s and say hello. We’ll learn each other’s names, and faces, stories, and dreams. And then we’ll dance. Because we love this city, we love each other, and are willing to raise hell and create heaven by speaking up out of the silence and stepping into communion. Because that’s there the love is. That’s where the life is. And that’s how community will continue to build, one neighbor, one cyclist, one activist at a time.

Let’s dance.

“I. Choose. You.” Brief Thoughts on Marriage From An Unmarried Feminist

hands k and b

Photo: MO, 2013

“I wonder what I’m locking myself into,” a friend shared recently when we were talking about marriage. I laughed an understanding laugh, because I got it. “Yeah! It’s hard for me to imagine seeing the same person over and over again every day and night. ‘Aw man, you again?'” I (half-jokingly) shared. A natural introvert, I annoy even myself sometimes. A partner is bound to get annoyed at me, too, and hey, that’s ok.
It’s just that the closer I get toward the possibility of marriage, the more I seem to take a step back from it. Critique it. Question it. Recognize its historical and political roots that have nothing to do with love and everything to do with legality. And I haven’t thought about marriage the same way since reading things like Commited by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which I learned about things like “coverture” for the first time.

But lately, I’m recognizing the cyncism with which I view something that’s inheritently good and beautiful, allowing myself to ponder the beauty of marriage too. I’ve been watching, studying, inspecting long-standing couples who’ve been through adversity. Who experienced beautiful things that wouldn’t have been possible had they caved when things got hard. Had they given up before seeing the redemption and beauty part of the story. Because whether a relationship ends or is unending, every story can experience the kind of resolve that makes you wander out to a lake all by yourself, sit on a log, and tear up at the thought, “I know the journey is hard. But it is good too.”

I experience that kind of beauty and resolve when I think about the first couple most of us can observe firsthand in our own lives: our parents. Of all the memories of my parents that I treasure most, the moments that stand out the most viscerally come from four weeks in October 2013 when my mom was in the ICU. She was protesting that she wanted to go home, tired of the hospital. And instead of pushing against her resistance, my dad took out a comb, sat down on her bed, and gingerly started brushing her hair. He made small talk with my sister and I while the sun shone through opened window blinds. Later on that hospital visit, he pulled out a picture of the two of them when they were engaged and showed it me. They were high school sweethearts, and their picture captured what it means to be “young and in love.” As things in the hospital worsened, my dad sat by her bedside three times a day to do nothing but simply be next to her. Those moments in the hospital are precious to me. My parents’ marriage hasn’t been easy. I do not think their story is mine to tell. But I do know that there have been many beautiful memories and laughs that didn’t seem possible in periods of challenge several years ago.

When I look at my grandmother and grandfather arm-in-arm in photos taken of them in places all across the world, I experience similar beauty when I look at their smiles. Smiles that say, “things haven’t been easy. But I am for you, and you, for me, and together, we make a choice… I. Choose. You.” I think of the last wedding I attended of two friends whose love has taken them through every shade of emotion possible. There’s just something different in these couples. Because these couples want to give out of their utmost.

Perhaps this is what I’m most amazed by. The every day choices that married couples willingly make to affirm their commitment to one another; to look someone in the eye everyday and say, unwaveringly, “I choose you.” For years, Evangelical Christians tried to tell me “a woman is supposed to submit to her husband, who is the leader of the home.” That imbalance of power always made me cringe in fear of watching my identity disappear. Some other Christians I know use the world “yield,” which sat a little better in my (very independent) heart. Because the kind of “yielding” they described was irrespective of gender. It’s one person yielding to another’s needs or requests as much as you can because you love them. Because everyday, you want to find ways to say through your actions, “I. Choose. You.” And after the arguement—the one over something stupid, and the one that really wasn’t; the one that required the two of you to make life-changing decisions—- after those kinds of fights, to return again in love: “I. still. choose. you.” The other partner does the same exact thing. It’s not tit-for-tat. It’s not some assignment where everyone gives and takes in methodic equality, each paying the other back in detailed increments like credit card statements. No. It’s more like loan forgiveness. It’s sincerely wanting to do all you can for someone you love so much. You still can have your most imminent needs be met and your preferences preferred while all the time doing this giving over and lending to and loving sacrificially.

