Thanks for my free lunch…and more

I have a mushy memory from kindergarten about the little half-pint cartons of milk. I wanted to have milk at snack time like the other kids. If memory serves, Mrs. Knowles said, “I thought you didn’t like milk.” I’m guessing we hadn’t paid for it. She told me if I wanted milk, I needed to bring money to school with me. We had just moved to Kansas from Indiana and were living with my grandparents at the time. I went home and said I needed a nickel or whatever it was for my milk. It all got straightened out and I did not have to do without the rest of the year.

We were always poor when I was growing up so I have many memories of doing without. I learned to not ask for much, even things I needed. I remember doing without school supplies, like in the first grade when I didn’t have an eraser. I remember walking home looking at the ground, hoping I would find a piece of rubber or something else that would work better at rubbing out my mistakes than a wet finger.

As I got older, I learned what it was like to sit on the sidelines and not participate in sports or other activities because we couldn’t afford it. There was the time that my class was taken down the hall to look at music instruments. I would have liked to have chosen a clarinet but I knew it was not an option for me. In the fifth grade, on the annual play day, one of my sneakers literally fell apart when I was running because it was ripped from front to back.

When I was twelve, I got my first babysitting job. For fifty cents an hour on Saturday mornings, I watched three kids while their mother cleaned at the hotel. I opened up a passbook savings account and saved what little I could from that job and others. As a teenager, I tried to help out by paying for some of my own things. As a teen, I remember asking Mom to take me shopping to Topeka so I could buy a winter coat with my savings. I didn’t choose something fashionable; I chose a simple, cheap one. As a senior, I paid for my own pictures and graduation announcements with the money I had saved. Poverty taught me the value of frugality and self-sufficiency.

I did without a lot growing up but I got to go to a public school whether or not my parents could afford the school books. I had free lunch every day. There were many times when we did not have enough food at our house. How would I have performed in school if I hadn’t had that dependable, balanced meal every day? I will never know. What I do know is that I was a good student and I am grateful that there are people in the world who thought I should eat.

As a kid, I was well aware that there were people who looked down on us for being poor. I heard the whispers and saw the dirty looks. I knew that people resented us because their tax dollars contributed to our welfare. I write about what it was like to be a poor kid because I hope that people will have mercy on the children who will be harmed by proposed cuts to school lunch programs, the Pell grant program and after school programs that help poor students.

So let me take this opportunity to say thank you, taxpayers, even those of you who resent the poor, for paying for my free lunch. I didn’t ask to be poor any more than you asked to feed someone else’s kid, but thank you, because you did the right thing, even if it was against your will.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney defended cuts to school programs with his claim that there is no demonstrable evidence that programs that feed poor kids help them do better in school. He believes that hard-working taxpayers should not have to pay for welfare programs that help the poor without proof that it makes a difference. He is one of those people who would have looked down his nose at me and resented me for being what Paul Ryan calls a “taker” and not a “maker.” But again, I was just a kid. I didn’t ask to be poor.

Today, I am demonstrable evidence that programs that help the poor pay off in the long run. Government grants paid for about a third of my college costs. I still had to work and I still had to get good grades to keep my scholarships. When I graduated with a degree in accounting, I made $21,000 a year at my first job at a CPA firm. That was three times what I could have made at minimum wage. Over the past thirty-two years, I have paid tens of thousands more in income taxes than I would have paid if the government had not helped me out when I needed a hand up. I’ve paid for my free lunches and free school books and college tuition assistance many times over.

The President didn’t ask me if I want my tax dollars to go towards increased military spending or towards building a wall or towards providing security for his second home or for his frequent trips to Florida. Believe me, I would rather pay for free lunches or Meals on Wheels or for taking care of our veterans. But I don’t get to choose where my tax dollars go and a shocking  quarter of every dollar goes towards military spending.

The sad thing to me is that even religious people who should care about the poor often don’t. I see more expressions of compassion from my atheist friends. One of my evangelical friends recently repeated what she heard a guy say on the radio about the difference between Christians and liberals: Christians believe that we should care for the poor with our own money but liberals want the government to pay for everything! Yet I have never heard an anti-government Christian explain just how the church or secular community would replace the government’s role in providing help to the needy.

So again, thank you American taxpayer for every bit of government financial assistance I received in the first twenty-one years of my life. I know there are people who don’t think I was worth it, but thank God someone did.

Reflections on Columbine

Eighteen years ago, two high school students plotted a massacre at Columbine High School, which is only about twenty miles from my home. On April 20, 1999, they killed twelve students and a teacher in one of the most deadly school shootings in U.S. history. I remember watching the events unfold on TV that day and how horrified I was that anyone could do something so evil, let alone two kids. Recently, I read Columbine, the book by Dave Cullen, and learned that a lot of what we had been told about the massacre was not true.

One widely spread myth was that Cassie Bernall was shot because she confessed her faith. A witness said that Cassie’s killer asked if she believed in God and she said yes before he shot her. There was some truth behind the rumor. A student was asked if she believed in God but it was not Cassie; it was Valeen Schnurr. While the martyr myth persists, the truth is more compelling to me. The purpose of professing faith is not to bring glory to yourself but to bring glory to God. Valeen seems to understand this. Although I don’t understand why Cassie’s mother Misty chose to write a book that perpetuated this myth, even after being told it wasn’t true, I can understand how desperately she must have wanted something positive and inspiring to come from her daughter’s senseless death.

