Zoloft Stole my Sex Drive: a brief history of my libido (sex + shame part eight)

Zoloft Stole my Sex Drive: a brief history of my libido (sex + shame part eight)

YOU GUYS. I am so excited to introduce you to my friend Meredith Bazzoli, who is a kickass writer and mama and improviser near Chicago. Her piece made me laugh, it made me cry. OK I didn’t quite cry, but I did sigh with relief several times at not being alone—both in having a sex life disrupted by medical issues, and in my previous belief that nothing could possibly disrupt the married sex lives of the virtuous. I do hope you’ll follow her on Twitter or Instagram for more hilarity and also sometimes seriousness.

I saved myself for marriage.

Or however you want to say it. That particular turn of phrase reminds me of the soggy blueberry pancake and remnants of chorizo omelette I scraped off my plate and into a foil container last week at a breakfast restaurant in town. Carefully pinching the foil rim over the cardboard lid, I knew we’d never eat our scraps, and yet, as a rule, I always make sure to take home a doggy bag if we have at least a fistful of food leftover.

Maybe the wording works better than I give it credit for. I certainly felt like a soggy, forgotten pancake in the back of the fridge for most of my adolescence. In my spot towards the back of the shelf, saving myself remained a predominantly passive activity since I got asked out exactly five times from birth to age twenty five.

Two of the five asks were the same person at different ages, one was a guy who recently married a man, and number five is my husband Drew. But the point is, I waited, I saved myself, I protected my flower, I kept my virginity, remained pure, kept my legs closed, or however you want to word it.

The purity movement presented a fairly uncomplicated formula for sexual bliss: two people who shelved themselves until marriage would come together on their wedding night and receive their prize. I watched this promise propel friends down the aisle, accelerating towards the marriage bed after years of being pulled back from the genitals of the opposite sex. While creating a firm boundary at the zipper of their jeans, these couples seemed attached by every other limb, twining around each other, their horniness flowing out of their hands, hands whose digits never stopped moving around one another’s bodies.

But soon enough, the first down the aisle came back with reports of the wedding night. They told us not to get our hopes up. The process of two virgins coming together as one flesh for the first time in a Marriott hotel room paid for by their grandparents was perhaps something we could wait a little longer for.

“It can be too big!” One friend exclaimed of her elder sister’s wedding night. We stared wide eyed wondering if our own vaginas could support the girth of our future spouses.

Other friends in the know topped their Victoria’s Secret boxes at lingerie showers with bottles of lubricant sloshing back and forth under a gold curly cued ribbon. “You’ll need this,” their eyes seemed to say, “trust me.”

But what no one told me was that after years of waiting, I might not want “it” at all. Not as some purified call to celibacy, but as a side effect of a pill that was otherwise keeping me sane and alive.


I remember my sex drive. It was all fire and magnetism, a pull towards belt loops and back pockets, a sense of urgency to get closer, faster before the moment or the world ended. It was the jackal in an American Indian trickster tale darting into consciousness when least convenient around parents and grandparents and conservative Christians. It was an appetite with eyes bigger than it’s stomach, constantly convincing me that there was room for more, that the belt loop could move over a rung or two without too much guilt. And I’d take a little more, steal kisses in the next room or stop the truck to tumble into my lover’s arms, greedy for more of him.

It had me flipping through books like Every Young Woman’s Battle to see what God said about my urge to chase that certain feeling between my legs. Most of the purity materials for girls focused on the defense actions of chastity: guarding, covering, waiting. With a lack of information on having desires, let alone how to wield them, I came to understand myself as disordered for my gender.

But these instances are all memories, pre-antidepressant.

Many who suffer from anxiety and depression swallow a few SSRI’s each day (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). I often forget the chemistry of what my Zoloft is doing; I know only that it raises rock bottom, that it creates small margins in my mind to think separately from the well-worn anxious paths. But nonetheless, to create this reality, my hormones get taken along for a ride.

While I’m tempted to spend a few thousand words justifying why I needed the SSRI’s in the first place and my journey to getting them and the sort of stigmas attached to such medication and mental illness, I will merely say that at times, my ability to live and function in the world was so inhibited by the misheard messages that very few options remained for me.

And so, the month I got engaged, my general practitioner wrote out my first prescription for an anti-depressant alongside my birth control pills. In passing, she mentioned my new pills might affect my sex drive. Increased Serotonin decreases your desire—not your sexual performance necessarily, like the men riding on boats with their golden retrievers in Viagra commercials—but it takes sex off my brain and gives me a neutral-leaning-to-negative feeling about it. Sex finally on the horizon, I had none of my primal fires burning, none of nature’s urgings to keep the species alive. After years of learning how to contain the flames, I barely had a smoldering match.

We talked about the medicated shift in my libido at our premarital counseling. At the time, we assumed the pills were temporary. I had a lot going against me depression/anxiety wise: an overly detailed wedding, a mother with cancer, a recent attack by a family dog. As a couple, we planned on doing it till our hips and knees and hearts gave out, so we took this blip on our sex timeline in stride.

But three years later, I still take one and half of the yellow tablets every morning; and with them, I swallow the bigger pill of shame, that I couldn’t fix myself with sun lamps, or exercise, or counseling, or that one kind of therapy where my counselor ushered me down the path of my memory with two little vibrating orbs alternating in my left and right hands. And most of all, the deep shame that, married to the good, good man I am—a 6’4” dreamboat who will text with me about my poop and never lets a day go by that he doesn’t express his love and desire for me—I don’t have a sex drive.

While we’ve rewritten the script for intimacy in our own marriage, the original version still sneaks through, a palimpsest layered with early 2000’s purity culture, sex talks with sassy married millennials at coffee shops, and a deep feeling down in my gut that I am defective, that I deserve this for some misstep of lust or pleasure in my past.

I keep silent on a walk with friends, one sharing how she decided against birth control pills since they curbed her sister in law’s sex drive, and again when friends sit around and give advice on the night before another friend’s wedding. They talk about pushing past tiredness and how many times a week they put out—men do really want sex all the time they say. I can’t help but hear a long-ago line about men looking for sex elsewhere if you don’t give it to them, if you don’t perform your wifely role and duty as God intended.

And I am sad for Drew. But I am also proud of him. For navigating this road with me, for never once entertaining any of my talk of sexual karma or my own grossness, for going above and beyond to ensure not only consent in our love making, but also volition, comfort and agency. For discovering intimacy where it can be found but still expressing desire for me—body, mind, soul.

And in all of this, we are both grateful to my Zoloft, because while I saved myself for marriage, my Zoloft saved me after that.

Hey, I told you you’d want to find Meredith on Twitter and Instagram!

What kinds of if…then promises did you grow up expecting to operate in your romantic life?

What messages have you encountered about women’s sex drives? How do they compare with your experience?

Who else gets excluded when we make sex the barometer for marital bliss?

catch up on the sex + shame series here:

  1. on the voices in my head
  2. on making your own choices
  3. on marrying to stay pure
  4. on shame after marriage
  5. on being worthy of affection
  6. on what it means to be gay
  7. on trying to get it right
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my fear kept me from doing anything (sex + shame, on getting it right)

my fear kept me from doing anything (sex + shame, on getting it right)

I’m so stoked to introduce you to my friend Kelsy! We went to school together, so it’s no surprise that some of my biggest “me, too” moments have come from reading Kelsy’s story this week. I’m so, so glad I’m not the only one who “reread the more tantalizing sections” and made up fantasies that every boy in youth group was into me because they…couldn’t avoid proximity to me? These are the kinds of stories that make me want to hold a huge meetup in a cabin. with a fireplace. over wine. 

(by the way, meet up with Kelsy on Twitter and at kelsyblack.com!)

(New to the sex + shame series? start here.)

Fifteen-year-old me furtively looks around at the few others currently in my church’s library. Maybe if I pretend to look at the bible study section, nobody will notice my real browsing intentions: teen dating and love. For some reason, I was mortified by the idea of anyone knowing I was interested in the taboo topic of dating. Youth group life (which as a homeschooler, WAS my life) was all about kissing dating goodbye until marriage, something that seemed like a far distant dream for when I was older (like maybe 21 or something)—so nobody could ever know my secret. I devoured anything I could about dating, even secretly rereading the more tantalizing sections of the “Your Body, God, and You” type books my parents had given me as my main source of sex education.

Those dating books became my Bible. Everything those authors wrote became my truth. Boys would say anything it takes to have sex with you? Men are liars and led only by their primal urges? If you have sex before marriage (or date, as some books insisted,)  you are giving your worth away? All became absolute truths. I pledged that I never wanted to get my heart broken by a boy; I wanted to be the one who broke hearts.

Granted, I had nothing to worry about. I had crushes on basically any boy who said hi to me and practically got a pHD in over-analyzing body language (“Wow, he sat in the chair behind me in worship service. That really means that he likes me.”) Around that same time, I started reading Donald Miller (fantasizing that I would marry him one day, of course) and his writings became my new truth. My two obsessions, romance and “living the right story,” became one as I went to college.

I longed to fall in love or experience my first kiss (the trend in high school had been to save it for marriage), but my fear that my story might contain heartbreak or anything above a PG rating kept me from doing just about anything. “How could I tell my future kids/grandkids that my first kiss was making out with some random dude? They would be so ashamed!” I would rather be inert than somehow make the wrong romantic choice and ruin my “love story.”

I didn’t have my first kiss until after college, at the ripe old age of 23. The story I was so longing to be picture perfect? Yeah, my first kiss was with a stranger in a hot tub after drinking a little too much. It was great and I wondered what took me so long to actually do anything fun. Soon after, I went a little wild. My dating life went from famine to feast and I made choices that were immature (because I WAS immature in that arena).

The hardest part was/is realizing that the person I spent my entire adolescence becoming was not me anymore. I made choices that(while I found I didn’t regret them and viewed them as learning opportunities) didn’t quite align with my 15 year old self’s life strategy.  I wasn’t married at 21; at the time, I didn’t even know the last name of the guy I kissed, and I certainly didn’t marry him. I don’t even want to have kids, so there goes the “tell your story to your grandkids” idea.

But I can tell you: I am living a story full of grace, redemption, and a hell of a lot of fun. I’m in a relationship with a fun, kind, unconditionally loving man who is patient with all the things I am still unlearning from those Christian dating books (although he is not interested in reading my old “letters to my future husband” from that same era because he thinks it’s a little creepy). I feel happy in my body and sexy, unafraid of the power of womanhood that once held me back.

For so long, I lived in fear of making the wrong choice and fear of my own sexuality. Now, I am just trying my best to live my best life now and let the stories come afterwards.

Did you ever conflate some other idea with your outlook on dating and sex, like Kelsy’s “story” obsession?

Have you ever realized you would have a lot to explain to your younger self?

Is there a way to become mature in the dating and relationship arena without dating? 

Update on the sex + shame series: I will be back to writing more often in a couple of weeks, but so many people have found this to be helpful that the series will also continue as long as I receive submissions. Most authors have chosen to remain anonymous. I’d be glad to hear your story through the contact form on this site or at lyndseymedford[at]gmail.com.

Meanwhile, you can catch up here:

  1. on the voices in my head
  2. on making your own choices
  3. on marrying to stay pure
  4. on shame after marriage
  5. on being worthy of affection
  6. on what it means to be gay
Posted by lyndseym, 2 comments
what it’s like to hide your sexuality in church (sex + shame part six)

what it’s like to hide your sexuality in church (sex + shame part six)

Part six of a series beginning here.

I had been hoping to hear from some men, as their experiences with purity culture are, by and large, very different but potentially as damaging as women’s. I had not been hoping to hear a story as difficult as this one, but I am so grateful for the author’s candor and wisdom. These are the stories that get lost (or worst, dismissed outright) in the debates I wrote about last week. Thank you for taking time for this one.

I have a male assigned body, and as a young child I was sexually abused by an older, male cousin. This is the same cousin who called me a “fag” for being more sensitive and interested in books that little boys ought to be. The same cousin who worked very hard to fit within the mold of masculinity, degrading women and other men to prove his position within society.

During middle school I transferred schools, and I would not shake the outsider status until late in high school. Because I was different, I was treated poorly and called “gay.” When I found that it was difficult to look directly at some boys too long without blushing or feeling warm, I felt as though I could not admit to myself that I was in fact gay because then maybe all of their anger and resentment towards me had legitimacy. Their poor treatment of me would be justified.

In high school I became fairly involved with a Baptist Youth group. I was the first to be inducted into a secret group called “Men of Honor.” In this group we heard stories about how men’s sexual, fleshly desires ruined their marriages or lives. We discussed all sexual release out of heterosexual marriage not only as sinful but as spiritual violence—if not against another, then against yourself. Married, opposite-gendered sex was sanctified as one of the most spiritually pure acts. Sex within any other context, even masturbation, was spiritually damaging. Of all the sexual acts, however, gay or lesbian sex was the most corrupt, destroying whole families in the wake of lustful passions.

Being a survivor of sexual violence, the idea of all sex as inherently violent (spiritually at the very least) made me nauseous and uninterested all together. I did not want to hurt anyone the way I had been hurt. And I viewed my own sexuality as a destructive force that I had to protect others from—especially since I was tempted by the most violent and devastating variation. The shame was crippling, and I did not start dating until I was 23.

My journey towards healing included reconciling my past abuse and my sexuality as two separate things—one as a traumatic event in my life and the other an irrepressible part of how I naturally receive and express intimacy, and who I share that with. Healing meant understanding sex as not an act of violence being acted out by either myself or my partner. An act of sex is instead one of many ways to express full bodied, intimate affection for someone else as another bodied creation of God. Healing also meant accepting that being gay is not all about sex, but who I want to watch science fiction anime with, who I want to share my crossword puzzle while we sip coffee, and who I want to unload to after a difficult day of class or work. Intimacy does reach beyond the physical into the mental and spiritual, but the health of that union does not hinge on gender or marriage. A healthy relationship is built on flexibility, love and trust. And healthy sex is empowering, safe, and consensual.

Is there something you’ve learned to separate from sex?

Have you heard male sexuality described as a violent force? What do we think we gain by viewing it this way?

What did you learn being gay is “about”?

part one

part two

part three

part four

part five

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5 Reasons Jesus Would Ask You to Un-Sign the Nashville Statement

5 Reasons Jesus Would Ask You to Un-Sign the Nashville Statement

After the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood issued their Nashville Statement on gender and sexuality this week, I tried not to care. Don’t we already know where they stand on these issues?

But I couldn’t let it go, if only because so many of my own friends carefully follow CBMW or John Piper.  They are people who truly want more than anything to be faithful and loving. They don’t know or care much about the politically correct ways to say things; they might even read the statement as many commenters did—”compassionate,” “gracious.”

It was CBMW’s insistence that their position is central to the Gospel, I realized, that took my breath away with shock and a little fear. Do my friends think I oppose the Gospel? Will they think so after their spiritual heroes sign on to this sweeping declaration?

Whenever I have questions about the Gospel, I ask Jesus. Here are five things I could imagine him saying to those who signed.

  1. The Nashville Statement is hurting people.

I know many people who might sign on to the statement with some sorrow. They worry about the state of world. They wish others didn’t have to struggle with their sexual identities. They want to have LGBT friends and serve them meals and “do life with them” until the day the friends realize how terrible their lives are and repent.

That is well-intentioned in a way, but it’s not compassionate. “Com + passion” equals suffering with. You are not with someone as long as you are drawing a line between sexual morality and sexual immorality with yourself squarely on the opposite side from the other person. You are not with someone as long as opposing a fundamental aspect of their self remains a fundamental aspect of your theology.

Instead, the language and tone of the Nashville Statement reveals that it was not written by people in real relationships with queer people. If it had, it wouldn’t use the made-up word “transgenderism” or insist at so very many points that people can change to fit “God’s design.” It would acknowledge the church’s utter failure of queer people, evident in the prevalence of depression, suicide, and self-harm among queer Christians.

  1. It’s not Biblical.

The Nashville Statement’s conflation of beliefs about sexuality with salvific belief in the Gospel (Article X) is utterly unsupported by Scripture. Jesus never preached that fulfillment of narrow gender roles would signal the arrival of the kingdom of God.

  1. It’s not holistic.

Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t make statements about gender and sexual identity in isolation from an understanding of sex and sexuality for straight people. In particular, it’s tone-deaf to trumpet the urgency of these issues for the Evangelical church, the vast majority of whose queer members have left, while ignoring the fact that rape culture, pornography, and abuse continue in the pews (and in the clergy) daily. This is the epitome of a plank-and-speck situation.

Likewise, a church that demands lifelong celibacy of its members is also rejecting the gospel if it does not expect to sacrifice just as heavily as the celibate members to support and include them in its life. Jesus said his followers would hate their mothers and brothers; perhaps he meant to suggest that there is no place in his kingdom for those who idolize the nuclear family.

  1. It makes you look silly.

The Nashville Statement will not go down in history as a defining moment on par with the Nicene Creed. It may someday be a footnote illustrating how conservative evangelicalism died orchestrating a series of exercises in missing the point. The grandiosity of the name points to the hubris of the whole thing.

  1. It reveals more about you than about God.

The fact is, no one reading the Bible—and especially the Gospels—for the first time would put it down and say, “that was a fascinating book about sex.” You’re revealing your own obsession with sex and the status quo. The Nashville Statement itself makes an attempt to look strong and decisive, but the preamble reveals that that attempt is just an impulse driven by fear—fear of change, fear of humanity, and most importantly, fear of those who are different.

I think if Jesus were here, he’d ask you about your own nuclear family. He would sit and his eyes would glow with yours as you told about the passion and steadfastness your spouse has shown you, the incomparable joy of raising children, how the best nights of your life were just all of you piled on a couch. Maybe he’d chime in—I have always loved how her hair catches the sun, too.

Jesus would ask you about sex. About what it meant to you to share all of yourself with someone; about what you learned about God and yourself in your own celibate seasons; about how your gender makes you who you are, places you on a team, invites and challenges you to be fully yourself.

Jesus would listen and listen and when you were done, when you had told all that made your own experience precious to you, he would wait a while. And I think he’d ask you to let go of the Nashville Statement. I think he’d say, here, let me hold that for you, and he’d promise to keep it safe.

I think if you were so sure of your beliefs and so close to Jesus, you’d be able to set them aside for a bit and listen, instead of alternately clutching them to your chest and brandishing them about. And Jesus might say:

Your love for your family is a beautiful and holy thing, a thing that makes you who you are. And my queer friends? Their gender identities and romantic relationships make them who they are, too. Precious, thrilling, and a little bit odd, with histories of mistakes and triumphs—just like everyone else.

Maybe you feel the need to police all of this precisely because your own identities mean so much to you. Is it so hard to believe that the people they love and the genders they express mean this much to others as well? That they are integral to their very being? That I made them that way?

Your family doesn’t need to be protected by rules and declarations. They need to see you model the servant leadership you talk about sometimes. They need you to wash the feet of your transgender neighbor and really hear the stories, start to finish, of the queer people who have quietly slipped out of your life. They need to see that you know how to repent and to make amends. That’s what would take courage. That’s how you would display integrity. That’s how you would be changed by imitating my love.

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How purity culture feeds rape culture (sex and shame part five)

How purity culture feeds rape culture (sex and shame part five)

Fifth in a series, explained here.

A common theme among people I’ve talked with is the understanding that parents or teachers meant to protect them for safe and fulfilling intimacy, though the lessons unwittingly barred them from it in one way or another. I’m grateful to all our authors for contributing to a conversation that doesn’t seek to condemn or blame, but to heal and to empower.

TW: brief description of assault

My parents were raised conservative Baptists.  From the time I was a small child, my parents made sure I knew that they had only ever had sex with each other.  My cousin got married when I was seven, and though I personally saw no reason for the outrage, my mom assured me that their marriage did not erase the fact they were living together beforehand.  When I asked why it mattered, she said you could never be too sure that the person you were marrying wasn’t going to change their mind, and it was best to be certain before you got too close.

When I was thirteen or fourteen my dad told me that his high school girlfriend had wanted to have sex with him but he’d been strong enough to deny her, and that nice girls didn’t tempt people they cared about.  Shortly thereafter Mom gave me the “boys only want one thing” discussion, where it became my responsibility to circumscribe my behaviors lest I unwittingly cause the downfall of some weak boy.  They were my parents.  I believed them.  I wanted to do what they told me was right.  So I became very careful about how and if I touched people, just in case I touched them in the wrong ways or got too close.  I still struggle with this.

After high school (during which time I didn’t date) I went to a small college just far enough away that my parents weren’t involved in my day-to-day decisions.  I made friends who drank and went to fraternity parties and I felt young for the first time.  The parties were fun, and on those evenings, for a short while, I didn’t have to be the person who carried the entire weight of the world on her shoulders.

