On School Shootings, 9/11, and a Generation Born Into Mortality

What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort. Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives.

– Originally published in The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner

I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened.
I was in college on 9/11.

But I had my first significant brush with death when I was about 13 and a childhood friend was hit by a car and killed. So while both September 11th and Columbine were sufficiently traumatic for most of us, by the time I was introduced to the world of mass casualties I was at least already aware of my mortality.

Did you know that children today (as in, everyone under the age of 18), have never known an America that wasn’t at war?

Think about that for a moment and then think about your own childhood. There are a lot of things about my childhood that I don’t remember. But I do remember my fears. They were normal childhood fears like house fires and not being invited to a popular girl’s birthday party.

Because I was born in 1982, I belong to that tiny little micro-generation of kids who graduated from high school before cell phones, email, and social media had really infiltrated our daily lives. The nightly news was on tv and in the daily paper, for sure, but not on a newsfeed updated every thirty seconds and fed to an electronic device that was always turned on in my pocket. Big news was communicated slowly, person to person.

When that friend died, my grandfather broke the news to me while I stood at a payphone in the school lobby. Someone had called the house to tell me and he’d taken the call. If the same thing happened today, I’d probably see it pop up in a mutual friend’s Facebook feed before I ever heard the news from another real person.

Even though I’m only a few short years removed from being an official “Millennial,” the Millennial Generation feels foreign to me. And it’s partially because they were raised with a digital dimension to their world and relationships that I did not have as a child. With all of its other issues, part of what came with the infiltration of this digital dimension is the omnipresent weight of mortality that it brings. They are surrounded by a constant newsfeed that reminds them of a world a war, a shooting across the country, and every potential danger in their own neighborhood. (In addition to the social pressures created by social media.)

“Kids these days” get a lot of crap for being the way they are. But I wonder how this ever-present reminder of their mortality has affected them. I wonder if what we’re seeing is an effect similar to what we already see manifested in kids raised in vulnerable situations, in violent families, or in poverty. I wonder if the kind of hope-killing trauma that used to be reserved for “those people” is now present in even the most privileged American childhoods.

One of the promises of “the American Dream” born after WWII was a certain national impenetrability and the promise that hard work, financial security, and dutiful community service would provide a sense of security for us and our progeny. But young people today look at their parents and grandparents and feel that this promise of stability and security was a lie. They have swam their entire lives in a sea of national and personal vulnerability.

It’s no wonder younger generations don’t feel the same sense of duty or loyalty to their country. The social contract of mutual protection has failed them.

I would argue that, whether conscious of it or not, young people today (and I will include myself in this) are in fact more aware of their mortality. Because of that, they are less willing to spend their lives fulfilling obligations to others, attending to social constructs, and delaying gratification etc. It’s like a child who has been told he has a terminal illness. He either clings to the familiar and never leaves the house or he sells everything, moves to California, and starts skydiving.

In addition to their general distaste for previous generations’ social norms, the post-9/11 generation is less tolerant of violence and offense in daily interactions, even in the way they communicate with each other. They have a stronger self-defense mechanism and have really spearheaded the “ally” movement that seeks to protect the vulnerable among them. They literally create Safe Spaces for themselves where they believe they can escape the danger lurking around every corner.

My parents raised me in the age of “stranger danger,” which produced a few generational quirks (like a fear of unmarked white vans). But parents who sent their kids off to high school after the Columbine shooting were afraid on a different level entirely. Parenting in this new, scary world meant keeping a close watch, keeping a tight leash, and applying lots of pressure toward the kinds of professional and personal achievements that could provide future security. But although helicopter parenting kept these kids alive, it produced the anxious and dependent young adults that are now creeping toward their 30’s and are struggling to build healthy, long-lasting marriages, afraid to commit to parenting, and cannot find (or do not want) consistent employment.

Those young people who do settle into parenthood today are parenting very differently than their parents or grandparents did. In addition to their shirking of any harsh discipline, they are highly protective of their children’s egos and independence. And in trying to raise children who will not injure others, they steer clear of ideological commitments that lend themselves to hard and fast rules. Rather than pressure their children to conform to their desires, young parents are letting their young children forge their own paths in the hope that a generation unrestrained can finally build a better world.

It should also be said that, in this “better world,” attraction to Old Time Religion has waned because Old Time Religion did not make good on its promise to keep us from killing each other.

It’s no wonder that fertility rates are declining. Often listed among reasons why people don’t want to have kids: the world is too scary. The generation raised after 9/11 has been taught that an attack–whether by a foreign terrorist or a fellow high school student–is not just possible, but imminent. Why would you bring a child into a world like that?

