Breaking the Code

Obama cool black manPoor President Obama, he just can’t catch a break. Looking strained and weary, he had to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation and return to Washington because the world seemed aflame with problems both at home and abroad.

His entire second term has been characterized by Congressional gridlock and immigration woes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took shots at his foreign policy in the media, and he’s been criticized by African Americans for not attending to problems in the inner-city, the type of which boiled over recently in Ferguson, MO.

It’s not that the president doesn’t try. Before African-American audiences, he will assume an air of familiarity that some have found patronizing. About Republicans planning a lawsuit against him, he says they should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus (reportedly switching to a preacher’s cadence) to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them.”

What?

That was my reaction until I realized that yet again, our president was “code-switching.” Saying something has crack in it is like saying it’s crazy good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, columnist John McWhorter argued that such relatability was requisite for the presidency today, noting that George W. Bush was often criticized for his Texan swagger.

Many groups code-switch. Italians, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans. We all have “in-group lingo;” something that lets us feel we’re members of the inner circle.

I remember when my then-16 year old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and schooled (and often on the high-honor roll) in rural upstate New York. Now 24, he said, “I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out there I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in. I mean, I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years. But at the same time, I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

Black ministers are often masters of the code-switch. My pastor, the Rev. Arnold Byrd III, a young African-American minister, can easily go from standard English on his job in sales with a major cable company, to language designed to connect with the congregation in his predominantly black church on Sundays. He says he follows the example of Jesus, who used things his listeners could understand – fishing and farming – to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Peter was a businessman; he owned his own fishing business. So when Jesus told Peter, ‘I will make you a fisher of men,’ Peter understood where he was coming from because he uses something Peter could relate to.”

With the news dominated again by the killing of a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, even in the comments section of Christianity Today, we see that black and white Christians seemingly talk a different language. One can see how, if people only hung around with others who shared their views, both on and off-line, deadly misunderstandings could occur when we confront one another in real life.

This shouldn’t be so.

My pastor says that Mark 12:30-31, the famous scripture that tells us to love God with our heart soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is crucial. “In everything about me I am going to show God I love him, which means his ways trump my beliefs, my thoughts or how I perceive a thing,” he told me.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-18 RSV)

As believers we should be masters of the ultimate “code-switch.” After all, we not only are citizens of various nations, but we are citizens of heaven. We should be conversant not only in the language dictated by our differing cultures, but in the language given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column in August 2014: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/august/code-switching-for-kingdom.html

 

 

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Do Our Souls Have Gender? Musings on Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner

caitlyn-jenner-i-am-cate-01-770x513My hairdresser and I were discussing the respective men in our lives. We talked about communication styles and the methods we use to diffuse arguments when the men start getting hot under the collar. And how they can spend long phone conversations talking to loved ones, but neglect to find out the important things: is a sick relative feeling better, or a friend’s marriage on the mend? They don’t know the answers, because they were talking about cars.

We agreed that, even women who are childless usually are naturally nurturing: to nieces and nephews, to the children they teach in Sunday school, to people who are weaker (nursing used to be a traditionally female career), to pets and others. How being a female is about more than high heels and makeup; even though all those things may be fun. Yet many young moms barely have time to apply lipstick regularly and most women, after 40, struggle with 5- or 6- inch heels, learning to prefer comfort over style.

These musings were brought about by the recent media hoopla about the Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner’s stunning transformation, after three marriages and five children, to “Caitlyn,” a surgically enhanced, satin corset-wearing 65-year-old bombshell.

As the laudatory celebrity tweets rolled in; and dissenting voices were silenced, I don’t think I was alone in being disturbed by this news. Reading comments in center-left newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, revealed that commentators, who are able to post anonymously, were, by a margin of about 3 to 1, critical of Bruce’s “new look.”