One evening my sophomore year I was standing in an alley between two of the fraternity houses when a group of young men came up to me.  I was wearing something moderately low cut and was a little drunk.  They liked the way I looked and wanted to kiss me.  I clearly told them no.  It didn’t matter.  They kissed me and touched me for a while, and I was so afraid.  In my mind it was confirmation that everything my parents said was true.  While I know it could have been much worse, I remember feeling like I deserved what I got because for one evening I had felt pretty. I told some friends about it the next day.  They laughed.  I felt so foolish.  I waited a decade to mention it to anyone else.

I was 30 years old before I allowed someone else to touch me, and before I allowed myself to touch him.  I was 30 years old before someone I wanted kissed me.  I was 30 years old before I found someone who made me feel safe, someone who saw me and wanted nothing from me, other than to make me feel good.  It was an incredible gift while it lasted.

Now, as a single person trying to figure out the world of online dating, I often feel as if it’s too late—that there was some kind of learning curve that I missed out on.  While I know that isn’t strictly true, it’s something I confront every single time I go out with someone new.  Will he understand?  Will he interpret my inability to touch as disinterest?  How do I be me while still giving off the appropriate signals?  Do I know someone who will let me practice touching them?  Oh god, how would I explain the need to practice?  And I still feel like damaged goods.  Every. Single. Time.

I know my parents did the best they knew for me, and in many ways my upbringing was wonderful.  I’m a functional member of society and I’ve had lots of great opportunities.  But I wish they hadn’t pushed (what I now know is) their body stuff off onto me.  I wish they’d have let me be me, and, more importantly, I wish they’d have used something more than fear and shame to teach me about sexuality and intimacy.

Sexual violence is pervasive in American life (and throughout the world): half of women and at least one in five men in the U.S. will be victims at some point in their lives. Sadly, sexual violence is also becoming a theme of this series. If you’ve experienced sexual violence, know that you are not alone and that you deserve respect, autonomy, and safety. The people at the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) can direct you to those who can help you on your journey.

Today’s questions, in light of this crisis:

How does purity culture diverge from rape culture?
How does it intersect?

What does an emphasis on boundaries communicate about the way the world works?

What qualities (joy, courage, anger, empowerment) or experiences have helped you replace fear or shame in your life?

part one

part two

part three

part four

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Actual Proof that we’d Done It (sex + shame part four)

Actual Proof that we’d Done It (sex + shame part four)

Continuing our sex and shame series.
I am very fond of this story, not only because the author’s “never minds” gave me a bit of a giggle, but also because I think sharing this simple story is just as brave and important as sharing any other. Thank you to this author for your honesty.

With our first child, I was ashamed to tell friends and family about the pregnancy. Proud and excited, yes, but also very embarrassed: here it was, actual proof that we’d “done it.”

Never mind that we’d been together for more than a decade. Never mind that our bedroom has only ever had one bed, and that sex in married life is sort of a given. Never mind that I actually loved doing it. I still felt so traumatized by sex jokes I heard in elementary school, and sexism in the media, and sex scenes in movies I wasn’t ready for – all the awful, too-graphic-for-me stuff coming from my school and culture and society – I still felt so disturbed, that evidence that I’d “done it” myself was somehow deeply mortifying. Just as being childless allowed room for the *possibility* of virginity, this baby left no room for doubt. Our physical intimacy was public knowledge.

To be clear, I never judged myself as indecent – I just didn’t want anyone else to know that we…did that sort of thing. I think my sister really did feel a bit scandalized when she heard our news.

Why should I be so bashful about others knowing I have sex with my husband? (Or *had*, once — Baby’s really only proof of that one time after all, right?!) Why wasn’t the truth of my own years of (totally positive) experience enough to over-write, even partially, the idea that sex is generally “disgusting and naughty”?

I don’t know.

When I was pregnant with our second child, there was less shame in the announcement. Everyone already knew. But even now, I still hate any references to sex in songs, books, movies. I still feel embarrassed at the idea or suggestion of anyone else having sex. I can only imagine these feelings were formed when I was a small child, and that’s why they are unshakably strong.

One of the things that strikes me about this story is that it illustrates how we can know (or choose to believe) one thing, but still be controlled by the voice of shame shouting otherwise.

Have you ever felt shame about doing (or saying or being) something that you actually thought was perfectly acceptable?

What family and cultural factors influence our decisions about what is public and what is private about sex and our sex lives?

Why does joy so often get lost in all the other associations we make about sex?

part 1

part 2

part 3

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I loved those monuments, not so long ago

I loved those monuments, not so long ago

My latest is at Amity Coalition:

I thought they stood for resilience and pride, for the other side of every story, for a nation grappling with the sorrows of its own rending. I saw the generals as gentlemen, protectors, reluctantly orchestrating an inevitable but tragic conflict of brother against brother. Imagining the people who erected the monuments, I felt I could draw from them some of the strength and stubbornness and grit that form part of my Southern identity.

I never thought much about what they meant to black people.

I hope you’ll read more here.

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Bad Sex, Terrible Shame, and Worse Christianity (sex + shame part three)

Bad Sex, Terrible Shame, and Worse Christianity (sex + shame part three)

There is nothing I can add to this post. It is honest, beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful. It gets hard, but I hope you’ll read to the end. We are about halfway through our sex and shame series; you can catch up here.

I was fourteen, attending a purity weekend retreat with other high school-aged girls in our church youth group. There was worship and Bible study, but most importantly the message we received was “You are a daughter of the King. All boys think about is sex. Don’t let them touch you or you’ll get pregnant and have an abortion and regret it the rest of your life.”

There to punctuate the message was our local abstinence cheerleader. She worked at the local anti-abortion pregnancy center and told us how, back in her college days, she had had a one night stand with a man and become pregnant. She was so scared to carry to term that she had an abortion. She regretted that decision every day the rest of her life.

She also told us that there was a link between abortions and breast cancer. See how that sin follows you the rest of your life? Your sexual indulgences literally become a cancer that you will have to fight for your life against. Best course: Don’t do it.

Easy peasy, I said. I’ve never had a boyfriend, so this is the perfect time. I’ll just draw a line before kissing. My first kiss will be my wedding day, and I’ll have no sexual sin problems. No regret. No “piece of my heart” given away before its time.

We were collectively asked to make a commitment to God that we would keep ourselves pure for our husbands. We went home, steadfast in our newfound promises.

I was twenty, and a junior at a Christian university. My boyfriend and I had just patched things up after a semester breakup. But this time, this round, our relationship was For Real. The breakup would make us stronger, I told myself, and hadn’t I gotten a word from God that He had hedged me in and would set my path before me? This was fated, predestined to work.

We kissed, everywhere but the lips. No French kisses. Those were for wedding days, right? The first time he slid his hand between my legs, I pushed passed the immediate terror and hesitation. He wanted to love me. I should let him. Besides, there was no penetration. This was okay, right? We had a future.

The second time—hidden in the back of his university housing bedroom—we went further, ever edging around true intercourse, while still avoiding lip contact.

I heard the door to his apartment open, signalling the arrival of his roommate. Shame and panic gripped my heart. Females were forbidden in male bedrooms, to name just one of the myriad school rules I was breaking. I straightened my hair and skirt, positioning myself quickly at a modest distance from my boyfriend to leave room between us “for Jesus”; wincing as the bedroom door opened; praying the dreaded roommate wouldn’t hear my panicked movement and frightened breathing and report us to the school.

By the third time, I felt so filthy and soiled from pretending we weren’t having intimate relations that I figured true intercourse couldn’t add any more sin to my already enormous heap. I would just marry him, and all our pre-marital dalliances would be washed away by the ultimate consummation of our love. But the sex hurt and was overwhelmingly unpleasant; I left his apartment nauseated and unfulfilled. The silver purity ring, which I had worn since middle school, gleamed mockingly from my left ring finger. I couldn’t remove it, lest anyone suspect. I was the most false Christian to walk the earth.

In subsequent months, I often cried in the shower, trapped by my shame and wishing I could throw up. Maybe if I purged enough I would be pure again. I begged God to forgive my sins of lust.

I married that boyfriend. I accepted his proposal for a myriad of reasons, but underlying all of those was the pressure to marry the guy with whom I’d had sex, as if it would redeem me somehow. Our marriage was short-lived and as terrible and unfulfilling as our nights of clandestine passion in school housing.

Now I am twenty-seven, revising my understanding of virginity, purity, and worth. I’ve left behind those innocent assumptions at the purity retreat. Through prayer and conversations with other godly people, I’ve realized several truths:

I am not less of a Christian because I have had sex. No mistake—no matter how large or small it actually is—is insurmountable for Christ’s sacrifice.

I am not a less desirable partner because I have had sex. I am not blackened and damaged and unfit for a godly, loving husband.

I am not a less worthy person because I have had sex. My value is not reduced to mere biology. It is more than whether my hymen is still intact.

God’s love for me is not diminished because I have had sex. To believe that He loves me less would be to cheapen His grace and to ignore Christ’s response to the sinful people with whom He kept company. He loved them, despite how “holy” they were before he met them.

May these truths bring as much healing to you as they have to me.

Some questions to ponder or discuss:

Have you ever found that your innocent assumptions suddenly clashed with reality?

In what ways do various aspects of culture tie men and women’s value to sex?

Where have you found your worth when any of those models of value failed you?

You can still contribute your own anonymous story (or a guest post including your name if you wish.) Details are at the end of this post.

part 1

part 2

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sexy, desirable, powerful, in love (sex + shame part two)

sexy, desirable, powerful, in love (sex + shame part two)

Part one is here.
As I hold these stories about sex and shame, poring over each one, the thought comes again and again: There is so much heaviness and hope here. It’s not that we have rushed to a happy ending. It’s that in telling a story, we accept it just a little, for all its wounds and all its silliness and all we felt, good and bad. The hope is in the new lightness of letting what was, be, and in the wisdom we find we’ve received from it.
I’m honored to be a part of this process and floored that people—friends and strangers—have been willing to speak. There are so, so many waiting to have this conversation, only hoping that someone else will go first. Thank you, thank you to these women for being the first to step out of silence.

I grew up in a Catholic family. In religion classes in my Catholic high school we were indoctrinated in the purity myth. I rejected this rhetoric later, but at the time, for the most part I bought it, and I decided to wait for sex. For me, it was mostly about self-protection. I thought that if I had sex with a guy, and then we broke up, it would absolutely destroy me psychologically. I didn’t trust myself to be resilient enough to survive that. I had had no bad experiences with men, but I didn’t trust them not to use me for sex and then discard me. Maybe I was afraid I wasn’t lovable enough that a guy would want me for more than sex.

I made a decision that armed me against my own lack of confidence. I would pretend I were so supremely convinced of my lovability that I didn’t need sex to attract or keep a guy. It was a logical response to the rhetoric in my religion class that made sex and love opposites: “If he loves me, he’ll wait. If he doesn’t love me, I don’t want to have sex with him anyway.” I’d been taught to view dating as a marketplace, and sex as currency, so working within that model I made a conscious, deliberate decision to value myself highly, one that, in the end, outweighed my insecurity and poor body image. I set my standard high, and prayed some guy would rise to it.

Ideally, I also wanted sex to be something special that set apart my lifelong relationship from any other relationship I might have. I decided to wait, if not until marriage, then at least until I found the guy I would eventually marry. I thought it through and figured out what was important to me about sex, and especially my first time, and stuck to that decision with such determination that I was actually able to make it happen that way. Not having sex before I knew for sure that I was ready was something positive I did for myself. I’ve never regretted waiting as long as I did.

Now, this didn’t come up in high school at all. No one wanted to date me then. I was a little chubby and a lot of a know-it-all.

I had my first serious relationship in college. We almost broke up after we’d been dating a couple months because it became clear to him that I wasn’t going to sleep with him anytime soon. He was frustrated, but he ultimately decided it was worth it to stick with me and explore our connection. He had to wait almost 5 years. We’re still together, 13 years and 2 kids later.

We didn’t have sex in college, but we certainly had a physical relationship, especially after we’d said “I love you.” There were hands everywhere, there were orgasms, there was nakedness. It was great. I felt sexy, desirable, powerful, in love.

After I graduated from college, I moved back home to go to grad school. My college boyfriend and I continued our relationship long distance. We still didn’t have sex, but when we were together we wanted to really be together. We needed that physical outlet and release, that reassurance and affirmation of our love. It was the glue that kept us together during the weeks we were apart.

Once, just before my boyfriend came to visit, my mom told me she didn’t want me to shut myself in my room with him, using a tone of voice that made me feel dirty about it. She talked about me setting an example for my brothers. What should we do, where should we go, I asked, bewildered. Go park somewhere, she snapped dismissively.

Well, we tried to. We drove around looking for a place where it would be safe to park and get in the backseat and get busy. We didn’t really find one. We got caught by a bored small-town cop who was rude about it, but didn’t do anything.

After my boyfriend went back home, I talked to my mom, saying words I’d been rehearsing in my head all weekend.

“I know it’s your house and maybe to you this is a roommate issue, but the way you talked to me when you told me to go park somewhere really hurt my feelings and made me feel ashamed. My boyfriend and I don’t have sex, but we do other things, and I’m proud of the choices I’m making in this relationship, both the things we do and the things we don’t do. And I would like you to be proud of me too. Also, it’s not my job to teach your sons about sex. If you’re worried about the messages they’re getting, that’s on you and dad to give them the messages you want. And just so you know, maybe it was easy to find a place to go park 25 years ago, but now there aren’t any places where you can do that.”

I think she was so relieved to hear that I wasn’t having sex that she didn’t really hear the rest of it.

And another “everything-but” perspective:

Dear 15 year old me,

Sex is much more than a penis entering a vagina. It is heteronormative and offensive to think otherwise because that is not the way that all people everywhere have sex. You’ve had sex at this point, even though you cling to your all-important “virginity.” It’s OK, you’ve done nothing wrong. Sex and love, either separately or in tandem, are beautiful experiences that everyone should have when they feel ready. Love you, girl!

P.S. You’re not fat.

Some questions come to mind as I’m reading these contributions:
Where do these stories resonate with you?
What ideas that you were taught in adolescence (sex-related or not) have you modified, softened, or rejected?
How do we help more young adults develop sexual selves and partnerships they are proud of?
How do the names and definitions involved in our stories and theologies about sex—from “purity” to “patriarchy,” “modesty” to “virginity”—alter our experiences and perceptions of it?

You can still contribute your own anonymous story (or a guest post including your name if you wish.) Details are at the end of this post.

part 1

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Decent Women, Sex, and Shame

Decent Women, Sex, and Shame

The grass is not as soft as it looks, but cuddling in it seems to make my boyfriend happy. He is my first boyfriend, we are freshmen, and his affection for me is thrilling and overwhelming. I am certain he would do anything for me, so I am cuddling in this grass for him—though if I were to choose a scratchy patch of grass for this activity, it also wouldn’t be the university quad. In fact, when we sat down here, I hadn’t anticipated nearly this level of PDA. But my highest priority as a girlfriend is to be low-maintenance, and we’re certainly not making out like couples in movies about college, or couples I’ve seen in public parks in Atlanta and San Francisco; besides, Christian college is supposed to be a place where you have adventures, just safer and more moral ones than at other colleges. Having a boyfriend is an adventure. Spooning in public is an adventure. I put my discomfort aside. Sideways, I watch the frisbee game across the lawn; people trickle out of the dining hall; from my perspective, ants join up to follow in their wake, everyone busy. Maybe no one I know will even notice us.

Then a pair of boots blocks my view.

We scramble to a seated position and squint up at the Campus Safety officer who’s been dispatched to protect the campus from our obscenity. It is my nightmare. All the voices nagging that I was embarrassing myself are suddenly, solidly before me in this irritated young man and in the finger-wagging of the anonymous professor he says sent him. I cannot look at the officer or at my boyfriend; all I want is to scurry away like an ant and hide, maybe under a bush, the scratchier the better. I should have known better. I should have found some way to say no. Decent women do not even lay down in public, let alone with a boy. Decent women know how to make their boyfriends happy without scandalizing their professors. My face is flaring. People will gossip later, and I know I deserve it.

I don’t let on that I am this upset; pretending is something I’m good at. I make some jokes about the threat we pose to campus safety, and we take some aimless walk, as freshmen do. In the future, though, we won’t cuddle on campus. We’ve learned our relationship doesn’t belong there. We will make out in his car in dark parking lots because it seems to make my boyfriend happy. We still won’t be alone, though; a choir of voices will pull me farther and farther from my body, and I will learn every word to the single CD in his car, until the kissing involves him and a policeman and a professor and a pastor and Chris Carrabba, but not me. I will be hiding in shame.

When I was 18 I was not under the impression that making out in cars with boys you aren’t sure about is part of normal human development. My friends and I were raised in various strains of what has come to be called evangelical purity culture. We were generally under the impression that it would be, if not easy, at least fairly straightforward to arrive at our wedding days not only with our virginity, but with a record of very little physical interaction between ourselves and anyone other than our husbands. It had been impressed upon us that all physical contact beyond hand-holding had consequences for all of our future relationships, that “going too far” with the wrong boy could curse our marriages for years—and if we didn’t have good marriages, what would we have?

Now I’ve learned that making out in cars is, in fact, part of normal human development; but for me and my purity-seeking friends, what’s even more normal is feeling extreme shame about it. Whether we shut down our sexuality like we were told to, basically refusing to kiss before marriage, or we drew our lines elsewhere, we have all carried the weight of deep shock at ourselves, believing we’ve done far more than the respectable people around us. We have all sat in a church service feeling that if anyone knew, they would stage an intervention to rescue our integrity, our relationships, and potentially our salvation from the terrible things we hadn’t had the courage to refuse. But no one must find out. We might confess the sins of gossip, envy, cheating in school or spending too much, but sexual sin was another realm entirely. To do it was forbidden. To talk about it was impossible.

Now I’ve learned that the guilt we felt was not a healthy sense of regret at a genuinely bad choice. It was the inevitable consequence of a system that told women to be demure and compliant in every arena—including marriage—then made us the sole responsible guardians of that nebulous object, the “purity” of our bodies and souls. Shame was the inevitable consequence of encouraging dissociation from and fear of our bodies. It inevitably swelled like a cancer, replicating itself on all sides, feeding on itself, on the silence and fear and self-hatred it created.

Now I’ve learned that every single one of us has sat somewhere being torn apart by shame—and believing we were utterly alone.

This series has inspired me to invite you to share your stories about sex and shame, anonymously if you choose. It’s not because it’s sensationalist or cathartic to sit around and complain about our childhoods. It’s because I am coming to believe that in every place we can name our shame and fear, and then say something anyway, we are doing something to cauterize the cancer. We are learning that speaking the unspeakable is not nearly as catastrophic as we thought. We are inviting others out into the light. We might even find ways to grieve, or rebuild, or at least to laugh.

Beginning next week, I’ll publish stories about sex and shame, completely anonymously (or with your name and links if you specify). I’m hoping to hear from women and men, Christian and not-Christian, straight and not-straight. Tell us the thing you wish your 15-year-old self could hear. Tell us the thing you’re afraid of. Tell us where you’ve found healing or discovered a new sexual ethic. Tell us we are not alone.

Send your story to me at lyndseymedford[at]gmail.com, using the contact page of the website, or through a Facebook direct message. If you’re not sure where to start, grab one of the prompts below. Be prepared: I’ll probably have to edit for length or clarity. I’ll do everything I can to honor both your story and our readers.

  1. Share a story like the one above of a specific time when a cultural norm about sex “happened” to you. What aspect of that culture does it illustrate?
  2. How did you relate to your body as a child, teenager, or now? Tell about an event that changed this relationship for better or for worse.
  3. Talk about a message about sexuality that has been particularly powerful in your life.
  4. What embarrassing questions do you have about sex and sexuality? Or if you’re not Christian or evangelical, do you have questions you’re afraid to ask about purity culture?
  5. If you met your 15-year-old self, what’s one specific thing you would tell him/her about sex? Or more generally, tell us about one thing you’ve learned as an adult about the ethics/responsibility of sex.

Thanks for being big and bright and brave with anything you want to share. I hope this conversation can be a sigh of relief, a lightened load, and a space for respectful disagreement; I can’t wait to share it with you!

Update: this series is ongoing. Catch up here.

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Dear friend: How Much is Enough?

Dear friend: How Much is Enough?

Dear Lyndsey,

How much is enough?

How much money is enough?
How much charitable work is enough?

How much family time is enough?

How many working hours is enough?

How much relaxation is enough?

And on…

It’s broad, I know.

Dear friend,

The short answer is: probably less than you think.

That’s not a popular message in my corner of the world. I am surrounded by various cults of productivity, self-improvement, biohacking, and hustle. I encounter hundreds of advertisements every day, all designed to convince me I need more stuff. And magazines and mommy wars claim that an optimized life includes a sparkling home with a subway-tile backsplash, two children with good grades who play sports and instruments, regular promotions, six-pack abs, and a pretend-naughty-but-actually-perfectly-respectable amount of wine.

