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.


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.


the duty of delight*

Ah, Easter. With Boston’s highs in the low 40s all week we will declare it springtime anyway; eat silly amounts of chocolate fertility symbols; and rediscover that magical time when overinvested liturgical types go around reminding everyone that Easter is not a day but a season of fifty days – then forget all about Eastertide by day fifteen.

Of course they have a point. Even a lot of evangelicals these days put so much effort into Lent: Ash Wednesday, the fasting, Lenten devotional booklets of all sorts, then the reenactment of the Holy Week drama. It is a marathon – a good, edifying, strengthening marathon – of piety. We excuse ourselves from the effort of celebration now that we’ve finished the hard part. The only thing we know how to celebrate for weeks at a time is the World Cup or maybe the Olympics, and we only muster the energy for that every four years – with a good couple of months’ buffer after the exhaustion of Lent.

wpid-wp-1428428218809.jpegBut Lent is supposed to be a season of preparation, so what is it preparing us for? One day of pastel dresses and ham and potatoes? Relief that we’ve taken care of that religious stuff? Business as usual?

We need a better theology of celebration. Once upon a time I was shocked to read this passage in Deuteronomy 14:
“22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.

28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

Who has ever even considered spending a tenth of their salary on strong drink for a pilgrimage-party nearly every year? Maybe a few times in your life you’ll spend that much on a wedding (whole ‘nother post) or really special vacation. But there it is, kind of overshadowing the “provide for the priests and the poor” bit: a commandment to the Israelites to take a portion of their harvest, not to save and scrimp and dither about spending wisely, but to celebrate extravagantly. This is not a passage on all things in moderation. It’s about a cycle of fasting (storing provisions for the poor) and feasting (oxen and rejoicing). Neither is complete without the other.

The circles I run in tend to be pretty big on “fasting from yourself”. There are the wild-eyed “Radical” evangelical Shane Claiborne types, the remember-your-sin borderline guilty types, the social gospel types, the conspiracy-theorist anti-corporation homesteader types. I love all of these people dearly, identify with all of them at times, have (literally) preached the fasting message against selfishness and consumerism from Tennessee to New York. But fasting doesn’t have to be the dour, self-righteous thing it turns into. Because it turns into a comparison thing, a guilty thing, a never-enough thing.

How often, too, have I heard Philippians 4 preached – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” – in a tone that manages to be vaguely threatening? Something along the lines of, “If you’re not joyful, you should probably check in with the Lord to see if your relationship is really as OK as you think it is… just saying…” The excitement  that that exclamation point is trying to convey (because it practically jumps off the page in Greek) turns into this bizarre guilt trip encouraging everyone to hide all their negative feelings next time they come to church.

But Paul didn’t mean for this to be a hyperspiritualized litmus test of faith any more than Deuteronomy tells the nation of Israel to only spend their tithe-pilgrimage-money on really holy stuff. I think God commands God’s people to celebrate because we are so prone to forget that religion is not just about self-denial. And because, to be honest, it is a bit of a burden to celebrate really well (the baking! the family!). But the even bigger point about the whole cycle of fasting and feasting is this: as the literal and figurative seasons of life turn around us, God provides enough for everyone if we would only accept our duties to receive and our duties to give. This world, properly seen, is a world of abundance and grace and rain that falls on the just and the unjust. There is much to be thankful for even in the fasting times; and in the times of feasting, an overwhelming bounty of thanks to be given. The feast does not betray the fast; only to snub the feast, to refuse to share and rejoice in the lavishness, would be to betray the spirit of the fast. Denying yourself does not end in reflecting on how you can never do enough for the poor or whatever; it culminates in the dawn when Jesus has done it, the absurd hope we have that even death cannot put an end to the great gifts of a God who multiplies loaves, forgives sins, places the lonely in families, who never runs out and isn’t afraid and woke us up again this morning.

When we skip the outrageous-grace-party half of the cycle, we accidentally wind up like the disciples, pinching pennies and disapproving of wasted perfume. But when we embrace it, we live into a new world – proclaiming that we are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Nate is sending me a new classical music piece to listen to every day, and we he is building and planting a garden as I finish up a lot of writing this month. Other ideas for how to celebrate?

* with apologies to Dorothy Day and Fr. Greg Boyle.

