Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Naaman.

www.codyfmiller.com 

The Hebrew grammar is unclear. Is Naaman’s weakness his leprosy or his self-importance? He is introduced by both of these things and perhaps they are tangled up together. Naaman is a Syrian general, confident about his military status while haunted by his deepest insecurity. His flesh invites curiosity, disgust, and distance. 

A young girl had been taken captive from the land of Israel and served Naaman’s wife. She was either shrewd or merciful when she spoke out of turn and offered up a long shot solution. There was a prophet in Israel known to cure this disease. If he went to see Elisha, he might be healed.

But healing does not always happen on our terms or leave the rest of our body unchanged. Healing often requires trauma, humility and recovery from the rest of our being. Naaman went to Israel hoping for a miracle that would cure his flesh, drawing him further into relationships and society than before.

Naaman’s king sent a caravan of pomp and circumstance to the King of Israel with a letter asking for healing and life. But kings and politicians and courts could not provide. Instead, they were rerouted to the outskirts of town where Elisha lived. When their horses and chariots pulled up, they expected Elisha to come outside, ready and impressed. But Elisha did not emerge. Instead, he sent a simple word:

Go, wash in the Jordan River seven times.
Your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.

This was not what Naaman hand in mind. The river was more like a stink ditch. A bath would be so humiliating, his tormented flesh laid bare for all to see. Submersion in the silent spotlight of expectation – again and again and again and again and again and again and again. It would be too physically simple. Too emotionally embarrassing. 

His pride and fear twisted up in the pit of his stomach. Naaman turned to go, angry and muttering all of the reasonsthis was beneath him. Until his servants stopped him.

If it required muscle and conquest, you would have done it.
This is another kind of sacrifice.
This is strength born when you shed your layers and show up as yourself.

Show up as yourself. Bare the one you wish away, you label with weakness, you try to control with apathy, violence, or distraction. Reveal your secrets and shame. See what happens.

So he let go and stepped out from behind his chariot. Thanks to a foreign slave girl and a band of patient servants and a quirky prophet, the Syrian general dared to take off the layers of soldier, commander, and man. And once undressed, he waded into the murky mess of his truest self: a beloved child of God. The mud squished between his toes and the water smelled foul in his beard.

It took seven times to lose himself in the hope of wholeness and healing. When he stumbled out of the tide, he seemed lighter and less self-conscious. And his flesh was clear like that of a young boy just learning how to live. Surrounded by witnesses and still dripping, Naaman stood before Elisha with a whole hearted confession…and a present.

But Elisha reminded him that this grace cannot be bought or bribed or rewarded. It is free. It is relational. It is enough for God to see him returned to his truest self. Naaman’s presents were refused until he finally agreed to return home. His infections and transactions had been washed away in the filthy beauty of a God who gets up close, who speaks truth to power, who peels back our layers to reveal our truest selves.

- An Interpretation of 2 Kings 5

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cain.

Now when Adam and Eve knew each other, she conceived and bore a son they named Cain, which means the sum of what they made and had (to produce). Cain was a farmer who cared for the land and his brother Abel watched over the flocks of animals. When the young men made sacrifices to God, Abel's was regarded but Cain's was not received with the same appreciation. 

When you are named for what you produce, your output can become confused with your identity. God's silence was deafening and unbearable for Cain. The scriptures say his countenance fell. Composure and mental stability were lost without praise for his harvest.

It was enough to unravel his sense of self, his loyalty to kin, his faith in God, and his stewardship of creation. While Cain knew how to produce and strive, he did not know how to feel or fail. And so, he began to live and act out of his mind. He lured his brother to the fields and murdered him in a jealous rage. As Abel's blood soaked into the earth, Cain lied to God and argued the punishment for his sin. Without confession or empathy, he became paranoid that death would now come for him too. 

Existing without real relationships meant he could imagine escalating violence and nothing else. And so he wandered away from family and farm and faith, marked by the curse of his own insecurity and isolation for generations.

