Embracing difference as a spiritual discipline

We Christians have not been known, especially in recent years, for our ability to embrace difference…but what if we were?

A few weekends ago I listened to a podcast on the enneagram, the typology of nine interactive personality types that supposedly traces back to the desert fathers, and have been fascinated ever since.  But while I have loved learning about my type, where I’m prone to stress and poised for growth, what I’ve loved most about the typology is the window of empathy it has given me into the way I view my friends, family, and co-workers.  The enneagram, at its best, celebrates the differences that make us human, and instructs us not to try to change but to further understand and know one another.

But what about when people are really, really different from us and those differences confront what we think we know about ourselves, our culture, and even our faith?

As an anthropologist, I’m not only attracted to, but trained to appreciate differences in all their human forms.  When I meet someone who tells me about a different upbringing, worldview, or belief system, my ears perk up, and my intellectual curiosity sparks.  “How fascinating,” I think.  Tell me more,” I often blurt out instinctively; I listen and wait and expect…to grow.

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JingPo Christians in Yunnan, China.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

This robust respect for difference is entangled with one of the controversial, central tenants of anthropology–the notion of cultural relativism, or the belief that you kind of have to know a bit, well a lot, about another culture to understand it and to see and understand how they value what they value.  All cultures contain truth and integrity, but we rarely stop to pay attention and try to see things the way others might see them.

As I mentioned, this tenant is controversial because it’s really challenging.  Especially in the course I teach on disability, it’s almost impossible for our ableist and intellectualist-coded minds to stretch ourselves to consider disability as yet another element in human diversity.  When I assign a provocative chapter that references the very title of our course, “Disability as Difference,” students are wont to collapse the tension, to find the differences of disability clearly lacking or deficient, or at the very least, to assimilate the disabled to be “just like us.”

We human beings are simply not very good at seeing difference as valuable or even neutral. We’re constantly shaping, skewing, explaining, and evaluating differences (and different people) that we come into contact with everyday.

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The great Buddha at Lantau, Hong Kong.

But what if we added to our spiritual disciplines the act of allowing space for difference and even appreciating difference before we try to so hard to reform it, judge it, or rehabilitate it?

I think Christians especially have been afraid of the costs of such a foray.  We are afraid of where an appreciation for difference may lead us–astray from our Christian beliefs, our Christ, our God, our truth.  But if we are so easily lead astray from our faith when we value the differences of others, do we not serve a God who is small to begin with?  If our faith falters at the very introduction of contradiction, tension, and diversity, is our faith not flimsy and perhaps very worthy of being discarded?  Might we find a more robust faith, as Jesus did, in accompanying and learning from those who are different from us?

As an anthropologist who has learned so much from others about God precisely because of this openness toward difference, I seek a faith that is deep and profound and hearty because it is constantly probed and reevaluated and tested by what I am learning.  At every angle, when I exclaim, “That’s fascinating,” and sit at another’s feet to listen, I may risk something, but I also stand to gain so much.  I find this openness to difference, this grappling with diversity, to be a spiritual discipline because God is nothing if not miraculously incarnate and yet profoundly different from us at the same time.

But often we forget that truth.  

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Family out at a restaurant in Cairo, Egypt.

We presume God to belong to us, to be just like us, to be ours, to be with us and for us.  But I think God wants us to read scripture against the grain, to consider the rich diversity among its pages and in our lives, and to explore with abandon, making ourselves profoundly open to others and to God in unlikely and unexpected people and places.

We can’t do that if we’re afraid and closed off to those who are different from us, though.  We can’t grow if we don’t allow difference to disrupt our neat beliefs and convictions.  We can’t truly know God if we confine ourselves to that which is similar, expected, and narrow.

Do you do this in your life?  How do you embrace difference as a spiritual discipline?  How has it enabled your faith to grow, even if it has been tested and tried?

My husband often talks of how our seminary professors challenged us to discover a second naiveté after the faith of our childhood failed us and here Cornel West talks about a healthy atheism. I’m really interested in exploring how vulnerability like this to difference, especially, can help us to grow in our love for one another and God.

 

 

On enjoyment and spirituality

Can I confess something?

