What Are We Going to Do About It?

Conversations

A significant part of my job involves travelling long distances in my car, and I have found that I really enjoy listening to podcasts of TED talks during those times.  Here’s why: they expand my world, and they make me aware of the amazing capacity of human beings for doing marvelous things. The ideas and perspectives of the speakers can sometimes hurt because they are so different from my own. It is as if my own ideas have been running barefoot on a treadmill and suddenly find themselves out on Bear Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early Spring: the view is amazing, but it is steep, rocky, cold and their feet hurt.

Across Iowa, there is a sense that people are really struggling to make ends meet. Churches have seen increases in the number of people coming to food pantries and free meals. Food banks are asking for more donations. Especially in rural and bedroom communities, more of us are unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. I don’t know the statistics. I am simply reporting what I have been hearing: “People are hungry and hardshipped, and my church can’t seem to get on top of it.”

So, what are we going to do to get on top of it? There are ideas out there. There are Bible verses and trained theologians that can help us out. There are connective structures in place so not one of us has to do it alone. There are city, county, state, and local agencies that want our help. So, what are we going to do about it?

I think it may be time we started expanding our world a little bit. Let’s start celebrating the marvelous ingenuity of God’s creatures in God’s creation, and look for the startling and unexpected possibilities in our midst. Can we challenge ourselves to reach beyond the narrow scope of the NRSV and steal the coolest ideas from disciplines outside the church: architecture, zoology, and biomendicine? Is there a way to transcend our own biases toward particular economic or political models to simply gather concerned people together and start having conversations? Asking questions? Discovering skills, abilities, and ideas for engineering solutions for our eroding economies?

What would that look like? Who would you invite to the conversation? Are we prepared for the discomfort and adjustment that may occur? What’s God got to do with it? What might it look like for something to change for the better, and what would we feel like when it did?

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Why Can’t You?

Green MangoIn his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks shares case studies of people who have suffered right brain injuries.  One of the histories which most stands out to me is that of Madeline J., “a congenitally blind woman with cerebral palsy” in her sixties. Madeline is unable to use her hands, but Dr. Sacks cannot find any physical reason that should be the case. They start experimenting with ways for Madeline to “discover,” “acquire,” “to achieve” her hands. She does and becomes a sculptor at age sixty, living out the last stages of her life in a Catholic hospital.

What sticks in my mind is that the simple assumption by others that “she can’t” led to a life where Madeline was never asked “to,” and to such an extreme degree that she had never used her hands to do anything her entire life. It wasn’t until a stranger, looking at the facts from a different angle, questioned that assumption that her hands were transformed from “Useless, godforsaken lumps of dough” into sensitive tools for shaping clay. I wonder at the simplicity of that change: the basic shift from “I can’t” to “Why can’t you?”  A movement from “Do it for me” to “Show me how.”

It is the same story we read in the first verses of Acts 3 where Peter and John heal a man “lame from birth.” The one about whom everyone believed “he can’t” suddenly “discovers,” “acquires,” “achieves” his legs and, not only walks, but leaps into the temple. In the story, the man looks at Peter and John “expecting to receive something from them,” but they respond by lifting him up instead. They say, “You can. Let me show you how.”

Some things I think you can take away from these stories:

  • Are you or your faith community being asked “to” something?
  • If there is an “I can’t” in your life, or the life of your faith community, try a different angle; ask instead, “Why can’t you?”
  • Seek mentors, teachers and friends who, though they won’t do it for you, are willing to work with you and help you figure out how.
  • Exploring the reasons you think you can’t will lead to discovery, acquisition or achievement of skills and abilities you never knew you had.
  • The reclamation of Christ’s hands and feet to shape and leap your way into a new tomorrow.

Youth Strike for Christ

YSfCThis weekend, I got to spend a few hours with a bunch of United Methodists between the ages of 13 and 18 along with various mentors, youth leaders, event planners and pastors. The event is called Youth Strike for Christ, and I was asked to lead a session titled “My Name is Justice.”

I have been reading and watching a lot of amazing things recently involving young people: an interview with Malala Yousafzai, a speech by Madison Kimry, a response to a culture of meanness and bullying by Jeremiah Anthony of West High School in Iowa City, and an amazing project by Katie Meyler whose foundation, More Than Me, is taking on child prostitution in Liberia. Like John Stewart, I am left with an idea of “I don’t know where you come from, but I am glad you are here.”

So I decided not to spend  time telling my groups about injustice, unfairness, and the United Methodist Social Principles. Instead, I invited them to speak from their own hearts and experience; to start imagining ways to respond, and to name the things that may be holding them back. Because the power to make change does not reside in the hands of others. It lives inside each and every one of us, and when we invite the Holy to inspire us, we can rely on that change to be good.

Issues they see in their schools, towns, churches and world: racial discrimination, judging attitudes, terminal illnesses among young people, a lack of respect for the gifts we have (taking abundance for granted and disregarding the cries of those who go without), loneliness and a lack of meaningful work and community building for young people, hunger, poverty, inadequate education opportunities, inability to dress for success, lack of clean, running water, war, lack of respect, rudeness, illicit drug use, alcoholism, misuse of aid offered in good faith, unprotected and premature sex, pregnancy among peers, drug dogs and security cameras at schools, cynicism about people (hard to have faith in others); strong pressure to participate in behaviors which are not good for us (social drinking, drug use, mean-spirited relationships), depression, suicide, potential violence (bomb threats and hit lists: wars and rumors of wars).

Some strategies they proposed: find friends to stand with you; take it one step at a time (don’t try to fix the entire situation); collect “nice” suits and shoes to offer to people who may need them for an interview, etc.; talk to everybody; don’t avoid personal interactions with people who say mean or judgmental things about you-directly address their behavior as it relates to you; overcome your own F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appear Real); go to the Bible and see what is said there; grow deeper in your own faith so that you have hope, courage, and endurance for the “bad” stuff around you; use the lens of faith and the example of Christ to look for the positive transformations that are happening, rather than focusing on the “few bad people.”

Some costs to doing any of these things that they named: it is hard work and there are other things we may rather be doing; you may lose your friends; you may lose your life like Martin Luther King, Jr. did; you may have to give up family; by crossing the line and spending time with people [who are doing drugs], you might be pressured to behave like them, or teachers/parents/others might start distrusting you-think you are doing “bad stuff” even when you aren’t, what you try might not work

Some reasons why you would do something to change “the whole mindset” of a school, town, or church: you will be respected; you will have respect for yourself; you will reflect God out to the world; you will lose your fear; you wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore; people who are struggling wouldn’t have to work so hard; people could have dignity, people could have more choice 

Some of the gifts I witnessed: respect, caring, engagement with one another, willingness to make room for strangers, giggles, awareness of people who are weaker, poorer, hungrier than they are, supportive and positive interpersonal actions, desire to be of benefit to their community, diversity (of perspective, socio-economic class, and background), leadership, gentleness, shyness, patience, grace, energy, earnestness, confidence, knowledge of the Bible, personal relationship with Jesus, depth of commitment to their community and a desire to meet that commitment through their youth groups/church, readiness to participate in hands-on mission and service, knowledge of Imagine No Malaria, sophisticated opinions regarding economic and political realities, empathy, self-discipline, strong work ethic, positive and supportive family structures and connections, strong self identities, sweet dispositions, sense of set-apartness (Christian identity as a special identity they have in common)