Friday, August 31, 2012

The Cosmic Lottery

One of my favorite writers, Rachel Held Evans, writes about what some might call predestination, but what she terms "the cosmic lottery."  She named this concept when she started thinking of how people in other countries came to be of their religion, and in her book Evolving in Monkeytown she explains:
I call it “the cosmic lottery.” It doesn’t take an expert in anthropology to figure out that the most important factor in determining the nature of one’s existence, including one’s religion, is the place and time in which one is born, a factor completely out of one’s control.
 I wholeheartedly agree with her on this.  Yet what I'm contemplating now isn't so much about religion, but about the broader, "nature of one's existence" implications of this lottery.

I admit that I don't know a lot about state or multi-state lotteries.  I never play.  I am whatever is the opposite of a risk-taker.  I would rather have twenty dollars in my hand than a minuscule chance of winning a million.  From what I do know about the lottery, even if you don't win 'the big one' there are some smaller prizes that are still quite substantial if you match most of the numbers or something.  So, you have the one (or few) people who win the mega-big-bucks jackpot and get a ridiculous amount of money, then you have the however-many-others that still wind up with a decent amount.  Of course, there are also all the losers (not a character judgement) who have nothing but a slip of paper to show they played.

What I've been thinking about is that when it comes to the cosmic lottery, if you boil it down, my kids won a share of the jackpot.  They are both white males, born in America, to middle-class parents.  Sure, there are plenty of  über-wealthy people who are above them in the "winnings," but really, on paper, they have it made.  I am NOT trying to say their life is awesome and wow look at these amazing kids.  I am also NOT saying this has anything to do Ryan and me or our parenting or how we raise them.  I am only referring to the fact that they, just by being born the type of humans they are, in the circumstances they were, are in the middle-ranks of some of the most privileged people in the world.

Think of it.  If you are a white, middle-class, American male, you are in the group of people on this planet who are probably the least likely to face serious discrimination, oppression, or harassment in the course of your everyday life.  Certainly, no one is immune to tragedy or hardship, but it's really not that likely that they are going to encounter many (if any) people who make life hard for them because of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or any other factor for which some people experience discrimination on a regular basis.  I am not saying this is good or okay or acceptable or that I endorse it or think it is right.  I am only stating my observations, based on living the life I live and all the reading and living and knowing people I've managed to fit in to it thus far.

So, my dilemma here is this: How do I teach my boys the correct way to live with their so-called cosmic lottery winnings?  I really feel like if you win the cosmic lottery, it is wrong to act like all success you achieve in life is purely the result of your own effort.   You did NOTHING to win!  You didn't even pay for your ticket or choose your numbers.  None of us get to chose our parents or country of origin or gender or any of those things.  How, if you end up born with a lot of advantages, can you honestly believe that you did everything on your own and that being born who you were and where you were had nothing to do with how your life turns out?

Please hear me; There is nothing wrong with success.  Success is great.  I hope my kids find something they enjoy and are able to do to make a good living.  I hope that they become honorable, lovely people and that they work hard and are able to enjoy the results of their hard work.  But I also want to help them see how lucky they are and that a big part of who they get to turn out to be was handed to them.  I want them to understand that when others are struggling to better their own circumstances, the response of those doing well should never be to sit back and bask in their own less-difficult existence. 

I want my boys to learn that any good things they may have in their lives don't make them better than anyone else.  I want them to see others as their brothers and sisters in this world, regardless of how different or the same the "lottery" turned out for anyone else.  I think this dovetails with my previous ramblings about empathy.  I am trying to figure out how to teach my boys to be able to step back from their own experience, to listen, to connect, to care, and to think.  And, when appropriate, I want them to help, to stand up, and to speak out.

Sometimes I feel like my heart will break with the weight of thinking about these things.  I wonder if there will ever come a day when there aren't so many people looking at others who are different from them and trying to find ways to deny them dignity.  I wonder if pondering these issues will make a difference.  I wonder if trying to instill a sense of humility and responsibility in my two little boys will ever matter at all.

I guess I won't know if I don't try.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Is God a Christian? Am I?

“God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”
- Bishop John Shelby Spong

I hate that in my past I've limited God by acting as though he can only be experienced by everyone else in the world in the same way that I experience him.  In a way, it seems utterly absurd that anyone would think that, but when you believe for so long that the way you believe is the only way, it takes some doing to shift your paradigms.  The past several years have been quite a spiritual journey for me.  

Granted, it has been a long time since I have acted like I thought that my way was the only way, and even longer since I actually thought it.  The thing about being immersed in a culture from a young age (in my case, the conservative evangelical faith) is that when you start to doubt some of the fundamentals of it, it is difficult to simply make a clean break.  You know you don't believe what everyone around you believes, yet you aren't nearly as sure of what you believe INSTEAD as the others are of what you SHOULD believe.  Blurting out "I think that's poppycock!" in response to an assertion, when you have not yet built the framework for your new beliefs, will alienate you more than it will do anything else.