On smartphones: an excursus on coffee

I harbor a deep and abiding hatred for Keurig coffee brewers – the devices that deliver a single fresh-brewed cup of coffee in about a minute with the push of a button. To the many devotees of the Keurig whom I know, this confession may come as a bit of a personal affront; why, they might demand, should I expend precious energy resenting a machine that can perform such a miracle? As several of them quite sensibly said, when the coffeemakers first came out and I first began ranting about them: “Don’t get one then.”

My irritation, though, was not only with the sighs of neeeeed inspired by the coffeemakers in people who, weeks or months earlier, had been quite content not to own a thing they hadn’t imagined existed. Nor was it only with the inferior (but outrageously expensive) coffee produced, the bizarre noises that seem to be necessary for the Jetsons-like effect of the process, or the ecological disaster that is the unrecyclable K-cup. Rather, I have come to realize what my initially almost-unexplainable discomfort with the Keurig’s popularity really reveals: the Keurig, like any tool or technology, is the physical instantiation of a whole mess of assumptions. In this case, they’re assumptions about machines, about humans, and even about coffee which, to my mind, make the Keurig the culmination of the entire phenomenon called “late modernity”. Here are a few of them:

A machine should be designed to look nice and perform efficiently, not to perform well or to be easily understood and repaired. Watching a Keurig make coffee for the first time has an awe-inspiring effect precisely because we do not know how it works – and we do not want to know. In late modernity, we prefer and expect that our machines will work magic for us using mechanisms that are completely hidden, and would be inscrutable to us if they were not. In place of concern for whether a thing is well-made or even useful we have taken up an obsession with surfaces and “design” as exemplified by the impeccable tastemaking of Apple, Inc.

Individuals can and should expect to be able to choose between many options at any given time. The Keurig user never again has to share a pot of coffee with that one colleague who makes it way too strong. In fact, the brewer can be used to make any number of hot drinks: mediocre coffee, mediocre tea, mediocre cider, and mediocre hot chocolate can all be yours. Nor must anyone ever feel silly again, trying to make one cup of coffee in a large drip coffeemaker when she is the only one at the breakfast table. A large, shareable pot of coffee is really rather undesirable when everyone has her own preferences, schedule, and needs. I have been to a catered dinner where a line snaked around the room as an attendant made one cup of coffee at a time in an effort to offer more drink choices (at the expense of time for convivial conversation over dessert).

The laws of physics should be manipulated to minimize wait time. To make a good cup of coffee requires a certain (rather small) number of minutes which we refuse to acknowledge we “have”. We prefer to make a terrible cup of coffee by blasting hot water through a plastic capsule of powder. The value of technology is in speeding things up, not in making them “better”. Things can always be faster.

Throwing things away is preferable to cleaning them. From start to finish, the Keurig hides those pesky coffee grounds from us, containing them so there is no measuring, no spilling, and no ugly waste (that we can see). Compared with the value of being protected from our own waste and saving the time required to clean anything, the cosmic demerits of throwing out an impenetrable plastic capsule are immaterial. In fact, we have come to expect this of ourselves: “In the ‘nowist’ life of the denizens of the consumerist era, the motive to hurry is partly the urge to acquire and collect. But the most pressing need that makes haste truly imperative is nevertheless the necessity to discard and replace.” New moments, new desires, new opportunities require that we abandon anything old, bulky, or high-maintenance.

It does not matter where things come from. The powders in K-Cups bear only a glancing relationship to coffee beans, milk (for lattes), tea leaves, apples, or chocolate, but this is no matter. The authenticity of the ingredients or depth of flavor derived from “real” foods has little value compared with the ease of acquiring a similar, pale and limpid cup made from dried, processed, and imitation foods.

Coffee is a caffeine-delivery system. We don’t care much for the quality of our drink because the drink is only a means to an end. It is a surreptitiously-snatched “treat” to get us through an interminable day, or a substance we treat (with respect to caffeine) in a manner similar to abusers of wine, in Robert Capon’s estimation: “Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one’s system… With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation.” The addictive qualities of coffee, likewise, have come to overshadow the conviviality of the coffeehouse or the savored subtleties of flavor afforded by various growing regions and roasting methods, which historically made it so valuable. Demand for caffeine in coffee form has, in turn, driven prices down so that a labor-intensive luxury food has become a commonplace whose existence depends on the exploitation and degradation of workers who have, in all likelihood, never seen a Keurig.

