Celebrate: Becoming – Middle C

Like many of you, I have a stack of books that I either must read or want to read. So, I was glad when Michelle Obama’s Becoming finally made it to the top of my stack. If I’d known how good it is, I would have put it higher in the pile a long time ago!

I came to feel like I knew and loved Michelle Obama years ago, and reading her book Becoming made everything I knew about her come alive. Michelle is exactly the person I imagined her to be, and I’m glad to rest happily in my knowledge of her beautiful, genuine persona!

I believe that everyone—especially young parents—should read Becoming. It’s enlightening to learn how Michelle’s parents raised their children with great thoughtfulness, providing ample space for each child to live into exactly who God created them to be. Parents far too often raise children with a plan for who we want or think they should become—and we end up stifling their spirits or over-inflating their egos. Many families could be transformed by following Michelle’s parents’ thoughtful, calm parenting.

The story that most resonated with me in Becoming was about Michelle finding Middle C on the piano. In her first lessons with her great-aunt, Michelle was clever enough to find Middle C intuitively. She easily deduced that the key in the middle of the keyboard, chipped and most worn, must be Middle C. Her correct calculation supported her confidence that she could do anything.

But then came a recital organized by her aunt Robbie in downtown Chicago. Confused and bewildered by the whole affair, little Michelle sat down at the grand piano and could not find middle C on that perfect set of keys. In her moment of crisis, the very person she thought was her nemesis came to the rescue: her great-aunt Robbie. Without embarrassing or publicly correcting her, Aunt Robbie simply pointed to middle C and gracefully left Michelle to play.

Wise and experienced, a teacher of many, Michelle’s Aunt Robbie had likely seen many little people stumble at this stage in their lives. By organizing the formal recital, Robbie gently introduced her pupils to the bigger world and asked them to prove themselves—all the while standing by with love and support. Robbie taught Michelle invaluable lessons that would prepare her for the world to come.

Michelle’s story about finding Middle C speaks to so much of what children of color and poor children experience and most desperately need. Underprivileged kids learn to adapt to their environments and work with what they are given. Assuming that their environment reflects the universe, some even thrive. Yes, they have glimpses into lifestyles and worlds outside of their own, but young minds don’t give much thought to how such foreign places connect to their lives. Their skills and intellect in their little worlds embolden them. But, when that world starts to open up and they realize they’ve been succeeding in a limited arena, their tender egos run great risk of irreparable damage. Michelle reminds us that many children navigating limited environments drop off any road to success at this point. They urgently need help navigating their expanding world.

Most anyone can find Middle C when their choices are limited. But, when faced with multiple black and white keys all in a row, we need more than quick deductive reasoning. We need allies familiar with the space, who have already figured out ways forward and are loving enough to help us get through too.

For all the Aunt Robbies—teachers, pastors, coaches, and parents—who provide others with invaluable opportunities and remain nearby with love and support, praise God for you. Mentors change the world.

As we celebrate this season of love, I encourage you to reach out to women who guided you along your journey. If those who come to mind have passed on, send a simple prayer thanking God for their presence in your life—and for the preparation that they are likely doing for you in the world to come.

With love: to Granny, Moma Mert, Mrs. Jordan, Ms. Briggs, Bonnie, Ivorie, Mertis, Norma, and my Martha.

Question: The Fog

Recreational marijuana is now lawful in 33 U.S. states. Medical marijuana has been legal in most states for a number of years already, but the government has woken up to the tax benefits of legalizing it for recreational use.

For states in serious debt, such as Illinois and Michigan, tax revenue from marijuana sales could not come at a better time. Authorized recreational cannabis sales began in Illinois on January 1, 2020. On that first day, revenue reached $3.2 million, and in a few weeks generated $19 million. In Illinois, the total state, city, and county taxes on weed sales will reach up to 41% of sales. That’s a lot of money.

In addition to the tax incentives of legalizing cannabis, recreational sales promise to benefit the limited number of business owners who have long planned for legalization, had their documentation in order, and secured a license. States only allow a certain number of vendors, so other entrepreneurs are out of luck.

