Is this a biblical worldview?

Is this a biblical worldview?

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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what to say to someone in pain

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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For We Are All One Body: on healthcare

For We Are All One Body: on healthcare

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

To the earnest ones

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.

Posted by lyndseym, 7 comments
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

Senator John McCain, like every other Republican senator, supported the silencing this week of Elizabeth Warren from reading the words of Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions. His words: screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-10-43-38-am“I’m not sure you should read a letter that calls someone a racist.”

It confuses me why labeling someone as ‘racist’ is considered name-calling (leaving aside the question of why Jeff Sessions needs protection from name-calling [#snowflake?]). Calling someone a name like “dumb stinky loser” is about the opinion of the speaker. Calling someone a racist is about the fact of whether they are or are not a racist. And as long as we fear to name our disease, it will continue to poison everything we do.

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 feel contempt towards 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.


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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.

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a blank space, baby


One day Nate and I decided to move from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina, and three weeks later we did it. I think I was about as ready as anyone can be for something like that. I think I was about 80% ready.

And usually with these huge changes, I’ve been a lot less ready—but someone else has been ready for me. Americorps, grad school, they had routines and duties and people lined up for me to throw myself into. I knew people who’d moved to new cities completely alone after college, but I couldn’t relate to them. I envied them their spending money and their professional-wardrobe jobs; only now can I even approach any understanding of the crushing loneliness they must have felt, dropping their keys every night in whatever tiny apartment they had found. Of what it’s like to feel a riptide pulling you away from your perfectly fine life, to follow it with some excitement, and then to ask the ocean several times when you’ll be there until you realize that this, treading water in this wide nothing, is it.

In our case, we went from spending, collectively, four hours a day commuting, to forty minutes a day. We went from having four or five groups of people we could make weekend plans with, to zero. From a little downtown church we liked to the land of a thousand (seemingly identical) churches. From a cozy little house that seemed made of windows to an apartment whose blank white walls seem to expand, retreating us farther into the dim building, overnight. I went from a bustling startup office space 40 hours a week to working from home 30 hours a week.

It’s been an eerily quiet few weeks.

I bought Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect on a bit of a whim, and when I started reading it, one little chunk at a time, trying to drag it out and absorb everything, I was immediately disappointed. The writing was so lovely and funny and honest, the story so familiar and yet different from mine, but the whole entire damn thing is all about living a slower, more grounded life. About eliminating commitments and half-real relationships and tasks of imaginary importance.

To say that I resented being told I should do what I was being forced to do would be an understatement. My eyes would travel from the book to my blank planner to Nate, my only human connection within a four-hour drive, and somehow, knowing that millions of people would revel in this state of affairs only made me deeply, inexplicably bitter toward those people. But Shauna kept drawing me in. And I started cooking.

It’s our shared love of elaborate meals that will keep me reading every book Niequist writes until the end of time. If at every other hour of the day I hated feeling alone, unuseful, and boring, I was able to lose myself in cooking. I gloried in our new dishwasher. Our CSA shares started coming, baskets brimming with local food, and this, at least, made me feel that the ground of South Carolina was mine, too. I made bread. Nate made me breakfast sandwiches out of it.

And some combination of that near-daily ritual with Shauna’s gentle words—full of wonder at how lovely the quiet life can be—soon made me half-grudgingly, half-elatedly realize that this little window is a gift. Who in the world gets to make food for their family every day? How many people are ever offered such a blank slate after they’ve grown up a little, figured out what they really want? How often does anyone get such extravagant margins with which to decide how they will live? How many books would my favorite mama-writers have written in the amount of time I’ve already wasted?

These questions, though, they often take on the tone of your life. When I was still thinking of this time as an exile, they felt accusatory. Of course I knew I should be grateful. Of course I was inadequate to the task of making the most of the situation.

Until, as is usually the case with me, I started pretending to be the good person I wasn’t.

I just got tired of railing against the situation, and stopped. And then there was even more of the dreaded, horrible quiet.

And then there was a whisper: stop seeking. just wait.

And in that blank space, like floating in water, the beginnings of a life began to emerge, one little thing at a time. Not the things that are, like, recognizable as a life—a full schedule and a full travel mug of coffee and a car and people who breathlessly tell you how much they appreciate you as you pass each other rushing in different directions. Just, the realization that I am not only able but, in fact, driven to collect as many houseplants as possible. Just a little writing opportunity I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for my new days off. A cascade of writing ideas where before there had been only overwhelm. A few  prayers besides the same frustrations, fears, and questions I’d been hurling at the sky the past many months. And a lot of fresh-vegetable meals.

This may not be anyone else’s definition of success, but this is my life. This is the life I get to say yes to, one little thing at a time.

Posted by lyndseym, 3 comments

Dear Conservative Relatives: I Think We Feel the Exact Same Way

Dear Conservative Relatives:

I know we don’t talk about it much, but I hope you know I do think about your reactions when I post my “liberal” thoughts and ideas and memes. I can feel your disapproval and anxiety shimmering through the air at me. Even if you don’t mean for me to feel it—of course I do. I grew up watching you talk about people like me. I worry about you worrying about me.

