Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Launch

Long before I found a publisher for my book, The Middle Of Things, I dreamed about the party I would throw when I finally found a home for the manuscript. The reality of planning such a party couldn’t quite match the grand plans I made to distract myself from the fears I might never publish the book at all, but in many ways the launch was better than anything I could have imagined - full of warmth and love and many of the people I hold dear, the people who believe in me on good days, bad days, and all the days between. Click here and scroll down to see a few of my favorite moments, captured by Kate Roberts of Pressed and Brewed.












Thursday, September 21, 2017

What love can do

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
July 9, 2017
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

I told Isaac after the service last week that a more fitting lyric for his sermon, in contrast to the Chance the Rapper line, “the praises go up/the blessings come down,” would have been a line from “Wait For It” from Hamilton: “Love doesn’t discriminate/between the sinners and the saints/it takes and it takes and it takes….” Thus you might guess that I bring a hint of skepticism to this story about the supposed blessings God is about to bestow on God’s people in Genesis 24. In comparison to last week’s message from Genesis 22, which is confusing is plenty of ways, I find this one more clearly focused on the idea of blessings and promises fulfilled.

The narrative goes like this: Abraham’s servant has been tasked with finding a wife for his son, Isaac. But not just any woman will do; Abraham insists she cannot be a Canaanite woman. So the servant travels, as promised, to Abraham’s country of origin in search of a partner for Isaac. Upon his arrival, he devises a plan, a series of actions and phrases by which God might reveal the right woman. He will wait for the right “sign” from God that he’s found The One.

In the section of the text we heard today, he is relaying the story of his interaction with Rebekah to her brother, Laban and father, Bethuel. That is to say, he’s telling the men in charge of her fate about God’s “blessed” plan, which is now known to him because she drew water for him, and for his camels, and comes from the right family. In some of the verses left out by the lectionary, the men respond simply, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything good or bad. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the lord has spoken.” (v. 50-51) Note the trend here: Abraham sends his servant to his homeland, the servant devises a plan, the brother and father respond. The movement of this passage is driven by men, not by God.

In the most basic sense, this passage is about an arranged marriage, but not only that, it’s specifically concerned with bloodlines, with lineage. And yet, I remember my college bible professor describing this chapter as one of the few moments of “romance” in the bible: “He took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.”

ROMANCE? Isaac’s dad’s servant brought this barely consenting woman, Rebekah, to him and “took her to his mother’s tent.” This is not romance, this is going home with your first match on a JDate profile that your parents set up for you, and staying. For the rest of your life.

We can laugh about the absurdity of it, but so much of this story has been integrated into the way that people, religious and nonreligious, talk about love as if it’s a promise fulfilled, a reward – though for what, I’m not exactly sure at times. My professor isn’t the only one to describe the text as an instance of romance, either. There’s a prevalent belief that love is a blessing God will bestow upon the worthy, the faithful, the particularly lovable people who are just somehow “right” for each other and whose union is needed for some divine purpose. And, simply put, “right” for each other is limited, for far too many white Christians, not only to man and woman but white man and white woman, for the purpose of procreation, which is to say, the continuation of white heteronormative power. The language of family values is rarely anything other than a thinly veiled fear of losing that power. And when we talk about love, we cannot escape questions of power, of control. Certainly, Rebekah has little control in this story.

“Who were you taught you could love?” an ethics professor asked me a decade ago. I looked at the friend next to me, an out lesbian. “White boys,” I said. “Not women,” she said. “Other Christians,” we both nodded. It was the first time I really considered that love is political. Years later I would remember this conversation when my boyfriend at the time, a culturally Muslim agnostic slash honestly probably more of an atheist international student, from Pakistan, asked me what my very conservative parents would think of him. I resisted the urge to sugarcoat it. But the fact of the matter was that even his more liberal family, while he seemed to think they would have liked and respected me, had certain expectations that I would not have been able to live up to, either. It was a somber conversation, the meaning of our relationship somehow beyond our control.

