Actually, It IS Your City

The recent unrest in Charlotte….what a ridiculous phrase….make that… the recent violence in Charlotte has brought about interesting responses from people, one of which has been the tendency to say “this is not my city!”

First, I was born and raised in Charlotte. Both of my parents, my uncle and my cousin were teachers in the Charlotte Mecklenburg public school system; same system in which I was a student for all 12 years. I went to college in Charlotte, owned a house in Charlotte, lived and worked there until I was 34 years old and still have family and friends living there. So when I say what I’m about to say, I do so with personal and rather extensive knowledge of the place.

No, actually, it IS your city.

Now, I completely understand why people in this and many similar situations respond with that phrase and that feeling! People do not want to think of the place where they live as being violent or racist or narrow minded or hateful and hurtful. But let me ask this: are there human beings living in that city? Yes? Well then, there is violence, racism, narrowmindedness and hateful, hurtful actions. It is your city. It is every city. It is every group of humans.

But there is something else I want to say to all of us… and I do mean US because I’ve been guilty of this, too…. We need to quit the whole “not my…” whatever thing. And here’s why. We say “that is NOT my city” or “my school” or “my country” or whatever because we are embarrassed or ashamed of the behavior and we want people to know that’s not who we, personally, are.  I have that feeling when I see narrow-minded and cruel Christians doing insane things to people in the name of Jesus Christ. I want to shout at the top of my lungs, “THAT’S NOT MY CHRISTIANITY! THAT’S NOT MY JESUS!!”  But the problem is that saying “it’s not mine” means that we no longer have responsibility to it or for it. We might be trying to say that we had no idea this place harbored such hatred and violence and that we do not, ourselves, hold such things in our heart, but we are actually doing something far more detrimental than that.

If I say “That’s Not MY City”, then I have just divorced myself from both the problem (which I might not be contributing to, but then again I might be whether I realize it or not) and from the solution as well. If it’s not my city, then I have no responsibility for helping those who have been hurt, repairing the damage that has been done, or the rebuilding and healing that must take place. If “it’s not my city” then I don’t really have to care or concern myself with all the difficult issues that surround the violence, rage, pain, and tremendous social dysfunction that has brought us to this place. I’m also lying to myself and everyone else.

Several years before I arrived in the congregation where I serve as pastor, there was a heartbreaking and difficult set of circumstances that ended up painfully dividing and damaging the people. When I got here, many had left because this wasn’t what they wanted or needed in a church. I don’t fault those people for that one bit. However, I asked one of the women who had stayed through it all, enduring a great deal of the difficulty that many others were spared, “why did you stay?” She could have gone somewhere else; there are tons of great churches in town. “Because,” she said, “you don’t abandon people when they are hurting.”this-is-ours

So, I propose that we change the phrase “That’s not MY city” to “This IS OUR City”. This is our city, community, school, town, nation, world. Whatever group is hurting, it is OURS, and even if it is hard to face the bad things, the violent and painful things, and even if we do not know how to fix it, we will not abandon it to hopelessness and despair.

I do not know the answer to all of the struggles we face around our country. They are indeed Legion. But I do know this: This Is Ours. And we just can’t abandon people when they are hurting.

#thisisours

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil by doing good—Romans 12:21

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Wasp Paper

Writing from the Writers Group this week. We’ve been doing this, but I can’t find the piece I used as inspiration.

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What would a wasp say if it could write its little heart out on that huge scroll?polistes_may_2013-2

I’ve never liked bees. Honey bees are ok—almost cute—but the rest of the beekingdom have always terrified me. Maybe not bumble bees. They are miniature winged golden retrievers, following too close and bumping accidentally; curious and furry. Hornets, wasps, yellow jackets; they are all evil.

The girl scouts had a giant hornet’s nest in the corner of the room where we met. It was something to do with North Carolina or Mecklenburg County. I never paid attention to that part. I had nightmares about it; swarms of these evil creatures would pour out of the bottom of their paper castle and come for me, vengefully pricking me to death for daring to cast my eyes in their direction, their fury unstoppable, their wings like a machine of war propelling them towards my vulnerable face.