I think, for instance, about whether your hearts sunk, reading my note this week to my LGBTQ friends that thanked them for being themselves.
“There are two genders,” I can imagine you saying. I imagine you play out scenarios in your minds—whether I’ve turned my back on God altogether, or just the Bible. Whether I have a grip on reality anymore. Whether too much pot-smoking with my weirdo Northern liberal friends has turned me into an impressionistic ivory-tower childishly naive egghead.
(No. I’ve never smoked pot.)

“Didn’t we teach her better than that?” I imagine you asking each other.
“Doesn’t she know what we believe?”
“Who told her these outrageous things?”
Maybe you pray for me.
Maybe you’ve blocked me.
Maybe you’ve given me up for lost.

Here’s the thing though: I feel that same utter lack of comprehension sometimes when I hear your political views; and never so much as this week when I’ve seen you defending Donald Trump.

I thought you were the people who taught me the word character. That even our most secret behavior matters because it forms who we are; because who we are when no one’s watching is who we will be when people are depending on us. And now you try to separate the office of the President from the person of the man who holds it.

I remember your outrage and vitriol demanding that Bill Clinton be convicted for his lying and womanizing ways. But the man you now support has done nothing but lie since he first stepped onto a political stage. And most recently he has demonstrated that the first thing he would likely do as President is find an intern who would give him a blowjob in the Oval Office. That is the ultimate power move, isn’t it? And Trump is all about power.

Sometimes I worry about using language you might think was vulgar in my writing. But when you let “locker room talk” like grab her by the pussy slide past your ears, I realize that propriety isn’t the most important thing to you.

You’ve told me before that the most important things to you are truth, family, and the love of God. Which of these things does Trump stand for?

You encouraged me to get an education, and my education has taught me a lot of truths. It has forced me, for instance, to understand that when the world is changing as fast as it is now, things are sometimes too complicated to operate under the principles of common sense. That’s why I can’t just base my vote on a “pro-life” position. To prevent abortion, we have to care for the lives of mothers and children, not just fetuses.

You taught me to prioritize family in life and in politics. And the more people I’ve met, the more I see we have to gain from honoring families that don’t look like ours. I don’t think the people who have praised and fought for these families are deluded at all. They are growing genuine, self-giving love between couples and making miraculous homes for children who need them. Their “agenda” is to be safe, to be respected, to be in most ways unremarkable. And in the process of achieving it, they are demonstrating creative and powerful and grace-filled love.

You taught me that the love of God conquers all. You taught me that compassion was the trait one should be proudest of in this life. You happily took the precious quarters I gave you as a child for the other children who needed help overseas. But today you call “naive” and “dangerous” those who want our country to provide safe haven for refugees.
People who have lost their families, their livelihoods, their homes, their towns, their churches, their neighbors and friends are asking the world for nothing more than not to spend the rest of their lives in tents. But you support a candidate who would prefer that our country cower behind its wide ocean, incredible military, and extreme prosperity rather than trust in God’s command to extend welcome to the stranger.

Don’t you know what we believe?
Who told you these outrageous things?

I wish that we could keep politics impersonal, but I can’t help taking it personally. The thing is, I defended our ideals for so long. I do understand that my stance on the issues above is not the only platform based on the values of truth, family, and compassion. I’ve spent days of my life, long after I no longer thought of myself as particularly Conservative, demanding respect for people who don’t fall into step with the liberal elite. We all have a lot of the same goals, I said, but different ideas about how to get there. People aren’t required to pursue change for its own sake. It’s lazy, lazy thinking to pretend that your political enemy is an amoral troglodyte; so I don’t sit and listen to redneck jokes, trailer park jokes, or Religious Right jokes. I’ve fought much more for your positions than for mine among my weirdo Northern liberal friends. Because I know you. Because I love you.

I’ve been on both sides, and I know that people on both sides can arrive at hard-fought, careful and prayerful, opposing positions. I know that casting all Conservatives as fear-driven, susceptible to hate-mongering, and respectful of nothing but money is unproductive and downright false. I tell people I know plenty of Conservatives who instead live principled and courageous lives, care deeply about protecting minorities, and practice extreme financial generosity.

But I can’t bring myself to believe that those people are voting for Trump.

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calling, these days

This is something I’ve been pretty embarrassed to admit: for the last year, I’ve been dealing with low-level but fairly continuous anxiety. Too many days to count, I’ve worried, I’ve twitched, I’ve been hyperactive but exhausted, I’ve snapped at people close to me, I’ve lain awake at night. I wouldn’t say these are the life-ruining symptoms of a disorder, but the real and uncontrollable responses of my body and brain to the stress of applying for Ph.Ds, getting married, and moving across the country. I try to pray, but so often I’m just worrying at the sky.

For the last year, everything in me has been pulling toward the South, but I never imagined myself in Charleston. I didn’t think we’d be entirely friendless or nearly seasonless or clueless in a hypercompetitive real estate market. And so the worrying that I thought might stop post-move keeps dogging me, mocking me even. Eight days into our Charleston life, I feel this desperation to get everything perfectly in order. I spend hours researching how we can be happy here. I am short with my husband. Mental lists of things to do scroll on a loop in my head. I begin to think that I am losing it. I begin to think that I am a tiresome and gutless person, unable to handle life transitions and unacceptably poor in faith.

Sometimes it is a relief when the lies finally start screaming; you’re able to shine a light on them and in the process, you illuminate the half-truths you’d been accepting all along.

