Review: Nice by Sharon Hodde Miller

I had an experience recently where I tried to politely decline a request. I thought I had been clear, firm, and still nice the first time I said, “No, not right now.” The person asking kept asking… and asking… and asking. And each time I said no in a new and still polite way, it became harder. Finally after months, I found myself in a volunteer role I didn’t want and feeling quite resentful toward the whole experience.

In her book, Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, Sharon Hodde Miller describes my experience. She says that niceness for the sake of placating and being polite can often lead to disillusionment and cynicism. Miller isn’t calling for people to be rude or inconsiderate but she does take the stance that we need to be firm, honest, and unwavering.

This starts with responses to requests but is rooted in our faith. In the context of White Churches who stayed quiet during the Civil Rights Movement, Miller reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s words from Birmingham Jail,

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail

Miller expands on King’s statement by saying that in pursuit of niceness, good Christians were, “…committed to the status quo than they were to justice. They were more committed to comfort than they were to courage. They had good intentions – great intentions! – but they weren’t willing to count the cost of them” (pg 77).

Throughout the book, Miller reminds her readers that the fruits of niceness can often be unhealthy and rotten. God calls us to a faith that steps out into the world of justice and pushing against the status quo. It is a faith that is uncomfortable and deep. This can make those around us feel uneasy but by sugarcoating injustices with the excuse of keeping the peace or being polite, we are failing the call of the message of good news.

I appreciate that Miller doesn’t call for unkind confrontation but rather thoughtful subversion and intentional pushback. She warns that niceness can lean to bigger divides than we realize while sacrificing the very character of Jesus.

This book came at the right time for me. It was a reminder to stand firm, not only in my boundaries with others but also in what I’ve learned about my faith itself. How do I engage in thoughtful conversation without ignoring my own convictions?

If you’ve ever been caught in an uncomfortable place because you tried to be too nice, this book is an encouraging reminder that we can be in community while also standing true to our beliefs.

Has being too nice ever gotten you in trouble? How do you balance politeness with conviction?

I received this book free from the publisher via Baker Books Bloggers in exchange for my honest opinion. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Balancing Environmental Disturbances

The more I learn, the more I unravel. Favorite childhood books are coming under scrutiny and it’s hard to balance nostalgia with a sense of doing better. Last week, I grappled with the idea of Intermediate Disturbance Hypothosis, the idea that too much disturbance is just as harmful as too little diversity. Here’s an excerpt––head over to SheLoves to read the whole essay!

My seven-year-old daughter and I just finished reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It took us all summer with stops and starts because of camping trips and visits with family. I was amazed at how engaged Bea was in the story since this was the first “capital L” piece of literature we tried.

About halfway through the story, Bea stopped me and declared, “There are no girls in this story! Why not?!”

I turned to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1937. We talked a bit about the time period in which Tolkien was writing—that fantasy wasn’t a “girl’s audience.” Bea wasn’t convinced.

When we finished the book, I asked her how she liked it. She decided it was good but added, “I’m writing two more versions. One with only girls and one with both boys and girls so that they’re even.”

I was recently talking with a friend about the books we read with our children. Should I get rid of all the Dr. Seuss books in our house because of his racist artwork? What about Ma’s fear of the Osage Nation as they built a cabin on occupied land? Should all our books pass the Bechdel test, requiring two named female characters to have a conversation with each other?

Our answer is no… not yet.

My husband read the entire Little House series with Bea. I’ve read The Hobbit with her. Our bookshelves still have well-loved copies of Hop on Pop and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? Our answer, as with most of our parenting choices, is really, let’s talk about it. Let’s think critically about our choices. But let’s not ban anything just yet.

As someone who values history and context, I want to raise my girls with a sense of place in time. We are not making decisions in a vacuum—the stories we hear, the politics we support, the ways we think about God are all products of hundreds of years of stories, literature, and collective behaviors. Some of these behaviors are unhealthy, both to us individually and to society as a whole. Most of our western nations have been built on the foundation of colonialism and slavery of some sort. We can’t escape it.

So how do we raise kids who are aware and knowledgeable? How do we start to repair the sins of the past? Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the conversation!

What foundational book do you find yourself questioning today? How do you hold the tension between growth and appreciation for the journey?

