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The Case for Spiritual Anarchism

This is going to seem radical. (It should.) We are now standing at a door of opportunity: it is time for us to unlearn everything the church taught us. 

“Church” – the Sunday morning service, the weekly Bible study, the choir or worship band, the traditions and expectations – is a crutch and sorry replacement for spirit living. The church, as an institution of leadership, has usurped the freedom that was and is promised to each one of us. The church, as a multitude, put into place a system that supported and encouraged blind acceptance, heavy burdens, patriarchy, racism, violence, ignorance, shame, and disconnection. It is time to let all of that go. 

WHY?

Typically, we form our identity by compiling a series of labels for ourselves: woman, man, black, white, straight, gay, not religious, evangelical, catholic, lutheran, baptist, democrat, republican, apolitical, American, etc. The designation, “Christian,” signifies numerous behaviors and ideologies that align with political and social talking points that have nothing to do with original intent. As such, the term and the institution that supports it, is like a red herring, drawing attention and energy away from the radical and mystical original intent. No, this is not an argument for embracing fundamentalism. Rather, it is a plea to take ownership over your spirit life, asking for eyes that see and ears that hear and are not regulated by institutional correctness. This is often a subversive element – even the most so-called nontraditional churches maintain social cues that support the group mission. This is just the way of people, ask any folklorist or anthropologist. It is also not inherently wrong. What is nefarious is that this system of correctness and order replaces the genuine – and it turns down the volume on anything that would challenge that order. It distracts from the revolutionary nature of the Message – the radical and profound reality that is available for all of us.

It is time to let go of all the church taught us. It is time to take ownership of spiritual health and return to the heart and soul of the Spirit. 

THE MYTH OF COMMUNITY OBLIGATION

The problem is that the church is such a significant part of the social structure, or so we thought until the COVID pandemic. People curiously wondered, what would happen if churches shut their doors? Certainly, we would have a crisis on our hands. Much relief and community support would vanish. This actually happened during the current health crisis. It revealed a void that should be fulled by other entities – and not necessarily government systems. The church does not have ownership over altruism. If anything, it revealed the dire need for more robust secular community organizations. (Before you get on me about how these exist in good quantity, please know that I recognize their value and presence. We just need more of them.) People are leaving the church. There are many houses of worship in my own town that are shells of what they once were and the those with higher attendance are not always (if at all) taking on their expected role of community support. Certainly, this is not the case for all churches, but it typically does not function in the idealized state that is expected of the ecclesial community.  Places of worship are strained by the dual issues of declining attendance and the high expectation for supporting community need. Sometimes the desire to support community need does not exist at all. 

We need a different way. Collective support must arise from an understanding that each member of the body (and here I mean community body – the city and your neighbors) have responsibilities to one another. This is a concept that was not always attached to religious institutions, but was a social expectation. We cannot and should not rely on government support. This must come from the people. 

THE MYTH OF SOCIAL EXPERIENCE

What about the church’s role in social relationships, artistic production, and – dare I say it – entertainment? This seems to be the primary purpose of “church” regardless of denomination. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a social focus, and in fact, it can even enrich spiritual living. We need beautiful things. We need friends. We need celebrations, commemorations, and the maintaining of memory. But is this belief? Is this a relationship with the Spirit? Certainly not! The church-as-club structure is not new, and we should not ignore this function. If anything, it should be more readily acknowledged so that society (the community) can be on the lookout for the dangerous features of such social institutions: exceptionalism,  segregation, or cultism. Once we acknowledge that the church holds this specific role, we can free ourselves from the beliefs that hold us back. 

I know of wonderful people who are fully a part of the Christian institution. Do I think they are agents of some vast conspiracy to control society? No, not willingly. Their hearts are for the people, but at the same time, they believe in and support this institution. This is where we diverge. I firmly believe that a person’s spiritual health is, like physical health, a personal responsibility, but there is confusion on how to proceed beyond the “spiritual milk” (the kind the author of 1 Peter writes about) to the mature food of the spirit. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a sermon veer off track at the very end – right when the “mic drop” should occur – only to relay a few lines of lip service to wrap it up in a nice little bow. Folks, now is not the time to appease the congregation who sit in cushy chairs. There is a place for spiritual comfort (let those who mourn be comforted), but it is imperative that we move passed spiritual milk. What does the church gain if this happens? There is some fear that shaking things up would result in even lower attendance numbers. There may also be fear that if things get too loose, the public may no longer find a need to attend church. Think about that for a moment – if individuals mature and are able to see and experience God beyond Sunday morning, what is the purpose of attending? I am certainly not saying this would happen, but perhaps there is anxiety that it would. Or, perhaps, the structure of the institution (as is typical) does not function well with a body of people who are not dependent upon the institution, but on a different, more powerful entity?

A NEW ORDER OF WORSHIP

I believe the institution of the Christian church should be dismantled. Or, at the very least, be removed from the pedestal of power that it sits upon. It is engaging in false advertising. It makes the people believe that, through its schedule of events, liturgy, and doctrines, one can have a relationship with God. When people connect with God, it happens in spite of this institution, not because of it. It happens because God intends to have a relationship us, regardless of the barriers that exist – these doctrines that call on people to engage in ritual, reject their true nature, buy things, say things, do things… when, all that is required is a complete and total letting go of the apparatus that we hold on to. It is a letting go of the layers and layers of ideas that we plaster on to our souls that come from years of living on this earth and are often the result of generational pain. Ideas that form our identities come from the things that others say and do to us, even in infancy. It is a result of instinct and survival. We build identities. We attempt to show that we are good, intelligent, creative, independent, compassionate, worldly, patriotic, accepting… Think of any word to describe yourself. You are building identity. There is nothing essentially wrong with developing a full sense of self. What is misunderstood is this: we hold on to these labels as armor. If anything shakes the foundation to reveal fault lines in our created identity structure, we freak out. Instead of seeing these cracks for what they are – the opening and exposing of our souls to connect, soul to soul, with each other and to God – we patch, correct, and rebuild. 

