On Knowing and Being Known

I probably shouldn’t be saying this since parents from my church read my blog, but there was a time when I was fairly sure I didn’t like kids. At all. The first time I babysat for anyone was in college, I volunteered to clean toilets on mission trips rather than play with toddlers, and I never offered to hold someone’s baby. (They cry and can’t tell you why. Who wants to deal with that?)

The first time I joined a kids’ ministry in college was an accident (long story), but having signed up, I was determined to stick it out…and in the process, found I actually enjoyed it. Radical thought.

When I went to my sister to gather advice about interacting with the little terrors, her first and best bit of wisdom was: “Learn their names.”

And wouldn’t you know, she was right? Saying hello to kids by name—even telling them to stop talking/fidgeting/jamming a pencil in their friend’s ear by name—matters, and I think I know why. Even from our earliest years, we have a need to be loved and known for who we are.

That’s what I thought about when I heard about the song Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. When talking about his inspiration, he said, “The headline in The [New York] Times on Sunday was, ‘Many Towns In Puerto Rico Feeling Forgotten,’ and that broke my heart.”

So he called up a ridiculous number of bilingual musical artists and wrote a song to raise money and awareness for the devastation in Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying.” You should listen to it. Several times. I choose to exercise my Miranda rights not to tell you how many times I’ve put this on repeat yesterday.

(For those of you who aren’t musical theater buffs, the opening lines are sampled from “Maria,” a love song from West Side Story, a musical about Puerto Rican immigrants. So Miranda just got about 1,000 symbolism points.)

Besides that snippet, the lyrics are almost entirely formed by the names of all 78 towns in Puerto Rico. Yes, the song’s got a great beat, but what really gives me chills is hearing those names. No village too obscure. The capital San Juan just a few breaths away from the 6,000-person town of Maricao, a name no one outside of its borders had heard before. Until now.

The message of the song is clear: you are not forgotten.

 

I love that. Some of my favorite verses in the Bible are Exodus 2:24-25, talking about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt pre-Moses: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

And one of my favorite stories in the Bible is about Hagar, the battered and scorned servant who met the Lord in the desert and had the audacity to name him “The God who sees me.”

Seeing a pattern here?

The theme of being known by name is woven all throughout Scripture, from obscure genealogies and recitations of the history of Israel to the parables of Jesus and the greetings of Paul. Christianity has a lot to say about being seen.

And yet, being human, Christians are often not great at seeing others. And I’m including myself here.

My challenge to you this week isn’t just about memorizing names, although that might be part of it. It’s just to do your best to slow down long enough to look for the humanity in those around you.

Resist the urge to define others by who they are to you. That checkout clerk has a life outside of a frustrating return policy and a half-lidded “Did you find everything today?” Every coworker or small group member or neighbor holds onto a thousand silent hopes and fears. Even your spouse or mother or best friend is not first and foremost your spouse or mother or best friend.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with this realization, especially scrolling through Facebook. We have more ways than ever to amass positive feedback about our appearance, choices, opinions, witty remarks, and beautifully-arranged dinners. And yet I see so many lonely people, hoping to eke out enough affirmation to make them feel that they matter.

How well do I love them when we’re face-to-face? How often do I pray for them by name? How easily do I forget that they are just as complex and interesting and loved by God as I am?

Whoever you are, whatever background you come from, don’t forget to see people. Not as masses or political parties or age brackets, but as names and faces and individuals.

Facebook Grief: An Argument for Offline Emotions

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, my first instinct is to tell you what I think about the rise of lawlessness and gun control and processing grief and media coverage of tragedy.

I think my first instinct might be wrong.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to express prayers, sympathy, or an emotional reaction on Facebook to this event or any other, or that you shouldn’t ever talk about issues, even complex ones, online. (Guys, I have a blog. This is what I do here all the time.)

Basically, though, I think it can be harmful if we express our emotions only, or even mostly, in a format that wasn’t meant to carry that weight. Using the Internet to process grief isn’t always a good solution. Here’s why.

