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 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, our 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’
It lacks integrity, consistency, and frankly, faithfulness, if left-leaning Christians point fingers at abuses at Mars Hill or Sovereign Grace and then ignore the same destructive and marginalizing power dynamics repeated in our own backyards and communities. The sun still hasn't set on empire: it's hardly exclusive to the right, and "empire" is decidedly not a vague and lazy Jesus-juke available for leaders to wield against whichever criticism, tone, or perspective they don't appreciate (or find threatening to their own status).

Empire is present in every system privileging the humanity, word, and work of 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 Roman 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.




Tuesday

goldenrod and the 4-H stone


Our lawn is already blanketed in orange leaves. Jim grew a little pumpkin patch that he and the kids are wholly smitten with, and summer is decidedly over, which is something of a relief for this camp family. Dylan's in first grade, James started up at a new pre-school in the afternoons, and it good to be back into fall rhythms again.

The end of the month means linking up with Leigh Kramer, whom I got to spend one delicious afternoon with in Nashville this summer. I've barely written here much at all lately, but I figured this was as good a time as any to dip my toes back in these waters again.

Read

Preston Yancey's Tables In The Wilderness releases today. I'm gonna go ahead and admit that I was a little nervous to read Preston's book. He's a talented writer, as blog readers surely know, but he's young, and I just wasn't sure what to expect from this memoir, which largely covers his time in college.

I needn't have worried. What it is is an honest, warmly told coming-of-age story about growing into one's faith and finding the kinds of friends who help us to become our best selves. Preston's book writing is humble, and I appreciated the way he navigated finding a home in the Anglican tradition while honoring his roots. His is also the first and perhaps only evangelical book I've read to make a noticeable, concerted effort not to use masculine pronouns for God, which was a happy surprise.

I've got one hard copy of Preston's book to pass along. Just leave a comment below and I'll get it in the mail to one reader shortly.




Amy Turn Sharp's sexy little book of poetry is glorious.

Wendell Berry's A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. Beauty.

I read this back in the summer, but Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark is so thoughtful I might have to get my own copy and read it again. She reclaims literal and metaphorical darkness as inspiration for personal and spiritual growth, and it's haunted me in the best way ever since.

James and I read Joyce Sidman's and Pamela Zagarenski's Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors and were so charmed we requested everything else the library system had, and we've now got two more books of poems on deck. Our little library is a gem, and life finds us there two or three times a week.

Watch

I think Scandal and Parenthood are all I'm really watching, besides old episodes of Lie to Me on Netflix. I watched Mixology during a massive re-organization of the kids' rooms. I don't know really know anything about the new fall season.

Movies: Wish I Was Here, Divergent, That Awkward MomentThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Those are the only ones I can even remember seeing/liking, and that was definitely in August. Hashtag old.

Listen

Lots and lots of Bill Deasy and Gathering Field.


Etc.

September has been something of a recovery month. Everything sort of gets away from us during summer camp, and in September we wrestle it back: family dinners, the house, the yard. Camp celebrated its centennial, and we got to see a bunch of old friends. Jim and I got dressed up and attended one of those schmancy fundraisers that people must invite us to because they perceive we need a night out (true), because it's surely not our deep pockets.

I finished a few writing projects. Started doing yoga again. We're trying to get a wood burning stove installed. (What's a farm house without one?) It's mostly been a month of quiet and ordinary work. Well, that and the lice. Parenting, man. Not for the faint of heart.

What are you reading, doing, cooking, listening to, raving about of late? Tell me something good.



