What Darth Vader Taught Me About Heroes, Villains, and Robert E. Lee

Honestly, I hate pop culture references. So promise me now that you’ll for forgive me for this and then I’ll get on with it.

Okay?
Okay.

Twelve years ago, I watched Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. (Oops. Spoiler.) And, in the words of my husband, “It wrecked me.”

The movie was kind of dumb. And I’m not really a fan of Star Wars to begin with. But the short story goes something like this: a young boy named Anakin is prophesied as the one capable of consummating space-world peace. He comes under the tutelage of the Jedi, who wield some sort of impersonal energy field called the Force which can be used for good or evil. The boy is proud and skeptical and, in an effort to save the life of the woman he loves, his loyalty to the Jedi wanes. Through a series of bad decisions, he ultimately chooses the dark side of the Force and becomes one of the most infamous villains in 20th Century pop culture.

There is molten lava and missing limbs and a space suit involved. (It’s all very dramatic.)

And, though movies like this rarely elicit any sort of deep, emotional response from me, what was going on in my head and my heart after seeing the movie was something along the lines of:

“How f-ing unfair! Anakin wasn’t trying to be the bad guy! He was trying to protect his family and the people he loved and he lost everything! He may have been corrupted, but he is a victim of circumstance. Give the guy a break! Give him another chance! You would have done the same thing! Have some mercy!”

Because, you see, I saw myself in the story.

At the time, I was in the midst of a spiritual “dark night of the soul” and I was treading water, doing whatever I could to stay afloat. I had probably made some dumb decisions, but I saw myself just as much as the victim as the villain of my story. And when I thought about the possibility that my road was going to end in my own metaphorical boiling lava pit, it pissed me off.

Here, twelve years later, I’m happy to say I’ve worked through my Star Wars-induced spiritual crisis. But, silly as it seems, what I learned then (and have learned since then) is helping me make sense of a lot of what’s going on in our world today. Most recently, the debate surrounding Civil War monuments and slavery/racism.

So, here’s what I’d like to contribute to the discussion:

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that I am corruptible.

If you haven’t figured this out about yourself yet, then it’s only a matter of time. And I pray the lesson comes to you innocuously through something like a crappy pop culture movie, rather than through your own serious, life-altering error. Because certainly some of us don’t really figure out our corruptibility until we are years into an affair, thousands of dollars into embezzlement, or staring a police officer in the face after a drunk driving wreck. And, by then, the consequences can be devastating.

And this is one place I see my peers error the most. They believe they are above ethical reproach because they’ve so narrowly focused on self-correcting in one or two areas. These days, you can join the Women’s March or wear a #notmypresident t-shirt for extra morality points in public and online, but never have to reckon with your blind spots elsewhere.

Now, you need to hear me say that “women’s issues and racism are urgent, important issues to address.” (Quote me on it.) But it is a grave danger to believe that you’ve cornered the market on justice because you wear a BLM t-shirt. (I mean, “virtue signaling” is a real thing.)

Sidebar Bible lesson:

The Bible is pretty clear that “sin” is much more complex than just “doing something bad.” And our capacity for sin is complex, as well. If doing what is “right” is the goal then sin is, proverbially-speaking, missing the goal. Even by an inch. Sin is me as anything other than who I would be at the very height of my righteousness (or, you could say, “right-ness”).

(You may think the Bible is a bunch of hogwash, but it’s more-or-less the basis of our common laws and, whether you acknowledge it or not, the source of many of our unspoken social expectations and obligations. So it might be worth considering.)

Now, back to Robert E. Lee:

If you believe, like I do, in the inherent “fallen-ness” of humans, then while there may be circumstantially “innocent” parties (those victimized by racism, slaves, those defending their families from invading armies, etc.), no one is actually categorically Innocent. This is why the Tragic Hero archetype (which we see in characters like Darth Vader) is a little misleading for those trying to come to grips with their own sinfulness and the evil in the world around us. At its best, the Tragic Hero elicits our our empathy. It humanizes our enemies and helps us extend mercy to the villain. But, it can also exploit our pity (like it did mine) and lead us to justify and excuse evil rather than decry it for what it is.

