look for a helper: from mr. rogers to parkland

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s TV show.  Mr. Rogers celebrated neighboring and used his imagination to explore new ways of being connected to one another. Two of my favorite thinkers in Nashville—David Dark and Russ Ramsey—have mentioned Mr. Rogers in the past few weeks.  They argue, and I agree, that we can learn a lot from his neighborhood. 

Mr. Rogers’ love of imagination is evidenced by the prominent role given to The Neighborhood of Make-Believe on his show.  What if we thought of ourselves as people who share a neighborhood, instead of as defenders of a specific point of view?  What if we allowed our imaginations to fuel relational creativity, rather than giving in to social patterns worn out by despair? Walter Brueggemann talks about our need to subvert relational norms so we can find ways to live together in abundance and shared flourishing. To imagine a world where your success does not threaten mine.  Where we might grow best together.  This is the stuff of Make-Believe.

Fred Rogers recalls growing up in a world that frightened him at times.  Sound familiar? According to Russ, who recently relayed this story, his mother reassured him that when he felt frightened he need only look for Helpers.  She gave her son confidence that no matter how scary the world seemed, there were Helpers everywhere.  What a beautiful shift in perspective she provides: Yes, the world is scary, but there are always people willing to help if only we would look.  Maybe Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe needs to influence our neighborhoods today.

They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire. 

In mourning the prevalence and power of guns to hurt kids in our country, I have been frightened, and despaired.  This month there was a shooting at a school I love in Nashville. The staff is phenomenal, and they did everything they could to keep kids safe.  They have grieved and cried and found hope together in the last 10 days, and students feel safe and loved in their school community.  In the words of Mr. Rogers’ mom, these students found Helpers, and help they have.  And yet, the staff are living in the tension of clinging to hope even as they know school shootings, crushing poverty and violent despair are far too powerful for a school faculty to stop.  We adults, who feel exhausted and powerless, we need to find Helpers as well.

I find Helpers in the students of Douglass High School in Parkland, FL. They are challenging the power of the status quo, shaking us awake and helping us believe again that change can come through their #neveragain movement.  The Parkland students are effective because we are predisposed to accept them as part of our “us.”  They are not jaded activists or entrenched interests; they are not pontificating with no skin in the game.  These are innocent kids offering first hand accounts of the ways in which they are victims of a society increasingly based on fear and violent defensiveness.  These are brave teenagers who don’t know the “rules”, and so they continually break them.  Like Mr. Rogers and Brueggemann, they are imagining a different way of relating to each other.  They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that a school shooting should be interpreted in a political context, rather than a human-loss-of-life context.  They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that even though the vast majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, we are powerless to change anything.  True to Generation Bruh, they see the obvious best path forward, understand instinctively that the adults around them are stuck in old paradigms, and fully, passionately believe that they can improve our norms. 

They are subverting the way we have taught them to live—in fear and despair, with a fixed amount of power—and have somehow imagined a world in which fear does not dominate, power is not hoarded by those who fund campaigns, and where the despairing world around them is only a starting point.  As in the neighborhood of Mr. Rogers, the imaginary world found its way into our perceived world, and they have begun to believe the impossible.  They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire.  The reality we created burst, unwelcome, into their world through a broken and dangerous kid with a military-grade weapon; in return they are turning our world upside down by imagining a new world in which we listen to one another and act on each other’s behalf.

We are slowly edging into a new way of imagining our connections to one another. 

We find ourselves listening to them because their voices have an imaginary ring to them.  Could a kid really be speaking this kind of truth to power? Are the rules to which we adhere not rules at all, but just old ways of respecting hollow power? Could we the people actually have the power to change the way we relate to each other?  Whether we agree with their demands or not, can we be refreshed by the idea that we are not stuck in a world of defensive powerlessness?

We live in fraught times, but change is afoot because Helpers abound.  Look around and see the impact of protest, notice the subtle shifts in public discourse.  We are slowly edging into this new way of imagining our connections to one another.  From Black Lives Matter to #metoo to #neveragain, public voices are teaching us to listen to one another in order to become better neighbors.  Subtle or overt, at the very least we might notice that protest is not a vain screaming into the wind; it often offers a path forward.  If you find yourself listening to these students with an open heart, notice what it takes for you to decide to reject their perspective, clinging to the old rules you know will never work.  These voices are not political noise; they are organized counter narratives openly lamenting what is wrong and pointing out ways to change our “normal” from destructive to healthy.  These voices are changing the way we do life in America, and they lend courage to all of us who reject despair.  Imagine that these Parkland students echo Mr. Rogers, pleading with us all, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

lent 2018: the kingdom of God is like....

