Raising White Kids

I was in a heated conversation recently with someone close to me about race and privilege. Heated, because this topic is so important to me — I desperately want this world to be a better and more just place for all people, but especially for our children — for my nephew and niece, my neighbors, the children of the chaplains I work with, the children I meet at the hospital. And as I tried to answer my friend’s questions, I thought about a new resource I love, the book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, by Jennifer Harvey (Abington Press: Nashville, TN, 2017)

I don’t have kids.

But I love kids, and love people with kids — I’m an aunt, and spent many years as a children’s hospital chaplain.

And the kids I love, and the kids loved by people dear to me, span a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve lived and traveled in diverse places, calling home Washington, D.C.; Berkeley, California; and Anchorage, Alaska. One of my passions is teaching about cross cultural communication, anti-racism work and recognizing privilege.

In February, Lutheran colleagues and I facilitated a workshop on “Talking about Race in our Families.” We had rich conversation with a dozen or so people, who shared stories, opened hearts and exchanged ideas. And the kids, who had their own activities, reminded us that “When we know better, we do better!”

A few days before the workshop, we found this book, and I love it. The author highlights:

  • why “colorblindness” doesn’t work.
  • the importance of normalizing conversations that involve race and difference
  • that racism is structural, not just how each of us individually perceives and responds to others
  • the importance of equipping our kids to be able to talk about and think about race — not as dangerous thing but as one of the many things that make each of us unique. And that includes helping white kids conceptualize what it means to be white
  • so many concrete examples of ways to respond to kids’ questions and to encourage normalized conversation about race, along with the acknowledgement that this can feel really awkward and hard at times.

Harvey writes, “We need to be authentic and teach our white kids about racism, but be mindful of doing so in ways that enable agency and not despair. We need to feed their sense of purpose and capacity in this regard. It seems to me they need to have a sense of hope and possibility; a vision of the kind of world they want to live in and a sense that their behavior and actions can help create that world.” (P. 162)

interactioninstitute.org and madewithangus.com
I love the hopefulness and potential for change and action that Harvey brings to her writing. Unfortunately, so many conversations around race, for white people, become quickly infused with defensiveness, frustration and helplessness — Harvey offers different options.

She also notes that “white students don’t have an embraceable, positive, meaningful racial identity in a context where everyone else gets to have one. As a result they become deeply alienated from the whole enterprise of diversity — and, I would add, by extension they become alienated from commitments to racial justice (p. 220).”

Harvey recommends that “Our children are not and should not perceive themselves to be generic Americans. Nor should they only reluctantly confess, ‘I’m white, I guess.’ They should not be left to internalize the fears expressed in ‘Mom, am I racist?’ What they need to be eventually able to say ‘I’m white, and I’m also an anti racist-committed person active in taking a stand against racism and injustice when I see it (p. 234).”

So, what can we do? These are just a few of the suggestions Harvey offers:

  • Notice and name race early and often. Talking authentically about race and racism responds to children’s actual experiences and teaches children as they develop and grow to be able to do the same (p. 59)
  • Practice, practice, practice! Talking about race openly and explicitly takes practice — there’s no way around those awkward, challenging feelings (p. 95).
  • Make a commitment to normalize talk about differences (skin tones, bodies, the ways different communities of color identify, etc) — this preempt the pressures kids experience to treat difference as a taboo (p. 95).
  • Acknowledge that white privilege and injustice exist, while also supporting the recognition that white people can join with others to fight injustice–and (find) ways to help our kids do that (p. 134).
  • Allow our children to be vulnerable and feel the ache and hurt of the harm that injustice causes. We may want to insulate our kids from it, but the humanity of even the youngest of our children is directly tied to their ability to identify with that suffering (p. 284).
  • Parents of white children can — and must — step into the unknowns, chart what is mostly still uncharted, and become resilient participants alongside parents of children of color who are already at it and have long ben so. A racial justice movement is alive and strong in this nation, and it needs all of us to be all in (p. 284).

I highly recommend this book — it offers action, encouragement and hope for a more just and loving nation.