Here is a whole truth: even when I don’t believe much else, I believe that we were called here—to the South, and to the careers we’re making. There was a time when I thought being called was its own kind of contract, that it meant things had to go well for you in some sense or another. I don’t believe that anymore. I know now that God’s love takes on more and deeper forms than just handing us our preferred circumstances or emotional states or even “lessons” we can file neatly in drawers. Transformation is more than that and life would be a little boring if it were entirely comprehensible. “Calling” isn’t a comforting word to me anymore, but I do still think it exists. I believe that if I sit, friendless and clueless, on the seasonless porch of this characterless apartment every day forever, it’s because this is where I’m meant to learn to praise the Lord.

Because when I set down the computer and the classifieds for just a minute, when I get my controlling self to simmer down, I can feel the other parts of me unknotting already, leaning with a sigh into this less-familiar bit of the place I love. My body stretches into the steamy nights and my voice springs back into an easy smile when strangers smile and chat. It is still vegetable season and my family can visit on the weekends and yes, there are all the South’s problems, too, problems that feel like mine. And a voice calls again: breathe. 

I crack an egg into a batch of zucchini bread.
I settle into the good company of my husband.
I let the list of fears hang where I said them this morning.
To breathe is prayer enough.

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26 things I’ve learned about food


Y’all, I am 26 now. This sounds like the age of a person who has a career and knows how to accessorize. But I am not that person. I am mostly just a person who loves, loves food.

Some might say that the main achievement of civilization has been to allow most of us to focus the majority of our daily efforts on things other than feeding ourselves. But I would still contend that it is in our nature to treat food as life—to schedule our days around it and to treat feeding each other as an act at once vitally basic and transcendently holy.

Looking at it that way, I’m willing to say that the things I’ve learned about food in 26 years are things I’ve learned about life. Here they are, in roughly the order I learned them.

  1. You have to try it at least once.

    This was such an ironclad rule for me growing up that I am truly astonished to encounter picky adults. Why would you deprive yourself of the wonders of the food world that way? It won’t kill you. Have a chaser ready and try a bite.

  2. Pack a lunch.

    Once you’re in the habit, it’s the easiest way to save thousands of dollars and calories every year.

  3. Anyone who can read a recipe can cook.

    Pretty much all of the foods and a lot of the baked goods you want to eat regularly require no special skills. Here is most recipes: Chop. Skillet. Medium-high.

  4. Grow an herb garden.

    OK so I, personally, have successfully kept exactly one basil plant alive in my life, but my mom’s garden taught me there is no comparison between fresh herbs and dried, especially when the fresh herbs are free.

  5. Cake of all kinds is a breakfast food for the week following any birthday or major or minor holiday, and also on Sundays, or when there cake in the house.
  6. A sharp knife will transform your attitude toward cooking.

    If you don’t like cooking, it could be because all your life you’ve been machete-ing vegetables and fighting with your meat as if it were still alive, instead of slicing them with perfect economy of motion in a blissful dance of color, shape, and flavor. When your pen is out of ink, you don’t keep trying to write; you get more ink. When your knife is dull, you should sharpen it. The deli people at nicer grocery stores will often do this for you for free.

  7. Say grace.

    Just because it’s a ritual doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Even if you’re not religious, mealtime is a time to cultivate gratitude.

  8. Practice saying “it’s too sweet.”

    Sugar is one of the main ingredients in many “savory” convenience and fast foods (check out the labels on pasta sauce, teriyaki stuff, Wheat Thins, lunchmeat…). The people who make this stuff have us hooked on sugar, but if you get used to eating homemade, you’ll be surprised how much of it doesn’t taste right.

  9. Double the recipe.

    Leftovers are the best lunches.

  10. Less meat isn’t as depressing as it sounds.

    Whether you’re trying to save the earth or you’re just poor, you could probably cut down more drastically on meat, without making huge sacrifices, than you think. Just a couple strips of bacon can add a lot of flavor and heft to even the biggest pot of vegetarian chili.

  11. Double the garlic.
  12. Plan your meals.

    Everything worth doing takes a little planning. Take 20 minutes to find some recipes and make a list before you head to the store.

  13. Food connects us to everything.

    Everybody eats, and everybody eats things that come from the earth. The way we consume and share these resources affects everyone and everything around us.

  14. Don’t throw away food.

    Plan to use up what you have.

  15. Good food is satisfying.

    You know what’s not a good food? Those cheezballs in the giant tub that leave a film in your mouth but somehow you want to eat them all even though they are nothing but air, corn dust, and orange. Put down the cheezballs and pick up a food made from food.

  16. On that note, don’t buy cheap chocolate or cheap cheese.

    You’ll end up using less of the full-flavored, higher-priced ones, so the costs even out.

  17. Don’t diet.

    It’s one thing to cut out sugar  for a few weeks because you find yourself eating the stale plain Munchkins in the office break room after everyone has picked out all the other flavors, and you realize you’re on the sugar addiction train.
    It’s another thing to subject yourself to the rules of any diet for a long time. Those rules create shame and fear and even when you succeed you come out with this weird self-righteous mindset about what a good skinny rule-follower you are.
    Start with this rule: get at least 6 fruits and vegetables every day. Then make a list of healthy proteins and starches to balance out your meals, and you’re well on your way to a habit of eating healthfully.

  18. Pay attention to your eating.

    I eat stupid snacks like Funyuns when I’m bored and lonely. Whenever I want Funyuns, I congratulate myself on another victorious day of NOT eating Funyuns and put a little effort into becoming less bored and lonely.