I joked earlier about JDate, which is a dating site specifically for Jewish singles. There’s a Mennonite equivalent called MennoMeet which describes itself as “The community for singles who identify with Mennonite faith, culture or tradition. Like a potluck, but you don’t have to bring a dish…” The emphasis is strong, even among our supposedly justice minded group, on pairing off with the “right” kind of person, lest we think this is only the evangelicals. There are certain boundaries love is expected not to transgress.

Suffice it to say that the God-ordained romance take on this text has been and is badly applied. Walter Brueggemann argues that in many respects the story, as told by Abraham’s servant, is tongue in cheek, facetious even. This man is so sure this is God’s will, God’s promise — but how does he know? What makes him so sure? All this woman did was water his camels. A perfectly reasonable thing to do. All that has really happened is that the servant has found a woman with the right credentials, so he brings her back and she marries Isaac, the story fitting into the prescribed narrative of blessing, of love. Where is God in these actions, these men’s efforts to bring God’s promise to fulfillment?

Don’t we, in different ways from our different lives and situations, know this isn’t always how love works? That love is not always a blessing. That love does not conquer all. That sometimes love takes more than it gives, and that trying to earn someone’s affections, or expecting another to deserve yours, is a recipe for all kinds of disaster.

Thinking of Rebekah, and how little agency she has in this story, I think of people who are stuck, now. How many women stay with men who hurt them because, they say, “but he loves me” or “I love him”? How many women tell themselves, “he’ll stop hitting me if I stop doing this thing that makes him angry”? It’s not just women, of course, nor is violence always overt or physical, though it is also women who are most often taught to sacrifice, especially for love, taught in so many ways that they must earn love through pain – it’s all there in Genesis 3, isn’t it?

All this emphasis on love is for naught, if what you need is to let go of a dangerous love, a coercive love, a love that expects you to suffer in order earn it, a love that is a blessing bestowed only upon the deserving by the powerful.

Perhaps then the bit of hope I pull from this text is that God somehow works through this frail bond between Isaac and Rebekah, through Rebekah’ small “Yes,” through fragile human relationships of all kinds, including but not limited to the marital ones. It’s as unstable a foundation as I can think of, frankly, and the rest of Genesis attests to the wobbly nature of human relationships. Later on Isaac lies about his wife, putting her in danger; both Isaac and Rebekah play favorites with their sons; Rebekah and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac; Esau vows to kill his brother Jacob – all of this just in the next two chapters.

“We laugh and we cry/and we break/and we make our mistakes,” to pick back up the lyrics from Hamilton. “Love” gets thrown around like it’s the answer, but perhaps it is rather the question we try to answer daily. If love truly has some revolutionary, transformative power, it is in “Yes” as well as “No,” in transgressing all the many lines that have been drawn around not only who we can love but how. This love is creating something new. And isn’t that in some sense what so much of Genesis is about? God creating something new.

God is quiet in Genesis 24. That things turn out well in the end reflects the author’s conviction that everything, every outcome, is ultimately under God’s care, regardless of how visible or vocal God may have been. Unlike Genesis 22, when God told Abraham what to do in no uncertain terms, here the people interpret in retrospect. “We do not always know the gifts of God in advance,” Brueggemann writes. But we see them, looking back. Instead of searching for mystical signs from God of what is “meant to be,” expecting clear directions, in embracing lives of love we would do well to resist both romanticism on one hand, and cynicism on the other – toward God, certainly, but also toward each other and ourselves. Who knows what we might create then; who knows what love can do?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Goodbye, Hello, I'm Leaving to Stay

This is an essay I wrote and published exclusively for my Patreon supporters in July 2016 while on a DIY Writing Residency in New York (a.k.a. cat sitting for a friend). All my gratitude to my patrons, who helped me write this essay last year.