In my dating experiences, I’ve come to find that this “yielding” is the hardest part. I’ve discovered how selfish I can be. How much I want to ensure that I, as a feminist female, am heard by my partner, a man. How reluctant I am to provide deference because I can think back to an entire history of humankind in which women have been deferential to men. And the terrible repercussions of unreciprocal deference speak for themselves. But it’s a lonely road when your only reason not to give to someone is because they’re of a gender that’s historically been the recipient of privilege. It’s a lonely road when you try to stratify independence and intimacy, instead of accepting the harmonious synergy of interdependence and partnership. A love that doesn’t bend as much as it breaks doesn’t create an inspiring story. No beauty. No real love, anyway.

Real love is found when women and men are allies. When we’re for each other, not against each other. When we forgive the thorny path of past actions and inactions throughout the centuries that both genders have done to oppress or diminish the other- because we both have. I’ve always known this in my head, but it wasn’t until my first serious relationship came and went that I realized my heart is sluggish on my contribution towards being an ally. Heck, it wasn’t until my first serious relationship that I even noticed how all this gender stuff plays itself out.

So one day, when I’ve processed this stuff, developed a framework of feminism that’s empowering for both genders-because that’s what true feminism does-, and stopped being afraid of the commitment and unknowns that marriage entails, I plan for these words to be read aloud at my wedding. More clear than any passage of scripture I’ve read, more real than any marriage book that’s been written, it encompasses to me what “I Choose You” means:

“I will give you this, my love, and I will not bargain or barter any longer. I will love you, as sure as God has loved me. I will discover what I can discover and though you remain a mystery, save God’s own knowledge, what I disclose of you I will keep in the warmest chamber of my heart, the very chamber where God has stowed Himself in me. And I will do this to my death, and to death it may bring me. I will love you like God, because of God, mighted by the power of God. I will stop expecting your love, demanding your love, trading for your love, gaming for your love. I will simply love. I am giving myself to you, and tomorrow I will do it again. I suppose the clock itself will wear thin its time before I am ended at this altar of dying and dying again. God risked Herself on me. I will risk myself on you. And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Her, unto us.” -Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (God as female emphasis my own, not author’s)

But until that day, I’ll practice this giving over, in all of my relationships with people I love. And though at times it feels unnatural, I know there’s no other way to look someone in the eye to say “I choose you” with sincerity.

“I. Choose. You.”
It’s a beckoning, hard call.
I dare to say it’s impossible.
But all around me, I see couples who are willing to do the impossible.
I hope I can live up to it.

One of my favorite couples that inspires me to love well: Anastasia and Joe June 2013

One of my favorite couples who inspire me to love well: Anastasia and Joe
June 2013

Ashes of Hope: My Love of Lent but Not of Murder on a Cross (PLUS 40 Days of Sustainability coming soon)

Even the winter won’t last forever. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
We’ll wake up in April, ready and able, Sowing the seeds in the soil.
Even the darkness cannot disarm us. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
-Audrey Assad

Easter is what many would argue to be the quintessential turning point of the Christian faith. The crux. The climax of the story. The thing that you must be able to articulate into carefully formed sentences depicting your belief, as though words and theology solely define your spirituality and very existence. Perhaps from all of this lies the basis for the trite messages that I, along with so many others, have heard about the Christian faith. “Jesus died for your sins.” “Jesus paid the debt.” “Jesus stood in your place and died for you so that you might have life.”

And if those words bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away, nor discredit them.

It’s just not the Jesus I’ve come to know, face-to-face in my human spiritual struggle. 

The Jesus I’ve come to know didn’t die at the hands of a blood-thirsty, vampire-like God who needs to see someone murdered in order to forgive people. The Jesus I’ve come to know, and the God to whom he points, is a rebel. A revolutionary who challenged the privileged and elevated the marginalized. Who spoke out of turn, unafraid to make people think harder about themselves and the world around them. Who taught us to slow down long enough from our exhausted minds to “look at the birds and flowers,” and to be a visionary in whatever issue your culture is facing.
Direct from the mouth of this revolutionary contains the most gripping parts of the Eastertide story, in my experience. The pieces that I rarely heard pastors and Bible study leaders quote. The part where Jesus, our supposed role model, screams up at God, “My God, My God, Why have you screwed me like this?”  Because that’s life, that’s reality. That’s the affirmation I look for when I’m stuck in the mud and mire and all around me are hope-depleted apertures crying out for just a flick of mercy from a kind and loving God, begging for auspices that come from this Divine Light. And to hear Jesus utter these same words gives me confidence that I am in good company when I am in the thick of the squall and my once blithe heart feels incapable of coming back to me. When I’m a low that low, that’s when I know I’m only a few steps out from mercy. Because we, like Jesus, get to experience the surge of joy that is the resurrection, ashes of hope that sing of redemption.

