Friday, June 29, 2018

Reading for Hope and Justice

I wasn't planning on doing too many of these over the summer months. But it's been a very discouraging last few weeks, no? Stories and images of children separated from their parents after the trauma of the homes they left behind is almost too much too bear. And yet, people are somehow bearing it in their hearts and bodies every day - even here in Washington there are over 200 adults in the immigration detention center whose children are being kept elsewhere.

How on earth can we explain this crisis to our own children? Should we? As I often do, I turn to literature to help me have these conversations. I turned to a resource I've looked to for awhile and I discovered a cool new resource for parenting for justice.

Here Wee Read is an old favorite. Charnaie, the creator of this resource has several virtual stores through Amazon, including one on immigration. I found it to be a helpful bibliography of books at a variety of levels from preschool to young adult. I was unfamiliar with many, but can personally recommend Inside Out and Back Again, a story told in verse from the perspective of a Vietnamese refugee girl in the south. And The Sun is Also A Star, which is a YA novel about two teenagers: Korean American boy and a Jamaican girl on the eve of her deportation. It's a real tear-jerker/page-turner (Kindle-tapper?) love story, which I just found out is going to be made into a movie starring the star of Blackish and Grownish and a guy I didn't recognize from Riverdale. I'll be first in line.

Barefoot Mommy is my new discovery. A seminary educated social justice advocate who as a parent is putting her energy into how to raise socially conscious kids. She herself is parent to a five-year-old and a teen. This list of books has some overlap with the Here Wee Read list, but also includes discussion questions, audio of Story Corps interviews with immigrants and video of a young woman talking about being separated from her father by ICE. From there she links to other resources as well, including tools (like this one) for writing letters to legislators with kids.

Finally, our local libraries also have lists of books related to immigration. I've already put a bunch of them on hold. Don't be surprised if some of them make it into children's time over the summer.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Blessing the Transitions

For those of us who have children in school, the end of school is a significant transition, whether it's into a new grade, a new school or graduating and going off to college. We mark these transitions with chalk board "end of x grade" photos on Instagram (or is that just in my feed - can't say I'm that organized myself). In our congregation we have a tradition of marking the transition out of high school with a quilt and an invitation to grads to bring some show-and-tell mementos of their life as students. But how, for all our children, do we honor and bless the work and accomplishments, the joy and anticipation, and mark these transitions as significant life moments that are held in the hands of God?

Traci Smith, whose work I've recommended before, makes the suggestion to present to a graduate the gift of new shoes. Along with the new shoes, a picture of or the actual shoes they wore as they began school and a blessing. Something like this: "We remember the feet that wore these little shoes and we are so proud of all the places your feet have take you and taken us together - the classrooms, and sports fields and stages and trails. We have seen your feet, and every part of you, grow so much! May God bless your feet. As you as you continue to grow in knowledge and in spirit, may God walk with you wherever your future takes you."

Maybe the gift is shoes decorated by a family member or maybe there are additional mementos and gifts inside the new shoes, or a special letter. Maybe it's just a gift certificate to pick shoes that the graduate will like. I love this idea for a transition or graduation. We usually think of giving new items of clothing at the beginning of a school year, but this really honors the path that has been trod. And not to get all "Footprints," but Jesus has been walking with our children every step of the way.

This end-of-school time is a time for a benediction, a blessing to send us into something new - even if the something new is just summer break. So I offer you this benediction and a blessing on the transition:

May your feet come alive
in the unknown geography that waits for them.
May you step from this threshold into an adventure
in which the One who created you,
in whose image you are beautifully formed,
calls you into love,
compels you toward joy
and promises to be always present when your feet stumble.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Breaking Our Kids' Hearts

"We need to break our kids hearts," said Jennifer Harvey in her talk at The Well last Thursday evening. "There's nothing innocent about white innocence." In her follow up to her book Dear White Christians, called Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America Harvey is inspired by the questions and issues arising from her own parenting, and her desire to again address her own community: white folks. Most of the folks in our congregation who are parent are raising or have raised white kids. And all of us - parents of white kids or not - have ample opportunities to grow in the ways that we engage our families and communities around issues of awareness, bias, privilege and racial justice.

What Dr. Harvey means when she says we must break our children's hearts is that it is only our privilege that allows us to protect our kids from knowing personally the bias and racism experienced daily by people of color. We want our children to be people who are advocates for justice and equality and teaching them that everyone is the same - teaching 'colorblindness' - ignores the fact that people are in fact different. And those differences mean that those who are people of color have been and continue to be treated differently. The only way that our children can fight for their fellow humans, the only way they can be brave together through the awkward and the uncertain is to know the pain and tragedy of what happens because of implicit and explicit racism and then rebuild their understanding that we and they have agency to respond in just ways.