Over the years, it has become something of a Thing to write essays after Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” about leaving New York. I have never had the chance to leave New York, however, because I have yet to come and stay. I once told an old boyfriend (perhaps to keep him from getting used to having me around) that sooner or later I must move to New York precisely so that I can become disillusioned with it and say goodbye. When it comes to stereotypes about the writing life, it seems that leaving New York is second only to moving there in the first place.

I adore Joan Didion, and in fact I adore New York as well, but I do not think I will ever write such an essay.

Each time I come to New York I love it a little more – even as I grow a little older, even as I settle a little more firmly in Durham, even as I become a little more realistic about what such a life would mean. At 32, I won’t pretend that the idea of moving to a new city, alone, isn’t daunting, though if any city could tempt me it is New York.

These days, rather than a desire to move to the city, I find in myself a desire to come back again and again and get to know her as a friend. Perhaps we'll never go steady, but I flirt, shamelessly. I cheat on my home with another metropolis, spending a weekend here, a couple of weeks there, and my home can't blame me, not really, because New York is New York is New York. I am a writer, and I am not immune to her charms.

I say I won't move here because I cannot afford it (who can?), but in truth each time I am here, exploring the city on a shoe-string budget, I think to myself that perhaps I'd rather be broke here than anywhere else. The real reason I won't move here evades me, though I wonder today if maybe it is that I crave the manageable urban environment I now inhabit, where I run into my city council people at the coffee shop and farmer’s market, and choose between my two or three favorite bars on the weekends. I am comforted by familiarity, because so often I feel so alone in this world. It is a writerly kind of alone, and secretly I fear that in a larger place “alone” would eventually morph into “lonely.”

It is good to know my city council people, to know my bartender's name, and for them to know mine. It is good to be able to navigate, via bicycle, a maze of un-gridded streets that mystify out of town visitors – even if the “out of town visitor” is merely a bewildered Tinder date from Raleigh. It is good to know the history of those streets and the buildings that line them, and to care about their future, and the future of the city I call home.

I always assume that is harder to do in a city like New York, though I can't know for sure. I imagine people that commit to the city find that sense of home somewhere, find their places, cities within a city, to feel at rest. Again, I don't know. I don't live there. And there are things you only know about a place when you've lived there, when you keep living there, when you give it time and let it take you in, make you its own.

That perhaps is why I don’t want to move, even as every time I return to New York people ask me if I will, if I am planning, scheming, if that’s the reason for the repeat visits. But no. I don't know when it happened, but in some now vanished moment I let Durham have my heart. I let her start to mold me, make me into a different kind of person, a different kind of writer. A place will change you if you let it, and I did.

So much "development" is other people (and other people's money) changing the face of a city. But I am more interested in knowing who she was and is, and letting her change me. I live and work with people who remember and know, who tell me stories, who help me imagine the future of Durham by understanding her past. This place was home for my neighbors long before it was home for me.

Writers who think about the idea of place often focus on rural environments, and gravitate toward writers like Wendell Berry. That strikes me as a mistake, a failure of imagination that neglects all the ways the lives of people in small cities are intertwined, and indeed intertwined with rural folks, as well. This is not to say we don’t need Wendell Berry; we need rural writers like Wendell Berry, and writers from every other kind of place, as well. The Wendell Berry vs. New York writer dichotomy, like most either/ors, is false. We leave, we stay, rural and urban dwellers alike; we build fragile lives together over the short and long term. All of that is worth the attention of our art, all of that is part of this idea of place.

I was young when I moved to Durham. Nine years later, I think – I hope – am a better, wiser person. Some of that is simply age, but some of it is undoubtedly the lessons my city has taught me from year to year. The more-or-less stable life I’ve built here allows me the freedom to create, to take risks in my art that I might not take were I not surrounded by a supportive community that knows and loves me.

I am from Kalamazoo, Michigan; I will always be from Kalamazoo, Michigan. A Midwestern girl, a Michigander, a southern transplant. I use my hand to show you where I spent my childhood, where I grew up, before I uprooted.

