Monday, December 30, 2013

On Success

I’ve been doing this a long time, you know. This writing thing. Many of the people I am closest to now met me in college, where I double majored in philosophy and religion, or graduate school round one, where I studied theology. I call myself a theologian, and slowly, with practice, I am starting to believe what I say about myself. “Writer,” though -- that is a title I took on at age twelve, a title I have believed for a long time. Maybe not all seventeen years that I have described myself that way, but most of them.

My high school teachers said I had “potential” as a writer. The dreaded “p” word, and all of its accompanying baggage of pressure to succeed. At eighteen my skin was not thick enough. I gave up too easily. I applied for a writing scholarship, and when I did not get it, I decided to major in literature instead. I submitted to the college literary journal, and when I was rejected several times I stopped submitting. It was easier to believe the rejection than the successes. Easier to focus on the judges who had said “no” than the ones who said “yes,” when they awarded me the first year writing prize. After all, I won that prize for writing the best essay in an English 113 class -- the class many of my smart friends got out of because they had taken AP courses in high school. I attributed the win to a big fish, small pond scenario. It did not even occur to me to suggest that my parents drive the hour from Kalamazoo to Holland for the honors convocation where I would receive the award.

I knew I was a writer, though. I just didn’t expect I would ever be successful at it. I didn’t think anyone actually cared about what I had to say. I didn’t believe that I had anything to say worth paying attention to, honestly. I wrote because it was something I needed to do. I wrote for me, and I didn’t show my work to anyone.

The philosophy department, where I wound up at my English advisor’s recommendation, was the place I learned that I had something to say -- and that it was worth saying. Most of the things I had to say, it turned out, were more philosophical than I realized. Many of the things I wanted to say were about God, too. And so I dove into studying religion as well. These became the things I wrote about most, besides my own life and how I got from one day to the next -- topics which were also related to philosophy and religion, perhaps unsurprisingly.

And so, my decision two years ago to pursue an MFA is not and never has been a career change. It’s a re-routing, as if my internal GPS has recalculated based on various circumstances, an interdisciplinary combination of interests, figuring out an alternate route to the same goals I had sitting in the philosophy department on the third floor of Lubbers Hall in Holland, Michigan.

I bring this up now because I have had, by most standards, a wildly successful year as a writer. And, as an article a friend shared with me this week expressed so well, it is easy to defer to luck when it comes to explaining that, rather than acknowledging that this has been the result of years and years of work -- work that’s not nearly over. Work that’s just getting started.

The work I am familiar with, though the recognition is new. So, much of this year, the parts I haven’t spent writing and editing and tutoring and teaching, has been spent learning how to respond to that recognition. I have had to practice saying thank you, without adding a self-deprecating tagline. I have learned, concretely, why people say, “Never read the comments.” I have met total strangers for the first time and had them say they like my work, and been rendered speechless -- that is, until I said something totally awkward that I wished I could take back as soon as it left my mouth.

I have written home to say, “I was quoted by the New York Times today,” even though my family doesn’t read the New York Times.

This year I learned that success hurts.

No one told me that. No one told me how writing would change when suddenly the audience wasn’t imagined, but real. No one told me that I would have to work harder than ever to overcome the internal demons of my own self-doubt that try to keep the words in my head away from that blank page. No one told me that all of this would feel like a big game of make-believe.

10,000 people could not possibly have read an article I wrote last January. That number cannot be real. Or if it is, that will never, ever happen again.

See what I mean? Even in an essay trying to say, here I am world, embracing my life as a writer -- a life I have worked hard for, a life that has and will continue to require certain kinds of sacrifice, commitment, and solitude, a life I love -- even here, a little bit of that self-deprecating humor sneaks in.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, at the risk of seeming unfeminine, of coming across as overly ambitious instead of sweet, gentle, and receptive, just waiting for something to happen. People have asked me on more than one occasion how I got such-and-such piece published in such-and-such place, and I usually think too hard about how to respond. It feels a bit rude to just tell the truth: I sent it in, and they published it, because it was good.

I’m increasingly convinced that while markets are real, and networking is useful, and sure, luck exists -- what makes it in the end is good writing.

There’s no magic. I’m not playing a game. I’m more stubborn, more persistent, more thick-skinned than I was at eighteen when the college literary magazine sent me packing, and I’m putting words on paper every day regardless of where they end up. The last decade-plus has done me some good, both in the years of practice writing, and the tough shell I’m developing to handle criticism and disappointment. These days rejections -- though they still sting, and though there are more of them than there are acceptances -- feel like proof that I am really doing this thing I have wanted to do since forever ago.

As a young woman whose entire body has been socialized to shrink, to take up as little space as possible, to keep my voice calm and level and quiet, to avoid disrupting the important people and their important conversations, I now have to learn what to do when people are listening. How to stand up, take up space -- physically, verbally, with my whole person. I have to learn how to take credit for the work that I do. In short, I’m learning a new lesson about pride.

Virtue, as I learned in seminary, is a mean between extremes. An excess of pride may be a vice, yet we often forget -- if we were ever taught in the first place -- that a lack of appropriate pride -- excessive humility or shame, the kind of self-deprecating attitude beaten into young women’s bodies and minds since birth -- that too is wrong. A movement toward appropriate pride in one’s God given gifts, used -- I hope -- to bring some truth and beauty into the world -- that lesson may be years in the learning.

Every time I cross my legs, fold my arms, slouch down, and rest my chin on my hand as I so often do, I know I’ve internalized a sense of shame about the space I take up in this world. Every time someone asks me to speak up I know this shame has shaped even my speech patterns. Every time I feel bad about the number on the label of my pants, what I ate for dinner, and the run I did not take, I feel it in my flesh. Every time I apologize before I speak I know that there are lessons I never knew I was learning that I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget.

I’m lucky about one thing, which is that I have people in my life who want me to speak up. People who listen when I do. People who encourage me to eat pie, as well as to write poetry. And so, while I started this essay wanting to write about work, and success, I am also writing about community -- the kind of community that values women’s gifts, that encourages them to grow rather than to shrink, that forms them in the kind of humble pride that exists between those excessive extremes.

For the time being, I just want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being the audience I never expected to have. Thank you for helping me learn pride in a world that would rather I feel shame, and for giving me the chance to say I am working hard for this, and it is worth it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Michelle Bares Arms and Bakes Cookies: So What?

I am humbled and grateful to introduce today's guest post from the brilliant Emma Akpan, a fellow Duke Divinity School graduate. Emma Akpan is an activist and minister living in Raleigh, NC. When not writing about women or repro health, Emma enjoys the gym and Netflix. Emma doesn't think time should be wasted spending sunny days inside or eating bad food.

When Michelle Obama burst by Barak Obama’s side in 2007, announcing her husband’s presidential bid, feminists everywhere, black and white, expected her to roll up her designer sleeves revealing well-toned arms and be our champion. She was going to influence equal pay, she was going to stop violence against women, she was going to break all glass ceilings for all of us. In 2008, she told someone that “for the first time, I was not proud of my county,” and was heavily criticized by right-winged media. She was called Barack’s “baby mama,” a derogatory term for mothers who are no longer in a relationship with their co-parents. They labeled her as “fierce” and “angry.” So naturally, to protect herself, she toned it down a bit. She picked a rather benign subject, healthy living and fitness, and focused on raising her daughters. Although she was still criticized by mostly the right media for forcing children to give up their sweets and goodies, the racialized criticism has waned.