I’ve been thinking recently about how social media culture, mass communication, and the Internet in general has changed us, especially how we react to evil in the world. Unlike even a few decades ago:

  • You can’t get away from bad news. We’re followed around by issues and anxiety and tragedy, poked and prodded into one sort of commentary or another by friends, acquaintances, or total strangers.
  • We can know what everyone thinks about anything. No level of trust has to be established before we hear others’ opinions on what used to be personal subjects—it’s all out there. We’re surrounded by thoughts, typed impulsively next to tiny pictures of people we know that sometimes we feel that we don’t know them at all, that they couldn’t really mean it that way—and what was meant to bring us together pushes us apart. It makes people feel less personal. Easier to hurt. Easier to hate.
  • Our opinions can suddenly be heard and interacted with by a large audience of people. Some days, everyone responds/misunderstands/disagrees and it feels like we went from a nice chat to the Hunger Games cornucopia in five seconds flat. Other days, no one replies, and that makes us feel badly too—as if we don’t matter at all.

I’m not sure what sociologists’ official conclusions about all this would be, but for me, it’s a five-layer cake of existential weirdness. (That’s an official term, by the way.)

One conclusion I’m coming to is that I process too much, sometimes, in public spaces. Sometimes my own dirty laundry, but mostly the world’s, the church’s, my country’s, strung out neatly on a line for everyone to see and react to.

It’s not all bad. Even this blog is my way of starting some productive conversations, and it has, especially with people I already know.

I wonder, though, what it does to my level of empathy when it can be drained dry time after time by a parade of headlines and statues and reactions. Will I still be able to love my neighbor—even notice my neighbor—when so many other voices are louder and more all-present?

I wonder if I get too much validation out of blog comments and shares and likes, if the reason I want to speak is to hear myself talk, or at least to be known and appreciated. At the end of the day, are my opinions all about me?

I wonder how many more times I’m going to speak too soon or too forcefully about something I don’t know much about. The Internet is full of self-made experts, and I can join them with the push of a “Publish” button. Through years of practice, I can also tell a story, spin a phrase, draw a crowd. But—in classic Jurassic-Park-quote sense, but without the dinosaurs—should I, just because I can?

As usual, all I really have to offer you are questions. That, I think, might be good. It seems like lots of people are offering answers and stances and solutions at full-blast volume everywhere you look (but wait, there’s more—we’ll throw in some biased commentary for free!), so the least I can do is bring a few questions to balance things out.

There are only a few things I’m sure of:

In a loud world, we need more time for silence.

In an opinionated world, we need more thoughtful uncertainty that pursues answers but doesn’t assume they’re always going to be clear or easy.

In a crazy, violent, mixed-up world—when we ourselves have selfish, anxious, mixed-up hearts—we need more truth and less noise, and sometimes that means turning to praying instead of posting, resting instead of ranting, talking things through with a friend instead of the Internet at large.

This isn’t about standing by and refusing to take action on important issues. It’s not about editing all opinions out of our social media (although I’m a huge fan of being more gracious online).

My challenge is simply this: don’t let your online emotions become your only ones.

Mourn in real life, in prayer and in conversations about how we can do better. Love your actual neighbor instead of only eulogizing people you never knew. Take the long route to form an opinion, collecting different perspectives and considering other sides, instead of reacting to every news item that comes along.

And know that you are a person, not a selfie. You’re living a life, not a content feed. What you think and feel is significant, even if the masses don’t hear it. It may not change the world or even gather a lot of “likes”—but it will change you and the way you interact with others. And that matters.

Let People Love You

I went in skeptical of the new “Anne with an E” TV series. The book and original movie are both dear to my heart, mostly because I pretty much am Anne, minus the red hair and elderly adoptive parents. Besides constant daydreaming, pretentious vocabulary words, tree-climbing, and general humorous-accident-prone-ness, the day after I watched the movie, I decked a boy in the head with my plastic lunch box for making fun of me. While Anne has lots of worthy traits, this, according to my horrified mom, was not the right one to emulate.

The point is, I’ve actually been impressed with the series. If you’re okay with a shade of melodrama in the earlier episodes (which feels realistic if you live or work with an adolescent girl), there is a depth and humanness to the show that delight me. (Also, Gilbert is more adorable than ever, which yes, is actually possible.)