But in these late days of summer, as the crepe myrtle trees bloom and we all wilt in stifling heat, I know in my bones, in every inch of my sweaty, freckled skin, that Durham, North Carolina is my home.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Fragmentation

It's too much. It continues to be too much. I don't have the words, and I continue to write them anyway, many of them wrong. What else can I do? What else can any of us do, besides continue to do and give our best to our neighbors, to work a little bit longer, to fight a little bit harder, give what we didn't know we had, because we believe that we will get through this.

Or maybe we don’t believe that, not really, but we have to pretend, because again, what else can we do?

I write in fragments, now, my thoughts disjointed. Broken. What before held together, albeit loosely, shattered beyond repair.

November 9, 2016
When they called North Carolina for Tr*mp, I left the LGBTQ Center and road my bike home alone. The sinking feeling in my gut was unlike any I've felt in any other election, or any other time.

I sobbed uncontrollably for a long time last night. I doubt whether I will ever see a woman president, though for a few days I had dared to hope that my beloved nieces might grow up in a world where women had always been able to hold that particular office. I cried for myself, and for all the people I love.

I cried more today listening to Hillary's speech, a speech which was what it needed to be, a speech in which she played out her role perfectly to the very end, campaigning against, debating, and now conceding to a man so unworthy of her efforts that I can barely stand it.

This is what it is to be a woman.

I listened to the speech, and I understood but did not agree with the call for unity, the admonition that we now owe Tr*mp our support as president elect.

I owe him nothing. Rather, I owe it to my neighbors to fight like hell.

November 10, 2016
You can be part of the solution, or you can be part of the problem. There is no other option in this world, no room for complacency. People will lose their lives; people have already lost their lives.

I have a date this weekend with a man who self identifies as a feminist, yet seems politically apathetic at best. And among the many things, large and small, weighing on my mind today is this: why would I waste a single moment of my precious life on someone who does not care? There is no joy in a relationship with someone who is not willing to fight with and for me and for all of those I love.



You may wonder at the people protesting in the streets last night. Perhaps you misunderstand protest, if you are asking, "What will that accomplish? The people have spoken." For one thing, it is not as simple as that, given the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Many voices were not heard on election day due to systemic voter suppression. Second, as the numbers are tallied and we see that HRC won the popular vote, again the question arises as to whether, with an archaic electoral college designed to protect white landowning men, it will ever be true that "every vote counts."

But ultimately, the reasons to protest in the immediate aftermath of the election are less strategic than they are about the visceral need to see and hear one another, to stand in solidarity at a moment in time when that solidarity may feel like something we imagined.

December 15, 2016
We all have work to do. We cannot each do everything, but we all have to do something. For me, that's doubling down on my commitment to words, and using them well. It's preaching the gospel. It's prayers and invocations and benedictions and listening, listening, listening. And speaking through tears, when my voice cracks, because this year broke me open like none other, and though we may say "Good riddance 2016!" I am smart enough to know that things may well get worse before they get better. So I will continue to write as best I am able, using words accurately and carefully to describe what I see. This is how I have always practiced resistance. I simply never knew how badly I would need it, now, trying to articulate a some way forward.

January 20, 2017
You can’t go home again.

That unoriginal phrase sums up so many of the things I’ve been writing and thinking about lately. I thought I was writing something about desire, but perhaps it’s not about wanting so much as about loss, about becoming who you want to be, only to realize you can never get back to who you once were.

I have never felt less at home in my new world than I do now, when all the white people around me are talking about “the white working class,” these other people out there, these people they don’t know, these people they want to understand.

When I parlayed my student loan financed education into a graduate program at Duke (and more loans) I did not feel like I belonged there, and yet for many reasons, my skin among them, I had access. And I could learn to act like I belonged, fake like I shared a certain upbringing, mask my shock at so many little things others treated as normal that to me were anything but.

