Family Politics

In a recent phone conversation, I proudly told my dad about my first book contract, which followed three years of hard work. “That’s great!” he said. “What’s it about?”

Sheepishly, I responded, “Well, it’s called Ten Risks Privileged People Should Take.”

“Just so you know,” he said, “I would not buy that book with that title.” He launched into an explanation of why, in his view, privilege doesn’t exist.

As usual, I cut him off. “Well, the book’s not for you. It’s not for people who voted for Trump! It’s for people who actually want to do some good in the world!” We ended the call in a huff.

My family’s failure to respectfully talk politics is hardly unique. Family ties add extra pressure to political conversations because everything the other person says feels so personal, even when it’s not.

Read the rest of my article Family Politics: A liberal daughter discusses White privilege with her conservative dad here at The Christian Century.

Teaching Empathy during COVID

Empathy is a trait that serves us all, especially during a public health crisis.

All around the country, school boards are struggling with decisions on how to best educate our children through a public health crisis. Our family, my husband and I and our two kids, attended a recent school board meeting where it would be decided whether our school would continue in a hybrid model or return to full capacity classes.

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Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

When we arrived at the meeting, there were already about thirty parents there, some not wearing masks. My husband and I brought our kids because we both planned to speak. We hadn’t hired a babysitter since COVID hit last March and didn’t want to leave our kids home alone.

More parents arrived, pushing the room capacity to well above fifty. All the chairs, spaced six feet apart, were filled. So people started to line the walls or gather in the back. The air in the room was tense. At the last meeting where this decision was discussed parents argued angrily for full capacity and criticized teachers and administrators for taking “virtual vacations.” Even more parents packed this meeting hoping to convince the board that our kids needed to be in school full time. My husband and I were in the minority favoring a hybrid model that we believed was safer for all involved.

The President of the Board made an announcement asking everyone to abide by the school’s policy to wear a mask. Only a few refused. But after the meeting was called to order, the board needed to conduct some business in closed session. When they left the room, many of the parents removed their masks or lowered them to their chins to talk and laugh with neighbors. My 11-year-old daughter turned to me to ask, “Mommy, why aren’t they wearing their masks?”

Read the rest of my post here on Medium.

Book Review: Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints

I’d heard of Daneen Akers’s new book, Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints in a Facebook Writer’s Group. So I was excited to get the chance to review the book through the Speakeasy network.

When I received the book in the mail, I was struck by how large it is. This is a beautiful 8 x 10 hardback storybook…with a red ribbon attached to mark your place! Clearly, this book project was born of love. The artwork is also beautiful and represents the diversity of God’s people.

In the preface, Akers reveals the need she seeks to meet with this book of unconventional saints:

Most faith-based books aimed at families and children are fundamentalist in their worldview without any room for questions or diversity of faith. For too long, many Christian children’s book publishers have printed books that only show a very narrow type of Christianity. These books often exclude the stories of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, disabled people, Indigenous people, and people from other faiths. This is especially true of books past the picture book stage of reading.

I’m slowly making my way through the book, but you can expect to read about some familiar people such as Francis of Assisi, Fred Rogers, Harriet Tubman and Thich Nhat Hanh. But you’ll also read stories about Bayard Rustin, the lesser known civil rights leader who was one of Martin Luther King’s most trusted advisors, Alice Paul, a suffragette who led the protests that eventually won women the right to vote, Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest and the father of liberation theology, Paula Stone Williams, who was raised in a conservative Christian church but came out as transgender late in life to found her own church and fight for gender equity and LGBTQ inclusion, Ani Zonneveld a progressive Muslim and female imam, and Valerie Kaur, a Sikh American activist calling for “Revolutionary Love” after her uncle was murdered in a hate crime.

In a book such as this, the choice of which unconventional saints to include would be incredibly difficult. That said, I questioned a few of the choices. But overall, this is a beautiful and much-needed book that I will encourage my children to read. We need more models of “Holy Troublemakers” in our world today and more books that reflect God’s inclusive love for all people.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

 

Book Review: Spiritual Truth in The Age of Fake News

I recently joined the Speakeasy blogging book review network because, well, I LOVE FREE BOOKS, and I’m interested in helping to promote books by women clergy and BIPOC.

