Friday, May 6, 2016

A Watchman Meditation

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”  - so says Uncle Jack to his niece Scout in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In Lee’s novel, Uncle Jack’s words to Scout echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 62, verse 6: - "O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD." But in church this morning, our reading of Psalm 127 pointed out that, “unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.” And as I sat in my pew, mulling over these words and connecting these recurrences of “watchman” to each other - because I’m never not an English teacher - a truth came into focus.
Several months ago, Andrew and a couple friends from church arranged a concert of their music. They played shortly after the Charleston church shooting, during a time when I was still personally deeply wounded, reeling from the horror of such a violent, racially motivated hate crime. During that concert, I noticed for the first time that black church and white church* are different: not just in worship style or length of service, but in the very theological concept of who God is and the reason we meet from week to week. Where white church seems primarily concerned with worship of God for who God is, black church - by contrast - is also concerned with reaching out to God for help not just with daily life but with the deep, ugly struggles we’d sometimes prefer to ignore. In my upbringing in the black church, I always saw a place for catharsis alongside worship. In white church, I’ve missed that.
The priest said today that, “In God’s world, there are no unseen people.” His insight connected very strongly with the Gospel reading from Mark, when the poor widow who gives two small coins is recognized by Christ for giving everything she had from her poverty. When I reflect on my upbringing in black church, I see the collective conscious Uncle Jack told Scout was a myth. And I see, too the call to individual conscience and watchmanship, the invocation of the Lord’s eyes to watch over our collective city, to see our invisible struggle.
And here is why I think white church doesn’t speak to the whole of my spiritual experience: I don’t see there a place for corporate lament, an acknowledgement of our society’s unseen, a call to stand in solidarity with those whose voices the church has historically refused to hear: the LGBTQ individual, the ethnic and socioeconomic minority, the outspoken and assertive woman. These groups are invisible to white church not because they can’t be seen but because there’s no desire to hear them in a way that acknowledges that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as they are. And who can worship freely where one feels oneself is unseen, unacknowledged, unheard?
In one way, I agree with Uncle Jack’s assertion to Scout that every man’s conscience is his watchman. He’s right: we must each be accountable for our own actions, bear responsibility for our own decisions, pay attention to our surroundings enough to see and act accordingly in our day to day lives. But in another way, I think Uncle Jack missed the mark here. Unless the Lord watches over us, our labor as watchmen is in vain. We must look to God to guide our conscience - collective or individual - so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible.

* When I use the term “white church” here, I’m referring specifically to the evangelical, fundamentalist, [mostly] non-denominational American church in the south, as I’ve experienced it, with its population being almost entirely white. When I use the term “black church” here, I am referring specifically to my upbringing in predominantly black Baptist churches.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

When Testing Season is Upon Us

Okay, parents. Here's the thing I hope someone's told you before now: No test can prove how smart your kid is. No, not one. Not even an IQ test can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that your child is the most intelligent, entrepreneurial oriented, destined-for-indefinite-financial-security, beautiful and unique snowflake of a child.

Tests only measure what they can assess. They're only as accurate an assessment as the conditions under which they were taken, the mood of each individual student, the thoroughness of the committee who put the test together, the clarity of the language, the diversity of the demographics effectively targeted by the test writers, the anxiety level of each individual student on the testing day. That's a very long way to say that tests are only tests: they're not infallible measurements of who our kids are or will be.

It's totally natural for students and parents alike to have testing worries this time of year. These tests will sometimes determine if our kids get into "good" schools, if they get scholarships, if they are promoted to the next grade or retained, etc. Similarly, it's natural for teachers to feel pressure: to prove the effectiveness of their lesson plans, to earn more money (should they happen to find themselves in an incentive pay situation), to generally validate the goodness of the work they do.

But a test can't do any of this. All a test can do is indicate some general areas of strength and weakness. It can't answer all our questions about our babies: are they normal? are they slow? are they exceptionally bright like we suspect they must be? are they caught up yet from that one year with that one teacher who taught them who knows what?