Some say that another actor benefitting from the legalization of marijuana is law enforcement. Freed of the hassle of prosecuting minor cannabis offenses, authorities can concentrate on more serious criminal activities. Fewer individuals will be arrested and sent to prison for minor crimes, and the problem of mass incarceration will be alleviated.

Legalizing marijuana probably has its benefits—but what about its human cost? History shows us that we rarely look at the human toll of such actions until it’s too late (e.g., the legal but unprincipled over-prescription of opioids in the past decades).

When it comes to the legalization of cannabis, I am seriously concerned about what I call “the Fog.” The Fog is the state of being experienced when a person uses marijuana. One’s physical and spiritual state becomes a haze. I liken it to the Peanuts cartoon character Pig-Pen—the little boy always dirty, with a plume of dust following him. I know people who have lived in the Fog for decades; they’re trapped in it. While they’ve lost their ability to see and smell it, marijuana smoke sticks on them, and others detect it even on their bags and clothes.

Cannabis use throughout the U.S. is rising, and the amount consumed by frequent users is also climbing. The most severe problem of the Fog, I believe, is lack of ability to thrive. It’s common to hear a person say, “I’ve been smoking marijuana since the ’60s, and I am fine. I go to work, I have a home, and my children are fine.” This may be true, but both times and the drug have changed. Levels of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, are many times higher in products sold today. Marijuana sold before the ’90s has less than 2% THC levels. The plant has been modified, and these days, the THC content of most popular strains ranges between 15% and 30%.

Marijuana users manage life in the Fog through habit. They don’t like doing much out of the ordinary because it’s too hard to navigate the Fog in strange places. Smoking first thing in the morning and/or in the evening after work, they memorize routes in their homes until they can navigate without bumping into things. They do not like objects to move. They live in a routine: get up, go to work, pick up kids, get to that evening meeting or activity, back home to dinner, shower, and bed. Start all over the next day. They’ve got things under control.

My concerns are mostly for the everyday person earning less than $75,000 per year, living in a modest home, and working full time to make ends meet. The person’s dreams stall, and they lag behind their peers enough to feel sad and discontent. They attribute their lag to issues such as lack of support, children’s needs, workload, other life stressors that marijuana helps them get through. Yet they’ll never make it through. Instead, they see the years go by in that same state of life, enduring the same stressors and smoking marijuana to cope.

The Fog is a problem that’s only going to get worse. Those urging rapid legalization and marketing aren’t being honest with consumers about the dangers of the Fog because it doesn’t help their cause. Users themselves can’t see the hazards of the Fog because their awareness has been dulled.

What is to become of children growing up in the Fog? With the legalization of marijuana, I believe that we all have increased responsibility for the well being of children in our communities. We need to act now, or society will pay a steep price for our negligence. 

I advocate for a multifaceted approach to incorporating the inevitable, new social norm of cannabis consumption into our society. We should adopt a curriculum promoting drug-free lives in our elementary, middle, and high schools. Parents who smoke weed should be convinced of the value of creating Fog-free spaces in their homes. We must offer affordable mental health care; with all the new tax revenue generated through cannabis sales, states have no excuse. And, the media must share widely a constant conversation with mental health professionals about cannabis and its health consequences.

Marijuana legalization, promotion, and consumption are daunting issues. What can we do right now? We can have honest conversations with our families and communities that question the Fog and shine the light of real examination into its haze. We can pray for today’s children as they face the Fog—a presence that will affect their generation throughout their lives.

Celebrating: Mother Mary

Mother Mary has always been one of my favorite biblical characters. As a teen mother myself, I think about the excitement of a young girl about to bring a baby into the world – it’s an exhilarating feeling. Your young mind cannot fully grasp the magnitude of what you are about to embark on; yet you are buzzing with anticipation. I remember thinking I was going to get the chance to be a great mother; unlike my own personal experience with my parents. I was going to be attentive, loving, and show my baby how great and special he would become. The problem with teen minds, is that we have not lived long enough yet to fully understand that bringing a child into this world would cost us so much more than time and love.