For God So Loved the World

Preached at First American Baptist Church of Anchorage, May 27, 2018

This is the first time this Lutheran pastor has preached at a Baptist church — thank you so much for your warm welcome. What a gift to see the ways the Spirit is at work in your midst!

Preachers all over the world are talking today about the reading we just heard, John 3:1-17 (the assigned text from the Revised Common Lectionary) — talking about Nicodemus, about how God so loved the world, and, in many churches, we observe today as Trinity Sunday, so we celebrate the mystery of the Trinity — One God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Now I’m ordained in the Lutheran church, ELCA, and as I sat with this text, I got a little nervous. What was I taking on, talking about one of the most famous verses in the world, John 3:16 — For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But let’s talk about that — I think we have often heard this verse as instruction. Believe in Jesus, and have eternal life. And if you don’t, well, you know where you’re going. It is our human nature to look for the rules to guide us

And the Pharisees had that kind of view of religion as well — for good reason. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God was clear that the Israelites were to be set apart. There were clear laws they were to follow — this wasn’t a religion of evangelism, but how to live faithfully as God’s chosen people

And now, Jesus comes along, and he does something completely different. He reaches out to ALL kinds of people — unclean people, people who broke the law, people who were outside God’s chosen people — and Jesus makes them chosen.

In our gospel reading today, the Pharisee leader Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and he and Jesus have a conversation that is clearly unsettling to Nicodemus. Because the teaching Jesus brings isn’t a self-improvement program. It’s not “how to be a better Pharisee.” It’s about becoming a new person. Born of water and spirit. Complete transformation.

In Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, God is doing something new. And that new thing is about life and love.

I had a preaching professor who told us that if our sermons are only all about what we should do, we’ve failed. More important — and this is a big deal for Lutherans — is who GOD is and what GOD does. In the end, it’s not actually up to us.

And in this text, (and actually all through John), God is about life and love. As I was looking through the Gospel of John, I was struck how often the words love and life came up. So I went to my concordance (1) — in the Gospel of John, the word love shows up 30 times, and that’s not counting the 20 times the word “loved” appears. Compare that to 26 appearances in Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined. For God so loved the world. Love one another. If you love me, you will keep my word (and we remember that in John, Jesus IS the Word).

And the word life — 45 appearances in John’s gospel, compared to 17 in Matthew, 10 in Mark, 17 in Luke — 44 combined. In him was life. I am the bread of life. So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. I am the resurrection and the life

So, this tells some really important characteristics about God — God is all about love for the world, and the life of the world. And, that God is inherently about relationship. To me, this is one of the most significant things about how we understand the Trinity — God is inherently relational — creating life, the Spirit who is actively and powerfully at work in our lives, redeeming and rescuing life, saving life. God exists for relationship

And I find it interesting that relationship, and connection, are clearly an inherent part of who WE are, made in God’s image. More and more research shows that our ability to be in relationship with others contributes very positively to our life, and the life of the world

Dr. Emma Seppala tells us that strong social connection:

– leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity

– strengthens your immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by loneliness also code for immune function and inflammation)

– helps you recover from disease faster

– may even lengthen your life!

People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.

And friends, this matters, because Jesus is very clear that we are a people called to love. And that sounds great, but loving, truly loving, is hard. It can mean laying down our lives for others. This Memorial Day Weekend we especially honor those who have laid down their lives in service and in love for our country. We give thanks to our veterans.

Loving is so lifegiving, but it also breaks our hearts. I learn so much about love in my work as a hospital chaplain.

Recently I had a conversation with a nurse at the hospital where I work. I wanted to check on him, because twice in the last few months he’s had patients threaten him and threaten his co-workers. I wanted to see how he was doing, and what he told me was that while it’s not fun to have patients yell at you and threaten you, the thing that’s really hard for him is the kids. When a child comes into the hospital, and you do everything you can, but the child doesn’t survive — we can all imagine how painful that is.

So many of us go into healthcare because we care, because we love — we want to help others, to bring healing, to comfort. And what we find is that while at times that is very rewarding, it can also break our hearts

At the hospital, I witness the love that is evident when family and friends spend hours or days or weeks at a bedside. When we walk with someone who has gotten terrible news, or is nearing the end of their life. Love can inspire us and bring so much joy, but it also can break us open in the way nothing else can

And that’s the thing about love — God knows both the joy and the heartbreak of love. God loves THE WORLD. THE WORLD. USA, Japan, Sudan, Somalia, the Philippines, Syria, Mexico… the “kosmos.