Yes, young people today get a lot of crap for the way they are. But I think we all–collectively, as a society–have some important questions to ask regarding the world our children live in today and how it got this way. And I don’t mean policy questions about guns and airport security and whether or not our preteens should be allowed at home alone. Those questions should be asked because reasonable laws can keep danger at bay, but they cannot truly make us “safe.” We need to also ask questions about our mental/spiritual health and our relationships, about the hopelessness and insecurity our children feel in places that used be produce stability and and peace: our homes, our schools, churches, etc.

Have things really changed in the past 30 years?
Are we really less safe or more vulnerable than we were before, either as a country or personally?

Maybe; maybe not.

In some ways, I’d say that the perception of constant danger, which is perpetuated by fast, digital news media and social media, is mostly “fake news.” We are all far more “safe” than we’ve ever been in some regards. But any statistics that measure our security can only tell part of the story. More now than ever, we are aware of the dangers that do exist and feel more vulnerable because of it. And, the nature of the dangers have changed so, with them, our ability to reconcile with and prepare for those dangers has changed, as well.

We are less likely to die in a plane crash, of pneumonia, or of a random act of violence than we’ve ever been; we are more likely to die of a premeditated terror attack or of cancer.

Has the post-9/11 generation responded to their mortality differently than their predecessors?

This is not the first time that American citizens have, collectively, had a sense of imminent danger lurking nearby. My parents may not have rehearsed for active shooter scenarios, but they probably had regular bomb drills. And I’m sure every wartime since the dawn of time has reinforced a sense of mortality among both young and old. Heck, there are kids in our country’s most dangerous neighborhoods who have never known a “safe” day in their lives.

What can we learn from the wisdom and experience of those who survive and thrive through dangerous times?

Another important question is: how is the American reaction to mortality different than the reaction elsewhere?

One of the benefits of our digital age is a new awareness of what goes on around the county and around the world. We know that the presence of danger and the nearness of violence and war may be new to American children, but not to children elsewhere. How are those children coping? What are their parents doing to help them cope?

What makes some children more resilient to trauma than others?

I worry that, though American children today are more sensitive and more empathetic toward each other and the evils of the world, they may be less resilient to that evil. And that leaves a generation that is not only frightened, but also helpless and hopeless.

I often think of the entire generation of European children whose parents sent them off during WWII to live with strangers or distant relatives in places they had never been. They did not know how long they would be gone, how long the war would last. They did not know if they’d ever see their parents again.

I think about entire nations of refugee children fleeing war-torn nations today, right now, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and memories of shell-shocked homes and dead neighbors.

Could American children survive that trauma?
Could mine?

It’s easy to poke fun at “snowflake” Millennials, to call them weak and to roll our eyes at their ambivalence about all the things they’re “supposed to” care about. But then I think about what it must be like to grow up believing that someone is always standing on the other side of the door, ready to shoot. Or that every airplane is destined to end up lodged in the side of a building.

I can remember, as a young child, lying awake at night convinced my house was going to burn down. But I never worried that I would be blown up in a mall or shot by a classmate in the lunchroom.

Kids today are growing up in a scary world and they are afraid. They are afraid so they are grasping for security. And because they can’t find security, they are surviving with new axioms that many of us simply don’t understand. Among them: sometimes the easiest thing to do at the end of the world is to throw caution to the wind and try and enjoy your life until the bomb falls.

Instead of bemoaning the ways they’ve learned to cope, what are we doing to help?

Peace, Love, and Understanding

I watched a Twitter firestorm yesterday.
In the scope of the entire “twitterverse,” as they call it, it’s probably small potatoes. But this particular storm made my heart hurt and got me thinking (again) about the nature of communication and the prevalence of misunderstanding, as well as the resolute “your opinion doesn’t actually matter”-ness of contemporary American culture.

We are obsessed with being heard.
I submit, as evidence, the existence of Twitter in the first place and the very existence of this blog.

Sometimes, wanting to be heard is justified as there have been many marginalized voices in our country (and in our churches) and amplifying those voices is appropriate. But being heard, I’d argue, is not enough. We want to be understood.

But being understood is much, much more difficult. And understanding requires much more work than most of us are willing to put forth–especially for the sake of strangers.

At one point, a hallmark of liberalism was open-mindedness and the ability to tolerate a difference of opinion. But most modern-day liberals have no interest in either of those things. Liberalism’s new cousin–progressivism–is a different animal entirely and is just as intolerant and other-phobic as its original enemy: conservatism.

I mean this criticism in good humor because I have plenty of friends and family on both sides of the equation and I think most of them (ha!) are decent people with good intentions. I would gladly defend them to their opposition if the need arose but, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that they are most all plagued by an inability to understand each other.

In fact, most of us are.

The twitter “fight” I saw yesterday was between a prominent Christian thinker/writer and a contingent of his personal and ideological critics. It was an honest-to-goodness “cluster****,” as they say, and it was ugly.

I know it’s not really my job to moderate the conversations between strangers, but I always feel like I need to do it. People are just so unfair to each other, often attributing only the worst of intentions to their opposition. They are inflammatory. Derogatory. Absurd and dishonest. All the while, they assert their own personal integrity and moral superiority.