But feminists continued to criticize her. In a recent Politico article, Michelle Cottle accused Michelle Obama of “Leaning Out”, in reference to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, push for women to lean into their careers and leadership. Because Michelle focuses on issues related to domesticity and motherhood, healthy living and exercise, she became a “feminist nightmare.” Because, of course, it is blasphemy for anyone to call themselves a feminist and prefer motherhood over making edgy career choices.

But let’s nuance Michelle Obama’s choices here. True, she didn’t enter the White House with her boxing gloves her publicly introducing policy. She didn’t choose a particularly tough issue as her pet cause. But she did something revolutionary for Black women -- she made the choice to be a mother.

Historically, Black mothers have not had the luxury of keeping a home and primarily raising their children. During slavery, Black mothers nursed white babies, prepared meals for their white slaveholders, cleaned the slaveholders yard, or if they worked in the fields, endured long hours outdoors through forced labor. After Emancipation, not much had changed. Black mothers were expected to work as primary breadwinners of their homes. Their Black male partners did not make enough to maintain a roof over their heads and food for their children, so two incomes were always necessary. Black women didn’t have the choice of staying home and doing what Michelle Obama does -- gardening, baking cookies, and making sure her presidential daughters have a well-rounded education and as normal a life as possible.

Oh, we know Michelle is qualified. Most of us can recite her credentials like a litany. Undergraduate from Princeton, J.D. from Harvard, young associate at a law firm where she met Barack, and years of activism to follow. Yes, she is more than qualified to influence policy.  Yet now, as her husband is president, she has an opportunity to make her daughters a priority. She chose a subject to help other mothers, of all colors, to keep their children healthy as she has chosen to do. There are so many mothers who desperately want to do this for their children. They want to provide healthy home cooked meals so important for their physical and mental growth They want their children to lead a lifestyle that will be the foundation for their careers. But so many mothers also must work 12 – 14 hour days, most of the time taking multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads.

Michelle, for many of us, inspires us to work hard and stick to our values so that our children can achieve their dreams. But Linda Hirschman wants to rob Michelle of the privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries by mocking Michelle, saying: “She essentially became the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s.” Finally, when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. Being the “lady of a manor” is a privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries, and when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. It reminds me of the poem by Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman” when she said: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?” The dichotomy between White womanhood and Blackness is highlighted in Truth’s piece. White women were allowed to be the pure, cherished and adored women whereas Black women were discarded; our bodies were used and not seen. Michelle Obama is the realized vision of many Black women before her; she is in a highly cherished role, traditionally sacred, as a wife and mother. Her role expands our society’s vision of Black women; we can be educated, enterprising, strong and independent, but also motherly, domestic and feminine.

For once, a Black woman is not an object of labor. And most importantly, it’s nice to see a Black woman have the choice to have a successful career and spend time being a mother. Feminists fight against motherhood and domesticity because society forced them to remain in the home and barred them from financial freedom. Large companies did not hire women. Women were unable to get a credit card until the 1970s. Forced domesticity and blockage from the public arena are important symptoms of patriarchy, but we must remember, feminism is about choice. A woman should do what she pleases, as long as she is doing it freely. Michelle Obama’s motherhood is liberating for many women across the country, because they can continue to dream to provide the same healthy and full lifestyle for their children.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On the Road

This mennonite feminist scholar person has been on the move:

Two weeks ago I was in Provo, Utah, presenting a paper at the “Kierkegaard and the Present Age” conference. I got to spend time with a lot of fellow Kierkegaardians, and see some beautiful mountains.

Somewhere between SLC and Provo
Then, I stopped by Baltimore, Maryland for AAR/SBL, where I met face-to-face for the first time with the fine folks of Religion Dispatches. I also heard a lot of smart people speak on panels, listened to Wendell Berry read some poems, and met up with fellow Duke alums who are now scattered all over the place. It was like a big ol’ theological family reunion. From there I flew to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was able to see a dear, dear friend from Hope College.
"It's a metaphor!"

Now I am in Kalamazoo, Michigan, also known as the place where I spent the first nineteen years of my life. “Home” is a good place to slow down for a while (though I admit I’ve been grading papers and catching up on work half the time I’ve been here). It’s a blessing to be with my family, who I don’t see nearly as much as I’d like to. My next stop is a short stay in Chicago with another college friend, before I head back to the other place I call home -- Durham, North Carolina.
Me: Flurries! Southern friend: Around here,
we don't call snow like that "flurries!"

Here’s something I’m learning this year: I love to travel, but I love to come home. The thing I miss most (besides my cat and my bike, I guess) when I travel is the good people of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Tomorrow I’ll spend the first Sunday of Advent with the folks at Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship, and by next week I’ll be back teaching Sunday School to some tiny southern mennonite kiddos, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Happy [liturgical!] New Year!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Talking Taboo: Official Release!

This is it: Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith hits the shelves today.

Books take a long time, y’all, even (especially?) books with multiple authors. This morning I thought back to the beginnings of my own essay for this volume, “Swing and the Single Girl,” and it felt like ages ago. I had a draft written when I headed to my parents' house in Michigan for my older sister’s wedding in June 2012. The morning of the rehearsal I woke up at 6:00am, snuck downstairs to make a pot of coffee, and got comfortable at the kitchen table fine tuning the piece I had been working on, a draft of which was due that day.

What can I say -- I am a writer who likes to meet deadlines.

By 8:00am the house was waking up, and my mom came into the kitchen to make a second pot of coffee, decaf, for herself. She sat down and started talking to me -- a completely understandable impulse, but one I was not ready for yet on that day. As calmly as possible, hoping not to hurt feelings on what was bound to be a stressful if also joyful day, I stood up and informed her that my coffee and I would be on the back porch until I hit “send” on this draft. I relished the opportunity to say, “I need to get this to my editor today.”

Outside, I sat on a white plastic chair, set my coffee cup on the cement stoop whose chipped green paint showed through to greys and blues from previous summers, and I focused. By the time the rest of my family trickled into the kitchen for breakfast I had sent the email and accompanying attachment to Erin Lane, and transitioned to wedding mode. (Step one: write a toast. Step two: practice reading it without crying. Step three: fail at step two.)

That was sixteen months ago. Sixteen. I mostly point this out because, in a world where a lot of publishing happens online, quite quickly, it is a gift to share a book that took time -- editing, revising, and proofreading, not to mention all the details of printing and publicity and finally getting the book on shelves in bookstores and your homes.

My own book-length manuscript is a work in progress, so this opportunity to pause and celebrate my contribution to a real, live print publication is even sweeter for its promise of things to come. Though I write a lot online, most of my creative work still comes about with a book-like timeline -- it can take weeks, months, years for a piece to really be finished. But eventually it is ready, and then I get to share it with the world.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

She Persists

The following is an edited version of my sermon from October 20, 2013 at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, based on Luke 18:1-8.

In today’s gospel passage from Luke, Jesus tells the disciples a parable about their need to pray always, and not lose heart. The story take places in a certain nameless city, and features two main characters. First, there is a judge who has no fear for God, and no respect for people. A dangerous combination. One embodied in any number of leaders in our own day, in political power plays and displays of confidence that lack both nuance and compassion. No fear. No respect. No justice?