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Lucia and I on the patio, the leaves catching the first glimpse of fall.  All photos mine.

I really, really, really love our house.

That may seem like the most obvious thing to say.  I’m supposed to love it, right?  When you spend months and months anticipating something, it seems inevitable that your spirit would sigh a bit when you finally experience and live into what you’ve been anticipating.

Maybe it’s my Protestant ethic or my missionary soul, but it feels like a confession to make and it’s been a little hard to let me give in and love this house, because I have a hard time loving any-thing so much.  Things aren’t supposed to make us happy, I scold myself. Happiness should be intangible, inwardly grounded, yet that which sets its sight on lofty and pure ways–contentment in all circumstances.

But it just makes me so deliriously happy to share this place with friends; to sit on the porch and watch my daughter, despite her limited vision, explore the beauty of the trees and the dappled light and shift her head from one side to the other in search of birds and cars and sounds; to watch my husband cook for friends and for me in the light-filled kitchen; to linger on the porch into the evening enjoying being outdoors and in one another’s company; to work fervently inside my office these days and creep down to watch Lucia solider on in her therapies in her new room; and to dream about the times that will be had here, the way we can share and reinvent and live into and enjoy our space.

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Lucia on the patio and my prosecco and grapefruit juice ready to greet the weekend.

And suddenly enjoyment of this space, the way in which it invites me to hope and dream and pray, doesn’t seem so bad, so ill-advised, decidedly worldly, so spiritually vapid.  I find that my spirituality these days is constantly unfolding, being remolded and reshaped to see God in more places, and I think that is good.  I find that my Puritan tendencies that push back against my instinct to revel in this place and its grandeur cannot always be trusted.  Indeed, my own sense of what is good and pure and right can sometimes lead me astray, whereas Lucia, nature, sharing, my marriage, and life well-lived can be much better guides.

There’s no way I will ever shirk my missional aspirations, nor do I want to fully.  I remain convicted that this house is not a final destination or a treasure to be hoarded, but a beginning and a challenge that must be regarded with care, responsibility, and humility.

What will you do with this great blessing?  I often hear God asking.

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Exploring one of the lush country roads together.

And I am intent to respond, share it freely, use it to bless others, and remember that it is not my own.

But somewhere in there, I think God wants us to enjoy it, too.

To anyone who’s mourning summer…

Summer is almost over and I keep wondering if it’s possible to stretch it out somehow.  I have felt a bit like, especially between moving and teaching and all those damn doctor’s appointments, summer has somewhat passed me by.

And yet, the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve been able to live into the summer a bit more by cultivating what I might call “a vacation state of mind.”

What is a vacation state of mind, you ask?

Well, it’s a mentality that yields to the rhythm of summer strokes, that relishes the sacred pause, and thrusts the busy life a swift kick in the pants!

In the past few weeks or so, I’ve seen my productivity soar in fewer work hours, more coffees, and more listening, and I’m starting to trust that we’re not meant to put our heads down in the sand and hustle, but lean in (yes, I’m stealing and repurposing this stupid metaphor) wholeheartedly to the people and the conversations that God places in our paths.

I know this sounds idealistic, but I am heading out of summer with the spiritual practice of cultivating a vacation state of mind this fall.  I’m going to find time for the good stuff in life and expect the grunt work to feel lighter and to fall (hehe) into place.  I’m going to look around and appreciate and trust all that God is doing now rather than scrambling to prepare for a future that has nothing to do with present gifts.  I am going to be the vacation version of me, because life is too short for any other mentality.

So, I dare you, if you cross my path this fall: please, invite me for that cup of coffee, and I pray that I’ll have the wisdom to say yes!

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Because really, what says vacation state of mind more than this?!  My photo.

What if it’s all ministry?

As I drove into work the other morning listening to a podcast, a woman on the other end proclaimed that time is in some sense the great equalizer–no matter who you are, from the president of a country to a mother of twelve, you only get 24 hours–you can’t stretch it or exceed it or reform it.

Oh, but you can desperately and fruitlessly try…

As I’ve been finding myself at some of my limits in terms of time and energy and motivation these days, I’ve done the one thing I’ve urged my students not to do: I’ve turned inward, convinced that I’m not living up to expectations.