When you finally do get confident enough to make the break from your old beliefs, it can be difficult to do it gracefully.  When I finally did it, my transition was anything but graceful.  I posted my new thoughts and opinions daily on Facebook.  I got into discussions (read: arguments) with old friends.  I could barely hide my disdain for some of the old ideas and I'm sure that came across to my friends and family (who still held those ideas) as disdain for them. I offended people.  I think that because I felt my new point of view was so right for me, I wanted to help other people see that my old way wasn't the only way. 

I can understand why I felt that way, but I now realize that just as my beliefs are personal and stem from my experience, it is the same way for others.  I learned a lot about how scary it can be when someone starts questioning shared beliefs, because it is comfortable to be surrounded by like-minded people.  But no matter what our beliefs, we should not be scared of questions; We should be scared when everyone pretends they don't or shouldn't exist.  Through my questions I've determined there are so many things I don't know at all.

Here is a passage from a book I just finished reading.  This is where I am right now:
There are a lot of things I don’t know. I don’t know where evil came from or why God allows so much suffering in the world. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “just war.” I don’t know how God will ultimately judge between good and evil. I don’t know which church tradition best represents truth. I don’t know the degree to which God is present in religious systems, or who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I don’t know if hell is an eternal state or a temporary one or what it will be like.... I don’t know which Bible stories ought to be treated as historically accurate, scientifically provable accounts of facts and which stories are meant to be metaphorical. I don’t know if it really matters so long as those stories transform my life. I don’t know how to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s free will. I don’t know what to do with those Bible verses that seem to condone genocide and the oppression of women. I don’t know why I have so many questions, while other Christians don’t seem to have any....
I am learning to live the questions, to follow the teachings of a radical rabbi, to live in an upside-down kingdom in which kings are humbled and servants exalted, to look for God in the eyes of the orphan and the widow, the homeless and the imprisoned, the poor and the sick. My hope is that if I am patient, the questions themselves will dissolve into meaning, the answers won’t matter so much anymore, and perhaps it will all make sense to me on some distant, ordinary day.

(From:  Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions By Rachel Held Evans.  Buy it.  Read it.  Seriously.  Although it tells her own journey, she does a much better job of explaining the process than I am doing here on this blog.) 

What I'm learning is that, regardless of what some others may think, I haven't lost my faith.  I do experience God through faith in Christ -- not just because that is how I was raised, but because that is what I choose and what speaks to me.  Christianity is my "tradition," as the bishop said, but it is not my dogma.  I can see some of my ideas of God in other religious traditions.  I can see God in people who have no religion.  The way I experience God through Christianity may be very different from the way others do, and that is okay.  There are so many things about God that I freely admit I don't know or understand, and that is okay too.  We all make choices about what we believe, what pieces we have to keep in order to become better people and what we have to discard because it is an albatross to our faith.

Of all the ideas we can discard, I think the belief that we all have to experience God the same way should be the first to go.  God is a mystery and we do not own God.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


This week a friend from my hometown lost his six-year-old son in a horrific accident.  This is the second time in just a few years that someone I've known for a long time has had to bury a very young son.  Their families have been shattered by sudden tragedy.  Dear God.  My heart is broken and so full of pain for their loss.

I never know what are the words to say, what to write, what to hope, what to pray.  I wish I knew that what I did say helped, or at least wasn't wrong.  But these are incredibly selfish thoughts.  This is basically hoping that I get some kind of pass, some kind of reassurance that I haven't failed at sympathy, when I should really be focusing all my thoughts and energy away from me and toward those in the proverbial eye of the storm.

I do wish there were anything that could be done or said to help ease the pain and the suffering, yet I know there is really nothing anyone can do.  Their world will never be the same.  They will learn how to go on living, but there is no "healing" or "getting through" and especially no "getting past."

Zeke, my friend's son, was riding his bike when he was killed.  My son Luke, only a couple months older than Zeke, learned to ride his bike the same day Zeke was struck.  As much as I want to be over the moon that Luke FINALLY did it on his own, my heart aches for my friend every time Luke rides his bike, or even mentions it.  I'm constantly aware of the things I've been taking for granted that are going to be like salt in the wound for Zeke's family, as each thing happens without him and with a gaping absence instead -- the first day of the school year, folding laundry and finding some of his clothes, taking his a favorite cup out of the dishwasher, an empty seat at the table, an empty bed, a family vacation -- the infinite list of all the things that make family life, now heinously lopsided by the absence of an integral part.

I hate it.  I. Hate. It.   I won't even ask "why?" and I certainly won't attempt to paper over the pain with stupid and meaningless clichés.  These are the times when life makes no sense.

P.S.  If you are reading this, any thoughts and/or prayers for Zeke's family and everyone else involved or affected would be appreciated.