Let’s Stop Calling Ourselves Minorities

A version of this post was originally published in 2014 in The Root.com

minorities3It’s hard to believe, but it has already been four years (July 2012) when babies born of parents of color in the U.S. overtook births of white babies. What this means, according to demographers, is that by the year 2040, or thereabouts, there will be no majority race in the U.S. Blacks now make up about 13 percent of the population, while those hailing from the Spanish-speaking former New World colonies make up approximately 17 percent, and growing. Asians, both south and east, Middle-easterners and the cohort of mixed or “other” are also on the rise.

So why do we insist on using the word “minority” to speak of people of color, as a synonym for nonwhite? Growing up in the 70s and 80s, “minority” became an easy shorthand; an all-inclusive way to designate those who are not Caucasian. Since historically, this country has been overwhelmingly white (as much as 70 percent and more) it made its own kind of sense, and it was also easier than saying the mouthful “people of color,” or more daunting, calling each racial/ethnic group by name.

For some time now, I have sworn off using the term at all, and have tried to persuade others that the term is one whose time has passed. With the news of the nonwhite babies becoming a majority of births three years ago, I noticed such awkward constructions in the media as “majority minority.” Talk about oxymorons!

I believe that words have power to influence our thoughts and our thoughts influence our actions. If we cling to outdated and identity-sapping self-descripters, we forever regard ourselves as powerless.

So let’s take a look at how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines minority: It reads:

: a number or amount that is less than half of a total;

: the group that is the smaller part of a larger group;

: a group of people who are different from the larger group in a country, area, etc., in some way (such as race or religion)

That last definition is the one we are dealing with here; but think of the other definitions: minority is something that is less than half of a total. It is the smaller part of a group.

As long as we use the term as a synonym for the myriad people of color, we are, I believe consigning those people to lesser status and a smaller role, in short to powerlessness.

When you hear the word majority, on the other hand, it denotes power. The majority vote wins in elections. The majority opinion is sometimes able to silence the less popular. Speaking of the majority race makes it seem like a behemoth; something as immovable and inevitable as a mountain range.

But racial power is not inevitable; it is the result of various historical forces. What will happen when our country becomes a nation of fractured ethnic and racial groups, with no one group in the majority? Doesn’t it make sense to begin to speak of racial groups using their proper name, i.e., black, white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Latino and Latina?

Recently, I read in the New York Times that Middle-Eastern immigrants would like a designated box on the census form. Currently, they must check white or other, and many of them do not feel white, nor are they treated as if they were. You have to wonder how the white bloc of citizens is over-counted due to quirks of the census like this. Same with Hispanics. They are also able to check a box declaring their race, black, white, or a combination. However, the same article noted that Hispanics, when given the option of choosing a race, overwhelmingly check white, despite the fact that few Hispanics from the New World have a typically Caucasian phenotype. Again, the white “majority” bloc is falsely expanded.

I was watching a movie in the Fast and Furious franchise the other day, noting how diverse the cast is. There are several blacks. A few whites, both men and women. An Asian man. Several Hispanics. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel face fight during one scene. My first thought, looking at the two men, is that I have seen the future, and the future will look a lot like them. More and more Americans are balking at the strictures of claiming one race at all: Diesel is reportedly black and white; Johnson is Polynesian and black. I am seeing more young people who belong to the nebulous “mixed-race group,” who see no reason to deny any part of their heritage.

In light of such trends, will there come a day when the census drops racial labeling altogether?

Maybe. But in the meantime, can a majority of us agree to stop using the belittling and power-robbing synonym “minority” for that blossoming, growing, expanding group of multi-racial and varied-race Americans?

 

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Happiness is a Season

Wedding dress

The summer of 1997, the summer that Princess Di was killed in a car crash, I was nearing 40 years old. The big 4-0, the year of dread, especially if you had never taken that walk down the aisle. I remember the hot stillness of that August day, sitting on my lawn, hidden by boysenberry bushes, pondering the untimely death of the beautiful Diana, and writing in my journal: “I am nearly 40 years old, and nobody loves me.”