I think these ashes of hope are what the soul longs for. Beyond a good love story, a good hope story. To know that all of our troubles will not be squandered, but used for fodder to keep these tales of beauty-from-pain alive. To give us the fortitude to know, anchored in our core, that it doesn’t matter what comes our way, for it won’t last forever. But the feelings of hope and the aftermath of beauty will hit us so viscerally that we tear up at the thought, “I didn’t know life could be this good.”

This is why I haven’t given up on Lent or Easter, despite some of my theological wrestlings and frustrations with the traditional teachings of this spiritual season. Lent draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. A 40 day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring. During those 40 days, shoots on trees develop, buds blossom to form magnolia flowers- my absolute favorite tree on this planet that reminds me there is no cold that cannot be endured to eventually give way to life. The sun graces us for 2.5 minutes longer each day, until we’ve accumulated some 177.5 minutes of additional daylight come Easter evening, thanks, largely in part, to Daylight Savings Time. (Can you tell yet that spring is my favorite season and consumes many of my thoughts?)

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Copyright MO 2013

And so I don’t know where your heart is this season. Maybe it’s hiding in guilt and shame, underneath a veil of many coverings, because you feel it has gone so far awry from any sort of “straight and narrow.” Maybe your heart is parched, longing for a bit of this hope story. Or maybe your heart abounds in a joy so full, that it might cry droplets of gratitude onto baby seedlings that will soon lean their faces toward the sun for the first time. But one thing I do know, as we forge into spring, is that all around you, life begs your soul to awaken, and if it cannot awaken on its own, let its colours take you to places unknown until hope uncovers and your soul sees vibrant hues ablaze in beauty.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over the hill and see what you find there
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
-Mumford and Sons

    

Coming tomorrow: My 40 Day Sustainability Plan- Come observe Lent through environmental social justice

Why We Must Support the Anti- Gay Bill, And So Much More.

Dear Arizona legislators,

Photo Credit: Sarah Bessey, Pinterest

Photo Credit: Sarah Bessey, Pinterest

I am writing to disagree with you about the recent proposal for anti-gay legislation– not because I don’t agree with you (it’s about damn time someone made sure that we only have to talk to people of heterosexual orientations), but because you haven’t taken the measure far enough in order to preserve our precious religious liberties.
We need to pass legislation to ensure that our business owners do not have to serve alcoholics. After all, why should we serve them, when the Bible clearly states that we “shouldn’t get drunk on wine, but instead, be filled with the Spirit?”
Similarly, we must also not be forced to serve overweight people. The Bible offers several verses against gluttony and we must take a stand against this perverse health condition.
We must also pass legislation to give business owners the religious freedom to not serve immigrants. God invented nation-states in Genesis 11, and we must not to violate that. Remember, the saying is “God Bless America,” not “God Bless Mexico.” Along with that, we should not be forced to serve people of different races— After all, God put the races on different continents for a reason.
Furthermore, we must not force business owners to serve women. Next thing you know, women will think they can be autonomous just like men. No. Women must stay at the home. If we let them patron restaurants without the presence of their husbands, they surely must be slacking on their homefront duties.
We also must not be forced to serve those on welfare. The Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves.” Um, hold on a minute while I find that verse. I can’t seem to find it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there!
Moreover, we cannot be forced to serve those who have been divorced. We all know the Bible doesn’t support divorce, and we cannot be forced to interact with divorcees who might think that our interactions condone their marital departures.
It goes without saying that we cannot be forced to serve democrats, either, of course.

So there you have it. I believe the only people that are left are white, straight, males born in the Good Ol’ US of A. I hope that we can get enough patrons to support our businesses, but we must trust God on that one, brothers.

Sincerely,

Your white, straight, Republican, married-to-a-woman male Christian brother in Christ who thinks, looks, behaves, and believes just like you.

