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You, Who Meet Us in Our Solitude.

Last week I declared myself post-evangelical thanks to the World Vision debacle (for explanation see Part 1 and Part 210,000 children lost their sponsorships as a result). This week, I’ve wrestled and grieved deeply. I grew up in conservative evangelicalism and I love my faith and my family and my church home, but my views are shifting. I’m in the process of discerning what it means to stay and what it means to leave, and what it means when Jesus asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I don’t have much to say at this point, and a lot of it has already been said by dozens of others ad nauseam.

But I thought I’d share this Rilke poem with you, because it found me in my hour of need one morning last week. These days my best attempt at spiritual practice and communing with God looks like a cup of coffee, a bit of breakfast, and a few pages from Rilke’s Book of Hours or Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel.

“You too will find your strength.
We who must live in this time
cannot imagine how strong you will become -
how strange, how surprising,
yet familiar as yesterday.

We will sense you
like a fragrance from a nearby garden
and watch you move through our days
like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom.

We will not be herded into churches
for you are not made by the crowd,
you who meet us in our solitude.

We are cradled close in your hands-
and lavishly flung forth.” – Rilke, II, 26

 

Just as Rilke’s words foretold, God met me in my solitude. The poem, like all those that I’m most drawn to, illuminated the part of my heart that felt lost and wandering. When my heart weighed heavily on the events of last week and whether to call myself evangelical or if it even mattered, here was this quiet, loving reminder :

God walks with each of us in our wilderness.

We all wrestle with answers to difficult questions and find our own paths. But my hope is that we stay sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. My hope is that we pay close attention, that we sense His Grace like a fragrance from a nearby garden, that we listen to the suffering people among us long enough to see Him moving through our days like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom. Whatever we call ourselves – Christian or non, straight or LGBTQ, conservative or liberal, evangelical or whatever; wherever we go – into churches or homes or bars or tables in the wilderness – we will all be met with the surprise of His presence, a Love beyond our imagination. The question each of us must ask ourselves is this : Are we moving with Him? Or are we trying to close a door on people that He has already opened? 

We are held in His hands and lavishly flung forth into the world so that we can live and love just as lavishly. May we do so, and with abundance.

~

Some other words from the last two weeks that were my sunlight in the sickroom :

Sarah Bessey’s words for the ones who leave and the ones who stay.

More than anything other voice I’ve encountered in the LGBTQ community, it is Ben Moberg and his stories that have moved my heart and mind. His posts on the World Vision situation, “When World Vision Drops Me” and “May We Never Stop Speaking,” are full of grace and challenge. (Warning: read with Kleenex in hand.)

“The agent of healing is an outlier who Jesus purposely placed in the role of honor.” – Jen Hatmaker.

“We are resurrection people.” – Rachel Held Evans.

The Generosity Equation.

 

This is the story of my life :

Last month we paid all our bills (mostly) on time. Hubs and I planned to take a short vacation to see friends in Nashville where we had a fun, happy, warm weekend. We drove home listening to Ryan Adams and generally loving life.

But the love ran out about thirty miles short of home.

The car began to overheat. Repeatedly. Nothing fills me with a deeper sense of dread than a breaking down car sandwiched between rumbling semi-trucks on a highway in Illinois, and so I freaked out. I prayed desperate, beggy, cursey prayers that God would keep us from blowing up right there on the highway. Somehow we made it home. Once there it occurred to us that we cannot afford to fix the bleeping car until I get paid on Friday, because of course. With no choice but to grit my teeth and bare it, I decided that if I drove very slowly and glared at my temperature gauge, the car and I might survive the next five days.

No such luck. When I made the drive to my therapist’s office early the next morning it started overheating almost immediately, red lights flashing and alarm bells dinging. Impending doom! Explosion imminent! I decided it would be better to have a panic attack in the presence of a professional than alone on the side of the road, so I cursed prayed some more and pressed on to my therapy appointment. Very very slowly, of course. Judging by the swerving traffic and sign language, I annoyed the living hell out of every driver in suburban Chicago on their morning commute, but I didn’t care. I was too busy patting my dashboard and talking to my vehicle as though it was a ravenous animal about to eat me alive. Good kitty. One more mile, kitty. Don’t kill me, kitty.

I somehow made it to my therapist’s office. I collapsed onto her couch and shared my sob story. She listened to all my fears and reminded me that my inner child was triggered by all of this sudden instability and that I am not an abject failure at adulthood or life. At the end of the session she gave me a hug and sent me to her mechanic a couple miles away. For the briefest moment I was a fortress of calm and determination as I drove my blasted car to the shop. I was a  warrior in a Chrysler Sebring with mad survival skills. But then the mechanic took one look under the engine and pronounced it dead on arrival. The deathtrap was not worth the $2,500 it would take to fix it.

I cried. I wailed. I cursed. I donned sack cloth and ashes. I called home. Dad instructed me to pay for the minimal repairs and he’d fix the rest next weekend. I put on my brave face and relayed this message to the mechanic, who agreed to only fix the leaking radiator and ignore the tire rod situation. I pretended not to notice his skeptical eyebrows and walked outside. It was March in Chicago, cold and grey, a wasteland of cruddy black snow piles and trash, its bleakness a mirror of my pessimistic soul. A variation on a theme. So many different versions of this same scenario have happened over the years, that I’ve come to believe it’s my lot in life. I will probably die at the hands of a faulty transmission somewhere in Indiana before I can afford to invest in any sort of life insurance.

What my therapist tells me is true: whenever the car breaks down or a big ugly bill shows up, it taps into that deep-seated fear from my childhood, which began with my mother’s illness and has lingered long after her death. It whispers to me that I am not enough, the money’s not enough, things will never be okay. We’re too poor, too sick, too broken, too car- and money-illiterate to ever outrun the black cloud. It doesn’t matter that I’ve paid down thousands of school debt and paid off my credit card and started paying bills on time. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard we work, there is simply not enough to go around. Scarcity.