Like many little girls, I had dreamed of the white wedding. The beautiful gown. The flowers. The jittery groom waiting at the altar, an uncontrollable smile breaking out on his handsome face. I had had literal dreams of marriage: Dreams in which I was all dressed for the wedding, but missing my shoes. Was that God’s way of telling me I was almost, but not quite ready?

Years before, I had met the man whom I considered the love of my life. A fellow transplanted New Yorker, he was a handsome artist with a studio facing an Adirondack lake. We had met on a blind date; for me it had been love at first sight. We’d had a whirlwind courtship, and then he’d disappeared.

I remember praying ceaselessly that he would return. Once or twice he did, but would inevitably disappear again, with letters laden with apologies. I would sometimes see the beloved himself, walking down Broadway, felt hat sitting jauntily on his black curls, shoulder to shoulder with another woman. Once I saw him enter a store across the street and followed him in, where we briefly greeted each other. But despite my hopes of re-igniting the relationship, nothing came of it.

Until one March day when I arrived home to hear his voice on my answering machine. It was 8 years after our initial date. “I have so much to tell you,” he’d said.

He’d married, separated, and was now struggling to raise a young infant daughter by himself. He needed help. I was 42 years old and I was finally going to be a wife and mother!

Five months later I was single again, due to his verbal abuse. I had found the opportunity to escape after a bad argument, when he stormed out of the house.

I remember standing in the living room, looking up at the ceiling and asking God: “Does this mean I can leave?”

My ex’s gun had been confiscated after a particularly ugly fight with his former wife. That was the day he was to get his gun back. God’s timing was perfect!

The exhilaration didn’t last long. Depression and questions followed. Why God? Why did you allow this to happen? Have I not been faithful? Am I not a good enough Christian? Do you really care about me? Where is my happy ending?

As the years piled up, the pain did diminish some. I realized that God had given me quail, as he had the children of Israel who grew tired of manna and demanded meat. I had prayed, bargained, wheedled until I got what I wanted, and it had turned to ashes in my mouth.

I was now nearing 50 and still alone. I had the occasional crush, but no doors seemed to open in terms of the fulfillment of marriage. I had already grieved the empty arms of not having a child; would I now also be alone for life?

I pondered “these strange ashes,” as Elisabeth Elliot called it; what remains of a dream when the fire and the smoke have cleared.

Yet I have come to believe firmly that, if you are one of the 51 percent of American women over 18 without a spouse (or one of 70 percent of black women) and you sincerely desire a husband and do not feel “called to be single,” then God may yet “give you the desires of your heart.”

But there are lessons to be learned in the waiting.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

Was I truly seeking God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength – or was my true goal a man? (Deut. 6:5-9) God asks us to put him above all our hopes, dreams and desires. God knows that only when we make His desires our desires and His will our will, will he be able to give us those godly desires of our hearts – and that includes husbands.

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice (Romans 12:15)

I attended many bridal showers, weddings and baby showers as a single. Would I be able to rejoice with those who rejoiced? Celebrate their happiness as if it’s my own? Or will I, as one friend did, boycott a friend’s wedding because it was just too painful to attend? Sometimes we need to grit our teeth and do the hard thing; for we do reap what we sow. As we partake in the joy of our friends and relatives, we are sowing the seeds of their rejoicing with us.

And remember, in God’s economy, there is no scarcity. It’s not as if when someone gets something we want, there’s nothing left for us. So sow seeds of support, love and happiness and they’ll surely come back to you.

Don’t let a root of bitterness spring up … (Hebrews 12:15)

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:15)

Was I bitter? Did my disappointment, and what I saw as delays – and seeing other people’s blessings get me down? Sure. But by will, I needed to release that bitterness. Bitterness can stop God’s blessings faster than a thunderstorm can ruin a picnic. If I wanted God to fill my cup, I needed make sure I was holding up a clean cup of gratitude and praise, and not one filled with the bitter dregs of anger, envy and discouragement.