In case you haven’t picked up on this, this piece is purely satirical. I hope it can bring a laugh, but more importantly, draw attention for reflection upon privlege, equality, and respect for diversity. Please consider signing petitions or using your sphere of influence as a platform for justice, mercy, and love.

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1lm7idH

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1lm7idH

Finding My Voice (and a little pep talk for the young girls out there)

keep the earth below my feetI had a professor in college who taught us about the “principle of leaving and entering,” i.e. one cannot move forward to the next [life stage, opportunity, job, city, destination, you fill in the blank] without making peace with what you’re leaving behind [be it college, your hometown, you get the idea]. At the time, I was dreaming about volunteering abroad after college, and ready to leave behind the America I knew. But what I didn’t realize at 22 is that the next stage of life would be just as much about putting things behind as it would be about pursuing new things.
A couple years after college, I burnt out.
I. simply. Couldn’t. keep. Up.
I lost myself and become bitter and cynical towards much of what I saw around me.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I realized just how many voices of the past were still lingering in my head, like flies in desperate need of a fly swatter. Voices of a spiritual community that said women were to be submissive, to “let their husbands lead.” Churches that said males were to be “pastor, provider, and protector” of his wife. Voices that said being a female pastor was a sin. Voices that made sure everybody knew what Christianity stood against, but left the world puzzled as to what we actually stood for. Voices that tried to rescue souls from hell, while ignoring the literal hells and Gehennas in the world going on right now. Sexual slavery. HIV/AIDS. Extreme poverty. Orphans without homes. Should I keep going?

In 2012, I began a journey towards freedom- freedom of religion, of dogma, of other people’s demands, of paved paradises- into a personal journey of development and enrichment. It’s looked like lots of open spaces, lots of gathering ’round the table over wine and sweets and savories, lots of finding and losing myself on bicycles. In this freedom, it’s as though God took me by the hand to lovingly, but firmly, (because the lesson was too important to miss out on) teach me that the thing about the past is just that. It’s in the past. It cannot hurt you again. It cannot continue to hurt you or frustrate you unless you let those voices zap your energy from the present moment.
For far too long, this woman’s listened to voices of the past that were squelching life, joy, zest for the moment. Alas, I looked myself in the mirror, a good ol’ stare yourself down, straight-up-talk, with a little bit o’ lovin’, and a lot of bit of firmness. I looked in the mirror, and noticed a cynic. Ugh. I hate that word. To me, it’s synonymous with a passive, complaining, do-nothing-to-change-anything kind of persona. So I asked God to silence those voices, the ones that were slowly, painfully, hauntingly taking away my joy, my peace, my resolve, and silence them one and for all, to free me from the people and places and noises that were no longer helping me become the person I want to become. I asked God to change me from cynicism into activism. Hurt into compassion. Bitter to better.

Somewhere in the process, I learned that I don’t need to fight anymore.. not against those voices, at least. A little whisper breathed into my heart,
You’ve been freed.
Let your load feel lighter, your burdens from heavy rocks to little pieces of shiny yellow sand.
Put the boxing gloves down.
Breathe.
You no longer have to defend, nor strive, nor try to make yourself understood.”

I thought it would feel easier. But then I realized that that’s not quite the way it works. The moment you stand for something, there is something you are implicitly standing against. The more and more you become the person you want to be, the voice that isn’t God’s will try to steer you off course. When you become YOU, not someone else’s version of you, you will disappoint people. But let me tell you something, you will become the person you were made to be. The more you will realize that the very people still standing beside you are there because they really do love you, they really do care, and they really do desire God’s peace and love and blessings upon you, not out of pity, nor spite, but out of a selfless kind of love that has found its way through the broken chains of redemption, giving voice and beauty to the very fact that you and I are both humans, composed of flesh and blood, and you and I have both been created in the womb.
I am freed now from what’s been zapping precious energy, and I can’t wait to learn, and love, and do, and grow, and experience with this new found freedom what God can finally place in my life in the thoughts and corners and crevices of my heart that were once holding onto hurt, bitterness, and a seemingly endless desire to be understood. I am free. I can only imagine what will go in those pockets of my heart now. I can love without mountains of expectations or fears of being hurt.
I can express bona fide joy—my smiles will no longer be a veil, hiding a voice that’s afraid of being mistaken as impolite, too afraid to speak up.
I can operate out of a place that points to the horizon and feel alive in my soul, and my bones, and my eyes; to live the story, full and raw, not dependent upon things be one way or another, but ever confident that this risk of living a better story is so much better than living in the choking weight of others’ voices that try to drown out the one true voice of who you want to become.