For those who haven’t watched it, this isn’t a real spoiler, but in one episode, Matthew and Marilla are having financial difficulties, and in true sharp-tongued spinster form, Marilla informs everyone who shows up to help that “Cuthberts do not accept charity.”

At one point, Aunt Josephine Barry hides money in a book she gives to Anne, with the elegantly-scripted note, “Love is not charity.”

My first thought: That is so sweet.

My second thought: That is so…linguistically inaccurate. (more…)

Why I Love the Church

This was supposed to be a super long post in response to a tricky question. A few weeks ago, I made a comment that even though I sometimes get frustrated with what I see as misaligned priorities among believers (particularly in this country), I still love the church.

One of my friends, who’s recently had some disillusioning experiences with people claiming to be Christians asked me to explain what I meant by that.

So I sat down at my laptop and started to write about the importance of corporate worship and the deep love that Jesus has for the church. I talked about the staggering number of times the New Testament talks about our faith in terms of community—the “one anothers” of the Bible (but really—check out the list). I even mentioned how living alongside other sinners is necessary and helpful, and why service—basically anytime we allow another Christian to inconvenience us—is important for our spiritual growth.

There were lots of bullet points and references and assorted true things…but something was missing. Sure, I appreciate all of those things, but it wasn’t a good answer to the actual question.

It’s kind of like if someone asked me why I love my twin sister. I could tell you all kinds of wonderful things about her—she’s strong and kind and dependable and deeply loyal in her love for God and others. I could name the things I enjoy doing with her—going on hikes or picking blueberries or playing board games. I could even describe what she’s done for me—intervening with superhuman common sense to keep me alive through childhood and adolescence, reminding me of the importance of budgeting and sending my parents birthday cards, challenging me to grow in my faith.

All of those things are true. None of them actually answer the question.

You see, I love my sister because she’s mine.

She’s family. There is nothing she could ever do to lose my love (or earn it, for that matter). I will always love her, no matter what, and it’s not because of all the—admittedly cool—things about her. I’d say the same for my parents and close friends and the jr. highers I mentor. It’s not about what they do for me, it’s about who they are.

Aren’t we a good-looking bunch?

Same with the church. It’s good to know some of the benefits of being part of a local church, or to understand why the global church matters, but that’s not why I love it.

I love the church because she’s mine. She’s family. I’ll never walk away from her, even when she’s frustrating. I’ll never give up on her, even if she breaks my heart. (more…)

When You’ve Almost Lost Hope

I’ve mentioned on the blog how I conned my way into our school’s Select Chorale my senior year of high school without being able to read music, but I don’t know that I’ve given you the insider secret of how I did it.

There were two key strategies to my deception: I had to work really hard to keep up in class…and I cheated at sight-singing.

Sight-signing basically involves getting a completely new piece of music to sing on “la” in four part harmony. Our director played the accompaniment and listened to make sure we were accurately reading our parts the first time through instead of just relying on our memory.

This should have been mildly terrifying to someone who didn’t read music. Except, guess what we used for sight-singing?

A hymnal.

Can all the old-school church kids give an “Amen, Hallelujah”? Sure, my church sang some modern choruses (we even got—gasp—a drum set when I was in middle school) but we still had pew hymnals and used ‘em, including some Sunday night services (which we also still had) consisting of two straight hours of people requesting their favorites from Phyllis Kantenwein, who I’m convinced had the most perfect-for-an-organist name in the history of Christianity.

High School Amy before a Chorale concert.

During class, our choir director avoided common standbys like “Amazing Grace” or pretty much any Christmas carol, but he assumed no self-respecting teenager would know the harmonies to forgotten gems like “He Hideth My Soul” or “In the Garden.”

Heh, heh. Oh, it was great. I was so proud of my cleverness, blithely belting out harmonies while my classmates who actually knew how to read music hesitated as their head knowledge worked to catch up with their voices. (more…)

The Church’s Biggest Problem

If you’re ever bored with small talk and have a group of Christian friends around, try asking what they think the major issue in the American church is. You will almost always start a colorful discussion where everyone throws around serious issues like cynical confetti.

