Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dobson steps down: How I will remember him

Dr. James Dobson (72 years old) announced yesterday that he's stepping down as chairman of Focus on the Family. In an odd twist of fate, my 12 year old daughter asked me about him just yesterday, based on charges made against him in a book she's reading about feminism. To her, his name had become synonymous with repression of women and obstruction of justice for reproductive rights. When I explained that he was the founder of Focus on the Family, she squinted her eyes.

Isn't Focus on the Family that group opposed to gay marriage?

"Yes, it is," I told her.

I saw her wheels turn.

So Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family go together?

"Yes they do," I said.

She paused and suddenly her eyes lit up in surprise at her own thoughts: Mom, do you mean to say that Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family are the same people who created the Odyssey tapes?

When I said yes, a look of utter astonishment passed over her face. Caitrin's first brush with complexity. How can the tapes she loved as a child come from a group she's supposed to oppose?

She asked me, "How is that possible?" I was happy to explain. After all, back when Jon and I lived in a tiny condo, having as many kids as the Lord would give us, on one income, while homeschooling, Focus on the Family's daily radio broadcast featuring Dr. Dobson (hosted by Mike Trout) filled the airwaves of my kitchen every single morning with laughter, good advice, companionship in my lonely task. We didn't have the Internet back then. Getting out to a library was a herculean effort for a young mother of three, four, five kids. Radio was a savior - a way to connect to ideas and resources in my own family room.

For ten years, I listened to Dobson's daily program and got much support and help in my tasks as a stay-at-home mom. I heard programs on homeschooling, Creative Memories photo albums, how to handle toddlers, ways to find joy in ordinary life, tips for keeping your marriage healthy, how to live on one income, decorating for Christmas on a budget, dealing with in-laws, recovering from an abusive childhood. I heard lectures given by some of the biggest Christian writers and speakers all without having to leave home to go to a big conference in another city. I felt encouraged in my daily life: I could do this, it wasn't too hard, I could be close to my children and keep my family together.

Despite the controversy over Dr. Dobson's approach to discipline (to spank or not to spank), I found him consistently on the side of the child when he'd unfold his real actions on behalf of children. I remember one time reading that he had hardly ever spanked his own two children at all. His motto that has guided me for my entire 21 years of parenting is to "get behind the eyes of the child" before you make any discipline decisions. He went on to say that if you can see the world the way the child sees it, you'll know whether or not you are dealing with a strong will or simple childishness. So while Dobson is known for the wooden spoon (and believe me, I condemn that thing and all its various incarnations, used by parents with far less compassion, empathic imagination and emotional insight than James Dobson), in my experience, he was the voice that reminded me again and again to understand and know my children, to build their self-esteem.

There was a point at which I remember thinking that if he died, I'd fly to Colorado Springs to be at his funeral. His presence in my life had become so crucial, I knew I'd want to grieve his passing with fellow fans.

I've loved Dr. Dobson.

Unfortunately, that love of the man slowly ebbed over the last decade and has turned to a loss of respect. While doling out distinctly Christian advice about families (and really, I didn't take too well to the messages on submission and headship at all), Dobson became enamored of the political process and the possibility of shaping policy through the muscle he'd developed in the family ministry. I was on board for the anti-abortion agenda, but I've never supported his position on gay marriage or prayer in the schools. Yet the courting of morally questionable Republicans (whose own families were hardly models of the kind of health and spirituality Focus intended to cultivate) and his increasingly shrill reaction to those in opposition made me withdraw support from Focus on the Family.

The nail in the coffin for me came when Mike Trout confessed to an emotional affair. It wasn't his affair that drove me away, but rather how Focus handled it. I have loved Mike Trout's participation on the radio show. It occurred to me that if Mike couldn't be rehabilitated by Focus on the Family, what hope was there for the rest of us? What pathway to healing and restoration is there if failure means being expunged?

So I shared some of this with Caitrin, as she tried to put together the picture she'd gleaned from her book with the one I expressed from my heart. She loved the Odyssey tape series and realized that there is more to the story of Focus on the Family than "Dobson=evil for women and gays." Though admittedly, I oppose their agenda openly now.

It doesn't surprise me that Dr. Dobson is both stepping down as the leader, while continuing the radio program. The trouble is, Dobson doesn't speak at all for the Gen X'ers. He doesn't speak to the Millenials. His fans are my age and older. Focus on the Family, the organization so large with so much mail that it has its own zip code, may be riding off into a Rocky Mountain sunset. It may, in fact, be time.

Urban Gardening

Does anyone do this? I read this article this morning (and why we ought to look at urban gardening as the "victory gardens" of this era).
Urban farming tackles all three issues. It could relieve strain on the worldwide food supply, potentially driving down prices. The influx of fresh vegetables would help combat obesity. And when you "shop" for dinner ingredients in and around your home, the carbon footprint nearly disappears. Screw the 100-mile diet — consuming only what's grown within your immediate foodshed — this is the 100-yard diet...

But what I love most here is the potential for cultural transformation. Growing our own food again would reconnect us to this country's languishing frontier spirit.

