Acknowledgement, Humility and Connection

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So this past Friday I went out on a limb and decided to rejoin Facebook. I had pulled the plug four years ago when I felt like I was somehow closer to living more of my life online than living my actual life. (When you’re walking into work and wondering what people are posting while you’re supposed to be preparing for a busy day of interactions with real live people, its probably time to cut the cord.)

I jumped back on last week in an effort to feel more connected to our community here but within 24 hours I wondered if I had made a mistake. By Sunday, my entire feed was filled with news articles and blog posts about the events in Charlottesville and as someone who tries to regulate how much global news threatens her inner peace it was all a bit unsettling. Don’t get me wrong, I have STRONG opinions about whats happening in our country. I even posted a blurb from the President of Emory that I so appreciated on the topic. But sometimes I wonder if posting our deepest held opinions on a social media outlet ever gets us anywhere in the end. Maybe we’re just supposed to be fully present and compassionate in our daily interactions at work or in the grocery line and work our way towards unity that way. 

Then I read this in a post by Tim Keller on the topic:

Twentieth-century fascist movements that made absolute values out of [“Blood and Soil”]—putting one race and one nation’s good above the good of all—also claimed to champion traditional family values and moral virtues over against the decadence of relativistic modern culture. Even though [fascists] were no friends of orthodox Christianity (see Adolf Hitler’s heretical “Positive Christianity” movement), they could and can still appeal to people within our own circles. Internet outreach from white nationalist organizations can radicalize people who are disaffected by moral decline in society. So it is absolutely crucial to speak up about the biblical teaching on racism—not just now, but routinely. We need to make those in our circles impervious to this toxic teaching. 

Now to be clear, I don’t think I have the power to sway anyone’s deeply held beliefs on a topic any more than the next gal. But in reading this I felt a nudge that staying silent on the topic isn’t necessarily the answer either. We all become products of what we put our attention to and if anyone reads this post and feels nudged in any way towards compassion than I’ll count it all worth it. So here goes nothing.

I can remember a dozen or more instants off the top of my head when I realized the color of my skin bought me a type of privilege that I hadn’t earned. There was the time I overheard my black co-worker responding to an apartment listing on her lunch break and watched her slam the phone down after insisting angrily that of course she had a job or she wouldn’t be calling to apply in the first place. (No one’s ever asked me that in response to my questions about an apartment) There was the time a local donut shop wouldn’t allow a 45 year old black volunteer I was working with to pick up a box of donuts I had ordered in advance because they thought she was stealing them from the 22 year old white girl who had placed the order the day before (I’ve never been questioned incessantly when sent in to pick something up on behalf of another.) There was the time I looked at my “competition” for a job waiting to be called back for an interview that I had just finished and knew without a doubt that I would land it because my private school college professor had admonished me ahead of time to wear a skirt suit and no one told him that his short sleeved dress shirt didn’t go with his tie and dark sneakers. There are also the untold number of times that I introduced well meaning white volunteer groups to a group of leaders on a work site only to watch them shake hands with all the white construction team leads but ignore the black future homeowner I’d also introduced who was standing directly next to the team lead.

These instants all happened but the one that shocked me the most was the moment directly after the donut shenanigans. Jackie and I got back in the car after she had been told to find me and I immediately felt shame on Jackie’s behalf that she had to be a part of that entire scene. No middle aged woman wants to hunt down the 22 year old college kid who’s running an errand across the street to tell her that she’s not exactly what Dunkin Donuts had in mind. We silently grabbed our seats in the Habitat van with the four other African Americans that were in the car with us and started making our way to our destination when I broke the silence and apologized to Jackie for the whole ordeal. She shrugged it off with an “it happens” when one of the other ladies in the car shared a recent experience at a grocery store. She had handed a clerk a $20 bill to pay for her items and the clerk slid her change back to her on the surface of the cashiers desk. “It was like he didn’t even want to chance that he might touch me when he returned the change.” she told us. My internal jaw dropped and then followed quickly by my actual physical jaw when all five women in the van said in some form or fashion: “Oh, I HATE when they do that!”

I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want to touch me because of the color of my skin. It hand’t occurred to me because it just simply had never happened. You pay for your food, grab your change from the cashiers hand and go. But that conversation with those five women changed me. From that moment forward I couldn’t help but see all the tiny gestures that all of us, myself included, made or didn’t make due to skin color. We defer to the white people in the room for their opinions more quickly than the black. We ask the white men in our church to consider eldership but overlook the black gentleman who’s faithfully served for years. I walk into a crowded room and say hello to the group of white friends seated at a table in front of me and completely miss acknowledging the black man who was so kind to OPEN THE DOOR FOR ME TO WALK THROUGH in the first place. (Emphasis mine because I’m 10 plus years into my journey of awareness on this topic and I did this approximately 6 weeks ago. I was kicking myself all the way home and at least aware enough to apologize for my rudeness and introduce myself).

