“You can do it!”

Wilma Rudolph: The fastest woman of her generation
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. – NYPL Digital
Accessed via Wikipedia
NYWT&S staff photographs are in the public domain per the instrument of gift. See http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/076_nyw.html

High school gym class was awful for me. In truth, I first noticed how un-athletic I was in the fourth grade, when it became clear that the only things I was good at in PE was dodging balls and square dancing. Oh, and the bar hang that girls used to do for the annual Physical Fitness Test instead of pull-ups – I was great at that! I just imagined that I would literally die if I let go. I failed all the other tests, but that one? Presidential, every time. But I didn’t hate gym class. It was a break from the routine, and it felt good to exercise. My elementary and middle school gym teachers accepted that, even trying my hardest, I was simply bad at every sport I tried, and none of my peers gave me a hard time about it.

My high school coaches, on the other hand, refused to “give up” on me. They really believed that I could be better if I just tried harder, and so they were relentlessly, vocally encouraging. They were especially “encouraging” about my running. Shooting baskets, or serving a volleyball, or any of dozens of other skills require some amount of practice simply to do in a mediocre way. Running, on the other hand, is something most kids learn how to do naturally before they are 18 months old, so obviously I had had lots of practice. And lots of practice meant no excuses.

Running. I wanted to believe that I was shooting off the starting line at top speed, but in seconds, I would be huffing and puffing, and by the end of the run, I had been double lapped by literally my entire class. 30 people or something, all not just faster than me, but embarrassingly faster. And to make matters worse, Coach was standing in the middle of the track, singling me out, shouting, “You can do it, Cosby! Keep going! Don’t stop now! What now? Are you going to start walking? Are you going to walk like a quitter? Keep running! You can do it! I know you have it in you!”

What exactly was the “it” that I had in me, anyway? It felt like what I had was a knife in my chest, starting as early as the 100 meter mark. And it didn’t go away. By 400 meters, my legs were like jelly. By 600 meters, I felt like I would pass out. And already my entire class had passed me – they had gone almost twice as far as I had, and they weren’t slowing down. Most of them seemed to be enjoying themselves. I, on the other hand, was going at my absolute top speed, and was sure that this was going to be the day that I died on the track. Maybe the last thing I would hear would be Coach telling me to just try harder.

Coach didn’t actually know I had it in me. He couldn’t possibly know I had it in me. I didn’t know for sure myself if I had it in me.

I remembered reading in Sunday school about Wilma Rudolph. That was quite the inspirational works righteousness story. She contracted polio as a child, and had been told by a doctor that she was never going to be able to walk without a brace. But she was so determined that not only did she walk, but she ran. And not only did she run, but she ran in the Olympics. She became the fastest woman alive. The moral of the story, we were told, was that we could do anything we put our minds to, as long as we didn’t give up no matter what anyone told us. (To be fair to Ms. Rudolph, she herself would likely have recognized that only one person can be the fastest in the world at a time, heroic efforts notwithstanding. She was not responsible for the way the curriculum writer had chosen to turn her life story into a morality tale.)

If Wilma Rudolph could run after having had polio as a child, certainly I could do it – I who had never had to wear a brace, who had never been diagnosed with anything particularly serious. I so wanted to be a runner like Wilma Rudolph. I didn’t want to be that slow – it had not been that long ago that I had harbored secret dreams of being the fastest woman alive, like Wilma Rudolph. Maybe Coach was right: if I kept trying my hardest, surely one day I would at least be able to keep up with my class mates.

It wasn’t long before his certainty became oppressive. I started to doubt myself – started to oscillate between rage at his certainty and self-loathing: no matter what I thought, I must not be trying if I was not getting any better. He believed, he suspected that all I needed was more encouragement, or embarrassment, or effort, and I would be as good as anyone else. But he didn’t say, “I suspect…” He didn’t say, “I believe…” He said, “I know.”

We should always be careful about our certainty about another person’s ability or potential. “I know you can do it!” is not a helpful motivator. For someone who really is trying, relentless encouragement can be discouraging.

Take addiction, for instance: when I was interning as a chaplain at a residential addiction treatment facility, I was told that only about 5% of addicts actually manage to stay clean for a full five years after treatment. So what do you say to someone who statistically is 95% likely to get back on drugs in the next 5 years? “I know you can do it?” That’s pretty cheeky – and definitely setting up the vast majority of people in recovery for a serious shame spiral down the road. You could try reverse psychology – hope that you can make them angry enough to fight with the words: “Almost everyone fails at this. What makes you think you are so special? I’m going to see you right back in here in a matter of months.” That’s rather dismal, isn’t it? But most importantly, it isn’t true. No one can tell anyone else for certain that they will or won’t be able to stay off drugs. No one can even know that for themselves. At best, it is a weekly or daily struggle. Sometimes, it’s moment to moment.

None of us can tell another person what they are able to do or likely to do. We don’t know that a person can stay off drugs, or that they will start using again. We don’t know that a person can keep commitments if they just try hard enough, or that they definitely won’t. We don’t know that a person will be able to speak more clearly, read more quickly, or jump farther if they just put their mind to it. When we say that we do know, we are being dishonest and unloving.

We can’t have perfect knowledge. At best, we can have hope: we can desire for a person to be able to do more, or to be able to take better care of themselves. At best, we can be honest enough to say “I don’t know, I hope so,” when a friend asks us, “Do you think I can quit smoking?” or “Will I ever finish this novel?” or “Will I learn how to stop getting so angry at my kids?”