But whose expectations? I’ve begun to wonder.

I have realized these past few days (with some help from my spiritual director) that my own expectations have crowded out my good work as I hold a hierarchy of ministry in my mind.  As someone who has aspired to be a missionary and who has lived in abandoned bars and alongside drug addicts in Puerto Rico, sought to live in solidarity with migrants in Mexico, and slept on the floor of Chinese orphanages, I’ve always had this unspoken belief that the more uncomfortable you are, the more meaningful the work is that you’re doing.

And that’s honestly worked okay for me, because I have a high tolerance for discomfort.  I suppose I consider it one of my spiritual gifts, that instead of being repelled from what’s different, I’m drawn into cross-cultural conversation and challenges and dissonance.  But my life is not the hearty picture of discomfort that I once imagined it to be these days.  Despite those limited 24 hours, I feel the need to do more, to give, to reach out, and I struggle with the limits I experience and my finitude.

But I’m learning a couple of important things little by little.

I’m learning, for one, that one person’s discomfort looks quite different than another’s.  And I’m realizing that the ministry that God has for me may look different than what I imagined for myself.  I’m realizing that the wide breath of ministry God has put before me–ministry with my daughter with disabilities, ministry with my students, ministry with my congregants, maybe even ministry through my blog–may have gone unrecognized, especially to me.

You see, I’ve always taken that verse in the Bible very literally about selling all your stuff and following Jesus and felt pretty crappy that I still have stuff.  And part of that is really good, I think, because what I find so challenging and compelling about that verse is the reminder that aren’t people that are made for the things of this world.

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Rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27) imagery.  Photo credit.

 

But what if it’s all ministry?  

I always tell my students and my colleagues that I want to imagine a world of abundance, a world in which everyone can succeed and thrive, because I really believe God to be a God of abundance.  But ministry…the world as chocked full of ministry, relative only to us, but wholly instituted and appreciated by God?

Well, that thought, that reality, is blowing my mind.

When I realize that I can’t sell all my stuff because my daughter needs feeding tubes to live and standers to make sure her hips don’t come out of socket and a pump to keep her alive overnight and seizure medication, it’s rather black and white and shortsighted and unfaithful to assume that I can’t be faithful to God because of all of that.  Those confines fail to reflect the love that God has grown in me for this child with disabilities, the theology that God has granted me to call Lucia good and perfect and really believe it, and the ease that I have and have always felt with people with disabilities.

That must be ministry, too.

As I looked around my life yesterday afternoon–as I walked back from ice cream with the first generation  and low-income college students with whom I’ve spent the past seven weeks, and with whom I’d grown so thoroughly–I realized some people might call that classroom one of real discomfort.  As I reflected on our little church that is a bit messy and inhabited by very varied abilities and ages and quite a few folks with special needs, I realized that some people might find that kind of worship truly arduous.  And as I thought about my writing–writing that works to connect up all these disparate avenues, foster families and China and faith and academia and caring for a child with disabilities–I realized that I’m still one messy, drawn-into discomfort individual, but I simply don’t experience it that way.

I realized that even as I’ve been fighting for a ministry that’s meaningful, God has been equipping me in the one that’s here.  I wondered in that moment if the choices I’ve made for my life aren’t so much right or wrong as tied into this purpose that may flaunt my expectations but dig deeply into the gifts God has instilled within me.  And I wondered if perhaps the greatest discomfort I’m feeling about the challenge of being here and doing all of this isn’t the very discomfort that God has for me to grow within in this season.

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God’s majesty in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

As I walked back and the wind rustled through the trees, I thought I heard a whisper, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

And for the first time in a very long time, I think I started to believe it.

That little pause

I’ve probably let you know in spurts that sometimes it feels like summer, the presumed magical pause for many of us, has been on overdrive over here.  With summer teaching for me, makeup medical appointments for Lucia, and moving for the three of us, it’s easy to see where the time has gone.

I’ve been blogging about this book draft that I’m eager to get out to publishers, and I’ve been a bit critical of myself along the way.  You see, I wish I’d had it out to publishers like in June.  That was really unrealistic, but you know how when you just want to get something off your plate and out into the world so you can move forward with other tasks and ideas?