Go point to your horizon.

MOVE.
You don’t have time to respond to your critics.
You simply don’t have time.
Be you, the REAL you, ALL of you… that’s what the world needs.
Go seek.
Go ask.
Because what I hope that the girls of new generations come  to realize is this: that if ever there was a time for women to rise up and unite, the time is now. Oh yes, I’m thankful for my sisters who gave me the ability to vote. For women who went to college and challenged typical professions. But there is so much work we still must do.

Advocate.
Preach.
Lobby.
Dream. Louder.

May you listen to that one constant in your heart.
May you give voice and flow to all that longs to leap inside of you.
May your songs be peace, may your dance be love, and may your love bring freedom.

Because you have a voice that’s no one else’s.
We’re ready to hear it.

Born of the (Un)Virgin Mary? (Questioning the Virgin Birth but Loving Jesus All the Same)

abstinenceLike many Christians, I was taught the Bible through instruction, stories, skits, and songs. My teachers and leaders did a great job in trying to help us learn more about God, Jesus, and faith, but questions weren’t encouraged, especially questions with no easy answers. Then, I graduated college, left a college ministry, began going to more progressive churches, then the kind of Church that doesn’t meet in a building, but in open fields or with friends gathered around a table in community. It’s been here in these outlets that I’ve taken a more critical look at the Bible.

I still remember sitting down at my friend’s kitchen table two years ago, sharing that, “I don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve anymore.” Whew. It felt so good to say. I felt like I was getting a dirty secret off my chest. I felt invigorated. He smiled. “I haven’t believed that for a long time,” he replied. I talked about my other frustrations with the Bible, like how could a loving God wipe the Earth clean from people because S/He was sick of them? He pointed out that almost every major religion- Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for some examples- has a flood story. 

One reason why some people are afraid to question is that often, one question leads to many. And when you get to challenging all that you’ve been taught, for some people that brings up feelings of disloyalty or shame.

I’ve moved on from shame and have now fallen in love with questions. Questions give way to freedom. Questions help me wrestle, scramble, muse, fall deep into the enclaves of wonder, reminding me I will never, ever have it all figured out. Well-known pastor Rob Bell shared in his book Velvet Elvis, “Questions aren’t scary. What’s scary is when people don’t have any.” I can’t agree more. 

So naturally, I’ve found myself questioning again. I was taught to believe that Jesus was born from virgins: Mary and Joseph. And like many Christians, I didn’t question it. That is, until recently. A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a dear friend about my frustration over a verse in the Bible that stated because a woman from a long, long time ago ate a piece of fruit, God punished women with excruciating birth pains. Apparently, this painful birthing predicament is also the same act that will save women. The more we talked, the more I grew to believe that the Bible was indeed written by men (literally, men, since women did not receive the education men did) and that if I lived some thousands of years ago, and didn’t understand how humans were made, maybe I would try to explain why women give birth through some story like that too.

And then my friend said it, said the thought that got me questioning all I’ve been taught to believe, all over again. She laughed, “Yeah, it’s just like Jesus being born of a virgin.”

Wait, what?

Her point was that people living in that timeframe didn’t have reproductive education, therefore if a couple accidentally became pregnant, and sex before marriage was disdainful, then maybe that’s where the fable of Jesus’ virgin birth came about.

So if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, would that make a difference?

Would it make a difference in the lives Jesus touched? The outcasts that Jesus dined with? The poor in spirit that Jesus comforted?

Might it make the Bible not so volatile as to personally be freed from having to believe every bit of it tit-for-tat, line-by-(sometimes angering) line?

Might it put less emphasis on shaming “purity culture” and instead shed light on that, while perhaps not ideal, God can redeem all things, including the stigma of children born out of wed-lock? (For an excellent post in this, see Melanie Springer’s “I Wasn’t Planned, But Am Loved“)

Was the point that Jesus was born of a virgin, or was the point that Jesus’ life would change the world as we know it?

Arguing over whether or not a sexual encounter led to Jesus’ birth is not the point I’m trying to make.

All I’m saying is, isn’t there more than one way to read sacred text when we consider the time frame and potential biases in which this text was written?

