When I Changed My Mind About Abortion

Growing up in the 80’s, we were taught that, in mixed company, a reasonable person never discussed religion or politics.

I didn’t listen.
I still don’t.

In high school, I loved to debate religion and politics, especially with teachers and fellow students who already disagreed with me. I was a devout Evangelical church kid with all the answers and one of my deepest commitments was to the pro-life cause.

One of my favorite t-shirts was from the Rock for Life campaign, which read in big bold block letters, “ABORTION IS MURDER.”

Gosh, I loved that shirt.

But I remember being in a big crowd of strangers one day while wearing that shirt and I was suddenly struck by the thought, “What would my shirt communicate to a young woman who had already had an abortion? Would she feel loved? Would she feel safe? Would someone considering an abortion want to come to me for help?”

This was the first time I changed my mind about abortion.
I stopped wearing the shirt. Even if I still believed its message was true, the shirt just didn’t make sense to me anymore.

Then, in 2000, I entered college.

Like most kids entering the world of academic thought, issues of ethics and morality became much more nuanced and complicated. I began to think more philosophically and less moralistically. I learned parts of history that made me question my fundamental beliefs about my country, my church, and myself. I asked more questions than I knew answers.

At some point, I got more interested in the social implications of my faith. My theology became more robust and holistic. My heart was softened toward the poor. I was sensitized to women and children in crisis. My eyes were opened to a world of struggle that I’d never known, didn’t understand, and felt helpless to address.

This is the second time I changed my mind about abortion.
I decided I felt uncomfortable judging a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy when I had no idea what circumstances had led her to make that decision.

I wanted to be fair, I wanted to be generous. I wanted to leave space for outlying circumstances that, but by the grace of God, I could one day face myself.

But then I changed my mind again as my conception of “choice” and personal responsibility shifted.

Being raised in Evangelical culture, sex outside marriage had always been posited as an issue of personal morality and purity. Now, as a young adult pursuing long-term relationships, the rules of personal purity seemed much more nebulous because intimacy just seemed so natural. And, far beyond any questions of “should we be having sex,” I realized there was a lot I simply didn’t know or understand about how our bodies are made.

A friend (who had recently became Catholic) turned me on to some books about fertility and family planning. Unlike the fear-based abstinence training of my youth, these books taught that the natural cause and effect relationship between sex and procreation is a gift, not a liability. I also started to believe that sex, though it had other purposes and benefits, was fundamentally tied to fruitfulness and mutual commitment, not identity or personal enjoyment.

Suddenly the practicality of abstinence outside of a lifelong commitment was evident. As a woman, I realized that this was how I could exercise my fundamental right to choose. While sexual activity can be a source of empowerment, so can abstinence. I should not be having sex with anyone with whom I was not willing to also share a child since pregnancy is an eventual, natural consequence of a sexual relationship.

Sidebar: To some of my peers, the thought of abstaining completely because you aren’t ready for a baby might sound absurd because your beliefs about human sexuality are different than mine or because it’s impossible for you to imagine a life without sex.

But, lean in close and I’ll tell you a secret–

A sexless life will not kill you.

And if you just absolutely cannot bear a sexless life, a box of 10 condoms will set you back a whopping $7.99 and, even without insurance, most women can get birth control pills for less than $20 a month. (For women on Medicaid, it’s free.)

Do you want to exercise your right to choose? Choose one fewer latte a week, buy the pill instead, and you can have all the baby-free sex you want.

(It sounds snarky, but it’s true.)

My mind had been changed. All these “pro-choice” vs “pro-life” arguments seemed silly now once you first establish the fact that babies don’t get made by accident. There were a million ways to not get pregnant, including simply not having sex or being smart about how you did it.

And, before you say it, yes, I did ask myself–“But, what about rape? She didn’t have a choice!”

Well, that’s a great point and I’m going to get to that in a moment so please standby.* The story’s not over.

A few years later, my mind changed again.
This time it was about the issues of late-term abortion and “the life of the mother.”

Though abortions after 21 weeks’ gestation make up only about 1% of abortions, they seem to be used as a rally point for both those for and against all elective abortion. Both sides will tell you that late term abortions are horrifying procedures that no one would undergo unless it was absolutely necessary. But no one seems to agree about what constitutes a “necessity.” And that is where the medical term “abortion” gets manipulated and politicized, emotions get crazy, and it gets hard to see the truth.

So, a few years ago, I starting asking questions.

Who are these women who are having abortions after 20 weeks? Who are these babies? What kinds of scenarios lead them to these desperate measures?

This is what I found:

I found almost zero instances in my (admittedly imperfect, so I’m sure someone can prove me wrong) research when it was medically necessary for the sake of saving the mother’s life for an unborn child to be aborted (i.e. killed), rather than delivered through emergency induction or c-section.

Instead, it seems that the laws that exist to allow the termination of a pregnancy “to save the life of a mother” actually (rightly) exist to protect doctors and patients in an urgent, emergency situation where their patient (the mother) is in crisis and hard decisions have to be made about where to turn their attention. (Imagine a doctor telling the husband, “She’s losing blood! We need to do something!” and the husband yelling, “Doctor, just please save my wife!”)

This crisis scenario has always existed–because childbirth can be dangerous–but no one in their right mind would consider this scenario anything akin to an “elective abortion.” Yet, pro-abortion advocates continue to refer to this as just one more type of “abortion”–which is the clinical term for fetal demise–just to manipulate the political issue. (Same goes for the termination of ectopic pregnancies.)

On the other side of the issue, what I have found is many, many instances like these when second- or third-term unborn children are aborted because they either have a terminal illness that is deemed “incompatible with life” or because the parents have been advised that the child’s medical complications would be so severe that they are, basically, better off dead.

These are absolutely unimaginable scenarios, yet they happen all the time.

So, rather than going into the ethical dilemma, in particular, of when it might or might not be okay to terminate a late term pregnancy, let’s ask a different question for a second.

What makes some people decide to pursue a late-term abortion–which is difficult to secure and extremely expensive–and makes others, despite popular wisdom, carry their child to full-term and deliver a baby destined for difficulty or (sometimes immediate) death?

It might seem simplistic to call this out, but my experience tells me that religious faith has a lot to do with it.

Religious people believe in a Creator. They believe that life has purpose. They believe that the creator God ordains life and death. There is a moral imperative to let God be the one to determine the number of a child’s days.

And on a deeper level, people of faith have a philosophical and spiritual framework that provides comfort for their pain. And they bear the burden of infant loss, chronic illness, and special needs children differently because of it. Moreover, they have a community of faith to help bear the burden alongside them.

Now, there are certainly religious people who have terminated pregnancies, but there’s also a reason that most of the news stories we see about people electing to not terminate a difficult pregnancy are about people of faith. It’s a real thing. Radical faith makes you do seemingly “foolish” things.

But, wait. The “religious card” can be used the other way, right?

Aren’t religious people supposed to exercise mercy and kindness? If so, then why do so many religious people refuse to budge about abortion in circumstances like *rape? Or in situations where the mother is all alone? Or when she was pressured into a sexual relationship? Or when she already has children who she struggles to provide for?

These are reasonable questions, and ones that I’ve felt challenged by many times. After all, it seems very judicious to just say, as many of my peers do, “Well, I could certainly never do it, but I’m not willing to stop someone else from doing it.”

But this reasoning works if–and only if–you don’t believe that there is another life hanging in the balance.

Which is why I eventually changed my mind about the pro-life position.
I decided pro-lifers are not crazy. And I decided I might actually be one of them after all.

See, “to each his own” just doesn’t fly if you believe an unborn child is, in fact, a child–a child, regardless of their health; regardless of their future quality of life; regardless of the circumstances of their conception or their birth.

Yet, when it comes to an unborn child, we don’t often let ourselves simply acknowledge it as a “life.” That would make it too simple and we’d be forced to reckon with our responsibility to protect it.

Instead, we want to categorize the unborn as “potential life” which becomes a “real life” and then becomes a “viable life” with a certain “quality of life.”