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Photo credit: Terry League.

But yesterday, with the last class of the semester complete, no meetings on my schedule, and lovely light ahead of me, I had a free morning.  And instead of cramming it with burdened and anxious writing, I let my mind wander.  A colleague of mine had suggested another scholar who could be an interlocutor for me on the ideas of vulnerability, kinship, and need that are shaping my book.  And so I sat there for several hours without an agenda–I read and I wrote, dialoging back and forth with this other scholar about my ideas, without an end in sight.

And it was good.

It was good to be creative, to let go of the aims and simply pursue the thoughts and the ideas and trust that they would matter.  I think I eventually ended up with some insights that will help revise the little parts of my introduction that need revision.

But maybe not.

And the strange math of the week is that I still feel that I’ve accumulated something really valuable.  It’s the type of wild exploration that I’ve been begging my students to risk doing, despite the confines of their cramped summer semester.  “Dare to dream big,” I’ve said.  “Go for that big idea, take risks,” I’ve goaded them in their writing.

But I’ve got to live by my own wisdom.  I’ve got to carve space out for these creative pauses that excite, entice, and beckon without ulterior motives.  It’s the stuff of believing in the creative process, I think, but also believing in yourself.  Trusting yourself to manage this precious time that you’ve been given and valuing that good ideas need room to breathe, that a lot of the best stuff seeps out of us when we’re willing to work for it, wait for it, wrestle with it, and knead it a bit.

Another thing that I’ve been telling my students that I think goes hand in hand with these pauses is urging them not to turn in upon themselves and cower when the world rejects them.  I’ve told them that their worth can’t come from these things they think or produce or accomplish but rather who they know, trust, and love themselves to be.

And suddenly it makes sense to me.

If I truly believe that, too, then I’ll value and allow myself that morning in a coffee shop to simply think and wander because I’m not the sum of my accomplishments or my successes, but rather an artist whose thoughts and wisdom and goodness need to be lived out daily.  While I tell my students stuff like this all the time, I think it’s been a long time coming for me to admit that I’m a bit of an artist when it comes to words and ideas–that I’m a thinker and a dreamer, someone who likes to spin and sew and create with thoughts.

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Light pouring into my empty office in our new house.  My photo.

So thank you, dear students.  It seems I’ve learned something really valuable from you this semester.  It seems I’ve been reignited with the fire and excitement that comes from thinking.  It seems I’ve been given the freedom to explore again rather than put everything I do to a purpose, a publication, a deeper success.

And that feels good.

Thanks for giving to me this small, sweet truth.  And I’ll do my very best to honor it with a pause every once in awhile and believe in myself just a bit more.

Why luck’s got very little to do with it

“Your daughter is so lucky to have you as parents.”

It’s a phrase we hear quite often from kind people around us who must sense and feel how treasured our daughter, Lucia, who has special needs, is by us.  And I suppose they mean to compliment us, too, to tell us what every parent yearns to hear from time to time from his or her village–that all that work of parenting, the stuff that you do in the trenches doesn’t go unnoticed–that it’s not all for nothing, that even when you don’t feel like it, someone saw you doing a good job and took the time to notice it.

But especially when Lucia was really little, crying day in and day out from neurological and gastric distress, and even sometimes nowadays, phrases like these are often followed by a confession, something like, “I certainly couldn’t do what you do.”

When we were first learning about Lucia’s special needs, my husband confided in me how hard it was to hear words like these, well meaning though they were.  For him, especially, the notion that we were doing anything differently from other parents, or that we were different from other parents, smarted against the ordinary we knew ourselves to be.

I’ve also noticed that such ordinary phrases. not unlike “I’m sorry,” often have the power to divide rather than unite.  When I used to run off to far away places like Mexico or Puerto Rico or China and get to know Christians there, people used to tell me similar things, that they could never do what I was doing, that I was amazing, and that my life seemingly mattered more than theirs.  But that smarted against the reality I knew God to be creating: certain people are not better equipped, because it’s God who does the equipping.  I wasn’t more courageous or better or bolder, I’d had my own doubts and my own fears, and the words that conveyed that I was beyond those insecurities and inadequacies while others lived with them constructed a false reality, a world of dichotomies, a world in which some are quite extraordinary but others are not.

