“… Only the Good”

Yesterday I was in the car and we passed by a church signboard that caught my eye. I wasn’t able to snap a picture, but this is what it said:

God, let me see only the good today.

In some respects, I get that sentiment. There’s often more good going on in the world than we are inclined to acknowledge or able to realise. And looking for the good is a valuable strategy for dealing with evil situations, as Mr. Rogers reminds us:

But I have to admit, I’m not wholly convinced. Not that we shouldn’t be looking for the good — there’s nothing wrong with that — but that we should be striving to see only the good. Refusing to see anything but the good is a profoundly inadequate response to the ills and evils of the world. Too often, seeing only the good means sweeping things under the rug, denying the reality of real problems, and working for a peace that has everything to do with not rocking the boat, and nothing to do with justice, righteousness, or mercy.

Last week I came across this article by Kendall Cox entitled “Everybody’s Business“, about sexual assault on campus and the phenomenon of cheap grace. It’s a fantastic read, and towards the end she points out that the Christian response to evil and suffering should be, first of all, lament:

When we are confronted with someone else’s suffering, our immediate inclination should be to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rm. 12:15, NIV) — not to question or moralize. I recall my Old Testament professor in seminary saying that when reality does not correspond to God’s truth, “we only move into God’s kingdom through lament.” In my limited experience in North America, Christians tend to avoid the work of mourning and lament, even though scripture gives us a substantial basis for doing so (e.g., through Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament). “Negativity” of various kinds is suppressed, ecclesially as well as socially. This is especially the case for women, in whom even the most righteous anger is seen as unattractive and unfeminine.

Lament also helps us see the judgment of God in a new way. I grew up in a denomination that only spoke of divine judgment as a terrible thing to be dreaded by the individual sinner. When I began reading scripture and theology for myself, I was surprised to find that throughout much of the Hebrew Bible, “judgment” is portrayed as a balm for the weary and oppressed. It just depends on which side you’re on really. God’s judgment is also God’s grace and blessing for the brokenhearted. It means: God sees. For many of us, this is actually an enormous relief.

A related reason to hold out space for lament is that Christians can move prematurely to “forgiveness,” which is often the most counterproductive term to introduce in cases of physical violence. We can have a dangerously platitudinous understanding of what it requires and how it should function in the life of faith. Advising forgiveness — or mercy, or grace — at the wrong moment can heap further injustice onto the wounded. It is scripturally unjustifiable to pass over truth-telling and mourning in favor of a cheap and underdeveloped sense of “letting it go.” “Forgiveness” may, on closer observation, function as a whitewashing of deeply problematic human responses to the pain of others. Victim-blaming and denial are closely related to cheap grace.

There are things happening in this world that should make us weep. There are things happening in this world that should make us angry. There are things happening in this world that we can never heal, that we can never confront, that we can never bring the love of God into, if we won’t look at them directly and see them for what they are.

“God, let me see only the good today” is a comfortable prayer. Seeing the good is nice. It makes us feel good — but, I wonder, at what cost? Maybe what we need aren’t comfortable prayers but brave ones: “God, let me see the world with your eyes today.”

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Mute Sunday

Sunday began shortly before six this morning, when Anselm bounded into our bedroom and announced that it was time to give me his mother’s day card. And then Perpetua wanted to give me her card, of course, because she wants to do whatever her big brother does, and then presents, and then we all rolled out of bed for the usual Sunday morning half-routine half-chaos that eventually sees us out the door on our way to church. It seems to have gotten lush and green around here overnight, and the fog this morning made our ten-minute drive enchanting. Perpetua sang “Jesus loves me” most of the way there (tunelessly, but with gusto) while Anselm anxiously corrected her on all the words she pronounced wrong. All in all, it was a pretty typical morning.

Except for this: I couldn’t speak. We went away this past week and I managed to leave my voice back at the beach. Well, I can whisper. Sort of. It’s more of a croak. In effect, I’m voiceless — which is a strange sort of thing to be when you’re driving to church. Our liturgy is pretty participatory: there’s a fair bit of moving around, and a lot of singing and praying and formal responses to things. And while losing my voice doesn’t affect my ability to sit, kneel, stand, or cross myself, it did pretty well limit my physical participation in the service to those things.

It feels strange to stand in a pew and just listen when everyone around you is singing. It feels strange to listen to the scripture readings without joining the rest of the congregation in the “thanks be to God!” afterwards. It feels strange to kneel to pray without being able to complete the congregational halves of the set versicles and responses.

But what surprised me about going to church without speaking was that it also felt beautiful. Not being able to sing or speak meant that I was able to listen in a new way, without hearing my own voice at the forefront. I could hear the rumble of a hundred-plus voices praying the Lord’s prayer together. I could hear the full force of the congregation’s voices soaring to “Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord!” And it reminded me of one of the beauties of corporate worship, which is precisely that it is corporate: it’s not just about me and God, but it’s about me, and you, and him, and her, and them, and us, and God. It’s about the whole family of believers. Not to mention the great cloud of witnesses and the angelic hosts! And on the days when I can’t sing or speak or pray out loud, it’s the songs and prayers of the great family that lift me up. Perhaps I should stand voiceless in church more often.