No test can answer all these questions definitively, and truly, neither can any teacher. Tests should be used as one tool to assess our kids, not as the only way to know if they're smart. The best any test can do is to act as a ruler, in the same way a ruler would measure your child's height at the doctor's office. If that ruler indicated your child was a bit small or large for his age, it may indicate that a change in diet or sleep was needed, or it may indicate over time that your child is more than likely to remain at or around a certain height based on his or her genes. No way would a one-time measurement of your child's height raise so many red flags for the pediatrician that your child would be labeled with a genetic abnormality, diagnosed with a disease, or forced to remain in a class with other kids his size while other kids his age moved on because they were taller.

In other words, no test can measure your kid's worth. You know your kid's worth. Your kid is worth more than all the tests in all the world. Amen.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to be a Person when Atticus Finch is not who you thought he was



Some background: Months ago, when rumors surfaced regarding the existence of a *second* Harper Lee novel, I geeked out. All the way. Out. And I'm not even a super To Kill a Mockingbird fangirl with a kid named Atticus and another named Finch. In fact, I've only read the novel once - never had to read it in high school, bought a cheap copy in college, and decided to read it a couple of summers ago.

Loved it.

So I was super happy at the idea of another Harper Lee novel.

Like most red-blooded Americans.

And then like many other people, I began to feel conflicted about whether I should read this novel, since it was also rumored that Harper Lee never wanted it published,* and that people currently taking care of her and making decisions on her behalf are taking advantage of her old age and diminished ability to keep track of what they're doing.

Shady.

But I worked through those feelings of guilt at the realization that so many writers' work has been published posthumously, and many of them - Dickinson comes to mind - would be mortified to know their works were in anything like a canon of American literature. So I pre-ordered my copy of Go Set a Watchman and spent a weekend in bed reading it. What follows is my review of this novel.

It contains spoilers. A lot of them.

Summary Watchman concerns itself with a handful of characters, most of whom featured prominently in To Kill A Mockingbird as well: We still encounter Scout, Atticus, and Calpurnia; Hank and Aunt Alexandra feature more prominently; we meet Uncle Jack. These few characters and the ways they interact comprise the meat of the story.

The novel opens as 26 year-old Scout Finch makes her annual train ride home to Maycomb for her annual two-week visit with Atticus and the town that raised her. Scout's father Atticus is now 72 and arthritic, and his sister Alexandra has moved in with him to take care of him. The plot begins to come into focus: Scout and childhood friend Hank are involved in a semi-serious courtship. Aunt Alexandra mightily disapproves of Scout's general demeanor (she still isn't feminine or genteel enough, neither does she silence her voice when she hears people around her speaking about black people in ways she thinks are wrong). And gradually Watchman unwinds the "truth" after Scout discovers Hank, her father, and Uncle Jack in a meeting wherein the black people of Maycomb and the NAACP are referred to...unfavorably.

Scout's visit includes lots of mental trips down memory lane, as she recalls the case her father famously undertook - and won! - to clear a black man who'd been wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. [This case is undoubtedly the same as the case at the center of To Kill A Mockingbird, and I find it interesting that in this version of that case Atticus won.] Scout also recalls childhood summers spent with her brother Jem - whom we learned dropped dead suddenly outside his father's law office, of the same heart condition that killed his mother while she rocked in a chair on the front porch. And through Scout's remembrances we get to see childhood friend Dill, the adult version of whom presently resides abroad. A key memory of Scout's is one wherein she recalls how Calpurnia, Atticus's hired help who took care of his house and children and who- in Scout's mind - was a part of their family, would change the way she spoke when company came around for dinner. Scout remembers knowing as a child that Calpurnia spoke "Jefferson Davis's English" perfectly well, but she would drop her verbs and put on her company manners when unfamiliar dinner guests were around.

The reason for this memory's importance comes into play when one of Calpurnia's relatives gets into trouble, and when the family calls on Atticus to help, Hank - his law partner - answers that Atticus won't help (which is false). And before Atticus can set the record straight that he will in fact help Calpurnia's family member, an invisible but very real wall rises up between Calpurnia and the family she's worked for all these years. Scout goes to Cal's house to speak to her, notices how conversation quiets when she arrives, men leave their conversations and stand and take off their hats. And she hates it. But then it gets worse: when she gets to Cal's room to talk to her, apologize to her, she finds that Cal has put on her company manners. And she refuses to take them off.

