Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hope in the Midst of the Ferguson Crisis

A day after a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of an unarmed Michael Brown, I must say -- I am weary. 

I am weary of reading and hearing this same news clip over and over again.

And I am weary of writing and rewriting the same blog post over and over again.

I wrote this same post when Trayvon Martin was killed.

I wrote this same post when Mark Zimmerman's trial ended in a not-guilty verdict.

And I'm certain I wrote this exact same post when Michael Brown was killed.

Maybe you - like me - are ready to discuss a different topic. Maybe you'd like to move on from the issue of race relations in the US. 

Maybe you're weary too.

But we must speak. We must write. We must persevere despite our weariness and disillusionment.

More than anything - we must have HOPE.

And it's in the spirit of HOPE that I write today. It's with a heart clinging to hope that I share what I'm hoping for in the midst of this heated debate of race in America.

Today I am hoping...

That the world would hear the heart cries of African American mommas

Last night, it seemed everyone had an opinion about the grand jury's decision. A simple scroll down my Facebook newsfeed gave me an earful. Instead of beginning a debate on the issue, I decided to post a pic of my two sons with this message -- "In light of the Grand Jury's decision in Ferguson, Missouri, I wanted to post a pic of my precious boys Kalin and Christian and say #oursonsmatter!" 

I had no desire for a debate, but wanted to share the heart of an African American mother. No matter how we train our sons, no matter what "good boys" we raise them to be, our sons are at risk. Simply because of their skin tone, they are seen as a threat to many. Drivers will double-lock their car doors when they see them approaching, passers-by will assume they're up to no good. (I know, because I've been guilty myself.) 

Yes, some African American boys will die in the midst of gang warfare. Some will be killed while they are committing a crime. Yet others will die because their intentions are misinterpreted. Some will die because they are perceived as a threat - simply because of dark skin and urban swag.

As an African American momma, Trayvon and Michael's deaths remind me of this reality.

That the Church will make a difference

Instead of arguing over matters of race, the Church should be leading in the area of race relations. The Bible tells us that all peoples, tribes and tongues will live together forever in heaven. Do we have to wait for heaven to experience unity in the Body of Christ?

And we must not forget Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile... for you are all one in Christ Jesus." We are all one in Christ Jesus. So why do we fight so much? Why do we allow political party affiliations and social class and even race to divide us? Why is 11 am Sunday morning still the most segregated hour of the week?

We are family. A dysfunctional one, for sure. Yet we are brothers and sisters y'all. Your joys should bring me joy. My hurts should bring you pain. Even if we disagree, our love should supersede our differences. 

We should represent what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully coined the Beloved Community. Can you hear Dr. King's voice in the midst of the Ferguson crisis?

"There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community." MLK, April 15, 1960, Raleigh, North Carolina

We must strive to nurture the Beloved Community. 

We must seek to become the Beloved Community.

Will you do your part?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Belle: A True Story that Illuminates Truth

As much as I love movies, I don't write about them very often. Usually, I watch a movie, give it a thumbs-up or down, ponder it for a short while, then go on my way.

But... Every now and then, I watch a movie that sticks with me. That's when I HAVE to tell everybody who cares to listen about it.

"Belle" was that kind of movie for me.

Set in 18th Century England, "Belle" shares the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial girl born to a slave woman of African descent and a Caucasian Royal Navy Captain. Wanting a better life for his daughter, the Captain delivers young Dido to the mansion of her aristocratic great uncle, Lord Mansfield, who serves as Lord Chief Justice.

Dido must navigate the paradoxes of her life. Her mixed race vs. her family's race. Her legacy of slavery vs. her present wealth. Her social limitations as a Black woman vs. her social privileges as a member of the English aristocracy.

She is a woman with a weighty inheritance, and yet she is not allowed to dine with her family when there are visitors in the home.

I loved this movie. It moved me for several reasons, and I'll share a few here.

Room must be made at the table of Hollywood

Mbatha-Raw and Director Amma Asante

Before I saw "Belle", I knew the main character was played by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I'd read a couple articles about her and was already a fan. However, I didn't know that the person who'd brought this beautiful true story to life was screenwriter and director Amma Asante, a British woman of African descent.

The world needs more stories like Asante's "Belle". 

Hollywood needs to make more room at its table.

Race is still a vital and hot topic

Dido navigates her world with pain and angst. Regardless of her social standing, she can never forget that she is a woman of color. And those around her won't let her forget either. 

However, when others around her see her color, refuse to shun her for it, and even embrace her - and her color - the story is most beautiful. 

I've often heard people say, "I don't see color. I think we should all be colorblind." Now, I agree that once a relationship is formed, it is very easy to forget the race of a friend. I see my friend Jenny at church, and the last thing I'm thinking is, "Oh, there's Jenny, my White friend."

However, I do see race all day long. At the grocery store. At the library. Watching the news. And this is not a bad thing. It's okay for us to see color. It's okay for us to see our differences. 

When we mistreat or disregard one another because of those difference, then we cause problems.

God is not colorblind. He sees color. He loves color. That's why he created it.