White people with money seem to think that being more sympathetic to “the white working class” will somehow fix racism, I guess. Typing that sentence makes it seems even more absurd than just thinking it. I did not wake up to racism because rich white liberals were patient and kind and sympathetic toward me. Maybe instead try listening to people of color and believing their descriptions of their own lives, learning about unconscious bias, learning about the actual history and policy that uphold systemic racism, the scaffolding of our country. Do we need to learn empathy? Sure - but with whom?

Perhaps I am arguing with myself, here. Perhaps this is all about my inability to feel at home in the places my education has bought me access to, and the guilt that discomfort and confusion causes. My own intersecting identities leave me both vulnerable and, theoretically, powerful. Always disorienting, that apparent contradiction is even more so in a moment when so many of us feel powerless.

Every recommendation that I should learn about “the white working class” is a reminder that I don’t belong. And so I am compelled to further self interrogation, to make sense of my own whiteness, alongside this class confusion, as if articulating it might somehow fix this feeling of being cut off from both my past and my present.

January 23, 2017
Who do we think can actually be "convinced" by conversation, and why? How does one best channel one's energies in fighting against Tr*mp and all the other evils around us that his name seems to have become a stand-in for? Some people can have fruitful conversations with their conservative relatives, and if you can, I hope you do. For me, wasting time feeling guilty about not rehashing the same painful arguments I’ve been having for years seems like a pretty terrible way to practice resistance. It seems like dwelling on feelings of white guilt, frankly, as if maybe somehow I could absolve myself of my own failings by having enough awkward family dinners, as if my own past and that legacy of whiteness could be fixed by that, somehow. I don’t think so. Sometimes you have to cut your losses, and find other ways to do the work.

February 25, 2017
When I am afraid, my impulse is to pursue knowledge. If I just understood, perhaps I would know what to do, perhaps I could respond in the right way, do the right thing. Trump removes the Spanish version of the White House website, and I redouble my meager efforts to learn Spanish. The checks and balances of our three branches of government become increasingly important due to our power hungry president, so I start listening to SCOTUS podcasts to better understand the judiciary branch.

These are reasonable things to do. You no doubt have your own coping mechanisms. But in the end, no amount of knowledge will protect me, or enable me to protect those I love.

April 22, 2017
I saw an article this week about a large number of people leaving their churches since November, and it made me scratch my head, because I see the opposite impulse, not only in myself, but even in my other, non religious communities. People want to believe in something other than us, because it is really difficult to believe in us right now, even if you surround yourself with kind and generous people as much as possible. I wonder whether the people leaving their churches are leaving because those churches fail to speak to those fragile moments, fail to name the fears, the doubts, fail to struggle together to see Jesus in this wounded world and to figure out how to love one another within it.

June 13, 2017
“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?” Claudia Rankine, Citizen, p. 116.

June 16, 2017
As heavily as current events that make the news weigh on my mind, what is sometimes worse is the fear of the quietly humming machinery running behind the scenes. You can neither keep up with nor control it. Economic devastation seems inevitable, regardless of what else we do.

People are dying, at home, abroad. Gun in the hands of civilians, bombs dropped by the businessman in chief.

The talk of impeachment continues, and as it becomes more real, so does my fear of  Pence. This waking nightmare is never ending. Daily life is normal, and anything but.





I find refuge in routine. Wake up at 7, make coffee, drink coffee while listening to a podcast (Monday - Book Riot, Tuesday - Dear Prudence, Wednesday - Code Switch, Thursday - Politically Reactive, Friday - Call Your Girlfriend), make breakfast, write morning pages.








All of this happens by 9am, at which point I have to figure out how to work during the less structured hours of 9-noon, when my calendar says simply “write” and I fear that I am running out of words.









Friday, March 31, 2017

100 Tweeds

I am wearing 100 Tweeds today because it is the scent of being the smartest person in the room - old books, cigars, leather armchairs, understated brilliance that doesn't need to prove itself. It's "masculine" in that silly way that we gender things without gender, like perfume, like beverages, giving them meanings that expand or constrict without warning. I wear it to feel expansive, to take up space literal and metaphorical, to refuse the shrinkage this world asks of women every day.