We do this because it helps us negotiate our own complicated feelings and fears about the fragility of life. It puts something inherently un-tidy into tidy categories so we can feel better about it. In addition to unnecessarily complicating our positions about the unborn, it helps us dismiss the heartbreak of infertility, the pain of miscarriage, the trauma of stillbirth, and the burden of chronic illness by compartmentalizing them in “not quite living” things.

But the most staunch anti-abortion activists don’t do this with an unborn child. They believe that life is life. Life comes from God. And God does not discriminate or compartmentalize, so neither can we.

And this seems like a far more honorable position than the flippant “to each his own,” doesn’t it?

My experience also tells me that, far from being the woman-hating judgmental prigs that I’d been warned about associating with, many people who lean anti-abortion are actually pretty awesome. Many of them are healthcare providers. They are school teachers and social workers. Many of them actively serve the poor. Many of them volunteer in crisis pregnancy centers, at after-school programs for low-income kids, and donate many, many dollars to social service agencies that provide a safety net for vulnerable families.

And it turns out very few pro-lifers prescribe to a strict no-birth control policy. They aren’t anti-sex and they aren’t anti-sex education. (Many pro-lifers are supportive of comprehensive education about issues related to family planning and fertility.)

They are also super pro-adoption and many have adopted vulnerable children themselves, especially profoundly special-needs children.

I’ve seen my environmentalist friends speak with passion and disgust about using plastic garbage bags, about the evils of large game hunting in Africa, or starving polar bears in Alaska but, when faced with the possibility that abortion actually ends a human life, mum’s the word. It’s all “personal freedom” and “don’t tell me what to do with my body.”

But, if the numbers are true, even the conservative numbers, then we’re not talking about a couple thousands polar bears in Alaska, we’re talking about something like 900,000 abortions a year. (And close to 90% of them occur in the first 12 weeks, which means most of these pregnancies are not being terminated for the safety of the mother or the health of the child.)

That’s over 46,000,000 babies since 1970.

That’s 46 million children. Actual human children.

That’s a big deal. A really big deal. Which makes street protesters seem a little less crazy to me.

But where does that leave me?
It is time for me to pull out that “ABORTION IS MURDER” shirt and wear it to next week’s Planned Parenthood protest?

Probably not.
Because I believe that communication is just as much about the medium as the message and I’m not convinced the sidewalk protest is an effective medium.

So does this mean I vote for only pro-life candidates?

Not always.
Because it turns out that most “pro-life” politics in the year 2020 does not reflect a consistently pro-life position, nor the people who hold it. Not comprehensively, at least.

A consistently pro-life position honors the sanctity of life, the modern science of fertility and fetal development (which increasingly supports a pro-life position), and considers helping mothers navigate the realities of poverty, single-parenthood, healthcare woes, and adoption trauma (for mother and child).

When was the last time you saw a politician run on that kind of pro-life position?

Even within anti-abortion circles, people disagree about how to handle things like pregnancy from rape or incest, availability of birth control (and emergency contraception), or fatal health diagnoses. And, even in pro-abortion circles, most people still take serious issue with second- and third-term abortions and some would rather outlaw abortion entirely except in extreme cases. (Seriously, look at the statistics. We are not nearly as divided on these extreme cases as you might think.)

Popular media likes to place us all in dualistic categories of “anti-” or “pro-” abortion. And our politicians manipulate our fear of the uncomfortable nuance of the issue by forcing us to choose a camp. But this strict dualism doesn’t always exist in real life. Most of us know we don’t fit neatly into either political camp, but we also feel like we don’t have many options. We must either “side with the babies” and vote for pro-life candidates or “side with the women” and vote for pro-choice candidates.

So, does this mean I consider it all a loss and ignore abortion politics entirely because it’s such a cesspool?

Absolutely not. 
Because, deep down inside, I am still that 16 year-old evangelical, pro-life kid with the offensive t-shirt. It just took me twenty-some years to get back around to acknowledging it.

And elective abortions, while shrinking slightly in number, are still extremely prevalent. (Remember, 900,000 a year.) And we hear messages from celebrities and politicians all the time that any reasonable person would certainly believe abortion, for any reason, is somehow a basic human right and, ultimately, good for women.

And that’s a lie.

As a Christian, I believe that it’s necessary for us to obey the simplest of God’s commandments–including “Thou shalt not murder.” But I also have to obey the spirit of the Law of God, which demands I protect the vulnerable mother and child, as well.

Since neither political party, nor any one political candidate, corners the market on this consistent pro-life ethic, no one party or candidate has my loyalty these days. At least not in a comprehensive sense.

I allow myself the freedom to exercise discernment in who and what I support both as it relates to abortion, specifically, and women and children and families, in general.

Because a life worth saving doesn’t begin a birth.
But it doesn’t end there, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

**Why does this matter? Is the abortion debate really worth engagement?

I know publishing this means opening myself up to all sorts of criticism and negative feedback. I have many friends and acquaintances that disagree with me on the issue, some very deeply. And I do not look forward to the backlash from strangers, much less from people I love and respect. (Ideological conflict gets more and more stressful for me as I get older.)

But I also think that any issue with this much political import is worth honest and deliberate engagement, both independently and collectively. And since the issue is being debated in our current election cycle, I thought it might be helpful for some folks to know that it’s okay to reconsider your position. It’s good and healthy to walk through the discernment process and even, sometimes, change your mind about an issue. Sometimes you’ll end up on the other side.

Sometimes, like me, you’ll find you are right back where you started.

 

For further reading, a few resources I’ve found helpful:

Abortion by R. C. Sproul- Not an easy read, but it’s short and a great primer for a reformed Christian perspective on the issue.

Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward For a New Generation by Charles Camosy- A pastor and friend recommended this to me last week when I said I was writing this post. I’m only about 1/3 through but I can already tell it’s pretty representative of where I stand.

Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler- A comprehensive guide to women’s reproductive health. This should be required reading for every young woman.

The Art of Natural Family Planning by Kippley- I am not Catholic and I don’t use NFP, but I found the Catholic paradigm of fruitfulness mind-blowing after the very shallow theology of the body and sex I was given in Evangelical purity culture.

The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality by Luke Gilkerson- This is how I taught my kids “where babies come from.” It does not address abortion, but it sets a strong foundation for the relationships between marriage, sex, and procreation.

Abortion statistics from the Guttmacher Institute.

Abortion statistics interpreted through a pro-life lens from the nonprofit Abort 73.

Democrats for Life– the pro-life wing of the Democratic Party. I’m not a Democrat, but these folks have been super helpful for understanding the issue from a liberal perspective. They also publish and share some great legislative information and suggestions.

Feminists for Life– a progressive voice in the pro-life camp. I’m not a feminist, but I’ve found this perspective helpful. (Historically speaking, feminists advocating for abortion is a fairly new phenomenon.)

 

Rescuing My Kids’ Childhood From My Fear

My eleven year-old carries a pocket knife.

He cooks his own eggs. He rides a bike without a helmet. He hangs out on the front porch alone and digs through his dad’s woodworking tools without supervision.

After 11 years of parenting and four kids, I have never “baby-proofed” my home. No outlet covers, no table corner pads, no baby gates. No hiding the kitchen knives. No carrying hand sanitizer on my keychain.

We are a bumps and bruises, trial and error kind of family.

This sometimes gives people the impression that my husband and I are careless with our children or negligent. But the truth is that I welcome a healthy dose of vulnerability to danger in my home because I need to, not because I want to. In fact, I want none of this.

Sometimes it sounds like a dream to have quiet, calm, safe children who think nothing of setting fires in the backyard or being left home alone before they’re 16.

But “safe” is not what most children are. Nor what they should be.

Left to their own devices, children are small madmen, conjuring experiments and fairytales while dressed in their father’s work coat. They are con-artists. They are magicians. They are storytellers and thieves and tightrope walkers. They dream big and believe everything and sometimes really do think they could fly if they tried.

And the more alive they are in their child-ness, the more vulnerable to danger they become and the more their safety falls outside my control.

I want control.
I want power.

So none of this “free range kids” stuff feels good to me, at least not at first, because it is a daily reminder of the frailty of life and the powerlesness of parenting.

