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.


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.

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.

when you are too small for Aleppo

I feel weird sharing this, and I would feel weird not sharing this: I wrote two versions of my last post, about Aleppo, and they said nearly opposite things.

As I pondered Aleppo, I wondered, too, about all the war zones I don’t know about—the ones I don’t have the energy for. And my fingers flew off on something of a tangent that, in the end, I recognized as good and true but I also felt myself resisting. It was true for someone or sometime, but that night my own heart needed another cry. And that other cry is the one I published.

The first draft was for another me: the me who is so often overwhelmed by this world and so often unable to cope with her own small fears and wounds, who would be drowned so easily by it all if there weren’t grace for her, too. Although this week my own call was to pay attention, keep vigil here for Aleppo, just as often, I learn that my calling is to let it be; it is held. I hesitate to say this is a balance; that sounds like a skill you could develop or a decision you could make using a flow chart. Finding a place between a compassion that stretches you, and an acceptance of your own finitude even in this regard, and then again the knowledge that God calls us sometimes to a compassion that breaks—this is the work of the Spirit. It is a mystery, not a balance.

It can be true that we have a responsibility to lament and, at the same time, that you have a responsibility to rest, or to lament for something closer to home, or to hold those who lament. If Aleppo, so far away and so unbearable, is too much for you to hold this week, here is your permission to unfollow.

Our technologies push us beyond our limits in countless ways, but for some of us, this is the most persistently bewildering. It is beyond us to process a new disaster every week and every day, to carry news of this civil war and that kidnapping, this famine and that drug war, let alone the occasional reminders that refugee camps, climate disasters, human enslavement, utter poverty grind on and on every day, far from the front page. No one could respond appropriately to any one of these things over any course of time, but they appear, rapid-fire, in our feeds. We breathe prayers and give a few dollars and we feel that it is nothing, and it is nothing, and we flick the thing away before it drowns us in despair.

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. 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.

You are small, faithful one, and grace frees you to admit that. You are allowed to breathe prayers and give a few dollars and return to the work you are doing in your own heart, in your own neighborhood, in your own state. Yes, it is enough to send a letter to your Congressperson advocating for refugee resettlement the United States. Yes, it is enough to light a candle. Yes, it is enough to lament. Yes, it is enough to feed your neighbor or to have sent all your money to last week’s cause, because anything but paralysis pushes back the darkness. If you are asking the question, then it is enough. If you are open to the voice of the Spirit, then you will know when it is your day to mourn for strangers. If you are faithful to your own daily work, then you will have made room for God to do God’s work.

Look, friend, before we were connected by the lights and bytes zinging around the globe, we were connected to each other by the dust from which we were formed. Scientists are just discovering what Jesus had told us all along: that nothing exists apart from the webs of life that enfold and ground it. To say your actions in Tennessee affect people’s lives in Syria is not simply a metaphor. And the more we learn about the problems of the world, the more we see that this is true: the destruction of the planet is the poverty of its poorest is the violence of its most desperate is the indifference and isolation of its wealthy. It feels like bad news, that no single problem has a single solution in this weary world. But if all of our problems are connected, then all the solutions are, too. Your own generosity and patience and peace are the restoration of something and a saving grace to someone else. They are miracles, they are ripples in a pond, they are the very most raw materials of the Spirit’s transforming work in the whole earth.

You will know the people, places, and politics to which you are called. Some of us are keeping vigil for Aleppo, fighting for local food, and holding potlucks for our neighbors. Maybe you sacrifice for other things. These are all simply offerings to One who gathers them together, breaks them, and by a miracle feeds a hungry world. He holds it without your help, and he holds you without any anger at your smallness. Let it be. It is beyond you. He weeps for all that you cannot.

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.

when singing is hard


photo: Ben White

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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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.


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.

to my friend, who is coming out

I sent this letter to my friend about a week before the DOMA decision came down. In the week or so since I have had the go-ahead to publish it, I’ve kept it close, hoping I had the right motives, and wondering what friends – in all parts of the country and the political/religious spectrum – would think of it. In the end, I cannot do very much to determine whether you read this post with grace. I only know that I do not want my friend to be alone anymore.

I lit a blue candle for you at an interfaith Pride service last week. I needed to pray with my body.