Perhaps not everything is literal.

We can think about the context in which passages were written and ask ourselves, “What knowledge did people have at the time?” “If I were a first century Christian, how would I understand this?” (For more on this, check out “Questions for Exegesis“)

If you come away with different beliefs than what was taught to you, that’s ok. Because if “the word became flesh,” isn’t it more important to show the love of Jesus with our actions than nailing down the “right” verbiage?

It words and doctrine bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away.
All that matters is if you are finding God in this journey.

That you discover wrestling and questioning are holy acts of necessity.

That Jesus redeems all brokenness, even “taboo” out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Because wouldn’t that be so like Jesus, to stand in the periphery of all the religious dogma, and show with his actions that all things can be redeemed and made beautiful?

Beyond Motherhood, Workhood, and Wifehood: Re-defining What it Means to be a Good Woman (or Man)

“They were hoping for a son to carry on the family name,” a woman I work with casually laments in conversation.

My insides choke. I despise when I hear comments like this because it reiterates that even from birth, there are differences in the perceived value and capabilities of males and females. With this couple’s ideology, a baby born with xy chromosomes will be able to carry on a family name. But if this baby is simply born with xx chromosomes, in the eyes of this couple, she already has something that she CANNOT do: carry on a family name. Rigid standards for what women and men should and cannot do hinder society, forcing women to make “and/or” choices rather than “both/and.”
Now over halfway through my twenties, the inflexible “and/or” message I hear the traditional world shouting out most frequently is this: Soon, if not now, you will be reaching a fork in the road. At this fork, you must decide if you will go the motherhood/wifehood route or the climb-the-ladder career route.  

But before we get to the fork, let’s pause for a minute. What if there’s something different? Or something in between? Is life simply an “and/or”?

I know women who are breaking gender norms as inspirational lawyers, doctors, and authors, addressing gender parity beyond the suffrage movement and into areas of global justice, gender-based violence, and women’s economic development. I also know women who are stay-at-home moms who do anything but “stay at home. They’re volunteering in HIV/AIDS ministries, advocating for the poor, visiting the sick, caring for the hungry, serving as board members, and taking care of their own children. When we underscore one or the other as “the goal,” the thing you were supposedly created to live for; When we dictate what is the “right” or “wrong” way of doing marriage, career, and family, we reinforce the idea that women must choose; they can’t be both. Certain circles will praise her wife/mother/homemaker choice and others, critique it. Some circles will laud the career ladder climb, leaving women who are serving and changing the world in ways outside of a typical employment schedule simply out of the picture, dismissed. Often, “stay-at-home-moms” are portrayed as June Cleavers. Some may be. Some would argue that this is the very thing women “should” be doing these days. While 14% of American women identified as stay-at-home-Moms in 2012, I’d hardly think this categorization gives enough recognition to the ways in which these women are changing the world through their service and leadership in their spheres of influence. On the contrary, when we hold motherhood and “wifehood” as the “ultimate” for women, we imply that those who do paid work outside of the home aren’t attentive to their families, can’t raise good children, and have their priorities wrong, which negates the ways God can use one’s employment to change the world. When we encourage women to solely invest their time and energy in home front matters, we live lives that are small, as if our family of (3, 4, 5 etc) is all that matters. But when 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, if all we do is snuggle in our children a little bit tighter and keep the floors shined, we’ve sorely missed the point.
These rigid messages suggest that something must be wrong with a woman if she isn’t married by 30. As if the only talent she brings to the world are her breasts and ovaries. As if it doesn’t really matter how much she likes her first job out of college; all she needs to do is suck it up for a few years because soon enough she’ll be married and out of the working world anyway, so what’s the point?
Other messages portray the glorification of brides (have you seen the array of bridal magazines in the grocery line?) through tv, and, in the Evangelical Christian community, books. It’s no wonder the wedding industry is worth an estimated $40 billion– and that’s just in the U.S. Through this culture, women are set up to think their wedding is the pinnacle of their life. The only day that matters. Consequentially, there then becomes a trend of girls selfishly becoming the focal point of their universe, through bride wars, expensive dresses, family feuds, all captured on public tv, after all, she’s the star of her show, both literally and figuratively in cases like “The Bachelorette,” “Say Yes to the Dress,” and the other 26 wedding-themed television shows. When women are encouraged to receive their validation through marriage, we don’t present women with all the ways in which they can become something, someone.
I wonder if this is why many young women and men are disenchanted about their wedding day. Because with the mindset that society and some religious circles embrace, this is the day that a woman will prove that she’s beautiful enough, wanted enough to be “chosen” as someone’s life partner. Similarly, this is the day a man follows through with what he has been socialized to believe about what he needs to do as man in order to be successful: marry, work, and, according to many Evangelicals, “lead.” Both the woman and the man, in this framework, get married for the wrong, self-centered reason: seeking affirmation, acceptance, and a “check mark” from society or religion. And twenty years down the road, many of these couples find that their marriage has not brought them happiness. Their “day in the sun” desiccated a long time ago. The wedding photos are in albums collecting dust somewhere in the basement. Deep intimacy was lost sometime after the honeymoon, but before the kids were grown and out of the house. And once the kids are out, there’s no distractions available to divert attention away from the ugly truth that you and your spouse barely know each other now. Because, from the start, it was all a show- after all, we had “roles” to play, right?