These days I constantly ask the question you’re asking, and it’s always because I’m pursuing a worthy goal: a balanced life. I think that if I planned out my days, resources, and priorities correctly, I’d be able to give and do as much as possible while also leaving enough space to simply enjoy my life. At the outset, it feels like an easy matter of calculation. You’ll have it all together if you make enough money to pay for healthcare and go out to eat twice a month; only say “yes” to the volunteer commitments that actually sound fun; and do some creative accounting to move “attend your nephew’s soccer game” from the onerous family commitment bin to recreation.

I think your question reveals that you know it doesn’t actually work that way. No matter how many commitments and adjustments you make, things never go the way you planned them and you always wish you could have (or give) just a little more. You’re still behind at work and eating cereal for dinner. Still finite.

The thing is, a balanced life—a life where you are able to have enough and give enough—isn’t a tangram puzzle of master schedules and productivity hacks. It’s a life that fully embraces finitude.

There was a time when an overzealous reading of books like Radical and Crazy Love made me think that God regularly calls everyone to perform superhuman feats of faith just because He can. Of course, I can never do enough to solve world hunger or fix my friend’s PTSD. Of course, I would say to you—but for a long time, I refused to really believe it. I fell into the same trap as a lot of nonprofit organizations: I saw how much needed to be done, and I thought that was some kind of summons to try to do it all. And in the process, I demanded more of myself than I ever would have expected of anyone else. That’s where pride came in: I thought I was special, strong, or spiritual enough to take on whatever work, overwelm, and abuse the world threw at me without needing a break. I listened to the productivity experts, the volunteer pleas, the charity commercials, the guilt sermons from resentful and jaded “servants,” and tried to best all of their demands. In the end, I became special in the sense that I was especially exhausted and unable to be of use to anyone.

There may be a time or two in most of our lives when our calling really is too big for us, and only God can get us through; but just because those can be times of great spiritual growth doesn’t mean we’re supposed to go around seeking out crises and crusades and grinding material poverty. And if God wants you to become Mother Teresa, God’s not going to hide it from you—God’s going to speak to you audibly like She did to her. For me, embracing finitude means I’ve had to learn to be content with just the little tiny piece that I can do. Far more than when I drag around too many burdens with a somber look on my face, I help the world when I do my small part with excellence, gladness, and faith that God will complete the work.

Here’s another way to put it: embracing a life of less teaches us to believe in true abundance. When we pare down our budgets, we find ourselves enjoying simple pleasures and creative pursuits—and delighting that much more in the indulgences we do have. When I stopped volunteering so much, I had more time to learn from other people and therefore improve the work I did—and I became overwhelmed with gratitude for all the good work others were doing in the world. When I obsess less about the number of hours I need for work and play, and instead focus on doing them both with wholeheartedness, I find I am better able to hear my body, spirit, or family say enough.

Enough is the amount that leaves some margin in your life: money for an impromptu dinner party or gift; time for a neighbor’s crisis or for just daydreaming. Margin is peace of mind. Margin is grace for yourself and others.

Enough is different for everyone. Just because Instagram Ingrid has a six-figure job and a Paleo meal on the table every night doesn’t mean you have to live up to her standards. God is wildly creative; God may have Instagram Ingrid right where she needs to be. But even if your enough turns out to be objectively less than hers doesn’t mean you are less than her.

In Luke 10, Jesus says that one thing is enough: to spend time with him and hear his voice. Everything else can be held loosely; nothing else adds to who we are. It is enough to be a child of God. It is enough to ask Spirit for help, and then do our best. It is enough not to take ourselves so seriously. It is enough to be content.

When in doubt, dear friend, don’t ask whether you should give, do, or have more; ask whether the thing you’re adding helps you be more present and more yourself with the work, the people, the time you’ve been given. Don’t be afraid to be small. Don’t be afraid to believe there is abundance beyond you.

Hoping that is enough,

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The Bible Doesn’t Offer Certainty

The Bible Doesn’t Offer Certainty

On the eve of his retirement from public life, Eugene Peterson, beloved evangelical hero, dropped a bombshell: he said in an interview that he would perform the marriage of a gay couple if asked. Some wept and some rejoiced.

Then he published a retraction.

I was not completely shocked when Peterson took it back. The saddest part of the several-day saga, for me, was the language he used:

I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

For me, this stung even more than the confusion or betrayal of the retraction: that this normally-gracious pastor would use the phrase “a biblical view” to mean “The Biblical View: my view.” Even more because claiming to hold a “biblical view of everything” is pure hubris, and he should know it.

I shouldn’t still hurt when I’m branded as “unbiblical”—outside the fold—for disagreeing with the traditional position on this single issue; but I do. Years after I’ve reluctantly abandoned the label evangelical, I still miss my people. I hold out hope that they’ll slowly, quietly find more openness to their exiled sons and daughters, but they seem to care more about defending a single interpretation of a gilded book than about including us in the tradition that made us who we are.

What the gatekeepers of evangelicalism always seem to miss is that we wouldn’t care about being “left out” if we didn’t still love the same things they love. We are not clamoring to return to our old ways of thinking, but we’re also not trying to infiltrate and corrupt people with mind games. We’re just tired of being dismissed as caring more for ourselves than for the Bible, more for “culture” than for holiness.

I still read the Bible, and I still find inspiration, conviction, and direction there. Would you like to hear about a biblical worldview? Every day the Bible inspires me to prayer, love, and awe. It tells me that the universe was created by God, belongs to God, is called good by God: worldview, indeed. I’m humbled, reminded what an infinitesimal speck I am compared to the rest of space and time. How could someone with this knowledge fail to see God clapping with delight at the slow and steady discoveries of science (2 Samuel)? How could they condemn human flesh or fear those created to look different (Jeremiah)? How could they not don sackcloth and ashes in repentance for how we have ravaged this precious jewel of a planet (Leviticus)?

The Bible tells me how. Because humans laugh, like Sarah, to think that God could be at work without our help. We play God, like Adam, in choosing what to eat, what to wear, where to hide—so we have made a terrible mess of things. We follow our pride and tell ourselves it is what God would want, and then we find ourselves huddling, alone, trying ever harder to make things right but falling ever farther away from the center that holds all together.

No wonder, then, that at every turn we cling like Israel to strong men who promise to save us, kings who say they’ll protect but mean to use us for their own gain. No wonder we fail, like Israel, to care for the vulnerable among us, seeking as we do only to protect ourselves. We like the idea of beating swords to plowshares, but none of us is going to go first. The Bible tells me God longs for us to find peace, wholeness and well-being: shalom. But we trade it every day for a bowl of soup, false and petty promises of security, titillation, or well-appearing.

We do this when we hoard our resources, failing to give more than the minimum (Luke) and building fences to keep our neighbors out of our fields (Deuteronomy). Where God commands sharing, we practice divvying. Where God tells us there is abundance, we see scarcity. Where Jesus appears in the least of these, we hurry past to curry favor with Wizards of Oz.

We trade down, as the prophets tell us, when we use other people, benefitting from slave labor at one turn and browbeating friends into propping up our egos at another. We try to diagnose and meet our own needs from sunup to sundown, while God stands by, open hands, waiting to heal us.

We trade down when we forsake the image of God in others and make them into our sexual playthings. Yet, beyond that, when we get into the mechanics of it all, the biblical worldview has some shady ideas about sex. How many wives, exactly, should one have? And might it be more likely that the couple in Song of Solomon is not married than that they are? And if the family is the foundation of society, why didn’t Jesus get married? And why, exactly, were those spies in Canaan even speaking with Rahab the madam?

I don’t know. I still sometimes wish I did. By insisting that I consider God’s design for the world and my own sin, the Bible challenges me to do things I’d rather not do and hold opinions that seem anachronistic. It makes me an outsider to the world, in ways hopeful and painful. And I have to accept that it makes my life harder in these ways, even though it doesn’t always offer certainty. In the Bible, claiming to know God’s will and proclaiming it for my own purposes has been known as taking the Lord’s name in vain. So when there’s unclarity, I pray and wait. And I listen.

After all, the Bible is meant to point us to Jesus, right? Even when I feel there is unclarity, it is not my job to scour the book for certitudes or to force competing voices into harmony; nor does God need me to guard the boundaries of what the Bible is able to teach. It’s the Spirit’s job to speak through the mess. It is God who will translate story, epistle, poem, and law into song, wind, dance, and romance: the failed arguments of love.

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when you don’t know what to say to someone in pain

when you don’t know what to say to someone in pain

The dog park is better than TV. It’s where we veg out, our pupper digging in holes bigger than she is under five or six of those generous oaks that define Charleston. It’s our getaway when we’re too tired or stressed to do anything else. All the dogs smile and it makes all the humans smile back.

I sometimes wish we were one of those life-of-the-party couples, but instead we both give off a tell-me-all-your-problems signal, and this time, it happens at the dog park. We are blindsided by the woman telling us of her grief at the death of her boyfriend. I don’t think of people, three weeks after a death, going around and doing things, but here she is. You wonder how many people you’ve met who were three weeks out from a death. She says she is looking forward to going back to her grief group. She says grief wraps all around you where you can’t get out. Part of me just wants to go back to enjoying the evening breeze and not think about death. I imagine her, going around in an inescapable thick cloud that silently repulses all the people she meets, sidestepping her with well-wishes so as not to catch the grief. Then I imagine her at her group, huddled in a circle where everyone has a cloud and everyone’s cloud is touching and maybe by rights that should be horrifying, but actually it is where the clouds mingle that their colors are softer and they are not so suffocating. Only the clouded ones are not afraid of each other.

It is similar, I am finding, with chronic illness. People are curious, but they don’t know what they are asking. “I hope you get better,” they say, and they mean it, but they also mean, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” You don’t blame them; it’s not interesting or easy to talk about. But you also end up hiding part of your life, just to spare other people from witnessing your pain; and you really, really don’t expect them to want to. But you stay home more, because hurting people don’t belong at parties—not until they’re better.

Must I list all the other kinds of pain? We all know traumas; and we have all known the shame of having minimized another’s pain before we came to understand. People who have the courage to say they are in pain should be believed.

Here is another thing: you do not have to glorify suffering to acknowledge the truth that running away from it never really works. And it is not demonizing anyone to recognize, on a sort of flip side, that pain has made some people hard, bitter, even grotesque.

There is no good time or place to be in any kind of pain, but 21st-century America might be a particularly bad one. Once, towns were small, and everyone knew that everyone had illnesses, deaths in the family, financial losses. Now we call these things private. Now there are so many ways to go numb, it can take all your energy not to let the netflix binge or the scrolling glamours of other people’s lives take over, night after night, until you are never home with yourself, never doing your own work. It is too easy to avoid your communities, to manufacture escape in the dark.

But what is worse is the unspoken expectation that if you have done your work in whatever way, you will heal quickly and correctly. Around here we measure people by work done, progress achieved, goals accomplished, status unlocked; so when your trajectory is nonlinear or nonexistent, people tire of you. They blame you. You know they do, and you blame yourself. In the end so many of us are walking around in our clouds, trying to pull them tight around ourselves, letting them poison us if only they won’t touch anyone else. If only we can appear normal or strong or rational, if only most of ourselves can be allowed to live while some other vital part of us suffocates: the part that bears our pain.

Look, my friends, it doesn’t have to be this way! I think there have been times and places where people in pain knew it could make them wise and generous; where others knew how to value them without needing to know how to fix them. But in this time and place, do not look to any cultural institutions for these secrets; they are only within some of the bravest of the sufferers, themselves.

They are the ones who have made friends with their clouds, most days, and that’s why they’re not afraid of others’. They are the ones who have let someone else into their clouds, and that’s why they know the urgency of reaching out, even to the roiling, even to the ugly ones. Does that mean sharing the pain? Yes, in some way, it does—but that is how burdens are lightened. That, I would argue, is the whole work of Christ. It is the suffering who “know what to say” to each other:
Your suffering is allowed. You do not have to be more than you are. I do not have to understand. Blame does not matter and will not help. We can bear this.

We have succeeded when we continue, together, to be.

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why we can’t just stop with a healthcare bill

why we can’t just stop with a healthcare bill

Is it my sixth? My seventh visit to this doctor in nine months? I wish they didn’t make you sit in a high chair to draw your blood, I think, rummaging through my purse for something, anything, to fidget with. I gulp cold water from a paper cup and smile at the other people in the room as if to calm them down. They are never as worried as I am; my body has a mild phobia of needles, my blood pressure sometimes dropping until jagged stars invade my vision and the world goes black. Today, my heart has already been racing and my head light for a while, since my doctor told me we have exhausted our options in pill form and she is prescribing a weekly injection. This is good, maybe this will be the one that helps, my brain says. My body is gearing up to reject these future weekly invaders.

“Would you mind loosening this band? I’ve passed out before,” I ask the phlebotomist, trying to sound nonchalant.

“It’s a tourniquet. It’s going to be tight,” she snips as she relieves the pressure choking my arm.

It’s about the rudest thing that’s happened to me since I left Boston, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Even when your doctor is kind and patient, she conveys through her busyness, her degrees on the wall, her brusque responses when you venture an idea, that you as a patient should sit down and shut up. When it comes to managing your health, you are viewed more as a liability (prone to eat too many cookies or forget your meds) than as a partner; your familiarity with your own body, ability to read and research, and willingness to make lifestyle changes do not count for much at all.

The bloodwork goes smoothly despite my insistence on retaining consciousness. “We will get to work on your prior authorization with the insurance,” the doctor tells me on the way out the door. The injections are so expensive she will have to make a special plea on my behalf.

Two weeks later, I get a phone call: the insurance company will pay for the drug, the pharmacy says. My copay will be $200 a week, but the drug company might bring it down if I call them. I thank the lady and hang up. It’s been my best two weeks, physically, in the last nine months; at the urging of several friends, I’ve been taking turmeric. It costs five cents a day.

Even when we pretend to be objective about healthcare, the word means different things to all of us. My own feelings about doctors. His memories of the time he nearly died. Her mother, in the best nursing home they can afford. His kids receiving the mental health treatment, disability help, or asthma meds that help them function in an inhospitable society. Her brother trying to get clean again.

The last time the country debated healthcare, I was 19, my chronic illness was in remission and I’d never paid for a doctor’s visit; so “healthcare” was a bit of an abstraction to me. But I remember many conversations about all aspects of the healthcare system: we were concerned with the reasons healthcare was so expensive.

This time around, I hear only about who’s going to pay. It almost sounds as if lawmakers believe, if they get the right actuaries and accountants into the same room, some way exists to balance costs and benefits so most everyone will end up happy. But most of us know that’s not really true. And it is the vulnerable, the cash-strapped and the caregivers, who are losing sleep waiting for the verdict: will their families be counted among the “deserving?”

This time around, as families find themselves feeling powerless, I have been reminded at every turn how the healthcare system itself disempowers people. How patients are run through systems like widgets on an assembly line. How your doctor, your insurance company, and countless bureaucrats in between decide whether you receive treatment. How one’s various doctors and specialists make it difficult to share records, information, and ideas between them.

I am disturbed that we don’t, properly speaking, participate in “healthcare”; we have a system for disease-care, organ-care, but not for helping people lead good and happy lives. It is hardly acknowledged amidst the sterile walls and medical machines that our organs are connected to one another,  let alone that the mental, emotional, and social spheres can impact our bodies as heavily as drugs.

I am frustrated that I have the option of trying dietary solutions to my own health problems only because I run in well-educated circles—that even though these options pose zero risk (unlike immune-suppressing injections), they do not merit mention by my doctor.

I am convinced we are not asking enough questions; for even if we found some way to pay for it all, our healthcare still would not be healthy, or holistic, or just.

There are philosophers who say that everything Americans do, we do to avoid thinking about death. Whether or not they are correct, most of us could agree that we are avoiding some hard conversations. For so long we have believed we could outsource the burden of considering these topics: the doctor manages our health, the Congress, our obligations to our neighbors, while the pastor answers moral questions and knows what to do when someone dies.

Some people in the gut-health and autoimmune-management communities (industries?) speak of a patient-led revolution: putting the parts of the body back together and empowering people to manage their health through their own decisions, relying less on drugs and more on lifestyle choices whose side effects are only good.

I hope that as we are re-examining healthcare, making our phone calls to Congress and our judgments of other political positions, we will notice that the experts are not the only ones who can make change in every aspect of our medical lives.

We can discuss end-of-life with our families to avoid unnecessary medical bills and mental anguish.
We can improve lonely seniors’ health outcomes by spending time with them.
We can pay more attention to how our diets make us feel.
We can share information with friends and neighbors and help people research their conditions.
We can redirect future tax savings to support programs that offer free medical or mental health care, make healthy eating and exercise more accessible, or treat drug addiction.
We can face questions like how to deal with pain and when to pull the plug in our churches and community centers.

We can thank science for its meticulous dissection of creation—while also recognizing that the mysteries of life lie beyond the reaches of repeatable experiments and double-blind trials. We can honor the gifts medicine brings—while calling out the ways the industry has concentrated money and power with a few.

We will help someone else to be healthier, because we know that our own health cannot be disentangled from theirs, any more than the trees of the forest could pull out their own roots’ from the others’, any more than the eye can say to the hand, I don’t need you. We, too, will be the ones who give care.

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it was your forefathers who killed them

it was your forefathers who killed them

It is Friday afternoon when it flashes across as I thoughtlessly check my Twitter feed: Black Lives Matter. Panic seizes me. What has happened this time? It is Philando Castile, his shooter has been acquitted, as if it was never Jeronimo Yanez who was on trial for firing seven times into an unarmed man’s chest, into a car where a baby sat. It was always Castile on trial, the judicial system only a conference in which everyone agreed in the end: it took 49 stops in 13 years, but we finally got him for driving while black.

I am unable to believe it. It was not even a murder charge. I am angry that I was so naive, that I believed police officers should not be allowed to shoot any person seven times. It is Friday afternoon. I go quiet and numb. It is a privilege to go numb, and I do it anyway.

It is Saturday morning, and it is the anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Maybe I should have gone to the Unity Walk today, but excuses and misgivings proliferated. Charleston seems to treat the shooting as a family tragedy, not as a public one. Not as a terrorist attack. This is hard for me, this politeness, this murmuring and the talk of hope; and the pretense that Dylann Roof was such a deranged outlier that white people can sufficiently distance themselves from him by expressing sorrow for the Emanuel Nine. But it’s not true. Fear of Black people put up walls around whites’ homes in 18th-century Charleston. Fear of Black people sent Roof into that church. Fear of Black people sent seven bullets into Philando Castile’s car. When white people let this verdict go by without acknowledging all this, we are allowing the system to call black people Others, subcitizens who do not actually bear rights to arms or to due process or to life. When white people pray for healing without working for justice, we are following the footsteps of the Pharisees. You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of wickedness. You give God a tenth, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them.

I was not here for the attack and so I do not go to the march, do not want to seem a meddler, and tell myself uncertainly it was good not to take myself so seriously. I do not get to be a fixer here, I tell myself for the thousandth time. I do not get to put the Walk on a checklist that proves I am trying hard enough. I pray, and pray, and pray. I pray I am becoming a good friend to my Black neighbors. I pray I will show up for justice, and not just for sorrow. That is all I know I can do. There is very much I do not know.

It is Saturday afternoon, and Bill Cosby receives a mistrial. I am watching who is upset about which trial. Few have said anything about either. Maybe they are also numb. Maybe they are exercising their privilege to ignore the news, like they exercise the privilege to drive around without fear, to move their arms in front of police officers. The privilege to broadcast their sexuality or visit people’s houses without the implication that they cede all rights to their bodies.

Social media on a Saturday is not the place to evaluate who cares about what. I know that. But it feels, everywhere, closing in on me lately, like justice is being mocked. Like might makes right is winning in politics and in the courts and in churches and the local school. And I don’t know who else feels that way, except a few who say so, on their pages or on the phone. They make me feel that I am not crazy.

It is Saturday evening. I am not numb anymore. I am searing; I am sick. Why does the man standing with a gun get the benefit of the doubt while the seated, unarmed one is scrutinized? Why does the comfort of some take precedence over the very lives of others? Why do we refuse to see these questions as connected?

Am I crazy? The people who say they are sick of hearing about “justice”—do they know the Gospel better than I, education-addled, do?

I am overwhelmed; I offer my crushing feelings and my swirling thoughts, my desire to act, to the Author of justice. They look small and silly. But others have made this same absurd gift.

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
‘He won’t call me to account’?
But you, O God, do see trouble and grief;
You consider it to take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you;
You are the helper of the fatherless.
Break the arm of the wicked and evil man;
Call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.

The Lord is King for ever and ever;
The nations will perish from his land.
You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted;
You encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
Defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
In order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

I light a candle and I begin by speaking up in this raw voice, with more faith than I feel: we are not crazy. We are not alone. We are looking for each other. Sunday is coming.

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2 ways I manage to love my body (90% of the time)

2 ways I manage to love my body (90% of the time)

I first started exercising when I was 18, for a boy. He offered to teach me to box. We met up with a couple of other friends in his spider-y basement and took down imaginary attackers. Until then, my life had mainly consisted of books and music; the idea of enjoying exercise was foreign to me, the idea of playing (and failing at) sports, panic-inducing. But something about boxing worked for me, and that basement became the place where I first felt the joy of pushing your body to exhaustion and beyond.