It wouldn’t have been the place for you in some ways, with vague references to a benign force, possibly named God, who seemed mostly to exist to affirm US and our IDENTITIES and our PRIDE! I thought of you and me, iron sharpening iron, trying to learn from one another the passé art of humility.

But in some ways, it was beautiful, complex, justice-seeking and, so important, safe and affirming. And so I wished you were there.

Because you are coming out, and though this will not subsume all your many other layers, it will be a turning point. It will shape the next episode of your becoming. It has already shaped mine. It will be hard for you, and I hope soon I can literally stand with you – and the multicolored family your lot has been thrown in with – and say you are loved. you are whole.

You are whole, and you are stronger than anyone could have known, and you are deep, wise, and gracious. That is why I can – and that is why I must – have my own baby-coming-out and say also, I support you.

What a silly thing to have to say to a friend. Even friends with troubles and strange opinions, I don’t tell them “I support them”. I love them, and I love you.

But, there it is anyway: I support you and I am glad for who you are. And I support whatever decisions you make. You are a good decision-maker.

I live in two places, and I live in between, and I live outside of both. I know, I really do, how it feels not to belong anywhere. We ended up in an American culture that is strangely intolerant of nuance and grace. If people think you are slightly wrong, they will let you know that you are very, fatally wrong. You and I have always occupied this inhospitable in-between, everyone thinking we are wrong, and this will not change for you. Not ever.

Because if you are celibate, many of the only people who know your struggle will turn on you. They will call you a sellout and a tease. They will tell you to go home to the Bible-thumpers.

And even though I know, between your beliefs and your personality, that your love life would be very, very far from the “promiscuous lifestyle” some would expect from you, it might not matter much; if you have a family, many of the people who claim to love you will still put sorrow in place of the joy they express for everyone else. They will call you a sinner and a destroyer. They will talk about you behind your back saying things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and commence hating the thing they just defined you by. They will tell you to go home to the gays.

Being who you are is not a sin.

Nothing that truly defines you is wrong.

I will not tell you what to do. I do not know what you and God have been saying to each other lately, or how you think about the Bible these days, or which parts of it the Spirit has brought out and said, these are for you. I only know that you follow Jesus with your own quiet intensity.

I do not know your dreams for a future love, or who you will fall in love with, or when, or what that will mean for you. I only know that you are special, and you could make someone else terribly happy, and loneliness is not a virtue.

I only know that you will always be family. Whatever you do will be hard in its own way, and I will do all that I can to make it easier. You know how I want to live in a commune? I will be neighbor. I will be aunt to your children.

Do I sound too much like a mother? I know this all comes from a place of great privilege. But all I know to do with privilege is to tell the world I don’t want it. We are all struck with equal, unpredictable, terrible force by genius and love, by disaster and disease. Why make it any harder on any specific group of people? The world is changing at a pace which, when we are truly honest, terrifies us all. Why blame others for our fear?

I write you a letter. I hope you do not feel used. I must admit that I see your face and speak to you, but imagine a great many others who might read this. Some will tell me that I must pick a side; that I must stand for The Family or for Progress, for Civil Rights or for The Bible. Perhaps only a few will understand the region, the culture, and the generation you and I share, which have complicated your past and your future so.

And that is why I will not pick a side. Because this is not an issue. This is not an abstract question of philosophy. This is your life, and I am on your side, and I cannot imagine what you have already experienced so how could I dare to try to convince you? We have talked about “the others like you” – stuck in these in-between spaces. They will not all agree. But I am on their side as well. I stand with you; with laws and attitudes and policies that free you to make your own decisions just as I do. Of course we all have responsibilities to ourselves, our partners, and our communities, to make decisions – sometimes hard decisions – about what it means to be our sexual selves. May we all do so with humility, with discipline, with the guidance of others, with our traditions and scriptures, with self-giving love for our partners, and above all, with hearts and bodies attuned to the winsome whispers of Holy Spirit.

I am very, very proud to know you. Maybe that is what Pride means to me; not that we use our own pride to prop ourselves up, like cardboard cutouts pretending to be autonomous, but that we learn to see all that is extraordinary about each other’s stutter-steps toward life, toward humanity. Remember, when your struggle becomes monotonous and it feels like a children’s book or a farce, that your story will always read to me like an epic.

