Friday, April 17, 2015

Link Round Up!

I’m trying something new: an annotated “link round-up” of some of the best essays, articles, podcasts, etc. I’ve encountered each week. Leave a comment to let me know what you think.

Reading
The newly launched Lit Hub. Brilliant content, and the best-ever Joan Didion tote bags. Subscribe to their daily email for the best of the literary internet (and while you’re at it, unsubscribe from those other lists you delete every morning, if you’re anything like me).

Lindsay King-Miller’s spot-on analysis of the latest Dove “Real Beauty” campaign.

Kate Bolick’s review of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (edited by Meghan Daum). I’m hoping to get my hands on the book soon, too.

Rachel Vorona Cote on Productivity Anxiety: “These are things that I must learn, and on my own: to set my own pace, and turn away from the fray,” she writes. As a recovering work-a-holic with the kind of career that is especially prone to productivity anxiety, this resonated with me.

George Orwell on the cost of books vs. cigarettes. I re-read this essay this morning due to my current project, downsizing my library, and also because I’ve been paying attention to how much my contemporaries and I spend on coffee (today's acceptable vice). Books, we think, are a costly luxury, while $5 coffee drinks are -- well, what? A need? I’d venture most grad students I know spend the equivalent of a hardcover book (or my grocery bill...) in coffee shops each week. I’ve been buying books lately, and making my coffee at home. When I can’t spare the cash for books, I support my local library.

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin: This is not a link, but a strong recommendation. Brilliant in both the intellectual and the literary sense, as timely today as when it was written. (Speaking of libraries, you can definitely find a copy at yours.)

Little Anodynes: Poems, by Jon Pineda: You need Jon Pineda’s poems in your life. (You might not be able to find it at your library yet, but you can support your local bookshop and a small press by foregoing a few lattes and buying it. You might also request that your library procure a copy!)

Listening
Toni Morrison talks about her new novel, God Help the Child. Let’s all go read the novel, now.

Krista Tippett interviews Danah Boyd: Online Reflections of Our Offline Lives. This is fascinating and helpful, especially for any of you who work with young people (but even if you don’t).

The new Villagers album, Darling Arithmetic. I’m happy Conor O’Brien has drifted back to what I think of as his “one guy with a guitar” style for this album.

Watching
Inspector Morse, Season 5, on Hulu Plus. I’m a sucker for a good mystery series. Always have been.

Cooking
These life-changing small batch cinnamon rolls. Christina Lane’s Dessert for Two might be my next book purchase.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Broken Bread

Note: I wrote the following for a collaborative Lent devotional with Shalom Mennonite and Community Mennonite of Harrisonburg, VA. Though Lent and Holy Week are over for this year, I wanted to share this short reflection from Maundy Thursday here anyway.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

In our little church in Chapel Hill we celebrate communion seven times a year, so it’s not that often that I get to help serve bread and cup. Having washed my hands thoroughly in preparation for serving, I delight in taking hold of the crisp crust of the fresh loaf, getting flour on the clean skin of my bare hands, and tearing it down the middle as someone else reads, “This is my body that is for you.” It makes a mess, crumbs on the table and the floor. It’s tactile. I hold the bread up, half in each hand, for all to see. It feels awkward, this moment of quiet reverence in our blessedly informal lives together. But I love that awkwardness, as I love what follows, when the servers walk around the circle, breaking off chunks of bread and pressing them into open hands.

Someone once told me that people are never so beautiful as they are when they approach the communion table, and I look for that beauty now in my friend’s faces. I try to make eye contact as I say, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” For you, you, you -- and for me, for us. As the text says, we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes, but this practice points to more than that. In our communion together we proclaim that our faith is an embodied faith. Christ’s body is for us, we are for Christ, and in belonging to Christ we belong to one another. Body and soul, we are each one for the other. During Lent -- a season of fasts, to be followed by feasting -- it seems appropriate to ask, then, how we can better care for the bodies that make up the body of Christ. Physically and spiritually, we are hungry and in need. Those crumbs that scatter when I break the bread are as much a part of the body as the larger chunks of bread in my hand -- all parts broken off from the whole. When one is ill, isolated, in mental or physical pain, brokenness is perhaps all too easy to understand. What is harder is belonging, naming and caring for our individual crumbled lives as a way of re-membering, of holding ourselves together as one, as Christ did on the night he was betrayed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Masks & Mirrors

Last night I read with a group of local women writers as part of the Masks & Mirrors exhibition at Cassilhaus. I haven’t had many opportunities to read in public yet, though I’ve attended more readings than I can count. As a freshman at Hope College I loved attending the school’s Visiting Writers Series. The student jazz band would play beforehand as people trickled into the Knickerbocker Theater on 8th St in downtown Holland, Michigan, a few blocks from campus, and I would get there early to listen. Whether because some professors assigned extra credit for attending, or because the readings were just that good (I err on the side of the latter), VWS events packed the house. I was a bit spoiled by this introduction to book events.