Relationships are a two-way street and, though God is God, there are things (gasp!) that God cannot do alone. We are a necessary element to the process, but no institution will get us there. People either rely on the church to tell them how to navigate these waters or they throw all of it away in disillusionment or apathy. For many, the church has no answers for them, so is inconsequential (except for maybe its role in politics.) Truthfully, the church has no answer for this process because it institutionalized a mystical phenomenon that happens on a timeline different than our human one. Tired explanations of scripture reject anything mystical or radical or dynamically changing. Jesus was placed in a time capsule for “safe keeping.” 

The COVID pandemic and general shut down orders from state governments simultaneously revealed: 

  1. Society’s independence on the religious institution, exhibited in the anger over service cancelations.
  2. The lack of an actual need for an institutional church. 
  3. Ways that those genuinely truth-seeking spirit communities can adapt to their authentic form. 

I once watched a streaming church service at the start of stay-at-home orders where the pastor admonished viewers for not taking services seriously while at home. The expectation was that people would somehow detach themselves from the home life to “do church.” He was the image of a leader fearing loss of control over the group. It revealed that, at least in this case, church functioned as an exercise for order and alignment under the guise of spiritual awakening. There was a denial of how the Spirit works – moving everywhere and always, meeting people as they are, where they are. This was completely lost on the leader. 

The pandemic is teaching us many things. We have decision to make regarding a new order of worship: reliance on an institution or personal discovery and ownership? There will be many who opt for the former. There will be misunderstanding. Taking control over one’s own spirituality also means that one must reconsider the framework of the institutional church and its lifestyle. This is not a call to reject the process of “church” outright, rather it is a call for reform. Church should be weakened. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We, and the church institution, need to let go of the strong grip that we hold on to the concept of religion. We need to have open hands, open minds, open hearts, and certainly open souls. We need to watch and wait. 

SPIRITUAL ANARCHISM

We – the people – need to take control over spiritual living. We need a spiritual anarchism. 

“Anarchism” is a loaded term these days and while I do not have time to dive into its nuances right now, I do think it is important to define here for clarity. Anarchy is the absence of authority and authoritative systems. It is a rejection of a central government in favor of community and communal responsibility. Anarchism is the belief that a society should function on a voluntary and cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. While it is in the news a lot lately because of political debates, the term works beautifully here. This political idea can be easily transferred to the state of religious institutions because we require an upheaval of the system that takes control out of the hands of its members and functions as the gate-keepers to God. There are requirements and expectations that funnel through religious governing bodies – both big and small – that dissolve individual agency, creativity, and result in half-hearted engagement with original beliefs. It almost certainly leads to a rejection of individual responsibility. Spiritual anarchism places the power squarely in the hands of the people, cultivating community and shared responsibility – and elevating confidence in the individual’s right and ability to have a relationship with God. 

WHAT’S NEXT? 

Over the last few months I had occasions for conversation with folks who find themselves in a strange limbo – no church-going, or very different church-going, or a full-on reassessment of previous habits – all while experiencing a deep, thunderous, persistent call to something higher. Some do not know what to call it. A few recognize that things are just “off.” There are those who have a specific vision for a different way that looks nothing like before. 

Here is a final plea – nothing stands in the way to any of this. Listen to the call of your soul. You have no responsibility to maintain an allegiance to an institution from which you feel disconnected and you have everything you need to move forward. If you continue with the church structure, know that you can begin to break down the fortifications and question everything.

Real church is everywhere. Church without walls looks much different than church with them. There are no memberships, no hidden language or ritual, and no schedules. Church is everywhere and with everybody. What will happen when we begin living in this way? We may feel more connected to our actual neighbors. We may feel more alive in the world. We may start to feel mature in spirit. 

Trust your soul. 

This article speaks to the state of the Christian church only because it is familiar to me. I did not include other institutions of belief because I do not have the necessary background or authority to cover them appropriately.

Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash

Finding God in a Season of Struggle

What we are experiencing is, for many of us, a once-in-a-lifetime defining season of change. A health pandemic reached the doorstep of the United States and barged right in. We Americans are used to watching scares such as this play out in other countries, while we apathetically take it in through the twenty-four hour news cycle. Protests and riots over police brutality are happening across the nation. Law enforcement is responding with, at times, respect and, all too often, with brutal force. We have a president failing to unite us, preferring harsh rhetoric and resorting to typical pomposity. Let’s not forget the underlying hum of joblessness, a crashing economy, and climate change anxiety. Many of us wake in the mornings after a restless night wondering where the heck is God in all of this? Even the staunchest believer or church goer is disturbed by the uncertainty. 

I am not an ordained minister. I am not trained at a theological seminary. I am not a guru with an army of followers. I am, however, a person who attempts to live with “ears that hear.” There is an answer: God is in us. 

This is not a far-fetched theological assertion. In fact, it is a core tenant of the belief system. We forget that God works in and through us. Or we reject it, believing that this work can only occur through perfection. Further, we may sit back, waiting for the miracle to “come down from heaven” – not realizing all the while that we are the miracle. It is a mistake to think of God as magically supplying all physical needs. What kind of God do we expect? The God that parts the Red Sea? What is more miraculous: that God can shift a body of water or that God can change hearts and move us to action? Perhaps some of us stopped believing in a miraculous God a long time ago and church has become nothing more than a social club or philanthropic endeavor. 

Where is God? Here. With us. Alive in us. Where there is love, God is revealed. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12) When we unobstruct ourselves and set aside our own plans, desires, and judgments to listen to the Spirit with an open heart, God’s model for the relationship between humanity and the Divine is fulfilled. This is Church. This is action. This is change. 

These are confusing times. We want someone to tell us what to do next. Even the most devoted individualist will admit that the next step is unclear and some guidance would be helpful. Where is our generation’s Dr. King? Our leader? Many feel unprepared for the task. 

Oh, but we are prepared! We are. The time is at hand. 

And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the word of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-22) 

What is “evil?” – anything that is not of God, and we already determined that God is revealed in love. 

It is more than “being the change we want to see in the world.” If we want to see God work in any of this, “it” must be us. Recognize your position as literally God’s gift to the world. That “gift” is the relationship that exists when love is the instigation, the connection, the pursuit, and the result of all we are seeking. 

