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