The (Political) Work of Forgiveness

Here at Communicating Across Boundaries we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the massive elephant (and the donkey) in the room. Both Marilyn and I, although this was not planned or discussed, have largely avoided politics in our writing this election season. I’m not sure what Marilyn’s reasons are but mine have been deep and wide: I don’t think either candidate needs any more free press, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to formulate an objective sentence, I’m too angry to write coherently. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Lowell, in his blog, The Liberator Today, quoted conservative commentator Erick Erickson who wrote “A Clinton administration may see the church besieged from the outside, but a Trump administration will see the church poisoned from within.”   Erickson went on to say, “I think Hillary Clinton will do lasting damage to the country. I cannot vote for her.  Having fully weighed my opposition to Trump, I think Donald Trump will do lasting damage to the witness of the Church in America and I therefore cannot vote for him. I am without a candidate. I will not harm my witness nor risk Trump’s soul to serve my political desires.”

You may or may not agree with Erickson’s opinion on Clinton or Trump—I’m not sure I completely do– but surely one thing we can all agree on is that this presidential race has been more ugly and more divisive than most. Trump and Clinton have joined up to divide more families, more groups of friends, more religious communities than anyone would have thought possible. Things have been said, opinions have been discussed, names have been called. Together, Clinton and Trump have successfully arrived at a new type of bipartisanship — both parties are divided and realigned, they’ve been shuffled and dealt out in surprising ways.

An American president will be voted for on November 8th,. One candidate will be chosen by the people. The other candidate will have to join the rest of us in coming to grips with the outcomes. Once the president is elected the real work will begin–and I don’t actually mean the work of the presidency. Each of us will have to get to work. We have some serious forgiving to do.

It’s folly to trivialize or minimize how difficult forgiveness can be. When we’re hurt there are a hundred physical and physiological mechanisms responding in us. Biologically we are wired with a fight or flight reaction to pain: our blood pressure rises, our heart rate accelerates, pupils dilate, our muscles tense up. These reactions were given to us to defend our bodies. There’s a reason we call them “defense mechanisms.” That response transfers into how we respond to emotional pain too. We clam up, shut down, freeze over, self-protect or we scream out in anger, rage or protest. Reacting is hardwired into us at our creation.

Forgiveness works against how we’re naturally determined to be. Part of the work of forgiveness is working against our natural selves. Up hill, up stream, against the current. We cannot will or make forgiveness happen. Poet Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” It is virtually impossible to do the work of forgiveness without a measure of supernatural grace.

My husband Lowell went on to write:

We each bring our hearts to God with the humble prayer of examen, and ask him to reveal what each of us brought (or failed to bring) to our current state of affairs. God is generous …  Surely, he will examine our hearts with gentleness and woo us to the Cross. If we have said a harsh word to another person in the heat of 2016, did not speak the truth in love, or knowingly perpetrated a lie for argumentative advantage, then we should seek out that person or persons and ask for forgiveness. … Reform will also lead us to forgiving others, and I do believe God will not nurture reform without it involving forgiveness one to another.**

Collectively we’ve been through a rather traumatic election cycle. We’ll need to be kind to ourselves and to each other. It’s going to take time to recover. Foundations that we have presumed to be firm have suddenly revealed their fragility. Indisputables have been disputed. Unquestionables have been questioned. Presumptions have been poked and prodded. We’ve felt fear and dread. We’ve been incredulous and angry. Panic has poked through our patriotism. The spirit of the Trump campaign has given us permission to be rude and unkind, to not censor our commentary on those that are different than we are. The demons of our demagogues have been dark and destructive. Democracy is not the safe space we thought it was.

In a spirit of reconciliation we need to roll up our sleeves and engage our broken communities with acceptance and hope and work towards healing. We need to grieve our losses, own our despairs and our disappointments. Now is the time to begin the work of forgiveness. It won’t be easy. Forgiveness never is. But it’s important work for the sake of our souls. For the past two years we’ve bitched about political polarization. Unity can only be realized on the holy ground of forgiveness. It’s the start line, a place for both sides to meet, in the ongoing political race. Forgiveness alone provides the freedom to move forward for the forgiven and for the forgiver. It gives us a vision for hope. Slowly our focus shifts away from the ugliness of the past to a glimmer of hope for the future.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book, Sacred Fire, writes, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive! To die with a forgiving heart is the ultimate moral and religious imperative. We should not delude ourselves on this. All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.” (p256)

**(http://www.theliberator.today/blog/2016/10/12/naamans-voters-guide-for-2016-4how-quickly)

*Photo credit: johnlund.com

 

#Hashtags and Relationships

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It’s difficult to write today, but it would be worse to keep silent.

“I don’t want to become a #hashtag. Becoming a #hashtag is a very real fear in my community.” 

Yesterday at the end of a long and good meeting, a few of of us began talking. The conversation was around race and privilege, power and perspective. It was rich and challenging. It was a Haitian friend who began the conversation by talking about being a hashtag.

She was referring to the common social media practice of writing or tweeting about shooting victims by using the # (hashtag) symbol. As a first generation Haitian immigrant, Maddie* falls under the ‘black’ category. She talks with her black friends about being a hashtag, a victim of the endemic problem of being black and being shot. They all worry about this.

“I think about this” she said. “I think about how I would be described and validated –‘she baby sat for kids down the street. She was a straight-A student. Her family was known in the community.'” We talked about the stress that she feels daily; the thought she has to put into decisions; the orientation she has to give to Haitians who are new to this country and don’t know what it is to be black in America.

I don’t know about you, but I never worry about becoming a random victim of a police shooting. I don’t worry about being stereotyped as someone who is dangerous. I don’t worry that my life would have to be validated by how “good” I was in order to justify that I shouldn’t have been shot. I don’t worry that I will become a hashtag on someone’s twitter feed.

My heart is heavy. For so many of my friends, none of this is theory. It is daily life.

I realize that I am privileged to know the people I do, to live and work in places where diversity is the norm, not the exception. Because you look at life differently when your friends come from all over the world. You experience life in new ways when you rub shoulders with a black woman who grew up in Roxbury, a Haitian woman who moved to this country as a child, a man from Malawi who sits in the cubicle next to you every day.

I’m convinced that the best way forward for individuals is through relationships. When black Americans are your friends, your conversations look different. While I can never know their reality, I can listen and learn about what is harmful and what is helpful. While I cannot walk in their shoes, I can learn what it is to walk beside them. While I will not experience their particular sorrows and pain, I can ask them questions and pursue cultural humility.

So I have no answers other than to challenge all of us on the value of having friends who look different than we do. If people all around me mirror my skin color, my hair color, my language, and my culture then it is difficult to see the world through the eyes of another.

My friend Jody writes from a perspective of living in a cross-cultural marriage and learning to navigate “a complicated world of race relations while living as the only interracial family in a small Midwestern town for eight years.” Jody is a bridge-builder and has written an excellent and practical book called Pondering Privilege -toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith.

In her first chapter, Jody extends a call for cultural humility. She says this:

Instead of “Get over it”, cultural humility responds. “I don’t understand. Can you help me understand more deeply?”

Instead of replying with some variation of “quit whining” to someone who feels wronged, cultural humilty responds, “I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this? What do I need to learn?” 

Instead of saying “Why do you keep causing problems?”, cultural humility responds, I’m sorry I keep hurting you. It seems like I’m missing something big. How would you recommend I start to better understand your experience?” 