Thursday

the gift of ordinary time


Like the moon orders the tides, the horizon draws seekers to the shore’s edge each evening at sunset. The pull is magnetic and almost liturgical in its rhythm. From our vacation perch atop this tree-lined street, we watch the pilgrims flock. Neighbors appear on porches, cradling drinks, eyes trained westward. Kids abandon bikes where the sidewalk ends. Spilling out of cars and homes and on foot, they head for the sea, casting off shoes in the dunes. Where sand and sky kiss surf is holy ground. We pause together, bearing witness to the beauty which descends like clockwork and grace.
The sun is a dazzling ball of pink, with clouds aflame in orange and regal purple. Times Square’s yearly ritual has nothing on this globe’s daily descent into the Delaware Bay at dusk. Its regularity can’t diminish its magnificence, and I’m struck by how infrequently I honor this pause. The sun sets, of course, each night at home, but I barely realize it most nights in the shuffle of putting the kids to bed or getting dinner on the table.
My spirit awakens to the weekly rhythms of worship, prayer, and sacrament. I welcome the turn of the seasons in creation, church, and culture alike. Summer peaches. Back-to-school shoes. Fall festivals. Advent waiting. Christmas feasting. New Year promise. Winter quiet. Lenten fasts. Spring crocuses. Easter hope. Pentecost revival. Ordinary Time.
It’s the daily rituals my heart is missing lately, the ordinary ones, like stopping it all to watch the sun paint the sky amethyst and tangerine. A summer of travel and camp ministry has left me a bit adrift, and I’m longing for the anchor and stability of quotidian rhythms. A cup of coffee savored. Laundry folded and put away. Meals shared. Compline and kisses goodnight. Less hurry and distraction and more awareness of thin places.
“Every day, this One offers gifts–life, light, and hours in which to work and eat and love and rest–and invites humankind to join in the ongoing work of caring for creation and all who dwell therein. The same One also continues, each day, the work of new creation: the work of forgiving and reconciling and restoring wholeness. This too we are invited to enter, both as ones who stand in need of this divine work and as partners in it.
The Christian practice of receiving the day calls us to remember these truths with frequency and regularity. Forgetting them is costly. […] The practice of receiving the day is the cluster of activities that enable Christians to offer attention, daily, to the gracious presence and activity of God.”
Confident of mercies new each morning, we’ll pilgrimage together, hearts expectant of quiet beauty, deep need, and great grace.