It’s not just my inner voice that tells me this, there are other voices too. The ones that say that if you have to ask for help you don’t deserve it. Generosity is irresponsible. Handouts don’t help. Unless people use their own bootstraps, they won’t learn.

But I don’t know a life that neat and tidy. Life is messy and hard for most people I know and the only way we’ve ever made it is when kindness reaches in to grab us from the muck. An anonymous check to help my parents make ends’ meet when my brothers and I were small and mom was sick and dad was working himself to the bone in job after underpaying job. Christmas presents when Santa was broke for a few years. Meals and prayers and hospital visits. Loaves and fishes. Abundance.

So I took a deep breath and called my best friend. She promised to come get me in an hour, so I waited in the lobby with a novel, listening to the screeching and banging from inside the repair shop. Soon she showed up and we went to lunch together. Over falafel and hummus we commiserated about life, I with my car troubles and her with her boy troubles. We talked about the broken things, vehicles, relationships, plans, dreams. We reminded one another that we are worthy.

I exhaled a sigh that was not quite relief but something like it, a prayer of thanksgiving for the people around me who make sure I’m not abandoned and alone in my brokenness, and who occasionally let me do the same for them.

Because who am I kidding? Love doesn’t run out. There is always plenty to go around. And I’ve always been bad with math. Thank God.

[Image.]

In Which I Learn to Call Myself a Jesus Feminist.

Awhile back Sarah Bessey wrote this post, In Which I am Learning to Own My Authority. It was one of those posts that echoed in my hearts for days and weeks and months afterward. It sprang up in my thoughts whenever I came face-to-face with my self-doubt, calling me toward boldness.

“I’m a woman still learning how to walk in my authority as a daughter of the King. I’m not supposed to apologize for what God has shown me or done in my life. But here I am, dulling my voice, fitting the too-small box of God-breathed womanhood, shrugging off. [...] After all this time, I still minimize the work and goodness and grace of God in my life out of fear. [...] Because I am writing about a thorny issue, and because I am nervous about how it will be received, my fear was coming across in my tone more than I realized. And that tone – apologizing, fearful, ‘hey, here’s an idea…’ – was undermining the very message and intent of my work at its very core, disproving my very thesis.”

Her words resonate so deeply because they are my experience too. Like Sarah, I’ve begun to notice the subtle, deeply engrained habit of doubting God’s work in my life and my own ability to discern it.

Even six months ago, I was not comfortable with calling myself a feminist. I’ve loved the idea of feminism, I’ve loved the idea of women’s equality, I’ve written about it here and there for years as I’ve felt empowered to do so. But I would always shrink back from it, afraid that I would become the caricature of feminism that church and secular culture depict: shrill, man-hating, hell-bent on flipping the gender-hierarchy in women’s favor and destroying the nuclear family.

If I call myself a feminist, am I working against God’s will? Is it really not His desire that all people be treated as fully human, male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free? 

But I’ve learned so much about feminism from people like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans and Dianna Anderson and Hila Sachar and Danielle Vermeer and Emily Maynard, who have introduced me to other voices that have changed my understanding of both feminism and my faith. And the more I’ve learned about feminism, the more I’ve learned that my longing to see men and women work together, is God at work in my life. And I had been letting the fear and sexism of my culture (Christian and secular alike) tell me that I was not capable of discerning God’s work in my own heart.

My fear and doubt and insecurity over calling myself a feminist is symptomatic of patriarchy at work in my own life. Questioning my own authority is a product of abusive power dynamics. And it occurred to me, even amidst my wavering hope in the Church, that Jesus was never the one to silence or shame people for asking questions, male or female.

My conservative, evangelical upbringing did not give me a theological framework for engaging feminism, but that didn’t mean the theological framework didn’t exist.

The door has been flung wide open to express the doubt and hurt and frustration that I had been trying to hide away for so long. And I’ve found hope and joy for what my faith, my work, my relationships and my politics could be if I just stepped into my identity as God’s daughter, as equal and capable as His sons. There is so much I still don’t understand, so much I still don’t know about living this out in my life, but I believe that even learning to voice our questions in safe community with one another is an important part of debunking the false authority of patriarchal power structures. Those power structures tell us that asking questions is a form of weakness, but it is a form of strength. I don’t need to have it all figured out in order to call myself a feminist. I don’t need to have it all figured out to call myself a Christian.

Jesus Feminism is where I’ve found my voice to articulate my faith and my feminism in a new way, to engage them together, rather than holding them at odds.

So I am my mother’s daughter : I am the daughter of strong female leadership. I am the daughter of a mother who worked a full time job, lived with breast cancer for 14 years, and was one of the first women to serve on the board of her American Baptist Church.*

I am married to a musician : I am the wife of a husband who is kind and creative in a time when our culture doesn’t value those qualities in men. I believe that patriarchal power structures hurt all of society, men and women alike, and my husband and I are working together to overcome that.

I am baptist born-and-raised : I am the child of a church that was very conservative and very evangelical, but also very loving and *willing to change when they felt God moving.

I am a millennial writer : I am a member of an “entitled” generation, who earned my degree and entered the job market in the middle of a recession, who has struggled through my fair share of cynicism toward the Church, and I am living out my calling as a writer both in my full-time job and in my creative endeavors.

And I am a Jesus Feminist. I am learning to be a feminist the way that Jesus is a feminist. Because I follow Jesus, I want to see God’s redemptive movement for women arch towards justice. And I am not afraid to say that this is how God is at work in my life.

