New Here?
     
America


How MLK Got His Name

Perhaps you know the story: In 1934 the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta sent its pastor Michael King, Sr. to attend a Baptist World Alliance Meeting in Berlin. The trip included a whirlwind visit to a number of other sites, but apparently the time in Germany (just as the National Socialists were starting their rise) had such an impact on Michael that he decided to rename himself and his 5-year-old son after the Great Reformer. Thus, father and son became Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr.

Somehow I don’t think we’ve ever posted this beautiful portion of MLK’s 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which he sounds more than a little like his namesake, especially toward the end, ht SC & JF:

I’m concerned about a better World. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood and sisterhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. […] and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

And so I say to you today, my friends, that you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels; you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing. Yes, you may have the gift of prophecy; you may have the gift of scientific prediction and understand the behavior of molecules; you may break into the storehouse of nature and bring forth many new insights; yes, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement so that you have all knowledge; and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but if you have not love, all of these mean absolutely nothing. You may even give your goods to feed the poor; you may bestow great gifts to charity; and you may tower high in philanthropy; but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history’s greatest heroes; but if you have not love, your blood was spilt in vain. What I’m trying to get you to see this morning is that a man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride. So without love, benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.

Connection

For 30 years, I have designed places for people to live when they are at the edge of coping. When creating anything, knowing those who will use the creation makes the creation better. This year, I have been part of an effort to make a safe harbor for the young who are lost. Listening to […]

Another Week Ends: Religious Decline, Peloton, Halloween Righteousness, Reformation Day, and Kanye

1a. This week featured a point-counter-point on the religious decline in America. Fewer people are going to church, particularly millennials. Accordingly, Christine Emba sees genuine cause for alarm. Millennials prefer low-cost, substitute religions (read: seculosities!), and the church may not be there as a fallback option in the future: Faith and practice can’t persevere through […]

Shaping the Future

The following was originally delivered as a keynote at the 149th Annual Episcopal Diocesan Convention in Harrisburg, PA. SHAPE is a verb and a noun. I shape buildings every day. So I verb-shape to make noun-shapes. I am a Christian, too. Over the last 40 years, I have designed and worked on worship spaces. But […]

In the Midst of Life We Are in October

What images come to mind when you think of Halloween? Ghosts? Skeletons? Gravestones? Some Christians cry foul at such “morbid” imagery, but it seems to me this stems from a safely modern, bourgeois outlook. Our older brothers and sisters in medieval Europe most assuredly wouldn’t know what to make of the bland, sterilized Christianity regnant […]

Memory and the Trauma of History

What does remembering tragedies like September 11th accomplish here and now? What do we channel in remembering, and what dangers are there in it? “Remembering,” I once heard a minister claim, “is the art of the mature.” I wrote it beside the second verse of Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget […]

Salvation by Transaction: On Institutional Decline

Economists, look alive. Transaction Man, the new book from Nicholas Lemann, details the recent history of big ideas, the “master organizing principles for society.” Heady at first blush, the book becomes a keen survey of anthropology and how actual people live and work. Lemann employs “Transaction Man” as a catchall denoting some or all of […]

Never Forget: Celebrating the Memorial of Our Redemption

This week, more than any other week in America, we are reminded to “never forget.” While those words convey a broad message, they somehow recall a set of very specific images: a passenger plane flying into the South Tower; a firefighter climbing a crowded staircase; a man, upside down, in free fall. If you were […]

The ICE Raid in Mississippi: Hitting Close to Home

I wish that I could care less about the ICE raids in my home state of Mississippi. I wish that I could write people off as breaking the law or irresponsible parents. I also wish I could feed my self-righteous anger by being on the right side of justice. But that just feels like a […]

My Besetting Sin: A Reflection on Mass Shootings

This past weekend, I came face-to-face with one of my besetting sins. “Besetting sins,” as in, the sins that serve as particular nuisances to my body and spirit. Everyone has at least one, I think. Of course, we all have all of them. It’s just that we’re usually prone to one or two above the […]

The Open-Concept Family, AKA The Family Issue Opener and Table of Contents

As the Family Issue make its way from the printer to the post office, here’s a look at the opener, and a peek at what comes after! If you haven’t ordered a copy yet, you can do so here

You can’t talk about families without talking about the containers they come in. The home, especially in America, is the sanctum sanctorum of family life. No other non-living entity absorbs so much human ambition and longing, so much futzing and pruning, so much money and worry, and so much love. “Home” for you might be an efficiency apartment or a sprawling suburban ranch, but odds are the majority of your memories can be placed within the confines of those walls. You know the exact spot in the house where you got that phone call, or the spot where he used to read his newspaper, or the exact rung in the banister where everyone’s shirt gets snagged. “If these walls could talk …”

Walls can’t talk, though. And even if they could, walls definitely aren’t talking these days, since there really are no walls to speak of. Open concept houses, where nearly zero rooms are divided by walls, have become the way families imagine doing life together. When the kitchen, living room, dining room, and TV room are all one room, there’s the promise that you’re creating space that “allows the love to flow,” as the Scandinavians say. Fewer boundaries equals more family togetherness.