Each of us can make a difference

Dido's story echoes the Biblical story of Esther. She was born in her time and brought to live with her family - "for such a time as this". She had a purpose that only she could fulfill. She used her influence to shape her family, her society and even history. She used her position to effect change against the cruel system of slavery England. 

Isn't that why we're all here? To effect change in our generation. To influence others' towards righteousness and love. To leave this world knowing that we helped make it a better place.

Even if it's for only one person.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ray Rice: A Balance of Truth and Grace

So... by now we've all seen the video of Ray Rice hitting his wife in an Atlantic City hotel back in February.

My initial feelings -- I was offended and shocked. I knew Ray and his wife Janay had a major altercation. I figured he had struck his wife at least once. I knew they'd had a situation on that elevator.

When this story first broke months ago, I'd hoped that the reason Ray dragged his wife off the elevator was because she'd had too much to drink.

But... the video released yesterday proves Ray guilty. The video proves that Ray and Janay's "situation" was more involved than many of us had hoped. It proves that Ray was abusive. It proves that he used his massive strength - the same strength that helped him run footballs into the end zone - to hurt his then-girlfriend.

As I think of this saddening event, I'll share a few thoughts I've got.

1. The NFL finally got it right

I refuse to get into a debate over whether the NFL or the Ravens administration had already seen this video. The bottom line for me is that they made the right decision yesterday. The NFL had to take a stand against domestic violence. They had to make a statement - declaring that they will not tolerate their players and employees using physical force against women.

This was a win for victims of domestic violence and a win for women everywhere.

2. But - Ray's life isn't over

When difficulties come our way -- even difficulties we create with our own hands and foolishness -- God is not surprised. He is a God of redemption, and He can redeem anything. And I mean anything. He can redeem the deepest, darkest sins. He can even redeem an abuser like Ray. This is not the end of Ray's life. If he allows his heart to align with God's heart, he can walk in forgiveness and healing. If he confesses, repents and runs to God with all this craziness and drama, he can begin the next Act of his life with his head high and his heart whole.

3. What the Rices need now is prayer

Let's not forget that we're talking about a young family here. We're talking about the parents of a young child - their toddler daughter Rayven. Instead of joking about their difficulties or high-fiving over it, we need to be praying. We should pray that they grow closer to God through this trial. We should pray that Ray and Janay seek His face like never before. We should pray that Ray continues to get the counseling he needs to change. We should pray that he never lifts a hand to strike Janay ever again, or any other woman for that matter.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Shooting of Michael Brown: What I Know for Sure

It's been exactly two weeks since Michael Brown, age 18, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Other than a few discussions at home with my family, I haven't talked much about this volatile situation. I've wanted to share about it here in Deep Waters, but I've wanted to speak intelligently about it. There's just so much I don't know about this case right now.

And then I received an email from a sweet sister-friend that told me she'd checked my blog for my reaction to the Ferguson crisis. She encouraged me to "weigh-in" here, and I knew I needed to break my silence.

I feel like I did when I wrote about the Trayvon Martin crisis back in May 2012 in "Our Sons Are Trayvon."

I feel the way I did when I wrote about the verdict in the Zimmerman trial back in July 2013 in "Zimmerman Found Not Guilty/The Church Found Guilty".

I feel like there's so much I don't know. I wasn't in Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed. I didn't see if he struck the officer, if he provoked the officer to pull the trigger. I am no eye-witness in this case. I, like all of us, will have to wait until more facts are given to make my final judgement.

There is just so much I don't know.

So today, I'll just share what I do know.

What I do know is there's another unarmed African American young man that was killed. Another life cut short. Another young man that will never pursue a career, raise a family or live to a ripe old age.

I know that too many African American boys are being killed in the streets of every city in the US. And yes, many of them are being killed at the hands of other African American boys.

I know that I fear for my own sons, age 17 and 13. I fear that they are feared by people of all races. That they are viewed as threats to society. That they are viewed as threats to every other racial demographic. That they are viewed as threats to women of every race.

I know that I tried to persuade my 17-year-old son to not wear his hair in locs. (Many people call them "dreads".) I feared that he would be perceived as an even worse threat with that hairstyle. I feared that teachers in his school would make judgements about my son, seeing his locs as an aggressive statement, instead of the creative, artistic statement that they are.

I know that I worry about my 13-year-old son who's reaching a climax in his "teenage angst". That this season makes him pretty grumpy at times, and kinda sulky. I worry that his athletic, active and aggressive persona will set him up to be judged unfairly. That when his teachers say - as they did last year - "He just seems so moody sometimes", that he'll be viewed as a problem-student. That his lack of smiles will get him labeled as "another angry black boy." 

I know that I worry that when I send my 17-year-old son to college next year, his father and I will no longer be there to advise and protect him. That he'll probably be living in another city - perhaps a much bigger city - where there's a lot more going on. That he'll probably hang out more at night. That he'll be viewed as a threat when he drives or walks down a city street or enters a restaurant.

I also know that many - though not all - of my Caucasian counterparts don't really comprehend these concerns. 

I know that many of my white counterparts don't understand how prejudice and injustice play out in my life and the lives of other African Americans. They don't understand how real and deep "white privilege" really is. They don't understand that if their white boy were gunned down in the streets, their first thought probably wouldn't be, "Was it because my son was white?" 