The presence of Lent in the church calendar—40 full days of preparation for Easter—reminds me that it is wise to prepare.  When we ponder where we are headed and think about what is coming, we sometimes find ourselves strangely more engaged in the present as well.  In the Biblical record, God uses the number 40 as a measure of time for his people (It rained on Noah for 40 days, the Israelites wondered for 40 years before entering the Promised Land, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before publically launching His ministry).  God used this time to bring His children closer to Himself: to increase their desperation for God, to remind them of His power and provision in their daily lives, to encourage and pour into them before a hard season ahead. 

 In the Catholic Church I visit every Ash Wednesday, the priest reminds us that Lent is experienced most fully in three ways:

1)   We sacrifice something in order to remind ourselves of thirst, of hungering after God, or to disrupt patterns that diminish our flourishing in Christ.

2)   We willfully use this experience of disruption to push us toward Christ, placing Him in the front of our minds, or at the top of our day.

3)   We turn our eyes from ourselves and toward others as we intentionally live more generously toward those in need during Lent.

For these 40 days, I pray you would be mindful of these 3 ideas, and maybe use them to orient yourself toward God. 

 His coming sacrifice and resurrection are our only hope for living well with ourselves and others.  Allow yourself to know this during Lent.  Allow yourself to recognize the abundance in your life, and to lean in to the lean placesJ.  Allow yourself to think about people who live with very little, and know that they often hunger for and understand God in ways that may be hard for us to understand.  Allow yourself to hear God’s words in these 40 days, to begin to understand what He cares about, and then think about how you can emulate Him by pouring your life out for others. 

This year I am starting our readings each week with the Beatitudes.  In the last year I have come to see all the ways that I have diminished the power of God in my life because I have cared about protecting and expanding my own power and security instead.  I have decided God’s Kingdom works just like mine, so that the hardest workers, the kindest, the most intentional people win. The Beatitudes remind us that God doesn’t value what I value. He promises to be present, generous and available to those who have no power, to those near the margins, to those who align themselves with the overlooked and against self-interest alone.  This Lenten season I am reminded that if I want to prepare myself for Christ’s coming kingdom, I would do well spend 40 days marinating in the words He used to describe it.  (One other note: all of the selections are poetry.  While we love to be instructed by scripture, W. Brueggemann recently reminded me that the very nature of God is mysterious, wonderful, and creative.  Poetry—instead of a helpful outline—is a fabulous medium to usher us into the presence of God.) 

When the priest at the Catholic Church places ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, he murmurs, “Turn away from your sin and believe the Gospel.” I pray that as we read these verses of God we would think about what it means to simply “Believe the Gospel” in the living of our lives.                   

Poetry from the Word of God

14-Feb Matthew 5:1-12                  11-Mar Matthew 5:1-12

15-Feb  Proverbs 2:1-15                 12-Mar  Ps 106:1-8

16-Feb Ps 94:12-22                        13-Mar Eccles 3:1-8; Ps 13

17-Feb  Micah 6:6-8                       14-Mar  Ps 101:1-6; 119:9-20

18-Feb  Matthew 5:1-12                  15-Mar  Micah 4:6-7; Luke 6:20-27

19-Feb  Ps 90:12-17; 91:1-2             16-Mar  Ps 22:1-11; 24-31

20-Feb  Ps 95:1-8                          17-Mar  Prov 3:1-12

21-Feb  Ps 120:1-2; 121:1-4              18-Mar  Matthew 5:1-12

22-Feb  Zeph 3:14-18                     19-Mar  Song of Sol 8:6-7; Isai 41:3-13

23-Feb  Ps 107:1-9, 19-31               20-Mar  Ps 116:1-9; Ps 127:1-2

24-Feb  Daniel 6:25-28                 21-Mar  Ps 9:7-14; 17:6-11

25-Feb  Matthew 5:1-12                 22-Mar  Ps 3:1-5; 21:3

26-Feb  Ecclesiastes 7:5-14          23-Mar  Micah 7:18-20

27-Feb  Ps 130                              24-Mar  Ps 28:1-2; 40:1-11

28-Feb  Job 42:1-3                       25-Mar  Matthew 5:1-12

1-Mar  Isaiah 40:21-31                   26-Mar  Ps 102:1-4

2-Mar  Ps 142                                27-Mar  Isaiah 54:1-8

3-Mar  Hosea 5:15-6:3                  28-Mar  Ps 18:25-36; 20

4-Mar Matthew 5:1-12                   29-Mar  Isaiah 55:1-12

5-Mar  Ps 143:5-10                        30-Mar  Ps 32:1-5; 38:1-11, 15-18

6-Mar  Ps 25:4-18; 19:7-14             31-Mar  Isaiah 61:1-11

7-Mar  Ps 103; 131                          1-Apr  Matthew 5:1-12

8-Mar  Isaiah 43:1-7

9-Mar  Ps 1:1-3; 23

10-Mar  Habb 3:17-19


the destruction of defensiveness: listening is hard

If you haven’t had the privilege of being around fighting kids in a while, allow me to reassure you: They still do, usually for ridiculous reasons. Another fun fact: Kids are wildly hypocritical. And so are we.