May you, gay, truly yourself and vulnerable before the world, find yourself surrounded by all the love and grace and acceptance that you, hiding, “straight”, have found in all the pockets of Christ’s kingdom where you’ve nestled. May you always find a way into messy family, mysterious Church, into all-loving triune God.


when more is not enough

“The economics that Christian hospitality seeks to embody, then, is marked by abundance, surplus, excess, and surprise.”
-Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality

Abundance! Surplus! Excess! Surprise! You could make a song of it; the list rolls off the tongue with ease. It sounds beautiful and hopeful and you want to rush out and invite everyone to a feast.

Maybe you start a food pantry, and you say you have faith that God will provide the plenty. You stock your shelves, open the doors, and prepare to welcome God’s precious children with a smile.

And then an ocean of need crashes in and floods your little store room of food. God’s precious romanticized children are just as broken and ugly as you are, and as you stand exhausted in the quickly-empty closet all your faith looks like wishful thinking; you discover that plenty is an illusion and there will never, ever be enough.

What is enough?

All the nonprofits, all the discussions about poverty, we talk about getting the poor to be like us. If only they could join The Middle Class, we say, then we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about them; then they would have a future; then they would have enough.

All the world worships the middle class, don’t they? Politicians wouldn’t dare not to pay homage. Sitcoms about normal life take place in the suburbs. Advertisers and credit cards offer sacrifices to anyone with just enough to consume a little thoughtlessly. And that is, indeed, how we identify them, the successful-enough, the middle class: by what they consume.

Why, then, the indignation when food pantry clients show off brand-new Nikes? Why act surprised when food stamp dollars go to expensive Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, when Tide becomes a street currency, when too-new cars park outside the Near East Side’s dilapidated rental units?

These are the markers of success. Of enough.

Meanwhile the do-gooders, the nonprofits, the bleeding hearts, the Church, and I rush to give people more, more, more. If only they had more, we think, they would have happier families, healthier bodies, they would leave the gangs and get savings accounts. Then they could get all the things that I can get.

But it is a pipe dream. We are standing in empty closets. There is never more; always scarcity. We despair.

I submit, though, that we despair only because we base our assessment of human well-being on market assumptions. We believe a certain amount of money is necessary for happiness, for freedom, for healthy families and healthy bodies, for virtues like hospitality and generosity and patience, and even for the “luxury” of seeking God. And we believe we are better off the more we are able to consume.

Click through to the story

Beans in a Ugandan offering plate. Photo by Ann Voskamp

The question remains. How much money is really enough money?
Enough to live on. Enough for rent and blankets and rice, beans, seasonal vegetables and the occasional can of tuna fish. That is more than billions have.

My food stamps, though they are labeled “supplemental assistance,” have been quite sufficient. They are enough for someone to eat a healthy variety who knows how to cook and how to shop. So which empowers the poor more – to dole out more money for frozen chicken nuggets at $8/pound, or to teach someone to make a simple chicken stir-fry for themselves at a fraction of the cost? Why are dollars for convenience foods a human right, but not the satisfaction of creating something from scratch? Why not the meditative rhythm of cooking, that ancient human act? Why not food that is made from food that is made from earth, rather than food made in laboratories?

Of course it is easier to hike up the payments than to teach such skills and hope for such intangible goods. Of course, if you ask them, people will grab for the money in a culture where consumption constitutes the good life.

We think we are countering that culture when we ask the middle class to give to the poor. But too often we are only operating from within, and perpetuating, the myth that money can solve any problem.

We will only counter that culture when we look at what we have and declare it enough! We will never discover abundance until we reach for contentment. We have taken on the wrong assignment if we count success as satisfying consumers before making disciples. And we are guilty of a deadly pride if we think only the bourgeois should be generous, contented, joyful people.

When we burst out thanksgiving over all that is already here, when we delight in the boxes of pasta before us, when we learn to celebrate every moment, every day that the Lord has made; and when we carry burdens for one another, when we give ourselves – not just our tithes – when we cherish one another as family and forget we could ever ask for anything more. That will be God’s kingdom coming, God’s people feasting, all giving, receiving, teaching, learning in a rhythm of shared contentment.

There is an abundance of food in the pantry, if none take more than they need.

There is a surplus of opportunities to help others.

There is an excess of God’s grace and sustaining power for the hurting and the weary.

And the surprise is there’s no income threshold for learning, believing, and living in the hospitality of God.

Joining with The Despised Ones for a synchroblog: Justice, Solidarity, and the American Dream.

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