Here’s the thing. Its all about intent, right? White supremacists are a whole other category of people with a severely twisted ethos. As the President of Emory University said in her email to students this week: “supremacist groups are not engaged in the difficult work of informed civil discourse… These groups seek to undermine the fabric of civil society through ignorance, fear, and violence.” This is truth and I think we need to denounce this activity with every cell in our bodies. My question is, what do we do when all we have left is to look at a facebook feed that’s filled with clamor and fear and a heart that’s wondering if that feed is total reality?

For me its looked a lot like acknowledgement, humility and connection. That day in that van I had to acknowledge truthfully that my experience has not ever been close to what those women have experienced. I have never once had to reconsider pursuing something because of my skin color and my friends in that car had. If the roles had been reversed and I was a 45 year old white woman told to go find the 22 year old black girl because I didn’t have the right skin color I would have promptly said “Excuuuse me” with all the sass I could muster and said “Either give me the donuts that my organization has paid for fair and square or you can do without our business and all of our friends business from now on. AND DAMMIT WE ALL LOVE A GOOD DONUT!” But for Jackie, the look on her face showed me that this was a common occurrence and she didn’t feel like making a scene. (which means we can also have a little more understanding next time we see someone making a scene too, right? Maybe they’ve just had it up to here with this crap. Can you blame them?)

After acknowledging the difference I found that a little humility went a long way. And hear me. I’m not saying white guilt. None of us tapped our mothers from the womb and said I’ll take white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes thank you very much. Feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone. But I do think it means we make amends when we notice that we screw up. I also think it might require an openness to the fact that success might look different than we thought.

A few years ago we installed a new pastor at our church in Galveston. He has an adopted African American daughter and I would assume has a similar stance on these topics that I do (though we’ve never discussed this). Within short time I noticed that the African Americans in our congregation were entering various leadership roles slowly but surely. One Sunday morning, Terry, a teddy bear of a black man with a booming speaking voice stepped up to the podium and read the scripture passage that the Pastor would be teaching from that morning. It could have just been me but I think I could have heard a pin drop. I closed my eyes and his voice sounded like an angel’s speaking truth about the God he and I both love. After he was done reading Terry closed the Bible and prayed the most eloquent and intimate prayer. With my eyes closed it felt like Terry and I and God in one room by ourselves, communicating.

I went up to him at the end of the service and thanked him for reading. He said he’d been nervous all morning because he’d not spoken in front of a crowd for a while. I told him that I hoped he would do it again because his reading and prayer blessed me profoundly. He thanked me and we went on to enjoy the rest of our Sunday.

Maybe this is what revolution actually looks like. Revolution after all is defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Well, the social order of our day appears to mean throwing our opinions on the moving target that is social media and saying RAGE and then going back into our churches and workplaces and letting all the white people continue to run the show. But what if the forcible overthrow of the dastardly tremors of systemic racism in our country starts with acknowledging the gifts and the very presence of the people of various races we encounter by saying with our words or our actions “You are stunning. I see you and you take my breath away.” 

Is this not the Imago Dei in action? We can share articles and like posts until the cows come home but if it doesn’t work itself out in our day to day interactions then all of it is nonsense and all we walk away with are anxious and angry hearts. So perhaps today you’ll stop at a grocery store or walk through a park and meet someone who’s different than you are. I know I will. I’m praying in this moment that I can be present enough to acknowledge that person’s presence. If we’re exchanging money for goods purchased I am probably going to skim his or her hand before one of us takes our leave. I’ve done this since the day I left that van, a new person for the education I’d received from the other passengers in the car.  I don’t know what its like to be overlooked or ignored because of the color of my skin but I do know what it feels like to be ignored for other reasons. It’s lonely. And I can stare at my phone and wonder what I can do to make a difference or I can leave my phone in the diaper bag and have a conversation with the other mom at the park who’s kids look different than mine. At some point along the way we’ll get past the awkwardness and realize that we’re a lot more similar than we are different. And the world will be changed a degree for the connection we’ve made.

