Another Week Ends

Stubborn Optimists, New Parents, Non-Parents, Backwards Empathy, Future Anxious Thoughts, and a Tale of Two Churches

1. First off, we have from the New York Review of Books “A Tale of Two Churches.” This one doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go, and so much the better. It tells the story of two North Carolina pastors, Jay Stewart and Derrick Hawkins, one white, one black, and the joining of their two churches—both named The Refuge—in a time of increasing racial division. Their particular community was affected by the police shooting of an unarmed black man. In the midst of this, the reporter Batya Ungar-Sargon tells us, “God was trying to tell another story.”

The essay is long and details pretty incredibly the story of race relations in North Carolina, particularly as related to Sunday worship where, astoundingly, 90 percent of all white churches say there are “few or no blacks” in their congregation, and 73 percent of all black churches said the same about whites. Needless to say, there have been major questions about what the ramifications of merging two churches would be: “Who blends into whom? Who is transformed by whom?” And heaped upon that is the history of racism in the place itself. What answers can a church provide for those? The reporter, who is Jewish, visits a civil rights museum and later admits to being flummoxed by the idea of grace: 

Driving out of Greensboro, I felt wrung out. Pastor Jay was right: the museum was like Yad Vashem. But when I walk through Yad Vashem, I don’t have to feel guilt. I only have to feel anger at what was done to us. In the Greensboro museum, this sin was not someone else’s. As an American, it was mine. 

This country’s sins against African Americans are grave indeed. I thought about something surprising Pastor Jay had told me, about how unworthy of God’s love he felt. He saw himself as so hopelessly fallen, so wretched, that only the grace of God, which allows Jesus’s sacrifice to cleanse us mortals, could make their relationship possible. He had teared up describing how much compassion on God’s part it took to grant this grace. 

In Judaism, we don’t have the concept of grace. We aren’t born steeped in sin, but in a neutral state. You’re worthy of God’s love as long as you follow his commandments, and when you fail and sin, you can earn back his love with t’shuva, repentance. Was there a form of repentance that could restore us, and make us worthy of love, worthy of pride as a nation? Or was the sin of our history too grave? Would only grace do? And if so, who could grant it?

Batya visits the church on a Sunday and, to her surprise, the pastors ask her up on stage. They ask if they can pray for her. She concedes, and then begins weeping.

I lost the battle with myself and wept openly. Pastor Teri, whose hand was on my arm, gently handed me a big wad of tissues. I wanted so desperately to believe what Pastor Jay believed, that a benevolent, divine, forgiving force was at work healing our nation, helping us right the wrongs and atone for the sins and reach beyond the current situation of denial and distrust, of black communities decimated by state sanctioned violence and theft. Could the proof that the battle was slowly being won be found here, where Pastor Jay and Pastor Derrick had joined forces to fight fear and hate?

…“Valuing each other. Loving each other. Appreciating each other’s backgrounds and differences,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. But it means that we have to embrace and accept and walk in love. That’s what a healed America looks like.” 

2. One of the best Modern Love essays I’ve read in a while came this week, courtesy of Jenny Dolan, about the love of her parents, the burden of their optimism, and the way their relationship was saved. Jenny talks about how her parents fed her a steady diet of  Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and The Secret growing up, and that while their optimism certainly gave her a sense of specialness as a child, it later gave her a sense that the givens of life always needed alteration before she could bring them before her parents. Like when she got diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

To get my parents to face reality, I quoted passages from a book about cystic fibrosis that said 85 percent of patients eventually acquire the Pseudomonas bacteria, which leads to a significant decline in lung function.

“But maybe you’ll be the 15 percent who doesn’t get it,” my father said.

“Why worry about something that hasn’t happened yet?” my mother said.

Their optimism wasn’t inspiring. It was annoying. When I couldn’t get a job after graduate school, my mother said, “Why don’t you ask the universe for a job?”

“The universe gave me CF,” I said.

The severity of the diagnosis was no match for the optimism needed to deny their daughter her sadness. Finally, with the help of a disease, Jenny was able to confront the cruelty of her parent’s optimism, and it was only then that a new perspective could be heard. The shield of positive thinking fell. And something more palatable—hope—came in its place. 

Months later, in an act not of defeat but of love, my mother threw away her affirmation cards. They had said things like: “All is well in my world” and “I am safe” and “Everything is working out for my highest good.” Colorful and comforting, full of moons and stars, her treasured cards were now in the trash, with moldy fruit and remnants from a tuna can…

My parents couldn’t see it, but I did have hope…Most of the time, I won’t get the job. I’ll lose the contest. I am one of seven billion people on the planet. We are all special and ordinary, essential and not, but my parents don’t see it that way. I’m their daughter, and they can’t help but expect the best for me. And in some ways their wishes came true. Thanks to new medications, my prognosis is excellent.

It’s been years since my mother threw her cards in the trash. Nearly 18 months ago, I became a mother myself, and I have been able to learn firsthand how, for parents, to love is to hope. No books or affirmations required.