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Illustration by Giselle Potter that accompanied a recent article by Courtney Lund, a woman with a brother with AGS (the same condition as Lucia) in the NYT.

But here’s the thing: parents do extraordinary things for their children all the time, because love is a seeping, pervasive, unwieldy, extraordinary thing that causes us to do all sorts of things we never imagined we could or would do.  And I guess neither my husband nor I want people to forget that.  Sure, we feel encouraged to know that people see Lucia and we as a fabulous unit, but we also don’t want to exist in some weird, alternative special needs universe, where our family is abnormal or an anomaly, so much as one example among many examples of what love can do.

And that’s also what I’m learning.  I’m realizing that whereas it used to feel fundamentally uncomfortable to hear these words and these accolades, I can choose the way I respond.  And I’m beginning to love hearing them, because I get to respond by saying, “Well, we feel truly blessed to be Lucia’s parents.”  And that truth is one that I’m so blessed and compelled to say aloud–that despite the tears and the pain and the heartache, there have been just as many moments of elation, warmth, and joy.  I want people to see the joy and the delight that we have in Lucia, just as any parent has in his or her child.  Something about this response, perhaps like the response “I’m not sorry,” makes me feel that I have a bit more to contribute and to give to this world, rather than an ethos that sets me apart or above it.

Because the truth is also that my husband and I are in the trenches beside all of you, trying to sort our parenthood and do our very best, though our patience often fails us and our compassion can run dry.  But it’s our kids that keep us going.  It’s all our kids–the love that we have for them that is so much better than us–the people we become when we let that love lead us, the people that we are becoming that makes this all something more than luck that we’ve found one another, but rather grace that we get to love one another.

And that’s how I’ve begun to feel when I hear those words, “Your daughter is lucky to have you.”  I’m filled with humility and gratitude and grace, because it’s not so much true that Lucia is lucky.  But I know it to be true that it’s by the grace of God that we’ve been blessed with one another.

 

Virtual tea date

If we were hanging out this morning, I’d be sipping on my favorite casablanca mint tea.  When I’m under the weather as I am currently am, I can’t stand the thought of my beloved coffee; I finally understand what’s so comforting about tea-drinking, and yet, I confess that’s why I always feel like a bit of an invalid when I’m drinking it!

It’s been a whirlwind of a week, packed with teaching for me and unpacking for my husband, but having his family in town broke up the projects and made the follies more tolerable, I think!

One little joy of having his family in town is watching our nieces, especially our youngest, play junior nurse with Lucia.  I’ve noticed that when Lucia screeches and writhes for some unknowable reason and all our lips get a little tight and our hearts a bit anxious, Hannah stands by quite contentedly.  I appreciate that many children, including her, seem to know how to stand by when there are tears and pain and carrying on, perhaps placing a comforting hand or offering a kind sigh, but not trying to rush us others through their feelings.  What a lesson, I think, to be comfortable and at ease with one another’s distress, to be able to witness and hold but not press and prod, maybe offering the best consolation by just being human beings together.

That Hannah is a gem.

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Our evening bliss.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve begun to allow myself to look forward to all the things we will do in this house, like baking scones in the kitchen, hosting our first overnight guests in just a week, and enjoying more beautiful evenings on the patio.

I’m also hoping there’s enough room left in August for me to get my book off to publishers, put the finishing touches on a few articles, and maybe conjure a few more writing projects!  I’ve been trying to be better about setting and keeping writing goals, and I’ve been inspired by the progress of my students–it pushes me to be a better professor!

We are so thankful that Lucia continues to thrive in her new environment.  There is much to be figured out and much to pray for–she has equipment cliic on Tuesday, her IFSP next week, and we’ll be looking into what to do for school for her, but again, we’re so blessed to be in a state that creates possibilities for our child with special needs.  It reminds me that this anchor that we’ve put down here may yield some limitations, but it’s also what helps us keep our bearings and keep in view that many blessings we have.

…oh, and the Olympics!  I’m so excited!!!

What are you up to this weekend?