This post is in conjunction with Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist synchroblog to celebrate the launch of her book. I received my copy in the mail this weekend and I’m already loving it. Wherever you are in your beliefs about gender roles or Christianity or both, I highly recommend it.  

From Ashes : When We Were On Fire Syncroblog

The morning after my 26th birthday, I am standing at the bathroom sink washing my face. I pat my cheeks dry with the towel and examine my reflection in the mirror, the corners of my eyes and the color of my hair. It’s weird to think that ten years ago, I was just sixteen. Who was I then? Am I so different now? What would she think of me? What do I think of her?

I leave the bathroom, but instead of going to my laptop to write I wander over to my closet, where I grab a dusty stack of Mead journals off the shelf. I climb back into bed with them, pulling the bottom from the stack, and open to the first pages.

On my sixteenth birthday my boyfriend made me a cake and wrote me a love poem and gave me a picture in a black frame, of us on a missions trip in South Dakota earlier that summer. In the photo I am sunburnt and smiling; his hand cups my chin possessively and he’s sporting eyeliner and my pink bandana.

We were on again/off again in a pattern that exactly mirrored his relationship status with Jesus. When he was on fire for God again, it rekindled our romance too, it seemed. I thought I could pull him back from the darkness. I thought I was safe as long as he went to church and said he believed like me.

But a week after my birthday, a week after he lit candles on my cake while we stood by his locker at school, our relationship was snuffed out once more and so was his relationship with God, and I was in the dark about all of it.

I’m sitting in my favorite spot on the couch, watching reruns after dinner and homework, when the phone rings.

“Hey, would you mind if I picked you up for a drive?” says a familiar voice. I’m surprised to hear it, and I hesitate. It’s late and cold and I don’t feel like leaving the house, and I also have a sinking feeling that I know what I’m in for. But my house is small and the walls are thin and we have things to say to each other that don’t need to be overheard, so I say yes and wait by the window for the swoop of his headlights to appear in our driveway.

I walk out to meet him and slide into the seat of his parents’ old Buick and he hugs me. I feel the cool leather of his letter jacket against my cheek and I shouldn’t feel this apprehensive but I do. Soon we are driving down back country roads, a mile or two from my house. The stars glimmer and the moon shines mutely over bare corn fields in the November night. The car glides along in silence.

I have been dreading this moment. It’s been weeks since we hung out, let alone since we took a drive to talk. Our late night drives were sacred, filled with big ideas about faith and church and school and friends and family and leadership and God. It felt like the deepest kind of friendship, we were brother and sister in Christ, we could tell each other anything. But he’s been freezing me out lately, probably in hopes that I’ll come to my senses and break up with my boyfriend, with whom I am still on again/off again. We are two children playing with a light switch, and I know it’s driving all of our friends crazy.

Now the moment has come when all the pent up frustration between my friend and I will come tumbling out in the name of “holding one another accountable.” We’re leaders in our youth group at church, this is what we do.

Finally, he sighs and pulls off to the shoulder and cuts the engine. The quiet is deafening. I brace myself.

“I’m worried about you, Bethany,” he begins. “I’m worried about our group and what all of this is doing to our leadership. You’re hurting our cause.”

As iron sharpens iron, so one opinion sparks the reaction of another. We argue, our angry words exploding between us in the darkness. We are shouting and crying and finally I stop cold.

“Take me home,” I demand. He doesn’t move and for a moment I’m scared that he will actually refuse me. “Take me home or I’ll walk there myself.” Finally he turns the key to start the engine again.

Once we’re home I slam the car door and don’t really speak to him again for months. It is the last time we go for a late night drive. It is the first time that I look at him and see him for the teenage boy that he is, human and imperfect and struggling to understand love and relationships and God and faith, just like I am. It is the first time I really understand that neither of us know what these things mean. It is the first time I realize that it is okay that we don’t know what these things mean. I’m beginning to wonder if our belief that we did know was what sent things up in flames in the first place.

Several months later, I break up with my boyfriend over the phone on a hot, lonely summer day when everything we had left to say to each other is gone. But this time, it’s different. I don’t hole up in my room, listening to music and crying. I don’t call up my friends to tell them what happened and repent of this ridiculous relationship yet again.

Instead, I march out to the shed behind our garage and wrangle my old, rusty bicycle from its hanging rack and pedal myself down the driveway. The sun blazes against my bare shoulders but the wind feels nice and I glide down the back roads behind my house alone, and I feel something entirely new. I think it is delight. I think it is God’s love.

I remember all of it so vividly – the missions trips and retreats and romances, the concerts and core groups, the worship sets and weekend bonfires. We had so much zeal. We had so much passion and fire for our faith that at times we were consumed by it, we raged out of control, we hurt each other deeply. Our relationships burned brightly and then faded and when the smoke was gone we wandered in the darkness, wondering where exactly we went wrong.

We didn’t understand then that “Christian” relationships don’t necessarily mean healthy or safe relationships.

We didn’t understand that our attempts to save each other’s souls were destroying our friendships.

We didn’t understand grace.

I really want to forget that girl. I really want to take this whole stack of Mead journals and all the angst and anxiety inside them and toss it in the trash. But oh, a piece of my heart is in there. The girl I was is wrapped up inside of the woman I am. So I keep them as a way of remembering that from the ashes of every burnt out belief rises grace and love and a new way of understanding God.

This post is written in conjunction with the When We Were On Fire Syncroblog for Addie Zierman. I have been following Addie’s blog for a couple of years now and she’s one of my favorite writers. Her book, When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, just came out this week and I can’t wait to finally get it in the mail in the next couple of days. I haven’t even read it yet, but I can tell you with confidence : Go buy it NOW. You won’t regret it!

Explicit Realities, Explicit Language

Today my friend Grace Biskie and I are doing a co-blog about using strong language to tell authentic stories. A full explanation of why we’re co-blogging this is in the post itself, but I just want to tell you before you keep reading that Grace Biskie is one of my favorite storytellers. She tells it true and she tells it hard and she tells it good, and every time, it wakes me up to something I didn’t understand before. We found each other online about a year ago, but of course, the world is so much smaller than that – we realized not long after we connected online that her husband was raised in the same Baptist church as me, and that I had seen Dave and Grace speak at my church about a decade ago! It’s been an incredible blessing to get to know her through her writing. Click here to read her post of for this co-blog.

Okay so, a little backstory to get us started : Grace wrote a post a couple of weeks ago for A Deeper Story, “Come Hither Young Men for I Have Sex Demons.” Catchy title, eh? Her post chronicles her experience as an abused young girl growing up in Detroit, and how it influenced the ways that she expressed herself sexually. Grace also references this post by a now infamous Mrs. Hall which shames teenage girls for posting “sexy” selfies on social media.

I love this part of Grace’s post,

“Love us, Mrs. Halls. Love us at 8 yrs. old. Love us at 11. Love us at 26. Love us at 36. Give us second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Teach your boys to love us too. Light switch theology doesn’t work here. If I could have flipped the magic switch to un-confuse myself, I would have done it eons ago.”

Like the powerful writer that she is, Grace’s post invites me into her reality. She helps me, a white girl that grew up in a rural Michigan farmtown, better understand what it’s like to be a prematurely sexualized young black girl in Detroit. She invites well-meaning but conservative, naive Christian women like the Mrs. Halls (and Bethany Suckrows) of the world to step outside our privilege long enough to understand why young girls sexualize themselves. And in that context, we no longer have the right to shame young girls for their behavior. The only right response is to love and affirm their inherent worth.

So I share Grace’s post on Facebook, and not long after, I get a private message from a friend from my hometown in Michigan, questioning the language that Grace uses to tell her story of sexual abuse.

“That’s not how A Good Christian Girl talks,” my friend tells me, and I think she means it both in terms of Grace using the explicit language and in terms of my willingness to share it. This isn’t the first time that I’ve been confronted about the language in the posts I’ve shared on social media. In fact, it’s not even the first time someone has confronted me about sharing one of Grace’s posts. Go read her guest blog for Micah Murray and you’ll understand why.

In her piece for A Deeper Story, Grace uses explicit language to describe the extreme sexualization and abuse that she experienced. It is as painfully honest as you would expect a post on childhood sexual abuse to be.

She reconstructs the eleven year old girl she used to be,

“This is the one Mrs. Hall would have blocked. This is the little girl who knew how to give a damn good blow job. This is the little girl that says, ‘Come hither boys, because I know what I’m doing.’”

She repeats the things that men have said in their pursuit of her,

“They look with greed and edge and a face that reads, ‘I want to fuck you,’ with an anger that’s frightening and disconcerting.”

But my friends want to know why Grace isn’t using polite language of a “Good Christian Girl.”

They want to know why she’s not using euphemisms to talk about her sexual abuse.

I’ll be honest, I cringed when I read those posts and I cringed when I shared them. True to my white, Baptist background, I’m shocked that young girls just like Grace live this reality every day. I’m uncomfortable because her language has snapped me awake to my own privilege. There’s no question that the language in that post is terrible, but it serves a very important purpose of clarifying what our culture wants to obscure. This is what language is for. This is what a good writer does.

And this is exactly what Grace is calling out in her post:

“The first time a boy came out directly to ask for sex, I was 8. He was 14ish. I believe my face went red and my cheeks hot with embarrassment [...] Truth is, I’d already had a lot of sex by then. My Dad and I had not called it ‘sex,’ and given my age it was not consensual, though – at the time – I believed it was.” (Emphasis mine.)

Euphemisms have no place in telling stories of abuse. Talking about it openly and honestly is what helps many victims heal from the shame and secrecy that kept them captive to their abusers. Not talking about abuse in a realistic way only perpetuates further abuse. My friend Dani Kelley explains this perfectly in her comment on Grace’s post today,

“There simply weren’t Christian words to describe the horror & rage & confusion I felt over so many betrayals, big and small. Profanity gave me the force of language I needed to name the evil, shine light in the darkness that seemed like it was going to devour me whole.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is why I asked, after responding privately to my friend’s questioning, if Grace wanted to co-blog about this with me. I wanted to her to talk about why using explicit language matters to her story, and I want to talk about why readers, no matter their opinion of swearing, should respect stories’ like Grace’s and Dani’s, raw and true and redemptive and messy as they are.

We in evangelical culture were raised to believe that there was such a thing as a “Good Christian Girl” and that we achieved this characterization by avoiding certain topics and certain language for discussing those topics. Explicit language was a sin. Politeness was prized, as was our modest dress and demure countenance. We do this because we think this will protect us from sin. But often times, the things that we believe will protect us are the very things that harm others. We create a culture in which it’s not safe for girls like Grace who don’t fit our mold to tell her story without being criticized for how she tells it.

It’s not bad enough that she lived through hell? Now she has to be polite and make everyone comfortable with her story as she talks about it? We get to criticize how people cope with and heal from abuse? Are we really not smart or wise enough to take language in its context? Can we not really discern the difference between using explicit language to accurately describe stories of abuse and using explicit language to abuse? Is our ability to respect others’ stories really contingent on how they tell them?

The reality is that abuse isn’t polite. It’s not a euphemism. It’s as ugly and filthy and scary as life gets. Explicit language keeps us awake to these explicit realities. Polite language, then, is a tool of the privileged.