I’ve done it too.
There have been times when my disagreements were so intense and I was so indignant and proud that I stood by things I did or said that I should have never done or said, even after I knew they were wrong to do or say. And it didn’t matter a lick to me how my words or actions affected the people around me. All I wanted was to win. And I most definitely did not want to learn from someone else or change.

But, see, I’ve also been on the other side.
My words have been twisted into something I never intended. I’ve been called names I didn’t deserve to be called. I’ve had friends become enemies because of what they heard instead of what I actually said. And I’ve felt that terrible, aching feeling of being deeply misunderstood.

Empathy is not my strong suit, but I empathize with those who feel misunderstood, whether it’s because they are simply not good with words or because they’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner by someone who is better. It feels terrible. And it’s a terrible thing to do to someone.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. Polarization seems to be the flavor of our culture today. And though I am not the arbiter of mutual understanding, I can’t walk by such ugly fighting without at least suggesting the rules change. If we don’t practice a little ideological empathy, we will eventually be incapable of actually hearing anyone the way they intend to be heard. And that will be a sad, sad world indeed.

 

 

 

Some Suggestions for #GivingTuesday and Beyond

When the holiday season rolls around and minds wander to gift lists and shopping trips, I know a lot of us also consider an extra boost in our charitable giving. I worked in the non-profit sector for 11 years. My husband has worked in the sector for over 9. My parents are on a missionary salary. And one of my brothers is a pastor. So, heck, I don’t care if the only reason you’re giving is for a tax deduction. I know that nonprofits depend on your giving and I’d like to encourage you to give more this season.

Tomorrow (November 28) is #GivingTuesday, a global day of charitable giving organized in response to Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc. Nonprofits all over the world are making a push for your donations and, if the projections are correct, giving tomorrow will be enormous.

Whether you donate tomorrow or not, I’d like to offer a few organizations that my family loves, supports, and would suggest for your end-of-year donation.

Local (Cincinnati) and National Organizations-

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati a non-profit Christian housing ministry that seeks to eliminate substandard housing locally and globally by building and renovating simple, decent, affordable homes to sell to low-income families in need.

Imago an ecological education organization that is rooted in the concept that living in harmony with the natural world is not only good for the planet, but good for ourselves, our families and our communities. They work for the preservation of urban nature, and provide hands-on green workshops and education programs for youth.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful “KCB’s education, revitalization and environmental initiatives build community and foster pride in the places where we live, work and play. Our grassroots network of neighbors, sponsors and volunteers put passion to work across all 52 neighborhoods, creating safer, cleaner spaces and a higher quality of life for all Cincinnatians.”

Koinonia Farm– this intentional Christian farm community in Americus, GA is “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” It is the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.

Life Forward Cincinnati provides free, confidential, and comprehensive prenatal and parenting services to women in crisis.

MORTAR“Our mission is to enable under-served entrepreneurs and businesses to succeed; creating opportunities to build communities through entrepreneurship”

The Play Librarya library, but for toys!

Point Perk a full-service coffeeshop in Covington, KY, that provides job training and community interaction for adults with disabilities.

United Ministries of Northern Kentucky- a Christian ministry assisting families by establishing a comprehensive system of response to the emergency needs of persons in Southern Kenton County and Boone County.

Woven Oak Initiatives– providing small programs focused on education, mentorship, and community-building in Norwood, Ohio.

Internationally-

Aruna Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- “We free, empower and employ those from the brothel system and bring them into an environment marked by holistic care to help build a bright future.

Leadership Resources, Chicago, IL/worldwide- training indigenous pastors worldwide, especially in places where a seminary education is unavailable or unattainable.

The Parative Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- Designing and selling “products made by businesses that are bringing fair wages, stability, and healing to those who have been freed from human trafficking and poverty.”

Restaurants on Mission, Columbia, South America- “Our goal is to create a global chain of non-profit restaurants that will hire and train individuals from reformation and reintegration programs and provide a step towards a better life. All profits from each restaurant go back into the neighborhoods in which they are located to improve quality of life.”

Protecting Our Kids from Sexual Abuse

I guess I knew it happened sometimes to some people, but I didn’t understand the pervasiveness of sexual abuse among my peers until I was a young adult and the stories started coming out in deeper conversations. The thought of so much abuse going on around me felt a bit scandalizing at first. But now, 35 years old and a mother of four young children, the statistics are maddening and make me flat-out pissed.

How is this even possible?
Why have we been pretending for so long?

As a kid, sex was not something I spoke about openly with my parents or my peers. And things like molestation and rape were like a plane crash–the chances are so slim that you can’t lay awake worrying about them.

But it turns out we were wrong.

Abuse is everywhere.
It’s in the Church, in our families, in sports and schools and the entertainment industry. (I read this article this morning, which is why I decided it was time to write this.)