Once you realize how easy it is to make the concrete jungle bloom, it changes the way you see the world. Urban environments suddenly appear weirdly dead and wasteful. When I walk around New York City now, I see the usual empty lots and balconies and I think, Wait a minute. Why aren't we growing food here? And here? And here?
ETA: When and where to grow... Thanks for the tip Kidthinkers.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Creating those conditions for joy...

From Getting Past Your Past:
Yes, you must do your work [internal, grief, recovery work] but you must also make your life a refuge from the rains and storms that come through every life (functional or not functional, that is just the way life is). Your life must be a warm cushiony place to catch you when you fall. A warm and loving place to retreat to, full of loving people and your own interests, and all the warm and loving things you have filled it with. If you do that you have the opportunity to not only have a firm foundation underneath you to weather any storm but you get the opportunity to feel JOY when it comes along. And it will come along.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Best Day of Your Life

In case it's not as obvious as the nose on your face, this is a tough year for me. Blogging has been virtually non-existant since the fall. Life at times has felt like crawling on all fours through the swamps of death and foul seaweedy underworld plantlife on the way to Mount Doom, accompanied by Gollum... without elevensies or Viggo Mortensen.

Seems like when you enter a year like that, you gather fellow swamp dwellers who band together to pull out of the swamp to make little fires in caves to stay warm. We strip the slime off one another's backs and sip hot tea. The other day, I was with a friend who has stripped lots of slime off my back. She shared with me a dream she had and it broke my heart. Got me really thinking. (I have her permission to reproduce it here.)

In her dream, a genie appeared to her offering a great gift.
"You may return to and relive the happiest day of your life. Just tell me what it is and I will grant you this one extraordinary wish."
My friend immediately plunged into panic. Best day? Best day ever? So she hunted through her memory banks. Childhood? No, nothing. Each event tainted by some pain unwanted. Raising kids? Nothing came to mind. Wedding? (Even her wedding!) None of these days was truly happy, worth reliving because pain would crowd into the memory. Not one day could be called "happiest of her life."

As the dream went on, she became more and more panicked. Here was a remarkable gift and she had to throw it away because she couldn't find a single happiest day in her life to relive. And she woke up. In pain.

Often in church, I've been taught that happiness is not a goal to be sought. Faithfulness, righteousness, loyalty, goodness, patience, long-suffering, self-discipline all trump feeling happy. Usually at some point when a congregation is flagging from pent up pain, a pastor will intuitively know to pull out the "joy" message. "We can't seek happiness" he says, "after all, its address is on the same street as sin and self-indulgence, but we must be filled with joy." You know, it's a command to be joyful! You can choose joy! Joy is the context of your life, not your feelings. Be joyful, dammit, and stop complaining about being miserable. Believe in your joy. Declare it. Joy is a belief, not a feeling.

But one day, you wake up and realize you don't know what joy is either. According to those pastors and their souped up sermons, joy ought to be translated: Enduring suffering without complaining, pretending happiness when you feel flat, bored, abused, lonely and mistreated. To believe in joy means detaching from the information your senses and spirit give you. You must reframe your very life to match a sermon.

What happens? Eventually along comes a genie giving you the gift of a lifetime and you have no happiness to show for it, no way to access happiness or joy. After all, reliving a day where you believed in joy is just not the same as feeling good. You have instead a long list of days where you've done everything right, where you've denied your self in service of loving someone else (maybe even someone who doesn't deserve your best self's offerings), where you have traded the experience of happiness and joy for "being good" and no amount of "being good" makes you want to relive a single day of that life!

Here's a warning for those who haven't felt happy in a long while (or ever). Look out. It seeks and finds. It knocks and opens. Sometimes it just barges right in, takes up residence and repaints the kitchen in Mediterranean blue. Happiness seeps in through cracks, and holes, and windows, and swamps. It may come in bits and pieces, but it wants to take over. When it does, it overthrows everything you thought you knew about life. There are two options: keep it at bay, or welcome it.

If you keep it at bay, avoid genies. If you welcome it, be prepared. Your whole life is about to change.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I dreamt of this day a year ago: President Obama

I distinctly remember discussing this moment online with friends, the audacity to imagine that Obama wouldn't just secure the nomination, but that he might, gasp, win the presidency and survive to give the State of the Union address. Tonight felt like a dream - a fantasy come true (and when does that happen in life? Not so often). As he entered the chamber, with all that anticipation building, I felt a welling of joy that in my lifetime, I get to repeatedly witness the bursting forth of hope, optimism and change.

It felt fitting that after my post on peacekeeping vs. peacemaking, the "not state of the union" speech would talk about recapturing our integrity and values through ending the war, through rejecting the practice of torture. It takes guts to focus on peace, rather than war. Obama will leave 50,000 troops on the ground in Iraq and will bring home the forces in 19 instead of 16 months. Yet even with that news, the tone and agenda of tonight's speech had that "peacemaking" spirit about it. We need to contend for the things Obama promised: better education, health care and rebuilding our economy through investing in America.