Jenner has claimed that he has always had a female soul. But can a human soul be misplaced? Can God, our Creator, accidently plant a female soul in a male body? Is there even such a thing as a “male” or “female” soul? We know the male and female psyches differ. Despite early feminist efforts to say there were no differences, or that those differences don’t matter, most people by common observation (which is backed by science) can see that generally speaking men and women have definite differences in behavior and the way we interact with the world. On a light note, we women sometimes wonder why our mates can be glued to ESPN or Monday night football or never tire of watching the Fast and Furious franchise over and over, when a good rom-com or drama would be so much more interesting. Or why my brother-in-law and nephew’s conversations on Facebook revolve around the cars and trucks my nephew seems to trade as if they were baseball cards.

On a more serious note, we wonder, why, when we ask our partners about a dear friend’s well-being when they get off the phone or home from a visit, they may reply, “We didn’t go into all that.” Whereas when two women get together, even in a new friendship, by the time an hour is over, we know the basic contours of one another’s lives.

We, as Christians, can definitely feel isolated in from our culture’s views of human sexuality, marriage, and gender identification. Sometimes we learn to keep our views to ourselves for fear of offending others, or just because we don’t want to argue or seem intolerant. But when I heard about Jenner, all I could think of was how sad he must be. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has lived a life of wealth, notoriety and material blessings; with all the houses, cars and toys many Americans only can enjoy vicariously. Yet, there apparently was still a void in his life that riches and fame could not fill.

As the Bible succinctly notes at the end of Judges: “Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Our times are similar. Many Americans have not submitted to the King of kings and Lord of lords, so all we can muster is doing what seems right for us: reveling in “our own truth.”

I like the opening line from a favorite poem, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. She begins the poem with, “I stood with two strong legs.”

Didn’t we all? We “woke up” and were here. We did not choose our parents. We did not choose where to be born. We did not choose our race or ethnicity or the socio-economic group we were born into. And we did not choose whether we were male or female.

But God works through our particular circumstances: we can feel secure in the fact that he has appointed the time and the place where we are born; it was not a cosmic accident. And if we draw near to him, he will surely show us how our individual circumstances can be used for his purpose and for the purposes he has chosen for us to serve.

But we are mysteries to ourselves. Psalm 64:6-7 notes:

“The inner man and the heart are mysterious; but God will shoot them with arrows; suddenly they will be struck down.”

Jeremiah further says. “The heart is deceitful beyond all things; who can understand it?”

It is only through our relationship with God, and our daily communion with him, that we will ever understand our true natures and selves.

In the discussion of Jenner, a prestigious hospital that pioneered so-called sex re-assignment surgery, no longer performs these operations, after findings showed that many people were just as troubled after as they were before surgery. After a decade, the suicide rate for transgendered surgically altered people was 20 times higher than for those who did not have the surgery.

As Christians, we should have empathy for Jenner; although I don’t believe we can applaud his choice. Better, as the former head of psychiatry for Johns Hopkins said, is to steer these people into therapy, where they can explore why they don’t feel comfortable in their skin.

Every one of us has “issues,” areas that we struggle with daily; sins that we mightily strive to overcome. Failings and shortcomings and even physical and mental illnesses that we, however difficult it is, must deal with and run to God with every day.

It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus commanded his followers to “Take up your cross daily.” Because it was on one particular cross of suffering that death was overcome and new life given to all who come. Our crosses are often the very things God uses to purify us and make us suitable instruments for, and eventual inhabitants of, his Kingdom.

This story originally appeared in Christian Post

http://blogs.christianpost.com/guest-views/do-our-souls-have-gender-and-other-musings-on-bruce-caitlyn-jenners-transformation-25756/

The Ray Rice Redemption

Ray Rice jpgOkay, now that every media outlet, blogger and commentator has piled on to Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, can we all take a deep, deep breath for a minute and consider some other sides of this troubling case?