We can certainly mince words about what, exactly, qualifies as “sexual abuse.” If I’m totally honest, I’m not really comfortable accepting the most extreme definitions of “abuse” because I do believe there is a difference between an abuser/predator and a confused kid (or an honest misunderstanding about intentions). Human sexuality is more complicated than most of us give it credit for being and the ins and outs of sexual relationships between people are not always cut and dry.

But, that said, nearly every woman I know has a story of sexual misconduct, whether it’s flat-out abuse, molestation, and rape or less overt indiscretions like sexual pressure from a partner, come-ons from a superior at work, or ugly cat-calls on the street.

When I take an honest look back at my life, the picture becomes pretty clear. I have my own share of stories, too.

The flasher who showed up at my 6th grade birthday party. The flasher in the church lobby (!!). The note from a friend (in 7th grade) that said her boyfriend kept pressuring her for oral sex (of course, she didn’t use the word “pressure”). The stories in high school about people having sex just to keep a boyfriend (or girlfriend) but him leaving anyway. The first time I heard someone openly profess to being molested as a child. (And other stories I’d rather not share here.)

Our culture has a sex problem.
And I could write and write and write my thoughts about what the problem is, where it comes from, and how to change it. But I don’t have time for that right now.

Instead, I want to share how I am protecting my children from sexual abuse. And I want to hear your ideas, too. Because even though I can’t keep every danger from our doorstep, I can at least teach my kids what to do when they see it and how to overcome it.

These are some of the steps we are taking as a family:

We talk openly and frequently with our kids about sex and sexual abuse. From a very young age, we teach our kids about sex and anatomy, what their body parts are called and what they do. We encourage them to ask questions when the questions come up, not only when we are having an official “sex talk.” But we do have official lessons about sexuality as a part of our school curriculum because sometimes it feels awkward to bring it up out of nowhere. Our kids are encouraged to use us (not peers) as a first resource and, if at any point they don’t want to talk to us about sex, we have promised to find another adult they can talk to instead of us.

We choose friends and a church community that takes sex and sexual abuse seriously. Because we know that most people who are abused are abused by people close to them, we surround our children with people we trust. It can’t guarantee that they will escape abuse, but it will guarantee a community that will act on abuse and support them rather than an abuser. (We are proud to be members of a denomination that has a firm stance on and policies for protecting its children from sexual abuse.) We teach our kids to look out for each other and for others.

We teach our kids to have boundaries with peers and adults. We teach them to respect the words “stop” and “no.” Once they are bodily-aware (which kicks in somewhere around 3-5 yrs old), we talk about the need for respecting privacy and for expecting the same from others. We tell them that, unless they need help dressing or using the bathroom, it is not appropriate for someone else (adult or child, even family members) to see them naked or touch them in their genital areas. If someone insists on seeing or touching them inappropriately, they need to tell us immediately. (We’ve taught a few “poke their eye out or kick them in their groin” lessons, as well.)

We don’t keep secrets and we teach them that there is never a good reason to keep secrets from us or to keep secrets with other people. (This is one part of the “tricky people” concept, which is a great safety skill for kids and much preferred to the “stranger danger” of my youth.)

We teach them to keep all physical affection and sexual activity in its place. From birth, we work to establish proper attachment with our kids and show consistent, physical affection within our family to help them develop healthy expressions of love and affection. When they are young, we teach them the role of sex in a marriage and reinforce married sex as the standard for behavior. As they get older, this conversation will develop more nuance as we talk about all expressions of sexuality and help them navigate dating and courtship, love and lust and desire.

We introduce the dangers of pornography early and, as they age, will teach them to recognize objectification and sexual idolatry and how they contribute to sexual exploitation and abuse. We will help them avoid sexually explicit materials and images by cultivating a healthy attitude toward the human body and an appetite for better expressions of love and devotion.

We will encourage them to avoid abusing drugs and alcohol, especially in mixed company and with people they don’t know. We will be honest about the connection between intoxication and negligent behavior/abuse.

We encourage immediate, judgement-free conversations about sex. We promise to listen and to answer honestly. We will believe them when they are victimized. We will help them navigate confusing/frustrating situations that arise as they age. Nothing will be a taboo in our house.

 

I’m sure this doesn’t cover everything.
What are you doing to protect your kids from sexual abuse?

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, and (some thoughts on) Religious Syncretism

It’s Halloween!
Or All Hallow’s Eve!
Or Sahmain!
Or whatever.

“Happy Holidays.”

My earliest memories of Halloween are of me donning my older brother’s football uniform so I could do the absolute bare minimum for the school costume parade in the third grade.

When I was young, our family’s participation (or lack of participation) evolved over time but, in general, we did not celebrate Halloween. By the time I was in middle school, I sometimes went out looking for candy with my friends, but my mom had adopted a full-on boycott. No candy for visitors. Front porch lights out.