Instead of keeping quiet because of cultural ignorance, cultural humility responds, “I’m a little embarassed that I don’t know much about your background. I don’t even know how to ask you questions about it, but I would love to learn more.” 

 

In closing I too want to extend a call – a call to build bridges and tear down walls. Every day we see the results of a fractured world; a world of people unwilling to listen and at the ready to defend and construct barriers. I am utterly convinced that we are called to build bridges, to tear down walls, to mend fences, to move forward in relationships. Indeed, there is no other way forward. 

The Painful Realities of White Privilege by Jody Wiley Fernando

You can buy Pondering Privilege here. 

*Not her real name.

This is my Body–A Repost

I’ve been thinking about the aging process and how it plays out in my body. And then I remembered this piece I wrote three years ago. I think it relates. It seems like we need to do the work of coming to grips with our limited capacities, our weariness, our weakness. This is (still) my body, breaking and broken. 

Though they may be out there, I have never met a woman who is not consumed with food, and body image.There are those who are clinically diagnosed with eating disorders but all of us are to some degree disordered in our relationship to food and to our bodies. It started, of course, in the garden with Eve and the fruit. It was food and it spoke to her. Granted the fruit didn’t actually talk, but her soul’s enemy spoke to her and the message was mixed in with the food. Temptation with a spiritual marinade, a dipping sauce, a glaze.  Ever since then we’ve battled burgers and burritos; biscuits and beans. Our fight with food has been handed down to us through a long line of mothers.

I am no exception. I’ve wrestled food since I hit puberty. It’s a love-hate relationship. I love to eat. I hate how food gathers and stays on my body. I love the taste and smells of food; the texture, the flavours. I hate the pull and power of food. My history with food includes unseemly weight gain with entering and reentering cultures, with culture shock and stress.

Lately my body has been out of whack. My metabolism is on strike. My ability to burn calories seems to be deterred by fatigue and hormonal changes. I’ve never loved exercising. I love people. I’ll go for a walk if a friend will go with me. But a walk just for a walk’s sake seems like a waste of time. I don’t enjoy it. Now I can hardly eat anything and the weight still seems to creep on. It’s depressing. It’s disheartening.

Last week I was praying again for grace in this…. I don’t want to obsess about it. I don’t want to become consumed with myself, with food, with my body or with my feelings about my body. I was trying to release all that again up to Jesus who understands about bodies. He chose to be bodied, to take on flesh, to become a person. He came for our souls and for our bodies. He healed the lame, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Jesus healed diseased bodies, broken bodies, bleeding bodies. He touched bodies that no one else would touch. He associated with bodies that others avoided.

As I was praying for my body and my emotions about it…these words came to mind. “This is your body.” It seemed a divine pronouncement over me, over my agonies, over my physical frame. I repeated it slowly, out loud, “This is my body. This is my body.” I felt somehow it was a remedy for my conflicted distorted soul stuck in this conflicted distorted body. This is my body. I’ve been chewing this over and over. It keeps coming to mind. As the negative thoughts come, this thought has dropped like a sweet warm blanket to cover the ugliness of my beliefs. This is my body.

At the last meal that Jesus shared with his friends he tried again to explain to them that he was about to be executed, that he would die, that he would come back to life. It was a mystery to them. They couldn’t understand it. Using what was right in front of him (the food!), Jesus, picked up the bread, and he broke off a chunk. This was a metaphor they could figure out. It was the language of survival and comfort. It was memory and mystery. It was bread. “This is my body,” he said, “Broken for you. Take it. Eat it.”

Jesus wasn’t just giving them a cute expression, a fun phrase, or a clever speech. When Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you,” it’s significant. His broken body—his sacrifice—has the capacity to redeem me. All of me. My body. My relationship with food. All of it. His body restores my body. He offers us his broken body for our consumption. We are invited to, “take and eat”. We consume Jesus and we are satisfied. That alone means something for my food issues and my body issues and my brokenness.

In that moment at that last meal when Jesus proclaimed, “This is my body, broken for you,” it makes me wonder if in some sense Jesus himself had to come to grips with his own body and its impending brokenness. He was about to endure the profound breaking of his own body. He leans into it and he accepts it. That has implications for me accepting my own body and my own brokenness.

This holy truth, with its layers and layers of implication and revelation, has been slowly seeping into my soul this week. This IS my body. It’s the body I’ve been given. It’s no surprise to my Creator that my metabolism is malfunctioning. He’s not shocked by my disdain for exercise. He’s not horrified by longings for a piece of cake or a handful of snack mix. He actually loves me completely. From the freckles on my arms to the hair that’s coming in grey and wiry; from my ingrown toenails to my one short thumb; from the ski-sloped nose to my varicose veins…all of it designed and delighted in by my Potter, my Maker.

And it’s broken. Broken because of the Fall. Broken in childbirth for my children. Broken in India for the sake of my calling. Broken in aging. Broken in natural deterioration. Broken here for my holy now. Broken for Jesus.

We follow in his example. We mimic our model. We saw him lay down his body for the sake of his friends and so we lay down our lives for the sake of ours. It’s our way of participating in the redemption of others. We give ourselves up. We give ourselves over. And we experience that brokenness for the sake of others. Our bodies become a type of sacrifice, living and holy.

Part of the mystery includes offering to Jesus our brokenness. Our Catholic brothers and sisters understand this. When they write about suffering some of the first words out of their mouth are almost always that we get to give our suffering as an offering to Jesus. There’s certainly no sense that Jesus takes and eats us. He doesn’t consume us or use us up.  But we do get to offer up our broken bodies to him, our broken and stale bread, our broken and moldy connection to food.

That is a spiritual reality made present and tangible in our physicality. Hurting, aching, bearing, enduring, suffering. All in our bodies. St Paul wrote that he was glad to suffer, for his friends, in his body…somehow he knew he was participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for Jesus’ body, the church. Paul understood that suffering bears fruit. He was “willing to endure anything” –and as preposterous as it sounds–he even considered it a privilege, a divine opportunity, if it would result in the rescue of another or in glory going to God.

This is my body, a holy temple filled with his Holy Spirit presence. Broken it may be. Damaged. Wounded. Lumpy. Chicken pock-marked. But there is a mystery at work in my members. And I give myself up to be consumed by others. I get to participate in that redemption-rescue mission work, where bread is broken and wine is poured.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.  Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2)

(Col 1:24, 2 Tim 2:10, Phil 1:29)

Defying the Definition of Beauty

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I see her when I go to get coffee on a rainy afternoon. In a busy, city coffee shop, you see a lot of things. Black suited business people, musicians, law students, homeless, and tourists are just a few of those who walk in during the day. She is right in front of me with someone who could have been a friend or a sister. Both of them petite, with dark, straight hair. When they turn around, I see the difference.

One of them is beautiful by traditional standards of beauty. The other? Her face is a map of burnt skin and scar tissue. I know immediately that she is a victim of an acid attack. It would seem that the attackers won; that their actions permanently disfigured the woman they set out to punish.

On the morning of December 23, 2014, as a 30-year-old doctor was riding to work in New Delhi, two men on a motorcycle intercepted her scooter. While one grabbed her handbag, another sprayed the contents of a syringe at her face. It was filled with acid. The liquid quickly ate through her skin and facial tissue. She is currently undergoing treatment and may lose the sight in one eye.*

Beauty is an odd thing. We are told it is in the eyes of the beholder, even as we are accosted by subliminal advertising that assaults us through print and picture, telling us what we are supposed to think, what our eyes are supposed to behold as beautiful. We end up victims of a culture that defines beauty for us and dares us to defy that definition. We see ourselves through society’s eyes, our identity too often molded by the shape of our nose, the size of our hips, the alignment of our teeth.

When acid is thrown on a person’s face, the eyelids and lips may burn off completely. The nose may melt, closing the nostrils, and the ears shrivel up. Skin and bone on the skull, forehead, cheeks and chin may dissolve. When the acid splashes or drips over the neck, chest, back, arms or legs, it burns every inch of the skin it touches.*

But the woman I see defies that definition. Daily, she faces a visual world, a world that tells us what beauty is, and what it isn’t. But she is not staying at home, she is out in this world, defying it to define her, defying this world to see beyond traditional beauty to a new kind of beauty that shines from these faces the world calls scarred. Her scars symbolize the beauty of resilience; the beauty of strength; the beauty of survival. Her scars mean she defeated her enemy; she lives on, loved by her friends and family.

I walk away from the shop, hardly tasting the strong roast that I looked forward to. I am lost in thought over beauty: What it is, and what it isn’t. I feel society’s definition leering at me, daring me to challenge her notion of beauty. I suddenly catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window and, just like that, I panic. For my lipstick, so carefully applied that morning, has faded.

*[Source – Indian Acid Attack Victims Share Their Stories]

Click here for more information on acid attacks.

She Lived a Large Life


The best thing I did all week was attend the funeral of Chong Wright. Chong and her husband, Wilbur, attended our church. Wilbur, a once tall soldier in the US army is now slightly stooped, his shoulders humbly sloping toward the earth. His Korean bride of fifty-one years, Chong, was tiny. Her legs were slightly bowed. Her sweaters, hand knitted and pastel pink, always bunched up on her small frame. The two of them would hold hands and hobble along.

Whenever Chong saw me, her eyes would light up. We would greet each other and have a short little conversations. English wasn’t the language of her heart but she made such an effort, in tiny sound bites, to communicate. What she couldn’t speak with her mouth she shouted with her eyes. They were always bright and welcoming. She looked into you and you knew she was happy to see you.

On Monday morning I read the notice of her death and the announcement that a memorial service would be held that very afternoon at a funeral home just around the corner from us. I wanted to go to tell her husband and their one child, Mary, what a bright spot their loved one was. I wanted them to know she would be missed.

Maybe thirty people gathered in the funeral home’s chapel. The strains of a recorded piano playing, Edelweiss, wafted over the group as we waited quietly in the pews. There were several pictures of Chong on the front table framing a large bouquet of pink and white flowers. Chong and Wilbur—at their wedding, while stationed in Germany, with their daughter, with their grandsons.

During the service I learned more about Chong than I had ever known. Chong Wright was born in Sinuichu, Korea on December 26th, 1940. When she was still quite young both her parents died. She then went to live with her grandmother. At the start of the Korean War, when she was ten years old, they fled, as refugees from North Korea to the safer South. Her grandmother died when Chong was thirteen years old and she went to live with an uncle and his family. Three years later, when she was sixteen, she enrolled in beauty school. Using her own resources she trained to become a beautician.

On September 8, 1964 Chong and Wilbur were married. Not all of Chong’s family was supportive of her marrying an American soldier. One family member told her that if she married Mr Wright, she’d be so poor they wouldn’t even be able to afford toilet paper. This began a personal commitment to paper products! Chong’s daughter, Mary, said that they always had great stockpiles of toilet paper, paper towels, and paper napkins. Long after Mary had married and had children of her own, Chong continued to supply them with paper products!

Wilbur and Chong were stationed in many places before coming to Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s where they were stationed when Wilbur retired from the Army life.

Whatever Chong did she worked hard at it. She was frugal and managed to pay off two homes and two cars. She was generous and good hearted. She was a good mother and a devoted grandmother. Both grandsons spoke of her generosity to them. On Thursdays she gave them money. They played games with the boys. They attended every band concert, school play, choir concert, musical. If the boys were there, so were Wilbur and Chong.

Last December there was a band concert at the mall. The seating was insufficient. I had gone early to save seats for our family. Just in front of me I saw Chong and Wilbur saving seats for their family too. At one point Chong turned and saw me. Her entire face lit up in recognition. She bobbed her head in greeting, her eyes beaming.

Chong Wright’s circle was small. There weren’t a lot of people at the funeral and many that were there came because of love and friendship with her daughter, Mary and her family. It might be easy to dismiss the significance of a person like Chong Wright—unknown, an immigrant, she couldn’t speak English very well. But Chong made a difference in the lives she touched. Her life mattered. Her circle wasn’t large but it was deep. She lived with integrity. She loved well. She made an effort to connect in the ways she knew how—playing with a baby, greeting those she knew, giving to her family. She was loyal and faithful until the very end.

It was such a profound moment for me. I have this relentless longing for a larger world. I want to go places, meet people. I want to make a difference. I want to have a global impact. But here was Chong– Her world, at the end, might have been little and yet her impact was undeniable. She will leave a large hole in the stories of her grandsons, her daughter, her son-in-law, the few at church she smiled at. Her life mattered. The breadth of her experiences, the suffering she had endured, the places she had traveled–for being a person of small stature she lived a large life and then settled into a small space. And she did so with grace.

I would do well to live…and die…..like Chong Wright.

On Prayer and a Pakistani Childhood

  
Before my family moved to Pakistan, prayer was relegated to the Sunday morning church service, the evening service and Wednesday night prayer meeting at McLauren Baptist Church. Our family had “family devotions–a daily time for short Bible readings and prayers–and we prayed before each meal. However my perspective on prayer was largely first formed in Pakistan—the place where most of my childhood was lived out. Remarkably, these were lessons which Muslims who prayed taught me. Even now when I pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am nonetheless grateful for what I learned about prayer as a practice from my Muslim friends and neighbours.


I remember vividly those first weeks after our move to this unusual and new land. New sounds, new sights, new smells affronted my small self.
Overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all I remember tears and a funny feeling in my tummy. I felt ill at ease as new friends prattled away with extraordinary sounds in an unaccustomed language. I felt disconnected and disjointed as I tried to make sense of it all. In the middle of all the chaos there was one sound, poignant, and pronounced, that I loved from the start and that was the Muslim Call to Prayer. Five times a day, loudly and intrusively, there came from the loudspeakers the invitation to pray from the muezzin. Chosen for his melodic voice, and possibly his volume, he called out the need to pray.

Admittedly it was bewildering at first. I remember playing during those first few days with some neighbor girls on my auntie’s front verandah. We were colouring, if my memory serves. Suddenly, out of the awkward silences that form when little girls who don’t know each other and can’t talk to each other, there was, what felt like, a cacophony of noise. I remember being startled by it. Soon the entire sky was filled with layer on layer of sound as other muezzins joined in from other mosques. As soon as it started the crescendo mounted, and equally suddenly it was over! Normal sounds of camel bells, and vegetable sellers and donkey brays and barking dogs quickly filled the space.

The call to prayer punctuated my childhood. As I look back on it now there are a few striking lessons I learned during those years. Here are a few of my thoughts on prayer and my Pakistani childhood–

1. Pakistani Muslims, like their counterparts around the globe, bow to pray. Prayer is living and it involves motion and movement. There is a specific posture to each phase of the prayer. They stand, bow deeply, lower their foreheads to the floor, and sit. Pakistani Muslims understand intuitively the deep connection between body and soul and spirit. Their whole bodies are involved as they prostrate themselves humbly before God. They know they were created to worship and for them prayer is worship.
The older I get the more I am realizing the profound truth that was modeled for me as a child. We are whole people. Our bodies are not disconnected from our inner reality. We go together, my body and I. As I watched Pakistanis, with their heads lowered before God, as they kept their bodies in line with their spirits, in seeming submission, I was challenged to bring my own self in alignment. Nowadays I occasionally raise my hands in supplication. Often I sit. Occasionally I pace out my petitions, walking back and forth before the Holy Throne of God. Often I kneel. Occasionally I bow face down before God, acting out what is true—that He is God and I am not. My prayers are directed to a Living God and often they are moving and motional.

2. My entire theology on prayer expanded as I watched with childlike curiosity my neighbors pray. For them, prayer wasn’t static and quietly compartmentalized. Prayer was a part of every single day. There were no exceptions. If you were in the middle of something, you stopped to pray. If you were busy and distracted, you were called back to prayer. No one was exempt: the rich prayed, the poor prayed, the villager prayed, the city dweller prayed, the tribal elder prayed, the plains person prayed. They were a praying people and that influenced me in significant ways. Prayer became for me a normal requisite to a normal day.

3. Pakistanis also understood the benefit of community in collective accountability. It was assumed: you pray, I pray, we all pray. Business contracts were paused while prayer mats were unrolled. Conversations over tea, kitchen gossip, homework all took a break for prayer. If your brother-in-law wasn’t praying you knew something was amiss. Everyone prayed. I love that community element. I love the structure that provides for a populace. There is routine and rhythms built around the call to prayer.
I think it was this measured out, predictable schedule that warmed my heart to liturgical prayer. The stage of my heart was set for the high church’s loyalty to traditional written prayers. I love that those words have rung out in churches around the world and around the centuries. What stability is procured in that! I’ve always been intrigued by the monastic commitment to praying the liturgical hours. This official set of prayers marks the hours of each day and sanctifies the day with prayer: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. There is regularity in it. There is holy rhythm and purposeful pacing.

4. The muezzin begins with a recitation of the Islamic creed. Millions of Muslims repeat back to themselves, no less than five times a day, what they believe to be true. There is great benefit in learning this lesson from our Muslim friends. We have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. What if we too deliberately remembered what is true? What if we recited back to our weary-from-life souls the character of God, his faithfulness, his sacrifice, his provision? Imagine the reassurance that might wash over our reactive emotions, our crises, our desperations, our superficial happinesses? We could learn a lot from this repetition of doctrine throughout each of our days.

5. “The Arabic word for prayer is salah and interestingly it is a word that denotes connection. Prayer is our way of connecting with and maintaining a connection with God. Prayers at fixed times serve as a reminder of why we are here and helps to direct a person’s thoughts and actions away from sin and onto the remembrance of God.” (source:www.islamreligion.com)
Growing up, I watched a whole community decide collectively to connect with God. They were given regular opportunities to have their obsessions with fickle and frail things pried away. I would love to claim that I learned this lesson as a child. I did not. But as I think of it now and reflect on it more, I wish I had. How often I’m distracted! How often I forget to remember my living connection with the Living God. I wish to live spiritually connected to the God who loves me and initiated relationship with me. I long to live from that reality all day long! Punctuating my day with intentional prayer would certainly help.
6. The idea that we can talk to God baffles me and strikes me as marvelous. I firmly believe that every prayer need not start with “Dear God” and shouldn’t necessarily end with “Amen”. Some of our deepest groans and yearnings float up as prayer. A thought unbidden of a faraway friend surfaces memory and prayer. To-do lists sighed over are heard by our kind Father as the true prayers of our overwhelmed hearts. Tears and sorrows become intercessions and laments. If we bounce our hearts up to the divine we live out our prayers. I watched my Pakistani Muslim friends stop, toward the end of their ritual prayers, for the silent session of “dua”. This was the space in their recitations for them to lift up their hearts in prayer. They prayed for whatever was on their minds: a sick relative, a final exam, a financial need.

I love to pray. I don’t understand how it works but I believe it does. This is true, not because of who we are and how we pray, but because of who God is and how he receives the “earnest prayer of a righteous person (which) has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16). I realize now that a lot of our thoughts on prayer are developed while we are yet formative—and for me that was when I was surrounded by Pakistan and her people of sincere faith. My theology on prayer is wider and deeper for having learned from them some on what it means to pray.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:4-7

What has influenced your views on prayer, in positive or negative ways? We would love to hear from you through the comments. 

Forget Diversity! It’s Cultural Competency that We Need.

cultural competency

I live in a diverse neighborhood in a diverse area. Every day I ride the subway with people of many different backgrounds and ethnicities. I go to work and sit next to a man from Malawi and have friendships and work with women from Haiti, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Senegal, Portugal, Cameroon, and Roxbury – and that’s just naming a few.

But so what? Just because there is diversity in my life doesn’t mean I know how to navigate diversity. It doesn’t mean I exercise cultural humility in my interactions. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes and show my prejudice, sometimes well dressed and well hidden, other times more overt.

It’s not enough to recognize, and be sensitive toward, diversity. We need to learn how to navigate diversity.

In the 2012 census, census officials in the United States said that by the end of the decade “no single racial or ethnic group will dominate the majority of children under 18.” By the end of three decades, the same will hold true for the population at large.

More and more, the United States is seeing communities change from predominantly white, to a veritable ‘salad bowl’ of color. A place where people from many ethnic and racial backgrounds live, work, play, and fight together.

I’m tired of hearing about diversity. As long as we just talk diversity, nothing will change. Because diversity just means ‘difference.’

This is what the dictionary says when defining diversity:

  • the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.
  • the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

When it comes to a health care organization, a school, even a church, that definition is singularly unhelpful. Because all it gives you is the what – not the how. It gives you nothing about the good and the hard of a diverse population of people living, working, playing, and fighting together.

I think we need to stop talking ‘diversity’ and start talking about ‘navigating diversity.’ One of the ways to do this is by learning what it is to be culturally competent — learning how to function effectively across cultural differences.

As I think about the many tragedies that have affected the United States in the past few months, I am struck by the fact that no one has been talking about the importance of learning how to function effectively in the midst of difference – whether that difference be racial, socioeconomic, cultural, or physical.  And that is just naming a couple of areas where we see diversity in our communities.

We can talk all day long about diversity, but if we don’t have tools on how to navigate this diversity, than the talk is empty and nothing will ever change.

So for a moment, I want to talk about cultural competency. A disclaimer here – when it comes to cultural competence I am most familiar with how this plays out in the world of health care. This is where I see difference and inability to navigate difference played out regularly. So the way I approach this is from that perspective.  I want to talk about what it is, why we need it, and some tools for how to move forward in this area.  I hope to do this in the next few blog posts so I would love it if you tracked with me.