Mary was not only young and unwed, but also as a virgin must have experienced a multitude of emotions. She had not prepared her mind for a child; it was thrust upon her. So, like most teen mothers, the mixture of unbelief and fear also share the space with excitement. I am sure once Mary fully grasped her reality she, too, was excited about this special child growing in her body. Yet, like most young mothers, I am sure she had no clue of the enormous about of pressure this child would place on her life.

Mary’s child, like many teen mother’s children, find themselves in social situations beyond their control. The Christ child would be despised and rejected by the world around him. He would be treated unfairly, beaten, and imprisoned. He would be loved and honored in one breath and turned against in another. He would offer hope to some and spark fear in others. I am sure many teen mothers can look back over their own child’s life and see many of these same patterns – I know I can. Maybe that is why the Mother Mary is such an important biblical character for me. I know the joy and pain that comes with raising a child in a world that loves them one day and hates them the next.

Mothers have a place in this world like no other. The ability to produce life and the responsibility of nurturing that life is all consuming. As we celebrate the Christ child this season, let’s not forget the vessel that made it possible. To the Mother Mary and all the women who have accepted the role of mother to a child, may God bless you this season with Peace, Hope and Joy.

Ponder: We must take sides

What does it mean for us to say something is wrong but never act on our convictions? A quote from Elie Wiesel challenges people visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Alabama: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Elie Wiesel is right; we must take sides. I have seen how nonalignment is in reality vote for the oppressor and exacerbates or prolongs the victim’s suffering. But what side do we choose? Our world has successfully confused us into thinking it’s better to stay neutral on most matters since the issues are all tangled up into a knot of wickedness. Neutrality helps us to avoid misperceptions such as being considered against the Second Amendment just for being in favor of Red Flag laws, or being thought of as “soft on crime” because one is against the death penalty. Neutrality keeps our reputation clean.

While perhaps cleaner, neutrality is not, in my view, an option for Christians. The issues are too important to keep our distance. We must be willing to plunge into the confusion and navigate it with courage. Taking sides is in essence standing up for what we believe is right and just.

Taking sides requires risk—especially when family and friends have planted themselves on the other side of the issue. After my talks about putting our convictions into action, people tell me they are most concerned about creating rifts within their own families and communities. They are right to be worried; Jesus says to his disciples, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Taking a side may mean releasing our grip on some relationships.

Jesus’ metaphor is a good one. Tilling the land requires intent and focus on the earth ahead. If the person plowing keeps looking back, their work will be haphazard at best and likely damaging. It is the same with our participation in God’s work on earth. We must be steady and keep our eyes on the path forward. Continuous looking back will cause us to lose our way and effectiveness.

So, I ask, where are the Jesus followers? Where are those spending their lives loving God and neighbor with everything they’ve got? Should not our voices be louder, our witness stronger, and our love more powerful?

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Where are we, the Church, shining our light? In a nation slowly disintegrating into poverty, discriminatory educational systems, inadequate healthcare, mass incarceration, rising suicide rates, endless wars, forced migration, and climate change, where is our light?

Taking sides requires us to be resolute in our thinking, direct in our actions, and peaceful in our spirit. We may have to sacrifice valued relationships along the way, but our family loyalty belongs to the family of God. Jesus sought justice. We must choose to be on his side, rejecting the oppression that neutrality sustains.   

Question: Wealth

The idea of donor fundraising has always been a sore subject, but my visceral reaction to a recent development conference I attended surprised even me.

Because I lead a women’s organization that depends on donations, fundraising is a constant concern and the part of my job that I least enjoy. I thought I hated conversations about money because I don’t have much of it and because I was unable to fully grasp how finance works. But, the more I engage in financial matters, the more I realize that I do, in fact, understand it. My distaste for money talk is rooted in my fury about the economic system itself. 

Our system works like this: those who have money are asked to share it with those who lack it. Sounds simple enough—but look into the weeds of the way this works. If you “have,” you are privileged to decide who is worthy and who is not of receiving your generosity. You can choose how much or how little to give. If the recipient of those gifts does not respond in a way that benefits you, you can withhold donations in the future.