I didn’t quite understand it then. But it makes more and more sense to me now.

Most of us don’t think too seriously about the finer points of syncretism and how it manifests itself in culture and in our religious traditions. Either we take for granted that all our favorite traditions are purely ours or we take for granted that no tradition can be pure. And, either way, we don’t really care too much.

Whether we admit it or not, much of what we do in church (and in life) is influenced by our own culture and the world around us. And some of us fight this influence more strongly than others. In the context of Christian worship, some churches follow a Regulative Principle of worship that says “whatever is not explicitly commanded/affirmed in the Bible has no place in Christian worship,” but most of us are not in this camp. So most will admit that many traditions are a matter of cultural preference–like the difference between an organ and an acoustic guitar–and most of these preferences are really benign. They may have theological implications, but they are not theological prescriptions.

The farther back we go in church history or the more we develop “new” traditions, the more they tend toward two extremes–either the church develops it’s own symbols and traditions based on their distinct Christian-ness or it adopts symbols and traditions of other religions/cultures and “christianizes” them for their own use (aka syncretism).

In 2017 America, since we seem so far removed from First Century paganism and Eastern religions, most Christians don’t give two thoughts about where their traditions came from. It’s assumed that, at this point, the potentially worldly roots of our traditions don’t matter anymore. We are, after all, a culture primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. And everyone else understand the Christian-ness of our symbols and traditions. Right? Well, maybe sorta. Or maybe not.

For most of America, today is Halloween. It’s an excuse to dress your kid up in funny or scary or ridiculously adorable costumes, visit with neighbors, and collect candy to get you through the long, cold nights until Thanksgiving (our next gluttonous holiday).

But for some people–primarily Catholics and some other Christians who fancy Catholicism–it’s All Hallow’s Eve. In some way or another, it’s a day to revel in the reign of Christ over evil and to mock the devil. (Some Catholics fast today in preparation for tomorrow’s Feast Day of All Saint’s Day so they save their candy for tomorrow. Bummer, right?)

 

 

People think I’m all kinds of crazy when I tell them we don’t celebrate Halloween. Apparently, it means I a) hate talking to my neighbors and giving them things; b) don’t want my kids to enjoy life; c) am just a stodgy old coot. In actuality, none of these things are true about me, I am a reasonable woman, and I have thought this through quite a bit.

Though my level of commitment to abstaining is still evolving–Will I hand out candy? Will we buy a pumpkin for the front stoop because it’s fall and pumpkins are cute? etc.–I am perfectly comfortable saying that, as a family, we don’t do Halloween. I believe this is a matter of personal conscience. It’s not something important enough for me to fight with friends over and it’s not something I’d draw a line about between myself and people I love. But it’s something I’m pretty committed to and I’m going to try and quickly explain my reasoning about the issue because, every year, someone seems surprised that I actually care enough to think about it.

So, here.
Reason with me now.

No one seems to agree about the exact origins of Halloween. Did the Catholic Church institute All Hallow’s Eve as a distinctly Christian holiday, or was it an attempt to christianize the ancient Celtic festival of Sahmain by slapping a Christian name on the same tradition? Were you there? Me neither. All you need is a quick Google search to prove that the jury is still out on this one. And this is true for many of our other holidays, too.

Young in our family life, we decided to try and focus on as many distinctly Christian traditions as possible and avoid pagan, secular, and Eastern traditions if we could. We downplayed Christmas (in the secular Santa sense) and embraced the season of Advent. We skipped the Easter Bunny entirely and focused on Resurrection Day. We tried to “purify” our family expressions of these great holidays as much as possible while admitting that it’s simply impossible to avoid all syncretism. The truth is that even our best intentions have left us with half-baked American traditions like Easter egg hunts and Christmas stockings. Whatever. Imperfect is better than nothing.

One of the biggest questions in my mind has always been about what, exactly, is the nature or intent of the thing we’re appropriating into our expression of our faith? Is this a purely cultural expression? Or is it a religious expression? Can the two every be truly separated?

Take for example Indian culture and the practice of yoga.
A few months ago, I asked my friends on Facebook whether they believed the practice of yoga was a) inherently spiritual, b) imputed with spirituality by those participating in it, or c) purely secular. Responses were mixed. But it has always seemed clear to me that a practice created specifically as a spiritual practice for another religion cannot be stripped of its spiritual element and simply secularized or christianized by another user. We are not dualists; nothing done with our spiritual bodies is purely biological.

But, wait! I eat Indian food! Isn’t some Indian food somewhere prepared by Hindus (potentially) offered to a Hindu god? Well, sure. And if someone came to my table and offered a prayer to Vishnu over my food, I could still eat it (Biblically speaking), but it might make me feel a little weird about it. But knowing someone next door in the YMCA may be doing yoga isn’t the same as actually doing yoga myself, is it? So I see eating Indian food as less like doing yoga and more like wearing yoga pants. Which might be wrong, but for different reasons. (That was a joke. Maybe.)

