Question of the Day: Do you follow the news?

At different times in my life, I’ve taken a sabbatical from the news.  I don’t listen to NPR; I don’t watch any news shows, including the “comedy” ones like the Daily Show; I’ve even been known to take lengthy breaks from facebook.  As someone vulnerable to depression, there are times I honestly can’t take it – I feel too vulnerable to the bad news bombarding us, and I feel too helpless to do anything that will make a difference, and I feel as a person of faith I should care, but I just don’t have it in me.  But then comes the pressure of obligation, especially as a pastor:  Shouldn’t I know what’s going on in the world?  Even if most of it is bad?  But then, didn’t Jesus just deal with what was right in front of him?

I heard this podcast from Freakonomics:

And I realized it’s a really good question:  Why do we follow the news?

Here are my questions:

  1. Do you follow the news?
  2. If you don’t, why don’t you?  Did you make a conscious decision not to, or does it not interest you?
  3. How do you feel about NOT following the news, if you don’t?
  4. If you do follow the news, have you wondered why?
  5. What would you say you get out of the news?
  6. What do you do with the news you hear?

I’m very curious about what you will say!

Next post:  What Margaret Heffernan, author of “Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril,” has to say about our limited brains, and how that might affect our interactions with the news.

Would you wear the shirt of a killer?

It’s been over two and a half years since my husband’s cousin murdered his mother, then killed himself, at which point we figured out he had probably also pushed his father off a cliff in Mt. Rainier 18 months earlier.  (Let’s just air our ALL the dirty laundry at once, shall we?)

By geographic karma, we were the ones to clean out John’s apartment, and sort through all his worldly possessions.  We brought home many nice suits designed for slim men 6’4″, and donated them to our son’s basketball team and coaches, without telling them the back story.  We gave a lot to Goodwill.  Then one day, I realized my husband was wearing a nice plain black t-shirt from Banana Republic, where he’s never stepped foot.  I didn’t have to ask; I knew, especially when I took a look through his drawers.

You can check out my best guess for how John’s cottage cheese ended up in our fridge, but this was different.  My husband was wearing the clothes of a killer.  It sort of “creeped me out,” to use my 7 year old niece Ruthie’s expression.  And I thought about it for awhile.  How could he do this?  Not “HOW in the world could he do this,” but, “What exactly was going on in his brain that wasn’t happening in mine, or vice versa?”

My husband had drawn a distinction between the “evil” or “bad” part of this cousin – he called that part “Conrad,” John’s middle name; and the part of John he had watched grow up – There’s about 14 or 15 years between them, and they went on all sorts of family vacations throughout John’s childhood and Paul’s adolescence.  In my husband’s mind, he wasn’t wearing a killer’s shirt, he was wearing the shirt of the sweet toddler who had woken him from a nap by sitting on his head in his soggy diaper.

My kids and I don’t have those memories; we don’t really know that young John; we have less cognitive dissonance than my husband.  In other words, even though it’s really hard to accept this person was part of your family, it was easier for us to wrap our minds around what John had done, and that he was the sort of person who did such things.  For my husband?  His brain had to find a way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory truths:  Sweet Baby John and grown up Killer John.  And he does it by “dividing and compartmentalizing.”

But no worries:  Our brains do this all the time.  We believe two contradictory truths all the time; we just don’t usually let ourselves be aware of it.  It’s not that my husband denies John’s guilt.  He just has older memories which he separates from newer truths, all the while holding both, and deciding not to even try to reconcile them.

Some things are mysterious.   Sometimes, our brains give up trying to understand and reconcile every fact, and decide answering the unanswerable is less important than living with the unknowable.  In a nutshell, eventually every faith practitioner comes to the same conclusion.   So I don’t give my husband a hard time about his tshirt; instead, to quote Iris DeMente, we both just “let the mystery be.”

Why We Need James’ Message (the one from the Greek Bible) to Overcome the Brain’s Wiring

James 2:1-13 one of the four Christian Bible passages suggested for preaching this week.  (Spoiler alert to all in my congregation:  I’m preaching again from James.)

James is famous for his insistence on the integration of faith with deeds, and much can be said about that, neuro-spiritually speaking.

But this passage specifically speaks against stereotyping, and it’s something we need to hear over and over and over again.  Because our brains are wired to stereotype.  What our brains do, it’s not inherently evil.  Our brains are just going along their merry way, trying hard to conserve energy and find shortcuts.  (Remember, our brains consume 20-25% of our calories.  Sadly, your brain won’t necessarily burn off  the extra delicious calories that come from ice cream or m&m binges, even if you think really really hard about this blog.)