The Ten Blessings in “No Other Gods”

I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today introducing our Red Couch Book Club September read, No Other Gods by Ana Levy-Lyons. It’s a book about the Ten Commandments and shifting our view to that of Ten Blessings. Levy-Lyons helped me bring these ancient guidelines into my own daily practices. Here’s an excerpt. I hope you’ll head over to SheLoves to join the conversation!

This summer, my seven-year-old asked why we need speed limits. I thought a moment before replying, “Well, I think it’s because we have trouble loving our neighbors without rules. In a perfect world, every driver would be thinking about kids playing and other people on the road but sometimes we need laws to help us be safe.” We then went on to talk about other laws that would be solved by remembering to love our neighbor.

This is the crux of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments by Ana Levy-Lyons. She takes what can often feel like an obvious and antiquated set of rules and brings them into modernity. What do these practices show us about loving God and loving our neighbors?

I find it interesting that it took centuries of human existence before God had to explicitly spell out how we need to interact with each other. Maybe God held out hope that we’d figure it out through natural consequence? Regardless, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus narrative, the people had trouble blending their routines and expectations. They needed guidelines and a set of non-negotiable boundaries and so the Ten Commandments were given.

I think most of us can map out these ten ways to live: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, honor your parents. These are guidelines that make any community run well. I mean, when’s the last time you really struggled with not stealing something or with murderous thoughts?

Levy-Lyons brings these commandments into a “Ten Blessings” type of practice. What does it really mean for us in the twenty-first century to not covet our neighbor’s property? What does it mean for people to honor their parents when they come from an abusive home? I think we’ve all seen how these rules have been distorted to benefit those in power but how do we live them out in our daily lives?

Through the lens of liberation justice, Levy-Lyons breathes new life into this text. Head over to SheLoves to read the rest and join the discussion!

Have you read No Other Gods? How do you incorporate the Ten Commandments into your life?

Loving My Neighbor Through School Choice

Over the summer we were at a family gathering halfway across the country. It was a lot of catching up and conversation about education came up. A cousin asked if ours was a good school and I hesitated. Yes, our school is an incredible school! We love it and our teachers. My daughter is thriving and her curiosity is encouraged. But it’s also a school that recently went on academic probation. Our test scores are low, mostly due to the fact that we have a large immigrant and refugee population – one of the things that drew us to our neighborhood. I laughed and said, “Good is such a relative marker.”

We went on to talk about the point of education. Is it to ensure our first graders are constantly challenged or is it to build empathy? Is it to check off a list of skills our kids need to know or is it to learn to be in community, to love our neighbors? For our family, we knew we could fill in any academic gaps that may arise on our own. But it would be much harder to expose our kids to families whose values, economic capabilities, and cultural backgrounds are different from our own.

When we moved to our neighborhood, our oldest was two years old – not even in preschool yet. We knew we were moving into one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our state and also into a highly respected school district. When we walked to our neighborhood school, just a block away, on the weekends to play, we were greeted with an enormous sign, announcing its status as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

Before having kids, I earned a master’s degree in urban education and taught for seven years at a charter school. I had studied the positive impacts of investing in neighborhood education while also working with families who had decided to choice into a different school. I enjoyed my time at a charter school, mostly because my grade level teammate was an incredible teacher. I knew the gift of working with her wouldn’t come often. Our school was a good fit for a lot of families but teaching at a charter was a reminder that there were excellent teachers there and there were people who would probably thrive in a different profession. The curriculum was good but not great. There were highly involved families and families who outsourced a lot of responsibility to the school. What I’m saying is, charter schools are not a magic cure. They have pros and cons, just like public schools.

As attendance to neighborhood public schools dwindles nationwide, my husband and I believed we were brought to our particular neighborhood for a reason. A natural outgrowth of that was to send our children to the school closest to us, where we could walk and meet other families in our area. Going to our local public school was the perfect opportunity to live out one of the Bible’s greatest commands: To love our neighbor.

Our dreams were realized at our school. Our daughter has had absolutely incredible teachers who love her and have poured into her curiosity. She has interacted with students from all over the world – over 40 cultures are represented. Just like my experience as a teacher, there are families who are highly involved and families who outsource responsibility to the school system. And they aren’t always the families you would expect.

