13 October 2016

Heading left

A week ago I attended an LGBTQ affinity group meeting on campus. 
Before you ask, let me say for the record that I am unequivocally straight.  

But that doesn't mean I can't support inclusion and equity for my LGBTQ friends and family.  

Some of you will be horrified that I have taken such a simple step in this direction. I know others of you would like to give me a pat on the back. And others would probably respond, "So?" 

To be transparent, I must admit that on a faith level, I am really no longer sure I understand what God's take is on homosexuality. I used to be so absolutely sure that the conservative Christian community was the only group to be correctly interpreting the Bible in its brief discussion of sexuality. I used to be sure about lots of things that I discover I am now examining with much more depth and intensity than ever before. So I'm shelving my understanding of scripture and how it relates to the LGBTQ community. For now.

Regardless, my understanding of Jesus as a compassionate, loving teacher led to my decision to participate in this affinity group. The fact is that the LGBTQ community--especially in a place as right-wing as Bakersfield--is persecuted, and my role as a Jesus-follower is to help end persecution. Prejudice and bigotry toward a particular people group is never right, whether you're against people of color, Muslims, Republicans, Catholics, the homeless, socialists, the intellectually challenged, or those with different gender preferences than you, just to name a few.  

And for the first time last week, I asked myself, "What if it were I? What if I had found myself, growing up in a conservative Christian community, to have feelings for other girls or women? What if?" And I knew that my experience would have been nothing short of miserable. I might not even be alive today. 

My LGBTQ friends deserve to feel safe, included, and supported, just like the rest of the community. They should not stand alone or be made to feel less, and they certainly should never have to fear for their safety.  

Just within the past week since I attended my first group meeting, two amazing young women I know have come out, and when I think about them, the idea that people would make slurs about them or treat them differently because of their gender preferences – it just makes me angry. I love them and want to walk beside them. One of them is a college student, and while I'm too far away to offer in-person support to her, I can offer in-person support here on her behalf. So I'm going to participate in this affinity group, get Safe Zone training, and cooperate to create ways to make our LGBTQ community members feel at home, that they belong. And I will keep on trying to show love. 

01 September 2016

On behalf of Chase

I was a senior in high school when I met Bob. He was a junior, and he and his brother Ted were new to our mission community in Jos, Nigeria, where I grew up. They were friendly and cheerful.

And they could sing.

Yes, Bob was smart and kind also, which I noticed over time. But the biggest impression he made from day one was that he could sing. Just wow. We're not talking pop singing like Josh Groban or George Strait. We're going straight to Irish Tenors or King's Singers here. And it was so fun to sing with Bob because I could do whatever harmony I wanted, and he still carried the melody - or, better yet, an alternate harmony. So super cool. (You have to remember that my school was tiny, with a graduating class of 27, so we didn't have a very big pool of musical talent... Although, looking back, considering our size, we did have quite a lot!)

Over time I got to know Bob a bit better. He starred in the spring musical. He took one of my best friends to the junior-senior banquet. He was in AP Biology, and I was a guinea pig in his sleep deprivation study. It was a fun year.

When I was in college, I saw Bob a couple times, as he went to school an hour or so away. I took the train into the city with his cousin (who attended my school) for his junior voice recital, which was of course outstanding.

But we kind of lost touch after that. My parents and his parents were friends (as are most missionaries in our community), so I heard about his marriage to an amazing young lady named Ellie, and I got to see photos of their kids once I got on Facebook.

And then four years ago, I found out that Bob's second son Chase had been diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. It's one of those things you read about in books or in Facebook posts about other people's kids, but you never expect to know someone personally in that situation. There was a real chance that Chase wouldn't make it to his third birthday.

But he did. He fought hard. Bob, Ellie, and the kids fought for and with him. Chase will turn seven the same day that my Anna turns six this December. The first fight is over, but there are so many other challenges ahead and continuing. While Chase is stable, he faces serious health issues and the overshadowing chance of the cancer's return. Ellie keeps up a blog and recently published a book about their experiences. They are totally my heroes - not because they are super-human but because they are human and real and rooted in Jesus.