When it’s my turn, I’ve never been able to summarize the area I’m most worried about. That is, until I finished my latest read, which is actually not an examination of the church, but instead something much more personal: a memoir called Single, Gay, Christian by Greg Coles.

What I love about this book, the need I think it fills in the church, is that it isn’t a practical theology book (although there is a chapter that explains why Greg couldn’t interpret the Bible to allow same-sex unions even when he wanted to). It’s a story.

From the first lines of the book’s prologue, you get the sense of an invitation to empathy: “Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other….If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me. Wait until you’ve heard everything. Wait until you know me.”

Greg

Seriously, read this book. It’s amazing.

As I read, the story became less a justification of Greg’s stance—why he uses the term “gay” to describe himself even though he’s committed to celibacy or what he thinks about the insistence that prayer can “fix” sexual brokenness—and more a challenge for me and the church in general. (Have you noticed that we’re much more open to being confronted about something when we feel like we know and trust the person saying it? That’s the effect this book had on me.)

When Greg said, “Obedience is supposed to be costly,” sure, I heard it as a reason why he felt he shouldn’t act on his attractions. But I also thought of something larger when he went on to explain, “In the Western world, lulled by freedom of religion and unprecedented opulence, we so easily lose sight of what words like suffering really mean. We begin to believe that ease and safety are the baseline experiences of humanity.”

(more…)

How Lee and Washington Are Different: A Response to Trump’s Comments

“This week, it is Robert E. Lee,” President Trump said in a statement today about the statue in Charlottesville that led to protests there. “Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner….You’re changing history.”

So, let’s think through the points Trump raised. I’m going to ask some questions and offer some thoughts on them, but remember, I’m not an expert. I’m an average Christian young woman who likes to promote gracious conversations on difficult topics. So let’s have at it, because I’m convinced that yelling and being angry won’t actually change anything, but engaging with ideas in a thoughtful way can and has.

Part One: What Are Statues For?

Most of the conversation about Charlottesville have focused on the violence and the hate groups, and rightly so. But a friend from college asked what I thought about the issue itself, stripped of everything that happened afterward: should Lee’s statue have been removed?

I listed Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as my two favorite historical figures in eighth grade, mainly because even then I liked complexity. (Also possibly because I liked making people raise their eyebrows in surprise. It’s a problem.) Those two figures, the sides they represent, the conflict that follows…all very complex.

But, the thing is: statues are not complex. Statues say, “We celebrate this person and their actions.” They don’t have context, and they can’t convey nuance in a helpful dialogue. All they do is represent our values in metal and stone. That’s what we understand them to be as a culture.

I understand why people decided to remove Lee’s statue: because he gave marching orders to a group that would rather leave the Union than be told they had to free their slaves.

I see you there, Civil War buffs—yes, there are many things to consider, like economics and states’ rights and lots of fine print about motive and who shot first, but Lee and the Confederate flag are now indelibly associated with what they fought for and against, and I think that’s fair.

Part Two: Are We Changing History? If So, Is That Bad?

Trump and many others say that removing Lee’s statue is a denial of history, peer pressure by the left to be politically correct. Okay. I get that. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on, and it’s fine to dislike a culture that is easily offended.

But I think there’s a double-standard at play. Think about this: who have we decided, in America, is worthy of honor? Whose faces are on our currency, in our textbooks, mounted on plaques and busts and statues around our country?

A lot of white slaveholders…and very few men and women of color. We didn’t have to take down their statues to change history, because we never put them up.

I know that I’m now living in a time where this is the open-minded and “cool” opinion to have. If you’re skeptical, I get that. Just hear me out.

History is not objective. Never has been. We create it by what we put in, what we leave out, and the language we use, like a cinematographer creating mood and meaning through the light and angle of film shots. History changes, and when it does, that doesn’t mean it’s a shift from something inherently true to something false. It’s usually just that a different system, bias, or value is arranging and presenting the facts.

We’ve changed a lot of history, and things like Black History Month are a marginalized group trying to write important figures and events back in. In removing Lee’s statue, people are trying to stop the glorification of the Confederacy and what it was like, just like protests against Columbus Day are meant to challenge whether we should see ol’ Christopher as an explorer or exploiter. No matter what side you take, this is the natural process of recording history. You have to make value judgments along the way.

