on Easter

At Radnor, a State Park in Nashville, tiny buds and opening blooms sprinkle the ground and sky. I cannot scan any part of the landscape without being accosted by the green. New growth is nearly neon, glowing in intensity, while the maturing buds settle into a deeper, less pretentious green. It is gorgeous, but feels particularly aggressive on an early spring morning when the temperature is so low that such signs of life feel out of place. Walking in the cold, seeing my breath, surrounded by dead things, new life assaults the eyes.

My favorite thing about the Torah is the way God chooses unexpected people to lead and become heroes of the story. Jacob, a greedy liar who doesn’t understand family, becomes the selfless Father of the nation of Israel. Joseph, a self-centered jerk, given to hyperbolic delusions of grandeur, is mistreated terribly as God teaches him to embody patience, forgiveness and restraint as he saves a nation from starvation. Moses, adopted, a felon, and not great with words, is chosen by God to speak up to Pharaoh and lead Israelites out of slavery and into freedom.

The trend continues in the New Testament of Christians, as a random group of diverse and disagreeable men are united by Jesus to change the world through love. Jesus consistently elevates unexpected folks, from having dinner with greedy traitors, to often telling stories where the hero was a person shunned out on the street. Indeed, Jesus regularly invested in women, teaching them as if they had the intellect of rabbis, charging them as if they had the courage of warriors, and trusting them as if they had the loyalty of a close brother in a time when women had little to no legal or cultural standing.

Jesus consistently found value in folks overlooked or ignored by others. Like God in the Old Testament, the Christ saw value where others did not. It seems to me that the modern American church has lost sight of this core consistency strung through Judaism and Christianity. Most of us seem to have traded the God who crafts a story around a person usually pushed to the margins by making her the hero, for a God who backs the biggest, strongest, meanest guy in the room. Rather than going into the world with nothing, depending on our Creator to meet our needs, our Father to guide and comfort us, and our Messiah to justify and protect us, we horde wealth, blame others with fear, and pretend like God hates all the same people we do. We are, I’m afraid, terrible at bearing witness to the life and passion and purpose of Christ as the embodiment of the Holy Scripture.

This is why I love Passover and Easter. The central holidays of the Jewish and Christian calendar are about hope existing in the midst of death. For Jews, Passover reminds us that even when all seems lost, God will somehow provide protection. It reminds us that the way to be in the world is not to shout louder or to get a bigger gun, but to huddle close with those you love, share a fabulous meal and pray that God will protect you. Likewise, Easter reminds Christians that the way the God of the universe decided to take care of God’s people was through sacrifice. In the Christian story, pain and suffering are not meaningless, but are shared with hope. Death is not the end, but a natural part of a cycle always leading back to life.

The natural world reveals to us that there is no birth without rebirth. We do not live independently, but as part of vast ecosystems that follow a pattern: death and decay leading to nourishment and life. This Passover and Easter, I am thankful I follow a God who doesn’t ask me to win. Instead, God reminds me that getting low, being overlooked or betrayed, feeling wounded beyond repair, hurting deep in my secret places, is not the end of the story. In God’s telling, these places of pain and death are inhabited by the God who made us, and whose very world is predicated on the idea that death leads to life.

Easter, for me, is not about victory, or winning, or power. It is about a God who sends a tiny bud of neon green to light up a death-ridden forest floor. It is about a God who chooses a hero from a group of outcasts. It is about a God whose death destroyed his closest friends, but whose miraculous resurrection soon gave them hope, as he fed them a meal and gave them a communal purpose, inviting them deeper into the mysterious ways of God than they thought they could go.

This week, when the ubiquitous green catches you off guard, or when an overlooked colleague finds recognition, or when you find comfort in a painful moment, or when you feel solidarity with an ostracized person, I hope you will remember the arc of the story of the Judeo-Christian God is actually a cycle, where death is never the end, but a pathway to new life.

on bystanders and standing by

Running through a city this weekend, I found myself along a stretch of deserted waterfront. Scanning the environment, I spotted a man walking toward me. Being a female in a country where sexual assault occurs frequently can lead one to occupy a state of hyper-vigilance. Whenever I am alone, I am aware that I could be assaulted at any moment (from anecdotal conversations, I know I am not alone in this). We live in a culture in which one never knows if the man walking toward you has been taught to respect the dignity of a woman’s personhood, or to take what he wants from her.