Those who “have not” must learn how to stroke donor egos: tell compelling stories, write brilliant thank you letters, dance a jig, and walk humbly before the giver all at once. With wills of steel, they must rebound from personal blows in short order so they can set out again with the next story and request.

How can anyone be happy with this system? I know a number of good, generous wealthy people who never intend to demean the “have nots.” I wonder what they think about all the fundraising efforts spent to placate the donor’s ego. If I were wealthy, this kind of approach would make me sad. I don’t believe most wealthy donors need or want this kind of patronizing. I wonder how they would feel about the fundraising conference I attended.

MW USA’s new initiative, Choosing Sisterhood, invites women to begin dismantling societal divides by finding a sister very different from themselves and walking with her. The goal of Choosing Sisterhood is to build strong relationships that will help us enter into different cultures and find common ground and God’s love. The hope is that, over time, the unjust systems of racial, ethnic, and gender inequality will begin to fall.

When it comes to our economic system, I’m more impatient. Look at Leviticus 25 and see the kind of economic system God establishes. When you study God’s model with the year of Jubilee, you’ll see that God’s way ensured that generational poverty or wealth would be kept in check. In contrast, the wealth gap in the country is out of control and only getting worse. The system is designed so that the wealthy can easily acquire more, and those with scarce resources are locked outside the system altogether. Very few people actually change their economic status over the course of their lifetime; a person is either generationally wealthy or generationally poor.

I don’t think we have time to build bridges carefully; the inequalities in our financial system are killing too many people and communities. We need to make drastic shifts soon. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware that dramatic changes are tough. I knew from the start that the protest movement Occupy Wall Street was going to fizzle. When you start messing with people’s money or perceived economic interests, they react and often overreact.

My biggest concern has to do with the church, the people of God. Biblical mandates on how to respond to economic disparity are clear. God’s people are not to store up earthly riches (Matthew 6:19-21); we are to leave a generous portion of our income for others (Deuteronomy 15:11); we are not supposed to charge interest (Exodus 22:25-27). . . . The list goes on.

The Bible is filled with lifegiving instructions about how to manage our wealth. Why, then, has the church in the U.S. largely abandoned them? We willingly lament societal ills and debate the biblical response to them, but when it comes to our behavior regarding wealth, the church is silent. Either we are ignoring Scripture, or we are not comprehending that most of us are the wealthy ones to whom God gives so much instruction.

I am looking for women who want to tear down the system! I am thinking along the lines of the Montgomery bus boycott during the Civil Rights movement. We need people who are willing to lose their profits in order for others to gain their basic human dignity. We need people who will forfeit a return on their investments for the sake of forcing systemic change.

Even as I say this, I am aware that our current system is designed so that investors will not or cannot withdraw money from it. I know that funds are supposedly locked up for the investor’s own good, but I’m convinced that this monetary incarceration is really to prop up a system that is sinister to the core. Worst of all, those at the economic controls have convinced us that the system is at minimum, necessary, and in most cases generous, democratic, and benevolent.

We need lending institutions that don’t charge the poor interest and provide safety nets for small businesses and other efforts bettering the lives of women, people of color, and those in generational poverty. I envision the creation of financial institutions whose stated goal is not to be a means by which the wealthy obtain more wealth but rather to move individuals, families, and communities to economic stability.

You see it, right? I know that I must be a pawn in the game for now, but this is only for a while. I need women young and old, wealthy and poor, to stand up and say NO MORE. Let’s begin now to dismantle a system designed for a select few. Let us start now to create a new system that reflects the Scripture we hold so dear.

Are you already working in a church or ministry with a vision for systemic change in our economic system? I would love to know about it. I don’t have the answers, but I am convinced that if we work together and are willing to sacrifice, we could dismantle economic injustice in our country. The system continues to churn only because we all join in its elitist and patronizing game.

Ponder: The Family of God

I was making my way through Middlebury, Indiana, one Sunday morning on my way to 8th Street Mennonite Church in Goshen. As I drove past a couple of Amish horse and buggies, I slowed down and passed them on the left. Before long, I was passing numerous Amish families riding bikes and walking. I realized they too were on their way to worship. The diversity of God’s family made me smile.