Second, we are introduced to a widow who comes to this fearless, disrespectful judge and pleads, repeatedly, for justice. She is persistent in her request, even in a situation where justice seems impossible, a situation where the person in power himself proclaims, “I have no fear of God and no respect for people.” What good could she expect to come out of petitioning someone who professes no respect for anyone? A powerful figure who does not even pretend to have her interests at heart? What justice could she expect from such a man as this?

Still she keeps coming. At the risk of being perceived as a nuisance, a nag, a joke even, she persists. She might feel a bit like some people in North Carolina today, those who seek economic justice, education, access to basic health care, for themselves or others. How many times do you call your congress person before you give up?

The widow persists. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she pleads.

She is foolish, isn’t she? This silly widow, petitioning for justice. Doesn’t she know this judge has no respect for anyone, least of all someone like her? Still she persists, and finally, if only to get her off his back, the judge grants her justice. He doesn’t just hand her a plate of cookies like the governor of North Carolina did this summer, to the women’s rights advocates outside his gate. The judge in our story actually grants the widow’s request, though his reason for doing so is far from righteous. No, he says, she “keeps bothering me.” He grants her justice so that she’ll leave him alone. He’s worn out by her persistence.

For a story that is supposed to teach us about prayer, this is odd. Is God like this judge, somehow? When considering what it means to bring our petitions before God, it’s a little uncomfortable to think of God as a powerful judge who only answers our requests to get us to stop nagging.

But Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to [God’s] chosen ones who cry to [God] day and night? Will [God] delay long in helping them?” If this unjust judge will help the widow, how much more so -- how quickly -- will the God of justice respond to our cries?

Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That question hangs in the air, unanswered. Are you persistent the way this nameless widow is persistent? Do you make a nuisance of yourself in your pleas for justice? Pleas to earthly powers to grant justice despite a lack of true justice in broken human systems of power, but also -- especially -- pleas to God, large and small. Who among us will, like the widow, persist? Will we cry out, day and night?

Prayer is an act of persistence, of making a nuisance of oneself in the face of injustice that seems insurmountable. Even prayers that seem doomed from the beginning, because prayer itself is an act of faith. Both humble and audacious, prayer exhibits our extreme lack in the face of the demands of this world, and simultaneously the boldness to ask. What might it mean to say that we assume in our very act of prayer that God answers us?

Do we believe that like the woman in the parable we will obtain what we request? That even when we do not know for what exactly we ask, the answer to our prayer is nonetheless certain?

It doesn’t matter that our prayers are weak; it only matters that God listens to them. This is what I see in the widow, in her persistence. Why continue as she does if you do not believe that, in the end, you will receive an answer? This is the practice of living in the presence of God, living in a way that acknowledges our estrangement, while we are also united in prayer.

Contemplating this story this week I kept digging in and coming up empty, not sure what to say. I saw that it was supposed to be about prayer -- the text itself told me it’s about prayer. But prayer is hard. I’m not much good at it, though I have been trying to change that, challenging myself with new ways of praying -- labyrinths, prayers beads, candles burning in the darkness. Small physical acts so that my pleas feel more tangible. In Sunday school, too, we ask the children for prayer requests, even if some of those requests end up being for dollies and imaginary friends. Pray is hard, for a lot of us. It seems worth starting to learn young.

Lately, I have asked a lot of people to pray for my dad, as he prepared for heart surgery. It was so strange to hear my family talk about prayer so much this past week -- asking for prayers, offering prayers. We don’t do that often. Yet on Friday we were inundated with prayer while my father was in surgery.

My sister Holly played the Steinway grand piano in the lobby of the Cleveland Clinic for much of that morning, and though I wasn’t there I felt like I could see -- almost hear -- her, while I sat in my apartment, candles burning. The thought of it felt like so many days at home in Kalamazoo, in my parent’s living room, in the house I grew up in -- a living room with no space for a couch, because it contains not one but two pianos.

When Holly comes home to Kalamazoo she goes immediately to one of those pianos, because she doesn’t have one in her apartment in Grand Rapids. She might play Bartok, Chopin, Bach, or Haydn. She might play Adele, Ingrid Michaelson, or the soundtrack from a favorite film. Sometimes she sings, but mostly she plays. I cannot remember a time I have ever heard Holly pray out loud; it made perfect sense to me that her pleas on Friday would be without words.

As she played, miles away, I remembered these lines from one of Picasso’s letters: “And then” he writes, “I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an aesthetic process; it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires.”

Perhaps prayer is like that. Not a form of magic per se, yet like one, in a sense of mysterious holiness.

Christ, our mediator, is the one interposed between us here in what Picasso calls “the hostile universe” and God -- Christ, our intercessor.

And prayer -- prayer is a means of imposing form on our terrors as well as our desires, as we bring our fears and hopes, our needs and wants, nameable and unnamable, before God, believing that God answers, believing that a prayer -- like a song, like a painting, like a few words strung together into sentences and paragraphs and stanzas -- that a prayer itself is at times the thing we need most.

We pray, and in our prayers, we show that we are faithful. We show that when the “son of man” comes he will find faith on earth.

Monday, October 7, 2013

In case you missed it...

My latest piece for Religion Dispatches, a response to the story of Teresa MacBain's falsified credentials and a meditation on the role of doubt in divinity school education, was picked up by Salon.

You can read my review of Shirley Showalter's new memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, on the Englewood Review of Books.

My review of Paula Huston's novel, A Land Without Sin, published by Wipf & Stock's new literary division, Slant, is in the current print edition of the Englewood Review of Books. You can read an excerpt of the book here, and subscribe to the quarterly print edition here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Postcard from Whidbey

Greetings from the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, WA -- a.k.a. a generous slice of heaven.

The Collegeville Institute’s Writing Spirit, Writing Faith workshop, which brought me to this temperate rainforest, has provided ample opportunity to write, walk, and wonder with other writers about the work we do. Surrounded by tall evergreens, listening to the rain, discussing my work with other creative people of faith -- all this I looked forward to for months. What had not occurred to me was how much of a difference a good night’s sleep and three square meals a day make in my work.

Christyn, the chef at the Whidbey Institute, uses fresh, local (often right from the garden here) produce, a variety of grains, and very little meat and dairy. She told us the first night here that she likes to feed us things that help nourish our creativity. I smiled at this, agreeing in theory, but I did not realized just how true that would prove. Bountiful salads, green smoothies, pumpkin curry, tomato basil soup, freshly baked cookies (not everything is green in the literal sense). Everything Christyn creates is a delight. This food tastes good, and makes me feel good.

This is not so much a soliloquy about the need to eat healthy as it is my realization or remembrance that writing is a holistic, embodied practice. When I am not sleeping enough, when I eat burritos for dinner one too many days in a row (don’t get me started on the protein bars and lattes for lunch habit), is it any wonder that I struggle to create? That my brain is fuzzy, and my prose fuzzier? My creativity is fed by reading, music, art, but it also needs to be fed in the more literal sense. I forget that too often, if I ever even knew it quite the way I know it now.