- An Interpretation of Genesis 4

Cain still wanders the earth. He is the sum of what he produces: the talents he hoards, the secrets he enforces, the acclamation he demands, the accountability he rejects. We need to talk about

mental illness
and mass shootings
and sexual violence
and racism
and poverty
and religious intolerance
and bullying
and collusion
and money laundering
and nuclear proliferation
and fake news
and threats to the constitution

but they all have one thing in common: men. More specifically, toxic masculinity. Most of today's headlines echo of Cain's anger, fear, grief, dishonesty, and loneliness, which play out in manipulative, selfish, and violent ways. We're not talking about that, but we must.

Do not let Cain's narrative win by entertaining conversation about a Muslim problem or a tax problem or an immigration problem or an it's-too-soon-to-talk-about-guns problem or a religious freedom problem or an abortion problem.

We have a toxic masculinity problem. Cain is still wandering our churches and communities and schools and airwaves and elected offices. Cain is fooling our men and boys into thinking they are the sum of what they can produce and have and hoard and hit and grab and hide and profit. And when all these things fail, they are left alone in their unapproved feelings and their distorted identity where paranoia, shame, and revenge flourish.

We have a toxic masculinity problem. White straight cis men in particular, get your people. It is time to wake up and catch up and show up for the men and boys in your life. Because it's like an episode of the Walking Dead trying to navigate this mindless epidemic without your help.

Tell them who they actually are: farmers of creation and children of Eve.
Model unconditional love for animals, neighbors, and strangers.
Express your feelings in front of them and talk about why that's okay.
Build connections in nature and help them find simple ways to be useful.
Hug and kiss them. Wrestle and play with them. 
Assure them that no apparel, interest, role, or activity is "just for girls".
Teach them to apologize without blaming the victim.
Show them how to pray and offer thanks to God with humble candor.
Remind them to hold space and listen well to others.
Be a man in caring relationships who tells the truth, especially when it isn't easy.

Ooze empathy for those and that which you do not understand. Speak of the problem we actually have. Because feeling and confessing is balm for these feral fields that lie covered in the blood of our brother.


If the term "toxic masculinity" is brand new to you, start by watching this documentary by The Representation Project.  It's free on Netflix right now.


Monday, October 2, 2017

red lantern.

We woke up to more tragedy today. Bullets rained down on concert goers in Las Vegas last night. It's a new layer of raw disbelief and painful grief for this country. We are on fire and flooded. Some lack clean drinking water and others are strung out on opioids. Kneeling is seen as an assault on patriotism while white supremacy by torchlight is called complicated. We are simultaneously isolated and at each other's throats. Lord, have mercy.

I am a person who feels things. I feel the weight of PTSD renewed in a political climate that validates rape culture. I feel the responsibility that comes with privilege as a middle class, straight, white person. I feel the stress of parenthood in a social moment that aches for a new generation equipped with courage, empathy, and kindness. I feel the power and urgency of the gospel so that I often sound idealistic because I am - I believe in the Kingdom of God in our midst. It's annoying and exhausting and awesome.

This week I have received the same compliment from several people: They express gratitude and wonder for my effervescent personality and optimistic energy. I usually joke that I am caffeinated. And I mean it when I say I get life from joy and challenge at home and at work. But if we linger a bit longer, I might tell them a little story like this one:

I do not come by this joy all on my own. I am an Enneagram Eight, which means I tend to challenge systems for the sake of independence and justice, which requires stubbornness and endurance. My greatest fear is being harmed by or at the mercy of another and I do what I can to stay in control. I'm in good company with Mae West, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr., and pretty much every dictator in modern history. I have a Seven-Wing, which means I like to be in charge, but I'll try to make it fun for everyone involved.

I had some mom guilt after working so much this weekend, so I got home early to make dinner and do laundry before picking all the kids up today. I made sure to wash superhero shirts and Solveig's favorite pants. I walked the news media line, trying to stay informed about the Las Vegas shooting without becoming consumed. I prayed at the bus stop and handed Jasper's driver a handwritten note, thanking him for taking such good care of our kids after school each day. Salaam.