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Best Practices for Teaching Online Coursework: 15 Suggestions, or What to Do When You Suddenly Find Yourself Teaching Online

An extended family member, who is also in academe, brought it to my attention that many in our field are thinking of the future state of the college classroom. It was only a matter of time before those of us who work in higher education would need to consider alternative methods of teaching. Measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 may begin to impact our learning communities, requiring more virtual classrooms to “pop” up. Just today, both Princeton and Columbia announced intentions to cancel in-person classes while we pass through the storm. Unfortunately, many very good, knowledgeable instructors have little, if any, experience teaching online. My intention with this post is to share a list of best practices that I adhere to while teaching online courses. These are my standards, and though they overlap with those prescribed by my institution, this list should not be considered as their official stance.

I hold a Ph.D. in American studies and a good portion of my dissertation focuses on the ways digital culture is a harbinger for broader social beliefs. Additionally, I found myself needing to adjust my work schedule after the birth of my son while also keeping my foot in the proverbial professional door. So, I decided to teach online courses. I have several years of online-only teaching experience and one of those courses focuses on the convergence of science, technology, and society. Not only do I spend a lot of time improving my teaching for the sake of getting better at my job, digital communication is a topic close to my academic heart.

If you find yourself thrust into a new way of teaching, I hope that my thoughts bring some guidance and solace. While it is a different challenge to master, requiring distinct skill sets to shine, the core of our teaching remains the same. The first thing to note – that will shape nearly all of the points below – is to remember that, like you, students may feel plunged into a new way of being, producing unease and hesitation. I know what this looks like. Not every student who registers for an online course wants to be there. Sometimes it is required because of a life change, or they feel pushed into the class by a well-meaning advisor, or – like what happened to me one semester – an entire class of students who registered for an in-person course find themselves switched to an online format as the result of a last-minute instructor adjustment. But a lot of students do appreciate the online platform and proficiency as a helpful guide is crucial to their success.

[Keep in mind that this list covers what to do the entire semester, not if the institution makes a switch to online coursework half way through the semester. Take what you need here.]

1. Communication is key. Be in touch with them early and often. More communication is always better than too little – but try not to spam their inboxes. I always contact my students several weeks before the semester begins, providing them with the syllabus and general schedule for the semester. This will assist them in forming their own work balance. Be good-natured and friendly in your emails. Try not to be “cold.” Emotions are more difficult to convey through email because of several factors, not the least being the emotional state of the recipient. If the student is already nervous about the course, then a terse email will not help in the least. That said, maintain professionalism on your end, even if they do not. Most emails I receive are formed like a text message, which I find highly inappropriate, but my response with a salutation, body, and concluding statement usually helps to lay a foundation for communication expectations.

2. Give time frames for your availability. Set a schedule for yourself and relay the important parts of it to them. Will you maintain virtual office hours? Are you absolutely unavailable on Thursdays? When will you respond to email? I tell my students that I am unavailable between the hours of 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM and typically grade their work on Mondays and Tuesdays. This helps them understand that I am a real person with a life outside of work, but it also shows them that I am committed to serving as their teacher this semester.

3. Be clear with instructions, but do not write a tome. As instructors, we all have different syllabi styles. Some include pages of information while others condense everything to one lonely sheet (I am amazed at your skill, by the way.) Online coursework requires that the students work on their own time and try to figure out the information, usually, by themselves. One needs to find the balance between “not enough” and “too much” information – which, unfortunately, is different from course to course. I like to include guides for each assignment and use hyperlinks to connect pages and drop boxes. One thing you will learn, to your irritation but probably not surprise, is that some students just flat-out will not read the instructions – or will read very little. You will receive emails asking questions about information you posted in several places. I refer you back to #1. Be patient. There may be an honest to god reason the student did not see something, which will give you insights to whether there is a technical difficulty or discernment into the learning personality of the student.

4. Honor the learning abilities of your students. Make sure your course site is accessible. (This is so important!!) Your institution should have a person on staff to help with this. Not only should you adapt to students with documented learning differences, but consider the general learning variations that are just built into our personalities. In a moment, I will discuss utilizing different digital technologies, but it is important to note here. Not every assignment needs to be submitted in writing. Not every assessment needs to be an exam or a term paper. If you are able to be flexible, give the students a choice between submitting something in writing or as a video answer. Each semester, I am always delightfully surprised at the students who hit their stride when they realize how they like to communicate and they use it. You can see their confidence soar. Additionally, just because the student is a millennial or a “digital native” does not mean they are proficient in working with software. There is often a learning curve for about 75% of the students at the beginning of the semester.

5. Establish a regular, logical routine for the course. Will your course run Monday-Sunday? Friday-Thursday? I recommend setting up the course as a series of modules, which makes a lot of sense for the online format, but when you have the week start/end is up to you. Consider when you are able to grade assignments, when you want to engage with the students, and when students may engage with the course. I prefer to grade on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I establish a Sunday night due date each week. Do things the same every week. Try not to “make things interesting” by changing the format half way through the semester, or several times over the weeks, this will only result in mass confusion. I like to require the same kind of assignment each week (discussion board, weekly response) and then allow for a creative project or assignment here and there. Students find comfort in knowing what is expected of them.

6. Utilize technologies available to you. Use video conferencing, video creating applications, discussion boards, etc. Do not try to “recreate” the classroom. Activities that work in the classroom may not transfer well to the online format, but that does not mean that you cannot try through creative means. I love Zoom and use it for group debates. Students may get nervous at first, but the tools available to online coursework are typically user-friendly. If we can figure out how to do it, they can. Use these methods in your communication with students, too. You can send a video as a response to a question, instead of a written response. I find this is very helpful. Students also like seeing your face from time to time. I begin each week with a “Monday Announcement Video” that gives reminders, answers questions, and covers the work they will face that week. Students appreciate that the instructor is “live” with them and does not put the course on autopilot.

7. Use images, videos, and graphics. No one likes to look at a boring page with just…words on it.

8. Give students work load expectations up front. My institution has guidelines on how many hours a student should work each week for an online course. I relay this to my students. They know at the beginning of the semester that they should work about 10-12 hours a week to be successful in my course. This information helps them to establish their routine and hopefully understand the work load.