There is something really important about being here this week and not being responsible for any of the food. Someone takes care of me. I sleep eight hours every night and rise to a damn good cup of coffee (this state and its coffee! Bless you!), scones, eggs, and whatever other surprises Christyn has for us. I feel cared for. Someone else (dish crew! Bless you, too!) does the dishes while I tramp on back to the farmhouse to write, and take breaks to ramble in the woods, the fresh air and rain also holding me, granting space to open both my heart and my mind. I breathe in and I breathe out. I am a whole person.

Is it odd that I feel a bit guilty sleeping so much? Yet productivity is not improved by over-work. If sleep is a burden, it is also a gift. Humans need rest, food, movement. Here on this island with a bunch of other human creatures who are also creators, I am grateful for the creativity of a brilliant chef, who takes the fruits of the earth and makes art for the plate, art that nourishes me, body and soul, intertwined, a whole human being.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Did you just compare me to Miley?

Since The Mennonite’s wonderful round up of “edgy” mennonite blogs, I have been contemplating its word choice -- edgy. When Anna Groff contacted me to ask for some information about this blog, its mission, readership, and so forth, I chuckled at the idea that someone would think me edgy. Please don’t hear me as implying that anything is wrong with being edgy, nor even with the article’s choice of that word. In fact I think the framing was very positive, and meant to highlight that there is lots of good, constructive work going on at these various websites. Young mennonite theological thinkers are doing good work, and technology provides a way for those conversations to cross geographical boundaries. All of this is good. I’m glad to be one of the voices in that choir, and humbled by my growing readership. So first I should say thank you.

Still, I do not think I am edgy. One of my friends, upon my initial rejection of the term, asked, “But what if “edgy” is a good thing?” Perhaps it is a good thing, and I do hope I am doing good work, but I am still not edgy. On the contrary, since a large part of what I hope to do here (speaking of “mission”!) is think within the anabaptist tradition about what it means to be faithful to the gospel, and since I believe that “the gospel is anti-sexism through and through” (at the risk of sounding like a horrible person by quoting myself, from my very first post here), I see myself as part of the mennonite tradition, in conversation with and committed to our shared Confession of Faith. Are there are places I wish to challenge it, and hope and pray to see it changed in time? Of course. But surely there’s nothing un-mennonite about that impulse. I hope that I am radical, in the sense that anabaptist tradition has been radical in the past, but that is not, perhaps, quite the same as being “edgy.”

Normally I have a strict rule for myself when it comes to internet publications: Don’t read the comments! Rarely, if ever, do they lead to fruitful, constructive conversation. The internet creates space to speak, but not always to listen and dialogue and heal in the way that it might. Thus when I publish something I tend to think, “Okay, now, talk amongst yourself. My part is done,” and let my own follow-up conversations happen in person with readers who I know in the flesh. I decided to read the comments on Ms. Groff’s article, though, because I was curious to see people’s reactions. Two statements stuck out to me. First, the assertion that the blogs on this list run contrary to the doctrinal positions of our Confession of Faith, coupled with the desire for a “true radical reformation” instead of an edgy one. To that, I couldn’t help but think about how most of the bloggers I know on this list are deeply committed to just that.

Second, someone stated that encouraging us -- “us” being young, “edgy”/radical bloggers -- is “like encouraging Miley.”

This is a “sorry I’m not sorry” moment, folks. I simply cannot let that stand. You just compared me to Miley Cyrus, and the only thing I have to say is this:

You clearly have not read my blog.

My careful, prayerful, studied efforts to be in conversation with church history, theology, and anabaptist tradition are as far from some sexist, racist, “girls gone wild” Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke performance as you can get.

I am breaking my usual rule a second time, because not only did I read the comments, now I am responding to them. Feeding the trolls, as it were. Sometimes you have to break your own rules a bit to make a point, and my point is this: If you read my blog, you might pick up on the fact that I love Bonhoeffer, Barth, and Kierkegaard. I also love Jesus. You might notice that I am deeply devoted to scripture, I believe prayer makes a difference, and that the gospel is a message of peace which we are called to live out in our lives together. I love potlucks, four-part harmony, and my More With Less cookbook. I am fascinated by the anabaptist tradition. I kind of want to start a Martyr’s Mirror book club to think about what these stories mean for the church, today. I gladly gave up a week of my summer to go to Phoenix and represent my church as a delegate at the MCUSA convention.

I love the mennonite church, including you, person who just compared my work to Miley Cyrus twerking in a latex bikini. One of the things I love about the mennonite church is that we coexist with such a broad range of viewpoints on the kinds of issues I care deeply about, and for that reason I would hope that instead of dismissing me as a “girl gone wild,” those who disagree would read carefully, and that you would critically and prayerfully engage with me, and with the other bloggers on The Mennonite's list.

I am not edgy. I am a young mennonite theologian trying to be faithful.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

In case you missed it...

Things have been a little quiet on this blog since I got back from Camp Kierkegaard because I've been writing for a couple of other sites.

Last week I wrote a post for Biking the Bull City, a project I started in 2009 but don't keep up with much these days. You can read that post, about bicycle safety and the importance of sharing the road, here.

This week I wrote an essay for Religion Dispatches about "millennials" and the church. Last week Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece for CNN on this topic that sparked a lot of online conversation, and my piece is a response to a wide variety of perspectives I came across in my reading this week. You can read my essay here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Postcard from Camp Kierkegaard

Yesterday I went for a hike in the Carleton Arboretum, across the Cannon River from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. My plan was to meet a group of fellow scholars who were going on a walking seminar with Gordon Marino, the curator of the Kierkegaard Library here at the college. He warned us that we would only be allowed to talk about Kierkegaard, though we assumed he was kidding.

I do not know if we were right because I was waylaid by a train on my walk to the arboretum, and the group had already left by the time I arrived. Resolved to enjoy a hike anyway, at first I kept a brisk pace, hoping to catch up to the others. Eventually the trail split and I faced a choice. I realized that whichever path I took it would be silly to continue rushing along after the group when it was just as likely that I was chasing no one as it was that I would catch up to someone. I came to the woods to slow down after a week of intense study, to look at the world around me, to give my mind space to wander, not to walk so fast I didn’t even notice the place I walked. I chose the right fork, and enjoyed a peaceful, solo hike.

Reflecting on it now, the whole situation resonates with my scholarly life. I am often chasing someone or something, some illusive idea just out of reach, some career course that must be plotted ever so carefully if I am to earn the approving nods of my peers. That split in the path? I have to choose, and there’s supposed to be a right choice and a wrong one.

But what if there’s not? What if, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, it’s a case where whether you do it or do not do it, you will regret it either way? This would be an accurate description of my how I’ve often thought about the possibility of a PhD over the years. I made the choice to follow the fork in the road that led away from philosophy and toward writing. I am happy with my choice, yet I mourn what I’ve chosen not to do.

I think, now, that this too is inaccurate. My life is less like that path with a fork in it and more like a labyrinth where I put one foot in front of the other and find myself right where I need to be, though I will not pretend I am always capable of seeing it that way initially. Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards, as Kierkegaard wrote. Looking backwards now what I see is that there was never a wrong choice; rather than “you will regret it either way,” I wish someone had told me that you can be content either way.