At some point, I wonder if we’ve hyper-focused on such gender roles: manhood and womanhood, instead of personhood. How, then, does one become a good woman or good man, if not through the mores of certain religious circles and society?

We can start by dropping the word “role.”  Women and men have biological differences, but there’s a difference between your sex and your gender. Society or religious circles often shout what your gender “role” “should” be, while your sex just happens to be whatever chromosomes developed in utero. May I suggest that the most genuinely “good men” and “good women” happen to be, in fact, marvelous people, people who delight in simply being a Child of God.

I want to create a life that doesn’t have “role” after the word gender. I am not trying out for a play; I’m showing up to create my life. Therefore I don’t have a “prescribed role” to follow, line by line, scene by scene, for the applause of an audience of conservative Evangelical men.  I want to pursue what I’m passionate about, without worrying if it’s “womanly” or “manly.”

Which brings me back to the beginning. Instead of defining a good “woman” through the sole lens of motherhood, workhood, or wifehood, why don’t we start defining a good “woman” or “man” by being true to their particular calling? To the degree we’ve loved our neighbor, loved our enemy, loved God, and even loved ourselves? Because God doesn’t have the same plan for all of us. And I think there’s still some unreconciled tension among women with differing choices in regards to mothering, marrying, and working.

Conservative Christian voices such as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose board is composed of an entirely white, all male staff, will continue to use God to keep men and women in separate, distinct, inflexible roles. Popular culture might too. But we have a choice, everyday, to decide who we will be and what we will do. And so, here’s my victory statement, my peaceful rebellion: I will live out the life God has planned for me, no “blanket statement” rules here. I will delay marriage until I feel I am fully capable of loving someone unselfishly to the best of my capacity. Truly, we can live from the wisest, most passionate, alive, parts of our hearts. No, you won’t find me making blanket statement rules for an entire gender because to do so limits the diversity of the callings God puts on people’s hearts. Yes. I’ll be walking as a Child of God on the Road of Freedom, having my (wedding) cake and keeping my last name too.

brideMotherhoodwomans-work

The Juxtaposition of Death and Life. (Church on a Bike)

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.
I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

It was a holy moment.
It was Church, on a bike.
I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.

Life. Death.
A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.
Life.
Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.
Life.
My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down.
All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Suckiness. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.

And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.

So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.
May our eyes be opened while we pedal and climb around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.
May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.
May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.
May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.
And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

When You Don’t Know What You Believe Anymore. (Finding Community in the Midst of Uprootedness)

I was on the phone with a friend last night who was describing, through tears, the confusing, sometimes lonely, often uncertain journey of re-evaluating your faith. When you’re figuring out what you really believe versus what you’ve been taught to believe. When you have more questions than answers. When you see more grey than black and white. When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere. I found glimpses of my story in my friend’s story and thought back to a time about a year and a half ago. It was quite a lonely time and I felt this innate desire to be understood; for just one person to say, “Yes, I’ve wondered about that too…”
Eventually, I would come to understand these feelings better through Ed Cyzewski’s “Divided We Unite” (free PDF version found here).