And this is the other area where we really screw it up.

We have a tendency to pick and choose the people to whom  we assign the role of Villain and who we choose for the part of Tragic Hero. It’s usually based on what side of our favorite political issue they stand on and it usually involves a lot of pointing out the inconsistencies in the people on the other side of the issue while ignoring our own. (Now called “butwhataboutism.” Yes, it’s a thing.)

For some, Robert E. Lee is a Tragic Hero of the South; for others, he is pure villain. It’s possible that, circumstantially, both are correct. If we are honest, we have no idea what circumstances lead people to make the decisions they make about what side they are on. The same goes for other zealots and revolutionaries and political leaders throughout history. Sin–even pervasive sin–in the lives of great leaders and brilliant minds is not a new phenomenon. Mankind hasn’t really changed all that much.

It’s possible to understand how a man ends up on the wrong side of history without feeling the need to justify it. But this kind of empathy can’t happen until you are well acquainted with your own corruptibility and admit how easily you might have done the same thing.

This is why it’s okay to be honest. There is no need to save face. Some of our ancestors got it right; some of them got it wrong. You don’t need to protect anyone’s reputation. We’re all in the “sin” boat together and it’s okay to call evil what it is.

But identity politics has neutered our conscience. It has made us more loyal to those who are like us–Southerners, ethnic minorities, working class, women, Conservatives, Liberals, etc.–than we are to what is right.

We need to get more comfortable with the idea that justice (in the holistic, Shalom sense) transcends these identity groups. And until we’re willing to do that, we can’t work together for any sort of solution for the future. We’re at a stalemate. No one is going to budge. We may as well just relegate public discourse to yelling across across police lines and holding clever protest signs that prove our moral superiority.

So does this mean we should topple the statues? Tear down the monuments? Rename the churches and school and highways that were named after the Tragic Heroes or sometimes villains of our shared history? I can certainly understand the desire. Maybe we should. Heck, tear them all down. All our idolatrous memorials to history and heritage and power and superiority. (Don’t quote me on that. I’m being facetious)

Our idols need to be destroyed. You can either smash the idols in your heart or smash them in the public square. I don’t know that it really matters how you do it. But it needs to happen eventually because idolatry (idolatry of family, of nation, of sex, of power, of the past, etc.) will destroy us from the inside out. It will destroy our relationships and it will destroy our ability to see what is right and wrong in the world around us and in our hearts.

We were created to serve only one master. There is only one noble knight riding on a horse. There is only one King on the throne. He is the hero of this story. And–spoiler alert–his name isn’t Robert E. Lee.

(Or Darth Vader.)

 

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The Time Between: Living Life on the Second Day

Have you ever read something for the umpteenth time and noticed something you’ve never noticed before? It happened to me tonight a Good Friday church service while reading along with one of the Gospel passages.

The passage covers the brief time after Jesus’ death when he is being prepared for burial:

Luke 23: 50-56

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

Did you see it?

“On the Sabbath, they rested according to the commandment.”

I swear that in all the 33+ years I’ve heard the Bible read and have read the Bible, I’ve never really noticed that little bit. Or at least I never thought it was anything other than an inconsequential blip. So here I am, decades into knowing the story of Easter, realizing that I’ve never thought too much about what happened in the time between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Turns out, the Sabbath happened.

I did a little quick research tonight and it appears there is some disagreement about how the Sabbath fits into the schedule of Jesus death and resurrection, especially since in that particular year and at that time, the Jews observed both a normal weekly Sabbath and a yearly Sabbath. That was about as much information as I needed to know to know that I could at least count on the observance of the Sabbath happening somewhere in there. And I certainly don’t think it was a coincidence.

Have you ever experienced a huge, monumental event? Maybe something exciting; maybe something traumatic. Think of something significant, something by which you can mark the timeline of your life as “before” and “after.” Think of something after which you laid in bed, mind racing, replaying the event in your mind until you finally fell asleep. Maybe it was the death of a parent, witnessing a crime, meeting a personal hero, or being offered the dream job.