The kids ran off together to color when they got home, but as the storm clouds rolled in, so did the whining and shoving. Yesterday's headache returned while I grilled shrimp on the stovetop. They forgot that they all like shrimp and gave me a hard time. I added more asparagus just to spite them. By the time we sat down to dinner it was pouring outside. But their attitudes were louder than the rain and I had to bow out. I gave Matt a sympathetic look and whispered, "Just ten minutes," as I stood up and put my rain jacket on. I admit, I relished their confusion as I slipped outside into different sounds.

Sometimes Zoloft and a good attitude isn't enough. I am grateful for medication that makes the boundary between me and the world's offenses a little less porous. It's the difference between me crying at the dinner table and taking ten minutes outside, hopping over puddles, breathing deeply, and stopping to notice that a few maple leaves have turned a brilliant red.

When I left, Jasper was red with anger about so many things: having been scolded for decking his sister, writing a few numbers backwards on his drawing, and the amount of asparagus on his plate to name a few. He self-describes this feeling as "red lantern": tear-soaked cheeks and a face raw with anger, frustration, and embarrassment. I found a leaf that looked like "red lantern" and I carried it for awhile.

My thighs were getting wet, but I stopped at a lending library. I am trying to get back in the habit of reading novels and just finished one last week. But instead my fingers found a copy of Jasper's favorite book as a toddler, "I Love You Through and Through". The binding was wobbly in a familiar way, so I opened it up and, sure enough, there was still a dried booger on the first page. It was our copy. It found me and my leaf. I tucked it into my jacket and headed home.

When I got inside, Jasper mumbled a slightly more than half-hearted, "Sorry". I surprised him with the leaf and explained why I brought it home for him. His face warmed with gratitude and then he asked about the book. The once whiny table was now hushed while I held the pages up for all to see. "I love your happy side and your sad side. I love your silly side and your mad side." Jasper moved to find my lap.

"Mom, can we keep this book forever and ever?" Of course. No one wants our booger book. But it seems to want us. We'll keep it forever and ever.

I share this story because it's Mental Health Awareness Week. Maybe you don't have PTSD or feel better on a drug like Zoloft, but you do need to take good care of your mental health. You deserve to feel safe and loved and free to take that walk around the block in the rain. And, when you do, you're more likely to recognize someone else for their red lantern moment. Your earned and honest effervescence will embolden you to tell yourself and them what we all need to hear these days: "I love you through and through...yesterday, today, and tomorrow, too."

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

careful | care full

When men gather under the guise of clarifying scripture
     to confine the creative mercy of God
Careful.

When those inside the box make demands
     of those beyond plain categories
Careful.

When disciples draw lines in the sand
     assuming Jesus stands beside them in division
Careful.

When people of faith claim that scripture requires
     identity denied and justice misallocated
Careful.

When religious leaders corner a market on what is biblical
     contorting the beautiful mysteries of God's image
Careful.

When some in power demand that others without
     normalize as though dignity is a scarce or sly
Careful.



When God formed the first humans from dust and bone,
     images of God called very good, but not everything or perfection
Care Full.

When God worked for good through all kinds of
     broken and blessed relationships throughout scripture
Care Full.

When God moves through the timeless snares of sexual violence and economy
    to declare delight, value, and belonging to those on the margins
Care Full.

When God in Christ lives and dies
     choosing relationship instead of being right
Care Full.

When we trust the Holy Spirit to change hearts
     without shame, manipulation, or discrimination
Care Full.

When scripture awakens us to work for justice and mercy for the world
     instead of piety and righteousness for ourselves
Care Full.

When God's people reject a statement that limits the power of Jesus
     for the sake of love that's been known to conquer fear
Care Full.

One reaction to the futile and painful Nashville Statement
For a rainbow of responses, including: The Denver Statement, Father James Martin SJ, John Pavlovitz, and Christians United

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

the children.