I drove slowly to give my sisters and brother room and safety on the road. I waved at many of them; some waved back while others did not. I thought about how the Amish are of the same Anabaptist family roots I claim as my own, and that made me feel good. I wondered if they consider me part of their family of faith. I imagined they couldn’t easily identify a black woman in a green Mustang convertible as a sister in Christ; they may have only wondered what a black woman was doing on back roads in Middlebury!

In the midst of all this, I aimed unkind thoughts toward other cars and trucks speeding by without slowing down. Some didn’t even move over to give the Amish families room to walk on the side of the road, so the children, women, and men were repeatedly obligated to walk in the grass. Those drivers were disrespecting my family. Shame on them for not being more respectful of their neighbors!

I consider my encounter on the back roads of small-town America and how it might relate to lessons learned on the road to Emmaus. The travelers on their way to Emmaus were grieving over Jesus’ death, yet still they were kind enough to welcome a stranger into their home for food and rest. What do they teach us about how we should travel this life?

I detect two lessons:

First, we should always remember that every man, woman, and child is part of our family in Christ Jesus. Our love and concern for one another and ourselves should be one and the same. How would you feel if your family was walking along the road and was forced off it by cars racing by?

Second, the travelers on the way to Emmaus did not understand Jesus as Lord and Savior, yet nonetheless they welcomed him into their home. I don’t wear a plain dress and bonnet, and the Amish don’t share the lifestyle I’m used to—but why shouldn’t we see one another first and foremost as children of God? I don’t know how the Amish perceived me as I passed them along the road, but I wonder about it. When, if ever, will we act according to our conviction that race/ethnicity, religious tradition, and gender cannot define our status before God? Whether Amish or atheist, black or white, male or female—didn’t Christ come for all?

The biblical story of the road to Emmaus makes it clear that revelation occurs in the breaking of bread. I may never have occasion to break bread with my Amish sisters and brothers, but it is vital that I break bread with those who otherwise may never realize that I am their sister in Christ.

Affirm: A Sexual Reformation

Several books have shaped my understanding of sex. The first was in the late 90s: The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler. Vagina Monologues unapologetically told the stories of women and our often-unhealthy experiences with sex and our bodies. The book provided us with a place to enter conversations about our own stories.

In 2010, I saw the Tyler Perry movie For Colored Girls and read poems of Ntozake Shange. The movie and poems helped me gain a new perspective on my identity as a black woman and the roles I and women like me play due to the harm done to us. The movie and the poems are powerful, and I think every woman of color would be able to find themselves in one or more of the characters.

I was recently offered another life-shifting resource, a new book titled Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Reading Shameless has catapulted me into new awareness and ways of talking about sex.

Shameless is a theological storytelling of how the church and our theologies have shaped grave misunderstandings about God’s word. The author touches on important issues that have caused many women to question, hide, and hate their own bodies and personhood. She walks us through how the things we hear, see, and feel influence our lives as sexual beings. When shameful words and beliefs dominate, they cause lifelong damage.

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s work will shock and produce some level of anxiety for any reader—and for some, probably more than they want to deal with. I say this to warn people with fragile sensibilities. If this is true of you, then you may not be able to read this book. You may also want to stop reading this blog post because the story I am going to tell could very well touch on your sensibilities.

Many years ago, my husband and I ran a weekly teen ministry at our home church in Elkhart, Indiana. Each week, some 40 teens would gather to discuss all manner of life and how God is in the details. Most of the children were not churchgoers, and many had negative feelings about the church, yet they came every week to talk. One week, our conversation had something to do with sex. A 16-year-old girl told us that her mother would say, “don’t let no boy trick you out your panties.” Any conversation about sex, teen pregnancy, dating, or relationships led to that standing line. This, she said, was her mother’s version of “the sex talk.” She hated it.

The young lady went on to tell us that she lost her virginity to a boy, and her mother found out. Her mother chastised: “Didn’t I tell you not to let no boy trick you out your panties!” She calmly responded, “He didn’t; I gave them to him.” Her mother’s inability to offer her daughter a healthy way of understanding her body and its value caused her daughter to reject her message and what was likely deep concern.

