Monday, December 16, 2013

Out of the Church Closet

With the Christmas season in full swing, I thought I’d turn to the delicate topic of religion. This post has been challenging to write; I get more personal as I share my journey of navigating my Christian evangelical faith. I may risk sounding irreverent to some and irrelevant to others, but please bear with me as we go…

The 20s is a time of negotiating and solidifying our identities; in many ways, it’s an extended, more serious adolescence. We all have closets we are stepping out of, be it sexual orientation, religious conviction, political persuasion, or personal values.  Undergoing this personal excavation, particularly in front of loved ones, can be taxing and confusing, yet also freeing.

For me, my “closet” is my Christian evangelical faith. For years it's been a comforting and orienting place that has enriched my life with meaning and purpose. But around high school I began to place my world under the microscope as I straddled worlds of liberals, conservatives, theists and atheists.

I come from an inspiring family tradition of Christianity. On one side, my grandparents and great-grandparents were missionaries to Argentina and to Costa Rica. While my great-grandfather traveled all over Latin America evangelizing, my great-grandmother founded a hospital, an orphanage, a radio station, a nursing school, a seminary, and jointly, with her husband, a missionary organization.  She was the paragon of a social entrepreneur, before the term existed. 

Susan Strachan: The tireless social entrepreneur
Harry Strachan: The quiet Scotsman who prayed to be more extroverted to evangelize Latin America

On the other side, my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, his wife an eccentric writer and piano player who made hymns sound like a bar room boogie.  During the summer months the family would vacation in Montreat, NC. Here my grandmother met Ruth Graham, and a constant string of friendly pranks ensued between them, while husband Billy toured the world preaching revival and counseling American presidents.  

From left to right: Betty Frist, Rev. Chet Frist, and Ruth Graham
Always with a sense of humor, Ruth brought them muumuus from her visit to Hawaii.

As a child, I dreamed of being a missionary in a poor country, imitating the life of my great-grandmother. In high school I became captain of my school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I prayed over the loud speaker at a football game (which is no longer allowed), I organized the 7am See You At the Pole prayer rally, and I went on mission trips to Mexico and remote Canada. College was similar, and I was deeply involved in my campus Christian fellowship.

Church youth group 1998. These were wonderfully fun and growing times.
I'm in the bottom right corner, leaning over.

Suffice it to say that my faith was everything important to me: my community, my heritage, my future career and ambitions, my beliefs and my values, my identity. 

But sometimes even what is most stable and certain in your life shakes loose. And when something has roots in you that deep, it hurts unbearably when they get pulled. You wonder if everything in you might just go with it. 

My faith began to gently wobble some time back in high school. When I tried to evangelize, I found I was more parroting other people than speaking from my own experience. In college I persevered, and my doubts were like a persistent cold that would come and go.  I couldn’t quite pin them down with words, but they remained a bone-chilling fog. Senior year I told my roommate that I preferred one tiny brick of truth to a giant house of faith cards that kept falling. I was getting exhausted picking them up and rebuilding again.

The advice Christians give when you’re going through “a spiritual wilderness” is to keep going to church, keep praying, and keep reading the Bible. Just as you can’t give up on your relationship with your husband, even if you are mad at him, you can’t stop spending time with God at church. 

This can be wise advice, but it got to the point where I couldn’t go to church or read the Bible without breaking down into tears of frustration, anger and sadness. The thought of putting myself through that emotional torment each week was too much.  I felt stifled and stagnant; hearing the same messages week after week wasn’t helping, and I had to try something new. It also didn’t help that my spiritual struggles coincided with clinical depression. At one point I confessed to my mom that I just wanted to die. Despite the outward amazingness of my life, inside I felt I was disintegrating.

And so four years after college, I stopped going to church and started staying home and attending the Church of The Holy Comforter with Reverend Sheets. At first it felt strange after 26 years of almost never missing church, and I felt rather guilty. But as with any new routine, after a while it started to feel normal and I looked forward to my Sunday mornings watching documentaries on string theory and reading Huston Smith’s World Religions.  

For the first time in my life, despite always excelling in school, I had a voracious appetite to learn. I no longer had all the answers; I just had questions, lots of questions. I was confused and tormented, but also a bit more free. And while many Christians may disagree, I felt God was far more pleased with a curious, courageous, real me than the fearful me who kept going to church out of duty and to maintain the respect of her friends. 

A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to admit this, especially so publicly. The fear of judgment from my Christian community was too much to face. Christians don’t let their flock do too much wandering. I’d heard how my friends talked about others who had taken an exploratory stroll away from Christianity  – I didn’t want to be talked about like that.

