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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zooming out

Or, Join Me in Big-Picture Abstract-Land, Where I Always Have One Foot Anyway.

This week’s blog series about work has been my final project for a class, in lieu of a research paper. I had a few research ideas, but I felt restless about settling down to dig deep into one (which is really unusual for me), and I wanted so much to talk about this down-to-earth subject in a more down-to-earth way. As a bunch of individual posts, they’re fine, but as a series and as a final project I still feel a bit of a need to defend my scattershot approach and connect them all here.

Most basically, I wanted to throw out some ideas in hopes of starting a conversation, from one angle or another, about the meaning of work for Christians. Work is one of those subjects that can reveal on the ground what we really believe about things like money, time, community, inequality, the value of culture, the value of humans, what we should and shouldn’t make sacrifices for as individuals and as societies. Whether we’re talking labor politics, employing a lawnmowing kid or a church staff member, choosing whether to accept extra hours or promotions at our own jobs, debating the value of a college degree, making a meal for a new mother, or contemplating retirement, we take all sorts of our own values, needs, and desires into account along with cultural realities and assumptions. But work is such a pervasive part of life, our attitudes about it so inherited and enmeshed, we rarely take a step back to look at those premises: what is an acceptable amount of vacation time, after all? What do I mean when I say “the satisfaction of a job well done?” What makes my own time worth the amount I’m paid for it? Why do we pay people like childcare and hospice workers – the people to whom we entrust our most precious and vulnerable loved ones – so very little for such exhausting and thankless work?

Personally, I suppose that in many ways the fascination goes back to my slightly defensive post about my own vocation to the Christian life. I still think that dithering about vocation with regards to career is mostly just a refuge for people overwhelmed by the privilege of having plenty of choices, causing them to miss the “Love God, Love your Neighbor” forest for the tiresome “But Who am I Really?” tree. But as much as I don’t want to take myself too seriously, I am still someone who does have all of these choices in things big (where to live) and small (which chocolate to buy), and I find I must take the choices seriously. My own life is so insistently intertwined with the rest of the world’s, the one choice that seems closed to me is indifference.

What I mean to say is that, amidst a larger unanswered question about the significance of my having money, choices, family, health where others don’t, the question of how to leverage these for love and for justice remains. Often I think I should become a subsistence farmer and stay, literally and figuratively, out of other people’s business. Other times I think I should go into politics or business and get myself allllllllll up in other people’s lives. Most of the time I think what I wrote in that post – that it’s important to live simply and love others and listen for the voice of God wherever I find myself. Perhaps some extraordinary call will come to me someday. Or perhaps I have already, unknowingly, done the most significant act of good I’ll ever do, something small that will have an undetectable butterfly effect of earth-shattering or earth-saving proportions.

In the meantime, I think my questions about work tend to distill down into a question that is at the heart of our understandings of justice and love, with regards to any issue: What is enough? With how much should one be content, rather than greedy; for how much should one be hopeful, even demanding, rather than complacent?

How many choices are enough? How much money is enough? How much leisure is enough? When is a job purposeful enough? And deep in my well-intentioned, needy beating heart: When have I done enough?

I think that God is enough. Really, I do, however silly and naive that may sound. I believe that God works miracles big and small, making profundity out of housework, making feasts out of loaves, making humble and generous believers out of Scrooges. And I believe that through Jesus Christ, God comforts the dead and the mourning, and makes all things new.

Yet God sees fit to make requirements of us. To do justice, paying employees a fair wage, removing ex-felons’ barriers to work, making possible the celebration of Sabbath for all. To love mercy, giving without question and assuming the best of even our enemies.

And to walk humbly. To take our Sabbath rest and learn again that we are not so important. To give thanks for what we have when we wish that it were more. To give thanks for what others have when it doesn’t seem fair. To work in the kitchen when we’d rather be up front, and to give our sermon or song when it would be easier to hide from criticism. Whatever our work is, day by day, to offer our best to God and be held by the knowledge that God treasures even gifts that seem small –

That is enough.

How to love your body – new thoughts

When everybody everywhere keeps trying to tell us that we should love ourselves and that “confidence is sexy” (while also trying to sell us false eyelashes and Emma Watson’s body), we end up feeling even more inadequate about being unconfident than if everyone had just left us alone with our sickening sense of regret over yesterday’s donut and today’s apparently-new extra chin. The best I come up with, some days, is a sort of resignation to my body, like I’d accidentally adopted an uncontrollable puppy I didn’t actually like but couldn’t really get rid of.

