Wednesday, April 28, 2021

On Street Preaching

We stood there. Four of us. In Downtown Asheville. On a Saturday evening. And watched.

Downtown Asheville is an eclectic place, full of buskers and tourists, the wealthy and the homeless. Some nights a drum circle forms in Prichard Park but on this particular night there was no drum circle. Instead, there was an evangelism service. A man held a microphone, preaching to the masses, proclaiming the Word of God. Modestly dressed young people stood on street corners, neat and tidy, handing out pamphlets and yelling to us, "Jesus loves you." 

Jesus loves you, they say. But where does it go from there? 

The young woman next to me spoke. "When I was 16 I became pregnant. My church sent a letter to everyone telling them to shun me. I don't go to church much any more." 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if...

All of us standing there had encountered this message in one form or another. 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if you get pregnant out of wedlock. 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if you leave your abusive husband. 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if your addiction proves too much to manage.

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if you step outside the box of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. 

We bristled at the sight, at the sounds, at the atmosphere. We know that talk is cheap but love is hard. We know it is easy to get somebody "saved" but considerably harder to come alongside them in their time of need. We cringed knowing that what mattered to these people was getting souls into heaven but caring for them on earth was another matter altogether. One that was above their pay grade.

In college I was told that I had to do evangelism. I avoided it. I hid from it. I hated it. I never, ever thought that walking up to somebody on the beach during spring break and sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with them was really the way to bring God to another person. Some churches still emphasize evangelism. And I just can't get with the program. Nobody wants to be somebody's agenda.

People aren't lectured into the Kingdom. They are loved into the Kingdom. And that is done through relationship. And that is done through relationship that reflects the character of God. The kind of character that comforts the afflicted, stands up for the oppressed, protects the abused, brings hope to the despairing, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, strengthens the weak, and pours out mercy on those who know they need it. 

If you can't show somebody that Jesus loves them, shouting it isn't going to do any good. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

On Bullies and Agency

"Watch it, especially if you've been bullied." Those were the words my pastor said when he shared Brandi Carlile's stunning song The Joke on Facebook a few days ago. Bullied. It wasn't until recently that I ever considered myself bullied. 

I was seven, eight, nine, ten. One of the oldest in my class but also one of the smallest. I lacked athletic skills, popularity, and force of personality. Your typical wallflower and last to be picked for the kickball team. Give me an encyclopedia and I'll be fine. And yet I wanted friends and a girl my age moved in across the street. She was loud and funny and strong and athletic. What could possibly go wrong?

As was the case back then, we spent most of our time outside. For whatever reason she found it enjoyable to beat me up. Whether it was punching me or throwing firecrackers at my head or tossing me into sticker bushes or doing the "possum stomp" (if memory serves, you shove someone to the ground and get their head between your ankles and jump up and down, with their head beating the ground), or shoving me into a closet while sitting on me and stuffing dirty socks in my mouth...this was just part and parcel of our friendship. It never, ever occurred to me to ask her to stop. To TELL her to stop. to DEMAND that she stop. 

Looking back fifty years, I find this fascinating and, in many ways, such a vivid example of what my current life task is. I need to develop a sense of agency. 

A sense of agency is the idea that your actions can make a difference in your life. You have the right and the ability to choose a path, be it a tiny footpath or a major fork in the road. You have the ability to have some say in the trajectory of your life. A lack of agency looks like having no say in your life. Letting everything just happen because what you need or what you want doesn't matter anyway. Or even if you make an attempt, it will fail. You will fail. It is powerlessness made manifest. 

Think about it this way. We have all heard about the fight or flight response to stress or danger. But the third response, and a common one, is freeze. It's what possums do when they play dead. There are times in life when there is no way to flea a situation. And fighting would only make matters worse. And so some of us freeze. 

I recently read (and posted on Facebook) a fascinating article about function of depression. That depression may be a survival technique, causing us to shut down when we have no way of being free from our circumstances, when we have no agency. Similarly, a lack of agency is the hypo-function aspect of stress. Some people under stress move into overdrive and hyper-function. Others shut down and hypo-function. 

Now, some people have no trouble with agency. I am recently read No More Faking Fine by Esther Fleece. Her response to her horrific childhood (and I mean really, really horrific) was to excel in everything and pour herself into every activity, every sport, every leadership position. Her response to her trauma was to become the ultimate overachiever. 

For whatever reason I did the opposite. I don't know what it is that makes one person's response to stress and trauma to try to over control their world and another's response is to assume that there is no control whatsoever. Maybe my wiring plays into it. Maybe my life experience. Maybe the messages I received both as a child (crazy, immature, incompetent, the cause of all the family problems) or as an adult (my needs, desires, thoughts, concerns are secondary to my husband's and he is to call all the shots. Those messages about the submissive wife did not come from Matt himself, but from the culture we were in.)

And once you have kids, you just kinda go with it. It is like getting swept into a set of rapids and using all your strength just to stay afloat and not drown. Perhaps a sense of agency would be learning how to paddle. I just barely kept my head above water (sometimes not even that), crashed into boulders, and let the chips fall where they may.