But growth and relationships begin with honesty and authenticity, whether you are talking addiction, politics, sexual orientation, or religion. And so while I’m generally hesitant to talk about my spiritual journey, I’ve decided that if I want to make any progress at all, I have to start with where I am and not with where I wish I were.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they have the tradition of introducing themselves by saying, “Hi, my name is X, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Christians have a similar tradition of first confessing to God that they are sinners. Both aim to overcome shame and promote honesty. Going through a period of self examination can often bring a feeling of shame; you are questioning the very things and the very people that gave you life and love. Some react differently and relish the rebellion, but many of us don't. For people like me, we need courage to confess, “Hi, my name is Lisa, and I’m an agnostic.”

I'm only part way through my journey, so my goal is not to offer a triumphal ending, but to be open about my messy process.  My advice is be where you are, even if that place is “I don’t know.” It doesn’t mean we stay there forever, but it’s only in acknowledging our starting point that we can have hope of finding our ending point. If we aren’t honest and authentic with ourselves and others, one day we’ll wake up realizing we’ve just stuffed all our questions under the rug and that none of our friends really know who we are.

But to foster authenticity we need welcoming communities. I’d like to offer three suggestions, particularly to the evangelical church.

1. Be a safe friend
When I stopped going to church and wasn’t sure what I believed anymore I was nervous to tell one of my best friends because I wasn’t sure how she’d react. I’d already risked telling another friend who told me I should "just try harder.” But this friend LISTENED, she really LISTENED. And at the end she told me what she had LEARNED from me and how helpful it was to hear my perspective. She ASKED me how she could best help, and she DID NOT PANIC.  

We all need safe friends, whether we are debating our political views, trying to figure out whether or not to have an abortion, or figuring out our faith. We need people who we can go to who will not freak out and will keep loving us and being our friend. My advice is to be honest, but speak gently, realizing that you may be poking a hornets' nest. Most importantly be a learner first, then a teacher, even if you think you’re right.

2. Create bridging spaces
Part of the reason I stopped going to church was because there seemed to be no place for me. The evangelical church is like an organized army when it comes to evangelizing nonbelievers and mentoring strong believers. But it doesn’t know what to do with people like me who have doubts and want to explore. At worst, the church sees us as a threat; our thoughts are like an illness that might infect other people. At best, the church is open and understanding, but simply doesn’t have programs or rituals for us and doesn’t see us as an asset to learn from. In church services that are centered on the confession of belief, those who are uncertain are left not participating or feeling inauthentic. 

The reality is that almost everyone goes through a period of questioning and uncertainty, whether it’s related to religion, politics, or other values. These are gems of times; they are the pauses in the music that allow for creativity and new direction; a chance for worldviews to collide and learn from each other; a chance for physics to meet meditation; and an opportunity for truths and values to be refined. Yet despite the inevitability and tremendous value of these spaces, we often fear them, rush through them, and hide them from one another. What if instead we welcomed them and helped each other through them?

3. Develop what talking-head Sally Kohn from Fox News calls “emotional correctness”

Talking about things like faith and politics inevitably gets our blood boiling and our emotions firing. Something about our brain wiring and our social group mentality makes us react this way. Get to know your trigger buttons; monitor and reflect on your emotions. Aim to speak with kindness or “emotional correctness.”
Within the Christian community we need to stop fearing that other denominations are wolves in sheep’s clothing and start realizing that we are all just plain old dumb sheep. A Mighty Fortress is our God, not our church – stop building walls and launching missiles (or missals, if you will). Live out of love, not fear, focus more on learning and being a pilgrim than on defending and being right.
The good news is that I’ve been surprised to realize that I have far more safe friends than unsafe friends.  I now connect more authentically with those who aren't Christians, though I wish we shared a richer faith vocabulary. The process has also humbled me; I used to take a lot of pride in being a strong Christian and now I'm back to preschool. While in some ways my journey has taken me away from faith, in other ways it's brought me deeper into it; I’ve found inspiration in the medieval Christian mystics and through practices like centering prayer and in hearing other spiritual journeys. The more I explore the mystery of quantum physics and consciousness, the more I see religion and science meeting on the other side of the circle.

For now, I’m treating my spiritual journey more as a marathon with a lot of twists and turns rather than a sprint. I’m learning to live more settled in my unsettledness and to focus on finding and being with God rather than defending and defining him.

I’d like to leave you with a prayer that I particularly love and find encouraging, written by St. Ambrose, a 4th century Christian saint.
Lord, teach me to seek Thee and reveal Thyself to me when I seek Thee,
For I cannot seek Thee unless Thou dost teach me,
Nor find Thee unless Thou dost reveal Thyself to me.
Let me seek Thee in longing.
And long for Thee in seeking.
Let me find Thee in love,
And love Thee in finding.
May you find courage and hope in your own search!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

13 things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving

The truth is most of us are crazy blessed. I know you've already heard some of the statistics I'm about to present, but just take this as a friendly reminder to be really, really grateful this Thanksgiving. Maybe in re-counting our blessings we'll also find ourselves a little happier and a little more content.