3. Speaking of optimism misfires, this NYT food writer had no real idea what kinds of meals were actually manageable for families, until she had one herself. 

Before my daughter was born, I would breezily instruct readers to make a three-part dinner for the whole family in 30 minutes. “I’m not a parent, but …” I would write. I’d insist that a recipe was weeknight-friendly — “even for busy parents!” Sure, it might entail mincing, dicing, marinating and the oven, but it was a sheet-pan meal!

“She’s not a parent,” a commenter once wrote. “Figures.”

“Rude,” I remember thinking. But Texas4eva45, you were right, and I was wrong: Mincing and dicing require the use of two hands, which is a challenge during the first months of parenthood. One hand needs to be free to hold baby, provide a breast or shake formula at a moment’s notice. And turning an oven off and on creates heat and noise, which can be a sure-fire recipe for an angry baby.

4. And while we’re on the subject of parents, this op-ed discusses the rival seculosities of parenting and work, and how it’s playing out in an increasingly childless Denmark. In other words, when transcendence comes not from the religious sphere, it generally comes from another cultural credential. More often than ever before, the most reasonable credential is work, not children.

Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility: rising “workism” — a term popularized by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson — and declining religiosity. “There is a desire for meaning-making in humans,” Mr. Stone told me. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which, when it becomes a dominant cultural value, is “inherently fertility reducing.”

Denmark, he notes, is not a workaholic culture, but is highly secular. East Asia, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, is often both. In South Korea, for example, the government has introduced tax incentives for childbearing and expanded access to day care. But “excessive workism” and the persistence of traditional gender roles have combined to make parenting more difficult, and especially unappealing for women, who take on a second shift at home.

5. Empathy has waxed and waned in popularity over the past five years. Empathy is a harmless enough concept, but Robert Wright wrote recently in Wired that while empathy’s intentions may be wholesome, a new study tells us the net effect is a more polarized, less engaged human. Empathy, it turns out, is usually only given to a chosen few, rarely to those we hate; it makes us more delusional about our capacity to love the other, while simultaneously making us less capable of admitting that capacity in our out-group. While Wright is notably talking about politics, what is interesting to me is the more general observation that we humans are less good than we think we are, especially in our relationships with those not “like” us.

The authors of the APSR study—Elizabeth Simas and Scott Clifford of the University of Houston and Justin Kirkland of the University of Virginia—have this kind of dynamic in mind when they write, “Polarization is not a consequence of a lack of empathy among the public, but a product of the biased ways in which we experience empathy.” Or, in the more general formulation favored by the late American scholar Richard Alexander: the flip side of “within-group amity” is “between-group enmity.”

…In this light it seems only natural that our most beautiful emotions—love, compassion, empathy—would be deployed selectively, tactically; and only natural that this tactical deployment can wind up deepening hatred and violence. Helping genes proliferate can be a nasty business.

6. Some funnies to peruse: 

How to Practice Feeling Anxious For Something That Might Make You Anxious in the Future

In this life, you never know what forthcoming events are going to plague your mind and body with anxiety. If you go along living in the present, you’ll be completely blindsided when panic and anxiety do set in, but with the right preparation, such unpleasant surprises are avoidable… 

And these: 


Five Doors I Wish Jim Morrison Had Walked Through

7. Let’s roll into the weekend with some good news, brought to you via our friend Chad Bird, writing over at 1517. Chad tells us where we can find the kingdom of God, and shows us the unlikely preacher who helps us to see it, the thief on the cross next to Christ: 

Where is the kingdom of God? We can’t use the GPS on our iPhones to pinpoint it. Nor was it an ethereal location galaxies away in heaven to which Jesus was journeying. So he couldn’t really “come into” his kingdom, like one comes to a town or house or faraway planet.

Indeed, the kingdom of God is not a place, a thing, a concept, a philosophy, a spiritual force, or a state of being. The kingdom of God is a person. In the splendid language of Origen, a 3rd c. teacher of the church, Jesus is autobasileia, “the kingdom itself” or “the kingdom in person.” The way Jesus “came into his kingdom” was precisely by being himself—the great “I Am,” Yahweh in the flesh, a human being fully divine, whose mission was, by drawing all people into himself, to recreate humanity in his own person as the New Adam over a New Creation.

Thus, he says to the thief, “Truly I say to you, ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise,’” (Luke 23:43). This word “Paradise” (παραδείσῳ) is the same word used in the Greek translation of the OT to describe the “garden” which God planted in Eden (Gen. 2:8). What is Jesus saying? “Today, with me, in me, as part of my body, you will become part of a new creation, for I have come to reconstitute everything—including you—in myself.”



Gritty’s the Future

If You Weren’t Feeling Anxious About the Holidays Already…

The Dilemma of Hired Care

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


2 responses to “Another Week Ends”

  1. David Zahl says:

    That Tale of Two Churches article…! And the Modern Love one! And the Bill Fay single! Geez louise what a treasure trove. thank you E

  2. Bryan J. says:

    Is this the first post back from EKR after paternity leave? Welcome back E! All our best to mom and baby!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *