Symbols Matter

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Symbols matter.

Certain images are forever etched into our memories both individually and collectively. That’s why people were so upset when this image:

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Or this one:

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Were co-opted with rainbow imagery.

It’s why people asked me why I would dare make my facebook profile picture yellow equal sign on a blue background (or pink on red).

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It’s why some people wear a cross with Jesus on it and some wear a cross without Jesus on it. It’s also why some people do not wear a cross at all.

Symbols matter.

Sometimes, the meaning of a symbol can change. The fact that the Christmas tree was once a pagan symbol is largely irrelevant. The cross was used a torture device and now it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy and His presence in the world.

Some symbols are filled with conflicted meanings. The U.S. flag for many represents colonialism and oppression. For many, it represents freedom and courage. For others, it is simply a symbol that unites a country of diverse people.

But the meaning of some symbols cannot change. Some symbols are not conflicted in their meaning. The Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and treason. It is the flag that flew for the army that seceded from the Union. It is the flag that was flown in defiance of the Civil Rights movement. While there are some people who may have grown up without that realization, it does not change the fact that the heritage the flag refers to is one of hate.

The flag coming down from the South Carolina statehouse today is an important move. May that flag never fly in a public place again. And for those who wish to use their right to fly the flag at their home or on their vehicle—go for it. You can do that.

But ask why that symbol is so important to you. Why do you need to fly a flag that represents hate and treason to show your pride? Why can you disregard the experience of generations of people who recognize that symbol as one of oppression?

We are repulsed by swastikas. We feel a sense of apprehension or anger when we see pentagrams. We are even convincing ourselves we are seeing ISIS flags at gay pride parades.

Symbols matter.

If the symbols that are important to me anger you, it falls to me to act out of love and understanding. I must ask you why. I must learn from you what your experience is.
If the symbols that are important to you anger me, it falls to me to act out of love and understanding. I must ask you why. I must learn from you what your experience is.

They are important. But relationships are even more important. If my symbols are affecting our relationship, then work must be done. Tough conversations must be had. Humility and love must be present. And a desire to be in relationship must be greater than a desire to be right.

Veteran’s Day: Thank You and Forgive Us

Today is Veteran’s Day.

Thank you to all veterans who have served in any of the military branches. I am related to many who have served. I am friends of many more. I sincerely appreciate the hard work, dedication, devotion, and sacrifice that come with serving in the military.

Thank you.

President Wilson said this on the occasion of the first observance of Veteran’s Day, originally called Armistice Day:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

Thank you all who have served, are serving, and will serve in the future. This country and its people do appreciate your service.

However, in addition to thanks, we also must say, “Forgive us.”

Forgive us, for we have failed our veterans in worst ways possible.

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Because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy.

About 12% of the adult homeless population is veterans. That means that on any given night, over 49,000 veterans have no home to sleep in. Mental health issues are prevalent among veterans; especially those who have seen combat. PTSD is probably the most well-known issue, but there is so much more. Add to that, a large number of these mental health issues co-exist with alcoholism and drug addiction. When soldiers go untreated, it becomes difficult to secure a job and find a home.

If we are truly going to be a nation that shows sympathy, we should first start showing sympathy to those we honor for their sacrifice and service.

With peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

We live in a country of peace. We live in a country of justice. If you are lucky enough to be a part of the privileged racial and socio-economic classes.

Look no further than Ferguson, MO. Look no further than the mascot of the NFL franchise in Washington, D.C. Look no further than the defensive reactions of privileged people to both of those statements.

Our veterans fought for freedom. For many in our country today, freedom is a dream that is not yet realized. If we are truly going to be a nation that exhibits peace and justice to the nations, let us first exhibit peace and justice to the members of our own nation.

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So today we say thank you. Even if we are conscientious objectors or pacifists, we still say thank you to our veterans and their families for the sacrifices they have made.

Yet we also say forgive us. Forgive us for we have turned our backs on our veterans too many times. Forgive us for we have not upheld the freedom for which they fought.

Let us begin today to say thank you by caring for our sick and homeless veterans. Let us begin today to say thank you by advocating for peace and justice for all of our citizens.

After all, that’s what Veteran’s Day is supposed to be about.

 

For additional information, check out the following links:

http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

http://nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics/

http://www.va.gov/homeless/

Why The Good Ole Days Weren’t All That Good

“You cannot be a person of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious. Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice—a ‘pre-judgment.’ It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of truth that cannot be proven. It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else.”—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 105.

“Take my word for it.”

“That’s how we’ve always done it.”

“My family has done it like this forever.”

“I saw a headline that said it must be this way.”

How many different ways can we say: “I don’t really want to think about this; I just want to blindly accept whatever the people I tend to like more have already said.”

Whether we are discussing disclaimers placed on Tom and Jerry cartoons or repeated calls for the Washington NFL team to change their mascot or Emma Watson receiving threats because she is calling for the equal treatment of men and women or Adrian Peterson’s right to spank his four year old with a switch we hear the same argument:

This is the way things have been for generations, so why can’t everybody just be happy?

To be honest, there is some validity to this. Time tested traditions should not be mindlessly discarded in order to appear more modern or “with it.” However, time tested traditions should not be held onto mindlessly in the face of changing social awareness.

Growing up, I played Cowboys and Indians. There was no negative intent behind it. It was just a game. There were several Western-themed TV shows and movies on at the time so it was just a way for young children, especially boys, to play.

My children never played that game growing up. Social and cultural awareness had grown in several ways. I learned more about the plight and mistreatment of Native Americans in our country. I knew more about their higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. I was more aware of how the simple, seemingly innocent game played into a larger narrative of prejudice and disrespect.

Growing up, I thought boys wore blue and played with trucks while girls wore pink and played with dolls. That’s a rather simplistic over-statement, but it sums up my childhood beliefs fairly well. I was certain that each gender was supposed to act a certain way.

Raising my own children has challenged the generally accepted gender norms in many ways. I have become more aware of the over-sexualization of girls, seemingly from infancy. I have learned how detrimental it can be to have few, if any, role models of substance to look up to. I have been able to witness how sometimes boys like “girl” things and girls like “boy” things and it’s absolutely okay! I have been made more aware of the underlying, subtle messages that are expressed to our young girls.

These are just two examples of how my thinking needed to change. Does this mean I was a bad person? Or that I was raised by bad people? Or that we are hateful and hurtful?

No. It means I have been presented with new information and I have to decide what I am going to do with it.

Merton suggests that in order to have faith, one must be able to doubt, question authority, and then deliberately make a decision. To blindly accept what previous generations have done is not faith. (By the same token, to blindly reject what previous generations have done is not enlightenment.) Why is this important?

We know more now than we have ever known before. Education continues to grow exponentially. Research and education can be so much more focused and specific now. We have learned more about different cultures and cultural beliefs, expectations, and values. We know how people are affected and impacted by words and actions. Information on physical and mental health issues continues to expand. As we continue to learn, we must continue to adapt to what the information teaches us.

We have the ability to listen more now than ever before. Social and human services fields continue to grow. Helping professions continue to hire at faster than average rates (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). People are listening. And as they are listening, they are learning. As they learn, they disseminate what they find. It is important for us to listen to people that previously have not had a voice.

We are a more global community now than we have ever been before. This means we know more about cultural customs, beliefs, and behaviors. We should be more culturally sensitive as that knowledge—and that community—continues to grow.

Acknowledging that we have done things wrong in the past is not an admission that we were bad people. It is an admission that we have learned something new and have decided to change our attitudes and behavior appropriately.

So we confess, we repent, we live in community. We come to a place of faith that is our own—not one that is simply handed down from one generation to the next.

Anxious? Sad? Fearful? Then Maybe You Have It All Together

Yesterday on my facebook feed, I saw two things that stood out. One was a friend posting that he really wanted to have a conversation with his father. His father passed away over 20 years ago. Some days, that feeling of sorrow and loss hit harder than others. The other was a friend’s blog post explaining how she does not have it all together, even when others seem to think she does.

For some reason, both posts had me thinking the same thing: these two friends get it. They really do have it all together.

I think the problem is we don’t really know what “having it all together” means.

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Maybe we have the wrong idea of what the normal life is. Maybe we have the wrong definition of having it all together. Maybe we need to reevaluate what our lives should look like.

The danger is to pursue the sitcom model of daily life. Although different today, the shows that have endured–Cosby Show, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, among others–show families that quickly resolve all issues and end each day “normal” and “happy.”

While great for ratings, it sucks as a model for living our own lives.

So how do we change models? How do we shift from thinking that “having it all together” means swift resolution to all problems to realizing that it truly means living a life based in reality?

First, examine why we are pursuing a certain model. What has led us to believe that a fulfilled life is one absent of any problems? Who has taught us that always being happy with no challenges ever is the goal we should pursue? Are we trying to live up to someone else’s expectations for our lives (whether real or perceived)? How did we learn that problems = failure and calm = success?

This struggle does not come only from media sources, though they do play a prevalent role. But beyond television, advertisements, and social media pressure, we often face family, cultural, and societal pressures to attain a certain type of image. Western culture is terrible at being honest about our life experiences. We are taught from a young age to “get over it” and “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “if you work hard you will automatically be successful.”

Although they may be inspirational, ideas such as these can serve as quite a detriment. We need to examine what messages we have learned, where we have learned them from, and what affect they have had on us.

Second, give it a name. Any name will do: Keeping up with the Joneses; Coveting; The American Dream; The June Cleaver Syndrome. We give it a name so that we can acknowledge the issue is something other than us. We are not the problem. The problem is that we have bought into a vision that is weak, corrupt, and wrong.