I am thinking, too, about how much of my writing life consists of pointing out connections that appear logical to me, indeed almost obvious, yet which people writing for big publications often miss entirely. Right now, that's the fact that Mike Pence's views about dining alone with women have everything to do with his tie breaking vote yesterday to block family planning money. The need to control women's bodies, the narrowness of who and what we are, the risk our bodily freedom poses to men in power - these are integrally related. I studied philosophy in college - a "masculine" subject, one of three women in the class of '07 to earn that major at Hope (in a small department that amounted to 30% of that year's phil grads) - so I've been trained to think in certain ways. No doubt this is one result.

Bringing the above thoughts together, then, I wonder how much of my surprise that others do not always see the connections I consider so obvious stems from not grasping my own intelligence. Saying "Isn't it obvious?" is as much about my inability to acknowledge my own authority on certain matters as it is about naming a clear "If a, then b..." connection. In saying it's "obvious," I diminish my own importance. I shrink, even as I am trying to expand.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

When Harry Did Not Meet Sally

A couple of years ago I confided to a married male friend that, even though I’d long since rejected the idea that cisgendered heterosexual men and women can’t be friends, I still worried sometimes about other people’s perceptions of my friendships. I know better than to think people will not make incorrect assumptions about my friendships with men, single or married, and I felt the need to tread carefully. I still assumed I would be considered “the other woman,” no matter that my friendships were platonic, open, and honest - nothing secretive about them. My friend was surprised that I would feel this way, and in a weird way that has helped me in the years since to stop wasting time or energy on the matter, to chalk these worries up to my conservative evangelical past and its resulting internalized sexism and self loathing. Of course some people might have their own ideas about my friendships, but so long as my friends, their partners, and I were all on the same page, why waste time worrying about what anyone else thinks? Unfortunately, the simple suggestion that “men and women can’t be friends” has darker implications, beyond my own day to day life.

This week’s flurry of hot takes about the fact that Mike Pence won’t eat alone with women other than his wife (a throw-back to the “Billy Graham rule”), and the number of people like blogger Matt Walsh who’ve defended the position, are a sad reminder that this belief is still prevalent, that it is anything but fringe. Some might laugh it off as an unimportant aside, but I would argue that rather it has everything to do with who we understand women to be and how they are (and will be) treated. That a married man like Matt Walsh cannot think of a single good reason to spend time with a woman who is not his wife tells me in no uncertain terms that he believes women are for sex, for reproduction, and for raising children. Full stop. He cannot imagine that half of his fellow humans have anything else to offer in personal or professional relationships. The caution against spending time with women is framed as a matter of avoiding situations of compromise or suspicion, which on its surface might seem harmless enough - but what that means, specifically, is that women are a source of suspicion. Always.

Coming off the controversy around Tim Keller over the last couple of weeks, as a woman and particularly as one who studies and writes about theology, who teaches and preaches and may hopefully one day be a pastor, I am hyper aware that this kind of misogyny is alive and well even among mainline and some so-called liberal Christians. Others with closer ties to Princeton and the Presbyterian church have written with nuance and heart about that situation, so I don’t feel the need to add to their work (though you should absolutely click those links and read it). Rather I want to point out that the resurgence of these ideas, indeed the fact that those who aren’t as familiar with the religious right are learning for the first time that people think such things, has everything to do with this brand of misogyny becoming mainstream.

Perhaps you think people are being alarmist when they reference The Handmaid’s Tale in relation to the current administration's ideas about women. But these conversations about women and friendship, about whether there is such a thing as “debate” with someone who doesn’t think women can preach, have everything to do with who counts as human, and all the civil and religious liberties that go along with it. If women are only for sex and reproduction, if women should be avoided as temptresses, their bodies carefully controlled, it is not a far leap to the handmaidens Margaret Atwood imagined. Inherent in Walsh’s question, posed as a response to the outcry about Pence’s statement, is the belief both that women’s bodies are for sex and that women exist for men, but that even in existing for men they only offer their bodies, not their whole selves. “Why,” he seems to be asking, “would I spend time with a woman, if not to sleep with her? Therefore I should not spend time with her, lest I be tempted to cheat on my wife.”