And through all of this, I know that I will continue to have these conversations with my children. I know that I will tell them that unfortunately racism does still exist. 

I also know that I will tell them to not make the same fatal mistake that others make daily. I will encourage them to continue to love and accept others that may be different. I will encourage them to share the love of Christ with others - even those who may distrust or mistreat them.

And I know I will continue to trust the Lord to take care of my boys. After all, He's their Heavenly Father and He loves them way more than I ever could.

** What are your thoughts on the Ferguson crisis? I'd love to hear from you. Share them here, but please share them in a spirit of love and respect.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Farewell Robin Williams

The news is buzzing once again about a life cut short. 

Yesterday, 63-year-old actor-comedian Robin Williams was found dead in his California home. In a public statement, the Marin County sheriff's office has says that it "suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia." 

They have begun an investigation to determine the official cause of death, but I am already saddened by the possibility...

For decades I've enjoyed the talent of Robin Williams.

I was introduced to him way back in 19 - shhhh... when he starred in the silly sitcom Mork and Mindy. I smile when I think of that crazy outer space greeting, "Nanoo, nanoo".

I also loved his movies - Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams was a rare find - a comedian that could also handle his business in a dramatic role. Like the role of Sean Maguire, a Boston-based college professor in Good Will Hunting

I love this movie, especially the scene between Williams and screen-writer/director Matt Damon, who stars as the main character, Will Hunting. Will and the good professor are discussing Will's personal profile, including pictures of Will after brutal beatings by his foster parents. Will appears unaffected, even nonchalant as he shares the dramatic details of his troubled, abusive childhood.

After listening to Will's bravado for a while, the professor says these pivotal words: "Will, you see this, all this sh**?" He holds up the file for Will to see, then drops it on the desk. "It's not your fault." 

Will replies, "I know..." 

"No, you don't," Sean responds. "It's not your fault."

Will's getting agitated. "I know." 

Sean says again, "No. Listen to me son. It's not your fault." 

And this goes on a couple more times, until Will loses it, frustrated with this professor's probing antics. At the last "It's not your fault", Will pushes Sean, then falls apart. Through his sobs he yells, "Oh my God! I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry, Sean!"

I wonder how many children - especially those from abusive, negligent homes - need to be told these four words? "It's not your fault."

I wonder how many of us need to hear the same words about the sordid details of our own pasts?

Man, I love this scene. Love this movie.

And I loved Robin Williams. What a tragedy for him to die this way.

At times like this, we Christians like to share pat answers. 

Yet sometimes there are no answers that we humans can come up with to explain the worst case scenarios. 

Suicide. Babies dying before their first birthdays. Homelessness. Poverty. Never-ending wars.

Instead of pat answers, let's pray for others. Let's reach out and let our friends and family members know we're there. That we care. Let's continue to share the hope of eternal life with others, so one day we can share eternity with them... 

...Believing that one day "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain..."*

Believing in the love of a Savior who sees all and knows all. 

Even when we're at a loss for answers.

* Revelation 21:4

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 - The Day I Really Got It

I will never forget the day I truly understood the significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

My family had just moved to Franklin, Tennessee and it was election day. I was talking with my mother on the phone, and we were discussing the elections in my new home in Tennessee and the elections in my native Baltimore, Maryland.

Our conversation went something like this...

"So who were you all voting for this time," my mother inquired. "Senators and City Council members, like us?"

"Yeah, Senators, City Council, and some other positions too," I replied.

"Oh, so did you already vote earlier?"

"No, I didn't vote, Mom." My eyes watered as I fought an impending yawn. "We just moved here, and honestly, I don't know any of these folks running for office."

A few seconds went by... 

"Hello?" I glanced at the phone, wondering if she'd gotten disconnected.

"I'm still here." Her tone had flattened. "Carla, I can't believe you didn't vote today. How could you not vote? After all our people went through for the right to vote? People lost their lives for the right to vote."

And to that, I had no response. 

I felt horrible. 

I was too young to have marched or protested or sat-in during the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. I wasn't even born during the Movement. But I'd read books and watched documentaries and heard many stories about those who did. I'd cried tears over the testimonies of people being beaten and even killed as they fought for the liberties they'd been denied in the "Land of the Free."

But I hadn't truly appreciated the sacrifice of these martyrs. 

I'd taken them for granted.

After that discussion with my Mom, you better believe, I was one of the first people to reach the polls in the next election. I still didn't know much about local candidates, but I searched the internet for information about each. I read the local newspaper, weighing the opinions of others. I identified the candidates that most closely held to my personal beliefs. 

And armed with just enough information to do so - I proudly cast my vote. 

Like many, many African Americans since 1964.

Today, I am grateful. 

I'm grateful for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964, exactly fifty years ago today. 

I'm grateful for the legislation that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin and ended the unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public facilities.

I'm grateful for the people who lost their lives for the rights that so many of us take for granted. 

And I'm grateful for those still fighting against the powers that seek to take this freedom away.

