Thursday

the kingdom of God is like chicken paprikash



I have a nemesis. She is the only person outside my own family ever to berate me at top volume and the sole human to manage such a feat in front of an audience. (EVERYBODY HATES YOU! WE ALL TALK ABOUT YOU WHEN YOU’RE NOT HERE! I WANT TO PUNCH YOUR STUPID FACE!) It was a movie-caliber castigation, and that it occurred at our place of employ was really just icing on what was pretty much the worst cake ever.

This happened years ago, but ours is a small town, so our paths still cross. She artfully avoids eye contact and feigns (my) invisibility, even if we’re in the same shop or hallway at church. If you saw us on the street, you might think us strangers, but her scorn for me has bound us more like estranged family.

**

My family was in town for Christmas, and my dad took us out for Transylvanian-Hungarian smorgasbord at a wood paneled restaurant resembling the civic clubs of generations past, when people took belonging seriously. Every parking space, table, and seat at the bar was full, and an old man regaled the pink-faced patrons with polkas, Christmas tunes, and classics on the accordion, while we polished off plates piled high with pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and all manner of stewed meat.

We were seated caddy-corner from my nemesis, because of course we were. She has a husband and toddler now, and they were joined by mutual friends (see: small town) and their kids who played while the parents ate nut roll. On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens, two turtle doves, and my nemesis in a Transylvanian pear tree.

The pickings on the buffet dwindled to lonesome green olives on iceberg lettuce and poppy seeds spilling out of errant danish scraps, and we lingered contentedly in the early glow of an eastern European food coma. When the accordionist played the first bars of “Sweet Caroline,” and the whole room broke into song, I thought my sister might actually explode in delight.

**

I live at a Christian camp, and every summer dreams die when our college staff realize the mythical Christian community they’ve idolized is alarmingly less sexy in actuality. The work is hard, the quarters close, the people smell, and they’re kind of annoying, too. Life together isn’t a non-stop “mountain top experience,” even on the literal mountain top.

But it is a lot like family. We may never have chosen each other, but we love each other fiercely, and that’s what makes it velveteen-real. The sweet spot is enough room for varied perspectives, multiple personalities, complementary strengths, and disparate quirks and foibles. Any semblance of unity grows not out of tenuous or illusory sameness but a shared purpose and the rare, fruitful soil of hospitality.

The Kingdom of God is like Yuengling and chicken paprikash with your family, your nemesis, and a roomful of strangers singing Neil Diamond by accordion at the Hungarian bar after Christmas. Selah.



Wednesday

strangers in a strange land


Caesar’s imperial census compelled Mary and Joseph to the pilgrims’ path, far from home for their son’s birth to a world brimful of heartache and cruelty. King Herod’s murderous edict set the young family fleeing to Egypt where they lived several years as refugees. The sword, foretold by the prophet to pierce Mary’s very soul, would first cut countless others’ to the quick.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Few carols lament the empty-armed mothers of Bethlehem, but their grief bore witness to ruthless political expedience and state violence long before that dark day in Golgotha. Or a tear-filled August in Ferguson.

“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

The nativity of our manger-born King reveals an oppressive displacement not adequately conveyed by children’s Christmas pageantry. But Jesus’ babyhood did not exempt him from the rocky stranger’s path even as he was nursed at his mother’s breast. Lamb of God, on the lam before he was yet weaned. To follow in Christ’s steps is to know that same uncertain insecurity, the felt constancy only of the target on one’s back. Wholly welcome no tangible place, belonging only to mercurial sisters and brothers and an unseen, unchanging God, Emmanuel’s path leads ever outward from comfortable center to harried margin, dispossessed people, and cross.

And yet, somehow, to joy. Christ’s own chosen displacements–from heaven, Rome, and custom–can mend this hard world’s sharpest breaches. And we who’ll “do even greater things than these”, will call the castaways, bind up broken hearts, and walk the weary wanderers home at last. Repenting of our own callous casting out, wayward hearts, and dirty, colluding hands, we’ll “stay woke” this advent to light kindling even now in lands of deep darkness, fueled by cast off boots, blood-soaked garments, and every shattered yoke.

“to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

We do not walk this lonesome way alone. Be strong and take heart, all who wait and watch and weep: Emmanuel, ransom of captives, is near.




Monday

with the sound the carols drowned

As advent begins amid swelling protest and lamentation, the poem-turned-song, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, echoes in my ears.

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said

The meditative timbre of advent never fails to resonate with me. Its melancholic, hopeful longing jars against the flashy lights and blur of the Christmas [shopping] season, mirroring the tensions and promise of the now-and-not-yet-fully-realized Kingdom of God.

We wait, and we watch. We cultivate hope, awaiting the coming of Emmanuel, already present and at work among us and within us. We take heart, pushing together against hate and trusting in the peace on earth that is come and shall come at last.


Wednesday

those without a horse



Label, lie, vilify
simplify, Other. Brother,
"Can't we all just get along?"

Those without a horse
dismiss the race with record speed.
Whose stories have we snuffed with severed
cries to settle down?