Here’s where I disagree with Trump that Washington could be next. I’m not suggesting we take Washington off the quarter, partly because his public achievements deserve celebration…and partly because we still associate him with those things and not the slaves he kept. To most of us, Washington means freedom and revolution and the Constitution. I think it’s important to note in books and classes that his rhetoric didn’t line up with his actions, but to us, Washington still stands for the ideals of justice and equality.

In contrast, Lee had solid personal character, but his public actions, the ones he’s most known for, aren’t worth celebrating, and he is deeply associated with oppression and evil.

In a simplistic way, Trump’s off-hand question, “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?” is actually relevant to whether or not we should use Jefferson as a symbol of our country. When it comes to memorials and other symbols, perception matters. If it’s not the only thing, it’s the main thing—what most people think of when they see a symbol determines its meaning.* That’s why the cross no longer means “an instrument of Roman torture” but “a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ” for example.

Part Three: Who Decides to Take Down Statues?

If representatives of a city or state decide, by listening to their constituents, that they want to make a value statement by replacing Lee Park with Emancipation Park, then that’s the exercise of democracy. If another group wants to peacefully protest, that’s also democracy. What actually happened at the protest was not democracy—it was hate and lawlessness. Mobs yanking down or demolishing Confederate monuments and statues are also examples of lawlessness. Both are examples of the occasional price sinful people demand from America for allowing freedom of expression and assembly.

But beyond the technical, tricky questions: “Emancipation.” That’s what the park in Charlottesville is now called. I don’t care what party you claim or who you voted for…isn’t that beautiful? That what we choose to celebrate is a moment of turning from evil and toward justice and freedom?

It was a long turning. Actually, it’s not over yet. Which is why what we celebrate and memorialize matters so much. That’s what will take the next generation from where we’ve been to where we’re going.

I love General Lee. His story is beautiful to me because it is hard, and I will memorialize him with my words, here and other places, because he was a good man facing an impossible choice, and because I can’t say with certainty what I would have done in his place.

But he chose the wrong side. No, the Civil War and its causes were not simple, and most of the North was just as racist as their brothers to the south. Still, when we evaluate the relative good or bad of large groups, we have to make a judgment somewhere. Based on my reading through the prophets and the way God judges the nations, including his own chosen people, I think the degree that they move toward justice and righteousness seems like a good criteria, and by defending the institution of slavery, the Confederacy did not do that.

Our actions have consequences. Lee, deciding whether to accept command of the Confederate army when he felt slavery was “a moral and political evil” and secession “anarchy,” understood that—felt that—more than most of us ever will. History’s judgment of Lee will go in and out, up and down, imperfectly deciding what to say about him. We’re trying to create meaning, trying to aim our country in the right direction, trying to say true things to our children.

Maybe Charlottesville got it wrong, but I don’t think so.

In the end, it’s not possible to separate the removal of Lee’s statue from the KKK and violence that followed. Academically, they’re two separate questions. Racism and hatred are pure evil and should always be denounced and decried, whereas I could make a case either way for whether Lee should continue to preside over a park named after him.

But they’re not entirely separate in practice. Symbols have deep emotional meaning and often lead to actions.

Simple things often get accused of being oversimplification, but I’m going to risk it here.

When asked what you think about the public display of symbols of the Confederacy, think about this: what do you want to celebrate?

 

*Stuffy Sociological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Another example: people were furious when an image floated around the Internet showing a can with “Share a Coke with ISIS.” Turns out, that can was available in Egypt the year before the terrorist group became well known, where Isis is a common female name. In Egypt, Isis meant one thing. In America, ISIS meant another. It takes time and distance for us to get rid of those associations. If America lasts another few centuries, maybe then racism will be disassociated from Lee. Maybe. But I don’t think so, because the association has nowhere else to go. We are drawn towards symbols and representative figureheads as a society, whether it’s team logos and mascots or the flag and the president. Slavery was such a defining event that it has to be symbolized somehow. The Confederate flag and leaders have absorbed that association, just like the swastika and Hitler absorbed theirs. It’s arguable that Hitler deserved it more, but the effect is still the same.