So, back to Halloween.

Some of my friends seem to think that the only people still celebrating pagan Celtic festivals like Samhain are the 12 Druids living on a commune in New Hampshire. But I can tell you for a fact that pagan Druid spirituality (along with Wicca and actual Satanism) are real. They exist in 21st Century America. And if I had not once stood in a room of a few hundred totally normal American citizens worshiping the planet Earth, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. (Ask me and I’ll tell you the story sometime.)

And this is not even to mention the absurd world of horror movies and haunted houses that capitalize on the scary sentiment of Halloween just to scare the crap out of you and your children. And I won’t even talk about actual spiritual warfare. Ugh.

Okay.
So you’ve decided that Halloween is still no big deal because you want to meet some neighbors and your kid looks really cute as Elsa from Frozen (you returned the Moana costume because it’s culturally insensitive).

Well, my Halloween loving friends, you’re not alone. And I don’t think you’re a terrible person or a devil worshiper. I just think you need to ask yourself some questions about how you’ll celebrate the holiday well.

First: if you are going to use the “All Hallow’s Eve” excuse/clause, you have to ask whether your observance of Halloween really resembles the Christian tradition at all. If you want to know the truth about your family traditions, ask your kids. What do they believe they are celebrating? What do the symbols mean to them?

If I ask your kids can say to me “Oh! We’re mocking the devil because Jesus is King!” I might say, “Well, heck. Right on!”

Second: are you neglecting some of the distinctly Christian traditions in place of the more “fun” ones? If you are a Protestant, did you even tell your kids about Reformation Day today? If you are a Catholic, did you take the opportunity to throw eggs at my car? (Joking again.)

And how should you celebrate? Well, consider how much your family and children miss out on the Christmas story when the entire Advent season is not observed. The same goes for the season of Lent and Easter. If you really believe Halloween is a Christian tradition, then express it as one and go all out. Slip some Testamints into those candy buckets. (Joking. Don’t do that. They taste gross.)

But, here’s the thing about celebrating Halloween: you might think that it’s totally cool and in good fun for Christians to go around the neighborhood merrily mocking the devil by wearing cute superhero costumes, but your neighbors are probably not in on the joke. They might be watching a movie about serial killers to commemorate the occasion or could be waiting in a bloody clown costume to scare the crap out of your kid when she rings the doorbell or could be standing around a tree in the woods chanting about their sacred mother.

Or maybe they’re all in superhero costumes, too, and it’s really no big deal. I’m willing to admit that kids in superhero costumes are really cute.

The short story is this: participating in Halloween just seems really confusing to me–less like wearing yoga pants and more like sniffing the yoga mat. (Gross, I know. Sorry about that picture.) And if I’m not going to do yoga, I’m not gonna sniff the mat. (Most you probably do yoga, so you just realized I wasted all your time.)

Okay, so that was a lot to say about something that, at the end of the day, isn’t really a big deal. Like I said, it’s not a line in the sand for me.

But I do kind of take Halloween seriously. At least seriously enough to think more about it than just what candy I’ll buy.

For the record, I bought kit-kats and fruit snacks. Because we don’t celebrate but we also don’t ever turn away a stranger who knocks on our door, no matter how they’re dressed.

 

 

To The Woman Who Wants To Be A Mom (But Isn’t)

I know it’s dangerous business talking “mothering” to the childless when you have no personal knowledge of childlessness. It’s like a trust fund baby encouraging a friend to “just start saving for the future.” So, I get it. And I’ll try to tread lightly.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’m not much for holidays, but I know this particular day brings a lot of hurt and heartache for some of my friends. Some have lost babies before they were born, some have lost them after, and some have never even had the chance. Some are still longing for a partner to create future babies with and some, with a partner, have tried and tried and tried and nothing works.

I’m sorry.

Even on the worst of mothering days, when I’m crying in the bathroom alone wishing I could un-mother myself for a few minutes, I still know what a miracle children are and what a blessing it is to grow them and to watch them grow. So I try not to talk up mothering too much, and to not belittle it too much, mostly for your sake. Because I know how it feels to see my dreams lived out in the lives of others. And it really hurts.

It wouldn’t help to tell you that Mother’s Day is a lame holiday, just an opportunity for excited children to buy overpriced “Best Mom in the World” coffee mugs and shamed fathers to buy underwhelming roses. It’s a sweet gesture, and I’ll take all the sweet gestures anyone wants to offer, but it’s really not a big deal to me. But when “Mom” is the one name you’ve always wanted, even the overpriced coffee mugs can seem huge and hard to look at.

I can’t make you feel better, but I want to encourage you in three ways.

First, don’t feel the need to explain your desire away or pretend it doesn’t exist.