For instance, one of my kids is fond of calling his brothers “tattle tales.” It makes him furious when he gets outed for being less than awesome.  In his mind, no sin of his is even remotely as egregious as the act of exposing said sin to a nearby adult. He can’t deal, and it makes him not only blind to his original sin, but fuels his righteous indignation at the poor kid who reported him.  He gets mad at the conversation instead of the act that caused the conversation.  Even worse, despite his firm stance against others disclosing his bad acts, he is known to throw a brother under the bus. In other words, he who hates a tattle tale is, in fact, a tattle tale.

While defensiveness is common, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better. 

Thank God we have outgrown such childish ways, right? Not so fast, my friends.  We know that defensiveness destroys collaboration; indeed, we see how destructive it is in others.  A friend snaps at another friend, but explodes when she is called on it instead of saying, “yep. My bad.”  A subordinate at work fails at an assignment, and rather than admit it and learn, he makes excuses.  A leader who is interviewed gets the inevitable question, “Any regrets?”, and responds with deflection, doubling down on bad choices as “the right choice at the time.”  It is easy to see how ridiculous others are when they fail to listen and then reflect on how they might become healthier.  In someone else, it is easy to see the willful ignorance required to deny a bad outcome or one’s own role in it.  It is much harder to avoid defensiveness when our own relationships (or sense of right-ness) are on the line.

In the last year, voices deemed hysterical or whiny or angry by those in the American majority have been elevated.  By some miracle that I don’t fully understand, many Americans now listen to women who claim #metoo, and are wondering what can change to ensure men do not treat women as objects to be assessed, groped or raped.  Many Americans now listen to those who are pleading for black lives, and are wondering what can change to ensure black lives do, in fact, matter.  Many Americans now listen to rural voices who have lost jobs and respect, and are wondering what can change to ensure we don’t ignore voices outside the city center in planning for our future.  Many Americans now listen to the voices that claim Confederate statues actively erase important parts of our history, and are wondering what can change to ensure we recognize and hear our whole history.

But many others feel attacked when those voices utter a word.  When we hear the story of another as a personal attack on ourselves, we don’t hear those voices.  Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities. A few weeks ago I wrote about Generation Bruh, and how my white son’s response to reading about Emmett Til’s murder was disgusted outrage.  Importantly though, his outrage was laced with defensiveness.  As a white male reading about horrible violence committed by other white males, he felt attacked.  I was dismayed by his defensive response to Til’s murder, and yet it reveals the destructive and pervasive reality of defensiveness in our American momentIf a person lives in the majority, is served well by the status quo, and has experienced a merit-based fairness in the systems of society, it is very easy to feel defensive when confronted with evidence that suggests injustice abounds. This feeling of defensiveness is heightened when the reality sets in that the people who often benefit from this abuse of power look like you. 

Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities.

The jump from recognizing injustice to feeling blamed for injustice is a short one for many of us.  We live in a largely segregated (and gender coded) society, and such divisions have kept us not only from having authentic relationships with each other, but also from understanding different versions of ‘reality.’  I assume that my understanding of history is the THE way to understand history, and I have no need to hear about the experience of another (especially one who might discount my understanding).  Defensive responses stem from feeling attacked, and are clear indications that many of us have one-sided historical understandings.  When confronted with diverse realities, our own perception of America is disproved as perhaps incomplete, and it is easier to react defensively than face the injustices pointed out by others.

It is quite hard to be an informed person in the United States and not know that our history, systems, institutions and laws favor white, wealthy, increasingly urban, males.  The fact that defensiveness is a leading response to this reality is absurd to me, but it also makes sense.  The weight of historical and current injustice is SO overwhelming that many of us cannot bear it.  We resort to a defensive posture out of self-protection.  Something deep within us wants to cover our eyes and ears and cry, “It’s not my fault! It can’t be true! What do you want me to do about it?”

Whether we feel overwhelmed or personally attacked, defensiveness is a privileged response.  It ruins relationships, prevents honest reflection and hurts our chances to collaborate or improve.  Rather than listening to understand the perspective of another, we end communication, absolving us from reflection, abolishing our potential need to make amends, and delegitimizing the initial problem.  As long as I respond defensively—like a child yelling, “tattle tale!”—I do not have to engage in the revealed pain of another.  I do not have to confront the histories or inequities I have erased or ignore.

I want to posit that while defensiveness is a common approach, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better.  My teenager is learning to make sense of the world, and I hope defensiveness is only one step in a long journey toward an awakening into his place in the world.  If we hope to offer Generation Bruh help or wisdom, we must confront our own delusions, legacies and defensiveness.  Whose histories have we erased? When do we feel attacked or overwhelmed? Whose experiences do we diminish? How do we respond to the pain of others?