Here in the wonderland of Northfield, MN, where I can smell the sugary sweetness of the Malt-O-Meal factory on the wind as I walk up the hill from Porter House to the library, here in this place where my sole responsibility is to read, write, and think about my favorite philosopher and writer, I find myself chasing again, trying to catch up to those who followed a different fork on a different road.

It’s not too late. I could still do it, you know -- choose a PhD in philosophy or theology, instead of the strange amalgam that is my life as an essayist.

But it is philosophy that made me an essayist in the first place. I have been writing since I first learned to shape letters and words as a child, but it was in my philosophy courses that I learned to think on paper, to wonder about the world, to eschew the easy answers.

Phillip Lopate says it best in To Show and To Tell: "For me, the great adventure in reading nonfiction is to follow, as I say, a really interesting, unpredictable mind struggling to entangle and disentangle itself in a thorny problem, or even a frivolous problem that is made complex through engagement with a sophisticated mind." As I study Kierkegaard’s authorship, in particular considering what he claims about his “point of view” as an author, and bits and pieces I am learning about his life through Joakim Garff’s massive biography of the great Dane, I’m struck by how much these lines from my newest muse, Lopate, resonate with my long standing interest in Kierkegaard. He’s mischievous, with his pseudonyms and their stories. Whether under his own name or another, he never gives a flat answer. He invites me to wonder and wander, in his mind as well as in the jungle of my own ideas and questions. In his work I become entangled and subsequently disentangled.

What is the essay, after all, but an attempt? Not thesis driven, but exploratory. And so, I journey through Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings and get well and truly lost, and then I sift through the theoretically more straightforward upbuilding discourses, and try to put them together, to play them off each other to reveal some hidden insight. I seldom reach a clear conclusion, but in the end I am always somewhere different than where I started.

For me, to be an essayist is to be a philosopher; to be a philosopher is to try.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Thursday, June 27, 2013


A couple weeks ago I took the train to Pennsylvania to visit my friend Jill, a fellow Mennonite who used to live here in North Carolina and attend Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, where I am a member. It is always a joy to visit a far-away friend on her home turf, but doubly so when such a visit is to a fellow menno nerd with similarly odd taste in “tourism” to my own. Thus, within a span of two days we toured the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, visited Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, PA, and -- best of all -- went to Germantown, to see the first Mennonite Church in North America.

After we’d exhausted our interest in slogging around Philly in soggy shoes, Jill and I made our way to Germantown, which we had looked forward to since I started planning my visit this past winter. We entered our destination into Jill’s GPS and followed the directions it provided, eventually pulling into the parking lot of the building used by the current Germantown Mennonite Church. A sweet older brick building, it was worth visiting, despite the fact that we’d intended for the GPS to take us to the historic site rather than the newer one. We pulled out our umbrellas, attempted to pick our way around the puddles, and went inside. Looking around, I don’t think either of us was quite sure what to do next. I mean, it’s a church. Not a museum. I realized at that point how ridiculous we were. This is not to say that I have any desire to change my ways, however.

I spotted a guest book, probably meant for Sunday mornings more so than random menno tourists, and for lack of a more suitable activity I grabbed the pen and began to write down my name and contact info.

“Can I help you?” a friendly voice asked. I looked up and saw a woman I took to be the pastor.

Jill and I looked at each other, then at her. Neither one of us seemed ready to volunteer the real reason we were there -- simply that we’re Mennonites, and that we’re just that nerdy. I said something vague about how we just wanted to check out the church, and Amy, the pastor, introduced herself and offered to show us the sanctuary. I expressed my admiration for the worship space, and saw an opportunity to begin my confession, telling her that my own church has been growing and trying to find new ways to make room in our worship space, so I like to check out other church’s approaches to space. I name dropped Chapel Hill Mennonite, hoping maybe she’d have heard of it and we’d have some friends in common. I was successful.

All three of us started to laugh as Amy seemed to realize that we weren’t just random tourists or spiritual seekers who wandered through the Germantown Mennonite door by accident, but rather Mennonite church nerds who actually made a point to seek out this particular church because that is simply who we are. “This is totally the sort of thing I would do,” Amy said. Our nerd secret revealed, the conversation started to flow more easily as we played the “Mennonite game” -- one I’m not usually very good at, seeing how I’ve only been Mennonite for a few years, though I’m getting better (and hope to meet even more of you fine Mennonite folks in Phoenix next week!).

Amy offered to walk us down the street to the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust so that we could see the original building, so we took her up on the offer. Umbrellas in hand in as the rain continued to fall, we talked as we walked and Amy told us about the history of the church we were about to visit, begun by Dutch immigrants who arrived in 1683. In 1688 they wrote the first protest against slavery in America. As a group who came here for religious freedom, they did not want to turn around and enslave their fellow human beings. It was a long time before our country and religious communities came around to this point of view, of course, but there is something both moving and challenging to me about this early statement, regardless of how little impact it had in the bigger picture.

As I’ve written about before, people often ask me what drew me to the Mennonite church. History like this is a big part of it. When I look at anabaptist history I come across stories like this, stories of Christians whose faith compelled them to speak in opposition to the accepted norms of the time -- norms that go against God’s call to love one another, to care for one another as fellow creatures, imago dei.

Are we on the forefront of such issues today? Do we wait around for other churches, or the government, to set the tone? Or, when it comes to those issues often categorized as “human rights issues,” is our faith moving us to speak out for those who are affected by dehumanizing laws and practices?

Are we the ones leading the way -- not because of who the U.S. constitution says does or doesn’t deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but because we understand how wide and how deep is the love of God in Christ, and because we seek to see a foretaste of God’s good future here on earth? Will we say that whether or not the United States welcomes you, we welcome you? Will we blur the line between “you” and “us” as well?

This week two big supreme court decisions were made about the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act. I lament and will continue to lament the first until there is change, and shed tears of joy whenever I think of the second. We have both restricted and increased freedoms in the U.S. this week. As someone so aptly put it on twitter this week, now two black men could get married -- but they might have trouble voting.

How long, O Lord, how long?

It is never about just one issue, but the intersections that make us who we are. As I contemplate our relationship to government policies, I know that the bit of Mennonite history above will be present in my mind as we discuss immigration next week in Phoenix. I hope, too, that beyond that immediate conversation, this memory might lead us to feel conviction for how slow we seem to be to address other kinds of discrimination -- such as that based on sexual orientation. On this issue, we have not been the first to speak. And, while living into the gospel is not a race toward the finish line, as someone who was drawn to the Mennonite church in part because she has been a church not afraid to speak truth to power, however small her voice, it hurts to see the U.S. government agree to marry same-sex couples before we do.

My prayer these days? On those issues about which we are already speaking, let us raise our voices higher.

And on those about which we have remained silent? Let us speak now if ever.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Greater Debt

In Luke 7:36-8:3, one of this past week’s lectionary texts, Simon, a Pharisee, has invited Jesus to his home to eat, and a young woman -- “a sinner,” we’re told -- has learned Jesus’ whereabouts and comes to see him. She sneaks in the back, stands behind Jesus, behind the people gathered at the table.

She weeps profusely, her tears abundant enough to wash Jesus’ feet, which tells me she was really, really crying. I am a crier, yet even my most intense fits of weeping, body shaking sobs of despair, would barely produce enough tears to dampen someone’s feet, salt mixing with dust, so that I could wipe them clean with my long, loose hair.