By insisting that a machine for brewing coffee can have moral significance, I do not mean to condemn all instances of its use. It must be said that I harbor no animosity or ill-judgment towards Keurig users, and I readily acknowledge that certain situations or certain life patterns may make the Keurig a good choice of hot-drink-production apparatus. Moreover, like most people, I am quite willing to abandon all matters of principle in situations I consider dire, and will happily accept a cup of Keurig coffee on mornings when no other is available. I only wish to raise the point that it is worth asking questions before rushing to adopt an expensive space-age apparatus: What do we lose by being too busy for fresh-ground coffee from a drip machine or French press? Is the convenience of a K-Cup really worth the money ($40 a pound)? What exactly makes the Keurig so desirable, and what does that say about our way of life? And what is coffee really for? Though we have learned to regard everyday choices and the pursuit of real, full enjoyment as trivial, it might yet be important to return to Capon’s meditation on sin and human vocation:

“Wine is not – let me repeat – in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us…Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite taste of His decoration. Things, therefore, as things, are inseparable from God, as God… Poor earth, poor stars, poor flesh. Without a Giver, they never become themselves.”

By forever turning the ends of God’s good creation into means, by asking that machines hide work that can be enjoyably done by human hands, by prizing the choices of individuals over the complex rewards of sharing, does it not seem that we late moderns commit the sin of continually rejecting a priceless gift?

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.


Or, Stop Having Church Meetings On Sundays.

Y’all, I started this PE class on Wednesday called Total Body Conditioning, and it is as horrific as it sounds. After doing only twenty minutes of what’s normally going to be a 50-minute workout, I woke up wicked sore yesterday. Yes, wicked, like Boston is getting into me, and also like an evil witch cast a spell on me to make me wince with every move. A seven-hour catering shift (consisting mostly of speedwalking and carrying large stacks of dishes) followed on Thursday. Today, I can’t towel my hair or properly walk down the stairs.

click to buy this sweet hoodieAfter a month of sitting around, reading and eating cookies, I would like to tell myself that this pain is weakness leaving the body, or that the searing protests of every muscle are like the cleansing tears of a dragon, or some other such nonsense to make me feel cool for inflicting this upon myself. But in reality, I know that I passed that point a long time ago; now pain is just me being injured.

On my morning twitter-scroll today, I saw five different posts and links about busyness, exhaustion, and the need for rest. We are all in real pain when it comes to the drive to do too much, too fast, and yet we seem unable to get a handle on our own need for accomplishment or the pace of life in general. We just continue to tear ourselves down, long after such activity has actually been useful. We could blame this on all sorts of things, but it seems like the remedy should be simple: take a break. stop running. heal. Yet it is equally obvious why that seems so impossible; if life is frantic now, we reason, trying to cram everything into less time is the last thing anyone wants to do.

Abraham Heschel, a mid-20th century rabbi, framed this problem as a refusal to admit our finitude. We believe somehow that we will someday come to the end of our to-do list, that if we just keep trying we will exceed everything that needs doing. God gives us the Sabbath so that we can come to terms with our limits: “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day… must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and from the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is holy, set apart; it has been consecrated by God and is not subject to our approval. I have often heard the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy (which is repeated so very many times in the Hebrew Bible) reduced to an injunction to “incorporate the principle of rest into your life”. Heschel would adamantly refuse to accept this modification; “Observing the Sabbath”, he says, “is not only about refraining from work, but about creating menuha, a restfulness that is also a celebration.” He often describes this Sabbath celebration as a “glimpse of eternity”, which is hardly possible to see when one is snatching rest at odd intervals between other things we believe cannot wait.

Does this sound like legalism, to insist that people should really take a whole day and not “do” anything at risk of profaning the holy? Does it sound like some kind of busy-shaming? To fully answer that charge would take another post, but to sum up such a post I’d simply say this: we talk and talk and work at talking about “incorporating principles of rest”, but we appear to be failing miserably at actually finding the deep peace we seek. Might it not be a great relief to unshoulder the burden of figuring out “what works for me”? To accept one day of the week that, whatever the worries of my restless heart may be, my hands must remain idle and perhaps, in the space created not by me but by God, my spirit might follow into stillness.

To put it another way, Heschel implicitly asks us: what else are we even working for? The Sabbath is meant to be a day for living into the reality (for Christians, not for Heschel) that God’s kingdom has already come. It is a day of fullness, peace, and joy. It’s a day when we are invited to actually give primacy of place to those things we claim are our highest priorities: worship, family, friends, and simple celebration. Again, can we really give our full attention to these if we are only penciling them in between pressing appointments and business deals? When we set one day aside, we will learn to relax into the life we have been building and sustaining the rest of the week.

Dear church people:
Defy the myth that there is not enough; trust that God provides, not you. Move the meetings. Volunteer another day. Invite people to leave off commerce, errands, rush and hurry. Encourage hospitality. Turn off electronic distractions. Create rituals for families to mark the day. Rediscover naps. Offer places of silence and places of merriment. Celebrate life and God, because life and God. Encourage, support, and fight for those who are financially unable to rest. Go outside. Gather. Sing. Tell Stories. Laugh. Feast. Live.

Heschel’s work is called The Sabbath. I recommend it very, very highly.

The Call of God

My Vocation
by Lyndsey Graves

Can we talk about this word “vocation” for a hot second? Why we keep saying “vocation” when we mean “career”? We take the word “calling from God” and apply it to our aspirations for paid employment. How small of us. It’s just like when you meet someone at a party and you ask them what they “do”. We ask young people about their vocation so we can spiritualize our curiosity about what they’re going to “do”. I’ve been pursuing higher education for six years now, and for six years people have been pestering me about my vocation.

Well, one of my vocations is to be a student. I am a damn good student. If I were not reading and writing in some capacity, I’d be wasting my time on this earth. When I took a year and worked at a food pantry, reading and writing still called to me from deep inside. I work hard at school because God made me a thinker; I am smack in the middle of my vocation. I’m not waiting for it.

I have lots of other vocations, too, things God has me doing now and things that beckon from the future. I share love with a good-hearted man from New York state. I give money to my local church. I make food for my housemates and I clutch a phone in laughter and in prayer for friends states away. I visit my family in Georgia as much as possible. I’m supposed to talk to my priest about the way our church can love gay people, but I’m too scared. And in the future, I’m hoping to live in the South. I plan to be a gardener. I will be a person of hospitality and open my home to others as often as possible. I will count as friends those who are different from me. I will care for my friends more than for comfort and love my family more than career-pride. This is the calling of God on my life.

What I do for money is cater gourmet events at Boston museums. Is that my vocation? No. It’s a way to get money, and it would sicken me to try and spiritualize it, for all the people we get drunk and all the food we throw away. It’s not the vocation of anyone else who works there either, but it’s some people’s lifelong career. Not everyone gets to sit around and speculate about what very special job fits their very special self. Some people just have to make money.

What we do all share is a vocation to personhood, to the fulfillment of that full humanity that is so betrayed by our sin, our determination to stay small and selfish. That is the vocation I have pursued in seminary, and that has, indeed, changed and grown. I have learned how many ways there are to abandon this world for the love of God, and I have followed God ever-deeper into God’s love for the world. I have lost the taste for ready-made food and plastic celebrations; I’ve dug my fingers into the promises of fresh cilantro and the old-fashioned happiness of tea and candlelight. I’ve lost the knack of excusing injustice and claiming it’s not my fault; yet I’ve left behind the self-righteousness of thinking I alone could put it right again. I’ve continued the long trek of holiness we’ve all been wandering since kindergarten, those days when tasks like sharing and being nice and helping people and cleaning up after myself have seemed just as insurmountable as they ever were.

I’ve forgotten to pray and remembered again; I’ve deliberately run from God and then collapsed into her arms again, where she was patiently following me all along. This is all there is to do as humans in our hundred years – to be, people, with God, to learn love by doing the brave right thing, to put down the save-the-world schemes we’ve constructed out of pipe cleaners and pray every once in a while that we can love somebody today. It is a way of being, not a career goal, that determines whether we’re fulfilling our duty and our identity as God’s beloved. It is my vocation, in the end, to be generous and love the surprise of letting go, to be humble and love laughter, to be understanding and love the hearts of others under all their unloveable fears and failures and spikes.

Shall I betray all these whispering nudges of the Holy Spirit by throwing the rich words of my faith to a world that calls me only to produce and consume?