Later in college, I was studying the doctrine of the incarnation when I began following yoga videos in my room. For centuries two sides of Christianity once battled: the Gnostics—who followed the philosophers in proclaiming that matter was evil—against the orthodox position, which said that Christianity must side with Judaism in declaring all creation good. I would read a passionate third-century defense of Jesus’s bodily realness and creation’s very-goodness; then I would go to the mat and exorcise the Gnostic voices in my own head. Breathing into all the space I could take up, I learned about myself and connected with the world in ways that books could simply not provide. Stretching and strengthening muscles, I experienced my body as more than a case for my brain or a passive, sexualized object. Even placing my hands on my own body was not something I’d normally done before, and by moving into these poses I sometimes felt I was encountering myself for the first time. I began resisting the impulse to live life floating above my body, or to (literally) minimize it. This is me, and I am good.

This was the first thing: to think less of “my body” and to conceive more of “my self,” a philosophical idea that has taken a lot of practical re-training to really absorb. To remind myself that my body and I aren’t separate, I made rules: I don’t berate, pinch, pull, deny, or constantly weigh my body. I don’t envision my future body or train toward a particular physique. I stretch out in public places when I want to. I listen to my body: I rest when I’m sick and eat french fries when I crave them and drink green tea because it makes me feel good.

The other thing is to get a little mad.

I think a lot of us realize that “society” has made us unhappy with ourselves, and we feel kind of sad about that. But as much as we may have pondered and discussed this in a vague sense, how often have we really comprehended the violence that has been done to us? The profit others have gained by encouraging this inferiority complex? The absurd entitlement instilled in men, trained to stare, evaluate, use, and discard? I don’t think we often put it starkly enough. We’ve been psychologically manipulated to reorient our lives around male desire through the physical manipulation of models and stars: forcing them into an unrealistic mold and then digitally slicing off parts of them anyway.

There’s something liberating about realizing you’re trapped. When you finally confront the fact that you will never, ever measure up. You will never look like Barbie or even like Gal Gadot. You will never be comfortable in that swimsuit, because no one has ever been comfortable in that swimsuit. You will never impress a guy who gets his ideas of women’s value from magazines and porn.

If you identify just a little bit with your body, be just a little bit fond of it, and pay attention to the messages you’re getting, it isn’t hard to cultivate a healthy and holy anger. Really think about how the senders want you to feel. The cat-caller on the street? Wants you to feel vulnerable, to remind you that he gets to determine your value. The perfume ad? Wants you to feel not-sexy-enough. The weight loss people? They want you to direct your time and energy toward getting a six pack—and not toward your own dream.

We can’t keep letting these people decide how we feel.

I used to think the “Christian response” to body shame was to pray that God would show me how beautiful I am. But over time, God showed me that my body is more than beautiful—more than how others perceive me. I do work, communicate, pray, cook, dance, serve communion, bike, hug, and love with my body. My body is getting older, and if I only love it when it seems to meet the standards of beauty others have given me, I will forever struggle against it. Now I don’t seek to “feel beautiful” as much as I seek to be free and to sprinkle freedom on others like fairy dust. I actively cultivate appreciation for my squishy bits and—this is really important—cut myself off from judging others’ appearances.

You don’t have to be an Angry Feminist raging around all the time. But once you start to care for yourself, you stop letting strangers poke at all your tender spots. You just get tired of feeling helpless about all this body stuff. You realize it’s a Christian Response to be mad when you’re assaulted by lies. You harness anger and turn it into spirit, because escaping from bondage is a hard thing and the liars and thieves do fight back. You don’t have to hate anybody; but you do have to practice self-defense.

I recommend we all stop being ladylike, and learn to box.

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To the earnest ones: you are allowed

To the earnest ones: you are allowed

You are allowed to be deep. You are allowed to care too much what people say to you and you are allowed to need a rest from absorbing the pain of people around you, pain they think is hidden. You do not have to be cavalier about things and you do not have to hide the things you care about most. You can be earnest in a sarcastic world; please, be earnest in a sarcastic world. The world needs overserious people and even, sometimes, wet blankets. There is no amount that you Should care, feel, or love. You do not have to wrestle yourself into nonchalance. No, you are not mistaken; there is an undercurrent of urgent beauty and great pain in everything, in everyone. You do not have to laugh often for your laughter to change the world.

You are allowed to be shallow. There is no one to tell you how many minutes per day must be spent in deep thought, and no one to tell you when you have gotten to the bottom of things. You are welcome to delight in sports, lipstick, cat memes, and cupcakes without guilt and without complication; you can sing songs without diagnosing your motives and enjoy movies without analyzing society. It is no one’s responsibility to know and understand everything. It is no one’s responsibility to tell you how much fun to have, and if anyone dismisses you for being joyful, childlike, absorbed with some little thing, tell them that the thing is a metaphor. Whether or not it is a metaphor, this thought will occupy them for sometime. Maybe they will come to see that we all deserve to be innocent at least some of the time. Maybe they will come to see that there is a particular grace in delighting in the world as it is.

You are allowed to be a stubborn overthinker and intransigently irreverent, all at the same time, in whatever proportions occur to you. There cannot be too much levity, nor can there be too much solemnity for this world. You do not have to be correct and you do not even have to be Healthy. What if we were all Healthy all of the time? That is the worn-out stuff of dystopian fiction. Do not let people use Healthy to enforce their personal orthodoxies. Do not be cajoled out of the gift of your own perspective. When we try too hard to meet such standards, we fall through some veil: where we had been listening and learning from others, we are flipped into the realm of self-consciousness and often, accidentally, self-obsession.

Here is the truth, anyway: the most honest, comfortable, bright delight shows out from those who have faced the depths. And levity does not preclude solemnity any more than loving someone keeps you from letting them go. Laughter is trust; it is allowing absurdity to have its say; it is surrendering your lungs and your voice to the unexpected. What a relief that there is the unexpected. What a relief to let people be sometimes, even though they are Unhealthy and Wrong. What a relief to let ourselves be, even to let ourselves care too much. How good to give up an obsession with others’ comfort and begin to believe who we are.

If you are too emo, they will call you adolescent. If you enjoy too much silliness, they will call you adolescent. Only to be obsessed with practicalities is considered adult; to forget that great questions, guiding values, joy in small things, the rush of encountering others once occupied your thoughts. Make the time for all of this. Indulge impractical questions about the meaning of things during meetings. And do something utterly outrageous every once in a while—even if it is only to have ice cream for dinner or lay without thinking in the sun, though the world is full of pain. These are all gifts we bring to the world, simply by our being, our encountering. These are how we carry our full selves into the things we do. These are the foolish, earnest love the world so deeply, deeply needs.

Inspired by David’s life and particularly his dance, 2 Samuel 6.

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How to fail at social media

How to fail at social media

Yesterday I had an idea, and I wrote a blog post. It took me many hours. When I finished it, I thought, this is weird and cheesy. But this morning, I gave it some edits and decided I needed to get on with my life. I took a calculated risk. I published it.

Two hours later, no one had liked it and A PERSON HAD UNFOLLOWED ME on Facebook. I am not exaggerating. A PERSON. HAD. UNFOLLOWED ME.

I continue to not-exaggerate when I tell you that I considered quitting everything. I could go back to dashing things off every few months when the spirit seizes me. I prayed a sad prayer about whether I should give up my professional-writing dreams and just be content brightening one person’s day, every once in a while, like I used to do.

And God was like, uh, no. Get a grip.

So I did some chores so I could think.

Had I ruined my blog by publishing a weird, cheesy post? Of course not. I’m damn proud of my blog. And someone, somewhere will like my little story. But it felt like I had failed in some really important way. Maybe I’m a little too used to people telling me how great my writing is. Maybe in a year of transition, of identity shift, I’ve staked a little too much on all those compliments. Maybe this is a tiny, tiny dose of that humility I, you know, prayed for earlier this week.

But even if I had actually failed, even if everyone stopped pity-following me, even if I never publish a book—wouldn’t that sort of be the definition of “calculated risk?” You might fail. Actually, if you practice a craft, you will fail. That is part of the whole thing. If you want to never fail, Being A Creative should be last on your list.

Here is another thing. I am an unfollower. It’s my phone and I only let a few things on it and I unfollow people every day. So if my thoughtless click caused this reaction in someone else? I would be super annoyed. DON’T PUT THAT ON ME, I would think. Your happiness, neurotic stranger, is 100% not my responsibility.

I’ve been thinking every day for the past few weeks about what it means to serve as a writer, as someone who has to try to make a living by trying to become a public speaker. What can I give? How can I help? But today it hit me that as long as I’m fixated on likes, hearts, and thumbs-ups, I’ll always be taking more than I give. I’ll always be operating out of fear. I’ll always be trying to reflect some audience back at itself instead of offering something unique—and maybe even giving someone else permission to be weird and cheesy.

It’s a weird way to relate to ourselves: by broadcasting things. It used to scare me to death; our devices and apps weren’t designed to make us better people. But I’m finally seeing hope. We don’t have to do what the devices and apps tell us: check them constantly, obsess over our stats, build our lives around our feeds. We just have to be good people, which has honestly never been easy. Or safe. Or un-cheesy.

But it’s worth it.

Likes and ♥♥♥,


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This Clueless Teacher

This Clueless Teacher

I am no expert on daily life for first-century Jews in Palestine, but if you are, I’d love to hear from you!

Martha had never told anyone how much she liked rocks. No one had ever asked, for one thing. But the older she got, the more special the secret seemed. She knew, even if she didn’t understand, that the adults would laugh if she tried to point out the beauty in each one, the intricacies of pattern, color, and even weight that distinguished them from each other. And now that she was approaching ten years old, the other kids would laugh, too.

Today, Martha’s hands and eyes inspected the bit of limestone in her hand while her ears strained to listen to the men’s conversation. Silly as it was to care so much about rocks, trying to learn about the intricacies of the Law was even more futile, but Martha couldn’t help it; the wisest of the men could discover such great truths in even the smallest sentence of scripture. Whenever she got the chance to listen and understand, Martha felt for the rest of the week like she could see farther. It felt like she was storing up more secrets, even more beautiful than her stones.

“Martha. MARTHA!” She spun around at the edge in her mother’s voice and hurried toward her, framed in the door of the house. In a few steps, Martha had the baby on her hip, but she knew she deserved the scolding that came anyway: “Are Mary and I supposed to play patty-cake until you’re good and ready to wander back inside? Are you going to explain to your father why supper’s not ready?” Martha’s mother turned to light a fire, still muttering about chores that hadn’t been done, as Lazarus and Gideon nearly bowled Martha over. They were so engrossed in their swordfight that Martha didn’t bother to yell at them; she picked up a piece of string from the floor and sat Mary on a chair instead. Martha pretended to tie the rock onto Mary’s wrist. “It’s so you’ll remember the scriptures,” she whispered. Mary seemed to consider this for a moment. “Spitchers!” she replied, throwing the rock on the floor with gusto. Martha moved to throw it back outside before anyone could accuse her of bringing in more dirt.

Martha had dumped out her rock collection many years later when her husband moved to the family home, but she had never stopped straining to hear the religious teachers—and no one had stopped doting on Mary. They had all indulged her fantasy of never marrying for so long that they hardly noticed as Mary actually became an old maid. When Martha’s own husband died, she mourned him dutifully, but soon found her life with Mary and Lazarus quite cozy.

Everyone in the village had expected her to invite the traveling teacher to lodge with them. Martha had a knack for concocting huge meals out of thin air and an infamously immaculate house. Still, she had heard her heart beating in her ears as she awaited Jesus’s reply; when he spoke, it was as if every glimpse of beauty she’d ever gotten from the Torah readings suddenly coalesced into a pattern, simple but captivating—one that she knew had always been there, but never quite believed she’d understand, let alone see, on earth. This man didn’t just theorize about Shalom. He described the Kingdom of God. He was the Kingdom of God.

Of course Martha had started preparing before she’d even asked, but at his acceptance of her invitation all the tasks before her became suffused with joy. Never before had she been so proud of her talent for hospitality or so excited to share it. She sang as she dusted and scrubbed, and tried to appear modest but terribly busy in her conversations at the market. She tried, too, not to mind as she caught glimpses of Lazarus and Mary listening to the teacher in the square while she hurried home, arms loaded with produce.

By the time the whole group bustled in the front door, the realities of pulling off a dinner party had overtaken the thrill. Martha had been hoping for Mary’s return for hours. No matter how many eggplants she chopped, it seemed she still needed more. Her feet ached and her back was in knots.
“Thank God you’re here,” she breathed, grabbing Mary’s arm when she walked in after the guests. “We missed you!” Mary said with bright eyes.
“Well, that’s nice, but I need…” Martha trailed off as Mary returned her attention to Jesus and walked away.

It doesn’t matter she thought,  the plan will work well enough without help. Mary has never been very attentive to household things, and it’s my own fault for spoiling the girl. Martha thumped a bowl of nuts onto a table and checked the lamb: right on schedule. Mary just doesn’t understand how the world works. She’s making a fool of herself, as if she thought she belonged in the middle of that group of men. She found herself setting dishes on the table a little more loudly than normal. How can Mary sit there, seeing how many people they had to feed, and act so entitled? Martha moved the lentils off the fire. The bottom layer had burned; that would mean a lot of scrubbing later tonight. The thought of cleaning up after all this made her want to cry. Why had she invited Jesus here in the first place?

Jesus. She knew what to do. Grabbing a wine glass, she walked out of the kitchen and offered it to the first person she saw. Then she leaned down next to Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet. “Lord,” she said, certain that he would make Mary see sense, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Martha moved to take away a hand-washing bowl, pretending not to see Mary’s shocked expression.

“Martha…” His voice was calm and inviting, but she was already scanning the room for tasks that needed to be done. “Martha!” She turned back around and made eye contact with the teacher for the first time. The kindness in his face made her want to cry again. Here would come his thanks, his recognition of her work.
“You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Martha stared from Jesus to Mary for a minute, both of them appearing to genuinely hope that she would plop down next to Mary on the floor. Then she swept back into the kitchen.

Only one thing is needed! All that is needed is for everyone to sit around playing patty-cake until dinner magically appears! Later she would think that Jesus himself had inadvertently helped her, because she was so angry she hardly noticed her hands making the rest of the preparations. Once they all made their way to dinner, though, she was so relieved to have a seat and a glass of wine that her frustration quickly dissipated. In Jesus’ company, the group was lighthearted but sincere. At his words, they felt for the first time that they could be good, as the teachers had always admonished, and that it would be a joy to do so.

The food was impeccably done, and compliments abounded. Once Jesus even asked for her opinion on a theological matter, with such simplicity that she answered frankly before she even had the sense to demur. She blushed deeply, but Jesus’s friends seemed unfazed. “Yes, I think you are right there,” Jesus answered, and carried on. Martha vaguely knew that water and wine glasses were sitting empty, that the bread was gone and the centerpiece was askew. But the words that had continued to ring in her ears no longer galled her; she felt the truth of them. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. So perfection had been taken away from Martha just as it always was. Didn’t Jesus care more about her than about her napkin folds?

A couple of hours had passed when Martha felt a hand on her shoulder. “Hey Martha,” Mary whispered, “Where’s the baklava? I’ll bring it out.”

For a moment panic seized her. Utter despair followed, but just as quickly came resignation. She had forgotten to make dessert. Martha glanced around at all the contented faces, chattering but always with Jesus in view. She stood up and pulled Mary into the kitchen. “This is it,” she said, scooping some dried dates into two bowls.
“Oh, Martha…” Mary said.

“What’s done is done,” Martha said quickly. The women made no grand entrance, but simply returned to their seats and offered the dates to their neighbors.

They were the best dates Martha had ever eaten. Juicy and sweet, winey but bright, the best of the summery fruit remaining alongside the deep caramels of aged sugars. In a blink, across the table, Martha could have sworn Jesus raised a date to her in a toast for just a second before attending to another guest’s earnest question

“Martha, it was an honor to sit with you at your table today,” Jesus said as they filed out the door.
“I hope I will see you again soon,” Martha replied.

Later, cleaning up, Martha noticed something odd on the table. There, at Jesus’s place, was a beautiful rock, not exactly unusual but with a pattern and a heft she thought she recognized. Mary glanced over, too.

“Inconsiderate of people to bring extra dirt inside, don’t you think?”

Martha only smiled.

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Let the Bible breathe: scripture after a crisis

Let the Bible breathe: scripture after a crisis

For a long, long, time I read the Bible every night before bed—maybe from age 14 to 22. Growing up, this was the sign that you were a true Christian, and it made sense. If Christianity was having a relationship with Jesus, and Jesus spoke mainly through the Bible, this had to be a priority in your life.

It didn’t matter if most of your Quiet Times came with no great revelation, or if nothing you read really sank in at all. The point was to be saturated in scripture, to have one foot in another world, to let the revelation sneak up on you. And I am still captivated by that vision. This habit, among other things, taught me the power of faithfulness. Showing up to the things you care about, just for the sake of doing it, somehow gets a bad rap among us who are addicted to the new; but there is nothing so powerful as faithfulness. In many ways, you are what you do when you don’t feel like it; or what you care enough to do every day; or what you do without thinking. Faithfulness is all these things.

Still, faithfulness may be an important part of love, but it is not all of love. And a time came when I found that faithfulness to the Bible was getting in the way of loving Jesus. I’d gotten so wrapped up in these words and their many interpretations that this God-Man had become just another voice in the crowd of religious teachers.

I will stop to note that someone is already irritated or worried about me. The Bible could never get in the way of loving Jesus, they will admonish. It is how we know Jesus. But if you have only known a Jesus of words, maybe you are not like the twelve followers, leaning close and living life with the Teacher. Maybe you are like a crowd member, hanging back, leaving some distance because this man is intriguing but, after all, rather dangerous. I hope for you that you have known Jesus in the ways he tells us to find him in John: by obeying him, for instance. By doing just one of those ludicrous commandments he gives, by forgiving an enemy or serving the lowest, we know Jesus in us in a way we’ll rarely find through scripture. He tells us, too, to find him by loving one another: in daily fellowship we discover the face of Christ returning our love as we could never love ourselves on our own. And he tells us to ask for what we need, to abide in him, to wait upon the Spirit—to pray. Nowhere in his farewell speech to his disciples does he tell them to diligently read the Bible.

How many of them do you think were literate, anyway?

Anyway, you should not fear: it is three years later and I once again read the Bible most days. But I do so with a strong appreciation for the fact that, as my friend Katie says, the Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. It is a remarkable work of literature where we often meet God. But we do so through the intermediaries of its authors; through the emotion of story and poetry; penetrating layers of language and culture before we can understand very much at all about law, government, gender, war, family, friendship, or work in those days. That is not to say only Biblical scholars can read the Bible well. It is only to say that reading the Bible is a dangerous activity. People who use scripture to contain, tame, and instrumentalize God are doing it wrong.

You see, if you start to read the Bible every day like the preacher tells you to, going through all the books and not just your favorites, you rather quickly end up with a different religion than you had when you were just a Sunday-school goer and sermon-listener. Sure, you can go for a while, carefully fitting each passage into the framework of your pastor’s or your church’s theology. But eventually, you know you’re straining it. You read the violence in Judges, the political intrigue in Samuel, and good heavens, all the thundering words of the prophets, you start to see why you haven’t heard much preaching on these. You really soak up the Gospels and you begin to realize you weren’t really aware of Who you were dealing with when you picked up this book.

A lot of us put it back down at that point; or find some devotional that makes it all feel more comforting; or jam our theological paradigm ever more firmly onto the Bible, refusing to see all the bits squishing out at the edges where this mystery refuses to be systematized.

We do have some other options. The thing is, most of them involve being—and remaining—uncomfortable. But if you’re looking to the Bible to be more than comforting, here are a few.

Let go of the chapter and verse. A “medium is the message” realization that’s been frustrating me lately is that sermons, devotionals, and our actual Bibles all split up every book into 100-500 word chunks. Sure, this is a nice amount of Bible to read out loud or dig into for twenty minutes, but it’s not, like, the Right amount of Bible. Feel free to read the Bible like any other literature. Be carried along by the prophets’ poetry for several chapters at a time. Read the drama of 1 and 2 Samuel over the course of a week or two (and you’ll stand a chance of keeping all the characters straight). Get your Bible study group to spend a session reading an entire epistle out loud, the way the early church would have heard it.

Ask a Jewish person. OK, so I don’t know many Jewish people who are seriously into faith (or maybe I don’t know that I know them; holler at me!).But the Jews have thousands of years more practice reading the Bible than we Christians do, and (unlike Christian fundamentalists) even hyper-Orthodox Jews are likely to approach scripture as a rich, varied, mysterious landscape. This is one I’m still starting out in, but for now I recommend Abraham Heschel and anything you can find about midrash.