9. Do not be tempted to increase the work load simply because it is an online course. Online courses are harder by nature of the platform. It is important to remember that the online course is also a lesson in life- and time- management, paired with learning the subject you teach. This will be challenging to your students.

10. That said, use discussion boards to your advantage. Rely heavily on this, if you can. Students end up loving it. Engage with them several times a week. Most students know how to communicate online through social media, and as long as you establish guidelines for professionalism and to convey your expectations (how many posts a week, length, etc.), they will approach discussions in the same manner and with energy. But you have to be the one to set the tone. If you engage, they will engage.

11. Make students create content for the class. Information does not always need to come from you. As long as you maintain “quality control,” students will really enjoy being at the helm. There are many creative ways to do this.

12. Avoid exams, unless necessary. If you must schedule an exam, make it open book/open note with citations and increase the challenging aspects of the exam. Students will use their books/notes anyway.

13. Provide information and resources on how to research ONLINE. A lot of students will jump to the Google Machine first, when we have very wonderful libraries with beautiful online databases. Provide a review on how to use these sites. Talk to your librarian(s) about creating videos or content to share with your class.

14. Teach a lesson in trusted sources. We live in an era of misinformation and fake news. Also, see #13.

15. Give them opportunities to provide feedback. The best instructors take the “temperature” of the group regularly, but it occurs less formally and almost without trying: in conversation before and after class, by assessing the “look” of students as they walk in the door or sit in their chairs, or in discussion. Online coursework does not have the benefit of these more intuitive measures, so providing polls and surveys for student response is imperative. Some of the most consequential changes I made to syllabi happened because of student feedback.

An important take-away from this list is that an instructor should still create meaningful relationships with students. I work for a small liberal arts institution where the professor-student relationship is highly valued and it is crucial that I cultivate this in the online classroom. Be patient with them. As mentioned, online coursework can create the jitters in normally confident students who live in a world of YouTube stars and the Instagram famous. Making videos may not be a “natural” feeling. The shy student feels put on the spot and the outgoing student feels isolated. But it does not have to be this way! From my experience, nearly every semester, students walk away from my class with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

If institutions need to make an adjustment to the typical routine of the classroom, these are some suggestions to take into consideration. It is not an exhaustive list, but it does contain what I feel are some of the most important practices. Aside from the COVIN-19 crisis, there may be instances where we are asked to adjust our teaching skill set. Hopefully, this post will help set you on your way.

Photo by Logan Lambert on Unsplash; Person standing on car looking up at the night sky

Looking Up as a Radical Act of Belief

If a person is lucky, she receives a gift that is not only creative and thoughtful, but is life-altering. You know the kind I mean: the book that stops you in your tracks and changes your worldview, the pair of socks that causes you to rethink your relationship to footwear, the mug that brings a smile to your face every morning. Even the simplest of presents can make big adjustments to the way we live our lives. Those are the best kind of offerings. 

This year, my dear husband gave me a telescope. I wanted one since I was a child, but had no plans to purchase anytime soon. I was so moved by his gesture of love, because it was based on an understanding of who I am and some of my deepest desires. 

I want to see the celestial bodies. (I named my daughter Luna, for goodness sake!) 

As soon as it started to sink in that this beautiful (Celestron!) telescope was really mine, I realized that this was a life-changing gift. Not just a hobby, but a door to looking at the world – the universe – differently. 

This is the starting point for what I am about to tell you. 

Last night I finished one of the books in the stack – H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them (1952/2016) – which is a beautiful introduction to astronomy for average folk. The mere mortals who do not spend days up to their eyeballs in physics calculations can pick up texts like this one to get a sense of what we see in the heavens. Taking the time to learn about constellations and the basic nature of celestial bodies is not only a rewarding experience, enriching the moments when we glance up at the sky at night, but it allows us to step away from ourselves for a bit. This is not only enjoyable, I believe this is necessary in order to be a good human. 

We are the stuff of stars, anyway. Even beyond this fact, taking a moment to look up (away from the cell phone, our fashion choices, our “very important” jobs, political ideologies, religious beliefs)  gives the funny sensation of letting go. In some ways, we are forced to do so when we realize the real position earthlings hold in the universe. Even if you believe that humans are the absolute center of everything (anthropocentrism) or are a neo-Ptolemist (earth at center of the universe,) it is still impossible to deny the bigness of it all – and that we are so very, very small.

It is sublime, in the truest sense of the word. 

Consider this:

  • A light-year is the distance light travels in a year (pretty well named.) That is, 186,000 miles a second, 11 million miles a minute, and 6 million million miles a year. 
  • It takes light 8 1/2 minutes to travel from the sun to the Earth. (91.413 million miles)
  • Our nearest star is Alpha Centauri and it takes 4 1/2 years for its light to reach us. 
  • The Milky Way Galaxy is 100,000 light years across. 
  • The Andromeda Galaxy (a “close” neighbor of ours) is 2.7 million light years away. 

At this point, it is pretty incomprehensible. These numbers become nearly meaningless to us, except in symbolic form – as numbers. Rey helps us by putting things in “human scale,” using human objects to attempt some understanding. He uses this illustration: if we shrink earth’s orbit to the size of a dime, our close star neighbor (in our galaxy) Sirius would be a grain of sand, three miles away. On this same scale, the stars in our galaxy would be like one grain of sand in every cubic mile.⁠1 The sky can seem jam-packed with stars, but there is a lot of so-called empty space out there. However, when we consider the sheer number of galaxies that exist, it becomes clear that though the distances are vast beyond comprehension, they are not few. 

Those galaxies do not come in skimpy numbers, either: the Hubble space telescope in orbit around the earth shows us that in a patch of sky that is black to the naked eye, within an area smaller than the size of the head of a pin held at arm’s length, there are more than 10,000 galaxies. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of suns; some of them accompanied by smaller galaxies as though by satellites, forming clusters; clusters separated from each other by millions of light-years of space empty beyond imagination. If you stop to think it through it may well take your breath away.⁠2

And it does. 