If you would like to know my dearest hopes for making a living and spending the bulk of my days, I will tell you that I want to be a professor of theology for undergraduates, and a writer of practical theology for anyone. I want to help others know and love God with their minds. My heart beats fuller when I watch others learn, and it sings when I write. I have learned this semester that the students I want so much to care for will frustrate, ignore, and disrespect me at times. But I have seen them get it, too, seen them assimilate new skills and formulate new thoughts and ask God new questions. That has been an amazing experience.

If I make it in the competitive professor profession, I will know this is the very special job for me. I certainly plan to continue doing my best to get there. But if I don’t make it, I’ll trust that there’s some other place I’m meant to make time for writing, teach and learn with others, invite them into my home, help us all figure out how to be. These are the gifts that call me out of myself. These are the activities I’m meant to prioritize. These are my vocations.

this (food) is (God’s) body

Week after week,  I shuffled through the pantry with friends and acquaintances who had come for food, begging them to take the beans.
“As many dry beans as you want – kidney beans? white beans? chickpeas? as many as you want, all free! Throw ’em in some chili, stretch that ground beef you’ve got there. Casseroles… beans and greens… yummy soups…”
I was totally annoying. People would sometimes look a little sorry for me before grabbing their maximum four cans of ravioli.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I don’t cook anything.”

click for a yummy crockpot recipe!

My food pantry days flooded back to me as I read two essays on food and theology this week, from the book Creating Ourselves: African Americans and Hispanic Americans on Popular Culture and Religious Expression. I would argue that the food the authors speak of doesn’t belong to the realm of “pop culture” (mass-produced and mass-consumed) but to “folk culture” – the product of a people and a place, locally consumed, non-commercialized. Still, I think some of the best works of pop culture hold something in common with folk culture; and food is the perfect subject for coming to terms with those things our cultural products mean to us that we just can’t explain.

Dominican friar Angel Montoya compares doing theology to making the Mexican dish mole, which combines complex flavors into new flavors, and can be made in hundreds of variations; yet to be mole, it must always contain chiles and chocolate. Christian theology, too, combines many sources and subtle variations, but it must contain crucial elements to maintain its own character. Beyond this simile, though, Montoya compares theology with mole in another aspect: he names the subtle, complex, mysterious flavor of mole “a mobile signifier beyond the signified”. Mole is not just “chiles and chocolate”. It is something else entirely – you cannot know it without tasting it. You cannot describe it, and you cannot even make it from a written recipe if you do not already know it (“one learns in the making of it”). So theology. We try to use words to share knowledge and experience of God that, by God’s nature, cannot really be described; we fumble to practice what we have learned, because the recipe is not the food.

Montoya pushes his readers to think of Eucharist once again as food. God comes to us in this incredible intimacy, meeting us and teaching us through our sense of taste, beyond verbal processing or “knowledge”, into our very being. As the Christian community is nourished by the same meal, we become, in some tiny scrap of each self, quite literally composed of one substance – Christ’s body and blood.

Food is a (maybe The) great human leveller. All people need to eat. People, regardless of class, country, or culture, have powerful memories and deep loves associated with food. Food is as sacred of an everyday practice as there can be, maybe comparable only to music. And like music, it has tremendous power to bring diverse people into community with each other. The second essay on food, by Lynne Westfield, reflects on Westfield’s mother’s life as a political organizer for public schools in Philadelphia. For Nancy Westfield, “her speeches, letter writing, and marching were not the most significant and influential practice she employed. Instead, she claimed, her most effective practice for community organizing was to invite people to her home to share a meal.” By putting immense care into her cooking for others, she turned politicians and other power players into friends – not just for the sake of public education, but for the sake of hospitality, love, and friendship itself.

Lynne Westfield insists on seeing this as a subversive “political” practice and not simply a “Christian” practice (although she is still willing to find wisdom in her mother’s point of view that “Christian friendship” was a more important goal than political change). It seems that Westfield wants to resist viewing her mother as being in any way complicit with old “Aunt Jemima” (347) images of black female cooks. However, I join Montoya in disagreeing that theology or Christian spiritual practice can be dichotomized from politics in such a way. In his response, he points out that the church must act as a political body in the public sphere, but that in Eucharist we act as a transformative presence in societal relationships. Friendship expressed in food is therefore a powerful “theopolitical” act of transcending antagonism and walls between people, in order to foster justice in society.