Let the questions be. I think sometimes we talk about “bringing our questions to God” but don’t actually…do it. Do you shy away from your questions? Or do you write them down, let them niggle, say them out loud? Look, sometimes the answers will come; often, they won’t. But none of this is about being certain, and it’s definitely not about being right. It is good and humbling and exciting to have unanswered questions. Find contentment there.

Take a break. I wrote about this last week, but someone is still waiting for permission. A lot of the Shoulds in your life are lies. The Bible will be there when you get back. You can walk with God without the Bible. You can walk with God without most things you Should do. God is gracious and God is not at the end of a checklist and God is not a genie trapped in the Bible. Take a walk. Phone a friend. Rediscover painting. Someday scripture will call you back; but for now, loose your white-knuckle grip on it. Let it be free.

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It’s Complicated: A Bible Story

It’s Complicated: A Bible Story

For twenty years I loved the Bible. And then, one day, I didn’t.

I don’t think you can explain to a non-religious person what it is like to spend your life steeped in a single book. Or even to a committed religious person for whom Scripture is secondary; a hyper-devoted Trekkie or Harry Potter rereader might be better able to understand how a text can become a part of you, how bits of it might pop into your mind at any moment and how the grand sweep of its narrative becomes the ordering principle for your own life.

I don’t mean this in a rigid, dogged way. Yes, I gave that leather-bound book a lot of authority in my life, and I cared deeply about following it just as I cared deeply about being a good girl in every other way; but I also recognized fluidity, mystery, discernment in the translation of these ancient texts to today’s world. The more I grew familiar with the Bible, the more surprising and inspiring and convicting it became. Since thirteen or fourteen, maybe, I had learned as much about myself as about anything else from its pages. It asks you to ask questions, and then it asks them right back at you.

And so, when I started the required Bible classes for my college degree, I thought I was ready. Even when I realized Biblical scholarship wasn’t going to be a bag of tricks that put a new spin on every verse, I still knew that context would make my understanding of every verse deeper. And even when my teachers demolished my beliefs about the Bible’s origins and authorship, I took a few days to regroup but easily felt that this book was still fundamentally trustworthy.

I graduated with ten Bible classes under my belt, despite infamously bad relationships with both of my Greek teachers; one of my most profound encounters with the Bible happened through a fifteen-page paper in my final semester of senior year. I was as enamored as I’d ever been. My studies had made my grasp of these texts infinitely more careful and nuanced, yet I still heard the Holy Spirit through them. And I still felt that there was a unifying message in all of it, something comforting and challenging and inspiring that I could offer to myself and others in any situation.

Then life happened.

Over the next four years, I would experience betrayal, and those Psalms would just lie flat on the page instead of bringing comfort. The people and places I met would challenge my overdeveloped sense of morality, and the Bible would only sow more confusion. Yet more Bible classes would force me to sit with the ugliest parts of the scriptures and deal with the terrible oppression they had engendered throughout history. Reading the Bible for personal reasons during seminary felt like when you’ve planted too much squash in your garden: pretending you really love eating zucchini as a snack when you’ve already had it for breakfast and lunch every day this week. I could not listen to sermons and devotionals and blog posts without involuntarily annotating them in my mind. Well, when you look at the Greek, what you’re saying about this word doesn’t make a lot of sense… I suppose you could say that about God in this instance, but I bet you’re going to skip over the part three chapters later where he does the opposite…

A couple of times in my life, the process of “growing apart” from a certain friend, however natural it was that we’d both changed, has brought me immense pain. This was one of them. I didn’t know how to be Christian without the Bible, but after a few years of these frustrations I could no longer handle the exhaustion of trying to wrestle meaning out of these words.

Into this mess came a great gift: the gift of silence. After so many collapses under the Bible’s weight, God (who generally seemed absent in those days) came by to say, Here. Let me hold that. I was left with an embarrassingly cliche realization that I am starting to think I will always continue to have: I couldn’t have believed, let alone admitted it, but I was still treating life as a puzzle and the Bible as an answer key. I thought I was OK with not knowing, but I hadn’t really learned to live without certainty. Meanwhile, my calling had never been to love and honor the Bible, but that’s what my priority had been. It had now come between me and God, between me and other people, and I had to let it go for a while.

It is two or three years later and I am only just resuming a steady relationship with all those ancient stories of God. I can only now hear a sermon on its own terms before interspersing layers of criticism and corroboration. And if you are worried about my soul after so long keeping Scripture at arm’s length, here is a thing I read this morning.

18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
19 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
20 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”
21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

See, for so long, there were crowds in my mind, all telling me who Jesus was. They came to church with me and to bed with me, telling me how to categorize Jesus in order to make sense of him. But that was never going to be the way to know Jesus; there was only the way Peter took. To follow in his footsteps, day after day, not really knowing where we were going or why. To whisper about him sometimes with other disciples. To ask him questions and receive cryptic replies. To watch him in prayer. Because if your answers come too easily, you have to wonder if you’ve really been paying attention. Because your answer might have to haunt you for a while before you’ll admit that it could cost you your life. Because you know, in the end, that you will not possibly be able to truly understand your own answer, no matter how many other things you think you comprehend.

I think I am not done here. I want to be more practical and specific about how I navigated all this, and I expect I’ll do that in next week’s post. If you want to receive a handy email when it’s live, go on over to form in the sidebar, check both of the little checkboxes, and sign up!

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I am lonely and it is OK.

I am lonely and it is OK.

There is a thing we do not always like to tell people who are graduating from high school or college, with the result that they hear of it in whispers and snatches—a specter they, too, try to ignore. And some of them escape it; they go home, or they go to graduate school, plopped down into a new life with a readymade cohort of like-minded young people. But most of us go to jobs in cities new to us, seeking adventure and success, and we find them, but we also encounter that specter. Its name is loneliness.

There are different kinds of loneliness, but we do not have names for them. It would be nice if we did. If we could throw out an offhanded comment like, ‘I’ve got a bit of the usual topodoloria that one expects three weeks after moving somewhere new,” instead of having to stay mum or else burst out: “I wish one single thing felt familiar in this place besides the coffee mug I’m carrying around obsessively because it reminds me of home.”

We need words for the loneliness of a long-distance relationship, the unreasonable rage at happy, cuddling couples when it is still weeks til you hold your person and something finally unknots inside of you. The ache of being single and wanting not to care, but thinking you would do anything to avoid one more engagement photo in your feed. The effort of trying not to weep at a party because you only wish you had people to feel safe with. The disappointment of a perfect summer evening when you have no one to give a beer on your porch.

Why does saying “I’m lonely” feel like admitting weakness, like if you had to foist the news on people that you had a disease? In a culture so far removed from the tribes and villages that have held most humans in history—a culture designed for loneliness—we don’t know how to talk about it. (I imagine this conundrum is even worse if you are male.) So we eat food or watch porn or shop to assuage the emptiness. We scroll social media looking for the rush of momentary connection. We hit the gym or log extra work hours because if we can’t feel fulfilled, maybe we can at least appear successful.

Well, everybody, I’ve done all those things and they were hardly even momentary fixes and I am done being afraid of it. I’m lonely. And it’s not because my existing friends (or my husband) are inadequate; and it’s not because I am abhorrent; and it’s not that I am inordinately needy. I fall well within the normal human range of neediness. Here is why I am lonely: because I moved. Because people my age move constantly in my culture and no one is supposed to make a big deal out of it. But you don’t find and love and trust your people overnight, the people who make you snort-laugh and tell you when you’re being dumb and are good at giving you gifts. It takes a lot of friend dates, awkward party situations, mild rejections by people who are too busy for you, testing of sense-of-humor waters, weekend nights hiding with Netflix because it’s all so exhausting. What it takes, like anything worth building, is time and effort.

Meanwhile, you will be lonely. At least some of the time, it will occur to you that you’d like to share something with someone, and there will not be anyone, and it will ache.

Here is how to live with the ache:

First, you must ignore your feelings. Not the ache itself, but the momentary feelings that keep you from making and being a friend. Read this article. Trust the rational voice in your head—the one telling you that calling a faraway friend is what you need when you’ve reached the end of your feeds; or that that one person deserves a third or fourth chance even though you’ve already grabbed a magic marker to label them annoying; or that drinking alone is unhealthy and it would be better to walk, bake, or color through that ache.

Then you really must put on your confident pants and go to the damn party. (Or the church, or the meetup, or the networking event.) Yes, you will be out too late and spend several awkward minutes standing alone next to the food table. Yes, there will be obnoxious people and fake people there. But the people you’re wishing for aren’t going to come knocking; they’re putting on their pants to go to the party and maybe make small talk with you and maybe accept your invitation to coffee or trivia. Think of your beautiful friends walking around other cities and going to other parties. Your people are out there.

Trust the process. Be patient with friendships in early stages. Grow a plant from a seed. Be faithful to the little tasks of tending them. Know that the ache, though overwhelming, will not overwhelm forever.

In the meantime, pray and pray and pray. Jesus was so lonely, dear heart. How often have you wished for the head space to reach toward him? Let the ache push you to God. Be still. Pray for others. Is this not a gift, to ache for connection, to feel the gaps in the universe where we have been broken from each other? Grow more tender and more grateful. Become a person with names for lonelinesses, and give the gift of recognition, and look the lonely in the eye and share something with them. We are already more connected than we can know.

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How to Be At Home in Discomfort: 1,000,000 Easy Steps

How to Be At Home in Discomfort: 1,000,000 Easy Steps

Boston will never be—if I had lived there ten years, would not have been—home. But I will always love it like I can never love another place. When I was in high school, I dreamed of being a young professional there, of living in a historical brick home and riding the train; lazing afternoons on the Common and laughing over takeout with friends in my garret. I never have a stronger urge to go back to talk to a former self, purely for the joy of seeing her face. When I think of those high school dreams, I am at once in awe that I achieved them and astounded by how small they were. How could high-school-me fathom becoming one of those bike commuters whizzing down Beacon Hill, dodging Duck Boats? Or working in the city’s underbelly as a caterer in the basements of its best museums?

Of course, I don’t think I could tell her about the highs of a night skyline in summer without the lows of predatory landlords and an exhausted hour-long commute at 2 A.M. The very specific loneliness of being crushed by people on the sidewalk, and how it doesn’t feel less lonely to know that they’re all lonely, too.

No one has ever really asked me what locals do in Boston, but high-school-me would. I would tell her that if you are middle-class or better off, you go to graduate school. I played an ultimate stereotype—passing through the city, using it for its books, and leaving more liberal than I came—but Boston never once derided me for sticking to that tired script. At least, I would tell myself, I had a dirty job. At least I walked many miles on my days off, til the map was part of me.

Other things locals do: put 80% of your income toward rent and heat. Crowd the neighborhood bar that has the cheapest Sam Summer once the temperature in your place tops 95. If you live on the green line, plan your days around the Sox, Celtics, or Bruins. If you do not live on the green line, refuse to ride the green line. Swear.

You see now, whenever I try to describe my fondness for Boston I tell only gritty, boring, maybe-depressing scenes. Maybe because everyone knows the bright, idyllic Boston I met in high school: sailboats on the Charles and rapturous cannoli. But it is also because I went to The North to get out of my Comfort Zone, and Boston did it for me—three years of unceasing discomfort.

Boston was full of people demanding I confront my privilege without offering an inkling as to how. It was also fond of judging my home states while itself remaining demonstrably among the country’s most racist, most segregated places. Boston gave me several weeks inventing new food combinations until I could buy groceries with the next paycheck. It was one spiritual or theological or identity crisis after another, culminating in my own personal Great Evangelical Betrayal.

All of that—it was a gift: much more than I bargained for, indeed. And through all of my throes and thrashing, Boston held me without sentiment and without judgment. Now there are sides of me that only the Charles knows. There are places I’d put my own historical markers: on this site in 2014, Lyndsey learned to be friends with women. Here, here, here, and here, she realized things were going to be OK. L and L once walked a marathon in a weekend, which began and ended here.

If you want to visit the shiny, nice, historical Boston, I can tell you where to go and wish you a very good time. But if you want to visit my Boston, I will tell you: walk and walk, then keep walking. Ask why things are the way they are. Tell the Charles you are in love with him. Get very sweaty and lost. Buy bread in the North End. Realize you have gone much too far. Then turn around and come back. And when you arrive wherever you started, and you are terribly exhausted and your bread is gone and you are grateful for a place to just be, then you are there. Share a three-dollar bottle of wine with someone and toast the safety of a cyclist and belatedly thank God, who happens to be around, for the bread. Swear. Swear especially if it makes you uncomfortable. It is good not to be so delicate; and so this Boston will make you a better person—a better lover—in the end.

This post was inspired by Tsh Oxenreider’s At Home in the World, a book about home and other beloved places and a nine-month trip around the world with three kids. I love her Art of Simple life-vision, so I can’t wait to see how it translates to the un-simple endeavor of travel with family.

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Where were you on the night he was betrayed?

Where were you on the night he was betrayed?

I am not at all convinced that I won’t become Catholic or Orthodox someday. I love the Great Feast of Eucharist; the sense of tradition that connects us to so many places and times; the seasons, feasts, and fasts that we Episcopals are a bit lax about keeping. But if I do stay Anglican, it will be because Communion was enough. I need—I believe we all need—faith to come to us in bread and wine.

Because I love Eucharist so, much of the more terrible church-related pain in my life has been Communion-related: people denying one another Eucharist for reasons I saw as unfair. But through these great hurts, because I love Eucharist so, I understood, too: not the desire to become a gatekeeper, exactly, but to protect something sacred from a flippant and entitled world.

In my first year after college, I worked for a beautiful and holy and love-dealing church who taught me very much by being Christ to me, My main complaint was that this church did not have Communion near often enough, and when they did there was something I found disturbing. The ten or so kids in the congregation went zooming around the church whenever any activity took place, which was fine, except that it was the same during Communion—and they would sort of rip off hunks of bread as they passed by. They seemed to have no sense at all that this was special bread, and something inside me felt a physical jab whenever a piece was hacked off, crumbs flying. I wanted them to care about Jesus’s body. I think there is much to be gained by receiving something as a gift, in both hands; by learning solemnity.

I think of those kids when we have debates about who can be a part of church. It seems keeping people out often comes with good intentions, the desire to do things “decently and in order.” And even when you understand why people want to invoke grace, you also want to protest—in one sense, I know that it is silly to believe the attitude, knowledge, holiness with which I approach the Lord’s table each week is so very much greater than those kids’. Still, that seems like no reason to do nothing. Shouldn’t the church at least try to offer our best when we obey Jesus’ commandment to remember him?

Remember me, Jesus would whisper when those kids made me anxious. It is a gift. It was a gift even on that night when he was betrayed, offered to the clueless, the halfhearted, the sleepy, the deniers and the betrayer. He did not say take a decorous amount and eat, only Take, eat; this is my body. Did one of them giggle at the strangeness of these words, the nervousness of hearing him insist he would soon die? Did the servants, perhaps, gather up the remnants like the unbaptized do after Orthodox service—and was it not life to them as well?

When I remember Jesus, I am compelled to take this bread with fear and trembling; and whatever children are in my charge will be taught to do the same. But when we remember Jesus, we are also steered firmly into the grace business, into giving even when giving is indecorous. On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus said, over and over, keep my commands and my command is this: that you love one another. And he washed feet. And he did not want to be honored or protected.

So  when it comes to impertinent children, sinners and doubters and outsiders, I am hard pressed to say we should not err on the side of take and eat. If it makes us wince to have our sense of ceremony violated; even if we want to cry don’t do it! when the chief of sinners reaches out to touch his body, let us not take up swords of defense but instead go with that offender a second mile. Let us take hands, ask questions, and find in the end that (of course) the chief of sinners is us. We do not remember Jesus best by limiting our tables; we meet the humble Lord every time he is broken and shared again. Here is a debt that cannot be repaid by respectability, but might be honored by scandal. Here is Eucharist: given to us in our unworthiness, reawakening us to thanksgiving.

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As a kid I was an incurable reading addict. The worst thing that could happen to me was being grounded from books. Several times my parents punished me in this way, forcing me to read at school and in closets with one ear perked for footfalls on the carpet; I really did not know how to live without reading for hours every day.

Once I’d finished my stack of library books, I would raid my parents’ shelves, and I ended up reading a lot of Christian books about leadership. A lot of them had good things to say, but they also tended to be at odds with themselves. Be humble, they said, while also making it clear that leaders are Very Important People. Listen to God, they said, while also impressing upon readers the urgency of Casting Visions for Big Things. At the time, though, I didn’t notice the contradictions; I came away with a very clear idea of how Christians and churches are supposed to approach leadership.

  1. If you want to be a leader, God is calling you to be a leader. “Here I am, Lord, send me,” and all of that.
  2. Leadership is about servanthood: listening, learning, caring for people, and sharing credit or glory. (While this is beautiful, these guys never mentioned that women, who are trained to do these things from birth, might need to focus on other skills.)
  3. Successful leadership is evidenced by the growth of a church or program.

Of course these authors used scripture to support their points. But that’s not necessarily where the ideas came from. The ideas appealed to people like me because they reflected us back to ourselves; they corresponded, respectively, to:

  1. The upper-middle-class values of mobility and power.
  2. The Christian values of humility and love.
  3. The capitalist values of growth and metrics.

Look, I sincerely believe there is a place for all of those values in some churches at some times. But we have to at least try to sort them out.

These days I’m still sometimes surprised at how much more diverse the Bible’s pictures of leadership are than those books made them out to be. I’ve been studying Gideon lately, for instance, and when I first got to his story I was ready to skim through: Gideon is afraid, but God gives him these crazy signs involving a fleece, so he takes a very small army into battle, they smash some jars and win. But it turns out his story is actually much longer, weirder, and more complicated than that.

The surprises start at the very beginning of the story. Gideon is hiding from the Midianites when some kind of angel comes to him and says, “The LORD is with you, valiant warrior.” And Gideon is not like, “here I am, send me!” The first two things Gideon says directly contradict what this messenger just said. He literally says, “If the LORD is with us, why do we have all these problems?” And the messenger “turns to him” and goes, “For real, you’re going to go get rid of the Midianites because I’m telling you to.” And Gideon says, “I don’t think so; I’m not a mighty warrior.” Then he asks the messenger for a sign. In fact, by the time Gideon finally goes into battle, God will have sent him five different signs about all this.

Once he gathers an army, God tells Gideon to make it smaller by sending home everyone who is afraid; we’ll see later that Gideon should truthfully be sending himself home. God cuts the army down again so that Gideon is left with only 300 men. With some more reassurance from God, he leads a surprise attack on the vast Midianite army, which God throws into confusion and Gideon’s band defeats.

Biblical scholar Juliana Claassens notes that there’s a shift at this point in the story. Up until now, God has been the primary actor, Gideon a reluctant follower. But when he leads the attack, he instructs his men to shout, “For the LORD and for Gideon!” Maybe that’s not a big deal on its own, but from here on, God is nearly absent from the story. Gideon has driven off the Midianites, and now he embarks on what is revealed to be a revenge mission: he ends up killing a bunch of people along with some Midianite rulers. Then when he returns to Israel, they try to make him king, and he refuses. He says the right answer: that God will be their king. But he doesn’t really give God the credit for the victory, and he’s already stolen the show that was, perhaps, supposed to have ended with that first victory. The defeat of Midian never inspires the nation to repent from idolatry or worship God; instead, they give Gideon a bunch of gold and end up worshipping the thing he makes from it.

Maybe it’s hard to say what exactly any of this “means” for us; if it were easy, pastors would preach out of Judges more often. The book depicts the nation in a downward spiral that really begins in earnest with the second half of this Gideon story, and we’re not sure what to say or think about that.

I think, though, if you read through these three long chapters and pay close attention to God, you’ll catch the thread of a tragedy here. Gideon, who had been utterly dependent on God, who had heard God’s reassuring voice so clearly before, caught up in a wave of hubris. He probably even thinks he’s doing the right thing by pursuing the rulers who had oppressed his people; but while he’s pursuing his agenda and enjoying the adoration of his followers, God has gone silent.

I’m coming to believe that all the great heroes of our faith are people who have escaped this oh-so-familiar cycle of distraction. It’s not because they are rigorous theologians or cross-referencing Bible readers and it’s certainly not because they’ve adopted the values of growth and power. It’s because they’ve made a point, every day, to hear and obey God’s voice. All their teaching, writing, fighting for justice, all the things we see and adore them for, grow out of that secret, sacred time with the God who comes to those who wake up, every morning, remembering their great need for him.

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the strongest temptation in my life right now

I’m always fascinated by Jesus in the wilderness and confused by those three temptations. I mean, the bread one makes sense. That is a gripping scene: Jesus, literally starving, while your preferred image of The Devil whispers visions of warm, crumby, yeasty goodness in his ear. But then this devil character goes off the rails with his temptations. Maybe we expect him to offer Jesus some porn or the opportunity to insult a childhood enemy. Instead, he starts dragging him all over the world! How many people—let alone starving people—really want all the kingdoms of the world? And how is throwing yourself off a tower a “temptation” at all?