  19. F*** the patriarchy.

    People sometimes seem to expect women, especially small women, to eat like we are actual fairies, sipping tea out of thimbles and nibbling micro greens while smiling fondly at our men as they devour seconds. That is so incredibly not my style. Only since I’ve gotten a wee bit angry about that have I recognized that my love of food actually helps me eat better. And that it’s one of my favorite things about myself. And that the quest for the perfect buffalo wing is a noble one indeed.

  20. Pay someone else to deep fry things.

    Not worth it at home.

  21. oatmeal + peanut butter + 1 sliced banana + 8 chocolate chips.

    You’re welcome.

  22. If you cut up bird’s-eye chilis for your super-spicy Thai curry, throw all the refuse in the trash and don’t spray it off the cutting board with extremely hot water.

    That’s called pepper spray.

  23. Feed people.

    Even if it’s frozen pizza. Even if they have to sit on the floor. They don’t care; they’ll be grateful. Don’t miss out on the love and life found in sharing a meal just because hosting seems intimidating.

  24. Instant oatmeal is a scam!!!!1!!

    Regular rolled oats microwave in 90 seconds if you use just enough water to cover them.

  25. Be kind to yourself.

    Lots of people make resolutions to cook more often or eat better, but get caught up in a lot of weird food shame when they fail one week. Congratulate yourself for trying. But don’t set yourself up for failure: recognize that these things require you to make time for them.

  26. Fulfilling the Ultimate Quadrilateral of an Excellent Food—cheap, easy, healthy, and delicious:

    Curried lentil stew.
    Breakfast burritos.

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a place to stay

One way to become a minimalist is to have 15 addresses in 8 years.

Our house has gone from a total shambles to starting to clear itself up—all the traces of Nate and me soon to disappear. I am catching a breath on this last day in our first house together, a cottage in a pine forest that’s terribly far from anything useful and is the very definition of a little newlywed nest. We will miss it.

There was a time, maybe for the last year and a half, when leaving any place made me feel physically ill. Going on a weekend trip, coming back from the trip; it wasn’t that I ever hated my destination, just that I was dizzy from the revolving door my life has been since moving North. Between changing dwellings, visiting Nate, flying home twice a year, and attending weddings and holidays, I measured my life in time until the next departure. I was an expert at Greyhound travel and duffel-bag-packing.

I bought some of those big plastic storage tubs and lived out of them when I wasn’t living out of the duffel. A bunch of my stuff has just resided in there for years now; I know where it is and if I need it, I use it, then carefully repack it for the next move. I used the tubs as furniture. They have handles. They have kept my clothes and stuff safe in rain, in suspicious basements, on airplanes, with no tape and no box cutters. I love the tubs. For a while they were the most constant and dependable things in my life.

I don’t know if the place we’re going will be a place we never leave, but I know that South is the right direction. A year ago now, I took a month off to recalibrate my life, and it felt like everything that had ever been true was saying to me that moving North had been a good thing, and that now it is time to come home.

And so this leaving doesn’t feel like illness, but like healing. There are people who love New England, who think that even the bad things about it are, in the end, still the way things should be. I was never going to be one of those people; this leaving was always inevitable.

I’m grateful for our nest. I’m grateful for a husband who believes me when I say I don’t know what my career will be, but this move carries the urgency of a calling. I’m grateful to be moving towards establishing a place to put down roots and pick up responsibilities, a place that becomes part of us and we, of it. Something more than a place to stay.

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me and what matters

There is no good balance between trying not to “center yourself” in issues that are not about you, and acknowledging that everyone has to deal with racism and cultural conflict on an intensely personal level. This is part of my story.

I grew up reading books on leadership, beginning at the age of nine to take on every “office” I could, believing my role in life was to make things happen and to change the world. My college experience deepened this view of myself as I took on more and more stuff: a classic big fish in a small pond.

When I left Tennessee for a volunteer position in upstate New York, I thought it was the next step in changing the world, the next place to go be really good at things. And while I certainly wasn’t bad at things, I constantly worried that I wasn’t really earning my keep. I never fixed the East Side of Syracuse or started some kind of revival at SU, and it seemed at the time like I had done nothing. Every week someone at church would tell me how they were energized and challenged by my presence there, and every week I would go home and ask God why he wasn’t “using” me.

I decided to go to seminary partly because it was time to have A Career. I would become a beloved, influential writer and teacher; people would look to me for leadership and advice. Then I actually started the work of grad school, and nearly every day
felt newly confusing, often discouraging. When I failed to get in to a Ph.D. program, I had to finally wonder whether any of this had been worth it.

I can list for you fifty ways that I have grown in these years, but I still struggle to accept that the measure of success, and even of my worth as a person, is not only in quantifiable achievements or the world, changed. I am more likely to believe that I must have taken some wrong turn, or not tried hard enough, because it is the destiny of people like me to Do Great Things but I—I have only twiddled around earning a master’s degree.

It is no exaggeration to say that all of this time I have felt oppressed and often angry about the lack of clarity and purpose I have felt in my life. And much of this time, I have heard God saying to just be here, to let myself feel small and bewildered. It is enough to keep trying to pray, to try to love, to not know.

It is enough to be humble.

Still I fought for the need to achieve things. Today, in fact, I fight for it; I think I will find significance in becoming An Author, I pin my self-respect to my Hustle, and I write and write but nothing is ever good enough because it is not The Best.