It doesn’t matter how smart and competent my kid is or how well my toddler can climb the stairs. The truth is: I cannot protect them from all the dangers of the world. I obviously know this. But every time they make a small mistake that leads to a small consequence–they cut their finger, they trip running down the sidewalk, etc.–it’s like a reminder that they may one day make a big mistake with a big consequence. And then the reality hits me that, one day, they might get hurt. Hurt bad. Or hurt someone else. (Or both.)

The anxiety can sometimes feel crippling.

I worry for my kids all the time. I worry about both rational and irrational things. I worry about them being bit by angry dogs, being abused by a friend, or getting stuck on an elevator alone.

House fires, flash floods, bee stings, hiking accidents, infectious diseases, accidental poisoning. I worry about all of it.

“Then put a lock on the medicine cabinet, you idiot!”

Right?
Maybe. But probably not.

(Don’t take it personally; It’s okay if you lock your medicine cabinet.)

The lengths to which we’ll go to protect our children vary at different times, at different ages, and with different kids. Hard and fast rules don’t apply to most of this stuff. Every parent has to exercise wisdom and weigh which risks are work the benefits of taking the risk and which are not.

But, trying to ensure the absolute safety of your child with more elbow pads or a larger carseat is an exercise in futility if you haven’t first done the hard work of accepting that your children live in a world that simply not safe.

Safety–as least so far as it depends on you–is a bit of an illusion. You can wash your kids’ hands a million times and they’ll still end up sick eventually.

We often exact our control over our children in immediate ways as a way of coping with our fears about all of the things that are possible and yet completely outside our control–things like being in the wrong place at the wrong time, needing the one thing missing from the first aid kit, a freak accident, or a random act of violence.

But, the irony of making our kids “safe” and under our control is that, in these kinds of unforeseen and scary scenarios, our children’s best chance of overcoming is to conjure that mad scientist to life. (The mad scientist that some of us killed long ago with our “Be careful!” and “Slow down!” and “Stop taking my garlic powder into the backyard!”)

Our kids need to have a survival instinct as they grow. They need to be able to think on their feet, to come up with creative solutions, and to be confident enough to actually try them. Most kids start with those gifts. We need to make sure they keep and develop them.

How do we do this?

Well, it has less to do with how long their carseat faces backwards and more to do with our posture toward them and their desire to exercise their freedom.

It means training ourselves to replace the words “be careful” with “think about what might happen if you do that.”

It means no longer insisting on doing for them the things they are capable of doing themselves, whether it’s packing their lunch or putting on their mittens or leading the way to the library.

It means no longer interpreting their confidence and independence as an assault on my authority.

It means cultivating strength into benevolent leadership, pride into confidence, and strong-will into tenacity.

It means teaching them the difference between being willing to take a risk and being reckless.

It means letting them experience the power of cause and effect.

It means giving them many opportunities to solve a problem on their own.

The specifics of how you do this with your kids will look different from mine because every kid is different. (And their natural ability to navigate danger will be different, too.)

Just start somewhere and let it grow from the ground up.

What’s the pay off? Well, they grow up. And it’s awesome.

Case in point:

Last Summer, when we were at the pool, my son took my keys and ran home to grab something we’d forgotten.

Meaning: I didn’t need to pack up the four kids and all of our crap and walk back home.

Often, I’ll send my kids down the road for a loaf of bread from the bakery.

Meaning: It doesn’t ruin soup night anymore if I forget the milk.

Lately, my daughter (who is 8), has been asking if she can go spend time at the coffeeshop alone. (“When you’re ten,” I told her. And I meant it.)

Meaning: My daughter feels confident and brave and is excited to exercise those gifts.

When my kids are in a really lousy mood, I send the three oldest for a run around the block.

Meaning: They get exercise and I don’t have to deal with them when they’re acting like monsters.

Recently, I was neck deep into cooking dinner when I realized I didn’t have any milk for the recipe. So, I gave my kids $5 (which I borrowed from my son who always has more cash than me because he’s like that) and sent them down the road for a carton of milk. They were $.50 short (organic milk, dang), so my son left his sister there with the milk and he hightailed it home for the two quarters he needed.

They both returned a few minutes later.

And it felt totally normal.

This freedom should be normal for kids. I know it has been a real game-changer for us.

And, suddenly, this free-range kid thing starts to make a lot more sense.

 

How To Lose Your Faith (but not really) and Get It Back Again (sorta)

Nineteen years ago, I walked onto campus as a college freshman.

I felt called to music ministry and was preparing to study worship. My guitar was tuned-up and in-hand. My tie-dye was on point.

I wanted to do something awesome for God and, man, I was 110% ready.

I was 17 years old.

I remember what I was wearing the first time I walked into my first class. I remember every word to the songs I played with my (awesome) roommate while other (not as awesome) girls gushed about boys. I remember the geese that chased students around the pond. I remember signing my name on the list for an interview for my first on-campus job. I remember the first time I met the girl who would become my best college friend.

All these early college memories have suddenly come back to me because, next month, I’m traveling back to my Alma mater to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of my degree program.

I’ve only been on campus two or three times since I graduated (in 2004) and going back has always elicited a wave of complicated emotions–from curiosity about what’s going on on campus these days to gratitude for the wonderful people I learned from and alongside while I was there and, always, a real mourning for all I lost in the the process.

I lost my faith at a Christian college.

(Well, not really. I don’t believe people of faith ever really lose their faith. But, I felt like I was losing it.)

It’s a really long story that I won’t recount here (though I’m always willing to share in real life if you’re so inclined to ask).

The short version of the story is this:

I walked onto campus knowing all the answers and I left knowing none.

There was no big moment of spiritual trauma, just a steady accumulation of small spiritual burdens.

It was like (spiritual) “death by a thousand cuts.”

First, it was an important relationship gone sour. Then, it was family problems. Later, it was personal struggles, interpersonal struggles, and disappointment with “church people.” I was confused about the Christian response to culture and politics (9/11 didn’t help). I was fed up with my peers who seemed oblivious to it all. Eventually, it was theological issues. (BIG theological issues.)

Yes, I was struggling with sin. But that wasn’t how it all started and it wasn’t the biggest problem.

The biggest problem was the constant dissonance between who I had believed God to be and what I had believed he’d promised compared to what came to be and what I saw play out in real life.

All the spiritual coping mechanisms I had available were suddenly insufficient to carry me through the complexities of our complicated and confusing world.

I was full of questions and was met with silence.

I struggled in private for a while. I read the Bible and I was urgent in my prayers. On a daily basis, I would go through the motions of school and ministry and then, late at night, cry out in desperation to a God who never answered in turn.

Eventually, I was just flat-out disappointed with God. I felt like he was not living up to his end of the bargain, his promise to answer when I called, to walk with me through the valley, and to give me peace.

I remember one particular moment when I showed up to a late night worship service that, for a year or two, I had enthusiastically led from the stage. I entered through the back door. I stood and closed my eyes and took in the music and the mood and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sing.

Honestly. I could not sing.

Nothing welled up inside me. I was not moved.

I felt nothing.

Late that night, I drove off campus to an empty parking lot in a forest preserve nearby (where I often went when I needed to get away), got out of my car, crawled down on the ground and wept like a baby.

I worried that I’d reached the point of no return, that it was the beginning of the end and my entire purpose and future and identity in Christ was gone.

It was only my junior year. I had to two more years to survive before graduation.

I slowly faded away.

I stopped saying “yes” to ministry opportunities because I knew I didn’t belong in ministry. I disengaged from deep connections with people at school and at home who I knew would challenge me. I didn’t want to have to lie about how I was doing and I worried that the truth wasn’t welcome. Besides, I felt like there was no answer anyone could give me that I hadn’t already considered and found wanting.

I didn’t ask for help and I didn’t really let anyone in.

Looking back I know that, if I had looked for help, I would have likely found plenty. But, in the depths of a “dark night of the soul,” the church can–ironically–feel hostile and Christians can be infuriating.

I can also see, looking back, that this deep, dark questioning didn’t begin in college. I’d struggled with depression and social anxiety in middle school and then, near the end of high school, I frequently emotionally isolated myself with heavy questions that felt too dangerous to speak out loud.

My college career didn’t totally crash and burn. I had great friends and I still really enjoyed my studies (when I could keep them in my head and out of my heart). There was hiking and bonfires and music. But, I avoided deep spiritual connection anywhere. I just couldn’t connect anymore even if I tried.