 

A Spacious Place for Creativity

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For so long I had felt incredibly confident in my stance on women in the home and workplace. I know, I know. You’re probably ready to bounce off this page as who hasn’t heard every argument in the book when it comes to the Mommy wars. I totally get it. You know what though? The other day I had a bit of an epiphany on this front: What if all the debate on the topic of work and domesticity is actually healthy? Sure, we can go down rabbit trails that are unhelpful. Yet lets be fair to ourselves…we’re talking about the meat of life here. Our callings to the people we love and the world outside of our households. Shouldn’t we allow ourselves a bit of debate on such important topics? Yes, I believe we should.

The funny thing is that it didn’t take long after I hit the fork in the road that suggested that I would need to contend with this debate on a personal level that I felt my confidence slipping away. You see, for some time now, I’ve felt pretty certain that there are multiple ways to build an admirable life. I have friends and family members who are full time working moms. I know others who stay at home full time with their kids from the start. I know people who mix it up in various seasons. I also know people who have chosen not to marry and/or have children at all. So many of these people are building lives and families that I admire and I glean bits and pieces from each of them as they live out their lives in front of me.

That being said, I won’t quickly forget where I was when I heard the voice in my head that said “Really? You’re changing life lanes? Are you really allowed to do that?” I was driving on Harborside Drive in Galveston in my last week at work before we packed up and moved to Atlanta. Already in my third trimester with Ellie, we had decided that I would stay home to start if only by necessity at first. We moved six weeks before she was born and there was clearly no point in finding a job only to take maternity leave almost as soon as we hit the ground. I didn’t know how I would take to staying at home full time so I reasoned that if I wasn’t built for it then I could consider getting back out there once we found our rhythm. (which by the way…do we ever really find the rhythm? No, of course we don’t. OK, just checking)

I was thinking about these issues recently as I was reading Paul’s freedom manifesto that is Galatians. There’s this verse which, again, Eugene Peterson translates so beautifully in the Message:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original. So live creatively friends…Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” Galatians 5:25-6:1, 4-5

Isn’t that just lovely to read? I love that a passage in the Bible is calling us to live creatively. This book is so much more than a book of rules to live by. Its a story of the Spirit igniting fires in the hearts of men and women to live beyond the categories we all want to put ourselves and each other into. Its saying that the mother who works a full time job and snuggles with her children on Saturday mornings, is just as valuable as the woman who encourages her neighbors at the playground down the street on a Monday afternoon. When you’re following the spirit’s leading (a key point), there can be any number of ways to live out any aspect of our lives. Its also saying that the couples without children are just as gorgeous in their spirit led careers and callings in the world as the single man or woman is in her willingness to mentor or paint or cook or account or whatever it is she does that culls out her gifting for the world to experience with her.

All this makes me want to do two things:

  1. Encourage, Encourage, Encourage. Can we be honest with each other? Does anyone really know what their doing with themselves? No, none of us do. We are all stumbling forward through our days and as a friend told me before Ellie was born “Whatever you decide. Its hard.” Work is hard, raising children is hard, singleness is hard, married life is hard. With all of it being so difficult in its varying ways I think we could do with a lot more encouragement and a lot less judgement of ourselves first and then other people. (A rabbit trail here but I really think our judgments of other people simply stem from our lack of confidence in our own selves. But that’s for another day). I’m so grateful that God has at least freed me up enough to be over the top proud of my friends and family members. Rest assured next time we get together for coffee…I am probably resisting the urge to bust out my pom poms and say “Get it, girl.” I really do stand amazed by the women and men in my life and I was not always that way. That is a straight up gift from God.
  2. Lean into the Spirit of God. The more I get to know the Lord, the more I realize that being in his presence is a lot more like taking a deep calming breath. Following his lead is lot more like watching a field of wildflowers bloom than it is striving to be or do something with all of my own might. I want to know where the spaces are that let me breathe deeply. This doesn’t mean I’m sitting in a corner all day mediating. It does mean that at some point in the day I am spending time getting quiet with God and then carrying that soul quiet into the work that I’ve been called to do.

Lets face it. Women in particular have an edge in the creativity game. We get to nurture loved ones and neighbors AND we also get to participate in the stewardship of our culture in a way that men simply don’t. This is a blessing. Yet as many before me have pointed out, if our theology or world view doesn’t work for ALL women, it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work for the woman in the African slum AND the woman in an American suburb than its never going to be open enough to include any of our paths and the myriad directions those paths can meander. My greatest prayer on behalf of the women in my life is that I might be among their greatest fans and cheerleaders. May I get quiet enough, even if its just for this moment, to hear God say the same thing back to me.

“He has brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me, because he delighted in me.”