Columbine was a spiritual turning point for me. In my grief I returned to church because I wanted to be with people who believe in goodness and love. Columbine reminded me of how much evil there is in the world. It was frightening to think that the world had changed so much in my lifetime that students who were bullied would strike out at their peers with hatred in their hearts. That’s not how we responded to bullying when I was a kid.

After reading Cullen’s book, I know that the motive was not retaliation for bullying. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not social outcasts – they had lots of friends. They did not target jocks or any other group for revenge. They wanted to kill as many random people as possible.

In the immediate aftermath, it became clear that Eric Harris was the more evil of the two killers. He wanted to outdo Timothy McVeigh, the primary perpetrator behind the Oklahoma City bombing. He intended to kill several hundred students by placing two bombs in the “Commons” area, timed to explode at the busiest time of day. He and Dylan planned to shoot at the bomb survivors as they raced for the exits. Fortunately, Eric was not a skilled bomb maker. Unfortunately, he was able to acquire guns easily by asking a fellow student to purchase them at a gun show.

Eric predicted that people would not understand his reasons for murdering. He figured they would say that he was insane or crazy. Based on the evidence, including the basement tapes and Eric’s journals, it is likely that he was a psychopath, though most are not violent. His motive for killing was twofold: to demonstrate his superiority over others and because he got a sadistic pleasure out of it.

Psychopaths are not insane but they do have a personality disorder. They lack empathy. Psychopaths do not have the depth or complexity of emotions that normal people experience. A psychopath’s emotions are primitive, a reaction to threats to their own welfare. They experience emotions like frustration, rage and indignation.

The frightening thing about psychopaths is that they are skilled manipulators. They are able to mimic normal emotions easily – joy, grief, sadness, anxiety – and can be quite charming. They are proud of their ability to disguise their disregard for others and enjoy fooling people. It’s like a game to them.

Eric did not have respect for morality, justice, rules and laws. In his journal, he wrote that there is no such thing as true good or true evil, that morality is relative to the observer. He had no mercy or compassion for others. He held other people in contempt.

Dylan was not a psychopath; he was a depressive. He had been thinking about killing himself for two years and self-medicated with alcohol. Dylan was lonely and self-conscious. He was disgusted with himself. Dylan was also very smart and had a bright future ahead of him. He was introspective. He believed in God and an afterlife. Unlike Eric, he did believe in ethics and morality. He showed that he had the capacity for love, often writing about his crush on a classmate.

As I said, the Columbine massacre reminded me that there are truly evil people out there who are bent on hurting as many people as possible. But tragedies also reveal how much goodness there is in the world and how much healing is possible when people respond with love.

Cullen told the stories of many survivors and families of the victims – stories of struggles, resilience and forgiveness. Cullen was personally impacted by Patrick Ireland, a student who was shot in the head and foot. Although he had brain damage and had to struggle through rehab, his injuries did not define him or set the tone for the rest of his life. Val Schnurr is another example of a survivor who endured years of pain, therapy and counseling. She chooses to focus on the positive and is not consumed with understanding why the tragedy happened. She forgave the parents of the killers and bears no ill will towards Eric or Dylan.

For all of Eric’s contempt for his fellow man, his inhumane actions in fact revealed the beauty of humanity. Faced with physical trauma and pain, survivors demonstrated courage, persistence and determination to overcome. Faced with deep emotional scars, survivors demonstrated resilience, optimism and hope. Confronted with unimaginable cruelty, survivors showed an amazing capacity for forgiveness towards the monsters who wronged them.

In the years since Columbine, there have been many other mass shootings. After Columbine, I hoped that the national response would be to pass commonsense gun control legislation. With every tragedy, my hope wanes. In some cases, mental illness plays a role in the decision to kill others but most of the violence in America is not linked to mental illness, it’s a symptom of our violent culture. In two years, when America looks back at Columbine, how will we explain the fact that we have learned nothing?

 

Being Perfectly Clothed

Every day, whether I am going out or staying home and relaxing, I make a decision about what I’m going to wear that day. When I can, I opt for being casual and comfortable – blue jeans and a t-shirt are my favorite clothes. I’m not especially stylish and I don’t like to be fancy or ostentatious. The simpler the better. For work, I dress up a bit more – slacks and a blouse or sweater. I try not to wear the same outfit two weeks in a row. Sometimes I put something on and then change my mind about wearing it because the combination doesn’t look right. Sometimes my choice of what to wear depends on my mood or on the weather.

I know people who are always dressed to the nines, people who spend a lot of time and money on their physical appearance yet lack the beauty of a kind and gentle spirit. Ultimately, what you look like on the outside really doesn’t matter if you are dirty and ugly on the inside.

Yesterday, someone on Facebook posted a few verses from Colossians that explain how God’s people ought to clothe themselves:

Colossians 3:12-14 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Today at church, we read a few verses that also speak to the importance of being humble, gentle, patient and loving.