Cultural competency is a field of study, a series of behavioral changes, and a strategy for working with and serving diverse populations. The term was born in the field of mental health but didn’t make its way into medical literature until the early 1990s. The words and ideas behind cultural competency began to get more recognition in 2002 when the Institute of Medicine published a report (now a book) called Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. This report highlighted extensive areas where racial and ethnic minorities receive lower quality health care, even when their income and insurance status were the same. Among several recommendations given at the end of the study was the need for systematic cultural competency trainings.

There are several different definitions for cultural competency.

A colleague and I use prefer this one, partly because it is simple and short:

A learning process that enables individuals and organizations to respect, value — and function effectively in the midst of — cultural difference.

The definition accurately portrays cultural competency as something that is ongoing, something that has to be learned and practiced. Cultural competency is a continuum and needs to be seen in stages. 

Why do we need it?

We need cultural competency because there are overwhelming disparities in almost any area we could mention. In health care, everything from access to pain medication to being offered treatment for cancer shows overwhelming differences in quality of care. For example, in one study minority patients were more likely to be under-medicated for pain than white patients (65% vs. 50%), and more likely to have severity of pain underestimated by caregivers. Another study in the area of mental health indicated that 44% of White English speakers to 27.8% of Blacks received treatment after a diagnosis of depression. These disparities are well-documented in the book I cited above.

In an extensive survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed that racial disparities are well documented and pervasive in various areas of education. Here are some of the key findings from this survey:*

  • Access to preschool. About 40% of public school districts do not offer preschool, and where it is available, it is mostly part-day only. Of the school districts that operate public preschool programs, barely half are available to all students within the district.
  • Suspension of preschool children. Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment but 42% of students suspended once, and 48% of the students suspended more than once.
  • Access to advanced courses. Eighty-one percent (81%) of Asian-American high school students and 71% of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics). However, less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high school. Black students (57%), Latino students (67%), students with disabilities (63%), and English language learner students (65%) also have less access to the full range of courses.
  • Access to college counselors. Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor; in Florida and Minnesota, more than two in five students lack access to a school counselor.
  • Retention of English learners in high school. English learners make up 5% of high school enrollment but 11% of high school students held back each year.

We need cultural competency in health care because it is one of the ways we can provide quality care. We need cultural competency in education because our schools have students of all colors, backgrounds, and religious beliefs. Cultural competency is one way to serve these diverse students and their families. Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum and the student’s family and culture are critically important to their education. We need cultural competency in law enforcement because those in the field often encounter the challenges of interpreting and understanding the behavior and attitudes of those who are culturally and linguistically different than they are.

Talking about navigating effectively through difference is far more difficult than talking about being sensitive to, or appreciating difference. Navigating or functioning effectively in the midst of diversity is hard work. It is a learning process. It takes tremendous humility – recognizing that the way you view the world is not the only way. It takes guts. It takes a sense of humor. It takes willingness to say sorry, to admit we are wrong. It takes negotiation and communication.

In the next couple of blog posts I hope to discuss a fraction of how I think cultural competency can help us to work, serve, and form friendships more effectively as well as some tools that increase people’s ability to navigate across cultural differences.  In the mean time, what do you think? Do you talk about cultural competency in your area of work? Why or why not? 

*http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/photo-montage-faces-photo-album-556806/ word art by Marilyn R. Gardner

On Culture and Crayons

I have just returned from the Families in Global Transition conference held in Washington DC this past weekend. It will take some time to process all of the talks, quotes, and challenges that were given formally at the conference, and even longer to process the individual conversations. They were rich and meaningful at every level.

For three days I was with a group of people that get identity struggles of the person who lives between; that understand the paradox of place and home; that struggle at different times with belonging; that have said hundreds and hundreds of goodbyes.

I will be doing separate blog posts about the different sessions I attended but for now I want to leave you a quote.

This morning on social media I shared this quote from the conference key note speaker, Teja Arboleda: “the color of your skin has no bearing on your culture…there can be no multicultural crayon.” Teja gave an excellent talk called “The Ethnic Man.” His ethnicity and background are complicated, so he has used his experience to speak into issues of culture, race, and identity. He talked about finding out that Crayola had come up with the idea of marketing a box of “multicultural crayons” and his reaction to that. He also talked about his frustration when he first saw a ‘flesh-toned’ crayon. Because flesh is all kinds of colors, and with a simple child’s tool, the creators of those crayons dismissed a huge number of people who live in our world and also have flesh.

The quote resonates with a friend who responds within minutes:

“…here in Toronto, we’ve met a family from Jamaica who look Chinese…a family from Trinidad who look Indian…and another family from Zambia who look Indian! Meanwhile, my own 3 children could hail from any country in the world with their mixed-race skin color! I just wish there was a question on forms to allow them to claim “mixed race” status instead of ‘other’.”

My friend is living in a multicultural city, in a multicultural marriage, raising a multicultural family. And crayons won’t do it. The marketing of this small box of crayons, complete with eight ‘skin tone’ colors makes strong and incorrect assumptions about culture and race.

While I appreciate that companies want to be ‘inclusive’, there are ways to achieve this objective that are smart and true, and there are ways that just perpetuate division. Culture, in all its complexity, can never be reduced to a box of multicultural crayons. It’s too important.

What do you think? 

crayons with quote

Who Made You the Spoon to Stir the Sugar in my Tea?

Idioms are a mystery and a delight! And until you know at least a couple of them, some of the nuances of a language and culture elude you.

Recently I learned an idiom from a Yezidi teenager, a Kurdish idiom that I love. The girl was standing outside, casually chewing gum. A teenage boy looked over at her and said to her “You shouldn’t be chewing gum.” To which she responded without hesitation “Who made you the spoon to stir the sugar in my tea?”

As a bystander I didn’t understand any of this. I did however understand the ensuing laughter and so right away asked about the interaction. My translator laughed and tried to explain and what came out was “Who made you the spoon to stir the sugar in my tea?”

Basically, who gave you the right to tell me what to do?

I love this!

It brings up the beauty of idioms, that way of saying things without really saying them. Around the same time that I heard this idiom a friend sent me an article called “Idioms of the World Infographic.” It is a fabulous, illustrated guide to ten phrases from around the world.

Here are three favorites of the ten.

1. To feed the donkey sponge cake

Language: Portuguese
Translation: Alimentar um burro a pão-de-ló
Meaning: To give good treatment to someone who doesn’t need it

2. To let a frog out of your mouth

Language: Finnish
Translation: Päästää sammakko suusta
Meaning: To say the wrong thing

3. Not my circus, not my monkey!

Language: Polish
Translation: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy
Meaning: Not my problem

Take a look below at the rest of them and enjoy! Then add your favorite idiom to the comments for a chance to win a copy of Between Worlds! 

Idioms of the WorldSource – HotelClub

See more at: http://www.hotelclub.com/blog/idioms-of-the-world-infographic/#sthash.Jj7PK2vD.dpuf

What’s Wrong With Halloween?

Halloween pumpkins

Maybe it’s that I’m sick of the sexy nurse costumes, completely demeaning my profession. 

Maybe it’s that I think making a “sexy Olaf” costume, sexualizing a little snowman from the movie Frozen is despicable.

Or perhaps it’s that Halloween is a six billion dollar, yes – six billion dollar – industry. 