And here is where Scout seems to lose it. She heads over to her eccentric uncle for some kind of Explanation, receives one she does not entirely understand, then in her rage breaks up with Hank whom she sees as a racist and a coward (he has a slight sympathetic appeal but really?), and then she tells. Atticus. Off.

The novel ends with an awkward reconciliation between Scout and Atticus - after her Uncle has slapped her out of her hysteria. And then life- we assume - goes on.

Review: If this had been an assignment for my students, I'd have expected them to spend some time analyzing the novel before moving on to telling me their opinion. But "Watchman" contains so many nuanced cultural and literary references that I know full well went right over my head, that I couldn't complete an adequate analysis at this point if I tried. So here's my thoughts...

This novel is not an easy read. Atticus is no longer superhuman, and he may not even be likeable, let alone the father you may wish your father was more like. He's human here, and he's a product of his time. Scout's idealism and impulsivity contrast starkly to his cool demeanor, and so my first criticism is that Scout seems to be the only of the main characters to really be on the right side of history, and her message is easily tarnished by her youthful rashness. That said, Scout speaks a lot of truth when she goes off on her dad. I can't say she's right to talk to him the way she did, but she says a lot of correct things in her diatribe.

As a coming of age story, I think this novel is important. In fact, it may be more important than the novel that made its author famous. Because its plot doesn't depend on a superhuman, unconventionally wise, white male character saving the innocent black man who can do nothing to save himself, this novel is especially timely as well. Its characters are vivid, human, puzzling, complex, and in the end not much gets resolved except that family members must agree to disagree. This is at first deflating. I'll even share with you that I was still shaking when the novel ended, in outrage at some of what these characters had to say, about their opinions on the way of the world, the complexity of what was - and still is - a mighty simple case of racism entrenched in and intertwined with southern culture. This novel's plot is flawed not in its prose but in its characters' very human fallibility, in their staunch unwillingness to accept needed changes occurring in society at large because they disagreed with the methods used to achieve that change, and the speed at which it was headed their way.

If Atticus is the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout is the hero of Watchman. I'd suggest you read it with open eyes and heart, and be aware that the parallels between the historical setting of this novel's events and the events unfolding around us in America today are many.

Watchman takes its title from Isaiah 62:6 - "O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD." I have concluded that Harper Lee's ultimate purpose in writing this novel was to encourage us all to examine our consciences, to take no rest.

And so we should.**

*Word around the Google water cooler is that Harper Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, from the point of view of Scout as an adult. When she presented Watchman to her potential editor/publisher, the editor's suggestion was that she re-work the novel to be form Scout's point of view as a child; the resulting novel after that self-revision process is To Kill a Mockingbird.

**Apologies if I misrepresented any details in the novel. I didn't highlight or dogear my copy, and it was hard to go back and find specific passages without any markers.

How to be a Person When Racism Hides in Plain Sight

This afternoon as I was scrolling through the Facebook page for a devotional I've subscribed to via email in the past. My reason for doing this was that something in my feed had caught my eye and disturbed me: A recent post from this devotional featured a picture of an open Bible with a black man's hands folded in prayer on top of the Bible's pages.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, what caught my eye was that the verse at the top of this devotional thought read, "Count it all joy when you fall into various trials." —James 1:2

Well, Q, you say, that's biblical. And the man in the picture just happened to be black. Besides, if this devotional never used pictures of black people at all, wouldn't that be a bigger problem anyway? Andplusalso, you continue, this is an international publication, so it really isn't fair to assume any political stance about current race-related issues in America. People all over the world read this. Finally, you eloquently conclude, it's a picture. Calm down. A picture can't possibly be racist.

Some variation of each of these thoughts ran through my head too. This is why I headed over to their page before jumping to any conclusions or ranting about it. I needed more information, context. A perusal of their page showed about twenty or so recent posts. Images of people weren't prominent, as most of the pictures were nature shots or simply words against a solid background. But as I looked further, I noticed that black people were featured only in images accompanied by verses or admonitions warning against complaining or obstinacy, to count trials as joy, and how to find our way when we feel lost in darkness.

Why does this matter, Q? Why you gotta be so sensitive? Does it really, always, have to be about race?