Last year, our school went on academic probation. My husband asked if this impacted my love for our community and honestly, it made me value our school even more. When I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom each week, I see teachers who are highly committed to each and every student. When I spend each Wednesday morning teaching English to our immigrant parents, I see moms who are working hard to give their children the best opportunities. I love knowing I am raising my kids among these incredible families, regardless of what a test score shows.

I know school choice is a complex issue. There are as many reasons for choosing a school as there are schools and students. We all want what’s best for our kids. We have close friends who send their daughter to a private school that represents their minority religion and other friends who have chosen a charter school that offers Spanish immersion. We have friends who are as in love with and committed to their neighborhood schools as we are and we have friends who have chosen other options based on a variety of other needs.

As your kids enter school, I’d encourage you to ask: What motivates your school choiceIs it what’s truly best for your child and your neighbors? Is it motivated by fear of the unknown? 

Lean into where God has planted your family – perhaps there’s a reason … I know I have seen God at work in unexpected ways, right here at our neighborhood school and I am thankful I was here to witness it.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/school-choice-questions-ask/

One September Morning

I think my baby girl was about 6 weeks old when I first felt the itch to expand our world beyond the hammock in our backyard. While I loved snuggling my sweet newborn, I knew we needed a community. I was one of the first in our group of friends to have a baby and so I didn’t have a lot of stay-at-home girlfriends to lean on.

I remember typing in “MOPS near me” to Google one morning, knowing that an aunt of mine was a MOPS mentor for a group at her church in California. As little pinpoints filled the map on my screen, I wondered how I would pick one of the several groups that met within a couple miles of our house.

When my daughter woke from her morning nap, I closed my computer, packed a diaper bag with more essentials than I would ever bring with our second baby, strapped Bea into her car seat, clicked it into the stroller, and walked up the block on our first outing to our neighborhood library’s Book Babies hour.

Of course, we arrived late because that’s what moms of newborns do. As I unloaded and sat in the back of the group, a mom without a baby in her lap leaned over with a smile and welcomed me. Later, during “free play” time, she asked for my life story. Kathy is one of those women who probably knows details about everyone she’s in contact with––from regulars in the checkout line to those at her church. She has the ability to ask all the right questions and to make anyone feel safe and comfortable.

As we talked, she invited me to the MOPS group that had just started at her church. It was one of the farthest in my Google search but still only a five- minute drive from our house. I decided that this conversation was Divine Intervention. A few days later, I walked into a church and was greeted with coffee, muffins and women who wanted to know me. Kathy wasn’t there but she had told the leader about a new mom she had met at the library. This group was expecting me and I knew I had found my home.

As I sat at a table, holding my baby, watching the other moms work on a craft project, another mom asked if she could hold Bea so I could make my own craft. Before I knew it, April was bouncing her next to our table as I found myself with baby-free arms for the first time since giving birth.

It’s been seven years since that moment and I can now say with confidence, that morning was life-changing. These women have become our family’s close friends. We’ve celebrated birthdays and baby showers together, we’ve gone to each other’s homes for dinners and watch each other’s kids in a pinch. Recently, my family switched from our church of 10 years to fully commit to the community at our MOPS church. It has always been home, even though it took us time to realize that.

Looking back, that day in September seems so random. It’s rare when God speaks so loudly or so quickly to my questions. As school starts back, I’m looking for those nudges again. Where is God leading me? What relationships do I need to invest in? What volunteer opportunities will fit our family in this season? How will I look back on this season and recognize that God was speaking loud and clear?

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/mops-story-one-september-morning

Living On the Edge

This summer I did something completely outside my comfort zone. I composed an unsent letter and read it to an audience of strangers. I was one of about 15 or so people who read letters that ranged in mood and theme. One woman responded to a misogynistic text sent after a first date; an Uber driver wrote responses to his passengers; one woman wrote about an abortion and another wrote a letter to America through the lens of her experience as a black woman.

My letter was one of the tamer ones, written to a group of friends I lost a few years ago due to circumstance and misunderstanding. It was a healing process – I knew my feelings were hurt but I hadn’t realized how I hung onto those hurts.

I took away two lessons from this experience. First, we need to listen to more stories. Each person spoke between 5 and 10 minutes and, as an audience member, all you could do was listen and applaud at the end for their bravery. Folks were vulnerable and I was reminded that there are so many stories just below the surface, waiting to be told. It is powerful to be in a space in which my only response is to listen – no asking questions, no personal connections, no feedback. I need more of this in my life.