So, our brains are wired to stereotype, because it’s a shortcut, and it saves energy.  What is unfaithful, or unreflective, or irresponsible, is to allow our brains to dictate our lives.  Contradictory, I know.  But:  Just because our brains stereotype to save energy, doesn’t mean we sit back and let them be lazy.  No, God gave us this gift of a brain, to use.  We 21st century human beings are called to a higher standard; we’re called to engage our prefrontal cortex.

What does that look like?  Thinking about our thoughts, because

1. We are not our thoughts.

2. We can change our thoughts.

3. Unthinking action leads us into trouble.

4. Our often unconscious bias needs to be dragged out into the open for evaluation, and often more than once.  It didn’t get there overnight, and one good overhaul won’t fix it permanently.  Those new neural pathways take time.

The good news?  We carry the tools we need around with us all the time!  Our brains have the tools to change how they are wired.  Crazy, huh.  But because of our brains, we can take responsibility for how our brain is wired today, and can be changed with our intentional help, for tomorrow.

(And the reason meditation is such a hot topic, and why it is similar to prayer, is that in that quiet time, we can become aware of, and think about, and evaluate, our thoughts that we didn’t even realize we were thinking.  Because our brains are also sneaky little buggers.)

Every Generation Judges the Next (and usually harshly): Parenting Edition

No, I have not read this book:how-to-raise-an-adult_custom-486b723d84bbdeae0e5b15b621999f90af939d6b-s400-c85

But I am a parent of my times, and so I know ALL about “helicopter parenting.”  Honestly, I can’t take it too seriously.  Do some parents go overboard?  Yes.  In every generation, are there some parents who are outliers of the norm and give the rest a bad name?  Yes.  Am I tired of this discussion?  A resounding YES.

It might be because I’m a wee bit defensive, having just dropped my first kid off at college, and am facing the consequences of “attachment parenting.”  (My preferred name for my parenting style.)  Holy cow, no one told me it would be THIS hard.  I knew it would be hard, but my household is reeling – Spouse and daughter included.  And no one warned me how it would feel to be an “attachment parent,” and have those kids actually grow up into amazing young adults and, gasp, LEAVE.

In case you want to start, yes I have a life.  I have an incredibly rewarding vocation as pastor.  I have deep, close friends I see regularly.  I practice yoga, and I’m studying to be a yoga teacher.  My life does not revolve around my kids.  BUT:  When they were born, I nursed them, and found it very hard to leave them even for a night when they were babies and toddlers.  When I weaned my first because I had a week-long youth mission trip in NYC, halfway through the week, my spouse and son joined us.   I chose Doctor of Ministry program because friends lived in the area, and could watch my toddler for me.    (Daughter came in-womb.)  I didn’t plan it, but I’ve been entirely grateful that my work allows me the freedom to be there for my kids – after school, for sports, for rides (Just not on Sundays.  Or some weeknights.  That’s the gift and curse of parish ministry.)

And my kids are independent, fight their own fights, and when those times come, freely asked us to not get involved.  And we don’t.  But when we’d have the international students of the Hopkins Masters of Public Health over for dinner, and I heard these mothers and fathers leaving infants, and toddlers, and school kids behind, on another continent, for a year – my heart broke for them.  And again, I was thankful I never had to make those agonizing choices.  Motherhood and ministry just worked together, more or less seamlessly, with my personality and attached parenting.

Maybe that’s why we’re floundering so.  I wouldn’t change a thing, but I would warn other parents who are practicing “attachment parenting.”  It’s really, really hard when they leave the nest.

A Middle-Aged White Woman’s Encounter with Two State Police Officers. Or: How I am unbelievably privileged, and it’s still hard. Or: Some of our laws are CRAZY!

Disclaimer, right from the start:  I realize in today’s world, this is hardly worth writing about – for more serious, intellectual reflections on race, see my friend Toddie Peter’s blogs –

Toddie’s post

Or check out my friends Rev. LeAnn McDannel Hodges or Rev. Cindy Cushman on facebook, mothers of rainbow-hued children, or my friend Rev. James Ellis III, whose pastorship is invisible but whose skin color is obvious.  None of this is theoretical or a laughing matter.  It’s their lives.

