Mothering the Children of Others

In the April 11, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, writer Rachel Aviv presents the story of a Filipino woman named Emma who moved to the United States in 2000 to be a nanny for an American family. Although Emma was a college graduate who enjoyed a white-collar government job, life in her home nation was difficult, as she and her husband struggled to raise nine children. Seeking a better life for her family, she decided (like many others do every year) to emigrate to the United States.

Since 2000, Emma has worked as a nanny for a series of wealthy American families. Sending a large portion of her wages home, she has managed to send most of her children through university in the Philippines. But the job has come at a significant price; Emma has never returned to the Philippines to see her family. They have kept in touch through letters and Skype, but the heartbreak of physical distance is an ache that all of them feel.

In letters from home, one daughter wrote: “It is so lonely without a mother!” while another wrote, “I’m lost without you.” But she was faced with few good choices besides working, year after year.

This problem extends around the world — women who leave their own children behind in their home nation and travel to a far-off country to care for someone else’s offspring. Though these women provide significant economic benefits for their families back home, the situation seems, at it’s heart, tragically sad. Global poverty is so extensive that we make the poor choose between family and survival.





Social Justice is not a Bad Word

I grew up in a church suspicious of “social justice.”

Social justice issues just weren’t important, you see. The most important thing was to make converts, and just below that was to get people motivated, Spirit-filled, active in the church, teaching others, and being discipled.

Was there any room for taking on social issues? Marching for civil rights, protesting injustice in public life, standing for the dispossessed? Not really.

It led to an imbalanced Gospel. Worse, in some people (including myself), it actually led to the opposite of social justice. Some of us actually defended social injustice, too often insisting that the status quo must be God’s default setting, and that upsetting the status quo was threatening, radical or destructive.

As Stephen Mattson writes in Sojourners, this view is antithetical to the true message of Christ.

Christians do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’s ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes.

Because everyone is created in the image of God and loved by God, we are responsible for identifying the victimized — not rejecting their existence.

That’s why the New Testament goes into great depth detailing the newfound worth given to the Gentiles, slaves, and women. These countercultural instructions to believers were radically progressive, to the point where the gospel writers had to put them in writing to make sure they were implemented within the newly formed church.

I think many believers get freaked out by social justice issues because they falsely see such issues as secular. Some issues — like environmental care or campus rape awareness — seem to be exclusively the domain of the secular world. But aren’t those issues important enough to warrant a Christian voice?

It wasn’t always this way. The church was once a leading voice in the fight against slavery. The African-American church was the driving force in the modern civil rights movement, and in fact continues to champion several social justice causes.

But more is needed. If American churches were leading drivers in advocating for higher wages for the poor, for example, there would be more pressure — politically and culturally — for true change to begin. As it is, many churches have a very hands-off approach to such things as social safety nets and wages, or (worse) many churches preach for an ever-diminishing safety net.

Such stances run counter to the words and actions and ministry of Christ. May we be bold, as Christ was, and stand up for those who ware marginalized.

Welcome to the Jungle

I’m writing this on Saturday, July 9, in the aftermath of a truly horrific week.

  • In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by police officers. Video of the incident revealed a shocking and unwarranted use of force, and immediately generated outrage on social media.
  • A day later, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, another black man, Philando Castile, was pulled over for a minor offense — a busted taillight — and shot four times by police as he was reaching for his wallet. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, captured the shocking aftermath on her cellphone.
  • The following night, protests unfolded across the country. A large and peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, erupted into violence as former Army sniper, Micah Johnson, opened fire on Dallas police, killing five cops and injuring seven others.

Waking up on Saturday morning, and realizing that we had actually made it through a day without another awful, national incident, was a relief. But the issues are still with us, and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that things are getting worse.

Race relations are tense, sometimes lethally so. Across the country, police forces seem to be targeting African-American residents (primarily men) for dubious or non-existent crimes and employing absurd levels of violence in the process. Our veterans, like Micah Johnson, are returning from war zones with untreated trauma. Civilians (like Johnson) are allowed to be armed to the teeth in gun-happy America, thus placing more police at risk, which thus causes them to be more likely to preemptively lash out.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and death, played out in our cities and suburbs.

I don’t presume to offer any insight, any depth of understanding, on such tragedies. Far smarter people than I — the president, members of Congress, criminologists, pastors, big city police chiefs, mayors and governors — are as baffled as anyone else in developing solutions that are politically and culturally feasible in 21st century America.

I’m also not interested in adding to our nation’s trite dialogue after such tragedies, although the fact that I’m composing such a piece as this probably makes me guilty of that. Blogs and articles are rife with injunctions to think about what just happened, pray and hope it doesn’t happen again, and go about your business.

I’m not going to knock prayer. Prayer accomplishes much, I believe. But prayer in a nation awash in guns, and prayer in a nation infected with racism, will be little more than spiritual comfort food that we eat after another heartbreaking tragedy. And really, does God even listen to the prayers of a nation that hugs its guns and spits on its marginalized minorities, and pledges its intent to maintain a bloody and hateful status quo?

I do indeed want change. As my more conservative brethren say, I do want national revival. But I think we’re talking about very different things.