Delight Yourself in the Lord (Psalm 37:4)

I needed to fill this season of singleness being busy about God’s business while I waited. God knew I desired motherhood. There were always little ones, especially little girls, who needed “other-mothers.” Although they had moms, I found that little girls desire love outside the family circle, and a Sunday school teacher is often the recipient of that lavish love. Meantime, I was blessed with support from other women, especially in the church. God promises to set the lonely in families. If you are lonely pray that God will set you in a family while you wait.

Pray!

Psalm 38:9 says, “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” God sees, as he told Hagar when she ran away from her mistress and was wandering in the wilderness with her son. He knows your longings; he placed them there. As long as you’re alive, God can change your circumstances in one instant, no matter how long it takes.

How can I be so sure?

On July 26, 2009, I walked into church to see an unexpected crowd of young and middle-aged men. As I took my customary seat, by myself, I flipped over the bulletin to see that we were hosting Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery ministry. Downstairs, during fellowship time, Judy, my pastor’s wife, asked Karen, the worship leader, and me to go and make small talk with two young men seated alone on the far end of the room. Before I could make it across the room, a tall, handsome middle-aged man stepped into my path and introduced himself to me. My pastor ended up inviting my friend, Lydia, and me to stay for the luncheon, where I learned that he was on the staff of the ministry. This week, on my 58th birthday, I bought my wedding dress.

Three years before I met him, I had gone to the anniversary celebration of my former pastor’s new church. The minister opened the altar for prayer after the service. As he prayed down the line he had a “word of knowledge” or encouragement for each person. When he came to me, he began to pray exuberantly, but then he paused, and his voice became serious. “You have been waiting for something for a long time, and it seems like God has forgotten you. But God wants you to know He has not forgotten you; he has his hook in somebody, and he’s reeling him in.”

My fiancé accepted the Lord within a year of that prayer. God prepared him, then he reeled him in. Right in my path, by the way.

I have learned that just as singleness is a season, happiness is a season as well. Since God works in and amongst people, sometimes we have to wait, not because of anything we have done or not done, but because God’s love is putting something together that is “greater than we can hope or imagine.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/october/grief-happiness-and-hope-of-late-in-life-singleness.html

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

 

 

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

Have Black People Lost Their Vision?

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What do a celebrity chef, a second-degree murder trial and a Supreme Court decision have in common?

Answer: They demonstrate that when it comes to race, the U.S. is far from “color-blind.” Concerning the Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin controversies, there remains a disconnect between blacks and whites. As white fans flooded Facebook clamoring for Deen’s redemption, many blacks remain unconvinced of her contrition.

And most blacks I know are hoping for a guilty verdict in the Martin case, while in the general population, perhaps not so much.

It seems as if the president’s election, far from ushering in the new post-racial U.S., has instead been a lightening rod that has illuminated the underbelly of race relations in this country.

While some believe that we have achieved an equitable society (as the Supreme Court apparently did when striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act), many blacks, especially black men subjected to indignities every day, are well aware there’s still a way to go.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, the Times ran a story detailing the slide backwards of black professionals. One commentator, a white hiring manager, accused African Americans of having a “victim” mentality and being hobbled by slavery’s legacy. He wrote that he much preferred to hire “hard working” and “bright” West African immigrants who do not carry the same baggage.

Commentators went back and forth about blame, some maintaining blacks should just “get over it.”

Meanwhile, a mini-dust storm erupted in the black press over what was considered a “scolding” on the part of the president and first lady when they addressed graduating classes at predominantly black colleges in May.

Commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and contributing writer for the New York Times, wrote a blog post chastising the first couple for talking down to, and disrespecting the black graduates. He wrote that the Obamas assume a familiarity with, and seem to feel comfortable criticizing black audiences, in a way they do not with other constituent groups.

This got me to thinking. We do, in fact, need to have a conversation about race: and about the violence, drugs and hyper-sexuality in our communities; the epidemic of fatherlessness; and the limited dreams that cause generations to languish in the projects. And let’s not forget the abysmal state of black matrimony. But we also need to correctly diagnose the problems.