When I graduated, I was confused and felt spiritually vacant, but I hadn’t given up.

I knew I was not at the end of the road.
I knew that the fog would clear so long as I kept walking.

But how would I keep walking?

I kept walking because God granted me a million small, but significant, gifts in those most difficult years.

The first great gift was that I started dating a childhood friend who was experiencing a similar struggle and we became a refuge for each other for a time. (Our relationship is what brought me to Cincinnati.)

I also discovered life-giving books and music to speak to my experience. Without my own words to explain what was going on within me, I began to depend on the words of those who had gone before me. These writers became some of my greatest allies. They validated my experience and made me feel understood.

Eventually, I started writing. It was like therapy, a way to process and communicate. I poured my heart into my music. My songs became my prayers. And I shared them and people listened. And then I didn’t feel so alone.

I found a way to communicate to God through liturgy in an Anglican church. When my heart and mind were absent from worship, my body and voice were still present. I showed up (sometimes), even though I didn’t feel like it. I received the Eucharist like it mattered. (Because it did.)

Later, when I moved to Cincinnati, I found a Vineyard house church community with Anglican liturgy and monastic rhythms. These new friends welcomed me and didn’t ask too many questions.

These new “church people” let me smoke cigarettes on the front porch and speak freely over dinner. After a time, they asked me to help lead. And I trusted them. So, I did.

These were the things that kept me afloat and kept me hanging on to the promise that God would not abandon me.

 

 

It was about five years of silence, about two years in Cincinnati, before I heard God speak to me, really speak to me, again.

“I never left you.”

That was all he said.
But, man, it was everything.

 

 

It was about twelve years ago that pieces started to fall back in line for me.

I can’t tell you how it happened. It’s not like I “found my way back to God,” because Christ had never left me and I had not really walked away in the way I’d been told people “walk away from the faith.” But he began to resurrect parts of me that had been dead and silent.

It wasn’t like coming back; it was like coming back to life.

Slowly. Awkwardly. Over time. I felt like I could embrace my faith again. Rather than it casting a shadow on me that was impossible to ignore and impossible to explain, I was willing to call it “mine.”

You can probably guess that I never saw my dreams of Rock Star Worship Leader come to fruition. (And you’d better believe that I’ve thanked God a million times for sparing me from that dream-come-true.)

But what did happen? Where did I end up?

Well, I’m here in Cincinnati. I’m married to an awesome man and we have four awesome kids and life is good. By appearances, my story has come around full-circle and “I got everything I always wanted.”

But, not really.

I compare my faith to the relationship of a married couple who has experienced a separation and then reconciliation. They are still married, happily, but their marriage may never be the same. While there’s no bitterness, there are some deep scars.

After being stripped down and rebuilt again, my faith feels certain and strong and resilient, but different. I still have a lot of unanswered questions. And I don’t know that I’ll get the answers this side of eternity.

I’m learning to cling hard to what I know and be okay with what remains “unsettled.”

What about my dreams of ministry? Well, I really struggle with this one. I wonder often how many of those dreams I had when I was young and alive and on fire were from God and how many were only my own delusions of grandeur.

Among the things I’ve learned about my younger self, two big errors come to mind:

I believed that I was the hero of my faith story.
I thought that God’s will for me should bend to my own.

(I was wrong about both.)

Every time I feel the urge to step up into a place of leadership, I second-guess myself and my intentions. So, I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile my desire to serve the Church and my love for worship and music ministry with my new aversion to all types of “professional” Christianity.

(As you can expect, because I’m married to a bi-vocational pastor, this aversion to professional ministry can get a little complicated.)

For now, thankfully, I believe my primary ministry is mothering my children. So any other professional aspirations are taking a back seat at this point anyway.

For what it’s worth, I have learned to love the Church more than I ever did before, especially the messiest parts of it. And I’m still here. And I’m still showing up. And it’s less of a struggle–and more of a pleasure–every time I do.

I feel really awkward with Christians sometimes, like I don’t know where I fit, but God has given me a soft spot for his people. Especially those who are struggling hard, those who are on the fringes of the Church, those who are asking deep and scary questions about their faith, and (especially) those who can’t shake their skepticism but come around church anyway.

My experience tells me that every one of us is carrying some sort of deep burden, either a burden caused by their own sin or by the sin of another or by the sins of the world. Some people carry them all at once. (Lord, have mercy.) Christians do the world a severe disservice by pretending otherwise. And I have no interest in pretending.

To that end, one recurrent theme along my journey is discovering the beauty and necessity of lament. I’ve learned to stop theologizing the sadness away and let my sorrow–sorrow for my sin, for our broken world, for its injustices, for our imperfect condition–become an integral part of my worship and work. I have learned to embrace the need for justice and mercy, both for myself and for our world. And I’m working to embody it in my vocation and my relationships.

My hope is that my faith someday embodies the kind of incarnational ministry that extends the real, living, near, and active love, mercy, and justice of Jesus to a hurting world and helps make the Church a place of peace and companionship along the journey to restoration.

Other than that, I’m not sure what comes next…

…except for teaching 5th grade Latin, tending to a son who needs to potty-train, and avoiding my 15 year college class reunion.

Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part III: “Affordability” and The $400 Pool Pass

This is Part III of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

 

I’m going to tell you a story about The McEwan Family Summer of 2018 that’s not really about the Summer of 2018. It’s really about gentrification.

I hope it illustrates the dynamic between the idea of “affordability” and the reality of affordability and what it means for the average resident of a changing neighborhood.

(The story is going to seem really all-about-me so read quickly until you get to the point.)

The story basically goes like this:

Last summer was amazing.

Last summer was amazing because the kids and I spent two or three glorious mornings a week at the neighborhood pool a few blocks away.

The pool is new and fun and convenient. We brought picnic lunches and ate $.50 popsicles. We made friends and my girls learned to swim (and I got more tanned than I’ve ever been in my life).

My kids still proudly wear their Rhinos swim team shirts on the regular. They display their race ribbons on their bedroom wall. And I’m told my daughter still makes frequent appearances in their promo video on Fountain Square.

The McEwan Family Summer of 2018 was, basically, The Summer Of Our Lives.

But, you see, going to the pool costs money.

We didn’t buy a pool pass the first year the pool opened and then we almost didn’t buy a pool pass last summer because it was too expensive. I just couldn’t justify spending so much money on a luxury like a pool pass.

But then, on a whim, I did something crazy. I emailed someone at 3CDC, who manages the pool, about the cost.

In my email, I gave a pretty detailed diatribe about how, basically, their income-based discounts were using faulty data.

I wrote about the rising (and inflated) cost of living in our zip code, the Average Median Income for a family in our area, The Economic Policy Institute’s cost of living estimates, and provided links to plenty of online data sets and information.

I told her that, all these things considered, they should change their scale and they should give me a discount.
So they gave me a discount.
Mostly (probably) to shut me up.

(Never go in against an INTJ on something like this. Trust me on that.)

So, thanks to 3CDC and my mother in-law (who ended up buying us the pass), we had an amazing summer.

Fast forward to 2019.

I was anxious to see how 3CDC would handle pool pass fees this year. Would they diversify the sliding scale to accommodate more income situations? Would they instate a resident discount for those living in the immediate area surrounding the pool?

Well, it turns out they did change one thing: they made it more expensive for larger families.

The market rate pool pass that was $310 last year (if I remember correctly) is now $395.

Okay, I get it.
I understand that my family of 6 takes up more space at the pool than a family of 3. And I understand that it’s expensive to operate such an awesome pool. But my critique from last year still stands–whatever numbers they are using to measure “affordability” are inaccurate and totally out of touch.

Basically: it’s ridiculous to put a family of 6 living off of $60k a year in the same income bracket as a single person living off of $60k and offer them the same percentage discount. No real income based scales work this way.

Here’s the thing about a $400 summer pool pass: most moderate income people don’t really have a $100 “fun budget” every month to spend at the pool and most certainly don’t have $400 just sitting in the bank to spend on a luxury item like a pool pass. In a working class family, every penny is budgeted and any extra income goes to things like a birthday present, socks and underwear for the growing 7 year-old, or a new pair of glasses for Mom.