Sometimes our discomfort over language use is a signal that the book we’re reading or the movie we’re watching is garbage. But sometimes, our discomfort over language is a signal that our “Good Christian” lives are being wrecked for a radical story of redemption. We need to have better discernment for this, because stories of abuse and sexism (and all the other awful isms) should make us uncomfortable. If our knee-jerk reaction is to clean up someone’s language before they tell us their story, if our goal is to keep ourselves comfortable in the face of childhood sexual abuse, we’re not honoring God.

Our polite language is a means of obscuring our hard-heartedness and apathy towards justice, and God isn’t fooled by it.

The fact that we’re more concerned with someone’s language than their story of sexual abuse should be a signal to us that we have completely missed the point.

So love the storytellers. Love us at 8 years. old. Love us at 11. Love us at 26. Love us at 36. Give us second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Love us when we tell it messy. Love us when we tell it clean. Love us when we’re cynical. Love us when we’re filled with hope. Love us when we’re hurting and when we’re healing. Tell our stories with us, too. Polite language doesn’t work here. If we could have picked peaceful, safe stories, we would have done it eons ago.

Please be respectful in the comments. You can have all the opinions you want about explicit language, but any comments that veer into victim-blaming or personal attacks will be moderated. I’ve never had to do that before here, but I’m not afraid to start. This is an invitation to listen to each others’ stories. Thank you.

Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy and the Church.

One of the first things I noticed when I met my husband was his kindness. He can have a good laugh just as much as the next guy, but he never does it at anyone else’s expense. Sensitive girl that I am, I was immediately drawn to that quality. I felt safe. I trusted him.

This same sensitivity to others’ feelings is what makes him such a great musician and songwriter. He’s attuned to beauty and art. He tells me he’s not articulate about his feelings, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He sings it.

But those same qualities that inform and inspire his talent as a musician are the things that keep him from thriving in his job as a security officer. It’s just not the work he’s cut out for. He’d rather use the talents God has given him to work as a full-time musician. And yet, for the past six years since he graduated college, he’s pretty much worked any job he can so that we can make ends’ meet, even the ones he hates. When we first got married, we held seven part time jobs between the two of us. From August to March of the past year, he worked as a security guard part time, taught guitar lessons, and led worship at our church. Today, he works full time as a security guard and teaches guitar lessons after his shift ends. He does odd jobs to make a little extra cash. He knows he has to get creative about earning an income as a musician. He’s no stranger to working hard.

But I’ve lost count of how many times our “loved ones” have made that implication whenever Matt talks about work. He’s been told everything from “you’re lazy and entitled and selfish” to “your music is just a hobby, now go out and get a real job” to “suck it up and stop being a pussy about your work ethic.” (Yes. Someone actually said that.)

Some men look at him and see his traits of kindness and creativity as weakness. But I look at him and see strength.

The narrative that my husband is lazy because he pursues a different kind of work than his father, a construction foreman, is the same one that the rest of my generation is being told when we talk about our desires to thrive in our work and pursue fulfilling careers.

You’re entitled” has become a straw man argument for why a large percentage of millennials  are struggling in the job market.

But is it really the job market we can’t hack? Or is it the 9-to-5/mortgage for a house in the ’burbs/2.5 kids + Fluffy the Dog lifestyle that is unrealistic? (The very same lifestyle in which even our parents are getting taxed out of affording?)

If the rest of our generation is anything like Matt and I, they’ve been working their asses off in crappy, unfulfilling jobs for close to a decade in a broken economy, and it has come down to two choices : surviving or thriving. Either we work the job we’re not fulfilled in and weren’t cut out for so that we can fit the lifestyle, or we adjust the lifestyle to thrive in the career to which we were called. And it is almost inevitable that changing our lifestyle means moving. To somewhere less costly, to a community less bent on pressuring people into living a certain way.

The job market hears us expressing a desire to work fulfilling jobs and pay our bills, and responds by telling us we have a false sense of entitlement. But I listen to it and hear my generation saying that they want to create a system in which classism is the system that gets broken so that the economy can thrive for everyone equally.

When Rachel Held Evans posted her article for CNN a few weeks ago “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” social media and the blogosphere erupted with reactions, and reactions to those reactions. On and on it went, while I watched quietly as a familiar pattern emerged.

The same people looking for more fulfilling jobs in a broken economy are the same people looking for more fulfilling faith communities in an abusive and apathetic church culture.

And as younger generations expressed disillusionment with the system in which they’re expected to function, older generations decried their laziness and entitlement. The straw man argument returns.

Indeed, my discussions with my husband about finding more fulfilling work and a less expensive place to live feels eerily similar to the discussions we had when we were desperate to find a healthy faith community. We found ourselves in church after church where we were expected to function within the system without asking too many questions or seeking too many changes. We’re asking ourselves the same question, “Is it time to move on?”

Millennials see these abusive power structures and harmful theologies and say, “This system is broken and unless it changes, I can’t thrive here,” but their concern is met  with shaming and silencing tactics. We’re being told to “suck it up” and “work harder” and “stop acting like a bunch of pussies” and “in a few years you’ll realize that this is where you belong,” and “I don’t have a problem with it; why should you? This is just how things are.”

If the parallel between an economy suffering in the hands of the corrupt and a Church suffering in the hands of the abusive makes you uncomfortable, GOOD. It makes us uncomfortable, too.

Older generations of believers look at millennials’ desire to engage culture as catering to secularism and weakness toward sin. But I look at it and see a desire to embrace the marginalized and oppressed.

Let’s get real. It isn’t the millennials’ attitude that broke the economy. It isn’t the millennials’ mass exodus that is breaking their churches. The cracks in the system originated much earlier than that.