Otherwise, read on:

Here’s my daughter, Sadie:  The day was August 12, two days before her 16th birthday.



We went to the MVA for her learner’s permit test.  After long hours, she passed, picked up her temporary permit, and we got into my car.  And I backed out of my spot, right into another car.  An old Crown Victoria.  An unmarked police car.

I got out, investigated the damage, of which there was NONE.  This is important:  NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Bumpers kissed.  I started to walk back to the driver’s side, when I started getting yelled at.  Because the driver of that car, a State Police Officer who worked at the MVA, happened to walk around the corner and hear the bump.  He was angry.  And big.  And yelling.

I was like “What?”  Because yes, I was about to drive off without leaving a note because remember, NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Apparently, I was threatening his job:

if he didn’t report this, he would blow 20 years on the force;

didn’t I understand how serious this was;

anytime a state police vehicle gets into a crash it must be reported;

another person heard the crash so there was a witness.  And on and on.

Amy’s amygdala at this point, which HATES to get in trouble, is on the verge of tears.  Amy’s prefrontal cortex, which hates illogical authority, was sputtering, politely, but yes, with an edge.  Because NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  And I’m being told – yelled – that the State Police from the nearest precinct must be called, they must come and investigate and report this as a crime.  You are KIDDING ME.  (sorry for all the caps, but seriously…..)

So, we wait.  No, we cannot move our car, which is now not only blocking prime parking spots at the MVA, but the entire roadway.  It is hot.  I’m vacillating between tears of getting in trouble, and frustration at HOW RIDICULOUS this is.  My daughter takes a nap.  It occurs to me this could have been worse – She could have been driving.  My daughter wakes up.  She asks, “Why can’t we just take a picture, send it to the precinct, let them determine if it’s worth reporting or not?”

One hour forty-five minutes during which I get berated a wee bit more before the “victim”of this crime goes back into his comfy air conditioned seated post.  I remain perplexed as to why he is so freakin’ angry, because his life is not disrupted in the least.

The State Police Officer comes.  It takes another hour, at the end of which I am told that even though this is absurd, ridiculous, illogical, a COMPLETE WASTE OF EVERYONE’S TIME, I have to go to court.  Yes, you read that right:  I am going to court; the state ticketed me; they may ask me to pay hundreds of dollars to repaint the 20 yo, 200K + miles Crown Victoria bumper; and this poor police officer has to go to court as well.  If I just pay the fine, and skip court, my insurance company will raise my rates.

He was so incredibly kind, breaking role to let me know that he too found it ridiculous, and there was an overturned tractor trailer on the DC beltway and a child trapped in a car, and he would much rather be there.  So now I feel horribly guilty AND indignant.

But:  I am white.  I have more or less decent emotional regulation (I didn’t get hysterical with weeping or screaming.)  I am female.  I am small.  I was professional dressed (well, on-sale REI and Title Nine clothes – but obviously middle class)  I am well-spoken.  I admit I did indeed back into the other car, so I readily admit my guilt (although I did have to add, “But seriously, the punishment here does NOT fit this crime!  NEAS!)   I have got to be about the least threatening specimen of an adult human being a police officer can ever expect to deal with.  In this interaction, I was privileged 6 ways to Sunday.

But here is what matters:  I  know just how differently this could have unfolded:  If I were poor.  Black or undocumented.  If I couldn’t control my amygdala or my mouth (not that it wasn’t a struggle, mind you!)  If I were a large male in an old t-shirt and flip-flops.  If I were missing teeth.  If I got belligerent.  If I verbalized my thoughts:  This is the DUMBEST law I have ever heard of, and I’m not staying!  If I were losing pay, and maybe my job, because what should’ve taken 2 hours was now closer to 5.  If I wore a burka, or hijab.  Spoke another language.  And all the other ways I take so for granted I don’t even realize.  Our brains are wired to stereotype, categorize, take short-cuts.  Sometimes it falls our way, and when it doesn’t fall someone else’s way, we are wired to assume it was their fault.  But those same brains are wired to analyze, if we just use them.

A guest blogger on Parent as Protector (or, the pain of letting go.)

My dear, dear friend Kim is a few years ahead of me in the parenting role – She’s been through the sending your kid to college transition of life, and her words were so beautiful and clear, I’m offering them here for every parent letting go just a wee bit more, whether it’s the first day of daycare, preschool, middle school, high school, marriage, or moving across the country:

From Kim:

babyWatching my stepdaughter care for her new baby, I’m taken back to the all- consuming, protective love of new parents. She cried when her baby was playfully dunked in the pool during her first swimming lesson. It’s the kind of love where you give your infant swimming lessons.