Hurdle 1: Conception

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when all of us were fertilized eggs. We could start even earlier and try to calculate the chances of your parents being alive, meeting, and doing a little hankie pankie at just the right time for your particular egg and sperm to collide to make wonderful you. But I’m not going to go there because I would probably need a trillion smiley faces and I just don’t have the time.

So here you are hanging out with 399 other smiling fertilized eggs, which let’s say represent all of the fertilized eggs in the world when you came into being.

Congratulations, you beat the infinitesimally small odds and you were conceived!

Total count: 400

Hurdle 2: Birth

Uh oh, unfortunately you’re already facing tough luck and you aren’t even born yet.

    • 30 – 50% of fertilized eggs are lost before or during implantation
    • 20% of pregnancies are voluntarily aborted
    • 10  - 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage

We'll round and assume that three quarters of all conceptions don’t make it (yep, we could have 28 billion people in the world right now if today’s generation had all made it). But lucky for you, if you're reading this, chances are you made it. Either that or you are a fertilized egg ghost lurking about. 
Congratulations, you were born!

Total count: 100

Hurdle 3: Birth defects

You’ve just been born, so you're probably feeling pretty good about yourself. The process of being born was traumatic and you miss your snug womb with an automatic food dispenser and no diapers, but here you are ready to take on the world!

Or are you?

Unfortunately 3% of all babies are born with a birth defect. Not all are fatal or disabling (I think my crooked pinkies are actually more evolved ear wax cleaners) but they may slow you down.

If you are still a pink smiley face, congratulations, you survived birth without any birth defects!

Total count: 97

Hurdle 4: Surviving past age 5

Now onto other serious matters. We may moan and say our childhoods were less than perfect. But if you made it past the age of five, your childhood was pretty darn good.

Around the world, 5% of children die before the age of five, often from very preventable and curable illnesses like malaria and diarrhea. Be glad that when you had the runs, all your parents had to do was run to the pharmacy for some fast acting Imodium.

We’ll conservatively assume that 2/3s of the kids with birth defects also didn’t make it past the age of five. So that means 5 minus 2 more smiley faces have to go.

Total count: 94

Hurdle 5: Head and shoulders, knees and toes

There are so many parts of our miraculous bodies that we forget to be grateful for everyday. Think about your opposable thumb which let’s you hold things, open things, shake hands and hit the space bar. 

Or what about the fact that you know what rain drops sound like, you can hear Mahalia Jackson sing Amazing Grace and wake up to the sound of your annoying alarm in time for work. There are so many things in life to be grateful for and these are some of the big ones.

    • 8% are visually impaired or have disabling hearing loss
    • 2% of people have some form of paralysis
    • 0.7% people have amputations (U.S. figure)

We’ll remove 10 more smiley faces (due to the bit of statistical overlap)

Total count: 84

Hurdle 6: Avoiding the deadliest diseases

While we are on the subject of health, there are a bagillion diseases out there that we could get. It’s actually more of an anomaly to be healthy than to be sick. Every day we are healthy we should be screaming “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle! I’m healthy!!”

I can’t get the statistics on every health problem out there, but I can get some of the major ones that are most prevalent and can be most deadly.

   • 31% have chronic pain (U.S. figure)
   • 11% have coronary heart disease, stroke, or cancer (U.S. figure)
   • 5% have diabetes 
   • 0.6% have HIV or TB (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa)

Chances are decent that you may experience one of these at some point in your life. But if you aren't now or you are but you have great medical care, count your blessings!

And look at that, we've now passed the 50% mark and we haven't even gotten to things like salary, education, athleticism, beauty, number of friends, losing loved ones, being in a war zone, or being wrongly convicted for murder.

Total count: 49

Hurdle 7: Mental health

There is another type of health that often gets over looked and that’s mental health. Yet in some ways mental health can impact your life even more than having arms or legs.

About 6% of people suffer from a “Serious Mental Illness” such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Feeling a little bit happier about your life yet?

Total count: 46

Hurdle 8: Can you read this sentence?

You wouldn’t think that just being able to read would be such a hurdle, but it still is in many places. If you can’t read, it’s hard to get a job, use a phone, follow directions, and read those self-help books people keep giving you to improve your life.

17% of adults are illiterate around the world. Fortunately, this number has been coming down, but for now, let’s remove 8 more smiley faces.

Total count: 38

Hurdle 9: Let there be light and hair dryers

Like literacy, electricity is the door opener to our modern world. Without electricity you can’t use computers and get online. You need it for hospitals and for businesses. Kids need it to study late at night.

It also ensures you don't go out in public with frizzy hair, which might just be the end of the world.