Throughout my education, I studied and wrote about the concept of the sublime, but never have I come across the actual feeling with such intensity as when I think about the universe. I attempted to express these feelings to my husband, but in the sublime’s true form, no words seemed sufficient. They still do not. I began to feel like nothing mattered – but that sounds too nihilistic. Everything we do and strive for here on earth just seems so insignificant compared to what is Out There. 

I do not feel defeated, though. I feel connected. What I can “see” makes me feel small – because I am! We are so small and we get sucked into tiny narratives, letting them overcome our emotions and mental space. Does any of that matter? Sure it does – to an extent. We live in this world and our activities affect others. Certainly, the stories we live matter. But when was the last time we looked up and out of our lives? The answer to looking “up” is usually expressed in religious terms. My answer is, in a way, no different. However, the human imagination needs to release itself from the shackles of traditional religion. The religion answer is too small. 

Simply by looking up and out, we recognize the bigness of everything around us. It is enough to take us away from ourselves for a moment and question our purpose. By questioning, then, we can get to a place outside of the religious prison we made for ourselves and consider the “everything else” that exists. This can lead to a radical act of belief in a God that lives beyond a human structure of religious organization.

We can also get a sense of our simultaneous importance and unimportance. Humans hold both positions, equally. The majesty of the universe inspires us to care for our planet and each other with more consideration and love. Understanding the humble position of humanity allows us to ease up on the pride and selfishness we cling to so strongly. 

Not everyone needs to take up astronomy as a hobby and procure a big fancy telescope, but taking time to look up – even to get a sense of what the moon looks like, locating the Big Dipper (it leads you to the North Star!), and the colors in the sky – will take you away from the “me” narrative we get locked into. Without warning, it will free you.

1 H.A. Rey, The Stars: A New Way to See them. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008): 141-42.

2 Rey, 145.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

On Finding God Outside of the Church This Holiday Season

In America, a common quip around the holidays is, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The assumption is that the primary focus of the [Christian] holiday should be belief, not consumerism. Though a bright one-liner, like other Chrisitan-isms, it falls flat and without meaning to most ears. It actually contains a lot of meaning, but none of the intended. Something about it does not sit right with me. It seethes with judgement, not love. It covers the sense of pride that some Christians carry with them – the holier than thou pride that is ancient as story itself. Jesus is, of course, the narrative at the core of Christmas celebration, but people created alternative figures to bear the message of love: Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman, to name only a few. Jesus is absolutely central to Christmas, but the church’s inability to fully bear the message of hope and love is rooted in human pride. It is an unsuccessful attempt at fooling the masses into believing that truth is found only within their walls. 

I suppose the answer can be found in the reasons society celebrates Christmas: religious tradition and memory, fellowship, celebration, hope, and the joy found in giving and receiving. The secular version of the Christmas celebration does not bear the sole blame for distraction away from the Birth narrative. The church – in its broad, multilayered form (evangelical to main line to orthodox) – also took its focus off the “reason for the [life] season.” Instead of guiding, the church establishes leadership and barricades personal worship, setting up requirements and neglecting the very real mystical experiences people have. Now, it is imperative that I qualify this statement by noting that certainly not all churches and church leaders do this. In fact, I know several  who deeply desire to reveal this truth to the people. But church buildings are filled with people who prefer activities, social gatherings, feel-good sermons and scenarios, over an encouragement to discover a private, intimate, and unfettered path to things unseen. Groups form over similar religious aesthetic desires, building denominational worship. Raise your hands like this, some say. Engage in this particular posture, others say. Pray like me, assert those who need validation for their own actions. 

Heaven forbid someone (the many, actually) leave church because the answers to their very real desire to experience the mysterious and ethereal – the bigger-than-human God – are denied, shamed, or feared. I worry that some never even get to this point, as their desires for a deeper God experience are ignored. “Fall in line…(any line.)” 

Jesus is the reason for the season, but the church as an organization forgot. This idea is not new. Voices have been sounding the alarm for years. Why are churches shrinking? It is not because the congregations do not plan enough activities. It is not because church-goers do not smile enough. It is not even because the wrong music is played on Sunday, the pastor is not engaging, or that the service is held at the wrong time. It is, simply, that the mystical, mysterious, personal Jesus is not welcome. The Jesus who was born by amniotic fluid, grew on breastmilk, enjoyed the dirty skinned knees of boyhood, discovered a supernatural relationship with the God who called him “Son,” who dedicated his adult years to showing people the way to live, died in blood and flesh, but continues to live through us today – this Jesus is deemed too much. This Jesus, who revealed that it requires nothing but the ability to set aside our Self in order to truly love and be with God, is not offering enough creative ideas to get people back into the church. 

God works outside of the church when the church no longer watches and waits. God does not need the church. Liturgy, music, and structure does not bring us to God. God is here, already. The barrier is removed, but we must be willing to see that this is the case. We create our own barriers to the mystical God by distrusting the ethereal, but we put trust in organizations run by the people. 

There are those who left the church (or never attended), not because the church needs to change it’s club-structure, but because the church organization does not point to the truth. The Holy Spirit moves in anyone and everyone at the appropriate time. When church leadership acknowledges their role as ones who can point to God, not as the door into God, then people will feel the strength and confidence in the divine Relationship that always meant to exist. 

Jesus’s birth revealed the hope that this Relationship is possible, and without barrier. Anything that creates obstacle is not worth our time. The spirit and hope of Jesus is found in many different parts of the holiday season, and not always by religious name. 

What is the answer? Is this an anti-church stance? Certainly not! The important thing is that Church is recognized as a state of the soul, not a collection of events and a building. God never intended to have church usurp the relationship that existed from the beginning and is beautifully described through metaphor in Genesis. Churches can be partnerships that encourage individuals to deepen this relationship, and church leaders can guide and mentor – but they are never “the way in.”

Nothing is holier than the space an individual carves out in their own life for God – in whatever form it takes. The myriad of personalities that exists among us also lives in God (we are made in God’s image!)

What is this season about? Where is our Hope? It lies in the fact that God desires such closeness with us, that he built up Jesus to show us the way to love and the way to love God. Nothing should keep us from that. Not even holiday catchphrases that scold. 