In any case, I think my love of attending readings, which began with those readings at the Knick, prepared me to love offering readings of my own, because I know what fun it is to listen to someone else share their craft. Reading in public makes me nervous, especially in the final minutes leading up to an event, yet once I begin there is only me, the page, and the audience. I forget to be nervous. I hope they will laugh in the right places (and not in the wrong ones), that the piece will have its desired effect. But I can never be quite sure it will until after I’ve read it, which is another thing I like about reading in public. When my work is published, I am unable to observe people’s reactions, so I never really know if my words inspired the emotions and connections I hope they will. When I read to you, your reaction lets me know if I’ve succeeded in the ways that matter to me most. Are the words on the page what I thought they were? Hopefully so. If not, I can (probably) fix it for next time.

The essay I read last night had not previously been shared with anyone besides my classmates and teachers when I was at Queens. There was an added thrill for me in the act of sharing something fresh, new -- excerpts from the unpublished manuscript. Part of that thrill is that, though I write for myself in many ways, I also write for readers. I write in order to share what I write. (Mostly. I also write things that will be kept under lock and key f-o-r-e-v-e-r.) So it makes me happy to read to people, and find that yes, as I had hoped, my humor brought them joy, my analysis made them think, my story resonated with their stories, and these connections coalesce into an evening of delight for us all. Reading and writing connects us.

I kept thinking last night about when I took piano lessons, and had recitals throughout the year. Every few months we prepared for a performance. All of that practice -- the scales and arpeggios, drilling difficult sections -- paid off when family and friends gathered to listen to us play. Sometimes things went well. Other times, less so. For my final recital, in high school, I enthusiastically performed Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, only to turn around later in the program and completely blank out on Bach’s Invention #14. I played Bach well enough, but he never seemed to stick in my memory.

Sometimes a performance goes well, sometimes it does not. But either way it has the potential to send the artist back to work with new perspective (needless to say my Bach needed some practice). On this occasion, I found that I wrote something that brought people delight. The experience affirmed that the piece I wrote and shared was successful, in the ways that matter.

I like to write. I like creating things that other people enjoy. It is both humbling and motivating when those two things coincide.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Align Yourself With Love

I spent too long staring at a blank page this morning, trying to figure our what I want to say about the Just Church Resolution, which was submitted earlier this week.

Why? Because honestly I just want to say AMEN! and click PUBLISH.

I think Joanna Harader sums up many thoughts and feelings that I share when she writes:
I believe clear and strong language is needed. Those who support exclusionary policies tend to invoke “sin” and “clear Biblical teaching” while advocates of inclusion use phrases like “differing perspectives” and “congregational discernment.” This can give the impression that those who wish to exclude LGBTQ people are passionate and convicted and Biblical, while those of us who seek full inclusion just have a kind of quirky idea about church we’d like to try out if you don’t mind. 
No. 
We don’t want inclusion because we think it might be a good idea. We want inclusion because we passionately believe it is what Jesus wants for his church. We believe inclusion is supported by the witness of scripture. And we believe that as long as the church—which we love—continues to teach false doctrine regarding sexuality, it sows damage and despair in the world rather than healing and hope. That is what we believe. And we are allowed to say it. And it might hurt some people’s feelings. And that is OK.
I’ve signed on to this resolution, and I hope you will consider doing so, too.

In the coming months there will no doubt be lots more conversation about this topic. I admit, lately I’ve chosen to tune some of it out. In my focus on local church concerns, reading open letters and opinion pieces and arguments in comments sections has been too much for me, time-wise, but also emotionally and spiritually. I’ve chosen to keep my head down and do the work in front of me.

As we get closer to convention in Kansas City, though, I’m lifting my nose from that grindstone.