War on Families?
It has been said that African Americans are the most uncoupled people on the planet. Yet at the turn of the century, more than 90 percent of black adults were married, according to Alikah Butler, author of a book on the topic. Today nearly 70 percent of black women are single, and many at the higher socio-economic levels go childless as well for lack of a suitable mate.

According to Butler, one of the barriers that work against black marriage is the fact that 900,000 black males between the ages of 18 and 60 are incarcerated on any given day. (see The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander). Although most are out of jail in two to three years, those are the prime years to get established, get a job and get married.

Historically, the breakdown of the black family was exacerbated by the well-meaning War on Poverty of the 1960s, that rewarded households headed by women.

Identity in Christ
Joshua DuBois, in a fascinating cover story in Newsweek recently addressed some of the unique challenges of black males. Although I agree that retraining programs and education help, I think the heart of the issue is nothing less than the loss of  identity grounded in a belief and hope in the God who loves us beyond measure.

During slavery, faith in God sustained a subjugated people who sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” as they labored in the fields belonging to others. Those songs are said to have a secret subtext – pointing to an earthly escape from slavery to the promised land of Canada; but I believe the longing for a celestial home in those spirituals was very sincere. Life was short, hard and brutal, with very little to look forward to on earth.

Subsequently, the black church has been a bulwark against the storms of discrimination and racial hatred for centuries.

We often forget how recent this history is. The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated last year. My grandparents were born little more than 40 years after slavery ended.

New life and true life comes from one place, and that is in the “Father of lights in whom there is no shadow or variation of change (James 1:17).”

Until we, as black people, “look to the hills from whence our help comes (Psalm 121:1)” and rekindle our first love, we will be left with travesties such as Kanye West singing “I am a God.”

As a black woman engaged to a black man who bears many of the scars resulting from racism, I have seen firsthand how the gospel of Christ has transformed his life and sustained our healthy relationship.

I believe that the president and first lady were addressing blacks as “family,” in the same way your favorite aunty will tell you your slip is hanging or you’ve got lipstick on your teeth.  They were casting a vision for young people, and I say good for them! For “without a vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).”

A version of this story was originally published in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/july/what-post-racial-america.html

The Gift of Pets

Does God Speak to Us Through Our Animals?

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My late dog Jupiter

I have always thought that one of the strongest proofs of the existence of God is inter-species love. It’s something so seemingly superfluous and unnecessary. We don’t need to love our animals to survive. They really don’t need us either – many animals live in the wild just fine.

But there’s something achingly sweet about seeing my long-haired black cat Tasa curl luxuriantly in the crook of my knee; my cat Pudding at my shoulder as I read or watch TV. Or the mischievous Neptune, my red hunting dog, when I leave leftovers or treats thoughtlessly in reach of his powerful nose. Once I fruitlessly searched my huge bag for my gourmet muffin, eventually figuring I’d left it in the car. I found out otherwise when I saw Neptune scampering away, his prize between his teeth. It’s impossible to be angry with him. Instead, I laugh and think of my weight-loss goals: Better him than me.

What is it about our animals that allow us to love so unreservedly, so lavishly? What makes them so easy to forgive, when we struggle to forgive family members or people in church? Why do 63 percent of us fill our homes with what primatologist Frans De Waal affectionately calls “furry carnivores?”

I took my musings to Leon Chartrand, visiting professor of theology, ecology and ethics at Xavier University, who’s also a wildlife biologist and former bear management officer for Yellowstone National Park, and to Brother Christopher Savage, a monk at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, N.Y., known to many for his Animal Planet show Divine Canine.

As a wildlife officer, Chartrand was on the road at all hours, living out of his truck, driving many lonely miles responding to bear calls. His dog, Neala, a six-year-old black lab was, and is, his constant companion – even in the classroom. “My students seem more relaxed, more open to discussion when she’s there,” he says, adding that she carries a loving, relaxing presence emblematic of the relationship between canine and human that stretches back millennia.

Her trusting brown eyes and wet nose remind them, perhaps, of the pet they left at home; of a time when life was simpler. She also makes hospice visits with Chartrand, where she comforts those in the last stages of life.