The facts as we know them are this: After a night of heavy drinking, star-running-back Rice got into a verbal and physical altercation with his then-fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer Rice. He sat down with his bosses and powers-that-be at the NFL and told his side of the story. The NFL likely knew exactly what happened; either through direct viewing of the whole videotape or by extrapolating from the portion that was initially released showing Rice dragging the unconscious Janay from an elevator. Rice and his team and the NFL came to an agreement about the punishment and consequences. Rice would be suspended for two games and he and Janay were to go through some kind of anger-management/marital counseling. Some were dismayed that he had only merited a two-game suspension, but things had moved on.

Next thing we know, a fuller version of the elevator surveillance video is disseminated by the gossip site TMZ, and all @#!% breaks out.

Yes, it was disturbing to watch a young, muscular man essentially knock out a much smaller, weaker woman with one punch. But really, what was in that full-length tape that we did not already know?

And now, once again, a young black man has been held up as the poster boy for some form of societal dysfunction. His name is even used as the hook for the website of the national Domestic Violence Hotline in a headline, which asks, “Have you been affected by the recent news concerning Ray Rice and the NFL?”

It recently came to light that Rice has attributed his (and Janay’s) bad behavior to a night of heavy drinking, and has said that they have since renounced hard liquor and have turned back to their faith. Their church, and no doubt many other people, are standing by, praying for them and counseling them.

The problem I have with the whole scenario is this: One’s word is one’s bond. If Rice, the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens had come to an agreement as to his punishment, and Rice was compliant, it is very “unsportsmanlike” for the league and owners to renege on the understood agreement. It’s as if someone served their jail time based on eye-witness testimony, and only later, after a videotape is discovered with visual evidence of the same crime, the person is sent back to jail to serve even more time.

The result of the latest iterations in the case, in addition to shaming the Rice family and, as Janay wrote, making their lives a nightmare, is that the interruption of his livelihood will no doubt have a very ill effect on the family’s future. Whether one is making millions in the NFL or doing the 9 – 5 grind, we all depend on, and value, our livelihoods. They not only allow us to pay our bills, but many times our work is tied up in of our self-respect and self-definition. Losing our livelihood can create almost unbearable stress.

However, the most important part of this story, to me, is the strident moralizing in the face of a contrite perpetrator, whose victim has apparently forgiven him.

Since Rice has apologized to all concerned, taken his punishment, renounced the things that contributed to his and his wife’s behavior (alcohol) and returned and recommitted to his church, why must we, as a society, be less forgiving than God Himself?

Don’t get me wrong. Violence against women or any other person is completely unacceptable. It is a serious national problem, affecting 1.6 million women annually and costing the nation $5.8 billion in aftercare, including more than $4 billion in medical costs. I am fully in support of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and have worn purple to signify it.

However, Christians believe that God will receive us upon repentance (turning away from) our sin “as if it never happened.” Our culture celebrates and condones all types of behavior once frowned upon (MTV Music Awards, anyone?) but becomes strangely moralizing when addressing a select subset of sins.

When someone repents of their behavior and pledges to improve, and is forgiven by those whom he has hurt, why can’t we extend grace to that person?

Had Ray Rice violated his agreement and been violent to his wife or someone else again, then sure, bring it on. Fire him from his team; suspend him permanently from the NFL, whatever.

But it serves neither his family, his team, his fans nor anybody else, when he is punished again for a crime he had already been punished for and expressed regret for.

Can’t we allow Ray Rice to be a poster boy for redemption instead?

This article was originally published in Onfaith. http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/09/18/ray-rice-domestic-violence-rage-nfl-redemption/34147

I Get You L’Wren: Thoughts on Suicide & Depression

showbiz-lwren-scott-3I was greatly affected by the death this past March of designer and Rolling Stone girlfriend L’Wren Scott. Unlike a number of commentators, I had heard of her before, and did think of her first as a fashion designer, not as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.

There was something haunting in the way (it was reported) that she tied one of her own scarves around her neck, and hung herself from a French door; her assistant found her kneeling lifeless on the floor.