Spiritual Truth in the Age of Fake News by Episcopal priest, Elizabeth Geitz, was the first book I chose to review through this new network. Through a series of short, 1-2 page reflections, Geitz takes readers on a journey through the bible, lifting up passages that aren’t often recognized and interpretations that aren’t often offered on subjects such as feminine imagery, sexism, racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism. I was aware of most of these passages and interpretations already, but Geitz happily surprised me with some new insights and her writing is beautiful. This is definitely a book I will recommend to a college student who does not know there are feminine images of God in the bible or someone who believes “homosexuality is a sin” just because “the bible says so” (without really knowing what the bible says.)

My only critique is that the book’s reflections didn’t go deep enough for me. But that’s probably just me. It would serve the reader well who is looking for short, devotional-style reading that will open their mind to progressive interpretations of the bible that regrettably don’t often make it into mainstream Christianity. Other books should be read for further study and Geitz provides a thorough bibliography at the end.

Finally, I’d like to share this brief passage from the books epilogue because it beautifully captures the author’s biblical interpretation and intentions for the book.

Almost anything can be proven by quoting Scripture out of context. William Sloan Coffin wrote that those who do so are not biblical literalists, but selective literalists, who cite only those passages that confirm their belief or agenda.

Selective literalism has led to the abuse of using Scripture to proclaim women as inferior, promote slavery, condemn homosexuality, turn away the stranger, promote a culture of fear rather than love, and more. Selective literalism has become the fallback position for those who do not understand the depth and breadth of the biblical witness.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has stated, “Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of history is bent toward justice. And the parallel statement that I want to make is that the arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness…That’s the elemental conviction through which I then read the text.”

Disclaimer: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

Theater as a Resource for Ministry

More and more, I have been turning to theater to resource my ministry.

Before being cancelled by COVID-19, I had planned on students acting out a scene from “The Revolutionists” in our college’s Baccalaureate Service as a way to set up my sermon entitled, “No Time for Fiction or Fear”, playing off the last line of the scene, “Maybe real revolution doesn’t have time for either fiction or fear?” I have a feeling this play and this sermon will still be appropriate next May.

At the prison where I volunteer, we have used the play “Twelve Angry Men” to open up discussions on communication skills, emotional intelligence and the state of our criminal justice system.

In the book I am writing for Fortress Press on the risks privileged people should take, I will be citing Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” as a resource churches can use to practice activism.

So when I heard that my friend and writing coach, Allison K. Williams, had published a play for high schoolers entitled, “The Next Horseman: A comedy play script for video chat”, I had to buy a copy. I’ve always admired Allison’s knack for humor writing, and The Next Horseman did not disappoint. The concept for the story is hilarious in itself. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are ready to fire Pestilence. His evaluation shows he’s not taken out enough people and the other horsemen are ready to move on. Lots of other frightening candidates line up, eager to interview for the job—Extortion, Internet Trolling, Human Trafficking, Bigotry, Inequality, Mosquitos, Mansplaining and Climate Change.

Reading through this play, it’s obvious young people would love it. There’s lots of gross humor that they would have fun acting out. Famine is always snacking on something disgusting and even licks food straight off her desk. Pestilence sneezes into his open hand, examines the output, then wipes his hand on his own shoulder. Ewww!!! Reading through the play during youth group or Sunday School would be a hit and would be a great kick off to a study of Revelation.

There were a few moments in the play where the dark humor crossed a line into too dark for me. I’d edit out or soften the lines about Human Trafficking if I were using this play with youth. So be sure to read through the whole play before acting it out.

On the other hand, I see the play successfully introducing other dark topics that would open up further, positive conversation. For instance, this dialogue between Death (the leader of the horsemen) and Inequality (interviewing for the job):

Inequality is called in for the interview.
Inequality: Yes? I’m going to need a company laptop, a wardrobe allowance, and my own assistant.
Death: I’m afraid we don’t usually—
Inequality: And a salary 50% higher than anyone else in the same job.
Death: But you have identical qualifications.
Inequality: Well, if everyone else had the same thing, it wouldn’t be inequality anymore.
Famine (sets whipped-cream pie on desk): Sounds reasonable. Nothing better than the whole pie! (Begins eating pie face-first)
Pestilence: That’s all you’ve got? Inequality is so obvious! All you do is make unfair things sound reasonable. Any idiot can defeat Inequality if they put some effort into it. It’s just reverse envy.
Inequality: Like reverse racism?
Pestilence: That’s not a thing!
Inequality: Whoa, calm down there, nobody’s going to listen if you’re yelling.