Those three words, “I don’t know,” are a gift. “I don’t know,” means “there is grace for you.” It means that I will not assume that you are lazy if you fail. It means that I know that no matter how well I know you, I cannot know you well enough to peer into your future. It means that I acknowledge that no one’s will is all powerful. Omnipotence is reserved for God alone.

But the next three words, “I hope so,” these are a gift too. “I hope so,” says, “I want you to be healthy.” It says, “I love you.” It says, “I will pray for you.” It says, “I will do my feeble best not to make you stumble.”

Will I be able to remember this advice when the time comes? Will you?

I don’t know. I hope so.

Talking Taboo

In our culture of talk shows and late night Facebook posts, there are many occassions for covering our ears and protesting, “TMI!” [Too Much Information] But in the church, too often we suffer from Too Little Information. In a community that claims to be formed in response to God’s grace – God’s free gift of love for all people – shame keeps our mouths shut. We are afraid of being judged – of being injured in the name of God – and this not an unreasonable fear, but one rooted in hard experience. And so we sit in a pew (or flee from it), holding back our unique history which, if we found the right persons to share it with, would prove to be not so unique after all.

For years I avoided sharing that I had married and divorced in college. And for good reason – I had learned from an early age that silence and shame were the expected responses to a divorce within the Christian community.  But when I began to write about divorce, I found that many pastors and other Christian friends had divorced and remarried, too – and they thanked me for talking about it. This encouraged to share more deeply about the ongoing spiritual and emotional impact of losing my first marriage, including in an essay, “Leaving a Marriage, Finding Jesus,” which will be published in an upcoming book!

Today, I am excited to announce the Indiegogo campaign for that book – Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith (coming from White Cloud Press in October.) I am one of 40 women who contributed essays to this book, edited by Enuma Okoro and Erin Lane. Each one of us is committed to starting a conversation and keeping it going.  The radical hospitality of extending Christian love to all people begins with telling our own stories and listening to each other’s stories with grace and humility.  When you pre-order your copy of Talking Taboo through the Indiegogo site, that gives us the resources we need to publicize the book – and to get conversations started in our churches.  Once you have read the book, I am sure you will agree that we have a lot to talk about.

Learn more, and Preorder Talking Taboo via Indiegogo

Read what co-editors Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro have to say about Talking Taboo

Read what Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren, and Rosemary Radford Ruether have to say about Talking Taboo

Surrounded by Steadfast Love

Surround - All Eyes on Jesus

Surround – All Eyes on Jesus

On Saturday, March 16, Rethink Church’s suggested word for the Lenten “Photo of the Day” was surround. That evening, I saw my daughter setting up the nativity set that my Aunt Marie gave to me the Christmas before Hannah was born. The set she now thinks of as hers could not be more different from the set I played with as a child, an unpainted cast of dozens carved from olive wood in the West Bank circa 1970; but my six year old self had the same instincts as my daughter when it came to the arrangement – everyone crowding around the baby Jesus, surrounding him. After all, he is the main attraction! He is the one everyone is there to see.

SNAP! Once she saw I was taking photos, Hannah started arranging the characters differently, everyone facing out as if they were posing for a group portrait. But without reference to the camera, her gaze and the gaze of the figures were directed towards the baby Jesus.

You may or may not have known that I started off Lent with Rethink Church’s Lent Photo-A-Day challenge. And you may or may not have noticed that I fell off the wagon not quite two weeks into the project. Various life challenges intervened with my ability to stay on track with taking the assigned photo each day… but when I did have time, I didn’t know what to do – should I just take the photo for that day? Or didn’t I need to catch up? If there were gaps in my photo list, people would notice! They would know that I was not keeping Lent properly! That my one Lenten discipline was beyond my capabilities! I would be a public failure!!

[Note: the fear of being a public failure is not limited to my spiritual disciplines. It reaches into all parts of my life, including my wardrobe, as seen in my other post today, at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Durham. See also this parody of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” that I began writing when despairing over my clothes closet this past November.]

Without reference to my blog, my gaze was on Jesus. But once I started posting the photos here, a new layer was added – what had been an intimate time of prayer through creation became a group portrait. The pressure to produce an image turned a spiritual exercise into an occasion for anxiety.

I grew up United Methodist before we went all Revised Common Lectionary and started doing “high liturgical stuff” like paying attention to Lent. 😉 If anything, I was raised to look askance at Lenten disciplines: firstly, they were showing off (fast and pray in private, says the Bible), and secondly, they could lead to spiritual laziness (what? are you spiritually disciplined just a couple of months a year?) But during my time in seminary, I was converted to observing the Christian calendar as a discipline in the sense of revealing to me (and giving me language for) the seasonal nature of my relationship with God, as well as my place within the Christian community.

Now I am starting to find a place for the wisdom of my old Lent skepticism, however. I am asking myself two questions: Am I observing Lent for God, or for my public image within my community? And am I being unrealistic – is this Lent a time when I am somehow more able to take up this discipline than at any other time of the year?

Which has led me to a conclusion: I am going to keep taking and sharing my photos on past Lent. But not every day. Instead, I will post as I am able, and as it gives life to me and my community.

In the Rite of Infant Baptism found in the old Methodist hymnal – the rite I grew up with – the congregation makes this vow: “With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”

Just as the figures in my daughter’s nativity surround Jesus, I have a community of sisters and brothers whose gaze is fixed on Love Incarnate. I met some of them at seminary, others in high school or in college, or on Twitter or Facebook, or at church or through work or another friend, and countless other ways. As they order their lives after the teaching and example of Christ, I am confirmed and strengthened. I am surrounded by their steadfast love.

May the steadfast love of my sisters and brothers in Christ serve as my North Star – always recalling to me the way in which I am to go. Amen.