Harvey's book speaks from her own experience as a parent of white children and aunt to two black children. She starts from the beginning (there's literally a chapter called "Where do I start?") for folks who are at a loss for how to initiate conversations in their families. And she acknowledges that it can be fraught and confusing and awkward but presses us to dive in anyway. When we don't find ways of addressing race, children will notice and make their own conclusions about our opinions.

As a parent of a tween, I have my radar attuned to middle grade fiction that addresses issues of race, since I always like books to do a little of the work for me and give me a reference point in conversation. I have two suggestions that I think will also be meaningful reading for adults:

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (and any book by her - she writes picture books for younger children as well) deals with race, faith, disability and belonging through the eyes of a sixth grade girl. Franny is a black girl living in an all-black neighborhood but begins to ask questions about how black and white folks should interact when a white kid who looks a lot like Jesus shows up in her classroom. We read this book together and then we used the questions at the back of the book as a starting place for conversation about our own experience and attitudes.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (and anything by her too). I haven't read this one yet but heard the author on The Longest Shortest Time podcast and then went to see her the next day when I discovered that she was speaking and reading at the Seward Park Third Place Books. Her book starts with the shooting of Jerome, a 12-year-old black boy, by a white police officer. It tells the rest of the story through his eyes as a ghost - encountering both the grief of his family and community, a host of other ghosts, including Emmett Till, and the one child who can still see and hear him: Sarah, the daughter of the officer who shot him.

Both of these books are heartbreaking in just the way that Harvey suggests. They will break open our own and our kids' hearts in ways that we can put them back together again full of hope. Much of the hope in the books is lodged in the young protagonists and their peers. I was so impressed by Jewell Parker Rhodes in how full of joy she was in spite of the heavy content of her work. She sparkled with delight in the young people in her audience and urged all of us, young and old alike to tell stories like Jerome's and to talk to each other about how to build hope and justice in our communities. We can start in our own families.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

One God Who Mothers Us All

One of my preferred ways of speaking the trinitarian formula is this:
     In the name of the Father
     and of the Son
     and of the Holy Spirit
     One God who is Mother of us all.

This is a favorite now but but when I first began to imagine God as Mother it felt really weird.  It made me feel squirmy and wrong when, in my prayers I began to experiment with female images.  I think this may be the case of many of us who grew up in traditional churches.  It's likely true even in non-church culture, where 'the man upstairs' is universally understood to mean God and with a couple of notable exceptions (Alanis Morrisette or Octavia Spencer for example) God has been portrayed in most art and media as an old white, bearded dude in the clouds.

Yet mothering imagery for God - even for Christ - has ancient roots.  These are words from Julian of Norwich in the 14th century (and from our Hymnal #482):
     Mothering Christ, you took my form,
     offering me your food of light,
     grain of life, and grape of love
     your very body for my peace.
Who else but a mother feeds and nourishes and sustains her children from her very body?  This Christ-like action that we all experience when we share at Christ's table and that I understood in a new way as a nursing mother.

And way, waaay before Julian, the Biblical writers understood the mother-ness of God, although we haven't always read it that way.  Hosea writes in the voice God: 
I taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms;
     yet they did not know that I healed them.
     I pulled them along with humane restraint, with ties of love.
     And I was to them like those who lift babies to their cheeks,
     I reached to them and fed them.
Sure, dads can do that stuff too (thanks be to God).  But for the prophet and the culture and context in which he wrote, he was imagining the Mother.

When I was in college and spent a summer as a camp counselor in Alberta, I butted heads often over theological issues with a particular counselor who was much more conservative than I.  But I found on the matter of gendered God language he was completely on board with Mother God.  For him it was a matter of having had a father who was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive, who was anything but the nurturing and tender parent that we long for in the God.  To imagine God as Loving Father was painful and difficult and difficult for him, when for me it was comforting and tender because I have a dad who was comforting and tender.  Hosea's image could easily have been Father in my eyes, just as it has so often been understood by so many.

The naming and understanding of God is going to be as nuanced as the ones who name and call on Her.  For those of us who parent, we can understanding a parenting God through the lens of our experience of parenting. Calling on Mothering God can be meaningful both in our experience of mothering and in our longing for one who provides the comfort and tenderness of a mother's arms in our time of need when nothing will do but Mama.

Finally, if you have not heard it before (or even if you have!) I recommend Bobby McFerrin's adaptation of the 23rd Psalm.  His hymn of praise to God our Mother is transporting.  You should put it in your ears RIGHT NOW.  Happy Mother's Day all you who mother, who have mothers or who need our Heavenly Mother to give you rest.
Image of Julian of Norwich by Br. Robert Lenz.  Click on it to learn more about Julian (and her cat).
Image of hands by Jon Warren, taken about 10 years ago of my hands with my daughter.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

For the Love of Camp

Camp Shekinah, approx 1989
When I was a child, my Mennonite camp was called Camp Shekinah. It’s in the valley cut out of the prairie by North Saskatchewan river, which in some summers a trickle and some summers floods the banks as far as the lodge, but most summers is somewhere in between. Which always provides ample breeding ground for mosquitoes. It's the camp where I learned to canoe, tie knots, use a compass and build an excellent log-cabin or a-frame fire. It's also where I re-enacted the Exodus, learned the definition of the word 'statutes' (it's not the same as statues), had a counselor talk to me about why he got baptized and where I began to understand that following Jesus would be my choice too.