I’m tired of talking in veiled terms. This week I looked backed at my last column for MWR and thought, “Do people even know what I am talking talking about there?” When I ask, “Are we really willing to turn our backs on God’s family, on our own spiritual kin?” does it occur to anyone that I am calling out this history of violence and exclusion? As a church, we have turned our backs on our kin, and it is long past time to repent. A 600 word column rarely leaves me room for such specificity, but I’m being specific now: based on the way we’re behaving as a church, it appears we’d reject Jesus himself if he walked through our doors. Our unmarried, unexpected, dark skinned, queer savior from the wrong part of town -- a God who resists classification and binaries, divine and human, a union without confusion, who calls us to love one another with our whole hearts -- would his body be welcome among us?

As Joanna said, we believe inclusion is supported by the witness of scripture. Surely no Mennonite reader here is surprised to hear me say that; you all keep asking me to write about the bible, after all, so you must know I take it seriously. Though I’m uncomfortable with the language of “calling” for more reasons than I can count, I know this: in some inexplicable way I have felt for a long time, and continue to feel, called to be a righteous pain in the ass to people in power when it comes to the exclusion of LGBTQ folks.

Causing trouble is sometimes godly work.

I am a radical feminist, not the fun kind, as Andrea Dworkin once said, and I’m grateful for the Just Church Resolution, which doesn’t mince words, but gets to the heart of things, confessing our corporate sins -- the violence of which we are guilty -- and proposes a way forward.

How many times have I been welcomed by those who are not welcome in many of our churches? My whole life. My whole life, it seems, I have received the love of those the church I hold dear rejects. If that does not break my heart, what can? If that is not a reason to do the hard work required for change, what is? I am committed to this work for the sake of others, but for my own sake, as well. I continue to feel that my life depends upon it. Isn’t that how it should be, in the body of Christ?

I wonder often whether I might someday be a pastor in this denomination. In recent months, I confess I have despaired as to whether that hope might ever become reality, of whether MCUSA is a place that would empower me to serve faithfully, or whether I will continue to choose, as I do now, to explore ways of ministering without formal credentials. I want the freedom to love as I believe I am called to love.

We are, supposedly, a church that embraces a diversity of opinions. While it breaks my heart that there are churches in my own denomination that would never hire me because I am a woman -- much less a young, single one who loves Taylor Swift, Judith Butler, and bowties -- somehow, in a way that is beyond my own comprehension, I love that those congregations and mine can coexist. (I still pray constantly that y’all will open your eyes to women’s gifts of preaching and pastoring, but that’s a topic for another day.) Women’s leadership is a separate and not perfectly analogous example, but it highlights the question I am left with today: If we can bear with you, can you not bear with us?

There is nothing I want more in this moment than for MCUSA to commit itself to care for those who identify as LGBTQ. We can do this, and we should. So please, sign your name. Have the courage to align yourself with love.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric

Those unfamiliar with the breadth of contemporary poetry may be surprised when they crack the cover of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A collage of prose poems, short essays, and images, Citizen often reads more like experimental nonfiction than poetry. None of this is to decry the book’s merits; on the contrary, it is smart, finely crafted, as insightful as it is timely.

Citizen might be best read cover to cover, in one sitting, or as close to one sitting as you can get. I read it this past fall while chants of #BlackLivesMatter echoed (as they continue to echo) around the country. The book’s sections progress like movements in a concerto, or scenes in a play. You might need an intermission, but you wouldn't leave in the middle and come back to see the second half some other time. Rankine captures the present and past, not to mention the foreseeable future, through vivid descriptions of daily racial microaggressions. These are the “small” moments of life that are not small at all. The book’s cover, which for many immediately signals reference to Trayvon Martin, is a work of art created by David Hammons in 1993, before Martin was even born. From this initial image onward, Rankine invites her readers into a world that many liberal white folks are just now waking up to. The reality, however, is nothing new. It is 2015 and it is 1993 and it is everyday in between. It is, as a colleague said to me recently, “last Tuesday.”

Citizen deserves the praise it has received; Rankine is a brilliant poet, critic, and teacher. And yet, I cannot help but note that the book may feel most groundbreaking to those who have been able to live in blissful ignorance of their own privilege. Rankine’s ability to capture the trauma of racism as it infuses everyday life challenges me, as I consider ways I have no doubt blindly said and done (or at the very least thought) wretched things throughout my life. But even the way I find the book so deeply moving indicates how seldom I am aware of the realities that shape the daily movements of black lives. None of this even begins to touch on the structural racism that creates the uneven playing field upon which these actions unfold. It is both individual and systemic, and I am too often oblivious, simply because I can be.