Dogs are acutely sensitive to our moods, responding to our emotions in a deep way; to our smiles, our anger, our depression, Chartrand says. They even express jealousy when the object their affection needs to be shared. “Is it jealousy the way humans feel jealousy? No it’s jealousy the way dogs feel jealousy. We think of ourselves as conscious in ways of no other beings;” yet even a sunflower shows mutuality with the sun, as it follows its source of light, says Chartrand.

Frans De Waal, in his post, “Morals without God,” in The Stone, a philosophy blog on the New York Times website, described how young female chimpanzees helped an elderly female get water; how chimpanzees would break up fights, hug and kiss and comfort one another. “Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need,” wrote De Waal. “The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs. Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good.”

Many commentators took this to mean that because humans are not alone in feeling compassion, there is no reason to attribute human empathy to a creator. I saw just the opposite. Empathy among humans and animals is proof that a loving creator made us all, and that His love undergirds his good creation and points to something beyond ourselves.

After all, the sheer power of a dog’s unconditional love and trust can inspire reverent awe.

In her poem “Biscuit,” Jane Kenyon likens giving her dog a biscuit to a priest administering the Host:

I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

 

God speaks to us through our relationships with animals, whether a pet or a wild animal, says Chartrand. “Whether we recognize it not, it’s the divine voice speaking to us, interrupting our study/work with the power to remind us of who we are. The challenge is to quiet the mind long enough to listen to what they are saying.”

Through creation, be it a thunderstorm, or an animal, we grasp something of the transcendent quality behind all created things. They are all avenues to grasp the idea of the divine, says Chartrand.

Brother Christopher agrees with that, but also emphasizes the sheer “mystery” of our animal companions. Brother Christopher is the chief dog trainer at the monastery and the author of several popular books on dogs. One thing about dogs that appeals, he says, is their lack of guile. We often suspect that other humans are not being straightforward, or are guarded in their emotions. There’s no such fear about our dogs. “Any relationship calls us out of ourselves,” he says. Taking care of a dog is a “responsibility, a covenant. In return for their unguarded affection, we agree to provide for their needs and they fulfill our longings for love in a healthy way.”

As Brother Christopher and the other brothers work with the dogs at New Skete, he sees how they “have a profound impact on our spiritual formation.” As he trains them, and they respond to his commands, he finds that he becomes more patient, less egotistical, more loving. “The things we learn as we work with our dogs tend to carry over to our relationship with other human beings,” Brother Christopher says.

“When you get to know dogs you become aware of the mystery of the creator. This is a totally different species, yet you are able to have a relationship – not better, not worse than with humans – it is what it is. When we experience that relationship and mystery, it has the ability to sensitize us to the mystery of God. On a spiritual level, that enriches us; it’s a very important gift.”

I still remember the day that my 18-year-old terrier, Jupiter, died. He had been suffering from congestive heart failure for a few months, and I had him on heart medication. One day, I remember watching him walk to the porch, where he flopped down, as if too weary to go on. My youngest cat, Ciara, was afraid to go near him, sensing death, in a way that only animals seem to sense death. I came home from work that day, to find Jupiter lying still in the living room. He was breathing, but it was the first time he did not jump up to greet me. I lay my head against the doorframe and sobbed in a way that I had not since I lost my mother to cancer at age 11.

I took Jupiter to my vet, Dr. Peters’, the next morning. I remember the thin thread-like red ribbon he tied around Jupiter’s leg like a tourniquet. I remember stroking Jupiter’s back as Dr. Peters stroked his nose, and watching as he slid the needle into Jupiter’s outstretched leg. I remember Jupiter’s eyes turning glassy as marbles, then taking him home, wrapped in a black garbage bag.

Later, I wrote in my journal about how God had planned the whole weekend; how the crisis happened on a Friday, so I didn’t need to take time from work (or be distracted while there); how I had a pre-existing dinner date on the lake with friends Saturday, the day Jupiter died. How my friend Judith gave me a blue and white ceramic candle holder to comfort me. How a woman from my church, Anne, had called to inquire about me, and then sent Charlie, her husband, over to bury my dog. How God had been in every little detail.