This week I’ve been reading this passage in Luke 4 along with the one before it, and the answer has suddenly become clear. Just before Jesus goes into the desert, he’s baptized by John, and there’s the spectacular scene: heavens open; dove enters stage left; THIS IS MY SON, WHOM I LOVE. WITH HIM I AM WELL PLEASED.  An epic moment.

Then Luke makes a huge rhetorical mistake. His story has all this momentum going and he breaks into… a genealogy.

You guys, I have recently become so weirdly enamored with the Bible, I decided to actually read that genealogy. And when I did, I discovered that Luke is a genius. When it was first written, this book would have been read out loud. You would have been dozing off, “…son of Mattathias, son of some other name, son of obscure Hebrew guy, son of David, son of blahblahblah, son of impossible pronunciation, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, SON OF GOD.”

Luke is saying it twice in this chapter. Jesus is the Son of God. In a literal, special, and spiritual way, that’s, like, his title, and it means he’s divine. But also in the way that we are all the children of God, royalty molded from dust; he is human, and that, too, is what it means to be the son of God.

So Jesus has had this incredible, affirming experience, but then the Spirit takes him out into the wilderness. I think after forty days of desert dwelling, maybe that spiritual high has faded a little. Maybe Jesus is a bit wobbly. In his more parched moments, could he be asking himself whether he imagined the whole thing? And here comes the devil—right out of the gate with If you’re really the son of God… And therein lies the temptation.

Prove it.

I’m looking for a job, so every day I’m asked to prove my worth to people who don’t know me. But we feel the need to prove ourselves in a thousand little ways all the time. If you’re really a successful person, you’ll meet these project goals. If you’re really a good dad, your kids will be shiny and happy. If you’re really a woman, you’ll fit into size six. And we do it in church, too, all the damn time. Real Christians evangelize their friends. If you really love Jesus, you’ll give more dollars to this church.

Jesus was recently so sure of who he was, but now someone is calling him out. How much we want others to affirm our identities! How galling it is when someone won’t believe us, recognize our capacities, or treat us with respect until we pass their test. If I were Jesus, I would have turned the whole desert and the devil himself into bread. But Jesus, who has heard his own identity from the mouth of God, will live another hour by those words. And Jesus, who is himself being tried, will not put the Lord to the test. His identity is not up for debate. It is between him and God.

Friends, I can’t tell you what it has meant to me to sit with these passages this week. To stay with the truth that God has adopted me as her own, to finally shut out the clamoring voices of doubt. There is no other evaluation that matters.

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the excuse our heroes wouldn’t accept

the excuse our heroes wouldn’t accept

My hands are shaking and I want to cry as I hang up on my second phone call to a Congressman. I thought this would feel empowering, but it doesn’t. I feel like I am watching a child ask an adult for something they don’t realize is absurd. When I have said my paragraph there is a silence, as if the aide on the other end doesn’t have people call and read scripts at him all the time, and he says something noncommital on Senator Scott’s behalf. “And just to clarify… You’re saying you want more Syrian refugees to come here?

YES, YES, I want to scream, though I am still shaking and I know screaming is not politically expedient. Send them, send them to South Carolina, send them to my apartment complex. What am I supposed to imagine when I think of “Syrian refugees”? I think of people, mostly women and children, who never asked to flee their homes. People who have undergone two years’ worth of screening, paperwork, background checks, and health exams. People barely subsisting in a dangerous purgatory, a refugee camp, living on rice and the hope that they will be allowed, someday, simply to carry on again outside these fences. How could I not want my government to honor its commitment to the rest of the world by offering them relief?

It occurs to me, as I sit here feeling small with my phone in my hand, that the reasons the President has offered for turning our backs on them are all based in fear. I think of how easily he thinks he can gain power by making us afraid. I remember that the United States defense budget accounts for 36 percent of all the military spending in the world. I wonder that such an organization, unprecedented in the history of the world, could be afraid of those dusty women and children.

I refuse to be afraid. I dial the White House.

We are supposed to think that we have to balance compassion against prosperity and security, but research shows that compassion—bringing in more refugees—makes us more prosperous and more secure.

Still, for some people, that is not the issue in the end. To some people, the simple fact that things are changing in this world means we are less prosperous and less secure. If the country becomes less homogeneous, they sense, their own culture and worldview could lose something. I wonder again: if this worldview is so great, what could it have to lose from coming into contact with others? But I will not try to talk anyone out of their fears. Often in my life I have been afraid without warrant, and a scolding would hardly have loosened the grip of that fight-or-flight impulse on me.

Many times in my life, though, I have been afraid, and I have thought of all the souls whom we remember, not for their fearlessness, but for their faithfulness to something greater. Do we not honor the signatures of shaking hands on that Declaration of treason? Was fear not a constant companion to those who smuggled slaves North or those who hid Jews? Have the soldiers in our country’s wars not renewed their choices every day they woke up: honor and brotherhood over fright? I could go on, of course. All the stories that most transfix us involve some scene of mortal danger, and it is because we can imagine the hero’s fear that we so admire their headlong tilt into peril. So I have tried, in my little life, to gather my fears up close and march into action anyhow: to speak up for truth and justice. To give more than seems reasonable. To welcome the stranger. Because doing the right thing is what’s most important, regardless of the consequences. Because I was afraid does not excuse me from a reckoning over what I have done and not done.

In other words, when we ignore a humanitarian crisis because people with brown skin and strange customs make us uneasy, we betray everything I was taught to hold sacred.

A temptation similar to cowardice: despair. I want to give up on these phone calls for the same reason I have never made them before: they seem so small and the government so big, I might as well go throw penny-wishes in a fountain as talk to these bored staffers. But that is a childish and self-centered view of democracy. These things can only add up one call at a time; the one who turns the tide will never know.

The truth is, I’ve always been exhausted by politics. I would say things like, I know the time will come when I have to become a responsible citizen, but at this point I haven’t gotten around to it. I’d see nods all around.

Friends, the time is now. We must bravely and hopefully do the unglamorous work of picking up our phones to do something besides watch history scroll by. Responsible citizenship means calling our representatives to account for the lives we are losing—one citizen at a time, until the tide turns. If we don’t commit to activism, we can’t blame others for these things.

The calls will get easier. Life in refugee camps won’t.

My dearest friend, who knows and loves many refugees in New Haven, Connecticut, is working on a campaign to call U.S. government representatives on behalf of 60,000 refugees. These people have been vetted for entry into the U.S. this year but are suddenly being excluded by President Trump’s most recent executive order slashing our refugee quota from 110,000 to 50,000. This is not a fanciful request by bleeding hearts; it is a conviction that our nation should keep a promise made to the refugees and to the nations of the world, that we would accept 110,000 refugees this year after welcoming 85,000 last year.

If you believe that part of what makes our country great is welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free; ask your Senators and your representative whether they also stand by the commitment we made. Call the President, too. Here is your script. And if you could, let me know how many calls you made, so we can track our goal of 60,000 calls before Friday?

Many thanks, you wonderful fear-smushing justice-mongers. I believe so strongly it is these small things that make us who we are. It is these small things that could make our nation what it wants to be.

You can also report your calls directly here, and learn more about the campaign here.

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Sexual Harassment for International Women’s Day

Sexual Harassment for International Women’s Day

It may be a failing of mine that I don’t like to feel as though I’m on a bandwagon; so I’m not always keen on celebrating things that hardly seemed to exist before social media, like International Women’s Day. A certain amount of naivete, too, has in the past made me wonder how much we still really need to celebrate women, at least in the developed world. I thought, a year or two ago, that “feminist” wasn’t such a radical label.

Today, though, I was followed by a man in a car for two blocks on my walk. “Be my friend,” he said. “I like that. You’re cute. Princess. I like that.”
“I’m married,” I said.
“You sure?” he replied. He knew it didn’t really matter. He knew it was a calculation, the way of saying please go away that usually seems least likely to incite physical violence.
“I’m sure,” I said. If you don’t respect the demands of civility, of humanity, please at least follow property law.

Last week my neighbor was suspended from her high school for reporting sexual harassment.

Our president has bragged about sexual assault.

I wish that feminism were just a matter of working for equal pay, or for the rights of transgender people to exist.

Instead, feminism is still fighting for women’s physical safety in broad daylight. At school. In the office. Women are still waiting for the day we do not go outside expecting to be demeaned, intimidated, or attacked for sport or spite.

The book of Luke passes the Bechdel test* right away.  I’ve been reading and rereading the beginning of this book for a few days now, enthralled most by its celebration of the rich and joyful friendship between Mary and Elizabeth. The two women are prophets before they are mothers, secret bearers of a wide and deep vision of the future. They have been faithful where Zechariah, the priest, was unfaithful, and they see now beyond a doubt that the Lord lifts up the humble. I can’t stop thinking about them, the older woman and the younger, preparing together for the births of their new boys, marveling at the work of God.

We are not allowed to forget, in this gospel, that every moment of Jesus’s ministry is borne up by women, women who bear and maintain life, women who offer financial assistance, women who do not abandon him at the cross and women, again, who are the first to believe in his new birth out of death. He insists on naming those unnoticed roles that sustain all of us with their everyday faithfulness: they who cook, clean, tend, mend, and bury, holding up the world in these tasks we deem small only because they are so ubiquitous. So necessary and precious.

The Christian doctrine of creation tells us that God is the sustainer of the universe, in some sense recreating us all at every moment. Creation is not an event about which we must decide whether it happened thousands or millions or billions of years ago. It is an intimate, involved embrace of all that is at once beautiful, mundane, and yucky in this world. It is a recurring yes, an ongoing artwork—and, perhaps, a tedious, exacting, unappreciated one. God is at work in the splashy sunsets and the wild-eyed desert prophet. God is also at work in the clouds drifting overhead at night, and through the prophet’s ungloried mother. Women and servants meet this humble God in our own work. She sees us and we see Her, different than do the powerful and celebrated.

*The Bechdel test is a cultural barometer asking whether two female characters in a work talk to each other about something other than a man.

We say that feminism is the belief that women are equal to men. This has come to be parsed in many ways, but I think one that is often overlooked is the belief that traditionally feminine ways of being in the world are equal to traditionally masculine ones. I think we fear putting women on a pedestal; the pedestal doesn’t have to be so high, after all, before it becomes a prison of its own. But launching certain women into the C-suite shouldn’t come at the expense of the women who will never have the money for childcare, the education, or the social clout to climb the corporate ladder. Or, for that matter, the expense of men who want to go into caring professions, but fear losing prestige. Moreover, we must recognize that many women who succeed in the C-suite do so precisely because they lead distinctively: seeking consensus, drawing connections, and caring for whole people, rather than defaulting to a top-down model or convincing employees to ram their way to success by sheer willpower.

Christian feminism, in particular, should recognize that part of our duty is to follow our servant-leader, Jesus, in a way that leads downward. Many men have worked hard to pull the heart of our faith away from service, humility, simplicity, and sharing; but they are ultimately inescapable. To celebrate International Women’s Day, for me, is to celebrate these virtues, not to mirror the patriarchy’s contempt of them. Some of us, it’s true, have lost ourselves in them, and have not much reflected Christ until we recovered other virtues like rest, self-love (dignity), confidence. Still, I do not think women’s safety or equality will be achieved until society recognizes, not only that women can be as stoic, as strategic, as strong and unflagging and dogged as men, but also that emotion, intuition, and human connection are themselves sources of strength worthy of reverence. Let us not rest until men have begun to learn, too, from us. May we assert our rights to live without fear, to take up space without reprisal, to have our gifts and talents not only used but recognized, and may we do so for the sake of the world. May we make a place that is better for caretakers and maintainers, for the weak and the vulnerable, for bodies and babies; and may we do so for the sake of the God who is incompletely imagined until we see her laboring in their midst.

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fasting is not a Whole30

fasting is not a Whole30

I was grateful for Communion last night because I was painfully hungry. This is not a metaphor. Accidentally failing to eat enough for supper yesterday is about the closest I will get to fasting for a while because of some meds I’m on. It is, I admit, a relief, but it would also be easy. Traditional. Comforting, in a way, if I were able—not to “choose a fast”—just to not eat sometimes for Lent.

I rarely come to Lent knowing how I should move through this season. Perhaps the main reason is that repentance and self-examination are the things I do best, by which I mean my inner life generally fluctuates on some scale between self-criticism and self-improvement until God is shaking me by the shoulders going SNAP OUT OF IT! Usually, as everyone around me is talking about mindfulness and tough love, I’m feeling a sneaking suspicion that I’m supposed to repent of navel-gazing.

For a long time I loved Lent for precisely this reason, that it appeals to my natural religious instincts. If you’re Protestant, it generally goes something like this: someone asks you what you’re giving up for Lent, and then you feel guilty that you didn’t remember it was coming up. Then you muse about for a few days asking yourself what you should be doing better at. You don’t ask anyone else, and if you’re like me you sort of halfheartedly pray about it while continuing to stick this semi-imaginary burden squarely on your own shoulders. After perhaps wondering for a while how much, exactly, God cares about your extra ten pounds, you settle on giving up something you’ll miss, but which won’t disrupt your life too much.

Of course, being a religious overachiever, I got tired of that and decided to Do a Hard Thing a few years ago. I ate only fruits, vegetables, rice, and beans, and bought food for my food pantry with the money I saved. I don’t know if that sounds really noble and intense, but it wasn’t that hard; I would console myself, not with prayer and worship, but with thoughts of how many calories I was saving. I never really prayed for the world’s poor all that much, either. I was disappointed. I’d Done The Thing, but God hadn’t Changed My Life in return.

The gospel of self-improvement can function in much more subtle ways than we expect. Let me be clear that I am still operating this way when I say that the way white Protestants do Lent is often more reflective of upper-middle-class white culture than it is of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We love 30-day challenges, don’t we? Self-improvement is so much a part of our culture that we readily map those concepts onto Lent. Then we’re simultaneously happy to have “earned” an extra-big slice of cake at the end of the forty days—and, eventually, frustrated that our fast once again didn’t seem to have much to do with Easter.

Some of my friends are Orthodox. They fast from dawn until the end of the service every Sunday. They fast full days several times a year. And for Lent, they are encouraged to do without meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, or alcohol. Maybe that sounds like setting yourself up for failure; I think maybe that’s the point. When everyone in the community participates in the same fast, failure and success take on new meanings. Your spiritual practice is no longer about you and your “growth”; it’s about the life of the community and the work of God.

Maybe by next Lent I will have such a community. For now I have only conviction: to fast in a way that is not about me. To learn to lean on God. Success or failure will not be keeping my rule with perfection, or making some kind of personal breakthrough. To succeed is to disrupt my seamless rhythms enough to remember how to look for God breaking through the newfound cracks.

This winter has been, in some big ways, a season of loss for me, and so for Lent I’m taking on a couple of new practices. At the service yesterday, though, my mind raced with those old thoughts—shouldn’t I give something up? how can I call this a fast? have I repented enough today? And then came the Psalm.

O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
    if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

As the priest prayed that God would enable us to serve him in peace of mind, I did not wonder whether I deserved any such thing. I made off with that blessing and carried on with things because what I deserve is ashes and dust; but what God gives is bread and wine and blessing and grace.

May your fast, whatever it is, convince you only of abundance.

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how to actually be happy on social media

how to actually be happy on social media

I was laid off from my day job a few weeks ago, and so were four of the five coworkers in my department. Now, suddenly, we have all found each other on LinkedIn. We are recommending each other’s work and making up words for the skills our boss took for granted. Savvy people are on LinkedIn all the time, even when they are employed, but we all had to resurrect our accounts from graves of various depths. We are not savvy people; we are English nerds of the highest order. Book people.

So I have a barely-updated LinkedIn account and I’m thrilled to have a new website, too, but I’m not always sure how to talk about it.  Every time I do so I mean to say something grateful and happy, because that’s genuinely how I feel. The new site does feel more like home; it makes me want to write, and write well; I am proud and excited about it. But I worry intensely about it nonetheless. If the Internet is a layer on all of our lives, my layer is a piece of paper with too much glue: it wrinkles, smudges, sticks to my fingers when I try to smooth it out, and never, ever lies snugly next to the other layers.

People get really irritated when someone preaches about the evils of technology, so I’m not here to do that. The Internet does plenty of wonderful things, from informing you about stuff you’re afraid to ask about, to fostering very real connections between people. That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? It does that stuff just often enough to keep us all dripping it into our veins for hours every day; and the hope of providing something like that to someone else keeps most of us contributing to the stream. Photos. Words. Videos. Links. drip. drip. drip.

The Internet, then, has given us all an audience to manage. Precious few of us have ever run a PR campaign or even a Glee Club quarterly newsletter, but now we are broadcasting to hundreds or thousands. We post so Grandma can see baby pictures. We post so Mike From High School will change his mind. And we post, most of us, most of the time, for the Monopoly money of little hearts and thumbs-up. drip. drip. drip.

If you’re not promoting a business or whatever, you might not think about all this in very analytical terms. I hear people say my phone has taken over my life or I feel like I have a big responsibility to interact on social media or Facebook makes me anxious or I’m not sure whether to post pictures of my kid, but aside from quitting social media entirely, we rarely have tools for answering these questions very well. One reason: our phones and our networks are designed to make us feel like the center of the universe. But that leaves us confused when the universe turns out to be so very far beyond our control. By contrast, social media consultants and Instagram stars have a lot fewer of these dilemmas, in large part because they are focused on two things.

First, they know their goals. For businesses, bloggers, and Instagram celebs, those little hearts and thumbs aren’t Monopoly money, and they’re not adrenaline shots or personal validation stickers. They’re real gold: engagement with their posts translates into dollars. Maybe the things you want from social media are a little less measurable than theirs, but it’s still worth it to write them down. Every time you log on, you’re seeing content from people who have identified what they want you to do and invested a lot in getting you to do it. Even if it’s something as simple as a refreshing coffee-break distraction or a glimpse into your friends’ lives, shouldn’t someone occasionally be checking in on your priorities? This coffee break isn’t refreshing anymore can be a powerful realization.

Once a social media master knows what they are aiming for, their Internet choices become a lot more objective: these people need a better picture of the universe if they’re going to succeed. Their second focus, then, turns from being the center of the universe to cultivating an obsession with their audience. At its worst, this turns into tailoring every moment of your own daily life to others’ tastes. But at its best, the question who am I posting this for? can bring clarity. Your audience isn’t yourself—if you just want to save something, there might be a better place you can remember and access it later. And your audience isn’t your sworn enemies—they’re never going to admit you are right or feel chastened by your successes. You probably don’t have the time or the headspace to interact with them and the people who actually like you.

There’s one final thing the consultants likely won’t tell you. To succeed on the Internet, yes, you have to know your audience. But to be happy on the Internet, love your audience. Be a giver. Be a liker. Be yourself. Pray for your (political) enemies. Give out the recipe.

Don’t let this love be a shallow thing. Let it be wise. Know when to share the strong words, and when to tell it slant. Know the difference between #grateful and #gloating. Be vulnerable, by all means; but NO ONNNNNE needs a picture of your (literal or figurative) open wounds.

Most consultants won’t tell you to love your audience; it won’t get you attention through manufactured controversy and it won’t get you dollars that people shouldn’t spare. Maybe love isn’t really even what this stuff is designed for. But maybe, I’m realizing, we each have layers we’ll always have to wrestle into the contours of a love-shaped life.

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the secret reason I was burning out

the secret reason I was burning out

I’m linking up today with Amy Peterson in celebration of her book release! Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Change the World is very much on my wish list. Spiritual memoir, social justice learnings, beautiful writing: check.

For my own part, I’m not going to claim that I won’t forever be on some misguided quest or another. Here are some thoughts for all of us along such a journey.

I had always thought Santa hats were a dumb charity item. In the week leading up to the church’s famous Christmas dinner for our homeless and poor neighbors, one of the parishioners had dropped them off. “For the kids or whatever.” I thanked the well-meaning person but grumbled in my mind; I’m frustrated by this dollar-store brand of Christmastime charity. My feet shared the under-desk space with the trash bag of hats.

There were indeed a good number of kids at the dinner, and I plopped Santa hats on the heads of a brother and sister, thinking about how the hats would be in the real trash by tomorrow. A nearby adult asked for one, and I blithely passed it over to her. Then, at least in my memory, I was suddenly surrounded by twenty grabbing hands. Someone yanked a few hats out of my bag. “They’re for the kids,” I kept repeating, trying to hand them to the closest kids or parents I could see, but all the grabbers were adults. The hats quickly disappeared and some of those who hadn’t gotten them were angry with me, kept asking, examined the bag. Maybe I would’ve just been sad and a little banged up if one of these people I’d never met hadn’t spat, “You are a racist.” The utter nonsense of that statement, given that almost everyone who’d gotten a hat was the same race as the speaker, somehow made it crystal-clear what I had just seen. It was the purest embodiment of greed I’d ever encountered, everyone reaching to take before they knew what they were taking, snarling at their rivals, this man bitter and victimized when the trinkets went to the children.