That Citizen matters, that its success matters, is obvious. To see a book by an African American woman garner such well-deserved praise, nominated for so many awards, gives me hope for the world of literature and beyond, to be sure. But let us not forget how seldom such a thing happens, and let us not labor under the delusion that it is a mere accident that some voices are honored more often than others. In Citizen, what could feel like tired old stories have been reinvented and revealed as something new. Rankine gives us an honest, artfully crafted glimpse into this world, a world many of us inhabit daily without ever seeing it for what it is. She reveals the fractured nature of citizenship in a country that has never truly left Jim Crow behind, but reinvented it in subtle new ways. Rankine asks more of her readers, I think, than mere applause.

As a lyric that speaks truthfully of America’s original sin, Citizen is a call to confession many may be unable to hear amidst the clamour of their own praise.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February

T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but for my part I much prefer April to February. In the rhythm of the school year, February has always been when I am at my lowest. I used to blame the weather -- when you live in Michigan, it is easy to blame the weather -- but even the mild weather in North Carolina cannot soothe my troubled soul in February. When I woke this morning it was 23 degrees, but the sun was shining, and the air was crisp and clear. By the end of the month I know the temperatures will break, and Spring will be on her way.

Today, however, is February 3rd, which is another way of saying that February is just getting started with us. One year I tried keeping score: I earned points for successes beyond mere survival, and February earned points for everything that went wrong. February took the lead, and kept it, after I had three flat tires in one week. Why, I wonder, does everything seem to collapse on us in February?

This year I’m opting to be proactive. February is going to try to rough me up, as it always does, so I’m constructing a survival kit of hot chocolate, library books, puzzles, and British television shows. I have a brand new notebook to write in. I’m saying no freely and unreservedly. I’m saying yes to the couch and the cat and the promise of steaming mugs of cocoa. I’m trusting that the world will be there for me in March, and that I will be happier and healthier if, this February, I don’t try quite so hard.

This year, I forfeit to February. I give up on self-doubt and desperation, on frantic explanation, lost causes, and the myth of multitasking.

The quiet hum of my mind this past weekend as I read and journaled, while on a self-initiated writing retreat, reminded me that it is difficult to hear when you cannot even stop to think. When I am tugged so many different directions that I can barely hear myself, it is no wonder I cannot hear God, cannot see her movements, cannot name the truths I search for, and open my eyes to what God might reveal. I forget who I am, and thus lose track of who I am called to be. In the clamor of voices that surround me, I lose track of my own voice, and of the One that guides me.

Prayer, Simone Weil says, consists of attention. Instead of fighting February, I will watch the world from my wintery cocoon. I will observe. I will pay attention. In so doing, I hope I will find that February is not so cruel after all. I hope that, in listening, I will hear the sound of hope, the promise of resurrection, and the wonder of a world made new once more.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reluctant Prophet

A sermon for Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10.

If you consider the length of the bible, or the Old Testament, or even just the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Jonah seems insignificant in comparison -- both in the space he takes up, and the gravity of his actions. The book of Jonah takes up a mere two pages in my bible. But Jonah is memorable. After all, he gets swallowed by a giant fish, and lives to tell about it. Who could forget a story like that?

That part of the story, along with the verses in today’s lectionary text, are only part of the narrative, though. So let’s back up, and remember how it all began.

The people of Ninevah, we’re told, are wicked, and God is not pleased about the way they’re living, so God tells Jonah to go to them, and deliver the message that God is against them. Jonah doesn’t want to go. He’s not so keen on the whole prophet gig. In fact, in the whole book, Jonah never calls himself a prophet. He stands out from the other Old Testament prophets in that he never really plays the part of the obedient servant, calling people to repent. He’s reluctant. So reluctant that he runs away.

At this point I should interrupt our narrative to say that, lately, Jonah is my favorite prophet. I would venture a guess that I am not the only one who has had “Jonah” moments in my life.

Many Christians speak of wanting to be “a prophetic voice” in our world, yet the reality of the actual prophetic work God calls Jonah to is less glamorous than the Hollywood film version we might imagine -- the lone voice speaking out against powers and principalities, drawing people together for a just cause.