My second takeaway is how incredible it is to do something completely outside my norm. I lead a very routine and quiet life. And I like it that way. I like knowing that our meals are planned and that school pickup looks about the same everyday. I like having rhythms and expected behaviors to guide my days. But it is invigorating to do something new, something scary, something that gave me butterflies in my stomach the week before my performance.

It was a reminder to push my boundaries and to say “yes” to opportunities that make me nervous or that I don’t seem qualified for. It’s also made me wonder what I need to pursue, without invitation. What are some dreams I may have or even just some ideas that are bubbling below the surface?

As we transition from summer to school-season, I’m thinking of adding just one big risk to my days. Maybe I’ll fail at it or maybe it will teach me something new about myself. Either way, I want that feeling of challenge and a break from the average days. I don’t know what this will look like and perhaps the opportunity won’t present itself until months from now. At any rate, I’m calming my expectations and keeping my eyes open for something that will help me take a leap.

What are some new risks you’re taking? How do you intentionally pursue something outside your norm?

Poised on the Horizon

My alarm has started going off at 5:45 after ten blissful weeks of waking up “naturally” at 6:30. (Can a mom of early risers wake up without assistance?) Bea has been back in school for a week and Elle starts preschool next week. We are easing back into schedules and routines after a busy July.

Even though I don’t love rising early, I do love having some minutes to myself before the day truly begins. I sit in my hot pink chair by the window, read a devotional thought from Walter Brueggemann and a chapter in The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman. I’m dressed and ready by the time the girls wake up around 6:30.

The other morning, I was peeling hard boiled eggs, stocking up the fridge for breakfast, lunch, and after school snacks. I was hoping to complete the task in the small window between brushing teeth and leaving for school and found myself rushing. The more I hurried, the more trouble I had pulling the shell from the white of the egg. The membrane would stick and I found myself getting frustrated. Looking at the clock on the microwave, I left half a dozen eggs in the ice water bath where they had been cooling and put the container of peeled eggs in the fridge. I decided to finish my task after walking Bea to school.

When we returned just fifteen minutes later, I found my mindset had shifted and I took my time tapping the eggs against the counter and peeling the shell off. When I took my time, the task became so much easier and quicker. Soon, eleven eggs (minus one eaten right away) were stored in the fridge, ready for a healthier option to bunny crackers and popsicles after school.

Cracking those eggs made me pause and take note of how I so often live my days. Bea just started second grade and Elle will be in her last year of preschool. Time seems to be picking up speed. It’s not that I want to stop in this season – we’re just now catching glimpses of more independence and possibly easier adventures – but it does make me recognize the ache of time passing.

Maybe it’s that we’re in a transition year as a family and my last grandparent just passed away. Maybe I’m more attuned to the fact that I’m approaching a season of shift – for my girls and for myself. I’ve been asking the question, “What next?” for a while but it’s feeling more and more real, knowing that this time next year both girls will be in school all day long. What does this mean for me?

I want to rush the process, to have a plan in place by next August. I want to know what I want to be when I grow up. But that is such a misnomer – that we suddenly become something when we are twenty-two year old graduates or thirty-seven year old moms. This takes the journey out of the equation.

Recently, I read a passage about Patience and Longing in In the Sanctuary of Women. Jan L. Richardson reflects on the fact that we are so often wedged between Longing and Patience. In a poem she says,

Patience has not told her
she has some envy
of Longing’s perfect ache
or that she thinks it must be an art
to hold oneself
so perpetually poised
toward the horizon.

For her part,
Longing has not confessed
that there are days
she find Patience restful.
Soothing. A relief.

In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan L. Richardson, pg 177

I’m remembering that neither one nor the other is the place to rest but that leaning into both patience and longing can be a simultaneous act. I can confidently dream and embrace what is on the horizon while also finding rest and relief in the waiting.

I’m slowing my pace, putting aside tasks until I have the time to do them well, and remembering that I may not discover what it is I’m meant to do in the next season right away. And that’s ok. I’m leaning into the journey, saying yes to what I need to lean into and saying no to distractions. I’m planting my feet in the present without feeling guilty or anxious about listening to dreams of the future.

Where are you on the journey? How do you lean on both longing and patience?