It has only begun to dawn on me that true humility—contentment in doing my little part—is not only enough for a time. It is the foundation of Doing Great Things.

Excruciating honesty is one of the truest signs of humility and so I will tell you: I have been burdened by how to write about Black Lives Matter. Or so I have told myself. Deeper down, I have believed that I could Steward my Privilege and Make a Contribution by writing the perfect piece, the essay that would educate without condescending, take a stand without offending, succinctly communicate the nuances of the cultural img_20160716_102317368.jpgconflict at hand and also inspire both sides to come together under the universal hope we share for safer communities and a more loving world. This would be the essay that would cut through the noise.

I’ve tried to write this essay many, many times in my mind and a couple of times on paper. I’ve tried to balance everything I’ve learned about oppression, privilege, and being an ally with sympathy for those who don’t have a graduate education in the humanities: trying to explain each side of myself to the other. And each time, the essay ends up with some conclusion along these lines: I guess the best I, or anyone, can do is to keep listening, being honest, asking for forgiveness, speaking up with imperfect words, and praying we’ll all have the courage to set aside defensiveness and seek one another’s good.

Then I start over on the essay, because I so much want to come to a different conclusion. I don’t want these things to be all I can do. I want to Fix Racism and Classism, I want to go viral, I want to solve a problem or at least lead a nonprofit that makes me feel like I’m solving a problem. I am the target audience for all those quotes you see: What will you tell your grandchildren you did about racism??!! I don’t really want to tell them I stayed in tough conversations and wrote some letters to my police commissioner and cultivated peace in my own heart.

It occurs to me that this need to Tackle Problems and Accomplish Change seems like a self-evident, universal human, but only because it is such a white lady approach to the world. In other cultures, people can be sad without compiling action items. They can believe in change before statistical evidence for it exists. Groups can work together to do things without everyone demanding credit for the group’s accomplishment.

The world may someday need my overachieving habits and even my Extraordinary Writing Ability, but today is not that day. Today is the day I listen and learn and try to support the people who are fighting for their own lives. Today I add one medium-sized voice to the insistent chorus: Black Lives Matter. The best I can do is to follow so others can lead; to be patient so others have space to be angry; to ask my own family and friends to have courage, to understand. But I cannot ask them to set aside their defenses unless have taken my own ego out of the equation.

Maybe once I’ve done that, it won’t matter whether one side thinks I’m a dupe for joining the liberals or the other side polices my language. I’ll be able to learn and ask forgiveness even from those who seem unfairly accusatory. My self-worth won’t depend on whether I fix anything. And I won’t mind writing my little, non-viral pieces, because this is how I know to be faithful, this is how I know I become less fearful, because honesty, over and over, is where we will eventually recognize ourselves and one another as agents of a difficult, unthrilling, humble peace.

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In a Pinterest wedding, it is always sunny or sunset. Pinterest weddings exist in a land of perfect weather, of greenery without precipitation.

Pinterest wedding preparation consists entirely of papercrafting, cake tastings, and bridal salons, all of which are accompanied by champagne. Engagement is, in fact, just a year of champagne. Being engaged, apparently, empowers you to do things and make decisions while buzzed, just as awesomely as you thought you could do things while buzzed when you were a single, mortal person.


On Pinterest, your wedding day is the day of your life you don’t wear a scarf

On Pinterest, life stops when you become A Bride. You not only have time to go the aforementioned cake tastings but also to shop for your cake tasting dress, and the other 20 Outfits Every Bride Needs. On Pinterest, moreover, you do not have any emails, spreadsheets, or weird relatives’ preferences to deal with when choosing said cake. Cake is fun. Cake is pretty. Cake for 200 is easily managed.

Pinterest weddings generally treat grooms the way society treats women every other day of their lives: they are considered vaguely necessary if not terribly interesting, assigned to look adoringly at the bride unceasingly throughout the day. Under no circumstances are grooms included in Pinterest’s decision-making process without careful prior consideration on the part of the women in charge.

Pinterest wedding guests examine the event’s components minutely. They are wedding conoisseurs, and not in the sense that they love drinking and dancing; their attention is primarily occupied by comparing the centerpieces, wedding logos, signature cocktails, and useless doo-dad favors of every wedding they attend. “Your guests will appreciate these details,” Pinterest proclaims in all seriousness.

Pinterest weddings consist mostly of glitter, carefully avoiding most any whiff of marriage. And Pinterest engagements consist entirely of white-smiled women laughing in a circle around a blonde bride somewhere floral.

You do not learn from Pinterest that life goes on and on while you are engaged, that while you try to wrestle your role of Bride into submitting to your wishes, your boss keeps giving you deadlines and your friends keep needing you and your relationship with The Groom keeps growing and changing. You don’t expect to develop, overnight, skills like overseeing a budget of several thousand dollars, working with contractors, project management, or people appeasement, but you do it; you accept this inauguration into the world of women’s work, unpaid and unrespected, the way you accept the workout plans and etiquette guides tailored to your Situation, which would be laughable if aimed at grooms.