At that statement I just dropped the bag and walked away. A friend (who happened to be homeless) offered to talk, but I needed to be alone. I needed to be angry that people had come to abuse an event so lovingly crafted by my church. I needed to be sad that anyone could be as upset as my name-caller while surrounded by Christmas carols and a feast. I needed to hate, hate the systems that had trained poor people to grab whatever they could from strangers at Christmastime, because there would be nothing the rest of the year, because these one-off events kept them nameless and faceless to us, because they knew that the Santa hats had been pocket change to the person who bought them.

I have never liked Santa hats, and I never will.

People who volunteer or work for nonprofits often feel like we’re not supposed to share these things. You know that someone will ignore everything else you’ve said and use your story to confirm their stereotypes of others. And people don’t like when nonprofit workers complain about their jobs; and you are grateful, in the end, for these moments. They’re reality checks; they’re empathy builders; they’re the moments that transform.

For a long time a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in my nonprofit work. I couldn’t have told my Santa hat story a few years ago, when it happened, because I was afraid of scaring off donors and afraid that my liberal friends would police my tone; but I also couldn’t have told it because I couldn’t quite fit all those terrible feelings into my picture of myself and the world. It wasn’t OK with me to just be upset; it wasn’t OK with me that others might hear the story and think I’d been naive or uncaring; it wasn’t OK with me that the problems I encountered in that moment were so much bigger than me, my actions, and my organization. I needed to only tell hopeful stories because hope and realism couldn’t coexist in my picture of who I was and how I mattered.

Instead of telling these hard stories, we just say, over and over, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. Over and over we want to appear strong or nonchalant, and hope others can be convinced to join our work. It’s worth it, we say, and we do mean it, even as we’re losing energy, becoming jaded, burning out. We tell the good stories back to ourselves and stuff the bad ones away. Or worse, we tell ourselves we’re too privileged to deserve these stories, that admitting we were hurt, frightened, or surprised by something constitutes some sort of betrayal of someone else’s greater pain or fear.

That is a lie, and we need to tell each other so. And we need to tell these stories. We need our friends to know what we go through. We need our donors to know that we can’t fix people. We need our volunteer recruits to know what they’re getting into.

And we need to know: that our careers don’t have to be made up only of stories with morals. That even the upsetting realities we face are better than the pleasant fictions others dwell in. That the things we encounter have made us better, stronger. That we, as people, matter more than the roles we play in our organizations.

For some of us, the difference between excitement and burnout is as simple as the difference between the stories we’re holding, and the stories we think we’re supposed to tell about ourselves.

May we have the courage to ask someone for the stories in their hands.

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How to stand tall in the noise of these days

How to stand tall in the noise of these days

I am reluctant to speak into the din of these days.

An observation: we have reached a point where the two major sides in our debates are both driven by fear. Our president was elected for his projections of strength: for promising to protect us from bad hombre immigrants, from the globalized market, from terrorists, from the pace of social change. And now his policies have stricken terror into the hearts of his opponents—worried for themselves, for minority friends, worried about international relations or about creeping authoritarianism.

Though the cacophony appears to address many issues, in the end we are mostly responding to threats. We all perceive our particular threats to be very real, while dismissing others’ fears and blazing with disbelieving outrage when they dismiss ours. In our anger we cannot see how lonely this has made us. We feel the loneliness, but not consciously; the ache only fuels our outrage.

The Ph.D. in political science whom I keep on retainer who is my dear friend tells me that the biggest protests work, even when they’re not supposed to, even when no one expects it. So I will go to the protests. But I won’t be outraged; it’s not in my nature. With Paul I will proclaim that we all have gifts differing and I will thank God for those who do outrage well and righteously. I’ll be the one giving out water bottles, or crying. You’re probably not supposed to cry at a protest, but I’m mostly sure that’s what I’ll do.

What is in my nature is to passionately declare the extreme urgency of everyone sitting down and thinking some more. This is an unglamorous and unpopular vocation. Thinking sells best when paired with a vice—traditionally pipe tobacco or whiskey. Outrage is brighter, the work of a moment, and pairs well with that comfort food, superiority.

Still, even the most active of activists is already acknowledging that our task won’t be over for a long time, and we’re going to need something that burns a bit slower. I hasten to add that, while we must equip ourselves for a long-haul future, we have a yet lengthier past with which we must also deal. This crisis did not develop overnight, as if caused by some particular genius of Trump’s for villainy. This is the overflow of ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years. If we accomplish political goals without any mention of these things, they will only fester. The colonization of rural places, for instance: extracting resources from a place while systematizing contempt for its people. The abandonment of national politics to lobbyists and of local politics to the dogs. The abandonment of our minds to our screens. The utter lack of restraint on our consumerist desires, so that each side accuses the other of entitlement with great accuracy and total hypocrisy. And an extreme failure, on all sides, to know the oppressed, to sit with them in their pain, to share bread with them.

These things, of course, cost more than five minutes and 1000 words. These things rarely go viral.

But perhaps, I concede, the past is a discussion for another time. Perhaps what is before us, just today, is to excavate and banish our fear. If you are a Christian, you have no excuse for it; if you are not, let me assure you fear remains a hindrance to you. It is not naive to resist fear. You may be aware of a danger without giving that thing power over you. To the contrary, once fear is acknowledged and set aside, you are more agile, more perceptive, less prone to mistakes. Once fear is set aside, it clears the way for that most searing weapon: love.

I read an article several days ago about what to do, the basic actions that would be essential to resisting the extremism we’re witnessing. I found it wise and compelling in its simplicity—things like interacting with your representatives; seeking out reliable news sources; taking care of yourself (in the long term, going to bed on time and eating your vegetables); learning about privilege and oppression; getting to know the people in your community who stand to lose the most. And as the list went on, I realized that these were all things a truly excellent citizen would be doing regardless of who was in power. It was comforting and intimidating, I suppose, to realize that all anyone needs to do to stand up against a bullying President is become a truly excellent citizen.

What was, for me, conspicuously absent from the list was becoming aware of any new development within ten minutes of its occurrence; scrolling through Twitter with increasing indignation and despair; firing one-liners or articles at people on Facebook who would then be compelled to recognize the error of their ways. As the days have gone by, I’ve felt more and more antipathy towards the hot takes and the outrage machines and even the copied-and-pasted Bible verses. So much blame for our situation goes, in my mind, to our penchant for preferring the viral to the true; to our self-righteous armchair activism; to our willing deliverance of our attention to the antics of national figures, at the expense of understanding the goings-on in our own cities and states.

Do you want to drive out fear? It doesn’t happen when you get a good grasp of the situation from twitter or even from the news. It happens with love. Have the courage to love yourself without the safety blanket of self-righteousness. Have the courage to love someone else without assuming you already know who they are. Walk around your neighborhood and talk to the people you meet. Plan an uncomfortable dinner party: invite someone different from you. (Have lots of comfort food.) Call your representatives on behalf of someone else even though it inconveniences or terrifies you. Read about an issue you don’t want to face. Take up that habit you know you’re supposed to do—riding your bike places, donating to charity, praying for your enemies.

Pray. Pray more than you tweet. Pray before your political calls. Pray for the country. Pray for refugees. Pray before you eat. Pray before you buy. Pray with other people.

Read books. Gather with friends. Don’t think about doing good deeds; do them. Be aggressively present to your own life, your place and time.

Be still. The Lord will fight for you. The noise will take care of itself.

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Donald Trump is my president

Donald Trump is my president

Dear United States of America,

I first knew you as a thousand and one telephone poles whooshing past the car windows on the drive from Central Florida to Oklahoma City. Crossing America meant Cracker Barrel and, if we were lucky, a hotel with a swimming pool. Later in life, the drive began in Georgia, but the result was the same: it ended up in a foreign landscape, but familiar hugs. Visiting our family made us special and different in its own way; sometimes Oklahoma would come up in conversation and friends would remark that they’d never been anywhere near it. I’ve been to Oklahoma,’ we could say, and we would tell about cows and cowboys, oil rigs and spicy food and about just how flat a place could be. America, you are a thousand and one places perfectly foreign and absolutely familiar.

You are the suburbs of my growing-up, tacky and prosperous and petty. You are the mountains I call my homeland, rolling and wise until the afternoon thunderclap. You are the county fair, the rodeo and the revival. You are the pool table where I drank Mountain Dew and listened to stories of jail, abuse, and abortion, where deep poverty grabbed me by the collar and dared me to not to look away. There, too, I learned honesty and hospitality and love from those storytellers, and they saved my life.

You are the burned-over industrial city where I brought a wool peacoat to the fight against blowing torrents of Lake Ontario settling under an eerie city glow. You gave me food stamps there, and every penny they saved me went to fund my first semester of seminary—maybe someday you’ll tell me somehow whether you are glad of your investment. There, there was a foreign place that could very well have gotten the best of me; but from the beginning there was, too, a man who felt like home.

You are the little town of a big city where I learned to sail, lived with 23 others in a mansion, rode the last Green Line train of the night, served food to Michael Pollan and Michael Dukakis, smoked cigarettes on a roof under the Citgo sign, and had the theological shit beat out of me. You are all the people I met the likes of whom I’d never known before, a school full of outspoken Koreans and Puerto Ricans and gays and tree huggers and Black people and even a South Dakotan, who grabbed me by the collar and loved me hard.

You are the wonders of the world I’ve seen without a passport: The Atlantic, Niagara Falls, Sedona, Lake Tahoe, Chilhowee Mountain, the Potomac, Half Dome, Eufaula Lake, the Grand Canyon, the Adirondacks, Amicalola Falls, the Rockies, the Pacific. Your land, America; if I ever despair entirely of your people, I will take solace in the land that bears us all up.

Of course I learned about you, too, in school, most often about your unprecedented birth and your unbearable schism only fourscore and seven years later. I am grieving for what I did not learn, like the family history everyone was embarrassed to tell a child; I am grieving every day for a different person who built this nation and in return received influenza, musket balls, beatings, broken treaties, broken bones, families rent, chains, poverty, lynchings, tenements and typhoid, internment camps, segregation, deportation, death. Still, with every grieving person I say that I will always dwell in grief and yet must always dwell in some kind of hope. There is no innocent country; and though I know now just how fantastical it is, I perhaps love the idea of you all the more now, America. That some hotheaded Yankees would plunk themselves down and Declare Independence as if they could just do such a thing. That they would brashly scribble that all men are created equal without knowing what they could possibly mean, and then invent the mechanisms for all of us to spend the next 240 years telling them what they had meant. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. You made it happen first, and it has always been a bold and silly, roundabout and beautiful experiment, burdened by evil but straining toward justice.


If there is one thing I can say for sure about President Obama, it is that he has not only governed, he has led this country. He called upon the best in us while demanding the utmost from himself, and we could always look to him when we needed an example of humility, grace, and strength.

In the waning days of his administration, President Obama repeatedly exhorted us to participate with him in the peaceful transfer of power, not sullenly or forlornly but by allowing the strength of our convictions to propel us to become better citizens. If you do not like your democracy, you can change it. Since the election, you already have. Keep on calling your representatives. Keep on learning about your local government. And keep on helping your neighbors cut their grass. Democracy and neighborliness are hard work, but they do not have to be lost arts.

America, we are tacky and brash and very few of our English accents are really all that nice-sounding. We are so many fractured groups, nothing we ever do will be cozy, or elegant, maybe not even civil. And in my opinion, we have spent a very long time doing a very bad job at this democracy thing. I’d say we elected an enemy of democracy. But he cannot destroy it. Democracy can only destroy itself.

Because I have loved so many Americas, I will not capitulate to President Trump’s monolithic vision of one. But because I have loved so many Americas, I will participate in its democracy, the only government I know that tries to honor them all. I will remain subject to this crappy and ever-evolving republic; I will capitulate to the will of my fellow citizens that he form the executive branch of our government. Then I will do everything I can to advocate that we make our democracy less crappy, from improving the education system that undergirds this form of government, to convicting fewer people as felons.

But I will not arrogantly pretend that I alone choose my president. To say that Trump is not my president would be to say that this is not my country.

And that, beloved, I cannot bear.

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Dylann Roof and me

Dylann Roof and me

I heard the truth about my town in Georgia—home base since I was 13—over the radio, from a woman in Philadelphia. It was a Terry Gross interview with the author of a book released last summer about the history of Forsyth County. Maybe it was a run-of-the-mill interview, sometimes even if you’re a Terry fan they’re a little boring, but to me it was bizarre and hurtful and fascinating and horrible all at the same time: hearing a man’s voice in the little car speakers reciting the details of two lynchings that took place on the town square where I had purchased a marriage license two months before. To be more precise, it was all of those things after the fact, because my response to overwhelming awful things is always immediate dissociation. At the time, I thought mostly of the classrooms two blocks from that square, where they’d taught us about the formation of the KKK on Stone Mountain but not about the lynchings in our town. Not about the weeks after the lynchings when every black person in the county was driven out of their homes. Not about the family that tried to quietly return and woke up to dynamite under their house. Not about the fact that there’s no record of who survived and who didn’t.

There were rumors, of course, about whose fault it might be that our county, even in the 2000s, held far fewer black people than any other in Georgia despite its rapid growth: a few white hoods in the 60s, a sign warning blacks out before sundown. But those rumors held no lynchings and no expulsions by night riders and certainly no mention of the massive protest in the 80s, residents demanding they be allowed to keep their county white.

In December I wrapped gifts, packed an enormous duffel bag, and in the last second before leaving Charleston for home I downloaded the book. It’s a quick read, really just a chronological telling of events. I’d expected a bit more from it—a primer on how to feel or what to do would have been nice. Instead, there were the happenings, then the end; and then I wandered about the county, visiting friends and the Dairy Queen downtown, in a state of surreality, seeing the 1910s superimposed over every place that composed my beloved home. The stolen homesteads of freed slaves forgotten beneath stately churches; the site of the rally, now some of the county’s most valuable retail real estate; and always, the lynchings of teenagers in the square.

I don’t know if it is merely naive or some much more serious moral and imaginative failing, but it was one thing to know of lynchings somewhere in those mountains, and another thing to stare down a picture of one across the street from Sal’s pizza place. It was one thing to hear rumors that black people had been unwelcome on our streets long ago, but another to read with what inhuman ferociousness their absence had been enforced up until my own lifetime.

I have not spoken much about all this. I am just beginning to grieve the place I thought I knew.


Even when we speak about the importance of history, we often act as though it is a collection of case studies that might sometime offer useful analogies to our own time, rather than recognizing that it is a part of us. We are learning every day, too, that this is no metaphor, our very selves shaped by history: trauma is passed on through human DNA as surely as injustice is passed on through our institutions. It is the privileged who study history; it is the oppressed who remember it. I came to adulthood asking why so much is wrong with the world. Those who bear the brunt of the wrong have always known.

And at the same time that it’s easy, once you start, to trace the series of events leading my people to have things so much easier than others, it’s impossible to quantify my own individual part in any of it. It’s nothing: I never asked or hoped for things to be this way any more than the victims did. And it’s infinite: my family came to Forsyth for its peace, prosperity, and Good Schools, all of which were uniquely available because of the county’s history and uniquely available to us.

It is crass to speak of quantifying such things anyway. But, I think, even the sagest of “woke white people” can unknowingly hope to do so. In the interview through the car speakers, I recognized a certain instinct in the book’s author: a desire for absolution. As weeks went by and I tunneled down into my own distress, I found at the root of the pit in my stomach was an absurd hope: maybe if I do enough, or give enough up to others, I can become innocent of this.

None of us will ever be innocent of it.

The Bible speaks often of communal sin. This, like most things in the Bible, is incomprehensible alongside the individualistic myths that make up the American way. A lot of well-meaning people who have worked very hard in their lives not to commit sins will probably always refuse to comprehend it, protecting the idea of their self-made virtue. In so doing, they will refuse to understand the basic fabric of the world and perhaps of God: that we all belong to one another. We can’t stand up a self unattached to the others who remake us every day, any more than the squares of a quilt can be without the others.

I don’t know how anyone makes sense of history and its injustices without feeling this fabric under their fingers.

The Bible also speaks often of communal redemption. Thanks be to God, the un-innocent belong at the family table.


Now I live in a city that has prospered from the products of slavery since its inception three hundred and fifty years ago. We are still getting to know one another, so I cannot say much about what, exactly, this means for Charleston. But I can say that the city will never become innocent of the shooting at Mother Emanuel, certainly not by deeming a single life valueless and then offering that warped nothing as if it could be a sacrifice to justice.

Everyone is angry at Dylann Roof, but behind the anger lies fear: fear that he might be one of us. To entertain the idea of Roof in prison for life is to imagine him as something other than a monster that must be put down. It is to face the fact that a man, mentally sound enough to represent himself at trial, found little evidence in the society around him to dissuade him from the racist alternate reality he’d chosen. That man believed he could start a race war by carrying out his crime in the right city: what was once a city of slaves, ruled by a fearful and violent minority of white men.

Perhaps the victims and their families should be the ones to sentence Dylann Roof, but they are not. And we all sit in silent judgment of him: a jury of his peers. To leave Roof alive would be painful, to say the least. It would inspire justified outrage on several fronts. But to kill him means to label him irredeemable, while somehow maintaining that we are not. That is false. By killing him, instead, we further damn ourselves in the belief that the history that inspired Roof can be purged by wiping him out.

To leave Roof alive would be to look into his hate-filled face and force ourselves to recognize the fear, supremacy, and violence that every day enslave us all. Only when we stop settling for the scapegoat will we finally reach the beginning of our own repentance.

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what any of us can do when there is Aleppo

what any of us can do when there is Aleppo

No human can be prepared or equipped for a massacre of innocent people. But this—this is beyond us in a different way, to watch one in real time from thousands of miles away. To know that no matter how much information you gather, no matter how much money you send, you will still be left helpless, gaping at a screen until you choose to shut off the nightmare your fellow humans are living and dying through.

The expanse of humanity is more interconnected than ever before, but is that even a good thing? Can you encounter the expanse of humanity with an open heart? Or would it tear you open at the seams?

I submit that if you tried to direct fifteen minutes of your full attention to every disaster, crisis, and tragedy that crossed your field of vision, you would be crushed. It is a heavy undertaking even to believe the bare facts about what has happened in Syria, to remind yourself the city is not an elaborate movie set, much less to actually imagine the panic and grief of the families there or to pray for a young man who could celebrate the “capture” of a wasted ruin littered with the bodies of noncombatants. Try to absorb it all, and blow after blow will leave you gasping against a wall; try to carry it all, and you will stumble, too tired to lift your face from the mud; try to love them all, and you will suffocate as the weight of your body and theirs halts your breathing, alone and covered with wounds.

Only one person has ever been able to hold it all. But not before it killed him.

As often as we rail against whatever God would “allow this,” we look again upon this God bored through with the world’s hatred and pain, and realize that, however baffled and brokenhearted we may be, we are never alone. And we realize, considering this God who proposed somehow to inaugurate the reign of hope, peace, joy, and love after two long days in a grave, that we have no choice but to trust him with his own work.

And we must trust that our own work has some significance—we must not give up on the work of lament. For work it is, to hold what you can of the pain, even briefly, even inadequately. There are those who would say only that which accomplishes something can be called work; to them I would say, lament is the work of pushing back indifference. To weep for strangers, to cry out how long, O Lord?, is to declare that what has been lost is not the collateral damage of foreigners’ conflicts but is our own family, invaluable, irreplaceable. To sit in the dust with Jeremiah is to remember not only Aleppo and Jerusalem, but the cries of the Israelite women in Egypt and the mothers of Bethlehem, yet it is also to defy the story that this is the way things have always been. This is an abomination, this is a tear in the fabric of the universe, this is Christ crucified again. If we have only the strength to light a candle, we light a candle, because we will not accept that this news can be consumed between celebrity scandals and political soundbites. We will not sit silently when others tell us to fear these people who saw their city ripped apart before their eyes.

It is not lament that signals despair. It is indifference that shows when we have given up. It would be a shallow thing indeed to call ourselves, this Advent, we who have hope, if we have not chosen to look fully into the faces of the suffering; if we claimed to look for Jesus this Advent and failed to find him there.

If you want to give to relieve the suffering of refugees from Aleppo, Preemptive Love is doing the work of taking them in—on the ground, in Syria. They also work to prevent violence and to help refugees rebuild lives. You can learn more or donate here.

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when being white hurts for once

when being white hurts for once

It’s possible I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program because I’m white.

I don’t mean that as an excuse or a complaint or really even a literal statement. In reality, there are lots of reasons I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program, and my race isn’t among the top five you’d hear if I told you the story. But it was something I had to think about both during and after the application process: If it came down to a choice between me and someone of a minority race, all other things being exactly equal, the other person would “win.”