These are what I call Average People.

They are people living somewhere between 50-100% of Average Median Income. They may have a few of the cultural markers of the middle-class like a college education or owning their own home, but they are closer to what we usually consider “working-class” than “middle-class” in their economic stability and flexible budget.

(For reference: in 2018, the AMI for the Cincinnati metro area was $78,300 for a family of four. And I found this article helpful in articulating the difference between what we usually call “middle-class” and “working-class.”)

The last statistic I found online estimated that 35-55% of the population falls loosely into this working-class income bracket. These are teachers, administrative professionals, lower- and mid-level professionals. They are also the people who own our favorite restaurants, repair our windows, tune up our vehicles, pastor our churches, and fix our favorite pair of boots when the heel is busted.

Personally speaking, I feel like I don’t really have a lot of room to complain. (In fact, you’re probably thinking: stop complaining.) I know we’ve made decisions as a family that have plopped us in this Average People income bracket–working in the nonprofit sector, living off of one primary income, etc. (Though I could argue that our decisions are good decisions that actually benefit the world, but whatever…)

I know that even having the option of living with less income is a huge privilege.

So then why do I even mention it? What does this have to do with gentrification?

At the risk of sounding like an entitled yuppie, I bring up the $400 pool pass because it illustrates one of the effects of gentrification that doesn’t get a lot of air play–the “missing middle.”

As an urban community gentrifies, this is the demographic lost in the shuffle.

This is how I’ve witnessed it happen:

Big money (or government money or both) rolls in and starts to develop a community at the whims of (future) high-income residents. The conversation turns to “affordability.” In the conversation about affordability, developers pay huge lip service to protecting the affordability of the community for its most vulnerable residents–i.e. those who are low-income and/or living in government subsidized housing. The community is developed as planned, with pockets of lovely, new, high-cost housing and just enough low-income housing intact to keep people from complaining too much. But Average People are priced out of both housing and amenities. Their cost of living is not subsidized, yet they cannot afford market rate.

This “missing middle” isn’t a new thing. It was set into motion back in the middle 1900’s when “urban renewal” campaigns demolished entire city blocks of workforce housing in the name of revitalization.

The houses they destroyed by the dozens (hundreds?) were the kinds of homes where (if they still existed) people like me would be living today. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; many upwardly-mobile people didn’t want to live in the city anyway. The American Dream was pulling (mostly white) middle-class people away from dense, urban areas to the promise of clean comfort and stability (and a garage to store your new lawnmower!) in new residential neighborhoods.

Now that people are (again) interested in the convenience and charm of traditional urban design, many would rather trade the ticky-tacky suburbs for older neighborhoods. But, not only has the economy changed and it’s hard to find a truly affordable place to live in a desirable neighborhood, it’s hard to afford the cost of living once you’re here.

Case in point: the $400 pool pass.

(I’ve written before about the plight of lower-middle class families and affordable housing in OTR. Check it out here.)

As for me, the higher cost of living in the city is something I’ve reconciled. There are things about our neighborhood–like a parking pass or a pool pass or a $35 entree–that are harder on our budget and that’s okay. There are trade-offs to urban living that save us money in other ways like lower transportation and yard maintenance costs (plus I’m a stay-at-home mom so I have minimal childcare costs).

But I do wish things were different not only for me, but for every other middle-income family who wants to live here now or in the future. And I wish moving out of the neighborhood wasn’t my only option for moving someday.

I wish that someone somewhere who holds the multi-million dollar development contracts was looking out for the Average Person, making sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle, forced to live where the proverbial neighborhood pool doesn’t costs as much.

Because ours is a pretty sweet pool.

So where does that leave me? Well, when the time comes to make our plans for the summer, I’ll try to find a way to pay for the dang pool pass because my kids had the Summer Of Their Lives in 2018 and 2019 must not disappoint.

And, 3CDC, if you’re reading this, I love your pool.
I’m so very thankful you built it for us.

But you need to hire a better statistician.

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis
My $13 Box of Macarons

 

Stay tuned!

 

When Your Kids Miss Out (and it’s your fault)

I have a friend whose kids don’t eat refined sugar.
I have another whose kids aren’t allowed to play with toy guns.
A different friend always gets her kids to bed by 7:30pm, no exceptions.

Every family has a culture and part of what makes their culture distinct is the lines they draw between what they will and will not do, regardless of what other families decide.

Speaking personally, our family draws a lot of lines.

We aren’t into Disney.
My girls don’t have Barbies.
My son doesn’t play baseball on Sundays.
We don’t have a tv or play video games.
We also don’t celebrate Halloween. (And that’s what got me thinking about this today.)

The Fear of Missing Out does not go away when you leave adolescence. It’s not something you grow out of when you get married or turn 35 or buy your first home. I still feel it. I feel it for myself and I most definitely feel it for my children.

I want my kids to have friends, to be a part of the fun. I want them to look back on their childhood and remember it being full of joy and laughter and friendship. I don’t want them to be the weirdos that no one invites over anymore because they’ve never played Minecraft.

But what do you do, then, if your personal conviction about something that “all the other kids get to do” means your kids have to miss out? Is it destined to make your kids resentful and painfully socially awkward, or can this become an opportunity for growth and character development? Can “missing out” actually be a blessing?

First of all, remind yourself that kids are resilient and will survive a little social exclusion. Give them lots of attachment and security at home and among trusted friends and family. They’ll be okay.

Also, think about the future and remember that what you do now, when your children are young, sets the stage for the years to come. Your expectations for them and their expectations of you will follow you well past their early childhood. Reinforce now that a) popular opinion is not always the right opinion, b) it’s alright to be different and live by different rules, and c) it’s a sign of maturity to be able to graciously say “No, thank you,” and walk away.

You do not want a teenager who expects to always be allowed to do whatever everyone else is doing. If your children are capable of bending your convictions now, when they are 6 and cry about not going to Lucy’s sleepover that “every other first grade girl is going to,” then good luck influencing their discernment when they’re 15 or 16 and all the same kids (and their boyfriends) are going to Lucy’s parents lake house for the weekend.

Then, think more proactively. When you think about your hopes and dreams for your kids, think bigger than your few small lines in the sand. Don’t feel like having a family rule about a few things means you have to be strict about everything. A family’s culture is more than their “don’ts.” If you can focus more—and help your kids focus more—on the things you do, then the kids won’t care as much about Mom not letting them buy a Barbie.

When I was a kid, my brother and I had some friends around the corner who were homeschooled. Their family culture was so very different from ours and they could have been perceived as socially-awkward by the “average” family. But that friend once (recently) joked that he had always loved coming to our house because we could watch a lot of tv and movies, but my brother loved his house because his dad did stuff like freeze their backyard into an ice rink in the winter.

The point is: you don’t have to give your kids everything. Just give them what you have to give. And give them the best of it. If you have a hang-up about sugar or nerf or witch costumes, offer your kids something else instead. Something good. Something they will love.

My kids don’t get to play video games or watch Frozen, but they do get to climb trees and use real knives and build fires and write songs and visit museums and ride the streetcar around downtown for fun.

Sure, its a different life I’m offering them. But it’s a good life. And they aren’t truly missing out on much. (Say that over and over to yourself if you need to.)

Remember, too, that feelings of “missing out” can be an opportunity to shape your kids hearts toward empathy for others.

Exercise your children’s sensitivity toward other kids who may be excluded and cultivate a variety of skills and interests in them so they can find a way to have fun with anyone. Then, teach your kids to encourage other children toward obedience of their family’s rules. Model for them what it looks like to consider others before themselves and to respect another’s conscience. And never tolerate them mocking or shaming another child for obeying their parents or not doing something that makes them uncomfortable or uneasy. (Big kids are notorious for this sort of “OMG, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BLAH BLAH BLAH…”)

At the end of the day, remember to put things into perspective. It’s not really about Barbies or baseball or trick or treating. In fact, you might change your mind about these things as time goes by. Worry more about who your children are becoming than what they’re wearing or what games they’re playing and the specifics will work themselves out. As refined as it may become, your list of “yeses” and “nos” won’t matter at all if your children never learn to discern right from wrong. They’ll eventually need to be the ones drawing the line in the sand for themselves. This is just the groundwork.