Photo courtesy Chase Away Cancer http://www.chaseawaycancer.com/?page_id=3722
I've never met Chase, but through Ellie's posts and book, I've seen glimpses into his life, into their lives, and my heart is burdened for the whole family.

In 2015, Chase was chosen to be one of five St. Baldrick's Foundation "ambassadors," a real live person to raise awareness for childhood cancer. That's how I found out about the foundation and realized I wanted to become involved in supporting Chase by supporting the search for better treatments for childhood cancer. In 2000, a few New York businessmen decided to raise money for childhood cancer by getting sponsored to shave their heads for St. Patrick's Day. The response was huge, and so St. Baldrick's was born. While I haven't yet had a chance to attend a shaving event, I committed over a year ago to shaving my own head in honor of Chase. I finally signed up this past week and am booked for October 29, just in time for me to wear a wig for Halloween!

Call me crazy to shave my head, especially as a woman, but it's just hair. Hair grows back (usually). What Chase has lost in illness and treatment - good eyesight, healthy nerves and brain cells, and much more - can't grow back  I don't have much to give, but if my shaving my head can help even one child like Chase or alleviate the stress for just one mom, it will be so worth losing my hair.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, so I'm asking you to take a few minutes today, tomorrow, this weekend, whenever you get a chance to visit the St. Baldrick's site. Explore the history. Read Chase's story on Ellie's site. See his profile at St. Baldrick's website. And if you feel so led or called, please donate toward my head-shaving on October 29. For Chase. For his family. For every parent whose heart breaks in a doctor's office.

With love and thanks,

23 August 2016

Another sunset

A friend of mine lost his father today.

I didn't know the father at all, but for whatever reason, this death is really wreaking havoc with my emotions. I'm feeling the NF in my INFP personality, and it's hurting my heart. The truth is that this gentleman was elderly and in poor health, and his death was not at all unexpected. And in many ways, his death may be a relief for his family--the end of suffering for him and long days of worry for them.

But I barely made it to my car before I started crying.

I've always been awkward about grief. I don't express it well myself except privately. I'm not good at physical touch so feel awkward putting my arm around someone who's crying, or giving hugs. I never know what to say or how to act in the face of others' grief. I can remember even when I was in ninth grade and a fellow missionary kid was killed in a car accident, my friends gathered around me on a blanket spread under a tree, and while they cried, I just felt awkward. My tears came later, and even though I didn't know her well at all, I felt her death deeply. I think of her often. But I never knew what to say, how to act.

And while my amazing mentor Jay died nearly two years, and I have been meaning, wanting, and planning to write to his wife, I haven't done so. What's the use of words?

I'd never bought flowers in sympathy before today. I had no idea what to get, even had to ask the florist. I have no idea what to say in a sympathy card. How can I possibly express in words how deeply my heart hurts? Not possible.

But I'm at home now, alone, and in the absence of others, I don't feel awkward. My heart aches. Maybe this death is just the release I needed to spend some time grieving the loss of a few amazing men in my life whom I haven't really taken time to grieve yet. I have been so busy surviving that perhaps I shoved those deaths down and didn't give them proper time. I not only grieve their deaths but that I didn't get to say a proper goodbye to any but one (a moment I will treasure in my heart always).

I remember when a fellow missionary died several years ago, a friend I barely knew brought me a huge bouquet and a card. And the flowers lasted for three or four weeks in my basement studio apartment. I had been feeling so alone, but she touched my life so briefly but so deeply, just by noticing and acknowledging the hurt.

Maybe my words are meaningless, empty. May God grant me the grace to notice and acknowledge the hurt so that some day in the future, my friend may look back and recognize that he was not alone.