Now think about what it was like the next day. Remember the excitement or the pain or the confusion or the regret. Remember how it felt the first time you saw the people who had experienced that event with you, how you didn’t know if it was better to talk about it or not talk about it. How it had been such a huge deal that part of you wondered if it had certainly been a dream. How maybe you wished it had been. Remember how you wanted to hear everyone else’s version of the story so you could be sure you hadn’t imagined it all.

Now think back to the night of Jesus’ death. Imagine the disciples who had just allowed a mob to arrest and torture their beloved teacher and mentor. Imagine Jesus’ mother who had just hours before stood at the foot of a cross while her son was crucified. Imagine the women who prepared his body for burial, who didn’t understand how the man they believed had come as the promised Messiah was now dead in a borrowed tomb.

Imagine how they all wandered back to their homes, crawled into bed, and laid awake that night wondering how any of the things they’d just witnessed could possibly be true. Imagine how certain they must have been that, from that night forward, everything would be marked as either “before” or “after.”

Now this is where that little bit I mentioned before gets really important because, the next morning, they didn’t really wake up to life “after” the death of Jesus. They woke up to the second day, the time between what Jesus did and what he’d said he would do. And, for that time between, on that second day, God gave them a Sabbath.

This second day might not seem significant to anyone else, but it seems awfully significant to me and I’m thankful tonight that the fathers of our faith were wise enough to put some space between our observance of Christ’s death and our observance of the resurrection.

I’m thankful because I feel like the second day is where I’m living these days.

I feel like the majority of my past 10 years or so has been one big, fat “time between.” It’s been the time between what God has done and what God has promised to do. And, just like the morning after witnessing a horrific car wreck or the morning after meeting the man of my dreams, I wake up every morning wishing I could skip through this time between and go straight to Resurrection Day.

The time between sucks.
And part of what sucks about it is that, like the disciples, there’s not a whole lot I can do to make the story move faster. Like the disciples, God is at work in the background bringing the story to completion while I’m left in the dark. Like the disciples, I’d probably rather find something to keep myself busy and distracted while I wait but, instead, God requests obedience to the Sabbath.

Rest. Worship. Pray. and Wait.

The second day.
It’s the time between the diagnosis and the cure.
It’s the time between the first try and the “+” sign.
It’s the time between the pink slip and the “you’re hired.”
It’s the time between her death and your falling in love again.
(Or, for some, it’s the time between wanting that cure or wanting that baby or that job or that new love and the day your heart finally lets go of the longing.)

Rest. Worship. Pray. and Wait.

A watched pot never seems to boil.
Until it does.

Sometimes God never seems to show up.
Until he does.

And when the disciples woke up on that second day, I’m sure some were confused and some were angry and some were so sad that they couldn’t even get out of bed. But they observed the Sabbath anyway. They rested. They worshiped and prayed. And, if they were brave and bold enough, they probably talked together about what they’d just witnessed the night before and hoped together beyond all hope that God was going to come through like he said he would.

And he did.
On the third day.

As for me, I keep waking up hoping it’s finally the third day. That my heart is finally whole again. That my faith has been restored. That my mind is not anxious. And that God has done the things I’ve been told he promised to do so that I can live more like the resurrection and less like the time between.

Sometimes God never seems to show up.
Until he does.

So let’s make the time more easy passing by telling ourselves and each other the stories about the times he has shown up, the things he has done, and the ways the resurrection has brought fulfillment to our longings, hope for our despair, and peace for the chaos of a world caught in the time between.

 

I Met Him In A Bar

I met him in a bar
(but it wasn’t like that).

I was hired as a barista
because there was more coffee than booze
before 4pm.

It was a dirty old place with
graffiti on the walls
and shelves of books
you’d never actually want to read.

The place was dark
and brooding
with a band of regulars who
never asked my name
but let me have the crossword
in the daily newspaper
and would help kick out the
people who drank too much.

I was new in town
with a dayjob that paid
about $5 an hour
so I took the gig for extra cash
and free nachos and beer.

I worked the night shift.

I met him in a bar when I was 23
and nursing my broken heart
by pretending I had no heart at all.