You are a woman. And in a perfect world, men and women would interact in a way that made the world of dating and marriage and sex easier to navigate. And in a perfect world, all women (and men) would be capable of bearing children and be able to raise them without the pain and heartbreak of infertility or miscarriage or infant loss.

You already know that we don’t live in a perfect world. But it helps to be reminded that part of what you’re feeling is the same thing we all feel, though in different ways. You know the brokenness of human relationships and human bodies. You don’t need to hide the knowledge of your brokenness or the longing for completeness.

To be sure: Motherhood will not “complete” you. Not in the way you really want it to. But I understand the “new life” symbolism of pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood and I understand why you want to embody it.

You may have a million voices telling you that motherhood is not a big deal that that you can do a million other things other than being a mom and still be a woman. In a way, they are right. But, in a way, they are wrong. It’s okay to want the crappy “Best Mom in the World” mug.

But, don’t obsess about motherhood.

Motherhood will not complete you. It will fill your days and at least 18 years of your life and your dreams (and nightmares). But it will not fill the deepest void you feel inside you. And it will not fill the deepest voids you feel between you and your partner.

Turning a good thing (even a very good thing) into the best or ultimate thing distorts its value and purpose. A sure sign of an idol is our all-consuming pursuit of it. If you “will not stop” until you become a mother or if you will pursue it at all costs, you may want to reconsider the depth of your obsession.

The truth is: you may never be a mother. And those of us who are mothers may some day find ourselves childless. There are no guarantees. Obsessing about something so fragile sets us up for crushing disappointment.

Making motherhood an idol serves no one, especially not our children. Don’t let your desire consume you.

But, please, don’t turn it off.

In the meantime, while you are in waiting, don’t suppress your desire to be a mother. Don’t ignore it and try to fill the longing with something unworthy of it. Keep yourself busy, stay faithful in other ways, and embrace life as it is without a child, put please keep your heart open and longing.

I say this, first, for selfish reasons because mothers need non-mothers. We need friends who have things other than potty training and teething and 2nd grade math homework to talk about. We need friends and family who keep the other, non-parent parts of us alive.

But, once you have kids, it’s hard to make friends with people who really don’t like kids. I once saw a t-shirt that said, “Love me, love my cat.” In this case, it’s more like “Love me, love my kids.” I absolutely want friends without children. But not the kind who think I’ve wasted the best years of my life by being bogged down by four attention-hungry children.

And, more importantly, the world needs non-mothers. It needs them badly.

First, there are obvious needs in foster care, education, adoption, after-school programs, church programs, nursing and medicine, etc. These places need women who aren’t afraid to let that mothering part of them pour into a child who is not (or not yet) their own. Their lives often depend, literally, on women like you.

And even if you’re not built for teaching or changing diapers for a stranger’s baby in the church nursery, I can promise that, at some point in your life, your mothering heart will find a “child.”

It may be as simple as a young mother who needs an extra hand while she digs through her purse at the grocery store (I’ve been that woman). It may be the middle child of a large family who feels invisible and wants to make sure someone big and important (like you) sees his drawing.

It may be a lonely child in your neighborhood who likes to look at your flower garden. Or it may be a college student far away from her parents who needs help finding a job or an apartment.

Years down the road, It may be a younger friend who just lost her mother to cancer and needs a shoulder to cry on. Or it may be an older neighbor who needs someone to read her a book when her eyes go out.

I know this might not make you feel better. Heck, it might make you feel worse because it means admitting that it’s possible your desires may never be fulfilled in the way you want them to be.

Nevertheless, even if you never give birth to a child or never manage to save the money to adopt, I hope you never let the mothering part of you die. I hope you leave it soft and open and ready for whoever needs it. Because we’ve all needed it at some point.

The world is full of childless mothers. Go ahead and be one.

First came bright Spirits…
Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.
“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was
Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing
and throwing flowers before here?”
“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”
“They are her sons and daughters.”
“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”
“Every young man or boy that met her became her son–even if it was only the boy
that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”
“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”
“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat – two cats – dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.
The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis

Why I Bring My Kids To Funerals

The first death I remember was a great uncle.
I was elementary school age and I barely knew the man. But he was family and my whole family was there and it was quiet and that’s about all I remember.

For most of us, the death of someone close is the first serious blow to our perceived immortality. For me, I was 14 and it was the death of a favorite uncle. Then, a few months later, a close friend. In the next five or so years, there were a few more: another friend, a few acquaintances, a friend’s little brother, my grandfathers, etc.

I don’t honestly remember much about the ins and outs of the visitations and funerals I attended as a child and an adolescent. I remember how every one was different because every person’s story and family and friends were different. I remember it being confusing. I remember not knowing how quiet I must be, whether or not I could smile at friends and family, whether or not I was saying the right words to those in mourning.

But I remember a lot of hugs. A lot of crying.