I meet with married men alone all the time, as professional women must. As a writing tutor for graduate students in a divinity school, I simply couldn’t do my job if I didn’t. I meet with them in a dull beige office, a professional context, to offer my expertise on theological writing. It is not nearly as sexy as men like Walsh seem to think it is. In fact, it’s quite boring. We mostly talk about commas, active versus passive voice, nouns, verbs, and when it’s appropriate to use “I” in academic writing. Not exactly fodder for anyone’s fantasies.

I also meet with colleagues and former classmates to talk about our careers. I meet male friends for coffee, or for drinks after work, to talk about our lives, our relationships, about books and music and ideas - about many of the same things I share with my women friends, in fact. I cannot speak for them, but I would wager that these men benefit from their friendships with me in many ways. I shouldn’t have to say this next part, but I will: I don’t want to sleep with any of them. And despite what Walsh would have us believe, it is far from “normal” to insinuate that it’s bad for men to make friends with women. It’s disturbing and misogynist and deeply unchristian. It tells me much more about his preoccupation with women’s bodies as sexual objects than it does about anything else.

I hope I can avoid sounding trite in turning here to Galatians 3:28, a verse in some sense both over and underused to discuss the truth that we are neither male nor female but are rather one in Christ. When I read this passage I hear two things: one, a divine reality that in Christ we have been made one, our differences not erased but woven together, freed from oppressive categories; and two, the call to embody that truth by doing the difficult work of making it true in our lives and communities. Make no mistake: it is work. Change is not inevitable on this or any other matter.

In my more generous moments, I feel bad for people like Walsh. They miss out on so much that women have to offer. If they did have women friends, they might learn a thing or two, might even change their minds about some of their toxic theology, though I don’t hold out much hope for that. On the contrary, I would caution any woman to refrain from befriending men with such an evil perception of who they are, for fear of the emotional, spiritual, and physical trauma that too often results. Men like this will continue to subjugate women’s bodies and intellect, perpetuating cycles of abuse, and ultimately turning people away from the church, because of their distortion of the gospel. A distortion that currently resides in the White House, and will dictate policy for years to come. While stepping away from the proliferation of hot takes and internet controversy is important, sometimes it’s the small things like this that point to the bigger, scarier trends that affect us all.

Perhaps most scary to me is how easily moderate and liberal men dismiss women's responses to people like Keller, Pence, Walsh, and others. Have you so quickly adapted to this "new normal"? Do you really need to "hear both sides"? Do we really mean so little to you?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Uncertain Present

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

In today’s gospel text, we enter the story of Jesus’ public ministry in the middle of things. John has baptized Jesus, the devil has tempted him, crowds and crowds of people have listened to his words, and he’s healed people who thought they might never be well. Jesus has also called twelve particular people to follow him as he teaches and preaches, healing people in God’s name. The disciples answered his call, following him, listening as he tells multilayered stories, parables that teach lessons but also begin to reveal his true nature. Over and over throughout the gospels they just don’t quite seem to get it, though. This interests me, because responding to a call like Jesus’ call when you don’t really know who this guy is yet is more mind boggling to me than, say, reading these texts centuries later and thinking, okay, yes, this guy triumphs over death, seems worth dropping everything to follow him, to be part of what he’s doing in the world.

But the disciples don’t really have that kind of knowledge yet. He is their rabbi, their teacher, and certainly they know he’s something special. How could they not? They’ve witnessed the healing, they’ve heard him speak. They left their old lives behind to join him. Here in Matthew 17 things become more clear. This chapter sheds some light – literally – on what is to come.