20% of the world doesn’t have electricity. Did you use anything electric today? You’re a pink smiley.

We'll assume anyone who is illiterate also doesn't have electricity so we'll only take one more away.

Total count: 37

Hurdle 10: Flushing your problems away

It’s time to turn our attention to an amenity, perhaps the most important of all, even more important than hair dryers. Yep, I’m talking about the W.C., the commode, the John, the skip to the loo, the toilet. I live in a house of seven girls so sometimes it’s an issue that we only have TWO.

But around the world 36% of people don't have access to any basic sanitation (as in, not even a clean latrine).

After plenty of times in Mozambique squatting over a make-shift latrine that the neighbors could peer into and see my skinny white behind, I am grateful for Ye ol’ porcelain potty. 

But it’s not just the ability to close the door or press a handle and see all my waste vanish into some place I never think about – it’s also the fact that I’m less likely to get cholera and end up with convulsions.

So make it a habit, "every time you make a flush, give some thanks for a life so plush."

We'll assume anyone without electricity also doesn't have basic sanitation. That's minus 8.

Total count: 29

Hurdle 11: A Starbuck's a day keeps poverty at bay

How much money do you have to have to be considered “lucky.” A million dollars? Have a six figure salary with benefits?  Be able to afford a mortgage and a car?

How about $2.50?  What if you had $2.50 to spend every day on everything you could possibly need or want. So you could either have one Starbucks coffee or buy some seeds and start learning to farm really fast.

If you live off of more than $2.50 a day you are luckier than 48% of the world. That’s not quite winning the lottery, but on this planet, it’s doing pretty well for yourself.

We’ll assume that anyone who is illiterate and without electricity or sanitation also lives off of less than $2.50 a day.  Let’s remove 5 more smiley faces.

Total count: 24

Hurdle 12: A college diploma

So now that we've realized we're filthy rich even though we always enjoyed thinking of ourselves as a comfortable middle class Goldilocks - not too poor, not too rich - it's time to turn to education.

Education is another great sifter between the haves and have nots. High school seniors are in a panic right now about which college they are going to get into. Many are clawing to get into the Ivy leagues afraid their careers will fall apart if they don’t make it.

But the truth is if you graduate from any college at all you’re already in the elite of the world. Only 7% of the world has a college education. That's an even lower admission rate than Princeton.

We'll assume those with college degrees are literate (we sure hope so), have electricity and sanitation.

Total count: 3

Hurdle 13: Helping others

I'm ending our journey with an unconventional measure of luck. This one isn't so much luck as it is choice. Happiness comes primarily from human connection, especially helping other people. 

So how do you do with this measure of fortune - have you been fortunate enough to give someone a helping hand this year?

According to The Corporation for National and Community Service, 20% of Americans volunteered through an organization in 2011. This of course doesn't count people who went next door to help a neighbor or did an act of kindness that went unnoticed. 

If you made it this far and are still a pink smiley face, you are in the 1% of the world. Chances are you are actually in the 1% of the 1%, but we didn't go that far. 

By any standard, that's pretty lucky, maybe even lottery-winning lucky. 

Total count: < 1

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We all have troubles that we face, many which I haven't listed here, and many of you may not have crossed all 13 hurdles (you may not have a college diploma, for example), but you still lead a happy, fulfilling life. The point is not to diminish other sorrows or to hold up these blessings as the end all be all. Rather, it's just to make us pause and consider that we are each probably luckier than we thought.

So as you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, remember the things that make you so lucky. And let's do our best to make everyone a little luckier and a little more content this holiday season with both Thanks and Giving.

Here is a list of charity organizations to consider giving to this holiday season that I would recommend. In the comments section, feel free to add other organizations that you would like to promote as well.

Please share this post with other lucky people out there, Happy Holidays and THANK YOU for reading!! 

Disaster Relief
American Red Cross - Typhoon relief in the Philippines

Samaritan's Purse - Typhoon relief in the Philippines
Christian organization that specializes in disaster relief. I worked with them in Mozambique doing flood relief.

Tumaini Tanzania
Founded and run by a good friend of mine. They sponsor Tanzanian students to go to high school and college. I've personally met many of the students they sponsor. Your money will be well spent.

Deworm The World
This nonprofit was started out of research from the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, where I did a work-study for a year. Their research showed that deworming is by far the most cost-effective solution for giving kids in developing nations a better chance at a good education - even more effective than more teachers or books. And it's super cheap. It costs less than 50 cents per child and improves school attendance by 25%.

Community outreach and safety nets
Fair Girls
A DC-based nonprofit that works with girls who have been sex-trafficked in DC. Believe it or not, this happens right here where we live. My housemate is a social worker with these girls. She's been working 70 hour weeks and they really need more money to hire another social worker. Consider this cause as well.