And I remember how much the knowledge and experience of death changes us.

 

Death is on my mind because, yesterday, my family attended the funeral of a young man I never met but whose parents are friends. And, of the hundreds of people in the room (maybe more?), my four children were some of the only children there.

 

I bring my kids to funerals.
Not every funeral, of course. And we don’t always last the whole service. (And if I had different kids I might reconsider.)

But I bring my kids to funerals because I don’t believe there are many truly “adult things” (as distinguished from “kid things”) and, even if there are, death is certainly not one of them.

I bring my kids to funerals because they are painful and hard and confusing and uncomfortable. But I’d rather my children fumble through the uncomfortable experiences of life in the safety of a family who loves them and is willing to entertain dumb and silly questions about life and death and how we celebrate and observe them.

I bring my kids to funerals because, some day, someone close to them will die. It might be me. Or their father. It might be their brother or sister or grandparent or best friend. Lord willing, it won’t be for a long time. But it will happen. And, when it happens, I don’t want the experience to feel like showing up to their first job interview wearing the wrong color suit. Hard things take practice. We practice together.

I bring my kids to funerals because my deepest anxieties surround their mortality and I need to be reminded that their lives are gifts and they are here with me now even if I cannot be certain they will be with me tomorrow.

I bring my kids to funerals because I cry–oh boy, do I cry–when someone I love or someone someone I know loves dies. And I don’t let my kids see the vulnerable parts of me enough.

I bring my kids to funerals because babies are like puppies and they cheer people up (when they are not howling or chewing up the paper programs, of course, which is why we don’t always make it through the whole service).

But, more than anything, I bring my kids to funerals because they need to see how people with hope observe death.

I bring them because they need to hear about Jesus and Heaven and “forever” from people who really believe it and breathe it in like it’s the only thing still keeping them standing.

In their short lives, my children have already heard plenty from us about “God loves us” and “God takes care of us,” but they need to hear it from other people–especially people who are standing at that dark cliff of death, are stricken with grief, but can still say “it is well with my soul” (even if they’re not quite 100% there yet).

I bring them because Christians do not grieve as those who have no hope.

Death is still terrible and sad and I hate it with everything inside me. But Christians do death differently. And I want my kids to look at the world and look at the Church and know the difference more fully because they’ve sat in those pews and sang those songs and heard–with their own two ears– the voice of a grieving mothering declare the goodness of God over her child’s death.

This is powerful stuff and, as much as I wish I could, I cannot hide my kids from it.

Beauty, Between Three and a Million Years

IMG_5708

When she hears music, my daughter starts to dance.
No matter what the music is,
something inside her tells her to move.

Yesterday, she heard a song humming
from the phone in the palm of my hand
and came closer to hear,
closer so she could
match her moving to the music.

Then she stopped.
Suddenly.
And looked at me.

“Mommy,” she asked,
“Does God think I’m pretty?”

She is my third child.
Three of four.
And three years old.

In eight years of parenting,
I’ve heard a lot of questions from my kids.

“Why is our house red?”
“Where is Atlanta?”
“How do clouds make rain?”

Now, instead, she asks,
“Mommy,
“does God think I’m pretty?”

It’s such a big, important question
for such a small girl
and it deserves
the best and truest answer
I can muster in the
little time she’ll give me
before this big, important moment
has passed.

In the few seconds it takes me to
quiet the music and
look into her
clear blue, questioning eyes,
her question becomes my question
and my grey-blue-green eyes go misty
and my mind starts to wander.

I see ahead into her future and
I want to warn her that,
eventually,
these silly, simple questions of her
three year-old self will not offer
the answer her 10 year old
or 16 year old
or 30 year old self
wants to hear.

Eventually the question will become,
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Does he think I’m pretty?
“Am I pretty enough?”
“Am I prettier than her?”
“Am I as pretty as I used to be?”

And,
more often than not,
the answer she speaks back to herself,
whether it’s true or not,
will be a quick,
painful
“No.”

Because,
in that moment,
whether it’s true or not,
no simple truth will seem
big enough to satisfy her big need.

But, right now,
with three years behind her
and a million years ahead
and those big, clear blue eyes
looking to me for answers,

I tell her the truth
as simply as I can.

I tell her,
“Of course, sweetheart.”

But I don’t stop there.

I tell her,
“The God of the universe–
the God who made the trees
and the rivers
and the flowers
and the mountains–
He made you
exactly the way he wanted you to be.
And when He looks down
at the world he made,
He sees you
and calls you
‘the crown of creation’
and says you are
the most beautiful of all.”

So my daughter smiles
and is satisfied with the answer
and floats away
to tell her big brother and big sister

“God thinks I’m pretty,”

and leaves me to repeat my answer again
but this time to me
because I think it’s been years–
a million years, maybe–
since I was satisfied
with such a silly, simple, honest answer.

Save