But what really pushed me over the edge is the cute baby in the marijuana costume. For a mere $29.99, you too can dress your cuddly, darling to look like a pot plant. So let’s get this straight: Refugee moms are fighting to keep their babies alive, free from dysentery, scabies, upper respiratory infections, and numerous other diseases that one has to fight against in resource poor settings while moms in North America are purchasing costumes that resemble marijuana. 

If I thought I couldn’t go farther over the edge, I was mistaken.I became incensed when I found out that people are actually planning on dressing up as sexy Ebola workers. Yup. You read that correctly. A disease that has claimed countless lives, that has family and community members weeping at graves where they aren’t even allowed to wash the bodies of their loved ones, the spoiled West decides this is funny. So they decide that going as a Sexy Ebola Worker is a good idea? On what planet is this a good idea? I wouldn’t wish Ebola on anyone…but I’d like them to see the disease up close. Maybe it would change them. One can hope.

And that’s what’s wrong with Halloween. At some point Halloween stopped being about kids and cupcakes, about jack-o-lanterns and Trick or Treat, about dress up and bobbing for apples. It ceased being about children and it became about spoiled adults. Adults who evidently think it’s funny to sexualize a profession that they will cry out to at many times in their lives. Adults who want to party hard and drink harder. Adults who haven’t grown up, instead foisting their pitiful excuses for fun onto children who should be able to be pirates and ghosts and cowgirls. Adults who are callous to addiction, pain, and suffering.

So what’s wrong with Halloween? It’s been co-opted by spoiled grown ups – that’s what’s wrong with Halloween. 

You’re Welcome.

P.S – “The UN health agency said that 4,555 people had died from Ebola out of a total of 9,216 cases registered in seven countries, as of October 14. A toll dated just two days earlier had put the death toll at 4,493 out of8,997 cases.” See Source

Oh Yeah! That’s Sexy….!

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/pumpkins-hokkaido-autumn-october-469641/

In Defense of Married Love

We wondered if we should post this piece today after yesterday’s excellent essay from the perspective of a single woman. But this piece is a tribute to commitment in an age where it is often mocked. So yesterday was to celebrate being single and today we will defend marriage.

In Defense of Married Love by Robynn

These are the days of relational erosion. Marriage is mocked. Intimacy is insecure and therefore superficial. Few risk authentic openness. Vulnerability is protected against. Sex is cheap and misunderstood.

Sensitivity to the lonely and the wounded has kept us largely silent on the subject of marriage.  Recent controversies surrounding the definition of the terms have meant that we are almost embarrassed of marriage. If you openly admit you love your husband you can almost hear eyebrows rise. If you talk about marriages that endure, marriages that have meaning, you can feel the collective eyes begin to roll. If your married sex is not only satisfying but sizzling everyone just assumes you are making stuff up!

I want to stand up in defense of marriage….good marriage.

Marriage is intended to bring stability. It brings equilibrium. There is a particular reassurance in the predictability of marriage. I know this man. He knows me. The rhythms of life are steadied by a relationship that remains.

Marriage is holy. It involves vows and promises. It also includes mystery and meaning. We have now essentially entered into a monastic community of two. We take vows of chastity, occasionally of poverty, and charity. It is a sacred institution that we have formed and entered into together.

There is comfort in a good marriage. Marriage is comfortable… Like yoga pants after a long day of zipped up denim! There is exhale, and the space to sigh. There is a place to relax. To be yourself. To learn who that even is.

A healthy marriage frames up a safe space for ongoing relational discoveries –like mining for ever-interesting treasures. Spouses change. People grow, evolve, discover themselves along the way. Being married means a constant story of discovery. There is never a dull moment when two individuals with diverse and varying interests openly engage one another and invite each other into those new places.

Married love has the capacity to redeem the sore spots of loves lost. Married love metaphors grace and undeserved kindness. Married love communicates deep acceptance. The virtues of love have a stage to act on in marriage. We can try on patience, and kindness. We can learn what it means to keep no record of wrongs. We can learn forgiveness as a second language as we are immersed in the language of marriage.

A good marriage provides a safe place for personal transformation, as two people connect honestly with one another in community. I have converted so many times to Lowell’s convictions. He has converted to mine. We’ve adjusted. We’ve adapted. And we’ve given each other the space to do the same.

It takes work and energetic ambition to make a working marriage. We are hard wired for community…. But everything in us wants to pull away when we are tired or terrified. We are tempted to isolation. We shut down. When marriage hurts us we shy away. Attempts to control the other are hurtful and damaging. Marriage requires selfless commitment to think of the other. It mandates a pledge that promises to resist the dark call to pull away and instead a promise to intentionally turn to one another even in the midst of great sorrow or shame or pain.

We depend on our Holy Helper. We have plenty of sex! We try to get good sleep. We eat healthy meals. We tell each other we love each other often—several times a day. We try to be kind to each other. We talk a lot. For us, this has resulted in a sure and successful union.

The media has done its best, in connection with jewelry stores, chocolate factories, greeting card makers and florists to convince us that Valentine’s Day is all about one time romances! The truth of the matter is that St. Valentine died in defense of marriage. Perhaps it’s time again to stand up and defend marriage. You can look at me strange.

You can shake your head at my naiveté… but I am taking a stand in defense of my marriage and married love.

Twenty years ago this month Lowell asked me to marry him! Happy St. Valentine’s Day sweet Lowell! Marrying you was the most interesting, joyful, consoling, principled and passionate thing I have ever done! It’s true, I love being married to you.Robyn Lowell & kids

Every Friday Robynn writes for Communicating Across Boundaries. You can find all her posts here.Enhanced by Zemanta

Culture – Weekly Photo Challenge

Google the word ‘culture’ and over 8 million results will pop up.

As Communicating Across Boundaries readers you know well the concept and the meaning of ‘culture’. As Edward Hall says “Culture is man’s medium”. It’s the way we make decisions, do government, create infrastructure, educational systems, court and marry, raise children. It encompasses all of life. So though I have never opted to take part in the weekly photo challenge hosted by WordPress, this week I had to. Choosing one picture to represent ‘Culture’ does not do the topic justice – but nor would a hundred pictures.

Today I’m posting three pictures that represent ‘culture’ to me. The first two are pictures of spices in spice shops in Cairo and Istanbul. The way the East sells spices is in stark contrast to the way the west sells them: the east in large burlap bags, the pungent aroma wafting through the air causing you to breathe in and sometimes sneeze; the west –  in pristine bottles with efficient labels to sit happily on your shelves. And the way Pakistanis store spices is also a contrast – so that is why I have posted the third picture – My Masala Dabba.

What I wish I could do is have all of you link up pictures that represent culture to you, instead I’ll ask you to use word-pictures. What picture would you post and why?

Culture

spices in baskets

IMG_2919

Designer Babies

Doctors enlisted to curb "sex-selection&q...

The waiting room has just two couples in it. They are slightly nervous, self-conscious, avoiding eye contact with each other. The room is dimly lit and resembles a sterile, designer living room. Magazines are in carved racks on one wall as well as stacked perfectly, fan style in threes, on a glass-topped side table. A stand in the corner holds a carafe, the card written in black calligraphy tells the couples it’s “lemon and strawberry infused water”.

Nothing in the room suggests that this is where couples go to pick out their babies. Their very own designer babies. The first decision will be on sex– male or female? But then it moves on: Will it be black hair or blonde? Blue eyed or Brown? Tall or short? Art or sports?

Smart or ….no that one’s easy! The couple smiles at each other, their eyes communicating the message — We don’t want any dumb kids!