But they…make paper! They have probably been making paper since well before humans ever did. What if a little wasp took her stinger, dipped in my fresh blood, and wrote on her paper. What would she say?

“Keep out! No trespassing,” big jagged letters around the belly of the nest. “Private Property!”

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw this morning! The sun made tiny round jewels on the ivy leaves round the old tree stump,” careful, precise holes poked, needle stitches for each letter. “You should pay more attention to the great world.”

“Yay for circles!” Big, punched out letters. “Circles are best!”

“My life is so brief and fast,” tiny bloody cursive, her ink from the well of my arm. “I must be fierce and powerful before I die, for it flies to meet me quickly. Then, I am no more.”

To read the nest book, one layer at a time, peeling pages from an enemy’s soul.

 

Note: that is NOT my photograph. I would never, ever get that close. The photographer is excellent and can be found here. 

Word and Works

Today I got to write with the writer’s group I used to spend time with and it was just delightful! Schedules change and things happen to make it impossible to go… but then schedules change again and make it possible once more!

The writing prompt for today was Word and Works. The group had been writing using a work of art as a prompt, but I kinda missed that bit, so I did it a little differently. However, they were, as they were in the past, kind and supportive. Looking forward to doing this again and hopefully on a regular basis.

 

Word and Works

The line between didn’t really exist. The line between the word and the action wasn’t really a line at all. It was the breath; that is all there was. A breath between the word and the work. The breath made word into work. Word made flesh and blood and bone, working together. Breath made static word into kinetic work of body.

But first
Breath and word became the perpetual motion of light; working, pressing back the dark. Always birthing, bringing the new.

Then
Breath and word became the work of flow. Flowing water and air. The work of ebbing life, the work of growing green, the work of shinning blue. The in and out of breath was the flow of word into work.

At last
Came the flesh and blood and bone. Finally, came the vessel to carry the breath. Word and work joined in breath became the beat of blood and heart, the soar of the mind, the lift of the hands.

Breath wove through words and became the fabric of work, wrapping up the vessel in life. Filled up the vessel to the brim, seeped into every moment, filled and stretched and pushed outward to overflowing; till overflow was inevitable.

The word rode the breath through the vessel, up and up and out of the mouth and the work was love. And the vessel was love.

But all of this
This was before. Before we drew a line between word and work; before we held our breath and separated the doing from the being; the bold, wide line that cuts us in two.

I’m Sorry, I’m So Sorry

Last week I had a small though frustrating incident with another person that made me think about what it means to ask for forgiveness. The details of the incident are irrelevant because, largely speaking, they are first world problems that did dr whono permanent damage to me and are ultimately insignificant in the brushstrokes of time. The apology consisted of this: I’m sorry, but…. I’m sorry that I did this thing that caused you trouble and frustration, but it was actually someone else’s fault because they made me do it. Now, as I am typing this, I’m tempted to put that phrase in little quotation marks as though quoting this individual alone but it seems only fair to say not only do we all do this at some point, I know I have done this, too. I’m not happy about saying that because it is the cold hard truth. Often, I will use the phrase with sarcasm, such as: I’m sorry you are upset about something petty in your life but the world does go on. This sort of “I’m sorry, but…” is not so much an apology as it is a parody of “I’m sorry things are this way for you.” I say parody because I’m actually being sarcastic. However, I know I, as probably all of us, have used the phrase *“I’m sorry, but” in a contrived apologetic manner. This exchange last week has actually been a wonderful opportunity for me because it has brought all of that (that is to say all that faux apology stuff that I do, too, and really don’t want to do any more) to mind and it has reminded me of a very significant act of apology which was given to me many years ago.

One totally random day over a decade ago, I received a hand written letter of apology from a woman who had once been a girl who assisted in making my school years a misery of teasing, betrayal, and outcast status. She wasn’t the big bully who had picked on me, not any of the big bullies actually, but she was probably one step less obvious and more poisonous. She had been my friend. She had been one of those girls who acted like a friend only to turn on you when the cool kids were around. Since I knew her nearly all of my public school life and was a sucker who was desperate for a friend, she had many opportunities to do this kind of thing over and over again. There were other things, too, but this is the general category and gives the flavor cruelty I experienced.