Too often, however, we blame ourselves and think we are weak, corrupt, and wrong. By realizing the source of our frustration and the root of the difficulties we face we can begin to do the things necessary to shift our focus.

This is what AA and other 12 Step groups do. The first step is always admitting there is a problem. That problem, whether it is alcoholism or some other addiction, is named. Once it is named, strategies can be developed to fight against it.

Third, we create the story we wish to live out. This is when we get to shake off all those old messages that have hindered us. We get to look forward to what we think our lives should be. We don’t have to live up to anyone else’s standards or visions. We get to set our own goals and outcomes.

The amazing thing about this step is that people do not dream unrealistically. My clinical experience is limited so this not a claim that I could publish in an academic journal, but based on my ministry, my work with 12 Step groups, working with students at FaithWorks, and my limited clinical experience, people who break down the root causes of their issues and then give them a name go on to state realistic, attainable goals.

And that is what we need to do. We are informed by our faith and spirituality. We are informed by literature, music, and art. Most importantly, we are informed by open and honest conversations with people about what life truly looks like. We take the messages we have been taught and sift through them to separate the good from the bad. It is good to work hard and sometimes acknowledge that we do need to be a little less sensitive. But we also need to realize that real life happens and not every day is going to be a good one.

The story we create does not have to be a utopia. And to be honest, I think very few of us would try to create one. The story we create needs to be real; complete with an acknowledgment there will be good days and bad days. Our story will also tell us how we will survive when the days are tough and how we will celebrate when victories are won.

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We need to realize that we will have days when we miss that person who has been gone for more than 20 years. We will have days when it takes a herculean effort just to get out of bed. And we will have days when we seem to be floating on air.

And all of that is normal. And all of it is good.

So maybe those who have anxiety attacks or bad days or moments of paralyzing grief actually have it all together more than any of us have ever realized.

The Blessing of Paradox: Book Review of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God

I have read and listened to material from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I have also paid attention to different things from people like Bill Maher. And I often come away with the same response:

They are just as close-minded and narrow in their views as the Christian talking heads they rail against.

Something that distresses me is when Jesus followers say things that seemingly go against all that the Bible actually teaches. It hurts me when prominent Christian leaders say hurricanes and school shootings are God’s retributive justice. It pains me when people manipulate the Scriptures to justify their bigotry. Too many prominent people in Christianity use their platform to exclude and divide, rather than to love and to serve.

Yet many of the New Atheists have the same attitude. They behave as if they are right and anyone who would dare disagree with them is mentally deficient.

This is why I really appreciate Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How To Give Love, Create Beauty, And Find Peace by Frank Schaeffer. Schaeffer is the son of Francis Shaeffer, the prominent evangelical theologian of the 70s and 80. Frank Schaeffer is also one of the founding members of the Religious Right.

And that is something he truly regrets.

Schaeffer shares his journey since leaving the fundamental, religious background in which he was raised. Throughout talking about that journey, he shares the blessing of paradox. Schaeffer is able to talk about how he both believes and does not believe in God. How he understands the Bible as myth yet finds meaning and comfort within its pages. How science has expanded our knowledge of life and the universe yet cannot explain the transecendant. His life is one of paradox; paradox that he is comfortable with not completely understanding.

The book starts with a story of a chance encounter on his way home from his mother’s funeral. At the same time, he believes it was a chance encounter and that it was something his recently deceased mother somehow arranged. Chance encounter and divine arrangement cannot both be true, yet both exist.

Early in the book, he writes:

With the acceptance of paradox came a new and blessed uncertainty that began to heal the mental illness called certainty, the kind of certainty that told me that my job was to be head of the home and to order around my wife and children because ‘the Bible says so.’ Embracing paradox helped me discover that religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure.

Paradox cures certainty. Additionally, asking a new question can cure certainty. Atheism, agnosticism, and theism are all answers to the question, “Does God exist?” Instead, we should ask what our relationship to God is.

Schaeffer’s journey is riveting because it is so honest. He does not presume to have any of the answers. He is not writing a treatise that all people must follow in order to live an enlightened life. His story is how someone who now does not necessary believe that God exists can still participate in the liturgy of a local church. It is the story of someone who has come to learn that we are more than any label.

It is a story that has learned that hope is found in love and not correct theology.

I do not agree with everything Schaeffer says. I believe he is inconsistent in part of his discussion about Scripture (Chapter XX). He is unwilling to embrace that paradox can exist there even though he enjoys the blessing of paradox in other areas of his life.

But his attitude is incredible. He is not close-minded. He comes across as the type of person who would be an awesome conversation partner, unlike Dawkins, Maher, Limbaugh, Robertson, and others who want only people to yell at. He makes me feel comfortable reflecting on my own journey. I think he will make you feel comfortable as you reflect on your own.

I recommend reading this book in the spirit it was written: one person’s narrative.