I loved camp. I could not wait to say goodbye to my parents and find the friends that I'd made the year before. I felt like I belonged there in a way that I didn't experience in other parts of my life and it fed my soul. That is the experience I long for every child to have when they go to camp. I see it now at Camp Camrec when I go as a staff person. The space might be different, but the essence is remarkably similar: the beauty of creation all around, children and youth invited into the work of God in the world, the joy of connecting with caring community, songs and stories and worship around the campfire.

My childhood camp isn't the 'Camp Shekinah' of the canvas tents and mud trails anymore. It's Shekinah Retreat Centre whose facilities have grown (past the flood line) and whose program is year-round. I've visited a few times in recent years and because my cousin was the program manager I even got to experience the new zip line. But the kids that I observed who were there as campers were still having essentially the same experience that I had, that kids at Mennonite camps all over the continent are having - a fun, meaningful, holy time of learning and connection.

I'm looking forward to being at camp again this summer with the older youth. I hope your families too will take advantage of the opportunities it offers. Registration is open.  :)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Palms and Marches

Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang. These are kinds of images and songs we like on Palm Sunday. Cute kids waving palm leaves while adults look on from their seats. A party or parade atmosphere. But Palm Sunday is not and has never been cute. And what I've been dwelling on this week is concurrence of Palm Sunday with the March for our Lives the day before. A march to protest the use of guns in this country and specifically they way they've been used to kill children.

When you look at images from palm processions from parts of the world where it's kind of a big deal, they look a lot like protest marches. People en mass holding up palm leaves like protest signs. That is likely closer to the original procession than having children traipse around the sanctuary half-heartedly singing a hymn they don't know. The first procession, in which Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey was an act of prophesy and a political send-up of the Caesar-worship of the time. With boldness and courage, Jesus and his followers took to the street to perform some radical street theater. To protest the domination powers that occupied them and would later kill Jesus.

Our marches to protest violence against black lives, to protest the violence wrought by guns against our children, to protest the power of the state - I believe that is very much in line with the protest that Jesus had in mind when he mounted a donkey and invited his followers to name their allegiance not to Caesar and the Roman Empire but to the Prince of Peace,

You may or may not be participating in the March 24 March for Our Lives. But I pray that we all may be invited - along with our children - not to cute-ify the procession. That we may be bold and courageous in our prophesy. That we may walk in the way of Jesus.

*fabric palms above created by the Seattle Mennonite Church junior youth

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

When God Made You

It's hard to find children's picture books about God that don't make me cringe a little or change the language to re-interpret the theology while I'm reading or have pictures that reflect a diversity of people and culture. But recently I found Here Wee Read (@hereweeread) on Instagram. 

The reason I started following Here Wee Read, (which is also a website) is that Charnaie, the creator of the site and all its social media is an 'expert in diversity' and makes excellent suggestions of books that feature people of color or tell stories of black and brown leaders and innovators, and that help to introduce conversations about race even with very young children. I was delighted to learn that her suggestions sometimes also include books about God and/or the Bible.

When God Made You and When God Made Light are now regular reading at bedtime in our household. The illustrations are absolutely delightful and engaging; we pause at almost every page to talk about what's in the pictures because there are new things to notice, or we notice the same beautiful thing again and again. (It can take a long time to read these books because of this.) The lyrical, silly-serious lilt of the writing is fun to read and, as the kids say, gives me all the feels. Plus - and these are actually big ones for me - I never have to edit-as-I-go because the pronouns for God are Capital H He's, language for humanity is exclusive, or there's questionable theology, which I have to do even with the wonderful Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu.

The illustrations are such a celebration of the beauty, creativity and personhood of little black girls that I was surprised to learn in an interview with the author, Mathew Paul Turner, that both the author and the illustrator are white dudes. (Read the interview here with Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families). In the interview Turner talks about his own frustration with reading to his kids. wanting to acknowledge the light of God's creativity and love within his own children and not finding anything that quite fit what he was looking for. So he wrote it himself.

There are some lines I can barely read without busting out crying with the beauty of imagining my child and all our children and each of us in all our belovedness.

"You, you, when God dreams about you,
God dreams aout all that in you will be true.
That you - God's you - will be hopeful and kind,
a giver who live with all heart, soul and mind...
A mover, a shaker, a lover of nature.
A builder of bridges, you the peacemaker...
'Cause when God made you, all of heaven was beaming.
Over YOU, God was smiling and already dreaming."