This is not a brave new world. This is today. Couples are increasingly able to pick what they want, when they want it. Consider this advertisement from the leading fertility group around sex selection:

Recognized by ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, Reuters, and United Press International News Services as among “THE” worldwide leaders in gender selection technology.

By examining the genetic makeup of embryos, we can virtually guarantee* your next child will be the sex of your choice.

  • Leaders in Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD)
  • Among the most successful gender-selection programs anywhere
  • Screening for over 400 hereditary diseases
  • Critical procedures performed by MD and PhD specialists
  • Available to nearly all patients (not just those with genetic disorders)
  • Now combinable with Microsort sperm sorting at patient request
  • Featured on 60 Minutes, CNN, ABC, NBC, Newsweek, Time and more

In 2009 an article titled “Designer Babies: Ethical? Inevitable?” told of a woman who had applied embryo screening on eleven 3-day old embryos to determine which one would be the most likely to be disease free. She then had that one implanted in her uterus.

At surface this can, perhaps, seem empowering. What parent would ever choose for their children to have a disease? We weep over our children’s minor difficulties, like not being invited to a birthday party, let alone those big things like diabetes and leukemia. One professor claims this is just “Responsible Parenting*”.

But there is a dark side to this. As humans we are prone to extremes – and while many may choose to use this technology just to avoid disease, others would abuse.

Because that’s how we are.

In that same article Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, says this:

“If misapplied, [these technologies] would exacerbate existing inequalities and reinforce existing modes of discrimination … the development and commercial marketing of human genetic modification would likely spark a techno-eugenic rat-race,….”Even parents opposed to manipulating their children’s genes would feel compelled to participate in this race, lest their offspring be left behind.”

While I’d like to assume the best of this race called ‘Human’, I see too much evidence that we would modify to our own detriment, and face the unforeseen consequences of our choices.

Equally troubling is that the developing world continues to face enormous problems with infant mortality and morbidity as well as child malnutrition, even as this side of the ocean dabbles in extreme technologies to produce a “Super Race”.

My post from yesterday received a variety of comments, and I appreciated all the perspectives brought into the discussion – one of the things that didn’t come into the discussion was our increasing ability to control all of life – from conception to sex selection to gender reveal to when we die.

This discussion goes far beyond designer babies – but designer babies are one more spoke in this wheel of control.

What do you think? And are all these even related or am I off base? Continue the discussion with me through the comments!

Fifty Shades of Barbie

Warning – Reader should note that this is not erotica fiction.

I’m joining the throngs of those who are capitalizing on the year’s fifty shades theme. At a recent visit to Target my daughters and I happened on the Barbie aisle. Oh.My.Word.

When did Barbie become an untamed monster?

While some may think she was always a monster, I liked her. I never saw Barbie as ‘real’. She didn’t have a figure I wanted – she was plastic. I found real images to be far more damaging in terms of affecting my body image. Barbie was just a doll with hard plastic boobs – nothing I wanted to be, just something I wanted to play with, dress, pretend with, catch her kissing in the shoe box with Ken (or better, GI Joe) à la Erma Bombeck. 

JuliaMy first (perhaps only) Barbie was a “Julia” Doll. “Julia-Barbie” was created after a hit television show that aired from 1969 through 1971 called “Julia”. It starred Diahann Carroll in the role of Julia, a widowed single mom who worked as a nurse. It was ground breaking in casting an African-American as the lead. Julia the Doll was ground breaking as well.

It was the early ’70’s and most dolls were white. Julia had brown skin.

As I look back on the time and my desire for a Barbie, I appreciate that my parents purposely decided that Malibu Barbie would be incongruent with raising a daughter in Pakistan, a country where whites are the minority and most people have skin color of varying shades of brown. While Malibu Barbie may have been the dream of other 12-year olds, the minute I held my Julia Doll I ran around the house screaming with excitement. She was beautiful with her big brown eyes, cute short haircut, and her nursing uniform…yes – Julia came complete with a crisp, white, tailored uniform and a nursing cap. I was in a heaven of sorts.

I also went on to become a nurse. I’m not sure if my Julia Doll had anything to do with it but it certainly didn’t hurt.

So while there have always been variations on the Barbie theme, they seemed more manageable. Now? It’s nuts.

Take a look and see for yourself through this Fifty Shades of Barbie Photo Montage. Then weigh in through the comments on these questions:  Do you like Barbie? Has Barbie become a monster or was she always a monster? Did you have a Barbie and if so, which kind? Did you want to be Barbie, or did you see her for what she is – pure plastic?

For the Love of Libraries

Boston Public Library bearing the inscription on the north side "THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY"
Boston Public Library bearing the inscription on the north side “THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY”

 *************************

It was my sister-in-law who taught me to love libraries. I can see her to this day, curled on the cushions in the children’s section of the Cairo American College Library. She had a toddler on her lap and a pre-schooler beside her and she was reading Miss Rumphius. I was glued to the scene. I wanted to be her. I wanted to sit curled up on those cushions with my kids reading library books forever. I don’t know why it took me so long to love libraries, but once I learned I never looked back.

Not surprisingly Miss Rumphius became one of my favorite children’s books. Years later, one of my close friends became the librarian of that section of the library. She found her niche among Miss Rumphius, Stargirl and many more excellent books for younger audiences.

Periodically I would receive notes from one of my kids “going to the library after school” – it wasn’t a place of punishment, it was a place and space of comfort.

In moving from Cairo this year, my daughter Annie had ‘Get a library card’ at the top of her to-do list. It was crossed off quickly.

So when Room for Debate in the New York Times asked the question “Do we still need libraries?” Scissors went through my heart.

What?

Who would even ask that stupid question?

Of course we need libraries. Libraries are necessary to a functional community. Libraries are reading places, meeting places, resting places, learning places, writing places, necessary spaces!

If you want to question the importance of libraries just talk to people who have lived for long periods of time in countries without a public library system. They’ll tell you what it’s like to long for that space, those shelves of books, that quiet. They’ll tell you how they begin their own forms of libraries through borrowing the books of friends, through developing small loaning libraries in a tiny room in a church, they’ll tell you how they bought the Kindle, NOT because they like electronic media, but because they love books and had a limited luggage allowance that had to include baby paraphernalia and other essentials, leaving some of the essential books behind.

I was told once that the biggest consumers of the New York Public Library system are immigrants. I believe it. For when you’ve lived without, you don’t take for granted a system like libraries.

So why is it even a question?

Because libraries, though free to us, are not free. They take upkeep, good staff, an incoming supply of books. They may be public, but they are not free. And judging from the various perspectives in the Room for Debate article, libraries have had to reconsider their function. They have had to address the need and importance of computer and internet access, speak into the digital world of e-books. In many ways they have had to be reinvented.

Luis Herrera, city librarian of San Francisco says this: “Libraries are more relevant than ever. They are a place for personal growth and reinvention, a place for help in navigating the information age, a gathering place for civic and cultural engagement and a trusted place for preserving culture. While the technology for accessing library materials has changed and will continue to change, our mission – to inform, to share and to gather – will not.”

It is Matthew Battle, author of Library: An Unquiet History, who worded it best in Room for Debate:

“In their long history, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. For making knowledge and sharing change, we still need such places — and some of those, surely, we will continue to call ‘the library.'”