 

 

 

 

Askant, askew, and coddiwompling about

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A friend posted this to Facebook this morning.

And this week  (and probably all weeks), I’ve been teaching my students about the power of words–especially the ways in which words are coded with hidden cultural meanings, with gender, class, and race.  There is always more than meets the eye, metaphor dripping and resonating with import, value and privilege connoted in simple turns of phrase.

What’s funny to me about coddiwomple is that it doesn’t sound the least bit purposeful; it sounds more the stuff of vague wanderings, trodding, trudging, even.  For me it comes too close to the catawampus or the cattywampus, the awkward, askew positioning that some prefer to catty-cornered.

Over the past few days, we’ve discovered that things are a bit cattywampus in a 200+ year old house.  Stairs, floors, windows, closets, joints, gutters–give it 200 years and everything is a bit askant, askew, and disheveled.

And so are we.  

There’s been the stress of moving from place to place for months and finally into this home, and then the rains from this weekend flooded our department, some offices, and classrooms, and so even at work now I feel a bit aimless and displaced.  These are small inconveniences, ones that have lended much needed perspective for me to the challenges many in this world face on a much grander scale.

But they’ve also reminded me that we human beings need purpose.

When all else fails, even when we press on toward a vague destination, we crave clarity, connection, conviction.  What I thought this house might yield along those lines, though, I realize now, is only the beginning.  When we purchased this house, I prayed that it would be a gathering place for family, friends, and strangers, that it would be a place that blessed many and not just us.

But that purpose is still unfolding, amidst boxes and all that is askew, and I’m often impatient to discern the future.  What I’m recognizing and perhaps disappointed by is that although we seem to be home finally, we’re still traveling, always traveling, making our way though the way now be paved with local negotiations, leaky faucets, and neighborhoods.

When it comes to words, coddiwomple might be a nice mantra, a beginning, rather than end point, in order that I don’t lose sight that purpose, in so many ways in my own life and probably yours, is also still unfolding.  What I’m won’t to do in moments like these, is harvest the simple purposes in the everyday–in the fact that this area is crawling with amazing butterflies, in the serene walks atop the cemetery, in the union of struggle and working together that has to happen but also can and does happen when we meet challenges with patience.  

Maybe it’s possible to live purposefully even when you’re a bit disheveled, or at least I’d like to think so.  I’d like to be a bit coddiwomple in a world that is often askew.  I’d like to glean purpose, like a forager, a harvester, a woman who doesn’t let a little rains or floods or follies deter her…

But we’ll see, won’t we?

We bought an old house…and some Sunday links

We’ve spent the weekend moving into our new (but I really should say old) house!

Here it is and it’s older than the constitution!

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My husband and I in front of our new house.

The house was built circa 1785 and is part of this teeny crossroads historic town in the NJ countryside.  It’s been a huge ordeal just getting here as the move-in date was pushed back months and months due to repairs and negotiations.  Despite it being built so long ago, from all accounts it’s actually in great shape.  I can’t decide if it’s the best decision we’ve ever made or if we’re bats**t crazy, but a friend who knows us well and is pretty truthful grinned when I said that and replied, probably a little bit of both!

The best news is that Lucia really seems to love her big, light-filled room, there’s views of a gorgeous, historic church across the street, and I’ve already seen tons of butterflies, birds, and bunnies out here.  We’ve been really thankful not to be in a flood zone this weekend and for all the help from friends with meals and unpacking.  Can’t wait to get out and explore the area when things dry and would love to hear all your favorite links for home knick knacks and furniture!

But we’re settling in on this torrential downpour of a weekend, and with internet and a morning off from church, I thought I’d post some links, too.  Hope you’re staying dry and hanging in!

God can see in the dark!  Love this little reflection on one of my favorite psalms.

The story behind Michelle Obama’s DNC dress.

This cartoon by a man on becoming a father of a child with special needs was really powerful.

“Could Women Be Trusted with Their Own Pregnancy Tests?” The surprising history of the drug store variety!

23 Maps that explain how Democrats went from the party of racism to the party of Obama

I’m so excited for the Olympics, especially the gymnastics, but I couldn’t agree more with this blogger!