Unpack just this one scene with youth and you’ve got hours of conversation about salary inequities, greed, racism, reverse racism, and tone-policing. Because it reads fast, is fun and can even be done via Zoom, I’d even use this play with my college students. A great resource!

Why is dystopian fiction a comfort right now?

I just finished reading Ling Ma’s novel Severance published in 2018. It blew my mind. Here’s a quick synopsis: Shen Fever, a virus originating in China, has spread globally and shut down the world. A small group of survivors find each other, including the main character Candace Chen. They hole up in an abandoned mall as their new home. Of course, the leader of this small band of survivors, Bob, is religious and controlling. (Why do cults always arise in dystopian novels? Station Eleven also had a cult plot woven into it.) So Candace eventually needs to escape.

Any of this sound familiar?

This was one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Ling Ma’s prose is sparse and satirical. She is successfully humorous while also providing social commentary on life in New York City, office politics, capitalism, youthful idealism, and immigrant life in America. This book spoke so eerily well into today’s world and today’s global pandemic that it was impossible to put down. The only thing missing was the racial repercussions I assumed Candace Chen would experience as a Chinese American with the virus originating in China. That plot line never arose.

Finishing Severance led me searching for a review I remembered Amy Frykholm wrote for the Christian Century. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say about the dystopian novel The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.

The delight I experienced in reading this book needs further interrogation, however, because these stories deal relentlessly with dark subjects: debilitating disease, child abandonment, child pornography, and the legacy of the cold war.

But gradually it dawned on me that the picture of human nature Johnson paints is weirdly optimistic. In these stories the human heart often acts against the narrator’s wishes, leading a contorted person on a straighter path than he or she could have created—a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

It’s not that there are happy endings. But even amidst death and torture one can say, tentatively, if one has been able to stay with the dark scenario, that love wins out.

I think the reason dystopian fiction can comfort us in dark times is that these stories often call us back, as readers, to what is most precious about life. When everything is gone, to what do you cling? In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it was the relationship between a father and his son. In Severance, it is also a moral claim for love and relationships in spite of all the odds.

Maybe reading Severance made me feel better because I could simply say to myself, “Well, at least things aren’t THAT bad yet.”  But like Frykholm wisely noted in her book review, there’s more. In the midst of global pandemics, shit gets real and we are called to an optimistic hope that, in the end, love still remains.

The Overstory: A Brief Book Review

I just finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. Let me tell you about it. Let me tell you how it helped.

I’d been reading a lot of non-fiction for a larger writing project; bell hooks on teaching and community building; Gloria Ansaldúa’s Borderlands; Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here?; Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. You get the drift. I was plowing through books—great books—learning and growing.

But when COVID-19 arrived on the scene, sending my college students home and shutting down my state, I got distracted. I couldn’t focus. All I could do watch the news and worry—about my family, about our college, about the men I have come to know at our local prison.  I tried to keep reading, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the page. I decided I needed to lose myself in fiction.

The Overstory is a big book—500 pages big. And sometimes I struggle to make it through big books. But this one captured me right away. While perusing many great options, I decided to read this book because it had won a Pulitzer and because I it was about trees. I love trees.

The story follows a handful of people whose lives intersect as each gets involved in saving trees (and the planet) from destructive human greed and overconsumption. The way Richard Powers introduces each character and then follows them through their story reminded me of the structure of one of my all-time favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The trees themselves are characters in The Overstory; planted on a newly settled farm in Iowa, a chestnut tree’s growth is recorded with a monthly photograph by generations of family farmers; Mimas, a giant redwood, serves as a host to activists who climb and take shifts living in its branches for months to save it from loggers. The trees, we learn in The Overstory, communicate with each other and with us. They care for and protect and continue in the face of threats. But humans are the trees greatest threat—and, as the story goes, the greatest threat to ourselves as well.

Reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic turned me towards the world, especially the natural world, with fresh eyes. When toilet paper and Clorox bleach and my kids favorite fizzy juice drinks can’t be found in the stores, I’m learning to make do with less and appreciating what I have more. I’ve been taking long walks and spending time in my own backyard. Our trees are beautiful. I’m learning their names: birch, pear, silver maple. I’m regaining my focus—not so much on what threatens us, but on what can save us. The answers to our problems are all around us. I hear them especially at night when I walk outside and listen to the prairie wind stir the crowns of the trees.

 

 

 

Traveling

” A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.”