He was cute
and I wasn’t afraid.
That was how it started.

In those days, he had a uniform
(like I’m told all brilliant people do)
of black on black with jeans
and he sat in the back of the bar
with a cup of soup
and a couple books,
talking to a regular customer
who thought he could teach the guy with the Bible
a thing or two about just about everything.

I asked him if he was a student,
which I assumed he was
since he was holding the same book I’d used
way back when.

No, he said.
I’m a pastor.

Which was not what I was expecting.

I met him in a bar
ten years ago
when the kind of man who
stays and helps put up the chairs
but never tries the beer
was not what I was looking for.

So our first conversation was shared
with deep skepticism
over the copper-top bar
while I smoked my cigarettes and
tossed in a few curse words
just to see if he would flinch.

And I know for certain that it was more
the peculiarity of
the girl behind the bar
who was better at discussing theology than
she was at pouring a drink
and not some cosmic connection to me
that kept the conversation going
because he was not looking for a girl
with dreadlocks
and an ideological predisposition against
lipstick and shaved legs.

You don’t meet nice girls at a bar.
(Trust me.)

I met him at a bar
and it has always seemed to me
the best place I could have ever met
my husband.

Because ten years ago,
I would have never trusted a man
with a Bible in his hand
who was anywhere other than
a dark table
with a coffee cup
at the bar on the wrong side of town.

 

 

The Two-Income Trap and Why It’s Killing Us All

I don’t have a ton of friends who come to me for advice about marriage and motherhood but, when they do, there is always at least one warning I make certain I communicate: when preparing for your future as a family, avoid the two-income trap at all costs.

Also known as: your career isn’t worth what you think it’s worth.

Also known as: quit your job while you still can.

Okay, let me back up.

A few years ago, I picked up a book by politician Elizabeth Warren called The Two-Income Trap and it blew my mind.

Elizabeth Warren (who is rumored to be Bernie Sanders’ choice for VP if he wins the Democratic nomination this election cycle) is a brilliant scholar with a real heart for protecting the viability of America’s middle-class. In this book (and elsewhere), she writes about the economic shifts in our country that are forcing millions of “traditional families” (my words, not hers) to become dual-income families out of necessity. Where once a family could have a humble but comfortable life with one income, more and more families are now sending a second parent into the workforce to help pay for basic needs. Where once a mother would take a small side job to pay for frivolities such as an extra family vacation, she now takes a job to help pay for weekly groceries.

This, according to Elizabeth Warren, is a big problem.
In short, I agree.

Now, Warren and I are not necessarily political allies. She and I disagree a little bit about why we got here and how we are going to get out of this mess, but I think she has articulated this issue better than most and has some great things to say about the nature of the problem. (If you’re interested in the issue, I’d recommend the book.)

If you’d like the Liz McEwan version of the story, I’ll offer it here.

The concept of “the two-income trap” is simple and I’ve watched it happen over and over again to friends and strangers alike. The basic gist goes something like this: two wonderful, competent adults get married and build fulfilling careers and then, when it comes time to welcome a baby into the picture, they need both incomes to sustain their lifestyle. So, they spend the emotional and physical energy equivalent to a marathon arranging their lives to maintain both careers while trying to arrange daycare and nannies and preschool and still have time to make dinner and eat dinner and maybe play together for ten minutes before bed and maybe fit in a trip to the zoo on the weekends. It’s exhausting. It’s depressing. And it’s not the way things are supposed to be.

Let’s pause for a moment
Maybe you see yourself in this situation and it strikes a chord and makes you depressed or offended or so mad you could spit. Money and parenting are touchy subjects, so I would like to clarify a few things.

First, my position on this comes as much from personal experience as it comes as an observer. I may not be a “career mom,” but when my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world, we were not ready to live on a single income. Because of that, the past 7 years have been hard. SUPER hard. My husband has taken many, many side jobs and I have continued working part-time so we can slowly work ourselves out of debt and eventually into the freedom of a single income.

So I know how impossible it seems to survive on a modest income.
And I know how much it sucks to drive an old car instead of a new one and to not buy myself clothes this season and to buy used furniture from friends and to not take a vacation when we could really, really use one.