The letter was a genuine, simple, complete apology. She enumerated in a general and concise way that still showed she was apologizing for specific events as well as an overall falseness in relationship. While I am certain that there were reasons why she did what she did that most likely involved pain on her part which ended up redirected at me rather than at who or what had harmed her, she did not make excuses or give mitigating reasons for her actions. She simply said: I did this, I regret it, I am sorry. Now that is an apology! That is an attempt at what a genuine reconciliation can look like. She didn’t seek to make me feel sorry for her or let go of hurt and anger because I could, through some rendering of her own tortured heart, identify that her suffering was greater than my own and excuse rather than forgive her treatment of me.

Excusing a behavior is when I have a headache and snap at my secretary and then, realizing what I did and why, I return to her office and say, “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I have a headache.” This is acceptable because the slight shown my secretary was impolite or rude, not personal, long lasting, or more than a single isolated event. The desire on my part is to be excused of the rude behavior not because she will feel sorry for me but because she, too, knows what it’s like to be grumpy with a headache.  This is fine when there has been a small slight, an impolite moment, but when there have been trespasses upon another in such a way as to fray or damage a relationship or, worse still, deeply harm or reshape another person altogether, this is not appropriate. When we have deeply harmed another, there is a genuine wound present which we caused and there is no amount of “but”, either spoken or implied in a litany of describing perceived justifications, that can close that wound in them.

Here’s why I believe this is true. First, actions done to you by others do not justify actions you do to someone else. They may have a cause and effect relationship of some sort, but the first does not make it right (that is, justify) what you have done to another. Second, it denies the person whom you have wronged the ability to ask the question that hums through the heart of most of us when we’ve been harmed: why? It is important that a wronged party have the chance to ask the question rather than have the answer thrust down their throat and, once again, being trespassed upon. It also denies them the right to say they don’t care why; and they have that right. Regardless of how much we may wish to give reasons why we did what we did, it is better to wait, hold out the hand palm up, so to speak, and wait for the engagement of the other, giving them the option to ask and engage us. Or not.

It is likely that a desire to answer the “why” question is sometimes a motivator in our over explaining apologies. As children, we are often told to explain our actions and it becomes an anticipated part of conversations when we are “in trouble” with authority. Additionally, we have most likely experienced the “why” question welling up from one of our own wounds and may be trying to satisfy our own need for answers by doing what those who have harmed us will not. However, I suspect that ultimately we hope to turn the other person’s anger, resentment, or hurt into sympathy for us. Like the wild animal that attacks the hand giving a kind gesture and only does so because it is wounded, we want the person we attacked to see us as a victim, too. But unless the action was a mere isolated act of rudeness or unless you are nothing more than a wild animal, this sort of behavior is inappropriate. In truth, it can become a sort of passive-aggressive suffering one-upmanship designed, albeit potentially subconsciously, to make the other person apologize to YOU for not realizing YOUR deeper pain.

And yet if we wait for the “why” question, all the context information we want so desperately to impart becomes not the reason to be excused that we wish it to be but is a response to the other person’s need. That is the beginning of rebuilding and of reconciliation. The person harmed must be given the space to ask their questions and the choice whether or not to ask them at all. This empowers them and begins to restore to them the power they had lost to the one who harmed them. It isn’t by any means, the whole of reconciliation and healing, but it is a move in that direction and it opens the door to it in a way that all our vehement self-justification never could.

So here are some final thoughts I have on apology, both for myself as much as for anyone else. If you are seeking forgiveness for something and find yourself ready to give a laundry list of reasons why you did what you did, stop and think about what you’re really doing.