Monday

like precious oil poured on the head


Sartre famously wrote that “Hell is other people.” Hell can indeed feel like tiny, whiny people who Just. Want. To. Watch. A. SHOW.
We’ve never even SEEN a show. Not in FOREVER.
Forever!
Can we watch a show?
What about now? Can we watch a show now?
Peg + CatJustin Time? Now? We’ve never even watched them in forever!
It’s kinda hard to disagree. (With Sartre, I mean. My kids’ grasp on forever is tenuous at best.) We can all be hell to be around, can’t we? We’re a hoggish bunch, prone to violent outbursts, icy snubs, and haughty insularity. We lie, exclude, and think the worst. We’re unfathomably selfish, but at least we’re better than them(Ugh!)
But then I read Psalm 133 where David makes the rather audacious claim that heaven is other people.
1 How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.
Community is where God ordains his blessing, “even life forevermore.” We are saved together for an eternity starting now. Salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The Kingdom of God is at hand, in our hands.
here the oil is an anointing oil, marking the person as a priest. Living together means seeing the oil flow over the head, down the face, through the beard, onto the shoulders of the other–and when I see that I know that my brother, my sister, is my priest. When we see the other as God’s anointed, our relationships are profoundly affected. (Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction)
We are each other’s priest: co-bearers of good news, deep burdens, and great joy. Evangelical Protestants are quick to claim that we require no mediator but Christ, but as Bonhoeffer reminds, the Christ in my heart is weaker than the Christ in my brother’s–or sister’s–word. When my eyes are weary and my heart is faint, I need you to kindle the flames of faith. At times, we’re all the paralyzed man on the mat in Luke 5: saved by the faith and faithfulness of our friends. We carry each other into the presence of God that we may be seen, known, and healed.
But what about the times when we can barely stand to look each other in the eye? When listening turns to mockery and blood boils hot? When we’re frustrated, furious, and exhausted, what hope have we for pleasant unity then?
***
The township put a gravel bike trail right through our yard this summer. I haven’t done much (okay, any) running since my 5K back in May, but I’ve been out there on my bike, stealing moments when the kids are at VBS or I’ve snagged a sitter from camp for an hour or two. (Glory.)
The trail weaves around the soccer fields, over a creek, past a cattle farm, and into town. It’s quiet enough to begin to hear myself think. To pray. And listen. Even the weeds and wildflowers whisper, and I remember the discipline of paying attention.
It’s quiet at home, too, before the kids wake, after goodnight kisses are given, and intermittently in-between, but I’m far less disciplined about cultivating solitude there. There’s work to do, sleep to be had, and tempting ways to avoid both in the light of screens.
We might practically judge the state of our psychological and emotional health by our practice of solitude. Our ability to care in a world of ongoing change grows when it is deeply rooted in a quiet, silent encounter with our faithful God. This allows us to move through our days without being terribly disturbed and distraught by the interruptions or disruptions. It also allows us to perform a diversity of concrete tasks without haste and distraction. In solitude we re-find our center and rediscover that our unity is continually strengthened and nurtured. (Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome)
If Nouwen is right – and I’m inclined to think he is – the elusive unity for which we long grows not in togetherness, sameness, or the absence of disagreement (or whining) but in the fertile soil of solitude. Unity is cultivated far from the din of the crowd.
If we base our life together on our physical proximity…life quickly starts fluctuating according to moods, personal attractiveness, and mutual compatibility, and thus becomes very demanding and tiring. Solitude, on the other hand, puts us in touch with a unity that precedes all unifying activities. In solitude we become aware that we were together before we came together and that life is not a creation of our will but rather an obedient response to the reality of our already being united. Whenever we enter into solitude, we witness to a love that transcends our interpersonal communications and proclaims that we love each other because we have been loved first (1 Jn. 4:19). Solitude keeps us in touch with the sustaining love from which we draw strength. (Nouwen, Clowning in Rome)
***
I took both kids out on the trail tonight for the first time together. It was ambitious, as they’re both two-wheel tenderfoots, but we’re hoping for family bike time on the boardwalk in a few weeks, so we’ve got to log the hours.
It was not, as one might imagine, a transcendent experience. One child fell off the path completely into a tangle of poison ivy, and the whine flight was not to be missed, but you know what? I didn’t lose my cool (much), and all in all, I’d put our little outing in the “win” column. They pedaled their faces off, ’til they’d earned tired like a badge. Although they took turns proclaiming they couldn’t do it and they weren’t strong, they did, and they are – even stronger than they know.
My little priests, anointed with bike grease and sweat, down the collars of their summer tees.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

is "progressive" christianity a useful distinction?


Some have gravitated away from labeling themselves "Christian," even if they've largely kept the faith. They just follow Jesus or perhaps consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious. Others add modifiers like "progressive" or "post-evangelical" to differentiate their beliefs from the faith of their fathers.

My faith has evolved, too, as I've grown, which I imagine is the case for most people. I've never felt drawn to exchange labels, but I recognize also that I hold the advantaged position of not bearing deep wounds from the Church. I've been a Christian since I was a kid, and I'm still a Christian. I'm not particularly concerned that you'll think I'm one of those Christians, whoever they are. Christianity is diverse, and while I claim all Christians as kin, I speak only for myself.

Even when my bag was pinned with a "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" button and my feet marched in protests, I didn't really consider myself a "progressive Christian". My politics were surely formed by my faith, but I considered myself as regular a Christian as anybody else at church, even if we voted or interpreted Scripture differently.

Recently I stumbled across a conversation on Twitter about the difference between "liberal" and "progressive" Christians/Christianity. One respondent offered that in the UK, progressive means "hyper liberal", but in the U.S. it seems to indicate "moderately liberal".