And I also know how hard it is to give up a career.
And how hard it is to be “just a mom” in a world where being a mom is simply not enough to be validated. And I know what it’s like to know that I could be making a lot of money somewhere doing something super awesome and, instead, I am making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my pajamas.

Some of my friends love staying home with their kids; some of them don’t. Some of my friends absolutely love their careers; some dream of the day that can quit. My point is not to romanticize stay at home moms or judge women who choose a career instead. Every story is different and I don’t know yours, specifically.

My goal, instead, is to encourage younger (or childless) women to prepare now for what they want in the future and to count the cost of their career before it’s too late and they are trapped at work while they’re rather be at home.

Practically speaking, a few words of advice for those who want to work toward living on a single income:

Do the math.
Childcare is expensive. So are work clothes, that second car, and dinners out with colleagues. Before assuming that you absolutely must have two incomes, consider the money you’d save by staying home. Balance the cost of working against the value of staying home before you decide how much your career is really worth to you. Do the actual math. With numbers. You might be surprised.

Consider the benefits.
There is more than quantifiable monetary value to having a parent at home with the kids. A stay at home parent usually means more home-cooked meals together, healthier emotional/physical attachments with parents, more one-on-one time with the kids, and a more stable rhythm of the home life.

Consider the freedom.
The non-working parent in a single-income family is free to stay home with a sick child or to travel to care for ailing parents or help friends. They are also free to take on side-work or odd jobs for extra income when the need (or opportunity) arises. There is only one person’s work schedule to work around. There is always someone around to answer the door when the neighbor rings.

Re-imagine home life.
Erase the picture you have in your mind of the Betty Crocker stay at home mom and build a home life that matches YOU. Dream about the ways you are uniquely gifted to create a home that is a place you actually want to be.

Re-define your “work.”
Especially for those of you with a college degree: Don’t judge the value of your education by its pay-off in salary; judge the value of your education by the fruitfulness of your life. Be productive. Get creative and be proactive in putting your gifts and skills to work to support your family. Use your education, even if the way you use it doesn’t pay the bills. Keep your mind awake and your skills sharp because they will come in handy now and in the future when your kids are grown and out of the house.

Build a community.
Without a workplace for easy socialization, many moms get bored and lonely at home. (Face it: kids don’t always make the best company.) Find other moms like you, moms who remind you that being a mom is good, hard work. Then make other friends, too–friends who don’t have kids yet or whose kids are grown. Don’t blame your loneliness on staying home. Community is cultivated. It requires work.

Lastly, I know it’s dangerous to say this, but I’ll say it anyway.

Reconsider your lifestyle.
In her book, Elizabeth Warren is correct to attribute much of the two-income trap to risings costs in housing, education, and healthcare over the past 50 or so years. I think she’s right. There is no doubt that it’s harder than ever for an average middle-class family to pay for an average middle-class lifestyle. But I think her solution (which involves a lot of government-funded education and healthcare) is insufficient to correct the problem.

I think, before we even consider outside solutions, we need to reconsider what we’re working ourselves to death and sacrificing valuable years with our children to pay for.

The truth is, you probably don’t need that bigger house with the extra bedroom.
Or the extra two days at the hotel.
Your son doesn’t need his own iPad.
Your daughter doesn’t need to take ballet and tennis lessons.
Your kids might do just as well at the neighborhood school as they’d do at the private school.

The truth is, for many of us, it’s not a life we’re paying for–it’s a lifestyle. And that new pair of shoes or the eighty dollar dinner or the last-minute trip to Portland this weekend might be worth it to you, but it’s not worth it to me. And, if you asked your kids, they’d probably say it’s not worth it to them, either.

And then a word of encouragement for those in situations where you simply cannot make it work on one income: Maybe you are underpaid. Maybe you are unemployable or injured. Maybe you owe a small fortune in debts. Maybe the economy where you live just sucks. If this is you, I encourage you to plod along as faithfully as you can until your situation changes.

And, when it does, get out as quickly as you can.
It’s a trap.