  • Are you afraid they won’t forgive you? Yes, they might not forgive you, but do it anyway. Apologize because it is the right thing for you to do and refrain from passing judgment on what the other person will or will not do. It is not your place to do this.
  • Are you afraid you won’t get to share your side of the experience or is there forgiveness the other person should also be seeking from you, too? Well, you might not get to say anything more, but then again it is likely you will. It will be more beneficial to everyone including yourself if you wait for the “why” questions. After the “why”s, dialog is open and you may be able to talk about other issues as well.
  • Are you trying to manipulate someone else? Apologies are a cheap and ugly form of emotional manipulation if you are actually not seeking forgiveness and resolution. So don’t do it. Ever. It is truly deeply a lie to do so.
  • Are you hurting from the wounds inflicted by someone else that have been motivators for you to hurt the one you wish to apologize to? Remember you are not a wild animal and you are responsible for your own actions. This does not mean you have to beat yourself up eternally for something you did because of your own wounds, but it does mean you need help. So get it. And remember that it is not the fault of anyone you’ve harmed and all the sympathy that they possess cannot heal YOU. They are entitled to their “why” moment just as you are, so make a genuine apology and wait for their “why” and if it doesn’t come that is just fine. But do not wait to get help with your own wounds.
  • Are you afraid to admit you were wrong and you screwed up? Join the club! So is the rest of the human race, so know you’re in good company and be honest with yourself and the person you’ve hurt. Own up to it, apologize, don’t say but, and move on.

So what happened to the girl from my childhood who wrote that letter of apology? Actually, I don’t know. I do not know where she is or what she’s doing. I never asked the “why” question because honestly as a grown up I knew why; at least in that general sense of human beings passing along the hurt others have committed and doing things they regret. That is enough for me. I think of this letter every time I need to apologize for something and it is my prayer I will do it with the same sincerity and vulnerability that she did. Her apology was a gift to me, not just because it acknowledged what it did, but also because it has become for me a benchmark of the first steps in reconciliation with others.

*Somewhere a long time ago I read an interesting thing about the word but. It stands for Behold the Undeniable Truth. I’d like to visit my grandmother but it’s raining outside. I’d like to visit my grandmother, behold the undeniable truth, I don’t want to bad enough to put on a raincoat. You get the picture. It is a quite reasonable word to use, but it is important to think about whether or not we’re just saying a nice platitude to cover for what we really feel.

The Hills Remember

writing assignment: choose a title or cover from a book on a shelf and use that as a starting point.

The Hills Remember

The hills re4member my father. He used to talk to them, imagine them, dream with them, pine for them when he was away for too long. He walked them plowed them, loved them.

“I lift mine eyes unto the hills,” he would say every time he returned home, “whence commeth my strength.” It was not a question as the psalmist would have it. It was his declaration. He knew from whence his help, his strength, his all came frometh; those mountains.

During the time of the great second war he wrote home from France and Germany in words that never pretended not to be homesick. He saw horrible things but also beautiful ones as well. “It is all really pretty,” he wrote from the countryside somewhere between France and Germany, “the Land, I mean. But it ain’t none of it as pretty as our mountains!” All he wanted to do was return to these mountains; these rolling hills that never forget.

I stand on the earth, toes gripping, sinking roots down deep. The ancient hills roll out all around me as far as the eye can see. Soon, as the sun sets, the mountains will leap up and catch the fire ball, pulling him down below their horizons.

If my father were alive he would be 90 years old today. But he does not walk these hills any more, at least not with feet of flesh and bone. But the hills do remember him and so do I.

I lift my eyes to the hills from whence commeth my strength.

Teach Them How To Treat You

This weekend I attended a marvelous performance of the Vagina Monologues. While I will admit that portions of this make me uncomfortable, I believe that it is an empowering and affirming event and I have attended, both last year and this, in my capacity as a campus pastor. The performance was passionate, heartfelt and meaningful and I am very glad I had the opportunity to attend.

Something happened at the event this year that made me think about a phrase I learned a long time ago. It’s something that I am sure many a wise person knows far better than I do: You teach people how to treat you.

One of the monologues is from an interview of a woman who wanted to “reclaim” a word used as a derogatory name for women. This name is actually a term for women’s genitalia and I do not care to include it in the actual text of this post but you can find it here. Regardless of the ability to actually “re” claim this word*, the intent is to rob those who would use it to wound of their power and that is a desire I can certainly understand. The end of this monolog encourages the assembled people to chant the word over and over together. This often dissolves into cheers and applause as the monolog ends.

