Did you know that Bristol, Tennessee, has a few Confederate monuments in East Hill Cemetery? That makes sense, given the fact that Bristol served as a hospital during the Civil
I generally run right on time, which leaves little to no room for error and no time for slow drivers or waiting in line. What it does leave time for are life lessons – whether I want them or not.
For instance, a few days ago I was in a hurry to get from one thing to the next – which included a stop at the grocery store. I loathe shopping of any sort – except for books – and grocery shopping is the worst. I wanted and needed to get in and out of the store quickly. I zipped my buggy through the produce department – aptly grabbing the bit of fruit and veg we needed to at least appear health conscious. I took the turn down the cereal aisle, deftly avoiding a dreaded delay created by two weary moms who stopped to chat – mid aisle. My buggy driving ability was nothing short of inspiring – almost NASCAR worthy.
Within thirty minutes, I managed to get everything we needed to survive (including a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup). Then, I made my way to the front of the store. I made a quick study of the lines, found the shortest one, and began my wait – and wait I did.
I started to get impatient (yet another character flaw). Lines I had passed over moved, while mine crawled. Even one of the moms from the cereal aisle checked out faster than me (I swear I think she sneered at me). I strained to look down the line to see what the delay was. I started to gruffly move to another line. Then I discovered the reason; a forty-ish woman with special needs stood to the left of the cashier and bagged groceries.
My need for speed shifted into shame and gratitude. The grocery store where we often shop employs a number of people with special needs. I had forgotten that. I felt like a real jerk. I decided to stay in my line.
I was forced to slow down – to wait –as this woman meticulously bagged groceries – just as she had been trained. She did a great job. Eventually, after she carefully bagged my groceries, she thanked me for shopping and wished me a good day.
My grocer is doing something profoundly beautiful and redemptive by offering real work – important work – to a number of people in my community who have tremendous gifts to offer. I don’t know their motives (I’m sure there is an economic reason). What I do know is that I got to witness someone putting their best effort in simply putting my groceries in a bag.
Now, if I can just get these folks around here to drive a bit faster…
This morning, like most mornings, I found myself in the drop-off line at my son’s elementary school. Normally, he and I share light conversation, that’s the best I can muster until the life-giving nectar of coffee permeates my brain. As we wait our turn in line, I do what most drivers do, check my rear view mirrors. Most of the time I catch a glimpse of every other bleary eyed parent, but not today. Today I was treated to a site that made me smile.
In the mini-van behind me a mom transformed her kids mundane, Monday morning routine into Dance, Dance-Fever! Though I could not hear the music I caught the rhythm as she danced behind the steering wheel, which was both a drum and a micro-phone. She was all into the music and so were her kids. Seated in the van’s midsection her daughter followed her mother’s uninhibited motions, beaming her nearly toothless, first-grader smile. Even the shot-gun riding, stoic son, let his head sway.
I have no idea if that’s a daily routine. Chances are good their mornings are like most families: sleepy kids who can’t find a shoe, pets that needed to go out – but not any longer, breakfast and lunch prepared at the same time (why’d I put eggs in a Ziploc bag?). But for a few minutes, before school started, a mom in a mini-van created a little laughter and a lot of fun.
She looked crazy. She did not look like she had it all together. No one in that mini-van was concerned about what the folks in the other cars were thinking (and they were looking). Her kids were loving it and so was she!
Most parents that I know put a lot of pressure on themselves. We want to love our kids well and by that I mean we want to be the perfect parent. We want to be the parent that is never frustrated, always on top of every detail, able to dispense wisdom and cash.What’s more, we want others to think of us as the perfect parent.
But maybe parental perfection looks more like a crazy mom dancing in a van with the kids. Maybe the perfect parent is one that is a little more human, true to themselves, less concerned with others, and way more into having some fun. Sometimes we need a little Dance, Dance Fever! in the drop-off line. Sometimes we need to surprise our kids and ourselves, create moments of laughter and fun, in the most mundane places. Way to go mom!!
Over the last week news outlets have buzzed with the fallout surrounding the “alleged” racists comments of Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling. Everyone from former NBA players and coaches to the President have contributed to the discussion. Even non-profits who have benefitted from Sterling’s wealth are weighing in – some returning his donations and others refusing to receive any further money from him. Sterling’s alleged remarks have left some wondering how this sort of thing could still be with us in 2014 after all we know how horrible racism and bigotry are. We have seen how it can lead to violence and that it also shows up in apathy and neglect. What we may miss, however, is just how captive we may personally be to racism and bigotry.