It makes my heart ache to look at all the hatred and violence and division in the world today. School shootings. War and violence. Illness. Unexpected death. Families, young people driven to leave their homes and countries because of the violence that threatens them. It seems to be very hard to get along, when we find so much to separate us.

Republicans and Democrats. Liberals and Conservative. Gay and straight. Old and young. Black and white. Lutheran and Baptist?

But God calls us beyond that. Remember? God calls us to be transformed, new people, to move beyond what divides us — Paul reminds us in Galations 3:28 that in Christ — made new through water and Spirit — that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or free.

For God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

We are are all connected. God loves us all. And that’s a pretty big challenge, to live into that understanding. The naturalist John Muir tells us that “when (you) tug at a single thing in nature, (you) find it attached to the rest of the world.”

And poet philosopher Mark Nepo reminds us that light is found in the broken bottle as well as the diamond.

God so loves the world. Broken bottle and diamond. Outsider and insider. And that is where in the end we find our greatest hope. Because God is at work in us, with so much love that God came into being in the world in Jesus, living human with us, teaching a new way, healing the sick, loving. And, in his death and resurrection, he shows us that death does not have the final word. Love and life will always be stronger than death.

I’d like to close with the words of Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry (who gained the public eye when he preached at the Royal Wedding last weekend) — He spoke this week at the Festival of Homilectics, and a friend of mine recalls these words he spoke at a candlelight vigil in Washington DC

“Love your neighbor…Love the neighbor you like and love the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor. Your black neighbor, and your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”

For God so loved the world. Thanks be to God.

(1) Kohlenberger, John R III. The NRSV Concordance, Unabridged. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. Pp. 774, 828-829.

Good Friday Passion — Being present to suffering

As a chaplain, we are trained to always listen for the emotion and spiritual pain.

Hearing the story of Jesus’ Passion this week, I listened especially closely for the emotions and spiritual pain of the story (John 18-19).

And what I heard, echoed what I so often hear in the hospital

Fear and aggression – Simon Peter, cutting off the ear of the guard taking Jesus.

Denial, as Simon Peter says “I wasn’t with him.” A denial rooted in fear, fear of what the truth may actually bring.

Feeling alone. If my kingdom was of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But no one came to rescue Jesus. Isolation.

Suffering. Pain. Jesus felt a very physical pain as he was beaten and crucified.

Trying to make sense of what’s happening. Confusion. Is Jesus the king, or not?

And finally, loss. Goodbyes. Jesus leaving his friends, leaving his mother. The too familiar grief many of us know when we lose someone close to us, essential to us.

And maybe in some ways, sometimes, it’s harder to hear this passion, this suffering, knowing, as we are told that Jesus did, knowing what is going to happen. How do we open our hearts to the telling of this story, or even to those we accompany through their own suffering, through our own suffering, knowing the pain that lies ahead?

There is very little comfort in the telling of this story. The comfort will come, but not on this day. We are people of hope, but sometimes that hope is hard to see.

But there is a place where I find hope today

John 13:3 And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself…

Jesus knew where he came from, and knew where he was going.

So do we.

And there is more and more research that tells us that a sense of hope, a sense of being grounded in that promise or purpose, helps us go through hard times. And that being connected to others, as Jesus was to the One he came from, also helps us go through suffering.

Jesus knew that he came from God, and was going to God. Jesus knew who he was – the great I AM – or, as some scholars have suggested, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”**

So as we open our hearts to the suffering that is part of our journey of faith, part of the human experience, may we not lose sight of what I suspect also sustained Jesus. We come from God, and are going to God — I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. And we can trust that God holds a future of love and hope, no matter what we are experiencing at any given moment.

We know where we come from, and we know where we are going. Thanks be to God.