16 June 2016

Not just another post about the Proverbs 31 woman

I recently engaged in a Facebook debate about the role of the woman in a Christian home.

Can I just say, "Wow"?

I admit I had to disengage pretty quickly, as I don't actually enjoy arguing with people I consider friends, and I could tell there would be no resolution. Our worldviews are just so completely different that resolution is impossible. This frustrates me, but I said what I felt I needed to say, and I can't change people's minds for them.

But it opened my eyes to other viewpoints and perspectives.

Basically, the article posted said that mothers are the first and most important defense against totalitarianism, and that as we see more and more mothers work outside the home, we will see an increase in Big Brother and government oppression. It further stated that this phenomenon tending toward totalitarianism is planned and implemented by "social engineers."

In other words, people are out there, plotting the totalitarian takeover of America by telling women they don't have to stay home with their kids and can instead work outside the home.

Wow. Just wow.

I don't go in for conspiracy theories generally, and this one is a whopper. I just... wow.

Okay, so the comments on the post were that dual-income families and single parents are contributing to the societal deterioration because we are not raising our children. Further comments quote Titus 2 and tell me God wants me to stay home with my kids and take care of my household. Another choice comment is that feminism is to blame, and that offering a paid maternity leave is bad because it encourages women to work outside the home.

Again, just wow.

I am not a biblical literalist. (Shocker.) But I tend to think that if you take Titus 2 to mean women should not ever work outside the home, you should also never wear jewelry, never braid your hair, and never speak in church. I know women who do follow all these guidelines, and I respect that. If you're going to take any passage in the New Testament as law, you really have to take them all, don't you? I've been accused of "picking and choosing" bits of the Bible to follow and believe, but isn't that exactly what's done by believers like the person who posted the article? If we're going to take the Bible as literal law, we have to do it in its entirety.

The article and posted comments imply three very important statements with which I contend:
  1. A mother working outside the home is never God's plan or ideal, 
  2. Working moms can't raise virtuous Christian kids, and
  3. Feminism is the root of all kinds of evil.
First, let's be clear here: I do not believe that a working mom should ever neglect her children. But that word "neglect" means different things to different people. As a single mom, I see my first priority as feeding my children and providing them safe shelter. Next probably comes sufficient clothing, and then education. Thus "neglect" means not meeting one of those four primary needs. Someone from a different point of view thinks that I neglect my children because I have them in after-school care. A third person might say I neglect my children in sending them to public school. We've all got differing ideas of what's important. But we can probably all agree that--using our differing views of "neglect"--we don't think a working mom should neglect her children.

That being said, I can't possibly imagine a God who would say every woman needs to stay home with her children, or that managing a household means not working outside the home. Having grown up in West Africa, among people who farm and/or herd cattle for a living, I'm inclined to think I have an inkling what the culture of the Old Testament may have been like. Women do not stay inside with their children. They work out in the fields, and so do their kids. Women carry small children on their backs. Girls as young as six or seven are put in charge of the babies and smaller children while the mama hoes and digs and plows. And on market day, that mama goes into town to sell her wares. A good African mama is not one who sits at home with the kids and waits for her husband to bring home money for food. She gets out there and makes her own money. This, to me, sounds like the Proverbs 31 woman. She is a do-er. She not only teaches her children at home, but she teacher her children in her actions outside the home. She is hard-working and productive and earns a living to prosper her family.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not knocking women who do stay home with their kids. My mom was home with me, and I am grateful to have had that privilege. Stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) can be just as productive and hard-working. But can they earn a living wage? Probably not. Some, of course, get involved in Mary Kay or Tupperware or Thirty-One or whatever and can earn money from home. That is awesome. But we can't all do that (or want to do that).

I don't believe there is anything in the Bible to suggest God doesn't want mothers to work outside the home. I don't see any verses, in reading my Bible, that say being a SAHM is the only virtuous option for a Christian mom. I see that the important things are to meet the needs of the family and teach your kids biblical values: kindness, purity, diligence, respect, self-control, and a host of others.