John Perkins understands how racism and bigotry enslaves humanity perhaps better than most people. Perkins experienced the violence of racism first hand – with the murder of his brother and his own brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement in his Mississippi hometown. However, as Perkins lay recovering from near death he realized that if he returned the hatred that is inherent in racism he would be captive. He realized that racism and bigotry cuts across the intent of the Gospel. On recovering, Perkins continued the work that he had done earlier but he also began the work of reconciliation. He realized something incredibly important which is at the core of his life work. In the book, Welcoming Justice, John Perkins wrote, “No one ever put a chain on another human being without tying the other end to himself. We know this. But it can be hard for white folks to see how race continues to hold them captive.”
Is it difficult for white people to see how race holds them captive? Is it difficult for you to admit, to acknowledge racism and bigotry in your own life?
Here is an exercise that might be beneficial (or perhaps not).
- If you are white, does it bother you that an African-American in Mississippi said this about white people? Why?
- If you are African America does it make you feel good that Perkins says this about white people? Why?
- If you are neither white nor African-American, how does this statement strike you?
- When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m not a racist but…?” Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you?
- When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people but…?” Did it come from your lips? Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you? Or why did you feel comfortable saying it?
- Would you rather not have certain “types” of people for neighbors? (I once had people react because they didn’t like the idea of living next to a pastor and his family).
- Does race influence where you eat, shop for groceries, drive, live, or send your kids to school?
- Does it influence where you worship?
- Last week a man was sharing with me about where his kids would have to go to school if he didn’t send them to private school. He actually said, “it is a little dark over there – if you know what I mean.” Seeing my reaction he quickly followed up with, “I’m not racist but…” as if that would cover him. How would you have reacted? What would you have said? (I’ve wondered why he felt comfortable saying that to me).
Perkins is spot on and perhaps the Sterling debacle highlights how race and bigotry continue to hold people captive. Here we are in 2014, we have made all these advances in regards to equality and yet it is still with us. Why? Because racism and bigotry do not live in bans, fines, policies, legislation and even in electing an African-American President. Racism and bigotry live in the fertile soil of the human heart where they are planted, take root, bear fruit and harvested. Perhaps we need to ask what is within our hearts.
Perkins could have returned to his bitterness and anger after being beaten. It was certainly an option. It was as much a part of his heart as yours or mine. Instead he went the opposite direction. How?
John Perkins is not the hero of his story. Perkins points to one who triumphed thru him. In the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Jesus, we are told, entered a synagogue and a scroll, from the Prophet Isaiah, was given to him to read. He unrolled the scroll and found what we know as Isaiah 61. He read these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
As a Christian, it is the image of “liberty to the captive…those who are oppressed” which captures my imagination, especially as it relates to racism and bigotry. It was Jesus that helped turn Perkins away from the captivity of racism. It was Jesus that transformed his life and heart and keeps transforming it. And yet, as much as I would like to say that racism and bigotry do not exist within a Christian context I can’t without lying. Sunday mornings are often called “the last segregated hour.” Church folk do not always do what Jesus would have them do.
Nevertheless, I believe, as Perkins states so well, that Jesus “came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen.” That is one thing that Jesus does – he pushes against even the hidden places of the human heart – the places where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted – and brings good things to bear. It starts with something difficult – admitting, at least to God and ourselves – that we simply do not love all cultures and all people.
Perhaps when we are ready to admit some things about our hearts, the way we believe and think, then we can look to Jesus – even if you are not a Christian – and see how he interacted with people. Look at where Jesus traveled (Samaria), whom he engaged (prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich, poor, religious and self-righteous). Take a look at Jesus’ life and see how it differs from the way we make decisions about where we go, shop, eat, live, and especially the way we treat other people who are very different from us (Jesus, after all, was very different from the people interacted with). Perhaps Jesus will help us see the ways we are held captive by racism and bigotry. Perhaps he will help us the way he helped John Perkins – who in turn has brought good to bear in so many places. Perhaps Jesus will help you and I to become more aware of the ways that we are held captive to race and bigotry.
- Marsh, C. and J. Perkins (2009). Welcoming justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Downers Grove, Ill., IVP Books.