Today, I say THANK YOU.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lupita Nyong'o: My New Shero

By the time I watched actress Lupita Nyong'o win an Oscar - after watching her dance with grace and confidence in the aisles, give host Ellen Degeneres a tube of her lipgloss and take part in the crazy Oscar selfie that actually crashed Twitter - I was already a huge fan.

Her portrayal of Patsey, a slave woman in the critically-acclaimed and Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave - which I blogged about here in November of last year - was at once beautiful and haunting. It was a role that Lupita, with dual citizenship in Mexico and Kenya, was born for. She understands the meaning of "beautiful and haunting" first-hand. Her deep sense of Patsey's pain spoke through her portrayal, and I immediately wondered, "Who is this woman?"

I screamed when screenwriter John Ridley won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I screamed when the production team, including Director Steve McQueen, won Best Motion Picture. And I absolutely screamed when Lupita won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

I love this woman for her talent, her fashion sense and her beauty. I love her more for her confidence. Her refusal to be molded into Hollywood's and the world's standard of beauty.

It wasn't until recently that I learned how long a journey she has endured. How many years she's had to fight her own fears and insecurities. How winding the road has been to her current place of confidence and peace in who she is.

The May issue of Essence Magazine includes the entire speech that Lupita shared at an exclusive Essence event. She shared this speech just days before her Oscar win.

I had to share her story and a sampling of her speech here in Deep Waters.

Lupita spoke of "Black beauty" and "dark beauty". She shared her struggles to accept her dark skin as a young girl. And she shared this excerpt from a letter from a little girl fighting her own demons concerning her dark skin...

"Dear Lupita, I think you're really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy [skin-lightening] cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me."

Lupita says her "heart bled" for this young girl. At the same time, she was thankful that her first role out of school was so powerful, enabling her to be an "image of hope." She also shared her own childhood battles with skin color.

"I remember a time I, too, felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin, and my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned... When I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine. My mother reminded me often that she thought I was beautiful, but that was no consolation..."

Things changed for her when a game-changer entered the world of international fashion. Alek Wek, the Sudanese British model that mesmerized us with her entrance into the fashion world in 1995, was an ebony-skinned model like the world had never seen. Her face was on the pages of magazines everywhere, and Lupita says even Oprah had praised her beauty. Her heart was torn over what to think of this new "standard" of beauty.

"It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower of confidence couldn't help but bloom inside me. When I saw Alek, I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny."

Alek had planted the seed for that "flower of confidence" in Lupita. "Now I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the faraway gatekeepers of beauty, but around me, the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful."

Meanwhile, her mother continued to impart wisdom in her, teaching her that beauty is not something to acquire or attain - it is a matter of existence. "Beauty was not a thing I could acquire or consume; it was something I just had to be... What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion, for yourself, for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul... And so I hope my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey; that you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty."

Amen, Lupita. Amen Sister.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Finding Our Wings: The Invention of Wings

Last night I completed my latest read, a book that I'd been hearing about for months - The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees. This was a good read - a great one even.

The Invention of Wings tells the story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of Southern slaveowners in early nineteenth-century Charleston, South Carolina and Hetty, a.k.a. Handful, a slave girl owned by the Grimke family. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah receives a special gift from her parents - her very own slave girl. That girl is Handful.

This story follows both women as they come of age in the early 1800's, as they share the sense of powerlessness they both feel as women, and for Handful, as an African American slave woman. We dip into the valley-lows with the women as they experience loss, betrayal, rejection, and paralyzing fear. But we also follow them to their mountain-highs as they embrace purpose, friendship, love and courage.

We witness them finding their voices, with Sarah literally finding hers. We watch them become women of faith and calling. We see them discover their place in the world, why God had created them in their Momma's wombs. Why He had brought them into the world during their time. Why He had planted them in the South, in Charleston, a place that felt as stifling and suffocating to Sarah and Handful's psyches as the coastal city's sweltering summers felt to their bodies.

With the danger of being a plot-spoiler looming over me, I'll contain myself from telling any more of this story. For now, I'll share some beautiful quotes.

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, "Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.
~ Handful

We might stay here the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut, but mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape... ~ Handful

Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn't believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. ~ Handful

My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it's the other way round. ~ Handful

I'd been wandering about in the enchantments of romance, afflicted with the worst female curse on earth, the need to mold myself to expectations. ~ Sarah

Strangest of all, it was the first time thoughts of equality had entered my head, and I could only attribute it to God, with whom I'd lately taken up and who was proving to be more insurrectionary than law-abiding. ~ Sarah

Lucretia and I had formed a bond that went beyond friends. And yet I felt the difference between us. I noticed it at Meetings when I saw her on the Facing bench, the only female minister among all those men, the way she rose and spoke with such fearless beauty, and every morning when I went downstairs and there were her children sticky with oat gruel. I would get a faintly vacuous feeling in the pit of my stomach, not from envy that she had a profession, or these little ones, or even James, who was not like other men, but of some unknown species, a husband who beamed over her profession and made the oat gruel himself. No, it wasn't that. It was the belonging I envied. She'd found her belonging. ~ Sarah

I wanted to say, who am I to do this, a woman? But that voice was not mine. It was Father's voice. It was Thomas'. It belonged to Israel, to Catherine and to Mother. It belonged to the church in Charleston and the Quakers in Philadelphia. It would not, if I could help it, belong to me. ~ Sarah

So... If you haven't read The Invention of Wings yet, go pick it up.