Ephesians 4:1-3 New International Version (NIV)
Unity and Maturity in the Body of Christ

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

The apostle Paul wrote both passages. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote that love binds the virtues of compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience together in perfect unity. In his letter to the Ephesians, he urged them to be humble, gentle and patient. He made reference to another bond that keeps the Body unified in the Spirit – a bond of peace.

Just as I don’t feel that I am clothed right if my blouse and pants don’t go together, I don’t feel spiritually right if I behave in a way that is not loving or peaceful. The clothes don’t fit; they dig into my sides and make me feel uncomfortable with myself. Being angry or holding a grudge doesn’t fit. Being mean doesn’t fit. Being selfish doesn’t fit. Being impatient doesn’t fit. When I act badly, I wish that I could take off my ugly rags and put on something that feels better.

The truth is I am never perfectly clothed. My wardrobe is often rumpled and stained with the mess of my selfishness. But just as I make every effort to clothe myself neatly and appropriately when I know I will be seen in public, I need to make every effort to be spiritually mature and to clothe myself with kindness, gentleness, humility and patience. And don’t forget to put on a coat of love.

Pausing to Celebrate the Joys of Life

I am guilty of thinking and worrying so much about the bad things that are happening in the world today that I often fail to think enough about the good things. Yes, I live in a world where meanness, selfishness and dishonesty abound, but I also live in a world full of people who are kind, generous and honest. I want and need to take a break from my worrying and pause to reflect on what is good. I’m going to start with the word joy, an emotion that reminds me of Christmas season, a time of celebration. But joy is an emotion that I can experience everyday, even during troubled times.

What does the word joy mean to me?

Joy can be defined as a feeling of great pleasure or happiness but the word that comes to my mind is delight. I spend most of my time in a state of contentment – not too high or too low. So when I experience joy, it is a special treat, an emotion that fills me with gratitude for the little pleasures of life. Joy is exponential; it is happiness squared.

What brings me joy?

One of the things that brings me joy is nature. I absolutely love wildlife and wildflowers and beautiful landscapes – mountains, rivers, lakes, the sky, moon, sun and stars. I see mountains in the distance every day but I don’t get to see wildlife every day. So when I can escape from the suburbs and I see deer or elk (which doesn’t happen every time), it fills me with joy. I like to photograph the wildflowers I see on the trails and have learned to recognize and name dozens of them. I am always delighted by the blooms, especially if I find a flower I have never seen before.

Another thing that brings me joy is small children, which might be surprising since I never had any of my own. I love their cuteness and innocence and sweetness. I love seeing their personalities develop and seeing how they resemble their parents. I love seeing them discover something for the first time. I also find joy in the love I see in a mother or father or grandparent who thinks that child is the most precious and special thing in the world.

Learning and discovery something new bring me joy. Figuring out something difficult brings me joy. Overcoming obstacles brings me joy. My faith brings me joy because there is nothing better than knowing I am loved and forgiven as imperfect as I am.

How can I celebrate and share joy everyday?

I get a lot of articles in my Facebook news feed. Many of them are dire news stories about things I cannot control. It is tempting to share them because I want people to be aware of what is going on and I want to resist injustice. But when I share these articles, I spread doom and gloom and I risk alienating people that I care about. So controlling the temptation to share negative news is important if I want to spread the joys of life to my friends.

I also get news feeds from  other pages that are not negative – pages that celebrate things I love like nature and pets. I follow a few religious pages that encourage me with uplifting scripture. I follow a page that promotes having a positive outlook. I can share and increase joy by making sure that these kinds of posts outweigh the negative ones.

I can also celebrate joy by being grateful for the good things in my life and by focusing on the good I see in ordinary people every day. I cannot take for granted the people who are kind and merciful and generous. They bring me joy.

Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

 

 

 

Today I march because…

Today I will march in Denver, Colorado because I believe in the foundational principle that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Everyday I walk by a framed poster that I purchased in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. It says: The struggle for freedom, equality, and justice transcends race, religion, political affiliation, and even death. This sentence reminds me that thousands of people before me, including my hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, fought to ensure that the freedoms I often take for granted were extended to women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.

In the days after the election, I vowed that I will stand up and defend those who live in fear because of the 45th President’s hateful, authoritarian rhetoric. Because God has shown me what is good, I promise to do what He requires of me: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). I pledge to be a Matthew 25 Christian. I promise to help the vulnerable (“the least of these” in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). That includes immigrants, Muslims, and people of color who still face discrimination. Turning my back on their suffering during these troubled times would be refusing to help my Lord and Savior.

During times of struggle, I often turn to the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

But I like the way Angela Davis put it even better: I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.

  • I cannot accept racism
  • I cannot accept sexism
  • I cannot accept xenophobia
  • I cannot accept homophobia
  • I cannot accept misogyny
  • I cannot accept threats to freedom of speech, including the free press
  • I cannot accept threats to religious freedom
  • I cannot accept threats to our democracy

I believe in truth. I believe in justice and mercy. I believe in basic human decency. This is why I am marching today with thousands of other women and men across this country.