Day 28: Easter, When Death Became Life

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:6

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the Risen Christ. For Christians, the victory of life over death is not only symbolic, it is transformational. The audacious concept of a Savior rising from the dead turns the world upside-down, transforming misery into joy, despair into gladness, fear into courage, anxiety into peace, and hopelessness into the greatest hope of all.

I as much as anyone find myself weighed down by concerns and anxieties. I get discouraged by my own shortcomings; I feel helpless when someone I love is going through a hard time and I’m unable to do anything substantial to help them. And I feel overwhelmed by a world that is violent, illogical, cruel and unjust. As I write this, there are reports of yet another mass shooting in a normal U.S. city, and reports of a terrorist attack in another world capital. When does the madness end? Is it all too much?

On Easter Sunday, we can state confidently that no, nothing is too much. There is hope, and deliverance. There is new life. He who conquered sin and death can yet turn the situation on its head, and breathe life into our circumstances. There is no subtlety in that. That hope transforms our personal circumstances and our outlook on the world. It allows us to be the ones who can bring peace and hope and joy to a world that needs as much as it can get.

Easter is a specific day on the calendar, and for the Christian, it is the day that transforms all others. 


Day 27: Confronting Our Worst Days

In high school, one of my junior year classmates was an exchange student from what was then West Germany. This young woman, Elisabeth, was a kind and quiet student who was well-liked by teachers and students.

One day, I offended her deeply.

Of course, I didn’t mean to. For some reason, a few of us were in a classroom, unsupervised, and we did what bored young students typically do: we talked and walked around, and a few of us stood at the chalkboard. In my teenage foolishness, I picked up a piece of chalk and started writing ignorant Cold War-era sentiments. The exact statement, I believe, was “Kill All Commies.” Such a charming young boy I was.

“Please erase that,” Elisabeth said, in a quavering but decisive voice. I looked at her, confused.

“I have family that are communist,” she said. By now her eyes were watering. “I do not hate them.”

I grabbed the eraser and furiously wiped the board and wished I could disappear. I apologized but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The damage, as they say, was done.

Did I mention I attended a Christian high school?

Yes, I should have known better, but in many ways – and more than I card to admit – I was a product of my culture. The rah-rah patriotism and attitude of superiority and distrust of The Other and the nonchalance of violent sentiments was just part and parcel of being a young and arrogant Reagan-era boy. It took someone from another culture to show me how remarkably insensitive and monstrous some of my attitudes were.

It took many more years for me to outgrow those kind of attitudes, but I often think that evolution started that day. I was a chest-beating boor, and it hurt someone, probably deeply.

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Day 26: The Man Who Gives Away Houses

Warrick Dunn was a college football star at Florida State University who also excelled at the professional level as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. While the speedy Dunn will be long remembered for his breathtaking ability on the field, he is quickly building another legacy that may overshadow his athletic achievements.

In 1993, as Dunn was looking forward to entering Florida State as a prized football recruit, his mother (a police officer in Louisiana) was gunned down in the line of duty. Dunn immediately became the head of the household. By 1997, Dunn was playing professionally in Tampa Bay. During his rookie year, he began to reach out to families in the local community.

Raised with xx siblings by a single mother in xxxxx, Dunn never forgot the struggles his mother faced. As a professional athlete earning a handsome salary, Dunn began reaching out to single mothers in some of xxxxx’s poorest neighborhoods, building new homes for the women and their children. The impressive program was transformative, and Dunn continued this charitable outreach after his retirement from the NFL in xxxx.

As of this writing, Dunn has now given away xxx homes in xx cities. Appreciative families have spoken up about the tremendous benefit that a new, stable house can bring to a family facing economic hardship. Xxxx xxxxxx grew up in a home provided by Dunn and eventually entered Clemson University as a scholarship quarterback, guiding the football team to the 2016 National Championship game against the University of Alabama. Xxxxxx says, “ xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.”

Many generous people, like Warwick Dunn, have used their own experiences as a springboard to help others. Former prisoners volunteer to help troubled young people learn how to avoid a life on the wrong side of the law. Recovering addicts help current addicts. The formerly homeless help street people find shelter and companionship.

What special need is God laying on your heart? What deep hurts from your past or formative experiences can you use as a springboard to help others going through similar situations?

Day 25: 11/22/63

I was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1963, less than a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The ruthless killing of the president is one of the darkest days in our country’s history, and it ushered in a decade of social turmoil, escalating war overseas, and the beginnings of a divisive politics that continues to plague us.

In his 2012 novel “11/22/63”, author Stephen King asks a provocative question: “If you could go back in time and prevent the JFK murder, would you do it?” He tells the story of a modern-day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, who finds a time portal that allows him to travel to Dallas in the years leading up to the assassination, and the detailed plan Jake works out to kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can take aim at Kennedy on that fateful day.

The novel is compelling, and although it provides one possible answer to the “would you do it” question, it raises many more. If we were able to travel to the past, would our tampering with events create a whole new set of problems that we hadn’t anticipated? And how are we so sure that eliminating one tragedy doesn’t cause many other tragedies that are even worse? The character of Jake, traveling from the 21st century, has an awesome power – the godlike power to know how the future unfolds – and we see the wide range of problems that it causes a normal man to be entrusted with such knowledge.