C.S. Lewis believed that our love creates immortality for our animals; that they, so to speak, are swept into heaven on the coattails of our love. I was comforted when in the book about a young boy’s near death experience, Heaven is for Real, he reported seeing animals in heaven. I know there is controversy in the church about whether animals have souls that transcend death, but I have always felt, why would God give us less to love in heaven than he does on earth?

This article was originally published in Today’s Christian Woman http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2012/may/giftofpets.html

Pomp and Circumstance

Thoughtful Obama

 

By Hope E. Ferguson

Like many Americans, I was glued to my TV set for the pomp and pageantry of President Obama’s inauguration. I woke up Martin Luther King, Jr. day and flipped on CNN even before I did my daily devotions, something I never do.  I couldn’t wait to see if the president’s speech would match the fiery and soaring rhetoric of his groundbreaking introduction at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I couldn’t wait to imagine myself among the million on the Washington Mall, hoisting their little American flags. I had been to the mall for the rescheduled the MLK dedication in Oct. 2011, so I knew something about the palpable energy that would be there.

Then, there was the biggest question: What designer would the first lady be wearing?

As the president and first lady left the White House, two Marine guards, in their starched dress uniforms, stood on either side of the door, still as statues. “I wonder what they’re thinking,” I asked my fiancé. “Probably just about doing their jobs,” he replied.

I judged the president’s speech okay. There was no soaring rhetoric, but I liked how he spoke of the amazing diversity of our nation: a truth that hit home this fall when he was re-elected by a majority of people of color and just 38 percent of the white vote. I loved the imagery that poet Richard Blanco evoked with his metaphor of the sun rolling across our multi-hued, multi-faceted nation, and the near-final image of the moon shining on our windows. I loved the patriotic songs sung by James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé, who abandoned her skimpy garb for a dignified-looking black lace-armed gown.

I relished watching the parades from the different states – the president’s Hawaiian alma mater, Punahou School, trailing their volcano, the precision of the military bands, the playfulness of the dance troupe from Nevada, the rhythm of the Isiserettes of Iowa, whose irrepressible beat had the first lady and daughters shaking their shoulders.

I loved how the president turned one last time, to savor the sight of nearly a million American flags flickering in the wind.

Then leaders of both parties sat down to an American luncheon of steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce, bison, and Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey made with New York apples.

As many a commentator said, it was a day that gave one goose pimples, and only the most hardened partisan could fail to be moved. This is how we do it, they intoned; we transfer power peacefully, every four to eight years, no bloody coups, no uprisings in the streets. Whether we voted for him or not, we honor the office of the Presidency, and the orderly march of time from the first to the 57th  inauguration.

For one cold winter sunny day, coincidentally, on MLK’s birthday, we join together as one nation under God. We openly invoke his blessings. We rejoice in our diversity. We break bread together. We stand on the mountaintop.

For this bright shining moment we are Americans joined by ideals, not by blood. Never mind that tomorrow we will be back to the fights over the debt ceiling, gun control, same-sex marriage. Never mind that the name-calling will begin again, that the heels will be dug in again. That things will grow ugly again.

Human beings, made in the imago dei, long for the sense of unity and purpose evoked at the Presidential Inauguration, where a young, white likely-Republican male dances with a Black Democratic first lady. Where the liberal Commander-in Chief  is cheered by a conservative U.S. military.

We long for the beauty of unity.

Maybe that’s because we really long for the One who will take government upon his shoulders. The One who not only can negotiate for peace in the Middle East, but who is the Prince of Peace. The One for whom every tribe, tongue and nation can exalt and praise with abandon, knowing that he will not prove to have feet of clay. We long, indeed, for the one whose government will have no end.

And the human pageantry we witnessed last week, no matter how beautiful, orderly and well-staged, is only a shadow of those things that God has placed in our hearts; for he has set eternity in the hearts of men and women.

And by the way, the dress our statuesque first lady wore?

A Greek column in red by immigrant Chinese-American designer Jason Wu.