In fact, this is the conclusion of Montoya’s own essay, which seeks to combine theology and food in fundamental ways: “I envision alimentary theology as a practice of power that is noncoercive, communal, and rooted in nurturing loving care for one another and imitating God’s own radical gesture of love” (emphasis mine). We “taste and see” God’s goodness in the food that we share – and it is because of this that Montoya’s theology necessarily includes the praxis of opposing hunger. Hunger is one of the most fundamental injustices in the world, robbing humans of humanity in multidimensional ways. This, again, requires profound, active transformation on personal (greed) and societal (broken food systems) levels.

Montoya’s beautiful essay profoundly illuminated a food pantry experience I had almost every day of my year working there. I have been almost uncomfortable articulating this in the past; but I could never shake the feeling that the injustice that so many poor people have no skills or time to cook (and innumerable other structural injustices contributing to this situation) extends far beyond the fact that metric tons of free beans go to waste while they struggle to live on a minimal budget. It is just as terrible to me that they cannot experience the simple nourishment of bean soup on a howling winter’s day, or the satisfaction of a chili well made and well shared. Even in times of scarcity, these are immense, humanizing, and God-revealing pleasures. A food system and an economy that does not waste so much is a most basic matter of justice because good food, made and shared in love, connects us to our own cultures, to others, and to God.

things they told me

love God, and do what you will.
St. Augustine

The don’ts were a bunch of made-up stories, while the do-list exhibited an utter lack of imagination.

Don’t be gay or you’ll become sex-crazed.
Don’t drink alcohol or you’ll end up addicted and pregnant.
Don’t wear short skirts because boys cannot contain themselves.
Read your Bible so you’ll be holier.
Listen to the sermon so you’ll be holier.
Give 10%.

All of us together, wound tight with fear and anxiety, battening the hatches down around the children, reminding one another that our boundaries were all that kept us safe. Sometimes they said it was a war, against The World, against myself, and I who thrive on challenge threw myself into the challenge of competing for blandest. Best Defender of Status Quo.

I kept striving and straining to Be Good, even though it didn’t really set my soul alight the way they said A Good Christian would feel. I wanted that badly to do right by the dying God-Man who, of all people, had looked in my eyes and said I love you this much. Atonement theories aside, I always knew He was real.

I never stopped fleeing sin, doing battle, loving sinners and hating sins, and it was always tangled – in this noble part of me that has to do The Right Thing, and this subservient part of me that would give anything, anything at all just to have them like me, please just like me. All it takes is a great, looming fear of failure and the tiniest smidge of self-righteousness as a reward for maintaining compliance for one more day.

I perfected the skill of guilt:
I remembered to bring my quarters to church.
I only swore when I was alone.
I tried harder to Tell My Friends About Jesus even though it seemed like they already knew. I berated myself for being so shy.

I stopped reading the romance novels but the words stayed with me. I never told anyone, ever; there was too much shame and how could I know all their burdens were greater than mine? How could any of us know we had all done unspeakable things.

They said it was all about being Sold Out and Set Apart, all the do’s and don’ts because sin would Separate Us From God, so I kept trying. I stayed afraid.

When did I discover – when did the truth first glimmer that all these Boundaries might just be prison walls? How did I first find out there might not be so much to fear? That all the walls around The Children and The Truth and My Relationship With God might really only be designed to protect myself and the 90% that was Mine?

I think it was when my school friends loved better than the church group,
when the Bible I never stopped loving whispered freedom and grace to my anxious heart,
when the North Georgia storms blew wild and dangerous and achingly, irresistibly beautiful.

I can’t resent being kept from teenage mistakes. No one was trying to hurt me. And in the same sermons, the same breaths that I learned fear and legalism I learned of a God big enough and loving enough to save, and I believe this God is winning.

Now I am old enough and brave enough for this God and I to break the rules. I give too much away and I pray at odd times and I smoke the occasional cigarette and I told you about the romance novels.

I am quite sure I will make real mistakes, painful mistakes, even that I have already destroyed much more than I ever intended, because this is the way of humans.  But that is just it. I grow more human the less I cower; I create better and love wider the less I micromanage my life. I am running wild and laughing loud because I have given it all to God – just like they always told me.

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