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

God and The Perfectionists

We are a perfectionist generation. Just glance at any social media site and you will find instructions on how to attain perfection (physical, intellectual, professional, social, cultural) and quick criticism of those who fail at perfection (celebrities, politicians, business people, and average Janes/Joes.) You will also find swarms of people pushing back on this attempt at perfection, claiming to be anti-perfectionists – though it is still the idea of “perfection” that inspires the response. The Internet allows us to seek out concepts that support perfection in many forms, whether real or fake, and this information seeps into our psyche to lay a foundation for a definition of “perfect.” Again, even for the sake of avoiding it. No one is free from this bombardment. It just is. Awareness of this fact is imperative because perfection begins to define aspects of humanity that might seem impenetrable; for example: God. We, a perfectionist generation, have placed “God” in the perfectionist’s box, thus changing who God is, completely. 

As a result, we barely know him. 

One of the countless consequences of this error is that very many people recoil at the smell of falsehood. 

Of course, the language of perfection is in scripture. I am not here to argue its existence. What I do propose, though, is that humanity has placed its own definition of perfection in place of God’s definition of perfection. 

This is going to require you, me, us to let go of so-called rational thinking for a moment and try to “have ears that hear” and “eyes that see.”  This is no easy feat. I hope to challenge you to think differently about why we do and think and act in certain ways, think about where these beliefs arise from, and to consider how much it is worth to stay in the same stagnant place. 

Or is it time to move into the promises that were made to us? 

After being delivered from Saul, David sang, “This God – his way is perfect; the promise of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” (2 Samuel 22:31) and later, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7.) 

Jesus, in explaining that we must love even our enemies, states matter-of-factly, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48.) 

Paul recounts a story about a personal struggle and writes, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9.) 

The author of 1 John shows us that God literally is love and that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18.)

So there is much in the Bible about perfection. It is a part of Christian language. Perfection is something that we are “supposed to” strive for. But what, really, is perfection? The authors listed above give us the description of perfection that we should abide by: wholeness and love. Oh boy. That does not really make understanding any easier, does it? Wholeness and love are entirely elusive and abstract concepts that we can only try to strive for in our humanity. Selfishness, loathing, divisiveness, jealousy, arrogance, resentment, and other difficult emotions/actions get in the way of a full realization of this goal. Because it is so difficult, we just flat-out change the definition of perfection to reflect more attainable characteristics: regular church attendance, volunteer work, financial success, physical attributes, etc. With a warped understanding of perfection, it is no wonder we misconceive and transform God into something different than what God actually is. 

God is not ruled by the “perfect” that we place on him. 

Someone I deeply trust told me that, since we are made in God’s image, this means that all aspects of humanity exist in God. Think about that for a minute. This idea can do one of two things (at the very least) for you: 1. make you sigh with relief and give you permission to love yourself more, or 2. inspire a bit of anxiety over the fact that God may not be “perfect.” Well, at least, by the human definition of perfection. 

Are we able to love a God that may not be … perfect? 

How many times in scripture does God need to “fix” something he created? What about the book of Job? What about human suffering? Climate change? Etc.? Does he have control, at all? Why isn’t he doing anything about…? 

I do not have an answer today, but an adjustment in how we think about God is being asked of us. If you believe that we are to be in relationship with a holy God, then it is time to consider under what conditions we are asked to be in this relationship. We have come to expect unconditional love – the truest, most pure form of love from the One who is Love – yet, we do not always believe that we are to return the same. At the slightest hint of “imperfection,” human hearts scatter. Do not get me wrong, I think God is worthy of our worship and is perfect – just not by the definition of “perfect” that we use for each other and for ourselves.

As we hold our own requirements for perfection in the face of God, we only blind ourselves to the truth. It is time to put them down. 

 

Since you made it this far, I have a few questions to pose: 

What would it mean to believe in a God that is not ruled by the standards of this world? 

What would it mean to let go of tradition? 

What would it mean, for you, to be in relationship with a heavenly Father that is all-loving and worthy, but is different than the God you imagined? 

 

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

 

 

 

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

The Beacon: Thoughts on Loss and Love

I miss my mother so much lately. The world seems altered since she died seven months ago. Each relationship has a different color. Every street in our town is changed. Places once visited are built with memories I cannot shake (do not want to shake.) I feel the impressions of her body holding mine as I rock my infant daughter. I can embrace my mother in my mind’s eye and perceive the shape of her shoulders, the texture of her hair, and the softness of her skin. At times I even smell my mother in rooms, random and diverse. 

It is only recently that I allowed myself to glance at her face in photographs again. Her shining smile caused too much anguish. Now, I sit at my desk with two small images close by: the first, her high school senior photograph and, the second, of my mother standing among sunflowers. The reminders are multilayered. Not only do I need to remember that she is not here (I often forget), I remember her capacity to love. Some of the harshest moments of missing her are when the love I came to expect is no longer provided by the one who gave it so quickly. 

The pain of loss is both dull and sharp. I hear it does not ever really go away. I am fine with this and am willing to talk about her with anyone who wishes to, but that openness is also a gift I give to the listener. Not everyone deserves the emotional real estate. 

The easiest moments of connection are the ones I have with my very young children. Do not worry – I am not unloading an emotional burden on my little ones for them to carry. Rather, my three year old son comes to me, love in his heart, wanting to talk about “Grandma” as if she were still here. He does not pity me. He does not stand awkwardly asking if I am O.K. He tells me what he loves about her and I tell him what I love about her. Then, we are together in love. This is what Jesus means by, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We remember how much we loved and are lifted up. My infant daughter, of course, does not hold the ability to have these conversations, not least for the fact that she was born the same day my mother died. But in this little one exists something very special: an open heart. When I cradle my daughter and think of all the times my mother did the same for me – impressions of that experience heavy in the moment – our hearts “talk.” Anyone who is sensitive to the ways of the spirit knows what I mean here. It is the unseen action of love and mingling of the Holy Spirit. It requires letting go of hurt, wrongs suffered, anger, and the like. There is so much healing in these simple actions. 