Despite the fact that friends were quoted as saying that she had seemed fine in the weeks leading up to her suicide, later reporting relying on anonymous close friends, indicated that she had, in fact, been down in the dumps in the weeks leading up to her taking the final solution. It also was reported that that she had previously tried to “hurt herself.”

Yes, she had financial troubles (but a multi-millionaire boyfriend); and yes, she was forced to shutter her business; and maybe she was frustrated by her non-marriage to Mick and the fact that her childbearing years had passed her by.

But of one thing I am certain: L’Wren Scott was suffering from depression.

For those who have never been in its dark grasp, when depression descends, the very same facts that seem innocuous or par for the course most days, can take on a totally different and sinister meaning. Being depressed means feeling that all of life is hopeless and pointless. It means not being able to sleep; but also not being able to wake. It means losing one’s appetite or doing nothing but eat. It means that time stretches ahead like an eternity, an ocean of hopelessness, days battering the shores of your life with tormenting regularity; restless night leading to hopeless white daylight.

I get you, L’Wren, even though I am someone who believes in God, in accountability to him, in life after death; and that suicide cannot bring a life to an end.

And sometimes those are the only things that stop a believer from ending it all.
I, too, suffer from depression. Mine is biological, as many depressions are. I think people misunderstand depression and look for reasons why someone would want to end their lives … a lost job, loss of finances, loss of someone we love. But most people who experience these things know they must go on.

When mental illness is added into the picture, these things can become a trigger, and one’s very life becomes endangered.

When my medication is regulated, I am a happy, optimistic and productive person. When I am depressed, I become an empty shell, a vacant house.

If someone is not a believer, has never felt that life holds a greater purpose, and that suffering can in fact be redemptive, then indeed, why not “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?”

The Book of Ecclesiastes is the Bible’s most direct book in its illustration of a life without greater purpose and without God. The author, whom many believe to be King Solomon, experiments with all of the things that humans think will make them happy: fruitful toil, a beautiful home, gardens, and vineyards, abundant wealth, entertainment, and sexual pleasure: “I denied myself nothing by eyes desired.”

Yet, he also concludes, “Everything was meaningless, a chasing after wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” No matter how long he toiled, or what he accumulated or accomplished, it was all “folly” because it would end up being enjoyed by another. Pessimistically, he writes, “for the wise man, like the fool, will not long be remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man will die!”

The writer then looks beyond himself, to the misery in the world, seeing the oppressed, “and that power was on the side of oppression … And I declared that the dead, who had already died are happier than the living who are still alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not yet seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Ah, yes. Depression causes us to focus on all that is wrong. It steals life’s small pleasures — like a cup of hot aromatic coffee in the morning, the love of a pet, the smell of a flower, the hug of a loved one. It says to its victim, “all is meaningless, there is no meaning under the sun.”

With the recent spate of young and middle-aged bankers ending their lives through suicide, including one of the founding CEOs of Bitcoin, a virtual currency start-up; with the resurgence of heroin ravaging the middle-class; with disaffected young people shooting others before killing themselves, it is clear that there is something amiss.

There is a vacancy in our hearts that can only be filled by God. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in thee.”

Shifting light and shortening days seem to exacerbate my depression. Last fall, when I was last depressed, such things as having the check-engine light come back on in my car after having spent hundreds of dollars in repairs (including the emissions system), felt like the end of the world. Some financial problems seemed insurmountable. I felt I couldn’t go on because my situation had become untenable.

Less than six months later, I discovered that my car’s problem was not an expensive catalytic converter, but a small fix that would cost $120, (and anyway, I had bought a new car prior to the next inspection date) and the mountain of debt that had so overwhelmed me was solved with a rather painless debt consolidation. In short, things that had looked so hopeless, were, in fact just ordinary blips on the road we call life.

I wish I could’ve told L’Wren this. There is only one constant in life and that is change. If today is a hopeless, depressing day, tomorrow could be the best day of your life.

And I would echo, with the preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” And in so doing, discover life’s purpose and joy that no-one and nothing can take away.