More importantly, like Sarah and Handful, I pray that we find strength in our personal valleys of loss, betrayal, rejection, and fear. May we also embrace our own mountaintops of purpose, friendship, love and courage.

May we, as daughters of God, find our voices. May we become women of faith and calling. May we discover our place in the world, why God created us in our Momma's wombs. Why He brought us into the world at this very time. Why we were born in our hometowns and planted where we currently dwell.

Even when our surroundings and circumstances threaten to stifle and suffocate us, may we walk in God's purpose and calling for us. May our lights shine brightly for Him, for our fellow sisters, and for the world.

May we rise above it all, flapping the wings that the Lord has given us.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

I Know Why Maya Angelou Sings

My first introduction to Maya Angelou was her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was a young teenage girl in Mrs. Simms English II class at Western High School in Baltimore, Maryland when I entered the world of this incredible woman - a world that began with pain and disadvantage.

Many of us know the statuesque she-ro - the acclaimed poet, author, Civil Rights activist, actor, singer, friend and co-laborer with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. That was Maya Angelou.

But she was also the little girl whose parents divorced when she was only 3-years-old. The young child who was then uprooted from her native St. Louis, Missouri and planted in small-town Stamp, Arkansas with her grandmother. The tender baby girl of eight who was raped by her mother's boyfriend and stripped of her innocence.

She was also the courageous young child who exposed this crime and her assailant, revealing it to her family. The little girl who refused to speak for six whole years, after hearing the news that her rapist had been killed.

Praise the Lord, she had the courage to speak again. I can't imagine if she'd remained silent for the rest of her life. If she'd refused to speak the words of life that will live on beyond her 86 years on earth.

Words like these found in the last stanza of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings":

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on a distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

What can we learn from this amazing woman's life? What can we glean from her? What can we pray the Lord would develop in us as well?

Here's what I've learned as I've pondered the life of Dr. Maya Angelou. In courage, in faith, in love for God, myself and others, I must "rise" above life's challenges.

No one can deny that Maya emerged from humble beginnings. She was born with a bitter spoon in her mouth, and her childhood became increasingly difficult. Divorce, estrangement from her parents, rape - do not a happy childhood make.

And yet what did she ultimately do with her pain? She used her pain to bless others. After years of healing, she told her story. She nurtured her gifts and talents - acting and singing and writing and speaking - and shared them with the world.

And from that sharing, she gave us masterpieces like "Still I Rise". Here's a sampling from the last stanza:

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Because of her life, I am moved to rise above my trials as well. To allow God to do the arduous, long-term work of healing my soul. To emerge from that healing with a new voice. And to share that voice with the world.

Maya, you are no longer a caged bird.

You sang a song of love, affirmation and wisdom.

You sang a song of freedom.

I know why you sing.

You sing because you're free.

May we, too, sing of freedom.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Shame on Us, Part II: Uncovering the Spiritual Origins of Shame

As promised in my last post, "Shame on Us: Overcoming Shame's Grip on Our Lives", today I am posting a Part Two on the topic of shame. Part One focused on the research and thoughts of Dr. Brene Brown and her book The Gifts of Imperfection.

Today, I want to share some spiritual insight.

Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), a nonprofit organization that supports orphan care ministries and advocates throughout the U.S. and abroad. I thoroughly enjoyed the main speakers, workshops and the opportunity to serve on a multicultural panel on the topic of "Raising Children in a Multi-Ethnic Society." 

Perhaps the biggest treat was a workshop I attended near the end of the conference, titled "Shame: Healing the Story of our Lives." Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist in Falls Church, Virginia, led this workshop examining shame and its effects on the human soul. He also revealed shame's spiritual origins, evidenced in the Bible.

At the end of this workshop I sat alone, struggling to find the tissues hiding at the bottom of my bag. I remained planted, wanting to sit there for the next hour to process his talk, process my thoughts. After a couple minutes I had no choice but to move on to my panel discussion - conveniently scheduled immediately after the shame workshop.

Well, if you'll allow me, I'll continue to process and work through the good doctor's lesson by sharing some major points here.

I'll begin with a description of the workshop:
"Each of us tells a story, whether we know it or not. And in the way we tell our stories, so also we tell the stories of those we parent. From creation, shame has played the role of spoiler. Discover how shame seeks to infect the care we offer to the orphan by first infecting us, and how the healing of shame leads to a story of redemption of the orphan by first redeeming us."
In other words, we've got to apply the wisdom of the airline flight attendant who tells us that we've got to apply our oxygen masks before we can aid a child with his or her mask. Before I can help a child silence shame in his or her life and tell a personal story of redemption, I have to silence shame in my own life and tell my own story of redemption.

However, as Dr. Thompson stated, "Shame is a part of our DNA. Shame is evident in a child's life by the time he or she is 15 to 18 months old." 15 to 18 months old! This stuff is completely ingrained in us.

Where did this shame originate? According to Dr. Thompson, we can find its origins in the Garden of Eden, lurking around, and within, the first man and woman God created - Adam and Eve.

