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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Reading

It’s resolution season, and the people of the Bookternet are all about the reading resolutions, setting goals and making plans to “read harder” this year. There are some fantastic challenges to take on, and since books are central to my life and work, it would make sense if I were to tell you about my grandiose reading goals for the year, too.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend thinking about how much I haven’t read. There are so many classic novels I just haven’t had a chance to read yet, and there’s exciting new work coming out by contemporary writers all the time. Even with Kierkegaard, one of my main academic interests, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. For a feminist academic, I’ve read remarkably little feminist & womanist theology and queer theory. And don’t get me started on Karl Barth and everything I simply flat out know I will never get around to reading.

I read constantly. Novels -- both “literary” and “popular,” new and old. Poetry. Essay collections. Memoirs. Magazines. I try to read literary journals, too, though lately they’re mostly gathering dust in a corner. I read so many great online sources, too. And now I get the Sunday Times, the arrival of which is like a mini-Christmas each Sunday. My favorite section? The Book Review, of course.

But I have always read slowly for the most part. With the exception of mysteries and YA novels, even a book I really like will take me a few days to get through -- if not a week or two. I will never, ever get through all the books I want to read, even if I stopped adding to the list today (which I won’t). At the beginning 2014, frustrated by this fact, I set out to read a book a week, with an end goal of 50, figuring I could plan in a couple of reading vacation weeks. I made it to 37, if you leave out a handful of other books I only made it halfway through. Like I said: slow. (If you're curious about what I read, click here. I read a lot of YA novels and it was great.)

As far as goals go, it was fine. I read many wonderful books, and I got to choose most of them myself, having finished up my school reading requirements in mid-January. But I am realizing the whole reading goal thing just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel anxious about something that has always been a delightful escape for me, guilty because I’m not doing more, not checking off the boxes, not stuffing enough information into my head. I read for more than just information.

This week, I remembered the summer my college friends and I created the Best Ever Book Club, and one professor met with us to discuss Madame Bovary, her recommendation for our ambitious little book group, a classic I was reading for the first time. We asked her what her summer reading goals were. She said she was reading Middlemarch.

“That’s it?” we asked.

“It’s a big-ass book!” was her response.

This was a revelation to me, this kind of commitment to being with one book, spending one whole summer in Middlemarch. (Note: I have never read Middlemarch.) A great book is worth that kind of time.

I remember, too, how one of my favorite English professors used to tell us to read things twice whenever possible -- one for the story, and a second time to begin our analysis. I was crazy enough to try to do this (hence my lack of sleep sophomore year), which I don’t necessarily recommended while you’re still in college, but definitely recommended as a general practice. I know that, first, if I read for analysis right away I miss the whole point of the reading in the first place. And second, if I do plan to analyze, my analysis simply won’t be as good if I’ve only read a text once. (The real reason I haven’t read more Kierkegaard? I was too busy re-reading Works of Love multiple times.)

Reaching further back still, I know how much of my love of language was born from my mother reading aloud to my siblings and I, the same series, again and again. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. That is how we got through long Michigan winters. It’s how I get through winter, still. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard those books, and I don’t regret that I didn’t hear more books -- though of course there were always stacks of library books in my room to read on my own, as well. And I did, hungrily, in bed each night with my Itty Bitty Book Light clipped to the back cover. The Betsy-Tacy books, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and others I’ve long since forgotten. I read and re-read and re-read.

In that spirit, instead of setting a numerical reading goal this year, I’m aiming low. Let it be a year of re-reading, of working through massive tomes that have intimidated me, and of getting through the winter with all the good stories I can find, even if they aren’t classics or so-called “literature,” and even if there are a lot of things I “should” read that I am not going to get to this year. I want to read slower, not harder.