You learn from Pinterest that your engaged life will be happy, and it will be, but the airy photos don’t show just how full and even crowded life becomes. You quickly discover that no color-scheme paint swatches can cover over the family history and identity crises that demand you finally deal with them; no cute graphic can depict the timeline of fights and reconciliations, money talks and politics talks, silent drives and quiet hikes that really make up your life with your beloved. It is all deeper and more boring and brighter and darker and stranger to be engaged than people bother to say to you. And to be a bride—at least in the South—is all of these things and more, because it binds up so many threads of your womanhood for display and therefore scrutiny. It is, by very odd turns and at very odd times, to be searingly lonely and to be overwhelmed by sisterhood; to be feminist, and unfeminist, and guilty about betraying tradition, and guilty about betraying feminism; to be the gracious and caring woman-hostess-daughter-friend-fiancée you always wanted to be, and to be the weary bitchy mess of a person you thought you left behind with your teenage years.

All this is too much for Pinterest. You can throw all the neatly-lettered slogans of empowerment you want at it, but they won’t crack it. And you won’t have time to resent it, either, only to carry on with whatever you figure is best for you and your family and the new family you’re creating. That is what a good woman does, in the end, traditional or feminist or gracious or not. And by the time you make it to the end of the aisle, ready or not, you’ll be a Bride, and with any luck or work or help, all of this will have helped you recognize that you were Beautiful all along.

If not, at least there will finally be champagne.


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graduation goes on

A few weeks from now, it will be four years since I graduated from college. It is one of those personal milestones you might try to tell people about, and they will probably kind of get why it’s important, but only you can really know all that it means to you. Broadly, it means that a little college in a little Tennessee town will no longer hold the majority of my days as an “adult.” Specifically, it means that I’ve fallen in love, changed my mind, lost my way, had my heart broken, re-found grace, and reset my course a thousand and one times since that town sent me on my way.

I’ve grown as much in those four years as I did in my four years of college, but it’s all a little more lonely and a little less exhilarating. Sometimes it seems people don’t want to tell college students this, as if holding out hope that someone will have a better time of it than most of us have. But you have to recognize, before you leave, that college is a helpful but highly artificial environment. College lends a certain rhythm to life, an immediacy to big ideas, an urgency and intimacy to friendship, that just don’t easily materialize in the average adult’s life. Could the things we loved about college teach us about building a happier society? Probably, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I digress.

It was exhilarating, in its own way, to step off a plane in Syracuse, searching for a stranger I knew only by voice to drive me to my new home. It was exhilarating to walk out of a catering shift at Boston’s Museum of Science at 2 A.M. and find myself bowled over by the beauty of a city I’d dreamed for years of living in. But these things are also lonely and exhausting, and in between are many days trying to demand purpose from life, feeling small.

It was worthwhile to learn new things, meet new people, and change my mind, but it was also confusing, frightening, difficult to navigate, sometimes using up all my reserves of generosity and humility.

It made me stronger to work a few 50 and 60 hour weeks there in grad school, to bite my nails wondering if the rent would get paid, made me more responsible to try to plan those things around a long-distance relationship. Those things also felt completely overwhelming and, through the irrational lens of exhaustion, hellish at times.

I wish I’d gotten a tattoo when I left college.

I wish that every day I’d opened my eyes and somehow been greeted by these words: trust the process.

You can’t really see yourself growing. Often other people can, but to you, it just feels like struggle. Far, far too often in the past four years, I have been lost in anger and disappointment because I couldn’t understand the purpose of things. I have needed my stories about How God Was Using Me to remain intact so that I could feel in control. I have wanted to find A Lesson in something that, at the time, seemed to represent only cruelty, or futility, or depressing weather. I have expected, time and time again, that doing my best to follow God would result directly in my own happiness.

When you start a new workout routine, everything in you screams that you should quit because you are so weak. You have to believe that these actions, which seem to do nothing but demonstrate your weakness, are actually making you stronger. When you start a new job, and the routine of it makes you feel utterly unimportant to the world, you have to remember those times you prayed for humility.

At these times, I’ve found myself returning to the stories of the wilderness. I don’t know if that sounds melodramatic, but the wilderness itself isn’t that exciting. It’s where people learn, one day at a time, to trust in God’s provision. It’s where people get over themselves. It’s where people learn to pray. In between all of these exciting and heroic stories are these episodes in the desert, where the purpose of things is uncertain, the way forward is unclear, and the landscape is monotonous. Here, the work of God is slow and inscrutable. Here, there is danger without much excitement, and boredom without much to show for it. But here, God is faithful, and it slowly dawns on us that God’s work is bigger than this moment and bigger than us.

trust the process.

I don’t have to understand every moment of the last four years to see that I have emerged with a much clearer vision of my vocations, a better understanding of the world, a re-sorted list of priorities, and a relationship with God that’s been refined. All are things that could fill up an essay of their own, and none I could have found any way towards other than the twisting paths I’ve traced.

God willing, I will soon be moving into a more stable phase of life—not wondering what I want, but trying to make it happen. Others I know made it to that phase sooner, and some have no desire at all to stop wandering yet. But I wish we could all gather to toast each other for this graduation-versary and tell our best stories we couldn’t have predicted on the day we performed that weird, robed pageant. All those stories would be parts of who we are now, and I think most of us are finding we’re really happy to know these selves. Maybe we’re even starting to really make friends with the process.

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your life as a badass

This is the scary basement where I work out.


It is full, totally full, of spiderwebs. And spiders. It’s lucky I hate snakes and have a strange affinity for spiders, and not the other way around.