Last August I found myself in a conversation about race and skin color with my five year old. We were reading the children's book "The Skin You Live In", marveling at the many ways to be beautiful.  He asked why there are so many different colors of people. Probably because we have a very creative God who knows how to make beauty lots of different ways. We are all holy and worthy of the same love because we all look like God. 

I was so tempted to stop here, only describing the palate of color and not the weaponized brushes we've used to paint evil and division, the many ways we've always been at war with God's own image. But it was high time. If I protect my son from the truth about racism because I think he's too young, that's my privilege copping out. Every black and brown baby heading to Kindergarten would already know something about racism because their families don't have the luxury of putting it off.

Do you think God has a favorite color of skin? I asked him. He looked confused and answered quickly, No, God loves us all the same. We're all God's favorite. 

I hesitated and then I pushed, just like the devil likes to push. I know, I know. We're all equal and stuff. But there's probably a winner, right? One color that is more special and powerful than the others? I mean, someone has to come in first place. He looked down at his pale hands and thought about it for some time.

I don't know. He waited for me to answer my own question so he wouldn't need to say it out loud, but I didn't. We sat in silence until he finally whispered in a soft, disappointed voice, Probably the light skinned people? 

Maybe I'm a terrible mother for playing this mind game with my own child, but I wasn't the first. The world had already whispered these lies to my sweet, honest, fooled five year old. And now I had an opening to tell him the truth.

It is only one way to begin the conversation. I'll admit up front that it is flawed and far from comprehensive, but this moment planted deep trust in our relationship that keeps welcoming his observations and questions about racism a year later.  If you know you need to tell the children, but you don't know where to start, I offer the first leg of our journey as a place to begin.


When God created humankind long ago, they were formed from the earth in Africa. Their skin was dark and they didn't wear any clothes to hide their beautiful bodies. God looked at them and declared them "very good". God took good care of them on the days they listened and followed directions, but also on the days they hid and broke the rules. 
You've heard Mom and Dad say, There's nothing you can do to make me love you any more or any less than I already do. We learned to love you like this from God's love. 

Time went on and more and more people covered the earth. They spread out all over the world finding deserts, forests, mountains, oceans and fields. As they got further apart, they started speaking different languages, eating different foods, and their bodies were born in lots of different shades, all beautiful and unique. Every single one looked like God.
And then, once everyone was spread out over the whole earth, light skinned people decided to lie about God's love. They wanted there to be a winner. They were okay with everyone being special as long as they were special special. And so they set out to conquer and control. They tried to make themselves the most important and more powerful by treating dark skinned people like unimportant and weak people - or by treating them like they weren't people at all. 