I don't think he's wrong; that does seem to be how the terminology can function in the admittedly narrow lexicon of post-evangelical, post-fundamentalist American social media users, but it also reveals in part why the label  is so profoundly unhelpful.

For one thing, on the political spectrum, although progressive and liberal are sometimes used interchangeably, progressive does not functionally mean "moderately liberal". By and large, political progressives are more radical and populist than liberals, rooted historically in the United States with activist movements for labor and education reform, environmental conservation, and women's suffrage, among others. Liberal politicians today are generally establishment Democrats, while progressive candidates are more likely to represent third parties and more radical reform platforms. Candidate Obama was fairly progressive, but he isn't a progressive president by any real stretch of the imagination. Progressives, who by definition seek greater progress, exist further to the political left of liberals.

Then there's the other problem, which Fred Clark explains: "The theological spectrum does not mirror the political spectrum for many, many reasons, the most important of which being that there is no such thing as the theological spectrum.'”

You could try telling that to third way-ers, whose theological identity seems to hinge on a unique ability to mediate the allegedly hostile, polar wastelands of progressive and conservative Christianity, but I don't think it would go over any better there than with the crowd who narrowly defines orthodoxy as whatever they believe, branding anyone and everything else "liberal," regardless of affiliation. (Adding to the confusion, liberal theology is a historical thing, but it's worlds apart from what most of us would recognize as postmodern or "progressive" Christianity.)

[Slacktivist]

I suspect that growing up in evangelical communities for whom "liberal" was akin to a Scarlet "L" pushes post-evangelicals to embrace "progressive" as their preferred signifier, but does progressive indicate anything meaningful in the context of popular theology?

Blogger Zach "Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet" Hoag "heartily embrace[s] the progressive label in its simplest definition of 'not conservative or fundamentalist evangelical.'” I agree with Zach that plenty of Christians claim the label as a static "not like those Christians" badge of distinction, but that sort of definition by negation is a weak baseline for an identity, particularly for one employed by a progressive Christian website. Failing to adequately define one's terms leads to the unhelpful lumping together of disparate theologies, people, and groups as well as throwing other Christians under the bus in ways that aren't entirely charitable. Fundamentalism isn't interchangeable with evangelicalism, and I'm left wondering what exactly sets Hoag's or anyone else's faith apart as progressive? Comfort with mystery, tension, and questions? Affinity for liturgy? Less rigidity? More diversity? Social justice? I'm not trying to pretend that I have no idea what folks mean when they say "progressive Christianity", but many of the popular signposts aren't peculiar to Christians of a more progressive bent. Christians across time and tradition, including those typically thought to be conservative, practice a generous orthodoxy.

Hoag expresses concern for "unhealthy conversation...which so often wields the 'progressive' label as a weapon against anyone less 'progressive,'" seeming to argue that interrogating a self-identified progressive is off-limits: folks are progressive if they say they are, and any challenges to aim higher, go deeper, or listen more closely to the margins will be dismissed as unhealthy and even violent. That's certainly played out in his comment threads lately, where queer, female, and other dissenters have been deleted, blocked, and branded as toxic trolls (while a sexist, sexually demeaning joke is left to stand). Also perplexing is the cake/too desire to don the progressive label, transcend it by exemplifying Jesus' own alleged "third way", and then grump should anyone point out that the left is more progressive than the center by definition.

If this is "Progressive Christianity," the theobrogians and Illuminati gatekeepers can have it. But unfortunately for them, progressive remains a political label. It doesn't function particularly well as personal branding, but as long as they claim to be progressive, we will ask to see their work:

  • Are they/(we) practically oriented toward progress, justice, reform, growth, and those existing at the margins?
  • Do they/(we) pass the mic, or do they/(we) prop up entrenched hierarchies further benefiting them/(our)selves?
  • Are learning, change, and liberation ongoing--or is a one-and-done changing of the mind on an issue good enough?
  • Are they/(we) truly affirming of racial, ethnic, economic, sexual, gender, and class diversity; blackness; people of color; women and survivors; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, queer Christians and people--or is nicer, gentler discrimination sufficient "progress"?
  • Can they/(we) recognize and subvert oppressive power dynamics--even if personally implicated? Do they/(we) caution patience, civility, better humor, greater reason, and less emotion across lines of privilege, assuming faux-neutrality and a moral high ground they/(we) are perhaps not worthy of?
That's some of what I mean when I use the term progressive, and as long as we're operating from different definitions, worldviews, assumptions, and expectations, progressives are bound to conflict. More than that, we are talking past each other in essentially different languages, and the ways we communicate often reinforce rather than subvert established hierarchies and systemic injustice. Perhaps acknowledging that self-described progressives aren't on the same theological or political pages, easing up on the language of forced-teaming and hyperbolic war, is a step forward.

As a Christian whose politics are progressive and whose theology leans feminist and liberationist, I'm looking for a demonstrated commitment to justice, peace, and liberation among those who'd claim the progressive label, and I want to know that you believe in inequality. In Christian terminology, I'm seeking to loose the chains and break every yoke. I'm looking and working for repentance, resurrection, and all things made new. Yesterday's victories are worth celebrating, but the harvest is plentiful, and there's much yet to do. I name white supremacy and misogyny among the "powers and principalities" for which Christ died and over which he rose, and I admit that the rules are different according to privilege and power. There are times to listen and times to move our feet, and those most accustomed to leading are not necessarily best equipped for the work of birthing and building better paths forward

Progressives of faith, like all humans across time, won't agree on everything, but at the very least, might we affirm a commitment to ongoing growth as a community? Can we pin down a definition more meaningful and motivating than "Not X"? Can we interrogate whatever's standing in the way of our movements toward justice--even if it's us!--unafraid of "surfacing tensions already present" and seeking the sort of peace that's hard-won?

I dare say we'd be making progress.

Thursday

#FaithFeminisms: i believe in inequality



My feminism is (almost) done talking about equality. 
If we take folks at their word, it would appear that almost everyone already believes in it. We wouldn’t dream of being racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory. We know better. We’re good, welcoming people with the best intentions, but if Wisdom is truly proved right by her deeds, something is deeply amiss.

The conversations happening around #FaithFeminisms this week are tremendously challenging and inspiring. It's rare to find evangelical, liberal, and radical voices in one place, but it's happening here, and I'm excited to contribute my voice in print (and literally, as well). Spend some time on the site and consider linking up a post of your own. Good things are afoot.

Sunday

#FaithFeminisms: A Calling Out

 

Pssst. Exciting happenings are afoot, and you're invited to contribute. The Spirit is making ways in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Come by and have a look.


Tuesday

nevermind the gap


Women not employed by the beauty industrial complex will tell you that your thirties are better than your twenties, due to increased confidence and comfort in one’s own skin. It’s counter-intuitive, perhaps, for a culture as youth obsessed as ours, where magazines whisper that happiness is proportional to the gap between one’s thighs, but I suspect that part of contentment lies instead in the spaces one takes up without reservation or apology.
What good is a gap anyway? Negative space so easily becomes a canvas on which a faceless crowd projects its own constraining desires. They’re impossibly fickle and don’t take kindly to women who won’t abide contradictory rules and roles, but permission never was theirs to grant. I paint my own paths in bold, unmuted hue, attuned instead to passions closer to heart and home.
When I was young, I hunched my shoulders, envious of women delicate and fine. Now I know better: there are as many ways to be feminine as there are people, so I stand with shoulders back and head held high.
My voice carries. There’s no question? At the end of my sentences? I’m not sorry for showing up or speaking my mind (even–especially–if they’d rather I dial it back and fall in line). My presence and perspective will not shrink to fit.
I’ve learned there’s a difference between the crowd and my neighbor. To love the latter well, I cannot seek to please the crowd, and I’ve got to actually love and take care of myself. Self-consciousness and doubt turn a gaze inward every bit as much as pride, stalling the good work of justice, mercy, humility, and hospitality in our midst. I can’t embody my own gifts or fully be the person God created me to be if I’m stuck caring too much about what everyone else does or thinks.
There’s so much more room. Our experiences, strengths, fears, and perceptions vary. We’re not the same, and there’s no reason at all to squeeze ourselves or each other into tiny cookie cutter molds.
Let’s raise an Ebenezer from the molds we shatter together. A monument to faithfulness, freedom, and wings unclipped. To the diverse Body of Christ serving the Spirit and common good.
We can take up space as women beyond corner and margin. Your choices won’t invalidate mine, my victories can’t diminish yours, and your strengths don’t render me weak. Our stories are vast and unique, but our liberation and the health of our communities are bound up together.
We want to be well. We will listen and learn and love, and we’ll carve out still more room, creating space and new paths as we walk, never minding the gap.