I identify with her, this young woman with her hair hanging so freely, stepping in where she doesn’t belong. Though commentators often zero in on the question of what this woman’s sins might have been, and label her a prostitute, we don’t actually know that much. The Jewish Mishnah says that married women were to put their hair up; this woman’s loose locks don’t necessarily indicate a “loose” woman. We know she is not married -- a precarious thing in and of itself -- and she occupies a questionable social position.

A young, unmarried woman crashing the Pharisees’ dinner party was scandalous enough, I’m sure -- whatever her sins, real or imagined. Her crying must have raised more than a few eyebrows around the table. Yet the people are quiet in our story. Even Simon thinks only to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him -- that she is a sinner.”

Jesus knows, though. A bit socially disruptive himself at times, he must have a good read on the room, the body language and facial expressions, the carefully averted eyes. “Simon,” he says, “I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”

Jesus then tells him a story, a parable about two people, one of whom owed a creditor five hundred denari, the other fifty denari. When neither of the two can pay their debts, the creditor forgives them entirely. “Now which of them will love him more?” Jesus asks Simon.

“I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt,” he responds. Simon knows the answer; yet does he really understand the question?

Jesus asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” He calls Simon out for his subpar hospitality, and praises the woman for her extravagant gratitude -- this woman, the one whom Simon will not even acknowledge with a look, much less a word. Jesus calls her forgiven.

The others at the table whisper to each other, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” They’re preoccupied with Jesus’ actions, with their understanding of the proper way of doing things, of who is or isn’t sinful, who deserves what, who has what power, who is on the inside and who remains outside.

The first few verses of Luke 8 tell us of many women who accompanied Jesus and the twelve on through cities and villages, “bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” This instance in chapter seven is but one of many instances of Jesus confounding social expectations, calling people where some thought they didn’t belong, and making clear that they do. His ragtag group of disciples: former fishermen, tax collectors, even women preachers. 

It is easy to be like Simon, to talk about people, about issues. The poor, the oppressed, and so forth. This distancing move characterizes much of theological education, and thus many of the conversations in churches, too. I said before that I identify with the woman, but just as surely I identify with Simon. Theologians are very good at holding things at arm’s length and trying to make sense of them.

But when someone is crying at your feet that becomes difficult to do.

Possibly the most important thing I learned in seminary was a sentence scribbled in the margins on my notes in a class with Willie Jennings: “A true intellectual always thinks and reads with people’s problems in mind.” You are not, I heard him saying, just making sense of theological issues -- you are encountering people’s lives, their deepest joys and pains, and -- hopefully -- the good news the gospel breathes into their reality.

Stop talking about the woman; be here with her. Look at her. Know her. You are in this thing together.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that this leads me to wonder about how we talk about sexual orientation, and the “issue” of LGBT exclusion. To what extent do the insiders -- those in leadership, those with power, those who fit certain social norms -- try to become, like Simon, the gatekeepers of who does or doesn’t belong. Who can attend? Who can be a member? Who can preach? Whose marriage will be blessed? As if we decide who is human enough, who God meant when God created women and men in the image of God and pronounced them good. Since when do we decide whether to exclude any of God’s beloved children?

So it seems the terms of the conversation are flawed from the beginning. Like it or not though, a history of exclusion exists. That is the reality of the world in which we live, the world in which we read scripture, the world in which we worship and are called to be the church together.

When I started seminary, I felt apologetic about the fact that I had settled my beliefs about sexual orientation long before I knew enough theology to explain why. I’m not sorry anymore, though.

I was a senior in college when my friend Susanna came out to me. I sat in the passenger seat of her car. She said she had something to tell me. I waited. She hesitated. I wondered what could be so serious.

“I’m not entirely straight,” she said.

Not entirely straight. I didn’t ask her to clarify. I interpreted the vagueness of her statement as a combination of her internal confusion about who she understood herself to be, and the fear of saying the words aloud -- words that could change everything.

I don’t remember how I responded. I probably just said, “Okay.” I wanted to express that I wasn’t shocked or offended, that I wanted to be a good friend, whatever that meant for her right then. Instead we sat there, and maybe the silence spoke on my behalf. One can hope.

Weeks later we were hanging out in my apartment, and Susannah was looking through a stack of books. They were Christian “resources” of the “make you straight” variety. She read a passage aloud to me.

“Stop reading those,” I said.

She looked up at me -- this woman, one of the strongest, smartest, most inspiring women I have been blessed to know and call a friend -- and there were so many questions in her face, so much pain, so much vulnerability. She looked limp, like hair hanging loosely at the feet of Jesus.

“Don’t you want me to be straight?” she asked.

The silence was heavy. I prayed one of those desperate prayers, “God, please tell me what to say, please tell me what to say, please tell me what to say...”

“I don’t know,” I finally began. “I want you to be who God made you, and I don’t know if that person is gay or straight -- but those books aren’t going to help you figure that out.”

I wanted to say they were full of lies, that they were evil, that even though I don’t believe in book burning I wanted them burned.

That one phrase has has stuck with me, though. “I want you to be who God made you.”

Again and again friends of mine who were closeted in college have told me those deep, hidden truths they felt they couldn’t share at our Christian school, liberal though it was compared to so many similar institutions. Few things in my life have been more humbling, more inspiring, more painful than being the person who was safe, being one tiny part of the church that they knew loved them for who they are, not in spite of, but because of each and every part of their God given beautiful selves.

In these relationships I’ve been given a gift. Not only have my friends given me their trust, a gift in itself, but they have given me a kind of freedom, as well. My friends who do not fit the prescribed norms of church history met me in places where, as a straight woman who was not much good at performing either “straight” or “woman” or even “Christian” in expected ways in college, I felt really out of place at a Christian school, in the church, and later on in seminary.

To have friends who accepted me and all my messiness as I navigated the pressures and challenges of femininity, of dating (or not dating), of choosing to go to seminary, of surviving seminary once I got there, of being whoever the heck God made me to be -- I question whether I would have become the woman I am, whether I would have found the strength and beauty in myself that I see now, were it not in part for them creating safe spaces in our friendship for me to transgress whatever boundaries, real or perceived, I came in contact with. They cried at Jesus’ feet with me, our long hair hanging loose, kneeling on the outside of the circle, not sure if we could fit in. Isn’t that where we all find ourselves, sometimes?

I only know in the conversation about inclusion and exclusion we seldom seem to consider that we are the ones missing out. When the church excludes anyone -- whether purposefully, or by default due to one powerful sentence in our confession of faith -- we deprive our community of the gifts of so many sisters and brothers. Sisters and brothers God has already called good, and is already calling upon to share the good news wherever and however they can. They’re already part of the body of Christ; we can only choose to name what already is, or to turn away and deny it.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus asked Simon which man would love the creditor who forgave his debts more, and Simon said, “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
Sometimes we’re the woman at Jesus feet; sometimes we’re Simon. But either way, we can’t pay our debts. Either way, Jesus calls us forgiven. In a case where the church is the one called to repentance, we can give thanks with humility that Christ’s love is sufficient for us, too.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wherefore Art Thou, Democracy? Moral Monday and the Future of North Carolina

Editors note:
I'm happy to introduce today's guest post by fellow North Carolina resident Laura R. Levens. Laura earned her Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School in 2008 and is currently a Doctor of Theology candidate at Duke. Her research and teaching interests include Christian mission, Baptist studies, and women in Christian history. She is an ordained minister through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She has been a voting and tax-paying resident of Durham, North Carolina for eight years, and is a member of Watts Street Baptist Church. 