In the Garden of Eden, the snake tempts Eve with the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. His deceptive and cunning words:
"'You will not surely die,' the serpent said to the woman. 'For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.'"
Satan's message to Eve entailed much more than a piece of fruit. His temptation was deeper than the promise that her eyes would be opened. His lies reached far beyond the promise of her becoming like God. His words caressed the depths of Eve's heart, touching her insecurities and deepest fears.

The serpent's message to Eve was "You are not enough." His message wasn't just about what she didn't have -- the beautiful, delicious fruit or greater enlightenment or the knowledge and likeness of God. It was about who she wasn't.

And the enemy has fed every one of us the same lie ever since those days in the Garden.

"Shame tells us 'You are not enough, the world is not enough, God is not enough,'" said Dr. Thompson.

Shame whispers to our souls, from the time we're 15 to18 months old, that we are not enough.

That I am not enough.

That you are not enough.

And yet, God's voice can be heard above the wicked whispers of satan. All throughout the Word, He tells us of His love for us - in all our mess and sin and imperfections.

In Luke 3:22 He speaks these words to His Son, Jesus, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

Dr. Thompson took those same words and spoke them over us like a healing balm.

"You are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

Those words were like sunshine after the rainy season.

They washed over me like healing waters.

They reminded me that greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world.

Will you repeat these words after me, silencing the enemy of shame in your soul?

"You are my daughter, my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Shame on Us: Overcoming Shame's Grip on our Lives

I am an unapologetic fan of Dr. Brene Brown, writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. The first time I heard Brene speak was at the Willow Creek Association's 2013 Global Leadership Summit. I loved her talk so much I even shared about it here in Deep Waters.

Since then, I've heard Brene's popular TED Talks and read her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene is an expert on some interesting topics: vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. I want to camp out on this last topic today.

Even before hearing Brene speak or reading any of her books, I was well-acquainted with shame. I couldn't have defined the word (I'll let her do that in a bit), but I knew shame when it came knocking on my front door.

Shame is what I felt earlier this month when I was invited to open up a conference of almost 3000 orphan advocates with prayer. I was nervous and certainly second-guessed their choice to have me pray, but I felt like I got through it pretty well. When I began speaking, the Lord miraculously took my nerves away. I knew the Lord had used me. Afterwards I received positive feedback and encouragement from others.

But later on, the shame crept in like a shadow.

I worried that I'd said all the wrong things. That I'd prayed the wrong prayer. I even worried about my hair, how the humidity and rain had resulted in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad hair day.

Have you noticed all the "I's" in those statements?

All that to say, I unfortunately know shame. And I am determined to begin staring it in the face, and making it back down from me.

So how do we do this?

The first step to overcoming shame is understanding what it is and how it reveals itself in our lives. According to Brene's research, "shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." *

"Shame is all about fear," says Brene. "We're afraid that people won't like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we're struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring (sometimes it's just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles)."

Fear. Like money, it is the root of all kinds of evil. It's the root underneath our sins, our insecurities and our shame.

Shame is part of the human experience. We all have it, whether we admit it or not.

"While it feels as if shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places, including appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging and religion," says Brene. "To feel shame is to be human."

So what does shame look like? Shame, when not dealt with in a healthy way, works it way out in our lives in one of three ways**:

  • Some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, being silent or secretive
  • Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please others
  • Some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive or by using shame to fight shame (like insulting another person)
No matter how shame rears its ugly head in our lives, it can be destructive to us and those we love.

So how do we overcome shame? My next post will deal with this question on a more spiritual level, but for now, I'll share the characteristics of people who Brene calls "men and women with high levels of shame resilience":

  • They understand shame and recognize what messages and expectations trigger shame for them.
  • They practice critical awareness by reality-checking the messages and expectations that tell us that being imperfect means being inadequate.
  • They reach out and share their stories with people they trust.
  • They speak shame - they use the word shame, they talk about how they're feeling, and they ask for what they need.
Basically, they are aware and they are authentic. They don't deny the power of shame in their lives. They admit to it. They address it. And they are real about it.

I'm tired of shame keeping its grip on my life.

I'm determined to admit it, address it and be authentic with others about it.

Will you do the same?

* Definition and quotes adapted from The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.

** From Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation to Relational Transformation by Linda M. Hartling, Wendy Rosen, Maureen Walker and Judith V. Jordan

Friday, May 16, 2014

We Still Remember: The National September 11 Memorial Museum

Yesterday the doors of the National September 11 Memorial Museum opened for the first time, welcoming President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, along with families of 9/11 victims.

This memorial, a 110,000 square foot exhibition built entirely underground, that runs through the 16 acre site known as "Ground Zero", holds within its walls memories of those who lost their lives that day.  

On Wednesday, I watched an NBC Nightly News report featuring the museum and its director, Alice M. Greenwald. As my eyes took in the artifacts that tell the story of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I was pulled into the horror once again.

A hand rake used by workers to search for human remains

Fragments of the aircrafts destroyed during the attack

A pair of shoes that a survivor kicked off so she could escape the World Trade Center 

A teddy bear collected from Ground Zero after a prayer vigil

I wiped a tear as I remembered.