Prophetic voices rise 
above the fray from muted margins;
shalom whispers the heat of conflict, too.

We practice resurrection: calm, storm, 
work and wonder. Rooted and built up,
rebuilding in love, we'll blaze a most excellent way.


Thursday

because being on the same side is overrated



keep me close by your side
sharing secrets and sorrows and
marshmallow tea

laughing till we pee
trade me stories like candy on
Halloween eve

memorizing what beauty
catches your breath and which aches
remind you of home

never seeking our doubles
(on this we agree!)
just remember i’m there by your side






Monday

and the trees are stripped bare



GUESS WHO PUT IN A WOOD STOVE?? There's still a bit of masonry yet to finish, but our farmhouse is fired up. The winter of my discontent shall be a good bit toastier. Take that, polar vortex.

We threw a party: venison chili, mulled cider, and a fire for a crowd of thirty-odd friends and neighbors. Such a nice night. My brother and his girlfriend drove out from Philly to spend the weekend with us, too, which was great. We went out together to a quirky Northern Chinese restaurant ten miles further into the the middle of nowhere, PA, that everyone was thoroughly charmed by. Dumplings forever. Delegating pumpkin carving to Uncle Josh? Priceless.

James turned five, and we celebrated with blue key lime buttercream. My older sister visited with a crew of friends for a little team-building retreat involving jumping off telephone poles. My parents were around for a bit. They bought a little second home here a few years back and venture out every few weeks, to the great delight of Dylan and James.

Jim's been in Milwaukee putting on a big four thousand runner stadium race with his buddy, like you do. That meant nearly a week of solo parenting, but we hung in there, we did. Quite happily, all things considered, fitting in trick-or-treat, a living room camp-out, a movie night, and scrambled eggs for dinner twice. Jim is back, and he brought with him Wisconsin cheese, because all the best men do.



Pages:

50 Women Every Christian Should Know Michelle DeRusha's collection of mini biographies is worthy of a read. She's got mystics, martyrs, missionaries, activists, artists, and all sorts of diverse women spanning Church history. Definitely a good introduction to inspire further reading.

My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within More an autobiography than a proper memoir, I had a difficult time with this one, but I trust it would resonate with those who share similar stories.

Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World This title from Nish Weiseth, my editor at A Deeper Story, is about the role of storytelling in creating community and forging understanding. Her writing is interspersed with posts from the multi-contributor website, (including the first one I ever published with them. In print!). Like Nish, I've seen stories change minds and heal hearts, and writing in that community has been a tremendous pleasure.

As one who is equally appreciative of a well-reasoned argument (and believes that storytelling, like anything, can have a dark side), I wasn't completely sold on her story-is-king premise, but it's certainly a hopeful one, and Christians could all do with a bit more listening and not despising the days of small things.

Gone Girl Whoa. This thriller had me going. I don't want to spoil anything, but I definitely want to see the movie.

The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry Worth it alone for Anglo-Saxon Protestant Heterosexual Men. Berry is a national treasure.

Screens:

The Bletchley Circle: These BBC feminist period piece mysteries about a crew of smart and nerdy code-breakers are the BEST and altogether too few. The series/seasons are just three episodes a piece. The first is on Netflix, and the second I tracked down in the library system.

Scandal and Parenthood remain my faves. I'm also rather charmed by the freshman romantic comedies A to Z (NBC) and Manhattan Love Story (ABC).

Pretty sure I saw zero movies last month.

Perfection:

Bill Murray mumble-singing one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs forever and ever amen. Anyone seen this movie yet?



If Ruth Baby Ginsburg doesn't make you smile, you are dead inside.

All right, that's me. What have you been doing, seeing, loving of late?

Thursday

take up a different story



The bell calls in the town
Where forebears cleared the shaded land
And brought high daylight down
To shine on field and trodden road.
I hear, but understand
Contrarily, and walk into the woods.
I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods. 
(“Sabbaths – 1979, IV” by Wendell Berry)

Growing up, my parents believed heartily in Jesus, honest work, and Sabbath. At some point, Saturday morning chores migrated to Friday-after-school-before-you-even-think-of-going-out chores, but Sunday was forever set apart as a day of worship, family, and rest. The only work allowed revolved around serving and cleaning up our mid-day meal. Homework was permissible, but not until well after dinner was savored and put away.

None of us were particularly athletic. My siblings and I dabbled in swim team, baseball, and softball, but soccer was out of the question, because those Sabbath-breaking coaches scheduled games during church, which I can’t remember missing once in the eighteen years I lived at home.

After Sunday school, worship, and a leisurely coffee hour that we seemed to close down most weeks, our family headed home to ready the afternoon meal. We kept on our church clothes and often hosted friends, family, or the sorts of newcomers for which my mom was forever on the lookout. Old ladies and young seminarians were among her favorites to invite to Sunday dinner.

Our family ate together in the kitchen every night, but Sundays were a fancier affair: fine china and silver set in the dining room; pot roast, meat loaf, or London broil; baked potatoes; salad; Crescent rolls (if you were lucky); and often pie. This meal was not rushed, and one did not fool around or dare giggle. Maybe, maybe you could get away with goofing off over Tuesday’s tuna macaroni (if Dad were out of town), but not in the dining room and certainly not on the Lord’s day. Sit up straight, and show some respect.