There is good reason every American should know the story of Romeo and Juliet, and it’s not because everyone needs a good cry. Shakespeare’s tragedy is a political story that needs to be told today in North Carolina, as this state finds itself wrenched by conflict between the Republican controlled legislature and Moral Monday.

Everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet, but often forgotten is the extent of the hateful environment that is determined to keep apart these two star-crossed lovers. At the end of the play, Shakespeare reveals that the true tragedy is the way the whole city has fallen captive to the Exclusionary Way of the Montagues and the Capulets.

Romeo, a Montague, has been reared in the Exclusionary Way. He willingly joins the fight against his Capulet foes, and draws his best friend Mercutio into the feuding, exclusionary way. It is miraculous that Romeo could ever love an outsider more than his own clan, and would even try to become a new family with Juliet Capulet. Even Mercutio cannot believe it.

Juliet has not yet become a full Capulet. Her nurse provided a safe-haven during childhood, but cannot prevent Juliet’s fate as a Capulet woman. One day Juliet will be married off to strengthen the Capulet family. It is miraculous that Juliet, when Romeo appears on her windowsill, chooses to love her enemy instead of fulfilling her destiny as a pawn in her parents’ feuding game. The two lovers choose to leave the Exclusionary Way for a new way as the Montague-Capulet family. They have never seen this type of family before, but they are committed to being together in hope of a better way.

Romeo and Juliet are to be commended for choosing the difficult path of new family, even as they are drawn into that difficult path by a greater power—love. Yet they cannot have it both ways. Romeo loves Juliet, and promises to love her Capulet family as his own. Then in the name of revenge and justice he acts as his old self, as a Montague, and kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. Banished Romeo still has hope for love as long as Juliet, his love, lives on.

Juliet keeps her marriage a secret, but she cannot hide her grief. Her mother and father arrange for her to marry the Prince’s cousin, to secure Capulet plans for more influence in city government. Juliet must choose between her Romeo and the Exclusionary Way. Juliet resists returning to her old, Capulet self in the best way she can through faking her death.

The rest of the story is well known: the supposed death of the lover leads the other to despair. Each no longer believes their love can survive in Verona, and they both choose suicide rather than return again to the Exclusionary Way. But by this point in the play, All of Verona is caught up in the duel between the two powerful families. As Montagues and Capulets fight one another, they drawn in the Prince and the rest of the city by their tactics of control, manipulation, bullying, and violence. The Montague v. Capulet game of “winner take all” results in tragedy for everyone. Both families lose beloved relatives, and several other citizens of Verona die in the feud. In the end, the Exclusionary Way does not protect anyone, even those in its own party. There is no hero, no victor, at all. All are punished.

Love does not cause the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. It is the old hate, the Exclusionary Way, which rears its ugly head for ultimate destruction. Or rather, it is penultimate destruction. For there are survivors in this evil time, even though all survivors are guilty. All hands are stained by the sin of exclusion, but they are given a chance to change their ways.

Romeo and Juliet truly is the greatest love story ever told, because on the morning after the tragic suicides, the surviving Montagues and Capulets pledge to leave the Exclusionary Way and cease their feuding. The families move into the future as Montague-Capulets, as fellow citizens of Verona instead of sworn enemies. Though “never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” in coming together the families take up Romeo and Juliet’s hope in a better way for tomorrow.

But before they go, the two families do something strange. Capulet and Montague both promise to build golden statues for the other’s lost child. While some may scoff the gesture, Shakespeare knows that statues, like stories, are powerful symbols that make people remember. And remembering Romeo and Juliet is important to Verona, because the process of becoming fellow citizens after a feud takes much longer than a photo op and a handshake.

To end their Exclusionary ways, the families must heed the Prince’s challenge to “Go hence and have more talk of these sad things.” They must commit to the process of Dialogue with one another. To become fellow citizens may take years, generations even. It will take much talk, much discernment, much restitution, much forgiveness, and much more of the love brought together Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. The golden statues remind every citizen to resist returning to the Exclusionary Way, so that one day, the story of woe will become a story of unconquered love. Exclusion will be ended, feuds will be over, and there will be true peace for the whole city.

North Carolina is now an American Verona. Rather than dueling families, there are dueling parties every Monday on the lawn of the capitol. And whether or not one is physically present, all North Carolinians are involved, and all are affected.

Currently one party, the Republican led General Legislature and Governor Pat McCrory, are trying to narrate the duel in a Montague v. Capulet way. These legislators want the state and the nation to join their side in a battle between Winners v. Losers. Rep. John Blust proudly framed the matter as a fierce, no-love-lost basketball rivalry: “I think of it like Carolina playing at Duke… I’m not going to let the Cameron Crazies throw me off my game.” Since Blust is concerned with winning, he cannot, or chooses not to see the Moral Monday protests in any other way. Blust believes North Carolina is a place of Republican Montague v. Moral Monday Capulet, and he has chosen to be a Montague, and wants the whole state to support the Montagues too.

Governor Pat McCrory and other state legislators believe they are Montagues fighting Capulets too, and this is the story they tell through media outlets. Pat McCrory warns that Moral Monday demonstrators are “Outsiders…coming in, and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin.” State Senator Thom Goolsby used slander and mimicry to describe the demonstrators as a “circus…complete with clowns, a carnival barker and a sideshow,” with NAACP leader “’Reverend’ Barber…decked out like prelate of the Church of Tome…complete with stole and cassock.” He then blasted more bullying remarks at any person who dared post a comment on social media. He called ordinary citizens of North Carolina “liberal crybabies,” and claimed they were the guilty ones, not him. Where were they when the Democrats were in power, and “bankrupting the state?,” Goolsby challenged.

In other words, Goolsby claims that Moral Monday demonstrators and those who support them are Liberal Capulets to be defeated. If in power, participants in Moral Monday would champion Capulet interests and oppress Republican Montagues. Goolsby has positioned himself as defender of Republican interests, but his protection comes at high cost for the GOP and the state. North Carolina would have to let McCrory and the Republican legislators keep charge of the Republican Montague family and do things the Exclusionary Way.

But it is time for North Carolina to remember Romeo and Juliet, the famous Shakespeare play many saw and read in their youth. They need to remember that when political systems tolerate or operate in the Exclusionary Way, all sides lose and precious lives are destroyed. In this “winner take all” game of crushing one’s opponents, love cannot truly blossom and no one is truly free. All must sacrifice their wants and hopes and dreams to the family, to the Montagues or the Capulets, for the sake of the Exclusionary Way.

Right now, the leaders of Moral Monday understand this, and they reject the Exclusionary Way of the North Carolina Legislature. They have not come to the steps of the capitol to fight their sworn enemies in their pursuit of justice. Moral Monday demonstrators are looking for Democracy.