“11/22/63” is one of my favorite King novels, spinning a story out of an age-old parlor game question. And in reading the book, I’ve been challenged to look at things that I can change for the better in the here and now. While we don’t have foreknowledge of disasters and murders, all of us are able to see that bad things in the present can cause greater problems down the road. The child that is encouraged now will likely have confidence later. The spouse that is loved today will be less likely to be depressed and isolated in future years. The relationship you cultivate today is the tight bond that lasts years and decades. And so on.

Can we be change agents in our own limited sphere today? Can we literally change the course of history, for good, for everyone we come in contact with? That’s an incredible power. Let’s use it wisely.

Day 24: Black Lives Matter (and Stop Saying They Don’t)

A recent protest movement by African-Americans has chosen the simple, but profound, slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The movement was born in the wake of a rash of deaths of black citizens, most often by the hands of law enforcement members, which left many in the black community outraged. Black Lives Matter is an attempt to remind the larger population that the death of a black young person matters as much as the death of any other young person – but too often, it is not treated that way.

Almost on cue, many people have responded to Black Lives Matter by coining a new phrase: All Lives Matter. Their point, I suppose, is to insist that all deaths are tragic and why would we dare suggest that only the deaths of black citizens deserve attention? I’m not sure if they’re missing the point, or deliberately trying to minimize a problem that should never be minimized. It seems that the All Lives movement is saying, Black Lives Matter Doesn’t Matter.

And I very much disagree.

[insert stats on police brutality and violence]

Invoking All Lives Matter isn’t the only way the subject gets changed. What about black-on-black crime, we are asked, whenever a white-on-black or cop-on-civilian crime is committed. The subtext is this: these people have no right to be outraged when they do a heck of a lot of killing themselves. And let’s call it for what it is – a rationalization, a pathetic attempt to explain away an uncomfortable problem, an effort to show that you just don’t care.

Stop changing the subject. The black community feels targeted. And they feel that because, frankly, they are being targeted. Injustice is no longer just an accusation; we are seeing it happen, through footage from dashcams and cellphones. God through his grace and sovereignty has seen fit to provide this window into dark places thanks to technology. Will we face up to what we actually see, or change the subject yet again?

Day 23: Facts? Who Needs Facts?

The truth is in short supply.

We live in a post-fact society. Author xxxxxxxx Manjoo makes this point in his 2004 book xxxxxxxxxx. In many ways, our tendency is to select facts that fit our point of view, rather than allowing our POV to be shaped by facts.

To illustrate this point, Manjoo described a fascinating study of bias conducted by researchers in the 1950s in the aftermath of a hotly contested college football game between Princeton and Dartmouth. In 1956, both universities boasted highly-ranked teams. When the schools met on the field, the game turned into an unusually brutal contest, with numerous severe hits and injuries and penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. Reactions to the Dartmouth victory were loud, with many Princeton supporters insisting their team had been treated unfairly.

A savvy researcher at one of the schools noticed these divergent responses and thought the game and its aftermath would provide an interesting study of bias. He showed a specific play (a Princeton player being tackled roughly) to fans of both teams. The Princeton fans most often described the play as “dirty” or “excessive”, while Dartmouth fans’ perception of the same play were that it was “hard but fair.”

When the researcher showed another play, this time with Princeton players throwing a Dartmouth player to the ground, the reactions were reversed. The Dartmouth fans commented that Princeton players were known for playing outside the rules throughout the game, while Princeton fans felt their team’s actions on the play were completely fine.

The takeaway? We tend to go into situations with pre-conceived ideas and then we view evidence through that lens.

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Day 22: Instability and the Coming Collapse

We live in historic times.

Economist Thomas Pikkety, in his best-selling 2014 book “Capital”, says that by 2030 the top 10% of the population will control 60% of the nation’s wealth. This is a level of inequality unmatched in human history.

One of the questions posed by social scientists is “how long will the disenfranchised put up with their limited circumstances before they demand change?” I wonder that myself. It is interesting to see generations of college students (from the 1990s until now) wrestling with such grotesque tuition rates and, so far, largely unwilling to protest the state of affairs beyond a few grumbles on social media or in casual conversation. This may speak to the complex ways in which modern American society, in subtle and unsubtle ways, discourages protest, particularly when they involve declarations of unfairness.

An even more difficult question is, how did such a state come about? Did the powerful and influential see society’s winners and losers and decide that the losers’ compromised state was of no concern? Did lawmakers think they had no responsibility to lessen the misery of the poor? Did business owners believe perpetual low wages would not present increasing problems for their workers as the years went on and the cost of living rose?

The Bible, particularly through the voices of the prophets, contains harsh words for those who allow injustice to continue. Our society is careening toward serious problems because we’ve allowed injustice and inequality to get worse and worse. To add insult to injury, the election of openly religious officeholders has only increased the misery of the poor; it is a point of shame that as we become more outwardly religious, our poverty has exploded.