It was pure joy to see Hillary in her bright, euphoric (even) magenta jacket with a smile as wide as the China Sea, being kissed on the cheek by her former rival. It was incredible to watch Michelle glide into that chamber - sheer class; to behold Ruth Bader Ginsburg up on her feet, looking so happy. Then it was finally time for Barack to enter: The President of the United States - well, reality shattered illusion and what I had only imagined became solid, sure, and better than hoped for.

A campaign of hope pays off in a time of struggle and doubt. Obama's uncanny sense of timing (when he ran, his campaign message and spirit, his ability to read this moment without guile, bitterness or even petty blame) may be his greatest unsung gift. We trust Obama as much for his intuitive sense of what "now" demands as we do for any plans that he puts forward. Obama "gets" us. That's why we trust him.

Tonight felt like a mirror ball's glittering reflections dancing all over our country, reviving our energy and renewing our joy. Much needed, I'd say.

Oh, and the prez? He speaks English with elegance, too. It doesn't get much better than that.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Peacemaking, not peacekeeping

Our church had a visiting pastor yesterday from Charlotte North Carolina. His message, that he gave so tirelessly all over Cincinnati last week, ended with a spectacular collapse to the floor in the middle of preaching during the eleven o'clock service, Adam Clark tells me! Apparently the preacher blacked out, crumpled to the stage, and the church stood in stunned silence for a few moments, then erupted into a pandemonium of shouted prayers, cell phones dialing 911 and someone vomiting in the pews. Eventually, our guest speaker did rise again (about 8 minutes later) and preached another few minutes shouting that the devil could knock you down, but he could not keep you down! Cheers and hollering followed. After a minute or two, he was finished and ushered out to paramedics.

Naturally, I missed that service.

Still, I got to hear the whole message at 8:00! And it was a good one.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the Peacemakers" and our visiting pastor said, "Jesus did not bless the peacekeepers." Just because a scene is "peaceful" (no evidence of struggle) does not mean it is a picture of true peace. As visiting pastor said, "A man with his foot on my neck may look like peace." The absence of struggle is not peace.

He went on. The presence of law and order is not peace. Just because there are rules and we're told to obey them doesn't mean that justice has prevailed. Law and order is not equal to peace. It's equal to protecting the status quo. The status quo is not peace.

To be a peacekeeper means to choose not to upset the status quo. It means to turn your head when injustice is present. It means to tolerate abuse. It means to not rock the boat, to match the expectations of the ones in power without challenge, it means giving up your expectations of fair treatment in the name of pacifying the aggressors. Our visiting pastor (VP, I'll call him) reminded us of MLK Jr.'s "Beloved Community" and their fight to end the so-called "peace" of segregation (a peace-keeping strategy to stop the strife between races... yet not a peace that could last). He reminded us that while MLK Jr. called on a nation to be that beloved community, his legacy must be carried out from that macro level all the way to our most micro experiences.

Let me explain because this is where it got very powerful for me. As a member of the Obama campaign, I experienced firsthand how important it was to work neighborhood by neighborhood and person by person. The campaign depended on regular people taking time to realize their dream of a different future for our country. VP cited Obama as an example of someone who understands that to make peace, all parties must be engaged in the struggle and that it is a struggle. Peacemaking is not a peaceful experience. It's an electrifying, shake up the system practice. Peacemaking starts by disturbing the peace!

Today, peacemakers have to be about that kind of commitment. The beloved community starts with us, personally, in our hearts and relationships: not just our nation, state, or even cities. Not just out communities, neighborhoods and streets. But in our very homes, families and selves. He pushed his finger at us as he drove home his point. Peacemaking begins with a radical reorientation of how we understand justice - that we ourselves have a right to respect, truth and love in all our relationships and without it, that relationship's status quo has got to go.

We flex out muscles in the private sphere, among our families and friends. Injustice is not only what is done to us by the government or law enforcement. It's what we tolerate in the name of "peace" for our daily lives, which then becomes a habit of capitulation. Any peace forged on the basis of "keeping the peace" is not a peace that lasts. Justice, even when there is a high price of chaos to get there, brings about an enduring peace. You will know peace by how it lasts.

He described the way peacemaking leads to upheaval and struggle. Compromise is not a part of justice. Justice is respect, equality, truth and love. It is mutuality - a base from which all parties are able to have dignity before one another, without hiding who or what they are, or changing who or what they are to accommodate another's vision for them. It's not about who has power over who, but how to ensure that all have their rightful share of power in a shared context.

Radical overthrow of the status quo is necessary when oppression is most severe. Disturbing the peace is the route to enduring peace.

I've broken it down in my life. Well-being is the goal for all of us. Peacefaking (as my friend once said) is not peacemaking. The virtue Jesus blesses is not tolerating injustice, mistreatment, disrespect or loss of dignity in the name of some mythical struggle-free environment or relationship. Jesus blesses peacemakers who are so captivated by a vision of respectful, fair treatment for all, they risk the "peace" (the institutions that protect even their personal status quo) for the sake of a lasting peace - one that guarantees dignity, respect, truth and love for each member.