So what am I excited to read this year? For starters, I got halfway through Joakim Garff’s 827 page biography of Kierkegaard over a year ago before setting it aside, so I’m going to finally finish it. Also, though I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I feel that one could re-read them every single year and never exhaust them. Plus they’re just...the best. So I’ll re-read some of them, or maybe all of them if I feel so inclined. Then I’ll probably re-watch all of the film adaptations again too, for “research.” My favorite mystery novelist, Laurie R. King, has a new Mary Russell novel coming out in February, so you can just plan on not hearing from me for about 24 hours after I pick it up. I've been digging into James Baldwin's essays lately, so I'm sure I'll read more of those. I’m thrilled about the new Toni Morrison novel coming out in April, too.

If don’t read all of these things promptly, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, though. When you think about how much time someone like Morrison puts into crafting a novel, it seems obvious that it’s worth entering the world she’s created and staying a while. It’s worth coming back, again and again.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Year of Feminist Selfies

In truth, before this year, I was not a big fan of the selfie. Not so much because I thought them narcissistic (though I suppose that to a certain extent I did), but because I had never much liked photos of myself. That is probably something I am not supposed to admit, as a “confident” feminist woman who values my intelligence over my looks, but supposedly also has well-balanced (but of course never prideful) self-esteem when it comes to my physical appearance.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

As I noted in my review of Bad Feminist earlier this year, the Good Feminist role sometimes feels almost as difficult to live up to than the other ideals many of us have tried to leave behind. But 2014, more than anything, has been the year in which I have had to cease keeping up appearances, if for no other reason than I could not hold the brokenness of life (my own and others) at arm’s length any longer. My father’s heart surgery and stroke 14 months ago left me completely undone, unmoored, in a way I had never experienced. I began 2014 perhaps more vulnerable than before, but also more afraid of where that might lead me. For someone who reveals so much, you might be surprised at how much I tend to hide -- how comforting it can be to remain invisible, even while wishing to be seen as I really am.

I spent the first six months of this year finishing my MFA thesis, a body of work of which I am more proud than anything I have ever created in my life. It is -- in so many ways -- a part of me, and I want to share it as much as I wish to hold it close, to keep it safe, instead of sending it out to the world, where it will declare that I exist, asking you to see the world through my eyes for 120 pages or so.

In those words you will be able to see me, as well as to see with me. That is part of what creative nonfiction does, at its best, and what I am learning to do with my words, though I hope in time to be better than I am now. At 30, I am just getting started.

What does all of this have to do with selfies, then? Early in 2014 someone shared the #feministselfie concept with me, and I was challenged by it, quite frankly. It called to my attention both my own discomfort with images of myself, but also the way in which woman so seldom get to control how they are portrayed and perceived. To declare I exist, and I am not sorry for existing, and to choose how you get to see me by taking the camera into my own hands felt both frightening and liberating. It felt much like the publishing part of writing feels. And so, I started to take selfies. Not every day. But when I felt like it. When I was having a good hair day, or when a book arrived and I wanted to share the excited grin it caused to spread across my face, or when my expression seemed to describe how I was feeling more precisely than words, or just when I was feeling pretty and wanted to own it for once.

I can’t tell you that posting selfies has radically redefined my body image or self confidence, or somehow freed me from years of negative messages from glossy magazines and the beauty industrial complex. That sort of things takes years to work through. But it was fun. And, truthfully, I like these pictures -- these pictures of me. Having never been particularly good at accepting compliments, there was something peculiarly blessed about the discomfort of letting people double-tap, favorite, and like self-selected photos of me. I choose the photos, I consent to let you see -- and appreciate -- them. (Does it still annoy me that my selfies get more likes than blog posts, pretty much always? YES. YES IT DOES.)

I used to like to quote Ani DiFranco, “It took me too long to realize that I don’t take good pictures, ‘cause I have the kind of beauty that moves.” Perhaps, really, it took me too long to realize that I needed to take control of the camera. That while I can reveal myself on the page, I need not hide behind it if I don’t want to. That I exist, a whole person, not mere intellect, not mere flesh, but embodied, beautiful, even when parts of myself I’d rather hide are visible on the edge of the frame.

Beauty moves, and I move with it, keeping up, if only just barely.