As a single mom, I have to work. I do not believe in begging for food or for money when I have a good mind and body and the ability to work a paying job. I'm grateful for compassionate charity I've been given, but I am perfectly capable of working to meet my kids' needs. In my own situation, I would feel irresponsible if I stayed home with the kids and let other people meet all our financial needs. I lived with my parents for nearly a year, and that really was too long. Some single moms can work from home or have enough financial stability from family to stay home with and/or home-school their kids. I don't. And so I work.

For me, it's not a choice. But for so many women out there, working is a choice, and they continue to work outside the home. Why? Because they enjoy it. Because they need to pursue a calling in life. Because they crave adult conversation. Because they want to use their intelligence to build up not only their kids but others as well. Because they have a dream. Because they like having extra spending money. Because they want to share their gifts. All sorts of reasons. Women have dreams just as much as men do and should be equally free to pursue them. If saying that makes me a feminist, I'm gladly accept the label. People are different. Are all women called to get married and have a few babies? No.

Whoa. Okay, so this is not the view of the very conservative Christians out there, but it is my firm belief. I know several amazing women who have either never married or married but never had kids (whether by choice or not). Do these women sometimes feel unfulfilled? Yes. Do they feel unblessed by God, or that they have somehow missed God's plan for their lives? No. Some of my greatest Christian heroes in history are unmarried women.

So, to the second point. Can working women really not raise virtuous kids? Hmm. I'm not sure where this thought really stems from, but I'm pretty sure of a few things.

First, quality of time is more important than quantity. Period. A working mom who spends a little bit of quality time nurturing her kids is probably giving her kids just as much love and attention (and "virtue" lessons) as a SAHM who spends much of the day cooking, cleaning, and otherwise taking care of the home. Truth.

Second, while we as parents are definitely responsible for our kids, so is the village. This has kind of gotten shoved to the side in American society generally, but in much of the world, it's still a true thing. I believe it should be true here as well, but particularly in the Church. I give my kids love, attention, and life lessons, but I'm not the only one who can do that. I rely on my children's teachers, Sunday school teachers, and other community mentors to pitch in as well. And at certain ages, kids learn better from people who aren't their parents. While I may be the best person--in many ways--to raise my children in a positive Christian manner, I am not the only one who can or should do so.

And third, the way in which a child is raised does not guarantee anything--positive or negative. While I do have influence over my children and their choices, they are still free agents. And at some point, I have to let go of at least some of the responsibility. Some of the kindest, most compassionate people come from broken homes. And some of the sadists and sociopaths come from whole ones. I will do what I can to teach my children good qualities, to show them hard work, to model respect for all people. And I'll let God do the rest. But I believe in my heart that my children will be strong, kind, and resilient because of all we have gone through together and all they have gone through individually. Going to school and being in day care around children of other ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds has already taught them lessons I could never attempt to teach them myself. They are richer for it.

Finally, feminism. As a college student straight from a conservative high school, I hated feminism. I insisted I was a complementarian, arguing that women and men have equal worth but not equal roles in society, especially in the family. As I've grown up and now have to wear the pants for our little family, I've definitely left that way of thinking behind. I am a feminist. I want equal pay for equal work. I want paid maternity leave to nurse my newborn. I want to be able to choose to bottle-feed if I want to, gosh darn it! I want to be treated respectfully as an employee and as a person--not just because I'm a capable wife and mother, but because I'm a unique child of God. Feminism is not intended to destroy the family. It doesn't tell women they shouldn't stay at home with their kids. It simply empowers women to realize that staying home or not is a choice, and the decision to work outside the home is as valid as the decision to remain in the home. (Granted, some women can't work outside the home, and some women can't stay at home, but the principle is still sound.)

So I choose to be the Proverbs 31 woman who works hard (including outside the home) to benefit her family, and I pray that one day, my children will arise and call me blessed.