Jesus has already told the disciples what’s ahead, though Peter refused to believe it. And now Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a mountain side, retreating from the crowds, echoing Moses’ mountain top sojourn in Exodus 24. And lo, Moses himself, along with Elijah, joins them there. At first Peter wants to stay, to build some shelters and set up camp and spend some time here with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Things have been chaotic for Jesus and his disciples, traveling around, followed by crowds. And things will become even more intense in the days to come. The disciples are following Jesus, but they’re still learning who he is, and I think they’re unsettled by what he tells them is on the horizon. This mountain top transfiguration reveals something new to his followers. Some call it the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

“He was transfigured before them,” the text says, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” This interruption, this revelation, is scary, what with the voice booming from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Jesus is glowing, resplendent. His terrified disciples fall to the ground, overcome by their fear. The text continues, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Jesus tells the disciples to keep what they’ve seen to themselves until after he’s been raised from the dead, which no doubt confuses them, though they seem to comply. Later, in 2 Peter, this story is retold, an eye-witness account for posterity. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter says, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

This idea of accounts of the transfiguration as a lamp in a dark place resonates with some of what I see going on around us, as do Jesus words of comfort and instruction, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This week the Washington Post unveiled a new motto, “Democracy dies in the dark.” And while theologically I think we’re concerned with something other than mere democracy, I think there’s a resonance here that I hope I can make clear.

I read a novel this weekend, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani author who spent many years living in both New York and London before returning to his home in Lahore. In the novel, a young Pakistani man named Chengez has recently graduated from Princeton and been hired for a highly competitive position in finance. He is living an American dream of sorts at 22, brilliant and successful and dominating his new job. And then the planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 and everything changed. Not only how others perceived him, not only his fear for his family back home in Lahore, but also in how he saw himself, the path he was on, what it meant to be working twelve hour days to build a capitalist empire intent on destroying people like him, and his home.

Suffice it to say that this felt like a timely read for many reasons, especially following the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan last week, which drew little media attention. While our president continues to fight nonexistent boogie men, people are dying. Who has reason to fear whom, when Muslims and people of color in the U.S. who “look” Muslim to some are told to “go home” – or worse, violently attacked, sometimes killed, as happened this week in Kansas. We cannot claim to be a country that values religious freedom. And increasingly it’s clear that for many, faith in God is not stronger than faith in America.

Hamid has this to say about the challenges of moving home to Lahore after his time living abroad:

My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there. 
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.

Hamid’s words about his home connected with a lot of what I hear in people’s fears in the U.S. lately. Some of us probably gave up our faith this place we call home a long time ago, if we had any faith in it to begin with. Many more of our friends and neighbors are for the first time struggling to hang on to their beliefs in this thing called America, this empire, this crumbling democracy. Others double down on that dream, claiming alternately that this seeming crisis is making us great again, a return to a past viewed through rose tinted lenses. And still others respond by noting all the ways a nation built on slavery and genocide has never been great, but dreaming that we could be, someday. In Hamid’s novel, after 9/11 Chengez says, “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.”

I wonder now if the dream that is dying needs to die – much as the disciples’ visions for who Jesus is and what he would accomplish died in the time following this mountain top transfiguration. This is not to say we shouldn't resist the current sad excuse for national leadership, but rather that our Christian and particularly Mennonite resistance is to dream, and to live, for something different. To get up, and not be afraid, to resist the current regime not in order to maintain the status quo of the U.S. government and so-called “American” ideals, but to shine light on all the dark places created by human lust for power.

2 Peter says, “no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Would that we might also be so moved by that Spirit. We'll enter Lent later this week, the journey toward Good Friday followed by Easter morning alleluias. The world will turn. But it does not turn on the transfer of human power – peaceful or not – in the US, or anywhere else. In revealing himself on the mountaintop, Jesus' otherness is obvious. He is not the leader we expect or even want, at times. What sort of world does that usher in?

Hamid wrote of existing “suspended between what is and what we desire there to be,” and that is precisely the story that narrates our lives together, as followers of Christ – an imperfect past, an uncertain present, a future we have yet to grasp.