This little girl’s been treasured since we new she was coming.   And now that she is here, her parents do all of the gazing, adoring, worrying, and protecting of every new parent.

I’m in a different phase now, that of launching grown children in the world. And I think about the balance of Parent as Protector. My young adult children require much less protecting, but it’s still hard to let go.

I remember that defenseless newborn in my arms. I remember sitting in the car crying to my husband after our first-born had his initial immunizations. I babbled on about my inability to keep him from hurting. Looking back, the scene seems comical (and probably hormone influenced). But then, the feelings were intense; love and protection fused together in those early days.

And as my children grew, love as protection became more blurred. They didn’t overlap so neatly. When does love mean protect, and when does it mean trust?   I could find no formula in the parenting manual, so I learned by trial and error, instinct, and conversations with friends. Pulling back on protection demanded a gradual release, with lots of stumbling, second-guessing, and re-negotiating terms.

But it wasn’t and isn’t easy to define those terms, especially when my kids still often look like they could use some protecting. Just this year, I watched one son select his college because it was near a Chipotle. OK, that wasn’t the only reason, but honestly, I think it was the factor that tipped the decision. Then I read the text from his brother telling me that he thought he would take himself swimming with sharks while on a trip to South Africa. How much do I say to each of my young adult sons? Do I trust or protect?

They both went. And survived. And I’m sure grew up some because their choices. But other times I’ve had to watch them get really hurt. When my oldest son went through a difficult break up, I watched him shut down and literally shrink. He lost weight, his voice grew quieter, he pulled back from friends and family. And though I tried, there was really nothing I could do. It was his time to do some more growing, to learn some hard lessons, to build resilience. But it was my time too. At 48, I’m learning humbling lessons about how hard it can be to let go, and to separate protection from love.

I have compassion now for the younger me when I remember that overwhelming need to protect our new babies.   And I have compassion for myself because it’s so hard to overcome that protective instinct as they grow.  But we must struggle, because otherwise our children won’t be ready to launch and be independent, and cope with life.

But it all starts from such a beautiful place. There is a purity in my step daughter’s love for her daughter that is so right and sweet. I could no more speak to her about pulling back and letting Piper struggle and develop resilience than I could convince her to move to the moon. It’s one of the many paradoxes of parenting, this balance between holding tight and letting go. She will and can only figure it out as she goes. As do I.

But who will set my dvr?

Articles abound on how to prepare your kid for college (Reminder to self:  Buy him tylenol, ibuprofen, tums, benedryl, neosporin and bandaids.)  Even though some are cheesy and some are ridiculously expensive and over the top – I’m reminded of just how many onesies I was told he would need when I brought him home from the hospital – it’s nice to have a list to check.

But where is the list of what every parent needs before their kid (selfishly!) takes all their knowledge to another zipcode?

My personal list:

  1. Brush up on all football knowledge so I can ease my husband’s sorrow at losing his #1 football companion.  Practice high-fives, cheers, and memorize stats on Ravens’ players.  Try to stay awake through all 4 quarters.
  2. Begin practicing staying up late so I am awake to pick my daughter up at curfew – No longer will her older brother be around to save me that task.  Warn her that her curfew may change to account for parents who need sleep.
  3. Have him teach me: To set the DVR, to log-in to the cloud, to back up my phone, to update my phone, to work my phone.
  4. Don’t put too much pressure or pay too much attention to his sister who has 2 years left at home, in an effort to express all that parental energy that has no where to go.  Instead, get a life.  (Trust, that like nursing and weaning, that energy will reset to match the need.)
  5. Reconcile self to reality:  I’m getting old, even if 50 is the new 30, an entire phase of active day-to-day parenting energy of keeping track of and worrying and is coming to an end.  Figure out:  Now what?
  6. Trust all the research that says adults whose homes do not include children are far happier and have a higher quality of life.
  7. Remind self:  It’s okay to cry when you drop him off.  But take tissues, and plan fun outing with husband.    Right – re-connect with husband.

Again, I am reminded of how potent these life transitions that are so universal, but so gut-wrenching when they are YOUR life transitions.  The days ARE long, the years ARE short.  This is life.

baby ben copy