The cycle of shame that perpetuates hurtful comments about my husband’s manhood and work ethic is the very same one that oppresses our economy and sends masses of people heading for the church exits. There are huge, ugly parallels between “man-fail” shame and the “laziness” and “entitlement” shame that older generations are heaping on younger ones in a broken economy and the way that churches shame their fleeing congregants. It’s called patriarchy, and it functions for no one, not even the men.

It isn’t how we’re meant to live. It’s not how we’re called to thrive.

Yet at the same time, this discussion is not about pointing fingers and blaming the older generations for corruption and abuse, either. Are these the same struggles that generations before us experienced? Absolutely. Will we deal with it the same way as they did, too? Definitely not. Every generation is different. Even amongst members of our own generation, it will be as varied as unique as we are.

We have to get creative about all of it – about the ways that we earn our living and the ways that we thrive in the workplace and the ways we experience God and the ways we engage our culture.

Some of us will need to go off into the wild in order to better hear the voice of our Shepherd. Some of us will stay and tend His sheep. Some of us will keep watch for wolves. Some of us will tell stories and sing songs of the peaks and valleys of this faith and this time. Let us remember that no matter what each of us choose, all of us belong to the flock, and that the Shepherd doesn’t say to His sheep, “Suck it up.” A healthy community doesn’t shame its people into functioning within the established order when it fails to keep everyone safe.

We need to take an honest look at our strengths and our weaknesses – double-edged swords that they are – and learn to wield them well. I have hope that this is possible.

Some people look at all of this, the broken economy and dying churches, and see the end of everything. But I look at it and see a new beginning.

[Image.]

On Missing Miracles and Steel Magnolias.

It finally happened. All this time I’ve been writing online, four years now, I’ve never once received a nasty comment from anyone, or even a mildly negative one. But a few weeks ago I wrote an article for RELEVANT Mag exploring the issues raised by Angelina Jolie’s op-ed for the Times about her choice to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, and lo and behold. A nasty comment. About my “leftist” politics and my “unChristian” ideas – and my favorite part – my willingness to “take up the mantle of worldliness and unbelief.”

I’m a sensitive soul, but generally speaking, I can discern the difference between honest criticism and asshat commenters unleashing their fundamentalist fury. I’m not here to talk about why that guy was wrong, although can we take a second and have a good laugh over the fact that there is someone out there that can make my conservative evangelical family seem progressive, and my writing downright provocative?

But, moving on…

That comment has proved to be a great example for some of the hard questions I’ve been processing as I grieve, write a book about it, and be near to some friends who are carrying their own heartbreak. It’s had me thinking about faith and miracles and healing and comfort and hope.

It can be as blatantly hurtful as a person telling you that your mother died because she and your family lacked the faith necessary for “true healing.” It can be as confusing as a misappropriated Scripture tweeted in the middle of a tragedy or a hallmark philosophy plastered all over Facebook. It can be as well-intended as someone hugging you at your mother’s wake and reminding you that this is all just part of God’s plan. It can be as subliminal as using war rhetoric to describe terminal illness, using words like “survivor,” “battle,” “fight,” “lost.”

I’ve heard these words. You’ve heard these words. And if we’re being honest, we’ve probably said them to each other at one wrong moment or another. Whatever their form, whoever has uttered them, they incite pain and fear and confusion. Nothing makes a grieving person feel more hopeless than being told that their healing hinges on their ability to hope.

I was reminded of that on Sunday morning, laying beneath a pile of blankets and watching Steel Magnolias. I had intended to do something far less pathetically indulgent and self-pitying than ugly-crying alone on my couch at 10 a.m., but the words wouldn’t flow and I was in too dark a mood to be near functioning human beings, so I skipped church and brunch with friends and watched Shelby die instead, holding my breath for the cemetery scene, letting my tears fall where they may.

I know. I sound like an emotional eater. Some days that’s exactly what it is. I haven’t watched the film since before mom died, not wanting to be a glutton for punishment, because I’ve insisted so desperately on pulling my shit together and most of the time I tell myself that I’m “good” at it. But some days. I just can’t. And paradoxically, it was this very act of allowing myself to feel my feelings and cry with M’Lynn that gave me the hope and gumption I needed to sit myself down and work on the book proposal.

And I think that’s the point of this rambling blog post, of Steel Magnolias, of my book, and these stories of grief and faith.

I grew up in a faith tradition that, looking back, was full of Anelle-like theology. I was told growing up that God had a plan, that I just needed to pray for a miracle, that good things come to those who wait, knock and the door will be opened. There’s a little bit of truth in all of that, sure. And I was told to be glad that mom had died, that she was with her King, I should be rejoicing. For a little while, I did. I even meant it. It’s hard to be honest about the relief in knowing that she is no longer suffering, but it’s real. But after awhile that wears off and what I’ve really needed is to explore those concepts of healing and wellness and God’s will. I’ve had to ask hard questions and cry about all the missing miracles in our lives and wonder whether God and I operate under different definitions of healing. And I’ve had to get angry about that, angry enough to want to hit something or someone until they feel as bad as I do, angry enough to utter the words aloud, I guess I’m a little selfish. I’d rather have her here.

I had to get angry enough to finally be honest with myself and with God. 

Some days, I’m able to laugh about it. Some days, I’m able to be around people that can help me find my joy again. Some days, I just can’t. And that’s not a weakness or an emotional binge, it is heartbreak, and it is ugly and hard. It is the “work of grief,” as Freud called it. Joan Didion’s “the vortex.” And it is teaching my heart that hope doesn’t hinge on the outcome.

We won’t survive heartbreak and loss by denying that it hurts, or waxing philosophical about the future, or trying to pray our way out of our mortality. We don’t survive by walking away from grief, but by walking straight through it, crying when we have to, laughing when we can, speaking honestly about how we feel, listening to each other’s sorrow.