These are the words of a tree in Richard Powers’ beautiful novel, The Overstory.  The story reveals how trees communicate with us and create community, supporting each other wherever they are planted. It’s a story that is giving me hope in these days of COVID-19 social isolation.

It gives me hope as I worry about the incarcerated men who have participated in our book clubs. I imagine them in their cells, living for a month now in lockdown, traveling in the freedom of their minds wherever their imagination can take them. I pray their imagination takes them to beautiful green spaces, full of trees that call them by name and seek to commune with them and support them.

It gives me hope as I reflect on the ways I am currently seeking and valuing community now more than ever. I could do without the grief and anxiety of a global pandemic, but I am grateful for the lessons I am learning: lessons about how to better conserve food and household resources, lessons about what work matters most and what can be let go, lessons about our interdependence as humanity, lessons about how our care for creatures and creation profoundly affects our human lives.

We are all holding physically still in this moment. And yet we can travel everywhere in hope and prayer and imagination. I pray for us to imagine beauty and supportive community. I pray we live into what we imagine for the sake of God’s creation.

[Photo Credit: Gordon Wrigley]

Called to Joy: A Christmas Sermon


Based on Luke 2: 1-14


I might complain (just a little bit) to my pastor friends who serve churches that Christmas, at Monmouth College, comes on December 7th—which means I have to start listening to Christmas music mid-November to prepare myself and my message. There is no Advent in academia, no expectant season of waiting and spiritual preparation.

This year, though, I’m not complaining. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

In my message last year, I prayed to God to save us from the darkness which I described as a nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading. Obviously, I’m still praying that prayer.

This year, though, the angels have turned me to joy.

In Luke chapter 2, when the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”, they do not do so in a time when joy is easy to be found, or to a people whose lives naturally spark joy. The shepherds, whom the angels address, are the poor day laborers, the Unseen, the field workers like those bringing in the harvest here in rural Illinois no matter the weather. As I drive by these field workers in rain, sleet and Halloween snowstorms, with my car heater blaring I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. These workers, I imagine, do not rejoice in the labor, as much as what the labor provides—food, shelter, a livelihood for the family they love.

It is to these—these head-down, hard-working, don’t-stop-to-think-about-your-life-or-your-life-will-overwhelm-you— that the angels call to joy—great joy, in fact; life changing, necessary joy.

The poet Christian Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[1]

I often counsel people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy as they observe the day’s sunset, or listen to their children’s laughter, or receive their spouse’s embrace, or witness a stranger’s random act of kindness.  Seek joy, I advise them, not to demean or downplay their darkness but to help them find their way through it. Joy can serve as a buoy when life’s storms overwhelm; moments of joy are stepping-stones through the darkness and despair.

Perhaps you have come here tonight, to Christmas at Monmouth, seeking such an inoculation of joy—a decision the angels would approve of. Because here among the music, and the beauty, and the love and pride we feel for our students who have worked so hard to pull all this off, the world’s problems do not feel so heavy, or so insurmountable.

We need this. We need the good news of a baby born to turn an oppressive human empire on its head; we need the good news that there is a power greater than human greed and immorality; we need the good news that the arc of the universe bends towards justice; we need to hear Luke’s angels proclaim that this Christmas there is good news of great joy for all the people.

We need this joy not only as an inoculation against the darkness and despair but also as a way to resist it.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes:

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Joy resists injustice; joy resists despair and hopelessness; joy resists evil by refusing to acquiesce or accept that darkness is the more powerful reality. The angels call a poor, oppressed people to joy so that they can resist the ruthlessness of their world.

Recently, I was introduced to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam felt a moral responsibility to write poetry for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900’s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He resisted by writing poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable. Mandelstam also wrote a poem mocking Stalin, which got him arrested, exiled and eventually killed.

In this Russian context, Mandelstam’s poems weren’t written down—they were too momentous, too truthful. He composed in his head while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, reciting his memorized poems to his wife, who memorized them herself and only decades later, after Mandelstam’s death, wrote them down.

Even after he was arrested and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet, still he resisted the darkness. The last poem he wrote before his death was this, called “And I Was Alive.”[2]

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Embrace the joy the angels proclaim. Rejoice in the hope God provides.

 

 

 

[1] Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, 2017

[2] Read more about Osip Mandelstam in Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction to “Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam” and Christian Wiman’s interview here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/and-i-was-alive/

[Feature Image: Drew Selby]