Learning to talk about race and privilege

This book was approximately 0% enjoyable, but I am still glad that I read it.

Over the past year or two I’ve been engaged in an informal, personal reading project on the theme of “try to understand America” — you know, since I live here and all. So I have been reading books about America, on and off, and more and more of my reading has come to centre around that great big issue of race. I don’t keep any sort of reading plan for this project, but I do keep an eye out for books that look like they would help me further my understanding, particularly in regards to the American racial divide. A few months ago So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo came up as a promoted book on my county library’s website, and so I added my name to its long hold list and waited for it to show up.

Its cover copy calls it “An actionable exploration of today’s racial landscape, offering straightforward clarity that readers of all races need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide.” I would say that’s accurate. It’s also a hard and uncomfortable read, as should probably be expected. I had to take a lot of breaks to think about things. But though there are a lot of areas where Oluo and I disagree (for example, I will never support Planned Parenthood, for anything, ever), I appreciate her perspective and the explanations she offers. So much of the commentary around racial issues — on either side of the divide — is so very reactionary that it can be hard to figure out what is a real position and what is a strawman and what is something in between. Oluo answers questions about things like what people actually mean when they talk about “systemic” racism, and what being told to “check your privilege” is actually asking you to do, and the question (that I think a lot of us struggle with) of “what if I talk about race wrong?”. It is a gift to be able to encounter these questions and their answers outside of the heated environment of immediate debate, allowing for time to digest and consider on the way. Her examples were very clear and helped me to understand some new things.

Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help is when it’s in our workplace, our government, or homes, and ourselves. (7)

What I found most personally helpful was Oluo’s discussion of privilege. She defines it, quite simply, as “an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not” (59). These areas of privilege often rest on things outside our control, like our skin colour or the nation we’re born in or the relative affluence that our parents enjoy(ed). And being privileged in one area doesn’t mean being privileged in all areas — consider, for example, someone who grew up wealthy (privileged) but also has a physical disability (unprivileged). Most of us will have some areas where we are privileged and some where we are not — that’s perfectly normal. So then what’s the point of examining our privilege? Is it so that we can feel guilty? Should we be apologizing for areas of privilege — which, again, are mostly outside of our control anyway? Not so; nor should asking someone to “check their privilege” be used as a method of shutting down a conversation.

Rather, it’s asking us to be aware of how the advantages we may have had can leave us blind to others’ struggles. It’s asking us to be aware that where we’ve ended up in life is not only due to our own hard work and merit, and that others might work just as hard and be just as meritorious but still end up in a worse position because they started several steps behind. And it’s also an opportunity, to identify “those areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. […] When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change” (65).

This is a lot like what Andy Crouch talks about towards the end of Culture Making: spending our cultural power alongside of / on behalf of those who have none. So checking our privilege — or examining our cultural power, to use Crouch’s term — is a chance to ask ourselves not only where we may have gotten a head start in life, but how we can use that to advocate for others. Examples:

  • I was born and raised in a stable, wealthy, democratic country. What can I do on behalf of refugees? What can I do on behalf of those who are still living in war-torn or impoverished countries?
  • I grew up in a stable home and my parents have been married to each other for all of my life. How do I care for the widow and the orphan? How can I support single mothers? How can I advocate for children in foster care?
  • I grew up in a home that valued learning. I received a good public education and went on to both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. How can I work against barriers to education?  How should I vote when it comes to things like public school funding? How can I support teachers and students? How can I help ensure access to the scholarships and bursaries that paid for so much of my own education?
  • I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never been homeless. What can I do on behalf of the poor? How can I address food insecurity in my neighbourhood or county? If the city wants to build a homeless shelter or halfway house in my neighbourhood, will I publicly voice my support?
  • My skin is white, which means that I have been able to largely ignore a lot of racial “stuff” over the years. When people of colour tell me how their experiences are different than mine, do I listen? When I hear a racist joke or prejudicial remark, am I willing to say something? Am I willing to confront my own racial biases?

As Oluo writes, “Every day you are given opportunities to make the world better, by making yourself a little uncomfortable and asking, ‘who doesn’t have this same freedom or opportunity that I’m enjoying now?'” (69). None of us are going to be working towards all of these things at the same time. But if we are willing to examine our advantages, and to create the habit of looking out for those who are less advantaged, we can be working towards more of those things, more of the time. And that’s probably a really good thing. I don’t think we need to feel guilty for the various privileges that we’ve enjoyed — but we shouldn’t feel complacent, either. As a Christian I believe that we are called to use our blessings to bless others. And though Ijeoma Oluo is an atheist, I think we can certainly agree on that.