Healing, though, does not mean avoiding the experience of pain, loss, or mourning. This kind of open healing paves the way for transformation through love. Through it we know when we are holding on to anger or despair or hurt because there is no movement into openness. It cannot be “made up” or invented. It cannot be forced or faked. It requires us to walk into that place of mourning, not to relish in grief, but “to be comforted.” 

Like a ship searching for a beacon at sea, an open heart searches for real love, altering course when hard-heartedness is found and moving toward truth. The reason I feel grief at the absence of love is not because my mother was the total embodiment of it (she was not perfect, nor am I), but that grief can only be healed when it comes in contact with actual, real-deal, original Love.

This is the goal. As it seems, my mother’s death pointed me toward the healing that my spirit so desperately needs. While I miss her, deeply, to reject this call would be to deny the power of the life she lived here on earth. 

Baby with storybook

The Ugly Duckling: Becoming Who We Are Meant to Be (a short entry)

The Ugly Duckling is not about beauty. It is not about overcoming the “awkward stage.” It is not about emerging as a physically attractive being after years of torment. It is about discovering one’s identity in a world that asks for conformity.

In the story, the baby swan is not readily accepted by the community he is born into because they do not recognize him. The way he looks, how he finds his voice, or the way he moves makes them very confused. The swan seems incapable of adding value to the established system, but this is not without first trying to find a place in it – both the swan and the other animals attempt to “locate” him in the community.

It took moving through seasons and watching the other animals find their roles for the swan to stumble upon his place. Other swans saw in him what he did not see and they opened the door for him to see his true self. What is implied, though, is that these swans still live in community with the other animals the swan encountered before. They are part of an ecosystem.

For some of us, it takes years to find our place and our people. It feels like we have not matured or are just simply “stuck.” In fact, over time we do mature and grow and become the individuals we are meant to be – but it is not easily recognizable. It takes another “swan” to reveal it in us.

One might think that “The Ugly Duckling” title is a misnomer. That it should be called “The Swan That Realizes He is Beautiful Once He Is Finally Told By Someone Who Knows Something About It.” But “The Ugly Duckling” draws our attention to the point of divergence from truth – the name given by others to try to identify something unfamiliar. They mistakenly think the bird is a duck – thus, place a qualifier on it (in case anyone wonders what the heck is “wrong” with the bird.) The title reminds us of the many errors our communities can make when they try to find a place for people. When none is found, hands are raised in exasperation, “I just do not understand that person!”

All the while, the swan evolves through the seasons. Notably, right before the moment of recognition, the swan must go through winter – the time of passiveness, sleep, or dormancy. Perceived barrenness.

The work happens, though. With the arrival of spring, the swan meets other magnificent creatures who identify him as one like themselves. Take note that this is the only moment in the story that the swan looks to another animal in admiration. Before, the swan simply desired to be included in community. Then, emerging from winter and probably exhausted from his loneliness, the swan is nearly intimidated by the other swans. This confusion represents what happens to us as we mature: we see qualities in others that move us to appreciation and respect, not realizing that we also have the potential for these qualities to shine in us. There is a reason we are drawn to them.

As I read this children’s story to my daughter today, I realized it has much to offer us – years and years after Hans Christian Anderson wrote it down. The struggle for identity and place is the struggle of humanity. Perhaps you are “the ugly duckling” today. Or maybe you are the excited swan who sees a new, recognizable friend in the crowd. The lesson is to see yourself and to see other people. Lift each other up, as we want to be lifted up. Know that, even if we grew up around the blind, we are always on our way to becoming who we are meant to be.

Hand reaching out in the darkness, Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

The Action of Belief, The Rejection of Fear

“Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.” Mark 5:36

This is the line Jesus gives the synagogue official Jairus to tell him to relax in the midst of horrific tragedy – the serious illness of the man’s young daughter. At the opening of the story, Jarius comes to Jesus during a large gathering by the seashore to compel him to come to see the girl. You can almost sense the anxiety and commotion around the official’s arrival. Jesus stands at the seashore with the water lapping behind him, the sun brightly shining and reflecting off of the water. Even in the heat of the day, people continue to gather and increase the size of the crowd – some standing, some sitting – all silent, trying to hear the voice of the Teacher. A man comes running and begins to press through the people, stepping over children, pushing passed men and women; his eyes fixed on the man at the shore. “Teacher! Teacher!” he cries and breathless, falls at Jesus’s feet, arms stretched along the ground. “My little daughter is at the point of death; please come and lay Your hands on her, so that she will get well and live.” Looking down, Jesus is filled with compassion for this man and his family. A decision is made to leave the lesson for another time and the bewildered crowd follows the two men into the town. The people continue to press in on Jesus, hungry for his words and wanting to know more about this mysterious man they heard about. The confusion grows as the crowd gets louder, calling to Jesus. 

Full stop. Someone touches Jesus’s clothes, a discussion ensues among the disciples, and Jesus must address the newly healed woman. The crowd still presses around, curious about the miracle that occurred. Jairus stands near Jesus, baffled and dazed by his anguish and anxiety. “Your daughter has died,” people from his house say to him, “Why trouble the Teacher anymore?” At this point, maybe Jairus drops his head, hot tears filling his eyes, and his hands stretching out to Jesus, again. Jairus’s whole body becomes limp with grief. 

I imagine the chaos that surrounds Jairus as he receives this sad news: the crowd straining and grumbling and muttering, the healed woman crying out in astonishment and joy, the disciples discussing among themselves about the change of plans for the day. Does he stand in defeat? Anger? Shock? “I trusted you!” he might say. “Why trouble the Teacher anymore?” they whisper in his year. The noticeable sarcasm plants the seed of doubt. (Is this really the man they say Jesus is? Where is the miracle here? Why did Jesus chose the woman instead of the girl? He’s too late. He did not care enough. This is not fair!) 

Then, turning to look at only Jairus, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.”

The official was clutched by fear. Fear is physical and debilitating. Jesus asks him to make a turn that is not only the opposite action from fear, but in many ways is a less “active” behavior than fear. Belief also requires a whole body effort, but is more like a pause than the aggressive experience of fear. 