Thursday

a beautiful disaster {giveaway}

Marlena Graves is a wise woman who loves Jesus and knows the Scriptures intimately. Our paths crossed at the Festival of Faith & Writing this spring where she appeared on an engaging panel about race and Christian publishing. Graves writes with the winsomely rare combination of authority and humility, and her new book, A Beautiful Disaster, is a study of truths hard-learned in the wilderness. 
There are no pat answers here--just the wisdom of one who's walked the valley of the shadows and kept the faith. She doesn't romanticize or trivialize the desert but illumines how God can utilize even heartbreak for growth and good, drawing from the wisdom of the Desert Father and Mothers as well as modern mystics like Kathleen Norris, Dallas Willard, and Thomas Merton. I'm so happy to have Marlena here today with an excerpt from her book, a worthy title for personal or group study.

Stability in Community (Especially When Community Irritates Us)
We cannot love well unless we are continually being transformed into loving human beings. How are we changed into more loving people? Through reliance on the Holy Spirit while observing those who love well, allowing ourselves to be loved well by others, and being open to receiving the love of God. Bernard of Clairveaux notes, “The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.”i
We cannot love well and be loved ourselves if we are not committed to a community of Christians. Loving and being loved require that we become stable and active members of the local body of Christ. Drawing on the wisdom of Abba Moses, Bradley Nassif advises that we “stay put and be content with our lives. . . . We must not move from place to place or dwell on what we do not have. . . . We are to learn how to deal with ourselves and our environment where we are as we are.”ii
It is very important to find a good community. A good community doesn’t mean it will be a perfect community. And sometimes God places us in communities we would not have chosen had the choice been ours alone. Initially, none of the life-giving communities I’ve belonged to met all my expectations (as if they exist to serve my preferences). I had to give up some of my expectations in order to accept the work of God in my life and the work God wanted to do in the community, some of it through me. Once we’ve found a community that accepts the way God has made us and is within the bounds of orthodoxy, we stay. We grow roots. We take a vow of stability.
Stability becomes a spiritual discipline when the theater seating, contemporary music, and strobe lights get on our nerves. Or when the uncomfortable pews, organ music, and liturgy irritate us. Maybe the messages leave much to be desired—or the building blandly frames a Sunday experience devoid of beauty. Nevertheless, we stay, grateful for the many gifts of grace God offers through the community. We don’t flit place to place, rootless, like souls without a home.
I am not advocating that we remain in a toxic and abusive community. That we do not do. In that situation, we do what needs to be done for our health and the health of our loved ones. Employment and other familial circumstances may also remove us from a community. But I worry that too often we let superficial reasons, like laziness and being too busy, keep us from living a life of discipleship in our communities. Dennis Okholm writes, “Stability means being faithful where we are—really paying attention to those with whom we live and to what is happening in our common life.”iii
Changing into a more loving and generous human being is a slower process than we’d prefer. It takes longer than we want it to because our unloving ways are so deeply ingrained. But change in general involves, as James Bryan Smith says, “adopting new narratives, spiritual disciplines, community, and the help of God.”iv These modes of change do not have instantaneous powers of transformation in and of themselves. But together, over time, they transform us.
We might wonder what a transformed, loving person within community looks like. Jan Johnson provides a concrete though not exhaustive list of loving capacities that will develop in us as we abide in Christ—which as we have noted entails abiding in Christian community. She tells us that abiding in Christ will turn us into people who:
• live with joy and gratefulness
• bless enemies (difficult people)
• don’t hold grudges
• care deeply about others
• don’t run off at the mouth but offer caring words
• go the extra mile
• live with purposeful intentionality
• are humble (letting go of pride and not grabbing credit or engaging in power struggles)
• never, ever judge (that’s God’s job) (Matt. 5–7)v