I came across another article the other day that promised steps to the perfect party for kids. That was on the heels of flipping through a magazine, which highlighted the perfect bedroom for a kid, and an article on the perfect kid friendly vacation spots. There was even an ad for school, which offered the perfect environment for a child’s education. I immediately felt a rise in my anxiety levels because, given the nature of our lives, I can’t possibly provide perfection.
Parents, if you don’t already know it, are some of the most fearful, anxious people on the planet. We spend tons of resources (time, money, etc.,) on trying to assure that our children have all they can ever need so that they have the perfect childhood – which will in turn lead to a perfect life. Books and articles that promise pathways to perfection get bounced around social media like celebrity gossip.
At one point I had over fifteen parenting books on my bookshelf most from a Christian perspective. Many of them promised to deliver a parenting strategy that would lead to great, well-adjusted kids. The trouble was that they were all different in their approaches – some even contradictory to the other.
It was confusing and overwhelming and at times alarming. I am smart enough to realize that there is little chance that I can perfectly put any of these “tips” into practice. However, these articles and books come with an implicit warning. Failure, on my part, according to the purveyors and peddlers of parenting advice, is certain to cause my kids to plummet into nothingness. What pressure!
On the one hand, I know parents who are so resigned that they are “messing their kids up” that they jokingly say they aren’t saving for their kid’s education but rather for their therapy bill. On the other hand, a dad actually said to me, “Mark if you do these five Biblical things you will have great kids – I can guarantee it. If you don’t, well I’ll pray for you and your kids.” While on opposite ends of the spectrum both parents have something in common – they are both anxious about parental perfection.
For the last twenty years I have worked with parents and students in one capacity or another. I have yet to meet the perfect parent with the perfect parenting strategy and the resulting perfect kids. And yet somehow I fell into the quagmire of attempting parental perfection when my sons came along. I found myself rummaging through books and articles, trying to find some morsel that would help me as a dad. I actually tried to make things perfect and I failed, miserably. It is nearly impossible to rise above the pressure from our culture’s pursuit of parenting perfectionism.
I learned something, in the midst of my anxious rush to find the pathway to perfection; I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others. The world isn’t a perfect place. Parental anxiety comes from trying to create perfection in a world that is full of flaws and broken-ness.
I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others.
Because we are prone to messing up we need to be patient with others and ourselves. Sure, we want to become better people but a better person doesn’t mean perfect. Better may mean being self-aware enough to know and admit my faults, failures and quirks so that I can overlook/forgive others their faults, failures and quirks. Perhaps that is the thing we can give our kids to shape their character.
There is a passage in the Bible that, while talking to people in Christian community, says a lot about seeing others and ourselves as we are and doing something about it. Parenting is about shaping the character of our children and that comes from interacting with our mess and the mess of other people. This text from the Bible speaks to that. It is in a letter from a man named Paul to people he loved. He wanted them to know the blessing of living in community, so he wrote that they ought to put on,
compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15, ESV)
Our kids live in a world where they are going to have to bear with other people – because people are going to have to bear with them. Parents need to break away from the lie of perfectionism and embrace reality. We do not live in a perfect world with perfect people. Our kids are not perfect. They like all of us have stuff in their hearts that they need to be aware of. We live in a real world where people and circumstances are not always fun, nice and easy. Character comes when as we navigate through the tough things both in our hearts and in our world. It starts with parents being real about their stuff – and allowing their children to witness the way they go through things – faults and all. It brings relief from the lie of perfectionism as parents allow their kids to see them growing in character, too.
Telling my kids I love them is something I try to do all the time. The truth is sometimes my “I love you” is overshadowed by the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. Or worse, as I drive them to school, blasting them for something they did or did not do. Then saying, “Love you” as they get out of the car – as if saying I love you will cover a multitude of sins.
It is clear in those moments to my kids and to me that I am not perfect. I need to own that and preëmpt the conversation and say, “I’m sorry. I blew it with you. Will you forgive me for that? I’ll try to do a better job next time” and then really work on doing better. After all, parenting is all about shaping the character of our kids but how can I give shape to their character if I’m not working on mine – in front of them.
Trying to achieve perfection in parenting is bound to create anxiety – especially since we are not perfect people and do not live in a perfect world. It is far better to help our children learn the ways of character by helping them to deal with the good parts and the not so good parts of life. We are all a work in progress and the progress is life-long and not merely through childhood and adolescents. Perhaps we can let our children know that they are not the only ones growing up and getting better – their parents are, too.