This year something interesting happened. There were far more males in attendance this year which is, for the most part, a good thing**. I did hear a rumor that a professor (or two?) gave extra credit to anyone who took an unwilling male which, for a whole host of reasons related to the cast, the others in attendance and the men themselves, is not something I would consider to be a good idea at all. It is unfair to presume an “unwilling male” would benefit from experiencing the monologues. I have no notion that this contributed to what happened with this monolog but it certainly could add a complicating layer.

The monolog culminated as it is supposed to with all chanting this word together loudly. After a few repetitions everyone stopped….. except one. The proud and defiant fists that had punched the air had all dropped to their sides again. In the fraction of a moment of stillness a single male voice shouted out the word one last time. The majority of the women in the room erupted into cheers and applause at this one man’s shout.

I was horrified.

The moment of empowerment that had existed as all present chanted a word that degrades and dehumanizes women by attempting to label them solely as a sex organ was shattered by a single male voice shouting the word at a room full of women. One moment electric with self-defining courage (at least, I believe that is what is intended) the next a chilling reminder of so many who will always seek to continue to hurt. And we will cheer them for it.

Now, I do not wish to roast this guy over the proverbial flames. I have since been told by a female student that the young man believed that they were going to continue the chant and, while there were plenty of visual cues to indicate that they were not, and somehow the rest of the room all stopped at the same moment, I do not wish to assume any kind of malice on his part. It could quite likely be an entirely unintentional act and I am choosing to believe this. Rationally, he could have opened himself up to significant consequences had he done this on purpose, so I doubt that he did.

However, this young man as well as every other male in the room heard a man shout this word in a room full of women and heard all of these strong, talented, powerful women cheer him for using this word. If I were a man, I would find this very confusing.

Many years ago I worked with an African American woman with whom I’d become fairly close friends and I felt comfortable discussing pretty much anything with her. I asked her about something that I’d never understood. ‘Why,’ I said, ‘can black people call one another the “n” word all day long but if a white person says it, it’s a terrible thing?’  Her reply has stuck with me ever since then. ‘Because you will never, ever know what is like to be called that word.’ She could have talked all day about culture and history and dominance and slavery but in the end, that was all she needed to say. That word is, just like the one chanted at the monologs, a word heavy with history, pain and abuse. It is a word that has been “re” claimed (or claimed) by many as a shield; in a sense turning the oppressor/bully’s weapon into an impenetrable defense weapon.

In the end, for the sake of the women who had worked very hard for months on the performance and the cultural benefit the monologs brings to a community, I am very glad that this young man’s ‘accidental’ outburst was not taken offensively by those present (except for myself and, perhaps, a handful of others who may have made note of the horrifying juxtaposition of voices). It could have ended the performance altogether or ruined it. It did not and I am truly glad for that! Yet I wonder what he and the other men in the room took away from that both consciously and sub consciously. You teach people how to treat you. Did a room full of women aiming to educate and empower inadvertently give permission and positive reinforcement to the wrong thing or at least confuse some of the very men they were seeking to educate and have as allies?

Many times, with situations like this, some women will say, ‘well, I wasn’t offended. It wasn’t a big deal so I don’t see what the problem is.’ This is closely related to jokes that degrade women or glorify and humor-ize violence and rape. Some will say, ‘It was just a joke! Can’t you take a joke?’ Just because it is funny doesn’t mean that it is ok. Similarly, just because it wasn’t on purpose or some were not offended doesn’t mean that there won’t be unfortunate consequences.

Like many things I address on this blog, I do not have an answer to this kind of situation so I’m not advocating a particular action. Rather, I suppose I am advocating thought. This isn’t about being too sensitive. It is about teaching people how to treat you, or rather how to treat not JUST you but US. Both ourselves and others, both now and into the future.

*I have some doubts about the ability to “reclaim” a word that was never possessed positively by the particular demographic attempting to claim it a second time. This word, along with many derogatory words used to describe a perceived “sub-class” of person, has never really been one used by anyone in a positive manner. No one, to my knowledge, has previously claimed this as a positive or complementary descriptor and, therefore, I do not know that it can be “re” claimed in an empowering manner.

**It only seems reasonable that I include a tip of the hat to V Men in this post. Please take a moment to read about them.