So, when God calls, Jonah runs. He runs right down to Joppa and hops a ship to Tarshish. Of course, you can’t run from God, not really, a message that is sent very clearly when a dangerous storm threatens the ship and all who are aboard. When he realizes his plan has failed, when the sailors realize Jonah has put them in danger, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. I dare say at this point he figured he was going to die, so suffice it to say that going to Ninevah was still not on his itinerary.

But God doesn’t let Jonah give up so easily. Instead, she sends a large fish to swallow him up, and leaves him there, in the belly of a fish, for three whole days. Three days! When you’re trapped inside a fish, three days is plenty of time to reflect on your poor life choices. Plenty of time to pray. Plenty of time to repent.

Jonah seems to have learned his lesson, so God tells the fish to vomit him up onto dry land, and calls Jonah a second time: “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message I tell you.” This time Jonah gets up, and he goes.

He walks for a full day, about a third of the way across the city, crying out that in forty days God will destroy Ninevah. And here we encounter another unexpected twist: the people begin to fast. Everyone, including the king, dons sackcloth and ashes. They plead with God, and God does not destroy them.

This is where the lectionary text ends, but what happens next is where things really start to get interesting: Jonah gets mad. This, he tells God, is why he didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place. He knows God is gracious and merciful, and he knew that she would relent. Jonah would rather die than go on living while the Ninevites’ sins go unpunished. I picture him stomping off to the edge of the city, where he sets up camp, watching and waiting to see what will happen. He did what God asked! Now it’s God’s turn.

God doesn’t destroy Ninevah, nor does God give up on Jonah. She makes a bush grow up next to Jonah to offer him shade, which seems to sooth his frustration a bit. But then God sends a worm to attack, and subsequently kill, the bush, leaving Jonah exposed to the sun and wind. Again Jonah asks to die. He is still angry, fed up, and definitely done with this prophet business.

For a third time God speaks to Jonah: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

They don’t know any better, Jonah. That’s why I sent you to them, God seems to say. We aren’t told how Jonah responds; we can only wonder. I wonder, in Jonah’s shoes, if I would have behaved any better. I doubt it. Maybe they don’t know, God, I might say, but they should. Ignorance is not an excuse. Did they really need me to tell them the obvious news that their behavior is wrong?

Being a prophetic voice sounds important, meaningful, exciting, until you consider what it often means: going alone to those who do and say wicked things, condemning their words and actions, putting yourself in a vulnerable position among people who don’t share your moral values.

I’d be on a ship to Tarshish, too.

But let’s say we want to follow God’s call, despite all of that. What then?

We bring a word of rebuke; we call people to repent and turn toward God. Personally, I would never expect that to work. I’d assume that the groups of people I most associate with Ninevah these days wouldn’t listen to a young woman who claims to know something they don’t about goodness and love and the life God calls us to. So I’d figure, if God said she’s going to destroy them, sooner or later she will. Maybe not on an Old Testament scale, with fire and brimstone, but surely God won’t let things continue as they are. These imagined modern day Ninevites might even destroy themselves before long if they’re not careful. Evil actions have a way of tearing things apart.

Well. I am but an imperfect, impatient, begrudging human, and God is not. God forgives. God is merciful -- to Ninevah, and to Jonah as well, patiently pushing him in the right direction while he repeatedly misses the point. No, God will not condemn anyone if she can help it.

There are times when it is tempting to say, look God, we’re trying so hard to be faithful, and these other people are making it difficult. Can’t you do something about that? And I am afraid God will only tell us to continue to speak as she has called us to speak. I don’t expect to be swallowed by a big fish if I don’t, but I can imagine modern day equivalents. I can imagine the alternative, too: remaining silent in the face of evil, allowing hatred to continue unchecked. God doesn’t call Jonah because Jonah is perfect or has it all figured out; in fact, it’s unclear why exactly God chooses Jonah at all. What’s most clear is that Jonah messes up, and that God uses him anyway.

We cannot control whether others will hear the truths we speak with our lives, as individuals and as a community. We cannot control whether the people of the Ninevahs of our day will heed God’s call to repent, or scoff and continue on as before. I’m enough of a cynic to doubt the outcome of such efforts; I’m enough of a Jonah that sometimes I’d prefer to run away to the beach.

But God has shown that there is enough time for all to repent, and if that is true, then even the most reluctant prophets have reason to keep speaking.