The ceiling is 7 feet off the ground at best. The floor is uneven, so I have to find the right level-enough spot for whatever lunge or plank or squat jump I’m doing. I took my yoga mat down there, and I’ve accepted that it’s become part of the scary basement now. Composed partially of dirt and only borrowed from the spiders.

No one forces me to work out down there. I could probably make it happen in my living room; or I could just skip it, except I’ve discovered that getting a sweat on is essential to my winter mental health. Plus WEDDING: I’m much more vain about all those photos than I ever thought I’d be. But still. The scary basement is pretty repellent.

Here is the main way I get myself into the scary basement and through the lunge jumps: I pretend I’m one of those people in a movie who is unjustly thrown into prison, but spends their time plotting revenge/getting super ripped.

I guess I think of this as a genre of movie character, but the only one I can really think of is Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises. So, yeah. I pretend to be Batman. Except I haven’t been imprisoned by a mysterious ally of the warped, brutish demagogue who plans to destroy everything I love and protect. I’m just a victim of extreme cold and my own vanity/desire to eat french fries.

Even so, after a while, having to work out in the scary basement can kind of be its own motivator. Once I had done it a couple of times without dying by spider bite or ankle twist or the wrath of the skeleton-ghost who could very well live its eerie half-dead life in the nether reaches of the darkness— once I got through it a couple of times, I felt free to consider myself A TOTAL BADASS. Sometimes I let myself feel secretly superior to my coworkers when they’re talking about their fancy gyms. “My gym is free,” I don’t say to them. “Lots of people would pay to not go there.”

I think the same thing is one part of the appeal of CrossFit, too. I’ve never been, but I get the impression there’s something people like about the no-frills, no-excuses, objectively and plainly miserable workouts: they feel like you’re getting stronger, and they feel like what you’re doing matters. You are honest about the sacrifice you have to make to get where you’re going. And your circumstances help you recognize your inner badass.

Working out is somehow easier when you feel like you’re allowed to frame your quest for greater strength as an epic battle. I wish we gave ourselves more license to understand all of our struggles that way.

Whether you’re resolved to finish a degree, to get out of debt, to be more patient with your family, to get through a day without alcohol, to keep up with your Lenten practice even though you’ve already failed multiple times, to learn a musical instrument, to care for an aging parent, to learn to love your body, or just to get out of bed again tomorrow, sometimes the most discouraging thought is that this isn’t worth it. That decay wins eventually, so why bother with growth? That you are not the kind of person who does these things. That you are making a mockery of yourself by struggling through to the end.

I don’t know if I believe in a red pointy Devil, but I believe in an Enemy. And that Enemy is those lies. Here is the truth: that thing you do wouldn’t be worth doing if it were easy. And it wouldn’t be yours to do if you weren’t up to the task. And if it weren’t worth the effort, you wouldn’t have started. You wouldn’t have stared this huge thing in the face and said, bring it on. Maybe you didn’t know just how hard it would be, just how weary you would feel. But that weariness isn’t a sign that you are too small or your problems too petty. It is a sign that you are in the midst of a great battle. It is in the daily decisions, the uncertain hours, the thousandth resolution that the warrior quietly, finally wins.

Of course there is a time in all of our lives when we must face a reality that forces us to quit on some great fight, and there is no shame in that. But I mean to talk about those things, big and small, that you know (or once knew) God has somehow placed before you for this time; those things that, in your best moments, you believe are making the world a better place. Cling to that belief. Let it compel you to go on. Even if there will never be a musical montage of your struggle, even if the darkness against which you strain is not apparent to anyone else, know that it is a great thing you do to hold once more your candle against it.

When a person is baptized in the Episcopal church, he or she is asked to assent to all sorts of absurd projects.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Will you persevere in resisting evil?

These are daunting, audacious, overwhelming goals, to say the least.

The person replies: I will, with God’s help.

It is such a simple answer. We use such a humble and honest five words to make such outrageous claims. But it is enough to face down demons; even, and especially, those who tell us we are small and our struggles unimportant. It says that is no matter. It is God’s help that matters. He is the one who calls, who provides, who is sufficient.

I will, with God’s help. This is enough for one day.

One day in your life as a total badass.


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Dear Governor Deal

Or, a Southern lady has a word.

Dear Governor Deal,

I am a deeply proud native and voter in the state of Georgia. I belong to the white, well-off, Christian population you count among your constituency, and I am ashamed beyond belief by your most recent executive order barring Syrian refugees from Georgia. Your actions are not representative of our views and wishes, and they defy common sense as well as American values.

Let us consider the people involved in this situation.

First, there are the Syrian refugees. You point out that there are gaps in the process for “screening those from war torn areas,” and of course you are correct. It is because their homes and lives are war-torn that these people cannot be vetted as we might wish. Their clothes and their documents are literally torn by terror in the same way that their homes are demolished, their governments and police records disintegrated, and their lives ripped to shreds by violence. No one hates and fears terrorism more than Syrian refugees. No one hopes to live as a simple, productive citizen, to maintain order and normalcy, more than a Syrian refugee. Surely Lady Liberty calls to Syria when she proclaims,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me;
I raise my lamp beside the golden door.”

Some of these people have already made their way to Georgia, and your treatment of them is particularly disturbing. Since they have already endured a vetting process, demanding that their backgrounds be “confirmed” displays an attitude dangerously similar to that of the Americans who interned Japanese-American residents during World War II. Fear of others based solely on their nationality is the definition of xenophobia.