In the midst of chaos, Jesus says, “Pause.” Breathe. Only believe. Only wait. Only watch. 

In the context of this story, belief is the more difficult action. It requires patience and control over the fear that can consume us, mind and body. 

What areas do I have in my life that are controlled by fear? Are there so many that I do not realize that the fear is there? Fear can turn into indifference because it opens the door to doubt. Doubt causes us to take wrong action or walk away from our Truth. Fears can arise from the benign (“Should I eat this cookie? What if I gain weight?!”) to the brutal (“How can I live without my loved one?”) Fear makes us try to take control over the situation or give up completely (also a form of control.) 

Making the decision to believe is brave, but how to do it can be puzzling. Belief in itself is a contentious idea in the postmodern world because it is often criticized for being “unintellectual,” misguided, or absurd. In Jairus’s story there is instruction for how to believe as Jesus wants us to believe. Belief rises from hope. The sick woman who touches Jesus’s cloak is also functioning through belief – example number two in this story. Reach out. Take a chance. Ask the Teacher to come with you. Reject fear. 

Reject fear.
That is belief. 

Living without fear gives room for hope. Hope guides us into a life full of love ([Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor. 13: 8, 12-13) Remember the actions Jairus takes: first he comes to find Jesus, setting aside the fear of rejection; then he walks with Jesus back to his home, each step an act of belief; finally, standing in the midst of chaos and while doubters whisper statements of fear in his hear, Jairus and Jesus stand face to face. Pause. Wait. Watch. Believe. 

 

Then, Jesus raises the girl from the dead. 

The Transformative Power of Parenting with Presence

One beautiful aspect of parenting is that it requires us to think about things we avoided for many years. It places front and center topics that could be blissfully dodged. That is, without a small, wide-eyed face looking back at us, asking about the ways of the world. If you are lucky enough to hold the trust of a child, as parent or not, resulting in somewhat difficult inquiries directed your way, there is an opportunity for illumination and enlightenment… for you.

In America, there is a myriad of methods to tackle child-rearing, brought to us by a sturdy publishing industry – providing big promises and innovative techniques, promoting the instinctive, but also convincing readers of their need for professional expertise. Birth and parenting books line my shelves (though, admittedly, on a somewhat smaller scale, in comparison to some.) Unless one has a very strong inner compass – or is notably stubborn in their perspective – the amount of information provided to caregivers is immensely overwhelming. How do we know what is right? Which expert holds to golden key to a perfect parent-child relationship? Of course, this is impossible to answer. Most often, we respond with the generic “whatever works best.” (A completely unhelpful statement and usually a waste of breath.)

This is because we really do not know what to do about the parent-child relationship. I am not a therapist and am not peddling a particular methodology, but I have a suggestion that might shift the perspective and approach to this consequential relationship.

Essentially, what arises out of parent-child interaction can be transformative for both individuals.

No, I do not mean, “Parenting will change your life!” Of course, Captain Obvious, the routine will change, priorities will shift, and hard-earned money will be spent on other things besides Sunday brunch at the cute farm-to-table bistro around the corner or a splurge at J. Crew. Clearly, you will see friends less and most of your television schedule will revolve around what time Daniel Tiger airs on PBS. Did you catch the latest Solange album drop? No?? Let me present you with the Laurie Berkner Band – the U2 of toddler tunes.

What I am talking about is a deep, spiritually metamorphic alteration that caring for a child can stimulate – but only if the adult is willing to step into it.

A few nights ago, my nearly three-year-old son popped The Question. I was not ready for it in the least, but it turned out to be the moment when I realized this transformative experience is real, dynamic, and can bring our lives into spiritual awakening/union with the Divine at any given moment.

“Mommy, where is God?”

We were finishing our nightly routine. Books were read. The bunny-lovie was in hand and he was snuggled under the sheets. The lights were off and we were sitting together in a dark room. I was just about to leave to find my own reprieve after a long day (feeling verypregnant at nine months!) I was tired. He was tired. We prayed our little poem to God and he asked, “Mommy, where is God?”

The few seconds between his question and my answer found me tossing through a whirlwind of possible scenarios. Since this was the first time he asked the question, I wanted to answer “correctly.” Though he is small, I did not want to sow a seed of misrepresentation for the God that I know. It is my desire that he sees the freedom of searching for and exploring all aspects of Divine Love.

What I said to my child is less important than what I am trying to emphasize here: that adults should open to these small moments as instigators for profound self-development. What if I answered him with a stock assertion often given to children when we believe them to be too young to grasp big concepts? What if I rushed away to read the book on my bedside table I waited for all day? He would certainly get an answer, but I would miss this opportune moment filled with mysterious love.

I settled with short statements and small words that essentially told him that I believed God is everywhere – inside us and outside us, God is in everything. God is here because God is in the love that we feel and give to others – even ourselves. Honestly, my biggest fear at this moment was that I would totally freak him out and that he would not want to go to sleep – afraid that some unknown being that he could not see was lurking in his room. Instead, he quietly said back to me, “God is here,” snuggled his bunny and rolled over to go to sleep.

It was one of the easiest “go to sleep” moments we had in weeks in this house.

As I closed the door to his room and started to reflect over what happened, the profound realization of this miraculous exchange washed over me. The significance of my words to him were twofold: first, that I felt like I explained God well enough, at this time, to my child and second, that God really waseverywhere – and very much in that exchange between mother and son.

When we say, “God is love,” we are giving a description of who we believe God to be. However, because of the abstract and basically confusing examples of what human love is compared to Divine Love, the words end up packaged in watered-down catch phrases. In this moment, God was revealed through the communication between mother and child: the vulnerability of the child’s question, the parental pause and patience to stay, the revelation of truth, and peace that settled in the space between us.

I was transformed.

Opening to these bits of time is not easy. Parenting is hard. We get tired, emotional, stressed, and sometimes feel like we are carrying the burdens of the world on our shoulders. However, it is exactly because of this that we need to live with hearts open. God is offering sustenance. We can experience reprieve. The burdens are not only ours to hold. We may not catch every single opportunity (we are human), but we can make the decision to live unguarded – to the benefit of our children and our own hearts.