The steel magnolia is the one that weathers the storm.

[Image.]

I Am Done with Being Quiet.

I walked in the door of my apartment last night and the smell of natural gas struck me like a gale force wind.

Matt was sitting at the kitchen table, laptop open and earphones half on, working on music stuff.

“Babe! Can’t you smell that?!” I exclaimed.

“What?”

“Gas! It’s so strong!” I exclaimed. I ran over to the oven and opened the door, listening for the tell-tale hiss of gas leaking from the valve, but there was no sound. All the burners on the stove worked. I ran to the patio door and wrenched it open for fresh air, the bitter windchill swooping across the living room.

I called the customer service line for our apartment complex, who called the maintenance guy, who didn’t show up for 45 minutes. At 30 minutes I gave up waiting and called the fire department, who sent a crew over to inspect our building. The maintenance guy turned them away at the door before he or they had even inspected my apartment. He stomped in wearing heavy workman’s boots, claimed he couldn’t smell anything but if there was a smell, it was just sealant fumes from cleaning out the apartment below us. He shut off the gas line to my stove “just in case” and left, saying he’d back to check sometime tomorrow.

The gas smell hung in the air as Matt and I stood there, worried, hungry because we hadn’t eaten dinner, and furious at the maintenance guy’s cavalier and arrogant attitude.

After a sturdy pep-talk from my dad over the phone, I called the fire department again.

“Yeah, that shouldn’t have happened,” said the chief over the phone, apologizing profusely for the confusion. His crew came back and did a proper inspection, which revealed nothing, though they acknowledged the smell.

“You had every right to call us,” said one short, balding fireman as the crew walked out the door. “And you call us again if you smell it tomorrow after your maintenance guy ‘checks’ it.”

On the one hand, the whole two-hour affair was a waste of time. But then again, at least I knew for sure that there was no gas leak now. And at least I knew that whatever happened after that, I had a whole fire department willing to help me take care of it.

I sent the email and waited, staring at the screen, as a sick feeling settled in my gut. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that. Maybe I was stepping outside my bounds. Maybe it wasn’t on my authority to address this.

I clicked anxiously from email inbox to email inbox, to twitter and facebook, to the article and back again, checking my phone intermittently for text messages.

No notifications, no responses. The minutes passed and I began to doubt myself. This isn’t my business. I shouldn’t care.

But I did care.

I cared deeply, even if all the reasons and the words weren’t fully formed in my thoughts yet. Something was wrong and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Awhile later, my phone chirped as an email hit my inbox.

“Thank you, friend,” it said. “Thank you for raising this issue and asking the question. We’re pulling the article. We want you to know that you can always come to us with your concerns.”

It wasn’t until I read those words that I realized what I had been anxious about all that time, what I am afraid of most when I raise my voice or speak out my fear : that someone will tell me to shut up and stop asking questions, stop making trouble because there’s nothing wrong here.

To know me is to know my deep and visceral sense of justice. There are a whole manner of things that I can attribute to this – my birth order as an oldest child and only girl, my conservative evangelical upbringing, my inherited stubbornness from two very articulate and opinionated parents. Part of it is just who God made me as an INFJ and Type 4; I find that as a creative person I am constantly weighing my intuition with the world around me, and this incites a lot of questions and an insatiable desire for truth.

But this visceral, intuitive and discerning part of myself got me into trouble a lot growing up. I learned that I argued too much, asked too many questions, got too angry, and blatantly disrespected the authority figures in my life – my parents, my teachers, my elders at church, the older and “holier” student leaders in my youth group.

Most of what I’ve known of authority is the kind that squelches doubt and questioning, the kind that equates criticism with trouble-making and disrespect, the kind that perpetuates shame and isolation, the kind that creates “did” versus “did not” dynamics, the kind that uses fear to motivate obedience.

I’ve watched quietly as the blogosphere has begun delving into issues of sexism, modesty, purity, rape culture, power dynamics, and sexual ethics. I share links and comment on threads, encourage others to speak up, but I haven’t been able to really speak up myself, and I’ll be honest,

I’m quiet because I’m not sure of my authority on the issues.

I’m quiet because I don’t know if I am a feminist. I don’t know if I am a complimentarian. I’m learning good theology, but I know that I’m no theologian. I know I’m no prophet.

And before now, I had not considered myself a victim to abuse. But the weight of these discussions have helped me recognize my own baggage and begin to unpack it. And here is what I’m learning :

Questioning my own authority is the result of abusive power dynamics.

Telling myself not to care because I’ll get too angry or it’s not my business is a repercussion of false authority.

False authority misappropriates power for itself, but healthy authority empowers the voices of its people to use discernment, find truth, embrace justice, bring healing.

If the people around us, in our work places, in our schools, in our homes, in our faith communities have told us to stop asking questions, then it is not a safe place to be. And those are the places that I’ve found myself silent, unable to ask questions, unable to speak truth and value and love to the people that needed it, unable to raise concern when I discerned that something wasn’t right.

But being concerned with something I find incongruous is not the same as being needlessly angry, and I’m tired of being labeled as such.

A healthy faith, a healthy sexual ethic, a healthy balance of power leaves room for questions, is not threatened by them, and makes no claim to have all the answers. And it certainly doesn’t silence or ignore its followers.

I’m still discerning what this means for me, for my faith, for my voice and for my writing. I know that I won’t always be loud or prophetic or theologically perfect, but I do know this :

I am done with being quiet.

[Image.]

Hope in Things Unseen.

Here’s a small confession : I’m writing something, and it will be published in paper and ink.

Here’s a bigger confession : I’m writing about faith, and all the forms it has taken in my life. The fullness of joy, the hollowing lack, the cries in the darkness and the tears in its light, the worrying gray somewhere in between.