“For some of us who have been rooted in one spot for a while, sometimes the old answers and ways of doing things stop making sense. ‘Transplants’ are often in vulnerable positions, as they don’t feel like they fit anywhere, their beliefs have been shaken in some way… [One problem transplants may have] is they sometimes rush into something new without dealing with their previous hurts and disappointments. I saw this a lot with folks who were disappointed by the church and then jumped right into house churches or emerging churches without seeking healing first.”

Transplant! A-ha. It was the word I had been looking for but couldn’t put my finger on. A season of uprootedness is where I’ve been since my senior year of college, when the teachings of the Evangelical world didn’t fit in with how I understood gender, sexuality, salvation, and social justice. I’m still in “transplant.” And that’s ok. It’s nice here; I’ve finally found some fellow flowers in the field and know I’m not alone anymore.

This conversation with my friend brought back visceral memories of the past year and a half, when I was just beginning to verbalize my discontentment with “Christianity as usual.” I was only just starting to write out my truest feelings through a new outlet I created- this blog. I was only just beginning to speak up and share my truest feelings and opinions around other believers, as I didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers; rather, I just wanted to somehow arrive at a semblance of settledness and peace about my faith and wanted to get there as placidly as possible- you know, just kind of slide out of the back doors of former Churches and Christian groups and enter into an unprecedented dawning of a new era in my faith: freedom. Of having a voice without fear of being choked for voicing a different perspective, another way of living faith, another way of trying to love a God I can’t understand completely, but long to know deeply; a God I revere, but will no longer appease with praises and prayers that are null of the complete struggles I have with the Bible- with its violence and oppression of women– and gender, and Heaven and Hell and all the other stuff that I needed to be freed from and hash out with none other than my Maker.
Somewhere during this time span, God gave me an invaluable gift of freedom that I’m still exploring. The girl who finally left the “non-denom world” (Christianese for Churches that aren’t affiliated with any particular denomination and usually consider themselves Evangelical) for the United Church of Christ (and trembled the whole way, wondering when an Evangelical was going to tell me that denominations were bad or that the UCC is too liberal). The girl who was almost too afraid to post “6 reasons why I support question 6” for fear of retaliation from former conservative acquaintances became the girl who would speak at the UCC about how the church can be proponents of recognizing the imago dei in all by supporting marriage equality. I have much work to do on this road to freedom, but the familiar tears of my friend reminded me of the faith metamorphosis I’ve been through this year, as God brought some fellow stumbling, bumbling (whatever that means anyway) folks who love God and love people and don’t care for the dogma of anything else that takes away from this love. In my desperation, God brought such people into my life and they have shown me that I’m not alone; that there are more of us out there than we think.

So where are you right now? Have you ever been in a place where you weren’t sure what you believed and struggled to reconcile what you’ve been taught about Christian faith with what your experiences have been outside of the confined walls of doctrine and “shoulds?” Are you in that place now?
Hang on.
Reach out.
Speak up.
And find us out here in these open spaces…

Have you been through uprootedness before? Go reach out to someone who’s currently experiencing this. You remember how vulnerable and shaky it feels when your whole faith world gets thrown upsidedown. So go have that conversation. Go get that coffee. Go on that walk. And find a way to remind a fellow brother/sister/soon-to-be-friend that they aren’t the only one who feels this way.

Because no matter where we are in our faith journeys, we need each other. We need to know we’re not alone with our thoughts. With our questions. With our inability to sit still, hands folded on our laps, seated at our pews, secretly dying inside to a faith that is out of touch with reality, that’s not listening (just shouting), and that’s not loving (just pointing fingers).
We all need to know that we can love our God even if we want to release some of the things we were taught to believe about Christianity. And may we always come to know, deep, within our core, that there is and always will be room for us all at the table.
Come.
You may have heard you won’t belong if you doubt, or you won’t be “in,” if you question the way you do. But hear it crystal clear: you do belong. So come; have a seat. Or, if you’ve been sitting for way too long and need a fine place to stand, find your space to stand. Or run. Or cartwheel upon these endless fields of freedom. Come. There’s room for you. You’ll figure out what you believe in time. You don’t have to have it all figured out now. In the meantime, we’ll be here, in the muck and mire and mess and in the starting over and the joy, with you, beside you, learning with you, growing with you, questioning with you, passing around the cup and the bread and the Kingdom will Come, oh if but a taste of it in the now, and also in the forever and ever. Yes, yes, amen.
go out into the highways