Ps. 18:19

 

 

 

Bloom Where You’re Planted

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Hi Folks! I’m on vacation this week and then heading back into a bunch of work when I return so my posting might be a bit sparser than I’d prefer in August. Below is a piece I wrote for SheLoves Magazine – a women’s issues/justice issues magazine that I’ve been submitting to. They decided not to pick it up this month so I figured I would post it here! Much love to all.

-Courtney

When I left a coveted job in Baltimore to join my husband in Houston for graduate school I remember thinking two things. “What an awesome opportunity I’ve had to work here,” followed by “I would never want to lead an organization like this.”

To be clear, I absolutely love everything about Habitat for Humanity. I began working for them right out of college and to this day it is one of my favorite charities on the planet. Families in need obtain affordable housing by working with volunteers to build their own home. Once the home is completed the family takes on a 20 to 30 year interest free mortgage and those mortgage payments help to fund other houses for other families in similar situations. After a decade of working with the organization in some form or fashion I’m not so sure I ever met a Democrat or Republican or anyone in between who couldn’t stand in support of what we were trying to accomplish.

My concerns about leadership revolved around both my personality type and my personal fear of failure. The Executive Director that hired me out of college was as extroverted and energetic as it gets. Mike had an enormous heart for justice and an unusual amount of energy and was constantly running into staff meetings or various offices throwing out ideas for building more houses. He always had another proposal forming in the back of his mind and since he so clearly wasn’t afraid to fail I felt encouraged to push boundaries too. His enthusiasm was inspiring and I always enjoyed bouncing ideas around with him and my coworkers, trying to figure out how to make some of them stick.

I knew Mike believed in me. He gave me complicated projects early on and when I succeeded over time, he promoted me. While I had innate leadership capabilities, I always knew I was different than Mike and I felt that somehow disqualified me from the top position. I’ve never been one to bound out of bed in the morning, eager to start the day. While I genuinely enjoy being with people I often find after a couple of meetings that I need to be by myself for a while to get some energy back. I wrongly assumed that to be successful I had to be a high energy extrovert.

Four years into Andy’s graduate work I found myself by an act of sheer grace back at Habitat at a suburban Texas affiliate in the same coveted position I had left four years earlier. The department head position that I had loved four years earlier opened up and with my past experience I was hired practically on the spot. Little did I know that the woman who hired me realized at some point along the way that her life was heading in a different direction and was actually looking to hire her replacement.

It took a couple of months to admit to myself that I needed to stop playing it safe. On the eve of my 30th birthday I took the interim director role and convinced the Board President to complete a search for someone else. Finally one day, Rudy took me to lunch and we caught up on all the things I thought someone else should do to move the organization forward. My previous experience had taught me so much about how to take an organization to the next phase and I intuitively knew the next steps for so much of what we needed to do next.

“Courtney,” Rudy said. “There was a time in my career when I was asked to move into a position that I didn’t want to take.  I was comfortable where I was and didn’t want that to change. I went to mass one Sunday though and the priest told us that sometimes in life we’re called to ‘bloom where we’re planted.’ I took that to heart and it was one of the best decisions for my career.”

I often look back upon my 20s and consider them my “awkward teenage years.” Highschool had its frustrating moments but it wasn’t until I hit college that I started to understand what it felt like to be uncomfortable in my own skin. At 29, at a lunch table with my future boss, I know now that I was offered a rare opportunity to stick my feet on the ground where I was standing and let the wind of a new opportunity blow me around a bit. As I accepted the position I knew it was entirely possible for a hard wind or a driving rain to overwhelm me and snuff me out. It would be dishonest not to admit that truth. Yet I was also gradually aware of the fact that sometimes a hard wind or driving rain that doesn’t overwhelm us can lead to a blossoming that only a master gardener could have imagined.

On the morning of my interview I picked up my Bible and found myself in Luke chapter 9: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” As much as I hate admitting it I know more and more that hiding from life is just as much a choice to die as accepting life’s opportunities is a choice to live.

I’m so glad I took that job. I made mistakes. I was nervous more days than I wasn’t and stumbled forward to the finish line. Yet we accomplished a lot in those years in partnership with families in need of a home. I know to the bottom of me that I honored the opportunity I was given by giving it all that I could.  I bloomed where I was planted. And I believe the master gardener was pleased.

 

Courage, dear heart.

Bloom where you’re planted.

The wind and the rain will come,

yes they will.

They just might overwhelm you,

yes they might.

But what if by some miracle

they don’t.

Maybe this time,

is just the right time,

to stick both feet in warm dirt.

Maybe this time,

Is just the right time,

to come alive.