Explorers from Europe were sent to learn about the world discover new lands. They built big boats and brought weapons. They sailed all of the oceans, assuming that whatever they found would be theirs. Most of the places they found already had beautiful people living there, but the explorers focused on their differences and told them that their skin, language, food, and culture was wrong.
The white people brought germs that made the people who already lived there sick. They used their weapons to make people move off the land and killed the people who tried to stay. They threatened Native Americans into signing agreements they couldn't read and didn't understand. The United States made more than 400 promises in writing to Native Americans and broke every single one of them. 
We invented a holiday called Thanksgiving to pretend that everyone got along, but most of the white explorers from Europe took advantage of the Native Americans. They compared them to wild animals instead of seeing them as people God loves. The Native Americans were brave in defending their culture. They fought for freedom, family, and the right to be themselves - the same things that are important to us today. Why didn't we let those things be important to them, too? 
38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato, MN in 1862.
As Minnesotans, it's important for us to learn about the U.S. - Dakota War in the 1860s. Minnesota had just become a state and, after breaking several promises to the Dakota people, Minnesota's settlers wanted to take even more land and freedom away from Native Americans. Most Dakota people were captured and kept in a concentration camp prison at Fort Snelling. Families were split up and many died because they were sleeping in tents outside in the winter without enough food or supplies. 
This is especially heartbreaking because Fort Snelling is built on land where the Minnesota River and Mississippi River meet, sacred territory for the Dakota people that is part of their creation story. While the history books you'll study in school rarely mention Native Americans after 1900, they are not history. They are not over and gone. They are people and miracles and they are still here, an important part of our present day. Do you think we, as white Americans, can learn their stories and listen to their ideas for a future that respects their lives and land? 
 Explorers were also arriving in Africa, where they met people with rich culture very different from their own. There the white people tricked and bribed black people into fighting and selling each other. They kidnapped black people and took them all the way across the ocean to sell as slaves.  
African men and women were packed into slave ships. They had to lie down right next to each other and couldn't stand up to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. When they got to America, they were sold like animals and farming equipment to people who had a lot of work to do.
Slaves were like prisoners who couldn't go to school or leave the land they worked. Sometimes they had to wear chains or were abused by the white people who owned them and they didn't get paid for their hard work. They had to ask permission to get married and sometimes got married in secret so they didn't get in trouble for loving their family.
The white people told black and brown people that their religions were dumb and wrong and made them worship Jesus. But all of their pictures of Jesus looked like the white people who were helping the lie about God's love. White people wanted to imagine that Jesus looked like them, but Jesus was actually brown-skinned man.
This lie grew all over the world for a really, really long time. Families were broken apart. People weren't allowed to be their beautiful selves. White people got used to hurting black and brown people. They did it for so long that they learned to forget and ignore the truth about God's love, and would teach their kids the lie too. Other white people didn't teach their kids anything at all, but kids are smart and figured out that white people were the ones in charge who got to make laws, vote for leaders, and make the most money, so it was easy to believe that they were better than everyone else.
The United States fought other countries and native people for more land, convinced that we were doing the world a favor by making other people forget their own cultures and act like white Christian Americans instead. 

 When the Civil War ended in 1865 slavery was suddenly against the law, but that didn't change the way white people felt about black people. They still wanted to be more important and, since they had more money, power, and education, they were convinced that black and white people should stay separate from each other. 

Black veterans did not receive the same benefits as white veterans. Most colleges didn't accept black students. Many neighborhoods wouldn't let black people live there. Cities tore down black neighborhoods, businesses, and houses to build highways. And so we pretended that black people were free and everything was fair for a long time. It was kind of a new lie, kind of the same old lie.
During World War 2, America became suspicious of Asian Americans because we were fighting against Japan. Many people were sent to prisons because they looked Japanese or because they had family members living in Asia. These people lost their businesses, homes, and families while they were locked up simply because white people were afraid and judging people because of their skin color.
We have been part of this lie for a long, long time. No wonder you thought there might be a winner! We have created a system in our country and the world that works hard to keep white people feeling more important and more powerful than everyone else. This lie has helped people who look like you and me for a very long time and it has hurt people with other skin colors for just as long.
We are living in one of many moments when the truth is starting to sneak out. It's getting louder than the lie. And this makes some people who need the lie feel scared and mad. You'll hear them saying, That's not fair! But I think they mean, I don't like how it feels to not get things my way all the time. Sounds like you fighting with your sisters about who's first or how much or what wins, right? We're good at noticing when something is unfair or unlikable, but rarely notice when things are going our way and making it easier for us.
So it's our job to remind each other about the truth of God's love. It's our job to learn our whole history, not just from the groups in charge, but also from the groups who get hurt or silenced. We need to practice saying sorry, even if it happened before we were born. We need to listen to people who feel sad, tired, or angry about the lie and then try to imagine how they feel. 
And when you meet someone who looks different than you do, begin by finding things you have in common. Then look for things that make them interesting, unique, and beautiful. Different doesn't have to be scary and your way isn't the best way. Try making space for a lot of right ways and you might learn something wonderful.

Your light skin gives you a lot of power in this life, little one. But it's not because God loves you more or because you deserve it more than your neighbor. It's because so much of our history is an evil twisting of God's love and it takes brave people and a long time to untwist it. You can either use your power to help the lie or to tell the truth about God's love. Telling the truth is really hard work. Lots of grown ups like me are just getting started, so we'll practice together.

Like I said, flawed and far from comprehensive. But it's where we started and now we can't be stopped.