I confess this now because it’s happening and I’m terrified and I want to prepare you, my faithful readers who have believed in me when I can’t quite believe in myself.

I have to put words to this.

In some measure, I have already been doing this. I have talked about faith in myriad ways here on this blog, in this nearly three years when my journey has taken the wild roller coaster ride through grief and goodbyes and grace. Most of the time, I try not to spell it out too overtly because I respect your space in my space and I want to make room for you. This blog is not a roadmap for me and my journey; it is a wandering pathway that I hope to walk with you.

More to the direct, specific point : language, especially when it relates to world views and religion, is weighty. The last thing I want is to be heavy-handed. When we talk about faith, we are talking about deeply personal and often deeply painful things. The more room we give ourselves in our words, the more common ground we will find.

Sometimes, this desire leads me into timidity, and I don’t have the courage to say plainly what it is I think and feel. Sometimes, it leads me into truth, where your story and my story meet, no matter how different we are.

And now, I’ve been given this opportunity to be really specific, really honest about this.

And I am wrestling.

I want you to know that I am wrestling with some of the hardest questions of my life. I wrote about 3,000 words of an 8,000 word assignment, and instead of finishing the piece, the rest of my thoughts came tumbling out in questions and tears and God, I am so freaking angry right now. I don’t understand. I have no more words for this. I don’t even know what I believe.

The piece will find its ending, and I think today I understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean that I will find my answers.

Yesterday, that thought worried me, that maybe I was being lazy or anti-intellectual or too timid to confront my bad theology.

Today, this thought gives me relief. Today this thought tells me that this – this rambling post about faith and writing – is what writing out my faith looks like, because it is hope in things unseen. Because I don’t have the answers, but I’m going to take the step forward anyway.

The words don’t exist on my page yet, but my faith and my story are real. They are coming into existence. It is all possible, even when I can barely utter the words – book, faith, grace, God.

I have only to be faithful to it.

Guest Post | Preston Yancey

Today’s post is by Preston Yancey, and it is truly a privilege to host his words here in my space. I hope it fills you as deeply as it has for me. 

~

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

Rilke, in one of his vagabond turns of verse in the collection of prosody he commended as prayer to God.

It is a line of good faith for me, one I read and know immediately I consider believed, but to tell you the reason behind the trust of the rhyme would be to violate the belief itself. I read it, pray it, and it seems the most true of things I could say. Perhaps this is danger; perhaps this is faith. I think the line hard to discern at times.

When I signed the contract for my first book, a lay-friendly exploration of the Scripture as the foundation for our theological imagination, I did not sign with a degree of presumption. I was aware, to the point of petrification, that at twenty-two it was highly likely that no one much cared what I had to say about God and, moreover, at twenty-two I didn’t have very much worth saying. But I signed the contract as an act of faith in the yet to be spoken while two of my best friends watched and whispered promises that this was meet and right and even bounded duty.

But the contract I signed came with a generous portion of time affixed to it. The book was yet to be written and I had signed for the promise of words before there were words to offer. Again, belief in those things yet to be spoken. The yet was the turning word, the tuning word, the word that was vouchsafe and promise, perhaps even covenant, which I wound like rosary up to the vaulted heavens, up unto the throne of God.

There is a misconception, I have found, by some who stand on the other side of the text. Readers as exclusive beings, taking in for leisure and not for generative work tend to think that the theleological triumph is vested in the book contract itself. The signing. The obligation to be published. This is touted as the great victory. And I concede that it is, to a point. I ordered champagne and bought an icon, updated my blog page and admitted politely when declining an invitation that I needed to work on a chapter. (At first, I did this to the point of nausea, God and my friends forgive me, but I have since abandoned the practice.)

But you can only drink so much champagne and buy so many icons before you actually have to do something about that contract you signed which obligated them to publish you as much as it obligated you to actually write something. Then comes the panic. Then comes the staying up into the wee hours and the frantic calls to best friends in which you rather frankly and ungraciously complain that everything you write is horseshit and you have no idea why anyone, ever, would have considered you a wise investment.

And you worry about revealing that too openly, because you don’t want that call from your publisher or your agent asking, kindly—too kindly—Are you alright?

I’ve wound my way to this, you see: the question of qualification.

At a certain point, we have to believe that if He has put before us a thing that needs doing, it is He who makes us able to do the thing that needs doing. I could turn and churn the frantic fear of not being able to write well for days and weeks and end up with blank, lifeless pages. And I did, for a time. But there came a moment of quiet epiphany, in the rustle whisper revelation of the Scripture.

In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul speaks the poetics of our faith: and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

It turns there, like Rilke’s yet, all on He.

There’s a lot of theological technicality in the wording, of what we call justified and glorified, but if the Scripture can speak to us on the very surface, is it not inviting us to accept this: that He who began a good work—see, we return again to its own words—is in fact seeing it to completion; that He, who called us according to His purpose, is fulfilling the calling in us; that He, not by our works of righteousness but by His sustaining, is bringing about exactly what He would will be done?

So we are left with this, the question of qualification.

It is God who qualifies. It is God who sees through. It is God who can take credit for any good word ever printed on a page. Should I ever say anything of worth about or concerning Him, it is by His scandalous grace. And it is only by that I am able to take up a pen or place fingers to a keyboard.

Such that I believe in all that has never yet been spoken, if I grasp however feebly to trust in Him.

~

Preston Yancey is earning his Master of Letters at the University of St. Andrews in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the St. Mary’s School of Divinity. His first book about a reverential approach to Scripture, ‘Tables in the Wilderness,’ is due out with Rhizome in Summer 2013. His second, ‘A Common Faith: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again’ is being written now. Follow his writing at SeePrestonBlog.com and on twitter @prestonyancey.

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