An issue that’s very important to me, and it’s vital that we recognize we’re not hearing much of the truth these days.

Ex-pat parenting in Jordan: I love this series!

My aunt who lives in Plymouth took it very seriously to teach me the ropes at young age; Still yearning to eat a lobster before the summer is over!

What are you up to in August?

 

 

 

 

Your Thursday morning inspiration

“The only means of strengthening the intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing–to let the mind be a thoroughfare for thought.”  -John Keats, 1819

My husband and I don’t really understand the hullabaloo around the RNC and the DNC.  As he snarkily commented, “Are these the same people who enjoyed pep rallies in high school?”  I love that people are getting excited about something, especially when the world has been so dark as of late, when our problems seem so immense.

But to me, it’s mostly just rhetoric.  Is that maybe all it is?

Even when I listen to inspiring words from the likes of Cory Booker and Michelle Obama (and as a preacher love her line about “when they go low, we go high,” and Booker’s reprise of “we will rise”), I can’t help but think that they’re merely performing the words of another (exceptionally and with permission, of course).  I worry that if all America has at this point in time are great words written by great speech writers, we might just be papering over our problems and our misunderstandings of our differences with lofty lines and grand gestures, feeling so surprised when they return and rear their ugly heads.

Our country seems caught in this wild rhetoric of hyperbole that I’ve never been the least bit comfortable with.  If one candidate says that we’re making “America great again,” the other outwits him by saying “America is already great,” if another suggests we ostracize Muslims and foreigners, another purports to invite them to join us (which is not all that much better).  It becomes a war of words and all the important nuances, perhaps the real things that make America who she is and potentially really great, get lost and buried in the crossfire.

Our responses to all this are not much better: we either seem to rally around the least offensive rhetoric or cry cynicism because the politics is truly so off-putting.  But cynicism really is the height of laziness because it’s fully dependent, accusatory, and glib (and most definitely not an agent for change), and vapid enthusiasm isn’t much better, because it doesn’t teach us anything about who we really are, it doesn’t heal wounds, it doesn’t create solutions.

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Michelle Obama speaking before the DNC 2016.

So where’s the inspiration this morning?  Well, I think it begins with us.  

As I’ve been hearing all these great words these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking, let us not wait for someone to inspire us, America, because what we need is less of politics and more of real life.  Let us do the inspiring by telling our everyday stories to one another, by sharing our problems, our triumphs, our solutions.

A few nights ago I had to run out to Walmart to grab a few things.  I actually love going to Walmart because whatever your politics, it is one of the most diverse places around here.  I hate going to Walmart though because it always takes so damn long.  But I noticed something on that extra warm evening–people who didn’t look anything like each other, who don’t speak each other’s languages, and who come from very different cultural backgrounds, were going out of their way to be kind to one another.  The young black guy behind the counter, so deferential to the Spanish-speaking family in front of me, the woman with the headscarf behind me, and to me, the young white woman.  The lines were jammed up against the registers but people were patient; I watched a couple young black men let an Indian family with a full cart go in front of them in line.

I thought to myself, not bad, New Jersey, not bad.

This kind of stuff that we do everyday in America goes unnoticed but it needs to be celebrated.  It’s not going to make the papers, it’s not going to make the speeches, but it’s inspiring and it’s life well lived.  By sharing such a simple story, I don’t mean to paper over the real differences and the real problems in our country either–but I guess when I think in terms of inspiration, I’d rather find something concrete that I see in front of me, in my backyard, that’s real and right and true.  I’d rather take my cues from the diverse group of students in my classroom that cultivate meaningful but respectful conversation everyday as points of inspiration rather than the words of a few.  I’d rather think critically with folks in my congregation about how to build community rather than watch someone else pontificate about who or what America is or will be.

I guess my plea for inspiration this morning is for us to take heart and hold of the good things around us that often go unnoticed–to report them to somebody and to someone, and to talk together, to begin to share and pave real community solutions where rhetoric may fall short.  I’m not saying that we can’t watch the RNC or the DNC and we can’t have passion for the candidates that inspire us, but I guess I’m saying that I think, we the people, need to do the real work of inspiring.  

And if we look around, even in the most seemingly ordinary places, we just might find it.