Reading Round-Up: April 2018

Happy May! It’s a glorious spring here where we are; the trees are blossoming, the sun is out, and the books are good. Here’s what I read in April:

  1. The Stranger from the Sea (Winston Graham)
  2. The Miller’s Dance (Winston Graham)
  3. The Loving Cup (Winston Graham)
  4. The Twisted Sword (Winston Graham)
  5. Bella Poldark (Winston Graham)
  6. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)
  7. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (Rhoda Janzen)
  8. Simplicity Parenting (Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross)
  9. The Year of Less (Cait Flanders)
  10. Human Chain (Seamus Heaney)

This will be a shorter wrap-up post, because I’ve already treated three of these in their own posts: the two books by Rhoda Janzen and Simplicity Parenting .

The month began with the final five books of Winston Graham’s Poldark series — I touched on that a bit in last month’s round-up, so I will just add that the series ended as well (or better!) than it began and had me its pages eagerly until I finally reached the last. It’s a great series; I highly recommend it.

When I started reading The Year of Less, it took me a few chapters to figure out why it felt so familiar: I used to read Cait Flanders’s blog a few years ago, back when she was just known as “Blonde on a Budget.” This book isn’t just recycled blog posts, but it does retell a lot off her same story, of the year she decided to enact a personal shopping ban: for one year she would buy nothing but consumables (groceries, gas, toiletries) or items on her brief “allowed purchases” list (travel expenses, a few other things). During the year of the shopping ban she also decluttered an impressive 70% of her belongings. It was an interesting read and Flanders certainly learned a lot about her own consumption habits and shopping triggers, but it wasn’t until I was finishing up the last chapter or two that I was able to put my finger on what was bothering me about it all: the narrative and the project are both entirely self-centered. I mean that in the strictest descriptive sense: everything was about what Cait was saving for, what Cait was spending on, what Cait’s money could do for Cait. The idea of living on less so that we can share with or bless others never entered the picture, and by the end it seemed a pretty glaring omission.

I first read Seamus Heaney back in December and have been meaning to pick him up again — so I did. I will be the first to admit that I sometimes find Heaney obscure. Perhaps if I knew more about Ireland it would be different — or could translate the Irish into which he occasionally slips. Nevertheless I find his poetry highly evocative and it often gives me “the flash” even though (or perhaps because) it often speaks of something that I cannot quite grasp. I will be coming back to Heaney, I am sure.

And that was all she  ̶w̶r̶o̶t̶e̶  read! On to May…

It’s aliiiiiiiiive!

… the yogurt, I mean. I made yogurt. This is exciting to me.

A while ago I found a second-hand breadmaker for sale on Nextdoor, and I’ve been making all of the bread we eat. I bake 2-3 loaves every week, depending a bit on the size they come out and who’s home for which meals. But we’ve stopped buying bread at the store entirely, and even accounting for the cost of ingredients this change will save us about $175/year. It’s not break-the-bank money, but it’s nothing to be sneezed at, either! Little changes like this add up, after all. But it got me wondering: what else could I be making for cheaper than I can buy?

Enter this recipe from The Daring Gourmet for homemade yogurt. My mother made yogurt for a time when I was a teenager, but her method involved leaving the milk and starter in the oven overnight, to be kept warm by the pilot light. Since moving out I’ve always lived in apartments with electric ovens, and so making yogurt never even crossed my mind. But this recipe uses something I do have: a slow cooker.

As it turns out, making yogurt is pretty darn easy. You simply fill your crockpot with milk (mine holds about 3/4 of a gallon) and heat it up to 180 degrees F. Using milk straight from the fridge, that took about three hours for me. Then you turn it off and let it cool down to 110 degrees — that took another two, two and a half hours. At this point you should also get your starter yogurt out of the fridge to come up to room temperature.

When everything’s sitting nicely at 110, you take a little of the hot milk and add it to your starter, just to temper it before everything goes back into the slow cooker. Stir the starter in very gently, then put the lid back on and wrap it all up for a cozy night in a bath towel:

That sign was for me as much as anyone else. I couldn’t wait to see how/if it would turn out!

In the morning, I unwrapped the towel, lifted the lid, and voila: yogurt. So  easy! So cheap! So yummy! We ate some of it straightaway for breakfast, and then I set the rest to strain through cheesecloth for a few hours to thicken it up a bit.

And here’s the result: somewhat more than a litre of yogurt (besides what we already ate), 18 oz or so of whey (which I can use instead of water in the bread I make for an extra protein punch), and a small container set aside to act as starter for the next batch. Perfect. And the best part is that assuming I make this once a week, we’ll be saving about $200/year just on our yogurt costs. If it lasts us more than a week we’ll be saving even more. Like I said: the little things add up.

Happy yogurt!