So, parents, don’t apologize for saying “no” to your kids. Even though it might mean they miss out on something with their peers. And don’t worry that their social status at 9 is going to follow them into eternity and they’ll never have any friends or get married or find a job. They’ll be fine. You’re doing great.

(Repeat, if necessary.) “They’ll be fine. I’m doing great.”

Every family is different and lives by different rules. It’s alright to be a little peculiar. If you play your cards right, your kids will grow into discerning adults who are able to glean the best from what you gave them and make the rest into some awesome stories to tell around the dinner table.

”You think that’s weird? When I was a kid…”

 

 

 

 

Dating Advice for a New World

Almost 13 years ago, I met my husband and officially stepped out of the dating game. It’s a good thing, too, because I was never very good at dating.

I have always really enjoyed socializing with men, but found intentional dating emotionally confusing and frustrating. I have never been good at communicating my feelings. I have always been awkward in intimate situations, emotional or otherwise. And I have never been particularly interested in the game of “attraction.” In fact I think that, were I ever left a widow, I’ll probably die single. I’m not sure you could pay me enough to jump back in that game.

Some of my friends don’t have the luxury of sitting back and thanking God the dating game is over for them. Some of you are still in the thick of it and, from what I hear and observe, it’s a very frustrating time to be in the thick of it. The world of dating in 2018 seems a lot more complicated than it did 15 years ago.

From my vantage point:
Young people seem far too emotionally immature and over-sexualized. Older people seem far too casual in their long-term, unmarried monogamy. Everybody’s got baggage. Everybody’s been married before or has kids already.

Add to these complications the recent “woke-ness” of our culture about issues of sexual harassment and assault which, for all the ways it has empowered victims, has also created a debilitating kind of social anxiety about relationships between men and women. I would imagine that people everywhere–men, especially–just don’t know anymore what is and is not permissible in casual relationships, and what, exactly, constitutes “expressed consent” in intimate relationships.

The nuanced dance of flirting and the thrill of the pursuit is over, my friends. Things went and got complicated.

Where does that leave us (you)? Well, I said I was no good at dating. But I did date. And I watched my friends date. And I’m watching my friends date now. And I have four children who will, one day, want to date.

So whether you’re trying to find a mate or trying to be found–or if you’re my child reading this in 10 years–I have a few suggestions for how to survive this complicated (new) world of dating without losing your mind.

Learn to date without expectations for intimacy.

I think it’s time to reintroduce casual dating to the world, especially to the Church. And by “casual,” I mean truly casual–not casual in public and intimate in private. I mean something like meeting up for a concert or for a cup of coffee or inviting a friend to a work event as your date. I mean two adult people spending one-on-one time alone doing normal things that normal adults do to keep each other company and to interact in the real world together and to have conversations like normal people do so they can get to know each other better.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to casually date more than one person, at least for a short time. But casual things don’t usually last forever and it takes a lot of maturity to know when it’s time to either move on or ramp up the intentionality of the relationship. This will happen naturally if you get more interested in one person than the other(s), but it might need a little help. This is where being an effective communicator comes into play.

Learn how to express intentions.

Communicating feelings and intentions is hard, at least for me. But there comes a point at which both people in the relationship will start to wonder “what’s actually going on here,” and somebody needs to take the first step to define things. Especially if you’ve introduced any physical intimacy.

My husband and I spent hours upon hours together for six months before we ever actually touched or had a defining conversation about our relationship. We talked about everything in heaven and on earth except our actual relationship. And it was confusing and it did seem like it took forever to have that conversation and I did cry and pray over our relationship many times during those six months. But I’m so glad I didn’t force the conversation because if I had, he probably wouldn’t have been ready.

Neither my husband nor I were interested in diving into a long-term relationship that didn’t end in marriage. We had both been there before and walked away heartbroken and wanted to avoid going there again. We used the term “courting” to define the next stage in our relationship because we had a goal in mind–marriage–and we fully intended to walk away if, at any point, marriage wasn’t going to happen. It was a decision to dive in and pursue something other than just a good time together.

I can’t tell you how long it should take to go from “we’re more than friends” to “let’s get married.” It took just over a year for us. And it was an intense year with a lot of hard questions and hard conversations and a time or two when I honestly thought it was all over and he was walking away. It may take you six months or it may take two years. (But I think it’s safe to say that if it takes five years, you’re probably doing something wrong or you’re doing it with the wrong person.)

Learn how to walk away.

If things aren’t working, it’s okay to walk away.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, for most married people, there was another person before their spouse, someone that they were head over heels for or someone who they thought was The One. Learning to walk away from a good thing, when you know it’s not the right or best thing, is harder than hard. It’s heart-breaking. But when the irreconcilable differences are big enough to cause recurrent problems or when, at the end of the day, you’re really just not that into each other, it’s okay to walk away. It can be done graciously and without irreparable emotional damage, especially if you learn to do this before jumping into bed together or tagging along on the family vacation to Jamaica. Again, honest (and kind) communication works wonders for this sort of thing.

Pursue marriage.

I don’t believe in the Perfect Mate myth, so I am comfortable encouraging people to date for fun and to get to know each other before becoming exclusive. But I also believe that long-term non-married monogamy is a lame substitution for marriage.

Marriage is good. It’s good for you and your spouse, good for children, good for the world, good for the economy, etc. Marriage is a good relationship goal. And if you spend your first fifteen adult years screwing around for fun, sowing your wild oats instead of looking for a good wife or husband, finding a good wife or husband will be much harder and your eventual marriage will be harder, too.

Pro tip: Our world is increasingly more okay with shunning the institutions of marriage and parenthood. So if you know, for a fact, that you want to be married and have children, don’t be afraid to say so when you meet someone you’re interested in. Don’t be weird about it and make it a big deal. And don’t show him your dream wedding dress or anything bonkers like that. But mention it when it comes up if it comes up. If they go running, bid them good riddance.

Expect sexual brokenness.

Let’s be honest, friends. We live in a broken world. There is a high likelihood that the person you date and/or end up marrying will have some sort of emotional or physical baggage about sex. Either they’ve been abused or have been an abuser. Maybe they have had a lot of sexual partners or are afraid to have one. They may have been happily married before and you may feel insecure about their expectations. They may be addicted to sex or porn or you may be addicted to sex or porn.

Screw the taboos. Maybe don’t discuss your sexual history on Day 1. But, when things get serious, get serious about being honest. Your future spouse deserves to know your whole story, even if the details or the depth of the effects takes time to unravel. Sexual brokenness can heal and marriages can thrive amidst the brokenness, but not so long as there are secrets and unaddressed fears or insecurities. A healthy sex life requires openness, vulnerability, and trust. Don’t wait until after you’re married to tell it like it is.

Limit your alcohol and be wary of being alone.

This bit of advice, especially, will be a constant refrain spoken to my children.

First, I’ll say this now so you know I said it: sexual assault is never justified. It is not okay. A victim is never to blame.

Now, let’s also be honest about what environments make sexual assault–or uncomfortable relationship scenarios of any kind–more likely. My guess is that many assault situations involve a) drugs or alcohol and/or b) being alone in a compromising situation.

I can’t tell you what to do, but my advice to my children will be straight-forward:
Do not drink alcohol in mixed company, with a group of people you don’t know and trust. Do not spend time alone, in private places, with someone you do not know and desire intimacy with–especially with alcohol involved. Do not push the limits of sexual desire and self-control with someone you do not know and trust, especially if he/she seems more or less interested than you do. If you don’t know what someone wants or is really asking for, ask them. And do not hesitate to call me or your father or any other trustworthy person within reach if or when you feel vulnerable and need help.

Yes, assault and abuse can absolutely happen in marriages or in friendships, at the hands of people you trust. But I think this “don’t drink / don’t be alone” advice is a good start and could save a lot of people from unnecessary baggage later on in life and relationships.

But, really, my best piece of dating advice is this:

You’re great.

Lots of people think you’re great.

But not everyone is going to want to date you or marry you and that’s okay.