10 June 2016

Why I'm observing Ramadan - because you asked to know

There are so many things I've wanted to write about on here for the past year. In fact, I started making list of blog posts that never were. But this, this is a response to the question several of you have asked me in the last couple weeks: "Why are you fasting for Ramadan?"

Ramadan is a month-long daytime fast observed by Muslims around the world. Because of the lunar calendar, the timing varies from year to year. This year it happens to fall in the summer, when daytime hours are rather long. One can eat and drink in the morning before it gets light and again after it gets dark, but during daylight, one must not eat or drink anything. I'm told it is a time of spiritual journey, of deepening faith, of prayer.

To clarify, I am not a Muslim. I am a follower of Christ and Christ alone.

And I am doing a modified fast. I am drinking water during the day (only water) and celebrating a feast day on Sunday.

The simplest explanation, which I gave a friend earlier today, is that this is an exercise in self-discipline, prayer, and empathy.

So what does that mean?

Self-discipline: I have never been good at fasting. Many Christians believe that God commanded us to fast regularly in Matthew 6:16: "When you fast..." The idea is that since Jesus says when and not if, it is not only expected but also a command. Whether or not one interprets the Bible this way, I agree that fasting can be very beneficial if you let it. For me, personally, fasting is very, very challenging. I love to eat. If you know me at all, you know I love to eat. Food is yummy. And I'm not a water-drinker. I have to force myself to drink water. Tea? Yes! Coffee? Absolutely! Soda? Duh! Crystal Light? Yay! Lemonade? Sure! Water? Um, not so much. So fasting from food and drinks other than water has been a real challenge for me. I'm on day four (should be five, but Ramadan began on Sunday), and while today has been easier than the first few days, it's still a challenge. I see the donuts someone brought to work and want one. I smell the coffeecake that someone else brought and want some. I want the bagels another person is sharing. And when I get asked, "What did you bring for lunch?" I have to cleverly respond without answering the question, as I haven't advertised at work that I'm fasting. Oh my gosh, you guys, it is hard to fast for 16 hours! But I'm going to do this! I need to learn self-discipline, and this is as good a lesson as any.

Prayer: I have never been a prayer warrior. I've always wanted to be, but I've never made a real effort to become fervent in prayer. Over this month, I'm making an effort at least to pray during my meals (as I usually eat them alone) and when I feel hunger during the day. Mostly this week I've prayed for my Muslim friends and others observing the fast, that they would find strength and sustenance in God. But I do also pray for specific needs of which I'm aware. The grumbling stomach is just a reminder to pray.

Empathy: Perhaps the most important reason for my fast is to develop empathy. While I grew up just streets away from the Muslim community of my hometown in Nigeria, I never tried to put myself in their shoes. I didn't wonder what their lives were like. I want to change that. I'm not a sociologist or a cultural anthropologist, and I'm no missionary in the traditional sense. But I want to have some idea what this fast is like. After all, it's a full lunar month every single year of an adult Muslim's life, and it's one of the Five Pillars of Faith. In other words, it's a Big Deal. A few months ago I was given the chance to wear a hijab for an afternoon. While I didn't observe a difference in the way people responded to me, I observed a difference in the way I felt: conspicuous but proud. It was very similar to the feeling I used to have when I wore my Nigerian clothes in college: "I know I’m different, but I'm not ashamed of it." Or maybe even, "I dare you to think I’m weird or treat me differently because of what I'm wearing." All that to say I want to know what it's like. I'm so far not brave enough to actually ask my Muslim friend if I can come over and join her for any of her Ramadan traditions, but I have told her I’m fasting, so maybe in a week or two I'll gather courage. Or maybe not. We'll see. But I love the Muslim people I know, and I want to connect on some level. Without knowing a good way to do so, maybe this will be a springboard. If nothing else, it might someday be a conversation starter.

Call me crazy. I don't mind. I think God has things to teach me, and I'm going to listen.