After the dishes were done, (You wash; I’ll put the food away and dry), there might be football or naps. Reading the paper was a perfectly acceptable (read: quiet) Sabbath activity. You could play in the yard, lace up your skates, or maybe bike around the block, but do not ask to call a friend. This day is for God, rest, and family.

Do not dream of asking to go to the mall. It doesn’t matter that you have a ride. It’s a sin they even see need to open their doors. Those workers ought to be able to rest from their labors, too, and they surely won’t work today on our behalf.

I don’t recall a great deal of Sabbath wonder growing up (excepting that time our guest revealed that his favorite t.v. show was Theverboten Simpsons, and our eyes grew wide, incredulous), but the discipline and ritual left a deep impression. Sundays truly were a day set apart to “take up a different story,” the kind we’re trying to write with our own young family now.

Sabbath keeping is contrary to so many popular myths, the greatest, perhaps, that we are the sum of all we produce or own. Rest embraces God’s grace and provision over performance or consumerist striving. “To insist on Sabbath is to give testimony to the subversive knowledge that God’s bias is in favor of freedom.” Sabbath reconnects us with Life beyond the exacting grind or madding crowd, honoring the One for Whom and with Whom we labor all those other days.

So we rest and we play. We worship and sing. We read and make art, sharing meals and appreciating beauty. We recall the Exodus and we dance, keeping inventory of wonders and of uncommercial goods.

Friday

violence in the snowy fields



The cover of the October issue of Harper's belongs to Rebecca Solnit's Silencing Women. (Her popular essay, Men Explain Things To Me, appears in a forthcoming book of the same name.) The article is behind a paywall, so I read it at the library and then drove two towns over to get my own copy like the responsible literary citizen I can be.

The piece, about how women's testimony and voices are discredited, will be achingly familiar to many. It's worth a trip to the newsstand or library to read in full. Here's an excerpt:

Still, even now, when a woman says something uncomfortable about male misconduct, she is routinely portrayed as delusional, a malicious conspirator, a pathological liar, a whiner who doesn't recognize it's all in fun, or all of the above. The overkill of these responses recalls Freud's deployment of the joke about the broken kettle. A man accused by his neighbor of having returned a borrowed kettle damaged replies that he had returned it undamaged, it was already damaged when he borrowed it, and he had never borrowed it anyway. When a woman accuses a man and he or his defenders protest that much, she becomes that broken kettle. 
So many broken kettles. 

The story is always timely, but it seemed especially so to me having just read a thread over at David Hayward's Naked Pastor where a number of women spoke out about just that kind of treatment at the hands of leaders in the Emergent/emerging/progressive church movement. Nearly one month and eight hundred eighty-six one thousand seven comments later, that thread is still live, but I've not read much external commentary on it. A lot of people probably wish it would go away. It's unseemly, distracting. When such conflicts arise, it's worth examining who assumes the role of arbiter of What We Should Be Focusing On Instead and who are considered to be indecorous, un-Christlike troublemakers and unreliable narrators.

Of course, women are not alone in the experience of having their witness discredited or personhood diminished. Historically, it's even more common for people of color, (and women of color get it on multiple axes). Queer people and abuse survivors of all genders can similarly find their perspectives cast as untrustworthy against those who, across lines of power, are deemed less emotional and more objective, rational, and deserving of the benefit of the doubt by default.

It's exhausting. So many of the supposed "bad guys" and "good guys" behave in identical manners, which shouldn't surprise: no camp, theology, or political bent is immune from protected power, boys' clubs, gaslighting, mean girls, misogyny, bullying, or systemic violence. Across the board, celebrity emperors have no clothes, but few even bat an eye.
It’s not just bros and jocks and finance dudes and yuppies and Christians and Republicans who are shitty to women. Being part of a counter-cultural or progressive community does not give you a free pass to be shitty to women without being called out on it. We need to hold our own communities to an even higher standard than we hold those in the opposition, we need to welcome criticism, and we to realize that the ones who call out shitty behavior in these communities are not the threat, but that those who protect it and shield it from criticism are. (On sexism, sexual assault and the threat of the ‘non-bro’) (h/t Dianna Anderson)
Left-leaning Christians can't just point fingers at abuses at Mars Hill or Sovereign Grace and ignore the same destructive power dynamics repeated in our own relationships and communities. The sun still hasn't set on empire. It's hardly endemic to the right, and it's decidedly not a vague metaphor for meanness or whichever critics we don't appreciate. Empire is present in every system privileging the powerful at the expense of "the least of these." Followers of the One who esteemed outcasts and undesirables, whose own inner circle offered nothing in the way of legitimacy or prestige, and who was ultimately executed by the literal empire colluding with religious authority should know better than to water down this most potent theological concept and critique of abusive, violent power.

We can do so much better, friends. Eyes to see. Ears to hear. Hands to heal.

Feet to move: first to last, last to first.




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