Loving my body some days honestly just sounds like a lot of work – and it is. It’s really hard, and it doesn’t sell much merchandise, which is why no one invests much into telling you how to do it. But it is important. It is a fight we owe to ourselves and the women around us. It might just be the first step in aging gracefully. It is worth it, I promise. And it gets easier over time.

babies can do it

Love your body as your self. Literally. Your body is yourself. You are not a “spiritual” being that belongs in some kind of Care-Bear-pastel, airy, non-concrete, limitless sky-self, who is accidentally trapped in a kind of yucky, small, flesh-case. This attitude (a real live heresy with many names) is the source of about a million problems Christianity has with itself, despite the writers of the Bible trying really, really hard to shut it down. It is also an incredibly prevalent idea in American culture – that the spirit or the mind is better and more important than the body. But the Hebrew Bible, in particular, lends itself much more to an interpretation that views the body as inseparable from the human person. Don’t let your “spirit” get abstracted from the beautiful, sensual earth you are a part of, and from the body God has promised to resurrect*. Paul, Peter, Jesus, a bunch of Church Fathers and Mothers and I are pleading with you.
*Yes, you are really stuck in it.

Dwell in God’s love for your body. This is not a silly or sinful thing to pray about. It is a cultural sickness. By all means, pray about it like you’d pray about contracting an epidemic. Ask God to show you God’s love for your body, for every bit of it which was formed with care and gentleness and delight. Keep this truth near to your heart, that God shaped your eyes and your curves and the back of your neck with immense fondness and love. Find a way to believe it. Find a way to look at yourself with God’s eyes. Put a reminder on the bathroom mirror for everyone who passes through.

Your body is not your enemy; it is your home. Your real enemy is a culture that tries to tell you you’re not good enough. What if you stopped fighting your body and started taking care of it the way you take care of your home? Snuggle into your body the way like it’s your favorite chair. What if getting dressed meant adorning your body for the simple pleasure of it, instead of feeling desperate to cover over all the “bad spots” and then trying to use your angry-eyes to laser-beam away that one spot of fat you especially loathe? Take joy in the creativity of getting dressed; let go of insecurity.

Make Peace. Turning your body from an enemy to a friend requires taking intentional action to change the way you see it. This is hard. This is super hard. For some people, this may be months-of-therapy hard. And, honestly, it never ends. I constantly have to remind myself that my love handles and my crappy joints and the right side of my face really mean well, and that I appreciate them for coming along on this ride*. But as long as you are treating parts of yourself with hatred and contempt and “torture” that will “blast” them into “horrible fat oblivion”, you are divided against yourself. I’m of the hippy-dippy school that thinks even the parts you still hope to change will be more apt to do so, once you’ve accepted them as they already are. If, when you’re being honest, you’d say “I love myself, except…”, then you need to keep making peace. Maybe you can’t love that one scar or your thighs right now. At least call a truce in the battle against them.
*Anne Lamott has a lovely/hilarious piece on this in Traveling Mercies – you can grab a copy here.

Still to come: some more day-to-day experiments and habits for learning to see ourselves new.

to love with a fury

“How does Alice feel about it?”
“Well… She knows she doesn’t have a choice.”

Everyone at the table agreed – it didn’t even have to be said – that this was good and right, that when your 15-year-old is losing her struggle with anorexia, she doesn’t have a choice. You don’t ask her whether she wants to get better; you ignore her protests that she’s not hurting anyone else. When you’ve tried everything else already, no one has a choice, you send her away where she doesn’t want to go and you pray she feels your love there, too.

If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be loving her fully. She’s right, she’s only hurting herself, and she may even believer herself happy or something like it. But the formula is simple in the end: the sick need a doctor, so love seeks healing, no compromise.

In the Bible, a recurring metaphor for sin is disease. Sin festers and burrows into its host until she is feeble, helpless, emaciated. She’ll never be whole without a healer. Yet we 21st century enlightened Christians don’t like the word “sin”, we’ll whisper and tiptoe around it or, at best, we’ll only point the scalpel of that label at our own actions – never someone else’s, we’d do anything to avoid black ugly condemnation. 

We do well to be on our guard against the yeast of the Pharisees. But when a fellow follower of Christ rebels in substance abuse, in sexual immorality, in gossip, is it right to let our brothers and sisters continue hurting themselves in the name of a generalized niceness we want to label “love”?

It’s not intolerant to remind someone what it means to follow a Savior they’ve already chosen, any more than it’s intolerant to shine a light in the darkness. But then again, are Christ’s moral imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount so very tolerant themselves? If there is no place for gentle correction of sin, we reduce those commands in all their concrete specificity, all their reality, all their difficult everydayness, to a pale catchall “love” that’s just a feeling of vague goodwill. We ask God to whisper Be Holy, for I Am Holy, embarrassed to think ourselves set apart.

I am a habitual dweller in gray spaces, and yet a believer in right and wrong. “Neither do I condemn you” and “Go and sin no more” cannot be separated, grace is both; holiness and love indeed the same but they are not vague or abstract. They are the purity of thought and screen, the slog of daily prayer, the speaking unfailingly well of others, these things we can’t pretend come naturally; we need each other’s help to pursue them. So holy love is the strong, firm, taking a brother aside – “You are ill” and “I will walk with you into healing”. Because that love does not wait for sin to prove itself destroyer; against the deceiver and accuser we bring truth and remembrance of who we really are. Love sometimes hurts, but it always protects with conviction deep as a marrow transplant.

Because sometimes there’s no choice.

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