Next there are the terrorist groups and individuals who wish to do harm to innocent civilians – including, conceivably, Georgians. These people are full of anger and hatred, and their movements thrive on the hatred and fear of others. Continuing to stir up suspicion and anxiety towards Syrians allows them to accomplish their goals: making us feel constantly unsafe, and convincing more of their countrymen that we hate them. We do not hate them, Mr. Deal. We will not be bullied into hatred or fear of anyone.

Because these people are so hell-bent on doing harm, refugee visas have very little to do with their ability to carry out their plans. They are not foiled, as if they might say to one another, “We will not be allowed to take up residence in Georgia; let’s get a beer instead.” If terrorists care to attack Georgians, their nimble organizations will find ways to do so. They have American recruits in their ranks, means of traveling between countries and states, false documents, conventional weaponry and evil imaginations. It is reasonable to increase security around transportation hubs and entertainment venues. It is unreasonable to exclude desperate people from our great state based on their country of origin. Multiple acts of terrorism have been committed this year in our country by white men with guns, and no such panic has gripped our people.

hkscc2wAs we wrestle with these decisions, the main group of people under consideration here is the citizens of Georgia. Twenty-something tornado seasons have taught me that Georgians are not a people given to panic. We are a courageous, resilient, and occasionally even belligerent lot, and we will not be cowed by the tactics of extremists. We choose to follow the example of our own Dr. King by driving out hatred with love. We do not choose the hollow and pretended “empathy” referred to in your letter to President Obama. “Empathy” is a transliteration of the Greek word for compassion; both words literally mean suffering with. If taking risks and sharing the blessings of our rapidly growing economy (or as you prefer to say, our “valuable limited resources”) constitutes suffering, these are things we are willing to do for the sake of mitigating the horrendous pain of our fellow human beings. Courage means doing the hard thing, and we are prepared to meet that challenge.

The Georgia I know is a place of abundance. We have found room for more and more as our population has boomed in recent decades. We are proud that we have an abundance of human and natural resources to share. Do you wish to imply that, under your administration, it is a place of scarcity?


Amicalola State Park

The Georgia I know is a place of faith. It is 79% Christian, and the Christian faith tells us undeniably to welcome the stranger. Our faith – our God – absolutely requires that we act with generosity and love towards friends, foreigners, and enemies alike. We will not live like those who have no hope nor like those who believe God deals only in afterlives. We choose love for others and trust in God; we choose them tangibly, and we choose them now. We welcome the hurting and make space for their healing, terrorists be damned.

The Georgia I know, Governor Deal, is absolutely misrepresented by your actions today. We are famous throughout the world for our hospitality, and you panic-driven knee-jerk reaction to others’ tragedies is an insult to my home and my Mama’s pecan pie. This is a matter for hard thought, prayer, and democratic debate, not for bull-headed executive orders and absurd harassment of our Syrian neighbors trying to reclaim a single normal day while they still live. The Southern way is to greet guests as precious gifts, not as liabilities. The people of your state demand that we be allowed to lead this country in offering a place of rest to refugees, rather than cowering in our corner and succumbing to suspicion and hatred as our enemies hope we will do.

The final character, Mr. Deal, is you. Some sweet old church ladies taught me that what goes around, comes around. Georgia stands for warmth, hospitality, civil rights, and plain old faith. What do you stand for? From here it seems you act out of reactionary panic or political opportunism. Be bigger than your actions today.

With all my kudzu-covered heart,
Lyndsey Graves
Cumming, Georgia

This letter will be posted today in handwritten and printed form to Governor Deal’s Contact Form and to 
Office of the Governor
206 Washington Street
111 State Capitol
Atlanta, Georgia 30334

Please feel free to post this letter or any part of it with your own name and details to Governor Deal. You can also type a letter and have it mailed for you for free here.

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These rings

This ring still feels strange and a bit uncomfortable, a foreign object. So often, thinking about our future, I have semiconsciously scratched an itch on that fourth finger, yet the weight of it is still a new and unexpected thing. It’s silly, but I really did feel more like we were really engaged after the ring fit and was on me. The most valuable thing you’ve ever owned always glinting at you has a way of reminding you, of making you think.

I know that soon enough I’ll never notice this feeling; it will be like the high school ring on my right hand – also a gift someone sacrificed to put there. I’ve kept it on all this time because I loved my high school; I want to remember where I come from and the serious teenager I was. They are part of me. Now, soon enough, he will be part of me. We have promised to become a family.

wpid-img_20151010_203821615.jpgI asked him to marry me, too, and gave him a ring, too. I am proud that it fits and looks handsome on him even though I made it from a thousand miles away. He is hyperaware of his own ring, takes it off when he washes his hands. I like that we are both reminded, both taken, newly conscious, connected somehow by these gifts.

Dating is like one big question, a tightrope of opportunities to fall deeper into a harder, worthier love – and chances to say no. Always that possibility that someone might decide against forever, and the parts of you that have become intertwined will have to be slowly surgically extricated, or else shut up in a locked box labeled “past” that you hardly dare to open. But now we are preparing to cast our foolish lot with a promise that that will never happen, that the days of ‘no’ are behind us. I am glad, in the end, that the months before this moment saw me air a lot of fears, for I know now that I am sure. And I am glad that when the time came, it got to be both of us; we said yes.

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