So what do you think? What is your experience in and with libraries? And do we still need them? Discuss!

Re-post – Earnestly Looking For Something I Don’t Need – Black Friday Comes Again

It comes around like turkey and pumpkin pie. It’s as consistent as Thanksgiving itself. It begins promoting itself weeks before it actually happens. “It” is Black Friday. And while this is a re-post from last year I mean every word of it. For those of you who are not American– materialism is multicultural, we’ve just perfected and packaged it in ribbon and shiny paper in the west so I beg you to not judge too harshly.

DJ industrial average 1929 Black Friday
Image via Wikipedia

I ran into a store a few days ago with a specific item in mind to buy. I quickly found the area of the store and the right size and began narrowing down the decision. As I looked up from my task,I caught the eye of a woman across from me. She hesitantly smiled and shook her head.  “I am earnestly looking for something I don’t need!” She exclaimed “But isn’t this cute?

“Earnestly looking for something I don’t need”. What a great and descriptive phrase! She’d probably wandered in off her lunch hour and the more she looked the more earnest she became. How do I know this so well? Because I’ve been there too many times to count. Those times when I wander in, knowing full well I don’t need anything, but how can I not get something with a 25% Friends and Family coupon burning in my hand? It’s getting hotter just waiting to be used on the thing that I don’t need.

And that my friends is Black Friday. Millions of people earnestly looking for something they don’t need. I rarely break out in judgement the way this will sound, but if Black Friday isn’t a picture of a schizophrenic society, I don’t know what is. A society that on the one hand worries about unemployment, personal budgets, and the economy, while the other hand is earnestly looking for something it doesn’t need.

A society holding its money close, for fear it won’t have enough to pay for that which it doesn’t need.

I am the first to fall in this area. For years I would bring home things that languished in closets or drawers, but I had picked them out so earnestly that I couldn’t admit that I didn’t need them.

I am sure that some people find this fun. Some people love the excitement of standing in line at midnight with their lattes and pillows. They bond with the crowd, until there’s someone who cuts in line and the bond is quickly broken with a curse and shove. At that point it could begin to resemble Tahrir Square. They bond until they are both fighting over the same 52″ flat screen TV selling for mere pennies. It will replace the 40″ flat screen TV that they got a year ago at a Black Friday event. They bond until someone is killed in the stampede, trampled to death from people earnestly looking for something they don’t need.

Interesting that this day should follow one of America’s favorites — a day devoted to thanks.

A national holiday specifically set aside to give thanks, to remember. What happens between pumpkin pie with whipped cream and midnight, when our base nature breaks out and we pummel the pavement in search of stuff?

So – I’m finished. I will say no more about Black Friday. But I will post this right when Black Friday begins, at the stroke of midnight, to remind myself that as I earnestly look for something I don’t need, I’m completely missing all that I have.

And with that…A Happy Black Friday to you. May you earnestly find that which you are looking for or may you rest in the U2 song “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for~” 

The Many Uses of Olive Oil

There were 6 of us in a small examining room designed for two people — the doctor and the patient. In this case there were two women from the Sudan, two nurses, one patient navigator, one interpreter, and one baby.

It was crowded.

To say I was invited  to come to this community health center was something of a delusion, it was more as if I had been challenged to come – challenged with strong words: “This program isn’t working! You try to use this life-style education tool with culturally diverse patients”

To give context the “challenger” was referring to a health assessment that my office had developed to gauge whether a person is ready to make changes to their lifestyle. It included questions on weight, healthy fats, exercise, fresh fruits, vegetable consumption and more.

I was not a fan of the questionnaire – I had worked with people from different cultural backgrounds my entire professional career and knew that this tool had been developed from a bias of western biomedicine. As such, it had limited use.

But I accepted the invitation knowing that at least they would see I was on their side.

So there we were: health professionals, patients, and a culturally biased assessment. Speaking through an interpreter I began talking. I introduced myself and asked if I could ask them a few questions. They nodded in assent – no problem.

And so I began:

“Are you a healthy weight?” Blank looks.

The interpreter tried again, and then looked at me. “This is not relevant,” she said. “They do not weigh themselves.” Of course, they didn’t. What was I thinking? They were women who had escaped the Sudan, made their way through the arduous process of refugee camps and resettlement and I was asking them about healthy weight. Wow. But determined to continue I pressed on.

“Do you eat healthy fats?” More blank looks. My problem-solving mode switched on and I thought – ok, I’ll ask if they use olive oil – that’s a healthy fat.

New olive oil, just pressed. It has a dense co...

“Do you use olive oil?”

Their eyes lit up. They smiled. “Oh yes! We use olive oil all the time”. Good, I thought!  We’re making some progress…..

“Yes olive oil. We love olive oil! It is wonderful. We use it every day…..on our hair”

I began to laugh, and they with me. The whole encounter was so absurd. I would have gotten more information on their health and eating habits by having a normal conversation and inserting the right questions at the right time instead of following this biased and culturally illiterate tool.

The story is a great example of some of the challenges presented in working with patients from different countries and cultures. The healthcare professional (whether nurse, doctor, social worker or any other) comes into the clinical encounter with his or her own predetermined biases, values, and beliefs. Added to that is the often inflexible culture of western biomedicine under the umbrella of the institution. All of this mixes into a potentially difficult interaction with the patient.  We then wonder why patients won’t come back…or get offended…or don’t do as we want them to.

Culturally responsive care is critical to healthy outcomes.

But changing this dynamic is not easy. It’s a journey and as such takes time, preparation, and mile markers.

One of the first mile markers in learning to communicate across cultural boundaries is to understand one’s own cultural beliefs and values. Only then can we better interact with those from different backgrounds. If we don’t know what we believe and value, what is unique to our cultural backgrounds, we are ill-equipped to forge into relationships with those vastly different from us, even less ready to offer them good health care.

And after that it’s about listening to the stories and constantly being willing to learn and adapt.

It’s interactions like the one I’ve described that help me on this journey of communicating across cultural boundaries. They remind me that I have to be ever flexible and willing to see from the other person’s perspective; recognizing both literally and metaphorically the many uses of olive oil.

“Cultural Hope”

Wheelchair seating in a theater (i.e. giving a...

The painting was two feet wide and at least three and a half feet long. It hung on a wall in an art gallery, dominant despite sharing the space with several other paintings. While there were others that had caught my eye, this one in particular was striking.

It was a picture of an art gallery with a painting of Jesus on the cross on the central wall. Looking up at the painting, hope and longing pouring from the canvas was a man in a wheelchair. The painting was called “Cultural Hope”.

It was a moment of awe as we in the studio stood, invited in to this private moment between Jesus and a wheelchair-bound man. It was reminiscent of stories long ago where in a crowded room a paralyzed man was healed – only this man was still bound.

I wanted to stand there forever. Was it the longing in the man’s eyes? Was it the distinctive connection between the two. Was it that moment of shared suffering between cross and wheelchair that shouted of pain and only whispered of redemption?

I walked away strangely challenged and moved. While this man’s wheelchair was visual, my wheelchair is in my mind. While his paralysis was obvious, mine is hidden. But I, like the man in the painting, have my times of looking at the cross shouting with pain and hearing only the whisper of redemption.

But the whisper compels me, telling me to wait, reminding me that the cross was replaced by an empty tomb; that my painting goes beyond “cultural hope” to a living reality.