In theory, I think this is absolutely good and fitting for any academic program, especially in the liberal arts, and especially at the highest levels. In these fields, our personal backgrounds and perspectives influence our work even more than in others. Because of that, the academy is much, much poorer if it fails to cultivate a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. And the world is much, much poorer if it’s not represented well in academic and theological circles; people who can’t see themselves in the thinkers they’re hearing about often aren’t going to connect with the ideas. There’s really no one sitting around saying, “I can’t relate to this theology; I wish another wealthy white lady would write one.”

In theory, that makes sense. In practice, it’s not just nerve-wracking or hard to swallow. It hurts. It hurts, on a personal level, to hear that your perspective is valued less than someone else’s; and it hurts very practically, when you’re forced to compete for your dream, to know there is the potential that it will come down to something so far outside your control.

But just because it hurts me doesn’t make it any less right.

I’ve listened to the academic arguments and the personal pleas of my minority classmates and friends enough to know that they feel that same hurt every day of their lives. They don’t blame me as an individual and they certainly don’t revel in my pain, but they do ask me to see affirmative action as a conscious effort to reshape a world whose culture—whose unconscious efforts—often discount, demean, and defeat them.

This all came to mind when I read Dr. Christena Cleveland’s latest blog post, “How to be last: A practical theology for privileged people.” Of course, you should read it and then read it again, but here is the synopsis: Dr. Cleveland gives a brilliant retelling of the parable of the workers in the field—the one where some people work all day, and some work for only an hour, but everyone gets paid a full day’s wages. She points out that this parable illustrates that saying of Jesus: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This isn’t just a saying; it’s a vision of God’s kingdom. The Bible says (and social psychology happens to confirm) that in our sin-stricken world, where history and culture have conspired to place some people’s value, opportunities, lives, and comfort so far ahead of others’, putting everyone on a level playing field isn’t enough to bring about equality and justice. As she puts it,

We experience the kin-dom of heaven when people from oppressed groups lead and people from privileged groups follow…If you’re a privileged person, here’s what I have to say to you: You have an invaluable role to play — and that role is last. When you inhabit your role as last, you play a crucial part in forging and maintaining the equitable balance of the kin-dom of heaven. Furthermore, your freedom is in being last. Your pathway to a more just world is in being last. Your liberation from the shackles, alienation and dehumanization of privilege is in being last.

When someone says the first shall be last and the last shall be first it sounds like a nice saying. When someone says your place is to be last, you realize it’s not nice at all. It’s far more than nice; it’s redemptive, and redemption is a purifying fire, and it’s hard, and it hurts.

Some of the comments on the post reflect this hurt. There’s defensiveness, anger, and dismissal: running away from the fire. There’s calm debate: seeking to get around the fire. And there’s this:

My brain says This is absolutely what needs to take place.
My emotions say This is undignifying.

I think that’s a guy walking through the fire.

It sounds like this guy knows that what our culture calls “dignity” isn’t what the kingdom calls blessed. But we rarely know in our bones those conclusions we mentally assent to, no matter how firmly we think we believe them. We know in our bones what we experience. That’s why Jesus demands obedience: sometimes you can only learn the truth of something by doing it.When you’re used to measuring value and accomplishment in status, money, and power, it can take a long time to know the joy of undignity. When you’ve spent all your life being told you were meant to lead, it’s not immediately apparent how there could be freedom in following.

Since Trump was elected, the same word has been on a loop in my mind: humility, humility, humility. When someone becomes the leader of a country by bragging about wealth, power, deceit, and violence, humility has become a foreign concept. I can’t get away from that this Advent: they will know you are an alien when you worship a peasant baby as king. They will laugh at you when you pursue humility. They will despise you even as they secretly respect you when you begin to attain it.

Some of us get into the “social justice” game or “kingdom of God” talk because we think it will make us heroes. But God gets us into the game so it will make us humble, and so it will make us free. Work to free others long enough, you discover just how many of their iron chains are matched with your own invisible spider-web chains, chains you never noticed before you learned how to see. Clinging to “dignity” and even to dreams that revolve around achievement and status are two of those chains. Jesus, the teacher of hard sayings, is the one who frees us all from them. There are no heroes.

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when singing is hard

when singing is hard

Dear bestfriend,

I knew that you knew that I knew that I failed to call you after the election out of nothing but sadness. Acedia, the desert monks called it, and later sloth: when you know what needs to be done and you just don’t. You wake up sad and let the long day ahead flatten you before it even really gets going. Most pitiful and boring of the seven deadly sins.

A tiny part of me tried not to think about you for too long, in the week after the election, because your work with refugees has always overwhelmed me with a fierce protective pride and I knew and I saw on facebook how deeply sad you were. You go every day and you chip away at the mortar between bricks and you slowly bring down the walls between these fleeing people and their new lives. We sat on the phone this weekend and wondered without saying it how so many could choose fear and blame and walls. We mourned for what our nation loses by rejecting refugees. And we fought down panic for those living in tents somewhere in between the loneliness of no country, in between a past of rubble and a future of more tents and more waiting.

We shared the little things we’ve done to try and move forward in the past month, but underneath all that, a terrible sense of smallness. Don’t just blame it on Trump, either; call it a quarter-life crisis. We have been doing our little things for a while now, and so much has only gotten worse. Maybe we should just acknowledge that we are suckers for trying to triage a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Maybe all we’ve been doing is making ourselves feel better about, or more righteous than, an objectively shitty place. We could be excused for deciding to leave behind our idealistic youth, over time knowing less and caring less and just donating a comfortable amount to charities that flatter us in their promotional materials.

Some days that seems like the only sane way out of despair. And here it is, the darkest time of the year, when it feels like we have more obligations than ever to people who don’t make us less lonely. How do you catch your breath when you can’t stop, and when every quiet moment threatens to drown you in visions of walls and wars?

I think what you do is you go see Messiah. It is one thing to be spiritual and go for walks or pray or bake things and try to meditatively get through whatever next thing. It is a more important thing right now to seize upon the miracle that Advent is here in a great grab at the most tangible celebration you can find, namely a three-hour symphony performance that you don’t get away from without worshiping Jesus. I can say nice things that you already know about Jesus coming as a baby, but what you really need is to sit yourself down to hear the angels proclaim the damn fool’s truth that that baby is the King.

This is no longer the time for a subtle piety, my darling. This is the time to declare ourselves the fools, the poor, the babes. This is the time to give out money to people on street corners, to spend an evening wrestling Christmas Snoopy onto the lawn, to stand still and weep at carols we’ve always known. Maybe in the past, those little things we did felt like nice auxiliary ways to be faithful alongside the real work of the important people and pragmatic programs that would ultimately make the world measurably better. Now that they might be all we have, we find out whether we ever really believed those acts of madness meant anything. Whether, really, we ever believed this ridiculous manger-story. Did we really think the Redemption of the world and the cosmic defeat of the Roman empire came as a wrinkly red baby to a teenage girl, his “reign” announced to farm hands and the bumbling old mystics of some sketchy-ass religion?

You go see Messiah, friend, you will believe. When someone sings you half the Bible you sit up and notice that we’re still in that story. Fill up with music and take heart, let yourself imagine that we really are halfway through one of the tales Sam asked Frodo to remember. If God came as a baby then the greatest lie is that the humble unnoticed doesn’t matter. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. And that is all that matters in the end. Go hear the story. Go as a child who never thought it audacious to cast themselves as Frodo. Go as a weary idealistic-but-cynical sucker. Go as the one who hungers to hear the prophet in that opening line, comfort ye my people. Sing through it, cry through it, hug the person next to you; remember that every time you waste your time in worship, give without getting, and let your heart crack open a little further, you are doing the holiest world-changing things that can be done.

When the powers that be declare war on the stranger and the least of these, the only way out of despair is to go a little mad. Look, love, this Christmas we could burrow into the comforting familiar and pretend like that will protect us from these long, long odds we face. But let’s not miss the chance to tell things on mountains, kiss the feet of peasant children, and thunder out like Zechariah, Who DARES despise the day of small things? He is coming, He is coming, He is coming.

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what we do not see

what we do not see

Maybe it sounds odd for a theologian to say, but here it is: it’s been a very long time since I thought or cared much about faith. I mean, I think all the time about the faith. But faith itself—the act of believing something—maybe hasn’t been high on my list of concerns since sometime in high school.

Part of this is a philosophical choice: I think the church of my childhood overrated faith. In their fervor to get me to convert, and to get me to get my friends to convert, those well-meaning people had me so wrapped up in “believing in Jesus” that my overserious little self constantly worried about what that could mean. How exactly do I know that I believe in Jesus today? How can I believe that Jesus lives in my heart when I still don’t understand what that means? Why is God so wrapped up in my ability to “be certain of what we cannot see,” like, why is that the prerequisite skill for heaven-entrance?

I’m honestly still not sure of the answers to all of those questions, and I don’t think they’re quite as important as they were made out to be. Faith is part of following Jesus, but the greatest of these is love. I think God cares a lot more about who and what we love than about all the specifics of what we believe. The greatest commandment is not to mentally assent to a list of propositions, but to orient the desires of our hearts toward God. And I’ll admit, maybe this is a convenient way for me to think about things, because when you’re in theology school, you’re never sure what you believe. If you had to write a creed on any given day in theology school, it would be something like “I believe in skimming, the deadline Almighty, and the power of a good night’s sleep.” The rest is up for grabs if you’re giving your reading any serious thought.

Those were pretty much all my thoughts on faith until the gospel of Matthew kind of slammed into me a couple weeks ago. It started with the Beatitudes, just reading them over and over with a level of obsession I’ve only dedicated to Wendell Berry’s poems and, before that, Ding-Dong, the red book where all the different animals come to the doorbell. One night I finished the Beatitudes and just kept on reading all the way through to “the end of the age” and it felt like everything was new. Every old truth about Jesus and how he was utterly crazy and also just speaking the most obvious common sense, all these things he said and did felt so outrageous and scary and good and true.

It’s a moment I’ve been reaching back for, trying to hold on to, ever since, because nothing else feels to me like it could possibly become new these days. Trump’s absurdities and the reactions to them are wearying in equal measure: anger and blame going around in circles, while even those calling for care and compassion so often mean their words to challenge everyone but themselves. The problems seem so big and getting bigger as we watch, not least because so many think they have solutions to the problems if only everyone else could be marched over to their own point of view. Add to that the loneliness and bewilderment of being new in town, and my feet are dragging. I want to quit my job and hunker down for the (nonexistent South Carolina) winter with my puppy and some junk food and Netflix or maybe a sci-fi novel. It just feels so patently obvious that the world is being devoured by humanity’s worst impulses, greed and anger and violence and indifference to suffering and fear; it’s hard to want to go out there in all that.

In Matthew, Jesus knows about greed and anger and violence and fear. He speaks constantly against them; but he doesn’t just berate people for giving into them. He says where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. He says be reconciled to your brother. He says turn the other cheek, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He says do not be afraid; even the very hairs of your head are numbered. He is not saying that greed and anger and violence and fear are bad and destroying the world. He is saying that they are empty lies. Jesus is showing the world as it truly is and, in the process, sucking all the power out of those evils that seem so all-encompassing.

Jesus is, in fact, asking us for our belief. He is imploring us to believe the truth even though the world will call us crazy: the truth that even so long as the smallest light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it. The kingdom of God is like the tiniest seed. The kingdom of God is humility. The kingdom of God is giving two pennies. It does not obey the laws of physics and its power does not equal money. The kingdom of God is pilgrims sent out two by two, not armies deployed by the millions. It is servanthood, not political clout. It is a meal with the least of these, not the thinkpiece of the year.

Faith means we act like this is true despite all evidence to the contrary. We pray as if it matters. We love as if people could change. We sing as if war and death did not have the final word. We get up in the morning and listen kindly to our coworkers or teach people’s children or clean our houses or feed people or write our little pieces as if these things could be cosmically significant, as if thankfulness could feed five thousand, as if compassion could heal diseases, as if a servant could lead justice to victory. As if love could raise the dead: so by faith we practice resurrection.

Posted by lyndseym, 3 comments

the good news about my racism


It first occurred to me that I might be a racist when Mary Elizabeth Moore mentioned offhand that she is one. Dr. Moore is the Dumbledore of Boston University School of Theology—wise, compassionate, smart, talented, and selfless. It’s hard to describe the love people at BU cherish for her.

My first reaction when my teacher said this was a sort of pity. How could she have been convinced to adopt such a self-loathing posture? It is clear that she loves, respects, and often defers to people of color. She shouldn’t believe such a nasty thing about herself.

Besides, if she’s a racist, I’m a racist.

At its most benign, I gravitate towards people who look like me and away from those who don’t, on the bus, in the store, and at church.
At its most shameful, I wonder if black men in hoodies are drug dealers; I wish someone would silence those black teenagers being loud on the train; I try to avoid the teller at the post office who I assume to be from India.
Are those things my “fault”? No. It’s human nature to want to associate with those who are similar to you, and even, perhaps, to be wary of those who aren’t.
Are those things still shameful? Are they still racist?

When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, it seemed a lot of people bent over backwards to demonize racists. Racists were those who wanted to segregate hotels, buses, and schools, and they were evil for believing that others were inferior based on the color of their skin. These lessons made it seem that the struggle was over and the racists had disappeared as soon as they “lost” segregation. Even for a room full of white students sitting one block from the site of a lynching that spurred the forced exile of every black person from the county, the lessons made it easy to feel proud of ourselves for not thinking slavery or segregation were good ideas.

In their attempts to teach us the right answers, our schools taught us half-truths. Of course racism is deplorable and unacceptable. But of course also, tragically, it dwells within all of our hearts. The problem is, there’s no right answer on a multiple-choice test for facing the sickness inside ourselves. Our schools thought we could bury it and it would never make its way out of us; but that only shoved it closer to our cores, intertwined it with every piece of us as we grew. This happened not least because it was intertwined with everything else we were a part of, too: neighborhoods segregated through tradition and economic barriers; stereotypes as shortcuts for cheap laughs and cheap thrills; a culture that rewards values of white people like quietness, rationality, and procedure; rhetoric that convinces us the safety of white people depends on the surveillance and punishment of black people. We didn’t know these things were making us feel superior to others. It was just the way the world was. Meanwhile, outside our town that many black people still feared, perhaps we couldn’t know, as children, that black people were suffering from the legacies of concerted efforts to make and keep them unemployed, uneducated, poor, and imprisoned.

The grown-ups couldn’t bear to believe, let alone tell us, that the sickness was all of ours. Now we are the grown-ups, and we are deeply ill-equipped to deal with our sickness and theirs, the sickness that infects everything; but we have to try.

A thing about sickness is that it is never, ever, fair. It’s one of the main reasons we resist the diagnosis of racism. No one deserves something like that, twisting up their insides and skewing their well-intentioned lives off course.

I’m glad I had an education outside of my school. All my life I’ve been wrestling with the idea of original sin and the words of preachers who said I couldn’t be saved until I accepted my own depravity. It never struck me as a nice way to look at the world. I prefer the thought that Jesus, by “saving” me, just wants to make me even better than I already am. He isn’t here to mess up my life or my society too much. He likes me just fine and he wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. That’s the line they took at school, after all: developing character is about improving yourself and being nice, not, like, examining things too deeply. Sin is “out there” and your job is just to not be a part of it.

Sin, too, in school, is something you either did or didn’t do, are or are not responsible for. This left us totally unequipped to talk about what it means to share responsibility for something you didn’t do. We don’t know how to talk about the ways we are all connected to one another by the ways we organize ourselves—the systems we live under—as well as the actions we directly take towards each other. We would rather believe that evils we didn’t personally create are someone else’s problem. We won’t face the fact that the someone else is the person who’s dying as a result.

I am grateful now to believe in confession, repentance, salvation, and the hard work of healing. Here it is, y’all, here is the good news about racism: we were all born to be better. We were made to receive the love of God and to be with other people. There is no limit to the goodness you and I are meant to behold and to reflect, no end to the joy and love we can spread. And at the very same time we are born into a world that makes this impossible for us. One moment it threatens us and turns us ferocious out of self-preservation; the next it flatters us and makes us bloated with greed. Now we know we are victims of unfairness but we also know, in our moments alone, that we have become perpetrators. We remember moments of pure cruelty, cowardice, selfishness, and deceit. We think of them, and we hide.

But God comes for us. God always comes for us. She sees and she weeps for the destruction we have wrought, but she also sees through the mud we’ve crawled in and the pathetic armor we’ve built to who we really are: she knows our little lights, dimmed, flickering beneath so many layers of sin and despair. And this God is not some princess, gingerly pinching her prize by the nape of the neck to lift it out of the mud. This God still loves the whole swamp and once she is invited, she wades, swims, without hesitation straight through the sticky mud to embrace us: no lectures, no punishments. Only a whisper: this will hurt. But I am with you. I am always, always with you.

But you have to call out from where you are. You have to know that you are drowning in the swamp. You have to let it be true that you will always be both sinner and saint—always rooting out that illness.

Our light could flare out, pierce through the dim, and our patch of the swamp could become a garden. We could live with joy and without fear and without condemnation. But there is no healing without pain, no growth without humility.

We can go on drowning in inequality, violence, and an utter failure to exercise compassion or understanding for one another. Or we can cry out for rescue.

I think it will look like one small, brave, wavering voice at a time.
I am a racist, and I want to be healed.


Posted by lyndseym, 0 comments

Reality on November 9

The election is coming and everyone is in retreat mode. We are hunkering down with our families and our favorite foods, our senses of dread and our hopes that the end of the election, whatever it is, will bring some relief: from the drone of news coverage dissecting scandals, the clamor of opinions on Facebook. Maybe then we can settle into the holidays. Go back to some kind of normal—even if the wrong candidate is elected.

We are completely burned out on hyped-up emotion and whiplash twists. We’re absolutely through with being lied to, condescended to, berated, flaunted and flattered. Everything about the process and the people reminds us that the world where these decisions are made is far removed from the worlds where their impacts are felt. We still hope to come out on the winning side, but mostly we just hope to come out with our hearts intact. The fun of participation is replaced by guilt and mild hysteria.

I think this must be how reality TV contestants feel as the end of shooting nears.

Do people on those shows ever lay in bed and wonder how they got there? Treating some manufactured situation like it is life or death, being manipulated by powerful people for the sake of entertainment.

It is no new idea that reality TV has nothing at all to do with reality; nor that the U.S. presidential election has taken on the character of a reality show. But this election’s utter lack of coherence should move those ideas from the realm of “interesting thought” to “theme for meditation.” We have some hard questions to ask ourselves about how and why we have spent an entire year participating in this parody of representative democracy.

So many are looking for some sort of hope and comfort amid the vitriol, but writers and leaders I know are at a loss. We have not found some new perspective that can flip the situation and make things seem less bleak. We are watching our country take sides in a battle between a blustering, authoritarian billionaire and a calculating political dynasty; we have seen what passes for democratic debate drive people farther apart, not closer to understanding one another. Issues of policy and discussions of philosophy of government have been completely buried under personal attacks, hysterical accusations, buzzwords and resentment.

We need to admit that this is a time for mourning.

Of course it would be a relief to go on from here and pretend that 2016 never happened; the week after the results come in is absolutely going to be one long exhale of pure gratitude that it is over. Throw a party; burn some election signs; go back to posting pictures of your food on social media. But please don’t just check out after that.

Don’t accept that an election has to tear a nation down instead of building it up. Don’t blame others for your despair. Don’t believe that we are powerless to make something good of our country. Despite the profits others stand to gain from your believing otherwise, there are choices between pinning all your hopes to the head of state and retreating to blissful ignorance by your own fireside.

It may be that little to come out of this election will seem to be worth the price. But we have another choice ahead: whether to treat this moment as a nightmare we can forget about, or to make this the moment we start to ask our own questions and take our own actions. We can look around at the shambles of this process and realize that the things we think it stands for—democracy, citizenship, dialogue—can only be rescued if we rethink them from the inside out.

We will not heal our country by electing the right politicians, reading the right thinkpieces, or convincing others of the right opinions. We will not be free of corruption and bribery, mud-slinging, lies, or demagoguery in our elections by continuing to focus all our energies on a single member of the federal government every four years. We will not escape from anxiety as long as we continue to hand over our attention and our emotions to everyone on the internet without discretion.

If we are going to rebuild our democracy, we each have a brick to lay. We can get involved (or at least informed) in local politics so that Washington and the president don’t loom so large that we can only speak about them in hyperbole. We can make an effort to spend time with someone who is different from us and imagine how their values make a positive contribution to the world. We can pay attention to all the ways we exercise power as citizens: by volunteering, in the ways we spend and give money, even by choosing where to turn our attention instead of letting Facebook and TV lure us into places of fear, anger, or division.

Still, none of these things will happen, nor will they make much of a difference, unless we face our pain and frustration. The change I’m talking about is a 180 degree turnaround: in Christian language, repentance, and it is really never a pretty sight. There is hope in it, but first there is pain. There is love, but first there is conviction. You have to stop chasing hatred and blame and admit that you are frightened, you are small, you have been hurt in the past, and admit that your pride has turned you ugly: “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

Only then can you see reality as it truly is.

Posted by lyndseym, 0 comments
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