(I gave this homily on Good Friday, March 30, 2018, at Providence Alaska Medical Center)

**Dennis Olson, Working Preacher, 2014  Commentary on Ex 3:1-15 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=135

Talking about Race in our families

When I was in my 20s, I was out shopping with a friend in Washington, D.C. As part of Lutheran Volunteer Corps, I was working at a post-residential treatment shelter for homeless women in recovery from substance abuse. But on that day, my day off, I was out with Sharon, one of my supervisors and mentors.

We walked into a boutique, and the saleswoman walked up to me — just me — and asked if she could help me. And I was floored — Sharon was the one with the income, the responsibility, the purchasing power. And Sharon was Black. That was my first experience clearly recognizing the unearned privilege I have in this world.

I spent three hours this morning in a group of about 15 people facilitating conversation about race and how we talk with kids about race and racism. And I walked away feeling encouraged. We shared stories, questions, concerns, ideas. And the conversation was lively and heartfelt.

This is a passion of mine, for lots of reasons. I work in a really diverse environment. There are people I love dearly in my family and community who have been and probably will continue to be deeply negatively impact by the racist structures that surround us. I’m part of a church system that is the whitest church in the country, and I want us to look more like the communities in which we exist.

So it encouraged me a lot to be in a group that was mostly, but not all Lutheran. Mostly, but not all white. Mostly, but not all straight. We were parents, teachers, grandparents, pastors, aunts and uncles, and most of all, people who care about the future of young people and our communities.

We talked about why “colorblindness” isn’t a helpful strategy for us or for kids — in her new book “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America,” Jennifer Harvey notes that

Equality is an important aspiration. It is a value many of us long to implement. But it is a very abstract notion. When it’s used as a way to teach race it becomes an empty mantra. As I often say to my college students, ‘Yes, we’re all human, at our core. But have you ever met another human who had no race, no gender, no sex, no class, and so on?’ They always answer no. ‘That’s right,’ I respond, ‘the only way we show that we actually respect our shared humanity, is by taking people’s specific, diverse experiences of their humanity very seriously.’

We also talked about a lot of strategies … a great list of ideas we used came from here.

We plan to offer this again. Soon there will be an opportunity to be part of an online group reading Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

But in the meantime, where do YOU think this conversation needs to go? What would you participate in? How can we further these conversations and growth toward a racially just community and world?

The Bible in 90 Days…

A couple of my friends committed this week to reading the entire Bible in 90 days, and I decided to join them.

I’ll be honest … I’ve never been very great at sticking with Bible reading plans, but I do like the idea of getting through the whole expanse of the Bible in three months.

We’ll see how it goes … I’m also trying to meditate daily, do exercises daily to heal from a hip injury, and get back to my guitar. So it’s a pretty sure thing that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But at the moment, I’m enjoying the challenge.

I just finished Day 5, which means I’ve read all of Genesis and 15 chapters of Exodus … it’s hard to dwell deeply much on all that happens (and there are a lot of incredible stories in these first 65 chapters!!!).

But several things struck me.

— So many blessings given. I wonder what it would be like if we were more intentional about offering blessing? (One of my favorite compliments given me by a friend was that I seem like someone that would just naturally offer a blessing in the course of a hike, bike ride, etc.)

— Women don’t play a large role, but it makes it more noticeable when they DO — Zipporah saving Moses’ life. The Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah saving Hebrew baby boys. Hagar, long one of my favorite Biblical women. Tamar’s craftiness in finding a way to eventually bear her twins, Perez and Zerah.

— The reminder that “Israel” means “One who strives with God,” the new name given to Jacob after he spends the night wrestling with an angel (God), and also the name given the Hebrew people.

— There is a LOT of marrying going on between close relatives — cousins, aunt-nephew, half-siblings… nothing like those Biblical family values! Also, for a culture that really lifts up eldest sons, God sure seems to favor younger brothers — Abel, Jacob, Moses…

— The steady thread of being a foreigner: Abraham saying “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you” (Gen. 24:4), Moses “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land” (as he names his son “Gershon”) (Ex. 2:24), “There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Ex. 12:49).

— The resilience shown in Joseph’s story — despite being sold into slavery by his brothers, apart from his family in a strange land for more than a decade (including years in prison), he says afterward to his brothers, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life … God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (Gen. 45:5, 7)

What do you think? Wanna join us? What are you noticing?