Moral Monday demonstrators refuse to be described as Capulets. The organizing leaders refuse to play the “winner take all” game Blust, McCrory, Goolsby and other legislators want to play. Reverend Barber refutes McCrory by reminding North Carolina that they don’t have to believe the Montague story nor tolerate the Exclusionary Way. “This ain’t Wisconsin,” Barber intoned. “This is the South, where justice was hammered out.” Barber stands as a North Carolina citizen for his fellow citizens. As he and others stand for the people of this state, Moral Monday exposes the injustices occurring due to the Exclusionary Way of the General Legislature.

Like wise, in a letter to his children, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explained that he peacefully refused to leave the state capitol and was arrested because “we believe they are wrong because we know a better way of life. We have asked them to consider the pain they are causing others by pursuing their own interests. They have refused to listen.…But what they are doing cannot last forever because it is not true. “ Because the Exclusionary way isn’t true and doesn’t protect, Wilson-Hartgrove will not return hate with hate. Moral Monday will not act as Capulets, even when the Republicans act as Montagues with their words, their money, and their power to arrest those who practice civil disobedience.

Now is the time for all citizens of North Carolina to choose which side to believe and to stand on. Must North Carolina believe the Exclusionary Way and its story of fierce and unquenchable rivalry between Republicans and Democrats? Or is this “defeat or be defeated” narrative not the way to live as North Carolinians any more? Must all citizens, to protect the people and things they love, accommodate and contribute to an Insiders v. Outsiders society? Or is there a way to be fellow citizens with our own wants and dreams, and with disagreements as to how to make those happen?

There is a better way to address the injustice in North Carolina, and it is found in the search for Democracy. True Democracy, forged and shaped by generations of Americans, recognizes the diversity of its citizens and the dreams of multiple families. Seeking liberty and justice for all, citizens in a Democracy journey together for the good of all people through the practice of Dialogue. This is why I support Moral Monday demonstrators, and stand with them as they speak for me.

Rejecting fear and manipulation, Dialogue makes room for all parties. It follows the rules of hear and be heard. Dialogue understands differences, airs grievances, and then forges new connections that will bring justice and liberty to all. Legislators and citizens who practice Dialogue are the true Democrats and the true Republicans, no matter where they stand on any one issue. This is True Democracy, of citizen voice in the legislative process. And Americans have been working hard to reach Democracy, generation after generation. Let us remember our American foremothers and fathers, who strove to make a better way to be citizens together.

After all, American history is full of its own Romeo and Juliet tragedies. Many a plaque, statue, and memorial keep record of our nation’s losses due to the Exclusionary Way. The Civil War—North v. South, States v. Union, Slavery v. Abolition, Brother v. Brother—however you call it, it was the bloodiest instance of Exclusionary Way. The Jim Crow era was equally terrorizing for North Carolinians, with deeply held fears and power differentials between whites and blacks culminating in Klu Klux Klan revivals and the Lynching Tree. These American tales of woe left deep marks on American bodies and souls. All were punished.

Thankfully, there has always been a voice calling our nation and North Carolina back to a better way of True Democracy. Like the Prince of Verona, they challenge us to remember our losses, and go forth as fellow citizens instead of mortal enemies. The Civil Rights movement, born out of Greensboro and other North Carolina sit-ins, was once a voice. Moral Monday, right now, is acting as this voice in the state of North Carolina. They are calling all citizens to stop seeing one another as enemies, and to join together in search of Democracy.

Fortunately for North Carolina, this pivotal moment of choice is offered before the next great tragedy occurs. In this moment, the state stands between two paths. There is always a choice to repent from the old way, the old fights, and the old family feud. There is always a chance to try again to act as one Montague-Capulet family, to move forward together. But there is also always a temptation to fall back, and return to the Exclusionary Way.

And these two paths are open to everyone. Even now, Governor McCrory and the Republican legislature have a choice to stop believing they are Montagues who must defeat Capulets or their political party will die. They can act as Romeo, and leave the Exlusionary Way by falling in love with a Capulet. Moral Monday demonstrators must continue to resist the temptation to turn from fellow citizenship back to feuding, even in the name of justice. They must be strong like Juliet, or they will prove Goolsby right and become Capulet pawns in an Exclusionary power play. Like Romeo and Juliet, neither side can have it both ways.

For me, I choose not to believe in the Exclusionary Way. I admit that this is a difficult choice, because I, like everyone else, have been trained to fear potential enemies rather than trust potential friends. I must repent, and take stock of the ways I have been drawn into the Exclusionary Way, because in our society they are pervasive and mighty. I must repent on behalf of my community when it teaches me that the Exclusionary Way is “right” and “good.” I must repent when I have turned back to the Exclusionary Way, and try again to follow a better way.

Right now I choose to use my voice as a fellow citizen to affirm that Moral Monday demonstrators speak for me as they stand for North Carolina citizens in search of Democracy. But I am also ready to sound the alarm if Moral Monday turns to Exclusionary tactics of enemy defeat over Dialogue and True Democracy. I am convinced that if both parties in this duel submit to the Exclusionary Way, we are all punished no matter which side wins in the November elections. The key for North Carolina, and for me, is to remember Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and to go hence in search of True Democracy.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Kierkegaard, Malick, and the Soul in Need

I wrote an essay about the new Terrence Malick film, To the Wonder, which my former professor and friend Amy Laura Hall has graciously published on her blog, Profligate Grace. You can read it here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Note: The following was written and performed for the May 2013 Queens MFA Alpha Krappy Grammar All-genre SLAM in Charlotte, North Carolina.

My first love was a Danish man named Søren. I was twenty, a college sophomore; he had been dead since 1855.

I met Søren Kierkegaard in Philosophy 201. It was love at first read. That semester we stayed up all hours of the night, contemplating the mysteries of existence, truth and subjectivity, the difference between looking backward, and living forward.

It is all fun and games until someone changes her major.

Fear and Trembling became my version of beach reading. I forgot meals. I had trouble sleeping. “Sometimes,” the great Dane wrote in his journal, “there is such a tumult in my head that it feels as though the roof had been lifted off my cranium, seems as though the hobgoblins had liften up a mountain and were holding a ball and festivities there.”

It was something like that.

One afternoon, autumn of my senior year, I sat with friends reading in a favorite coffee shop. Our college chaplain, Trygve, spotted us across the room, sidled up to our booth, smiling.

“Are you reading Kierkegaard?” he asked.


“I bet you’re thinking about him, though.”

I blushed.

“I think you have a schoolgirl crush on Kierkegaard.”

It was true. A copy of Works of Love was in my purple backpack at that very moment, and I could not stop thinking about it.

The thing about falling for Kierkegaard is he will inevitably break your heart. He will teach you to distrust the romantic love of the poet, to wed yourself to the divine. He will not come home to meet your parents at Christmas, or take you dancing on Friday night.

Despite this, I followed him to graduate school, where after years of study culminating in a masters thesis -- on love -- Kierkegaard and I took a break. A long break.

I needed to read other people.

Lately he’s been coming around again -- showing up unexpectedly in articles, conversations with friends, even the latest Terrence Malick film.

I think about telling him to take a hike. “It’s over!” I’ll say. “I’ve met someone else!”

But that would be a lie. I just ordered a copy of The Concept of Irony.

It is true, what they say: old crushes die hard -- even those that have already been dead one hundred fifty-eight years.