I felt like 9/11 had happened yesterday.

And then, at the end of the broadcast, the clouds in my mind made way for the sun. Reporter Brian Williams asked Alice Greenwald, referring to visiting the museum, "This is a tough experience, isn't it?"

Alice M. Greenwald
Her response:

"It is a tough experience. It's a museum about loss. It's a museum about pain. It's a museum about terrorism. It's a museum about history. But... 

It's also about the resilience that we have in ourselves, not just as individual human beings, but as a society, to rebuild, to recover, to renew, to go forward and to always remember as we do so."

And isn't this the story of our lives?

We experience loss and pain and injury and sordid pasts.

But we are also victors, thank You Jesus.

We are resilient souls.

We rebuild. 

We recover.

We renew.

We move forward.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bring Back Our Girls: Praying for Nigeria's Stolen Girls

The world is outraged. 

I am outraged.

Twitter and other social media outlets are ablaze with #Bringbackourgirls hashtags.

On April 15*, the day we Americans were consumed with getting our taxes mailed out, more than 300 teenage girls were abducted from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in northeast Nigeria. Today, it's been reported that 8 more girls have been kidnapped.

Like me, you may have wondered how so many girls could have been abducted at one time. According to USA Today, one of the reported 53 girls that escaped stated that the schoolgirls heard gunshots from a nearby town. Uniformed men posing as members of the Nigerian military arrived at the school, instructing the girls to go outside. These impostors were the kidnappers, members of an Islamic militant group named Boko Haram, which means "western education is a sin".

Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has admitted to the abductions on video and declared the girls slaves. According to unconfirmed reports, the girls are now being sold as brides for $12 each. Nigerians and people abroad have been outraged with the slow response of the Nigerian government. On live television, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan promised, "We will get them back, apprehend and punish the culprits."

The world will hold him to those words.

Shekau's belief - that girls should marry young and not be educated - has been evidenced in news from other regions as well. Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenage girl rose to world prominence after overcoming persecution for her beliefs that girls should have freedom of education. On Tuesday, October 9, 2012 after boarding her school bus, a gunman shot Malala in the head, the Taliban taking credit for this strike. Despite a difficult recovery, she has become a hero throughout her country and the world, representing resilience, human rights and freedom.

This recent history reminds us that the world is becoming amazingly and beautifully smaller. We not only care for the girls in our neighborhood, city and state. We care for girls halfway across the globe in Nigeria, kidnapped for the "crime" of attending school. We care for a young girl in Pakistan, nearly murdered for her belief that every young person - male or female - should have access to education.

The same access to education that our American teens take for granted, young people around the world are denied, and even murdered over.

May we cherish this basic liberty. 

And may we continue to pray for our sisters around the world that are denied this basic liberty.

I'd like to suggest another hashtag, in addition to #Bringbackourgirls.

It's #Keepprayingforourgirls.

* Some news sources report the abduction date as March 14

Friday, January 24, 2014

Outliers: A Must-Read for Parents

Okay so, if you know me at all, you know I love a good read.

AND I love to tell other people about that good read.

So today I'm passing on a book maybe some of you have heard about, some of you not.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell is a great read. As a matter of fact, I think it should be required reading for parents of children under age 21.

Outliers details the fastest route to personal success. And by personal success, I don't mean becoming insanely rich and famous. As a matter of fact, Gladwell himself states, "It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It's whether our work fulfills us."

Instead, Outliers chronicles those who have found fulfillment and efficacy in life and shows the rest of us how to achieve the same in our own sphere of life.

He also shatters the myth of the "self-made man" or the "overnight success." His theory: our background, culture, family of origin and personal work ethic provide the roadmap to our success... or the lack thereof.

But I'll stop boring your with my own words, and share a few directly from Outliers...

"We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid? This is not a book about tall trees. It's a book about forests..." 

How often do we admire the tall, sturdy oak trees in our lives? We admire those around us with fortitude and purpose. We assume that this man or woman rose to the tallest heights of the forest by passion and drive and intelligence. We seldom think about the family members, friends, teachers, college professors, Sunday school teachers -- and I'll add the Lord -- who water those seeds, add fertilizer, place those small plants in the rays of the sun.

It really does take a village to raise a child.

The next quote needs a little backstory. Gladwell explains two kinds of intelligence: cognitive intelligence and practical intelligence. Cognitive intelligence is the kind that a child is mostly born with, and can be measured using an IQ exam. Practical intelligence is social savvy - it's an intuitive knowledge about the world around us and it is invaluable.

Where do people grow in this area of practical intelligence? In our families.

Sociologist Annette Lareau spent a few years observing a group of third graders that came from different races and socio-economic groups. She and her associates followed these families almost everywhere.

And look at what she found:

"You might expect that if you spend such an extended period in twelve different households, what you would gather is twelve different ideas about how to raise children... What Lareau found, however, is something much different. There were only two parenting "philosophies," and they divided almost perfectly along class lines. The wealthier parents raised their kids one way, and the poorer parents raised their kids another way... The middle class parents talked things through with their children, reasoning with them. They didn't just issue commands... If their children were doing poorly at school, the wealthier parents challenged their teachers. They intervened on behalf of their kids."