What realtors are starting to find, though, is that the aspirational notion of more family time has led to … more family time. The Boston Globe reported that this has led homeowners to face some harsh truths about their family lives, namely,

That you’re not a parent who wants the kids RIGHT THERE when you’re in the kitchen, your only alone time, or what used to be your only alone time. That you’re not a host relaxed enough to chat with guests while preparing a three-course meal. That you’re not Marie Kondo enough to keep every inch of what used to be three rooms clutter-free at all times.

Walls, in other words, were nice: For one, they hid the mountain of crap that inevitably flowed over from the other parts of our lives. But most importantly, they buffered us from the strange people who shared our DNA.

Unfortunately, walls or not, these strange people will always remain strange. Every home is its own molecular structure of dysfunction, a physical reminder that you are born under a larger umbrella organization. You have parents and (sometimes) siblings, who have names and stories and contexts that you may not want but are inseparably yours. There are certain codes of conduct, certain ways of communicating (or not communicating), certain predispositions to freckles or spicy foods or hand-eye clumsiness. For better or worse, this place is your first and often most influential institution of “professional development.” Weirdly, you never submitted your résumé to this office—you don’t know if you would’ve if you had the choice—but the job’s yours all the same. You are a born natural for it!

Still, despite the job description and the baggage it brings, the homes we live in tend to foster our fiercest loyalties and most deep-seated convictions. The oldest religion in the world is family. If the etymology of religion is “to tighten” or “to bind,” then it makes sense that the oldest established religion came not with cuneiform or pyramids, but with the family unit, where members have always been bound up together in collective mythologies and rituals. It continues today, as you watch old VHS home videos, as you obnoxiously rehash the same old jokes with the same lame punchline, as you comfortably fall back into familiar roles like a well-worn sofa.

In other words, no matter how far you fly, or with whom you create new families, you always take them with you, because to some degree, you are them. As the country singer Lori McKenna put it,

The tree grows where it’s planted / And that’s the fate of a fallen seed

No matter how many times I’ve denied it / The apple never falls far from the tree

As long as family therapists and professional helpers have been around, their work has centered on the damning determinism of the family unit, how the proverbial “sins of the father” really do, in fact, sprawl out in time. God’s family, as it is presented in the Bible, proves no different: All down the family line is a story of liars begetting murderers begetting drunks begetting liars again.

Which I guess makes Jesus’ ambivalence about the family enterprise less startling. But only slightly less. Living in a cultural (and theological) milieu that, much like today, prioritized family over all else, he denounced it as a powerful evasion, a way to wall off reality and revelation. Whenever a family caveat is thrown before him (“But Jesus, your mom is outside!” or “Wait Jesus, I need to bury my father!”) Jesus doubles down on the centrality of his own message: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.”

Jesus is not anti-family so much as he is anti-walls, and the way he sees it, the four walls of a home are no different from the four walls of the temple—a safe haven from a cruel world, sure, but also a buffer zone from the true heart of God and a breeding ground for self-deception. I wonder whether his devastating prophecy about the temple could just as easily be levied on the family mythologies rehearsed in every family home: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone (nay, not one “accent wall”) will be standing where it’s standing now.”

Ultimately, Jesus reminds us, even if our families love us and protect us, no rearing could ever have the generative power to make us whole or evade suffering. Every family, Ben Maddison writes in this issue, is cruciform in shape. In the end, our families point us to a need they cannot provide.

Jesus points us to the fragility of our walled-off holiest of holies, and to the only hope that our families have ever had. Look at the home you can’t keep clean, the mother-in-law you can’t tolerate, the daughter who won’t call, the spouse you’re losing to cancer. There is an endless array of reckonings awaiting all families. But as Christ stands within the four walls of your failed temple, and he stretches out his hands, he offers not only the compassion of a loving God, but the hope of a very real resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

There is no shortage of losses in families, both literally and figuratively. This also means that there is no limit to the stories in which God has done some of his own home restoration work. We’ve compiled a few of them here, in the hopes that they provide consolation and hope. We also have interviews with psychologist Harriet Lerner, education and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, and Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick. We’ve got essays about foster parents and surrogate parents, preacher families and estranged families. We talk about divorce, dogs, apologies, parenting advice, and the church’s incessant focus on families. And that’s not all.

So, brew yourself some tea, turn the page, and enjoy the remaining walls in your open concept home. By the time you reach the last page, we’ll have (hopefully) removed them all.

Click here to order your copy!

ORDER YOUR COPY HERE!

Maine: The Way Life Should Have Been

As you cross over the Maine state line, a sign reads “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” It’s one of the better state mottos (not as good as “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” but far better than the sad and desperate “West Virginia: Open for Business!”). Whenever I cross into Maine, a […]