In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch discusses what is needed for flourishing in life and he shares it on a nifty 2x2 chart. High authority and low vulnerability leads to exploiting. Low authority and low vulnerability leads to withdrawing. Low authority and high vulnerability leads to suffering. And high authority and high vulnerability leads to flourishing. 

I've always had the vulnerability stuff down pat. It's like I don't know any other way to be. But I have rarely had much in the way of personal authority, or agency, in my life. 

Getting that has been a challenge. First, I have to recognize all the times that I don't even consider that I can have agency. That I don't even feel like I have either the permission or the ability to speak or act. Then I have to practice having agency. It is a undeveloped muscle that needs practice, strength training. 

And perhaps the hardest part is sticking up for myself when using my agency gets me push back from those who might prefer that I not use it. After all, there are still bullies out there. Minus the firecrackers and the smelly socks, perhaps. But bullies nonetheless. 

So be patient with me as I get my legs under me in the agency department. I might be pretty clumsy at it. I might say too much or the wrong thing at the wrong time. I might make a stupid decision. But I'm gonna have to give it a shot. 

At the foundation of having a sense of agency is the belief that I have something valuable to offer the world. And the belief that I matter. And that it is OK to have wants and needs and take action to see those fulfilled. 

I think I have some work to do. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

To Fathers of Daughters

We parents are all aware of, or at least should be aware of, the impact that our lives have on our children. Not just our words, though those matter more than you know, but our actions. Because even if our words are good and right, our actions can tell a different story. 

One of the most convicting things for me has been the idea that my acceptance of my own body will impact how my daughters perceive their bodies. As someone who has spent a lifetime wrestling with body image, it is terrifying to think that my own pathology could be passed down to my daughters. That my inability to love my body might somehow communicate to my daughters that theirs aren't good enough. When they are. They are beautiful. 

But this isn't about that. I'm not going to speak to mothers right now. I want to speak to fathers. I understand that hardly a man out there might read this, but but I'm going to say this anyway. In the words of Jackson Grimm, "I'm throwing all my words into the wind." 

I'll start with a story. It was almost 20 years ago when we lived in town. I was in the front yard raking leaves when a neighbor walked past and struck up a conversation. He was a single man, several years older than I was, and also a father of some older teen/young adult age children. He began telling me about his excitement to finally reconnect with a female friend from high school and how they met for dinner and how disappointed he was to see that she had gained a considerable amount of weight since he had last seen her. He then sheepishly admitted that he was just no longer interested in her, explaining, as he gestured my direction, "I mean, I want somebody that looks like you." 

I won't lie. For a few seconds...well...maybe a few minutes I was flattered that somebody out there saw me as attractive. What woman in her late 30s whose body has created, carried, and shoved out 4 kids and is worn to a frazzle doesn't want to know that there is still something about her that is pleasing to the eye (especially in a culture that emphasizes physical beauty above all else)? But it was all quite momentary and whatever warm fuzzy emotions I had morphed into two very different emotions: anger and terror. 

Anger. I was angry. I was angry on behalf of this woman. I was angry that her weight gain was seen as an obstacle to companionship. I was angry that women have to deal with this. That any of us have to deal with this.

And then terror. Did this mean that if I couldn't keep a handle on my own body I would one day be viewed as unworthy of relationship? And where is that line? 10 pounds? 20 pounds? Or is it years? Or both? What happens if I can't maintain myself? What happens if...or when...I slide down that slippery slope of middle age with its slowing metabolism and saggy skin. Will that mean that I am no longer worthy of affection and love? 

For those who know us know that I have an incredible husband who loves me completely and without condition and yet I still struggled with this. I understand that my personal experience may have made me oversensitive to this message. After all, my own father left my 56 year-old mother for a 39 year-old woman with blonde hair, perky boobs, and stylish clothes. 

It is a tale as old as time, these older men going for younger women. I'm sure evolution biology has the explanation that a man looks for women to carry his seed and populate the earth. But I still think it sucks. 

We've all seen it. Husbands trading Wife #1 for a younger, prettier Wife #2. And sometimes moving on to yet an even younger, prettier Wife #3. And so on. 

 Dads, have you ever thought about what are you telling your daughters? 

You are telling them that at some point it is totally OK to trade in last year's (or the last 30 years') model for an upgrade. You are telling them that at some point THEY might be traded in. You are telling them that at some point youth and beauty and fitness will trump history and  life experience and wisdom. You are telling them that one day they, like their mothers, may no longer be enough. You are telling them that at some point they won't matter any more. 

Is this a message you want to send to your daughters?

I understand it may be more complex than that. It may have less to do with the attractiveness of the old model and more to do with your own withering self-esteem. It may boost your ego to know that a hot young thing wants to be with you. It may make you feel less "old," less powerless in a world that exalts youth and puts even the middle-aged out to pasture as irrelevant and has-beens. It may feel oh, so good to be back in the saddle, so to speak, to be looked up to and admired by someone younger and less experienced.

But if you are struggling with those issues, please, please PLEASE, before you trade in someone closer to your age for a young hottie who will worship you and grace your right arm as your trophy wife, get some therapy. Get some therapy, if not for you, for your wife, for your children. Especially for your daughters. So that they do not grow up believing that one day they will no longer be of value because time has washed away the shine.