Marriage is awesome and I recommend it and I think everyone should do it. BUT. Marriage is not the end goal of life and it’s not a sign of success. You can be a million awesome things without being married.

So, while you wait or while you look for a mate, find good work that makes those around you and your world better. Surround yourself with people who support you and whose love for you makes you an even better you. Do the hard work now of becoming the kind of person you’d like to marry. And then even if you never end up married, you’re still super awesome and have amazing friends and have made the world a better place to boot.

And, lastly, marriage is 10% magic and 90% doing the dishes and “Honey, can you bring me a roll of toilet paper?” So, when you meet someone who’s a good catch, don’t wait for the magical moment to ask them to hang out. Even if you’re already friends and it might be awkward. Even if they aren’t really your type or you’re afraid you might not be theirs.

Maybe grab a coffee. Maybe go for a walk.
And maybe skip the cocktails until a few months in.

Godspeed. (I think you’ll need it.)

So The Hurricane Got Me Thinking…

Some people like haunted houses; I like to prepare for emergency evacuations. (To each his own, I guess?)

I’ve written before here and here about disaster preparedness. What began as a coping mechanism for some of my chronic anxiety became a bit of a hobby for a while. And though I’m not stockpiling rice and beans at this point, I still enjoy the act of emergency preparation.

Right now, our government is issuing evacuation orders for residents along the Southeast coast. People are weighing the options of whether or not it’s worth the fuss to evacuate, whether or not they can afford to leave, where they could possibly go, and what they should take with them.

I’ll probably never need to evacuate my home. I know that. But I’ve read too much apocalyptic fiction to not at least entertain the idea. Plus, emergencies really do happen, especially extreme weather. So whether it’s a snow storm that could mean no milk on the grocery shelves for three days or a novel-worthy economic collapse, it doesn’t hurt to visit the issue as a family and do some basic preparations “just in case.”

First of all, it should be said that there are emergency situations wherein the best plan is to stay put. Preppers call this “bugging in” and the government calls this “sheltering in place.” Most of us have done this at some point in our lives for a few hours or overnight during a snow storm or power outage. And, unless you’re talking about a mass-damage scenario like a city-leveling earthquake or a hurricane, it’s probably short-term. As long as you can keep yourselves warm and fed for three days, you’ll be quite alright. (Long-term survival gets a bit trickier. I’m not going to get into that right now.)

But what if you can’t stay home? Or if you’re forced to leave? I have three bits of advice for those interested in better preparing their family for an evacuation or other emergency scenario.

Have your things in order.

A few years ago, I created a comprehensive Emergency Binder for our family and I (try to) update the info once or twice a year. The binder includes current family photos of us as well as close extended family (for identification purposes), plus personal and legal information, medical information, home and mortgage info, financial info, details about and photos of valuable personal items for replacement, etc. It is stored in a safe place (I ain’t telling where) with other things I’d like to grab in an emergency like hard drive backups of our computer and family photos, hard copies of important documents, etc.

I also keep track of where important keepsake items are so we can take them with us if we needed to. As of now, this stuff is not accessible enough to take within minutes, but definitely within a few hours. On my list of home projects is consolidating some of my most precious keepsakes and heirlooms into one single bin for this reason.

Know what to bring.

Because my family is into the outdoors and camping, we have a lot of the kind of gear that could keep us alive in an emergency and I keep it all together and organized. This means that tents and sleeping bags and camping stoves are all clean and tidy and packed in an easy-to-find place so I can take what I need when I need it. There is one particular small (water resistant) plastic bin with things like our walkie-talkies, emergency weather radio, extra flashlights, batteries, are fire-making tools. (Most of this stuff would be more likely used for bugging in, not evacuating.)

But, on the same big shelf as our gear are both A) emergency bags for each person in our family for a quick evacuation and B) emergency bins for longer-term evacuation.

These emergency bags–“72-hour packs” or “bug out bags” if you’re into the lingo–are backpacks packed with basic comfort and survival gear, enough to last a few days. This is the sort of thing you’d grab in a super urgent situation like a home fire or any other “Quick, we need to leave now!” scenario. Everyone I’ve seen online has a little different spin to their bags but ours each include both survival gear (like water, snacks, a pocket knife, headlamp, safety whistle, poncho, emergency blanket, first aid, etc.) and comfort items (like a sweater, socks and underwear, a toy and/or book, toiletries, etc.). Every family member also has a laminated emergency info card with important names, phone numbers, addresses, etc. Our toddler has a few cloth diapers and covers (because they can be washed and reused unlike disposable diapers).

Yes, these emergency bags would save our lives if the situation was that severe. But, in most situations, these bags would simply provide a little bit of comfort and security for our kids if they were suddenly separated from home. (The emergency info cards, for example, also include a few family photos.)

The emergency bins are just packed with our normal camping gear like flashlights, cooking tools, etc., but also include extra items like a change of clothes for each person, extra non-perishable food and snacks, water filtration, and comfort items like books and comfy blankets. These bins build on what’s already in the emergency bags and the intent is to always have everything packed and ready to grab so that, if we ever decided to load up the car and leave town in a rush, we could just throw on our backpacks, grab the bins, and have everything that we need.

What we bring depends on the situation and urgency so I’ve made myself a checklist to take out the guess work. It starts with “Immediate Evacuation” and expands into a larger list for a 30 minute evacuation, a one hour evacuation, and an impending evacuation. It is laminated and I keep a copy next to my bed on the third floor, on the fridge on the second floor, and also on the first floor. As the list gets larger, things are organized first by the things the kids can do themselves (put on socks and sturdy shoes, grab a favorite stuffed animal, etc.) and then by the levels of our home so I know what to grab from each floor of the house as we head toward the door. (Every family’s list will be different but I can share one to get you started.)

Know where you’re going.

Depending on how long we need to stay and how far we need to travel, we have a few options of where to go. I’ve made it a point to know how to get to places like my mother in-law’s house (a likely place for nearby relocation), using multiple routes, without using a phone for directions. I even know the best walking routes if things got really bonkers and we had to load up our strollers and travel on foot somewhere (roads were blocked, etc.). Part of our emergency binder includes contact information for family in other parts of the country for longer-term relocation. (And, Lord helps us, if we had to walk across Indiana to find my brother in Michigan, we could do it. Ha!)

If walking across the country like The Road seems overwhelming, start realistically. Print out copies of phone numbers and addresses so you aren’t crippled if you lose or can’t use your phone. Keep a decent amount of gas in your car, buy a road atlas, and know how to use a compass. Also: make sure your car always has basic emergency supplies like first aid, a blanket, and snacks (which is a good idea even if there’s never a large-scale emergency). Then, no matter where you are when there’s an emergency, you can just continue on to your destination.

 

But, really, what are the chances of needing to enact your emergency plan? It really depends where you live. Are you in flood or hurricane zone? Tornado alley? Near a fault line? Is your home vulnerable to forest fires? Do you need to be prepared for civil unrest?

And what you prepare really depends on your family makeup. Elderly, children, and pets all have particular needs. When my babies were really young, for example, I always kept a can of baby formula in the house because, even if I was exclusively breastfeeding, there was always a chance I’d be separated from my baby in an emergency. The formula samples came free in the mail. It cost me nothing.

Maybe this sounds expensive or overwhelming. Well, it doesn’t need to be. The best way to start is to start small with things you already have in the house and building up from there. Designate a single closet or shelf or drawer for emergency supplies you may need at any time. Find a few old backpacks to pack as evacuation bags and replace them with nicer bags when/if you can. Keep a little extra cash in an envelope to use if computers are down or banks are closed or you need to pay someone for a favor. Organize any camping or survival gear so it can be accessed quickly when needed, rather than pulled out from a crawlspace somewhere.

If you have kids, introduce the idea of preparedness in ways that are realistic and non-threatening. Let them pull out their emergency bags and bins and see what’s inside, but let them know they are not for play (because they need to stay intact). Let them help you trade out the clothes every year when they outgrow them. They’ll be happy to eat the snacks every six months when you replace them with fresh ones. If they are old enough to follow directions, prepare them for the possibility that you may need their help if there is ever an emergency, even if it’s just to watch the baby while you pack the car.