This matters because it helps to perpetuate the idea that black people are more in need of saving than white people, that we complain when we should be praying, that we are stubborn, that we are lost. Especially in this country during this time, it helps perpetuate the idea that when black people fight back against oppression and injustice that their response is from a place of stubbornness and a tendency toward complaining instead of praying. And that's not too far from the implication that we put and/or keep ourselves in the situation we currently find ourselves in. Furthermore, it encourages Christians to continue seeing blacks as being in need of saving, people who know not what they do. It's a subtle message, but it's there. And it's the prevailing message across mainstream media. It is not only irresponsible, but it is also dangerous and unbiblical.

Did this publication intend to slant its published images in this political way? I doubt it, which is why this post doesn't mention the name of the publication, and it's why my email and FB private message to them indicated that I assumed their perceived message was unintentional.

Even if this slant was unintentional, I won't let it go past my line of sight without speaking up about it; that's not how change happens.

We have a responsibility as citizens of this country to pay active attention to the stereotypes being slipped into our consciousness via media.

We have a responsibility as Christians to seek justice for the oppressed, equal treatment for those whom society ignores or dehumanizes.

We have a duty as human beings to behave as if we belong to each other.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

How to be a Person when Love and Unity Seem Far and Not Near

At Bible study this week, we ruminated over Colossians 1:24 – 2:5. Our first reflection question was almost uncomfortable in its very direct-ness. This question asked if Paul’s stated purpose in 1:28 & 2:2 was a reality in our own lives, or if we were still somewhere along the way. The NIV translates these verses as follows:

27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Paul’s purpose –as stated here – was to make known among the Gentiles the glorious mystery of Christ in each of us, his goal to encourage believers and see them united in love.

When I’m sitting in Bible study – any Bible study, not just this one – I can’t help but to relate verses we read to what’s happening in the world around me. As I sit and try to understand what new-to-me truths these Bible verses might hold, my limited knowledge of world events inevitably creeps into my thoughts as I try to make sense of happenings that don’t always seem to mean anything good. Tonight, as I sat and read over this passage, I began to wonder where exactly our focus is with regard to the Gospel. There seems lately to be an epidemic of American Christians who are staunchly convinced they are right because the Bible. And the message of what it means to be a follower of Christ’s teachings and example begins and ends at a discussion of sin.

To my knowledge and according to my experience – and I’d even say according to Paul’s stated purpose above – the Gospel of Christ involves His indwelling each person who invites Him in, and the goal of the Paul’s teachings for the early church (and arguably the mission that should be at the heart of the church today) is that believers be encouraged in heart and united in love…in order that we may know the mystery of God. To me, this means Christians who wish to grow in maturity must necessarily embrace the fact that the wholeness of God’s Self and love for us is not entirely knowable – hence the mystery. To me, this means all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ Himself. So when I find myself confused when trying to understand the Bible's teaching and relevance for today's culture, I turn to the example of Christ Himself and to prayer for illumination.

Therefore, my concept of my faith and relationship with Christ allow me to reject some Christians’ “fine sounding arguments” in favor of the treasure and mystery of Christ Himself.

As I shared with the group the other night after browsing the commentary my Bible offers on verse 2:8(which refers to Colossian heresy which in part taught that faith was not enough for salvation because rules), I realized that the nature of the Gospel message as being a free gift to all is an idea that is still as offensive now as it was when Jesus lived and walked this Earth. The free gift of salvation, grace, love, acceptance, just as we are, is not quantifiable, doesn’t follow the rules we’d much rather establish for the sake of order (and freedom, truth, and the American Way), and therefore it gets all up in our shizz. It’s audacious – this idea. And how very dare we live like we believe it, especially if someone who disagrees with us on a point of doctrine also claims to believe the same.


There has to be a time for Christians to come together, look each other in the eyes, embrace each other, and move forward together, in faith. Lines drawn in the sand in order to enforce arbitrarily chosen and elevated Bible verses only serve to further divide us, not to encourage our hearts, and not to unite us in love – which, as we well know, will win.

So in answer to that initial, invasive question about whether Paul's stated purpose  is a reality in my own life or if I'm still somewhere along the way, I think I'd have to say, "Yes." It is my desire to encourage others and be united in love, but I know I've got a long way to go. So does the whole of the American church.