 Running along this unfamiliar trail, I was flooded with regretful thoughts of my own foolishness: Why was I so confident that I could run through a city, anonymous, with no record of my departure or path? Why did I continue to push the bounds of independence when I could just be safe instead?

Then I saw a couple in the distance, and immediately felt safe again. These bystanders restored my peace.

 Should they have? Everything in me wanted to trust that a person—even a stranger—would intervene for my well-being. Suddenly, in spite of myself, I wondered why I trusted this to be true.

 Dr. King claimed we live in a network of mutuality, that we are all tied to one another in one garment. Jesus agreed, hitching the flourishing of his kingdom to the ability of his followers to love others well. Adherents surely claim that Gandhi embodied the best of Hinduism when he continually linked the needs of others to his own sacrificial courage. Even here in America, we claim to believe we are all created equal, that every American deserves a chance at happiness, life and liberty.

 Indeed, our public consciousness is held up by a commitment to one another, to neighboring and to the shared responsibility all communities demand. Despite the ideal that basic decency requires bystanders to not stand by when an other is harmed, we seem to have a rather large hole in the garment holding us all together. Do we still believe in noble bystanders, or have they gone the way of knights and town criers?

Well-known research has shown us that people are not always trustworthy in their efforts at intervention. When Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in 1964, many bystanders witnessed some part of the gruesome act, and yet no one called the police or attempted to stop the crime in progress. Resulting experiments confirmed what is known as the Bystander Effect: The Inaction of onlookers due to the diffusion of responsibility. In short, the more people notice a bad act, the more paralysis—or the less responsibility—they feel to intervene. When we notice others noticing—and ignoring—injustice or a crime, we are disincentivized from speaking up ourselves.

In our American moment, active bystanders are hard to come by. There are many reasons for inaction, and I am sympathetic to nearly all of them. We are busy, and intervening takes time. Helping others is messy. We have a limited number of resources and spending them on a stranger might reduce what we can offer those to whom we are already committed. Furthermore, speaking into a situation can invite trouble or even seem presumptuous: What if they don’t want my help!? What if I do it wrong?

These are understandable considerations; however, the psychological math of is perhaps even more toxic.  The prevailing attitude goes something like, “not my people, not my problem.” Rather that everyone we pass on the street is a human, and therefore worthy of help or protection if they are in trouble, we seem to first consider if a potential victim is worth our time. Most of us want to be people who intervene to stop a bad actor, but many of us stay silent as our neighbors are displaced, or as children in public schools continue to fall below grade level, or as life is ignored from womb to old age, or as rape kits go unprocessed, or as people of color are consistently treated suspiciously, or as public housing funding is stripped, or as folks with pre-existing conditions are threatened with being uninsurable, or as people who make minimum wage cannot feed their children.

Something in us wakes when we see vulnerable others ignored or abused, and yet most of us remain silent.

What happens in the space of that comma that transforms us from engaged bystanders to passive supporters of an unjust status quo? How does the gap between who we want to be and who we prove to be grow so large? Whatever occurs in the space of that comma unravels the fabric of our society. If that comma, that pause, gave us space to find courage, more of us would live in community rather than dying alone. More of us would find hope instead of despair. More of us would experience shalom.

 We are all bystanders to acts of violence and disdain when we live in a society that refuses to care for the people who comprise it. We need not be shocked by this admission, for in many ways, this is who we are as a nation. Historically, before we decided to intervene, we decided if you were worth it. After all, bystanders looked away as native lands were stolen. Bystanders did not come running as bodies were bought and sold, forced to build wealth for others. As Jemar Tisby forcefully argues in his book, The Color of Compromise, a few Christians denounced slavery and the lynchings that followed for a century, but the vast majority remained silent, avoiding any stance that would prevent the practice from progressing.

Running along the waterfront that day, I was indeed relieved to realize there were bystanders nearby. As I put distance between my own body and the male body nearby, I realized I could only rely on my own speed to keep me safe. Bystanders, all too often, simply stand by, refusing to speak up for others around them. Each of us is a witness to those around us. Will we reweave the garment King hoped we all share, or will we continue to use blinders, only getting involved when we decide the person at risk is valuable to us? Pay attention to your surroundings, and you might just see that you develop the compassion, patience and will to stop standing by, and instead intervene to protect the strangers around you.

on paths of least resistance (and destruction)

On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.

 Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.

 Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.

 In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.

Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.

 We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.

We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.

We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.

We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.

We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.

Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.

When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.

Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.

How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour.  The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.