It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Parents would do well to learn how to have positive and honest conversations with our children about sex and sexuality. We need to leave behind talk laced with commands and distressing scenarios.

Shameless: A Sexual Reformation helps us to think through the religious and commercial origins of our fear of sexuality. Nadia brilliantly tells the biblical story without the harsh interpretations many of us grew up with, inviting us to hear it with new ears. This reading has awakened me to a new perspective and pushed me to read the familiar stories again.

I recommend Shameless: A Sexual Reformation for those who seek to find a new love for the church and those who hope or need to talk about sex with their children, youth group, women’s groups,  or church leaders.

The Mennonite Women USA booth at MennoCon 19

You can’t miss our booth. It’s the one with four one-of-a-kind quilts. Read more about each quilt. Tickets can be purchased for a chance to win one of these quilts. Only $20! Visit us at the Mennonite Women booth. Not in Kansas City? You do not need to be present to win. You can buy tickets from our online shop. Designate how much you want to spend, click the “select program” button below the article about the quilts and scroll to the bottom to complete the credit card information. Please provide a phone number where you can be reached. The drawing will begin at noon tomorrow, ,July 5. Buy your tickets NOW!

Sister Care brings tools for healing the residue of wars

By Rhoda Keener and Carolyn Heggen

Two Sister Care leadership training seminars were held in eastern Ukraine, May 16-18 in Dnipro, and May 25-27 in Zaporizhzhia, cities located just north of Russian-annexed Crimea and 135 miles west of the current conflict on the border between Ukraine and Russia. Most of the participants were part of the Russian Baptist church or leaders of various social service agencies.  Seminars were led by Carolyn Heggen, psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care International Director for Mennonite Women USA (MW USA). 

Read more.

Ponder: Abortion

Over the past few weeks, several states have passed new laws criminalizing abortion. I don’t have a political agenda in this pondering; I just suggest food for thought. In preface to my proposal to follow, I affirm that when the first heartbeat is recognized, life is present. I believe all life is precious and that Jesus came for all of God’s creation. And, I think that taking any life is not our choice but should be left to God.

That said, I suggest that we start by considering our definitions. If the purpose of banning abortion is to give every person life, then how are we defining life? What is it? Is it simply breathing? Does the term life assume food, clothing, and shelter? How about medical care and basic education? What about love and acceptance? Are these not requirements for life?

There are on average half a million children in foster care in the United States. In 2017, that number rose to nearly 700,000. Children tend to enter foster care around the age of 8 years old. Most foster children live in multiple foster family homes, and 11 percent live in institutions and group homes. One-third of these are children of color. Children who do not find a forever family have a higher likelihood than youth in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration as adults (Children’s Rights Organization).

The average woman does not want or desire an abortion, yet I know many women who have chosen to have one. Each woman came to the decision with heartache and grief, and many question their choices long after the fact. I can only imagine the additional emotional and spiritual turmoil a woman who has suffered rape or incest must go through.

This country has far too many children living in unhealthy foster care families, institutions, and group homes. To really offer life to all people, our response to abortion needs to include them. Let’s live into God’s word:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. — 1 John 3:16-18

If we must ban abortions, then I’d like to see the law call to account every capable adult with at least middle-class income and education in our nation’s care for the right to life. We’d start with those who identify as “right to life” Christians. Families would be picked at random. When a child or siblings enter the system—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or age—a family would be notified, and a child or children would arrive within 72 hours. Under this arrangement, the state would no longer spend so much of its budget to care for children. It is logical that people who believe that every child has a right to life willingly cover the cost of raising children unable to stay in their homes. We stand together and make sure every child in the nation is cared for properly.

As the second step of my proposal—after the half a million children in need of homes have been placed with pro-life Christians—the general population would be added to the registry to receive a foster child with the hope of becoming a forever home. Then, perhaps, we would be well on our way to ending abortion in our nation.

I know that “right to life” and “pro-choice” arguments will keep warring, because that is what we are wired to do: talk and complain about abortion without trying to come to a real compromise. Where is common ground? What are we willing to give up in order to make tangible, beneficial progress in this debate?