When I read this, my heart sank. I thought of the precious lower income students in my community. 

And I wondered... Who would intervene for them? Who would teach them to speak up for themselves and how to reason with others? Even if these children have the IQ for Harvard or Yale, who would prepare them for the social rigor of this kind of institution?

In our communities, in our schools and in our churches, we have got to stand with our children. We must pour into them, while we pour into our own. We must prepare them for whatever God has for them. We cannot sit idly by.

Okay, I'll stop preaching for another quote. This one smashes the myth that children from certain ethnic backgrounds are naturally smarter in math - or any other subject for that matter.

"We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have "it" or you don't. But... it's not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try... Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds."

In case you haven't gotten the point yet - that success isn't only for the strong or the brilliant - I'll end with two quotes from the conclusion of Outliers.

"Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed... Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities -- and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."

"Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don't. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky -- but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all."

Well said, Malcolm. Well said.

My conclusion after reading Outliers? We must advocate for our children and create opportunities within our own spheres of influence. We also must advocate for the children around us -- the ones we babysit, the ones who hang out with our children on the weekends, the ones that we teach in Children's Church. 

The future of our nation -- and even the world -- depends on the future of our children. We can help shape that future. 

Because it really does take a village.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Leader on Fire: What The Hunger Games Series Teaches About Spiritual Leadership

My new favorite book series is a popular YA series.

I'm sure you've already guessed from my title and the above pic -- it's The Hunger Games.

Before the first Hunger Games movie debuted, my teenage son Kalin told me I needed to read these books. Haughtily, I thought, "I'm not into YA books. And I'm definitely not into books that involve children killing other children -- for entertainment, at that."

But after watching - and loving - the first movie, I decided to read the series. I've thoroughly enjoyed them. I've pondered much. And they've made me think a lot about leadership.

I thought I'd pass on a few of these insights from The Hunger Games regarding SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP:

I. Leaders seldom feel qualified

The greatest, yet most humble, leaders in history often began their rise to leadership feeling grossly inadequate.

In Book Two of the Hunger Games series - Catching Fire - 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen rejects her calling to leadership for this very reason. Her words from Chapter 9:

"We need someone to direct us and resassure us... And I don't think I'm that person. I may have been a catalyst for rebellion, but a leader should be someone with conviction, and I'm barely a convert myself. Someone with unflinching courage, and I'm still working hard at even finding mine. Someone with clear and persuasive words, and I'm so easily tongue-tied."

Sound a little like someone you know? Moses?

And just take a look at other great leaders of the Bible.

Gideon. Esther. Timothy.

Even Isaiah protested his qualifications before his great proclamation -- "Here am I! Send me."*

His previous words were "'Woe to me,' I cried. 'I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips. And I live among a people of unclean lips.'"**

Oftentimes, a leader looks around at the smarter, stronger and more talented people around him or her and says, "There she is Lord. Send her."

And yet, for reasons beyond our understanding, God wants us.

He chooses us.

He empowers us to do His work.

And He uses us. In spite of ourselves.

II. Leadership is seldom glamorous

When I watch documentaries on famous leaders, I feel a rush inside, admiring their charisma and impact on others.

I imagine what it would be like to be him or her.

In recent years, I'm not nearly as enamored as I used to be. I realize the life of a leader has many dark days. The weight of leadership can be crushing.

While others watched the Hunger Games on live television, marveling in the bravery of its contestants, reveling in the drama of it all (much like reality television in our world), Katniss and her fellow contestants fought one another to the death. 

When the Hunger Games end, Katniss is deaf in one ear. Her district partner Peeta has suffered an excruciating leg injury that leads to amputation. They have suffered starvation; dehydration; dangerous storms; extreme cold at night; extreme heat during the day; fierce, genetically-altered wildlife - all while fighting for their very lives.

And they actually won the Hunger Games.

As leaders, we will face storms and opposition and trials. Some will dislike us and disagree with our decisions.

Many days will feel glorious. Some will just feel hard.

As leaders, we will carry heavy burdens.

We need the Lord to help carry the weight of our burdens. We need Him to help carry our loads.

And we need community as well.

We certainly can't do it alone.

III. Leadership requires great sacrifice

In Book One - Hunger Games - Katniss makes a decision that will forever change her life. When her 12-year-old sister Prim's name is drawn at random, naming her a contestant in that year's Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

In one moment, Prim is no longer a contestant of the brutal, sadistic televised "game" that would have most certainly meant the end of her life.

All because of her sister's great sacrifice. Her sister has given her life to save Prim's.

Sound familiar?

Over 2000 years ago, our Savior sacrificed His life for you and for me.

There has been no greater sacrifice. There will be no greater sacrifice. EVER.

And yet, when God calls us to lead others, He calls us to sacrifice our lives as well.

He calls us to give up the life we would have lived for the life that He has chosen for us.

At times, that life is uncomfortable.

Many times, that life is vulnerable.

Most times, that life is lonely.

Katniss sacrificed much for her dear sister.

Jesus sacrificed much, much more for us.

What will YOU sacrifice for the sake of others?

* Isaiah 6:8b
**Isaiah 6:5