You don’t need to go all out Prepper to feel prepared for an emergency or natural disaster. Just think more realistically about how chaotic things can get as emergency situations roll out and how quickly you may need to get your act together. Do the work of preparing now so that, if you need to, you can just grab the bags and go.

 

(P.S. This is not comprehensive information. Our government, The American Red Cross, etc. all have great info online about how to prepare for an emergency. Just google it. You’ll find all sorts of wise and wack-o advice. Heck, you might even learn how to build your own underground bunker or properly filter urine for drinking. It’s a wild prepper world out there, folks.)

 

The Dangers of Mega-church, Mini-church, and Everything In-between

“Did you hear about what’s happening at Willow Creek?”

Sure. Yep. I did.

And a wise friend suggested that armchair theologians such myself allow the smoke to clear before making Willow Creek this week’s object lesson.

Is the smoke clear yet?

Truthfully though, this post isn’t really about Willow Creek Community Church. And that’s a good thing because some of you who read my blog a) have no idea what I’m talking about and b) have no interest in church-y things in the first place.

And I want to be clear that if you’re my friend and you are a part of Willow or have been a part of Willow or are really into some other Willow-like mega-church somewhere else, this post isn’t written to shame you or poke fun at you or your church.

I remember attending a concert sometime around middle school and, afterwards, the Willow youth worship team got on stage and performed “Not An Addict” by K’s Choice and then preached the Gospel to a crowd of a couple thousand church kids and their friends. That was my first exposure to Willow Creek Community Church and I thought it was super, super cool.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in the Chicago area when Willow Creek was rewriting the church life and evangelism rule book. Looking back, I can see how my childhood church and the other in-the-know churches in the Chicago region caught on and adopted some of the same seeker-sensitive methods of church growth. I remember studying Willow and their church model in college when studying the Christian theology of worship. And now, more than 20 years after my first Willow experience, I still see the ripples all over the American church, here in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

Let me tell you what I love about mega-churches.

I love that they said “screw it” to the sacred/secular divide in pop culture and welcomed all sorts of people and art and music and expressions into their worship. (K’s Choice, what!?)

I love that they design church buildings to be used around the clock for community events, meetings, support groups, etc.

I love that they have so many people and so many resources that they can accomplish big, crazy, audacious things in their communities and around the world.

I love that they take chances and dream big.

I love that they made it okay to bring coffee into the sanctuary. (Thank you from the bottom of my heart.)

But it will come as no surprise to people who know me that I, fundamentally, have a real big problem with mega-churches. And as this Willow Creek thing (and the Windsor Village thing and the Yoido Full Gospel Church thing and the Mars Hill thing and the New Life Church thing before it…) comes into focus, my problem with mega-churches only gets bigger.

See, every time a Once-Adored Famous Christian Leader-Guy gets himself wrapped up in a scandal, everyone wants to make it about this guy or that guy and their super-personal sin problem. “He was a creep,” they say. “That church failed.” Yet, an honest assessment of (what seems like) the high rate of serious moral failure among mega-church pastors should beg some deeper questions about the systems (i.e. churches) that give these men their platform and support their careers and whether there might be some problems lurking therein.

Is it possible that the mega-church model spells trouble for pastors and, thereby, trouble for the Church?

“Hey! That’s not fair!” you might say. “I’ve seen plenty of sex/money/power scandals among small church pastors, too!”

Yes! Absolutely! Churches of every size and system have their own blindspots and vulnerabilities and so they will all lend themselves to different, common problems. That’s why this blog is about “mega-churches, mini-churches, and everything in-between.” I could write about problems common in house churches, in urban churches, in suburban churches, in liberal churches, in third-wave Pentecostal churches…. (you get the point). Trust me, I’m really good at pointing out the problems in church! (It’s something I’m trying to use for good…)

For the sake of this post, the “dangers” I’m addressing are common to churches that employ the mega-church model of church growth. But not all mega-churches are the same and the Willow Creek church model is used in varying degrees, in churches of all sizes. So your church might fit the bill and it might not.

My suggestion here–the reason I’m writing–is that there are questions to ask when considering what makes a church vulnerable to a large-scale moral failure or the abuse of power among its leader(s). Asking these questions could expose the weak places that, together, create the Titanic-sized disaster of a super-famous pastor with lots of power and influence over thousands of people, with little accountability from trusted advisors.

  • Is it built on a consumer model of church membership and worship? Is the focus always to attract, attract, attract, rather than retain and engage active members? Is there a high turnover of attendees that only come for the parts they like and the programs they enjoy? Do people show up, regularly, only to see or hear the famous pastor or worship leader? Are there “members” who never actually step foot in the church building for worship but regularly consume the music or messages on TV yet still call it “their church?”
  • How faithfully is the Gospel preached, on a regular basis, to all in attendance? Does the church often “hide the lead” behind a bunch of worldly, feel-good, generally spiritual messaging? Is the name of Jesus proclaimed as primary or does it take a while to hear the real message? Is the Bible opened and read from the pulpit?
  • Is there an imbalance of giving/taking? How many of the congregants are actively serving in or giving to the church? How many long-time attendees have become covenanted members? What is the volunteer rate?
  • What is the in-group/out-group ratio? How deep must someone dig into the church to feel like they’re really a part of the community, in fellowship and discipleship with one another? Do many regular attendees still feel anonymous? How many names do the elders/pastors know on any given Sunday?
  • How well distributed is the power/influence? Is there one leader with a small, exclusive group of consultants calling all the shots, or is there a larger, diverse governing body?
  • How many “adequate” men and women are serving in the church? Is there a competent spiritual leader available to disciple and mentor all active members? Are leaders replicating their leadership to provide deep spiritual care among all members, or is spiritual care only available in a shallow, general sense?
  • Is every congregation at every location led by a team of elders who are equipped to teach and disciple? Is there a complete leadership team present among every worshiping body or are there “satellite campuses” without a resident teaching pastor or no proper, particular spiritual authority? Is every new church campus working toward viability apart from the central leadership?
  • Who can say “no” to the leader(s)? Are there systems of accountability for the men in charge? What happens to peers or members who question their authority? What happens when concerns are raised?
  • Is there a “trademark” culture of the church? Do they cooperate well with other churches and their community or do they insist on doing only their own programs with their own names and in their own way? Are they a good partner or always the leader?
  • Is the church run so much like a business that it relies only on market-driven markers of success and “profit” like membership numbers, new converts, or attendees at large-scale events? If you knew none of the church’s impressive statistics, or if all the markers of success faded away, would you still be proud to be a part of the church?

 

But, wait. Can’t God work through any/every church? I mean, he’s God, right? Why does this even matter?

Besides, you love your church. You have met some amazing people there. You feel like you can really worship and serve your city by being a part of your church.

I get it. I feel that, too.

But, even a basic reading of the Bible should make it clear that a) God takes seriously how we worship Him and b) the Apostles took seriously how the church was to order itself in worship and life.

Plus, let’s get real. The Church is about God’s vision and mission, not yours. So you can do all the awesome stuff you want and, sure, maybe “your heart is in the right place” but God still just sees it “like filthy rags” or hears it like a big old obnoxious banging gong.

So, yes.
How we build our churches and worship our God matters.

To clarify: I don’t think God takes pleasure in the public shame of his people. And he definitely doesn’t want to see his name connected to scandal. So I’m not suggesting that if you don’t serve communion correctly or if your pastor’s got a little too much ego, God’s going to make your communion bread go stale and let your pastor have an extra-marital affair.

But the truth is that every pastor is vulnerable to moral failure. As is every one of his congregants. We are all just a few bad decisions away from being the subject of the next “Church Scandal!” headline.

But maybe God knew this when he designed the Church. And maybe he designed the Church to not only proclaim the Gospel to the world, but also to protect us from falling victim to the sins of others and to the corruption in our own hearts–pastor and congregation alike. If we design our church structure and governance (i.e. our “church polity”) wisely, according to his plan, maybe we can accomplish both the preaching and the protecting.

A big church like Willow Creek can sometimes feel untouchable, like it is too big to fail. But these “unsinkable ships” do, in fact, sink. And when they go down, they bring thousands down with them. And the rest of us, even those who aren’t members, are tired of feeling the ripples.