Learning to Love Well
We grow the most and learn to love the best when we are around those who are different from us. If our ability to love is never challenged, how will we know if we really and truly love? There’s nothing wrong with befriending and hanging out with those who are like us. But if we are to live with joy and gratefulness, not hold grudges, and learn to go the extra mile, we must be open to living among and befriending those in our communities who aren’t like us.
We might ask ourselves if we have good friends who are of different races and ethnicities, friends with different political views, friends from different socioeconomic statuses, and non-Christian friends. If not, why not? We are limiting our experience of the life of God and our resemblance to Jesus if we do not frequently and closely relate with those who differ from us. We need to tear down walls, not erect walls. In our cultivation of friendships, we must be careful not to exclude others. Our relationships aren’t for us alone.
The wilderness opens our eyes to the intrinsic value of Christ’s body by stripping us of our independence. It shows us how dependent we are on the gifts and graces of God. Most often God infuses these graces into our lives through the lives of other believers. Among others we can better figure out what is good for us. With them we can discern what is necessary for our well-being. It’s together that we live a robust life in the kingdom of God and bring life to others. It’s together that we survive in the wilderness.

Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2014. Used by permission. http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com

Want a copy of Marlena Graves' A Beautiful Disaster? Leave a comment related in some way to community, the wilderness, or books, and I'll draw a winner Sunday night.

i Bernard of Clairveaux, “On Loving God,” in Bernard of Clairveaux: Selected Works, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 179.
ii Bradley Nassif, “The Poverty of Love,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianvisionproject.com /2008/05 (accessed September 24, 2008).
iii Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 91.
iv James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 189.
v Jan Johnson, Invitation to the Jesus Life: Experiments in Christlikeness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008), 19.

Saturday

we're here to stay, we're here to stay, we're here to stay



They took down the post. Late last night, the president and C.E.O. of Christianity Today and the editor of Leadership Journal took full responsibility, removed the destructive article, and issued what may be one of the best apologies I've seen, which you can read in full here.

The conversation is changing, and our work is bearing fruit. Evangelicalism's flagship media group, read by 2.5 million people a month, is starting to address consent and taking steps to change harmful language and ensure survivor care. Because of a grassroots movement aimed at accountability and concern for child protection, sexual abuse prevention and after care is on the hearts and minds of thousands of pastors, laypeople, and church leaders this week instead of functioning as a niche concern for survivors, therapists, feminists, and activists.

We are kicking at darkness, and daylight is breaking through. Abusive patterns and oppressive systems, once hidden in plain sight, are being named and dragged into the light, and this is a big deal! There is so much work yet to do, but what happened this week is no small thing, and we should celebrate that victory.

I'm so grateful for the work and witness this week of Dianna Anderson, Tamara Rice, Emily MaynardBecca RoseSamantha Field, Bethany SuckrowMary DeMuthHännah Ettinger, Elizabeth Esther, Micah Murray, and so many others.

They'll call you firebrands, gadflies, and honey badgers, but we know you're lionhearts, the lot of ya. xo


Friday

what kind of leadership blocks dissent & privileges predators, christianity today?



Last night, after a flurry of attention in social media, there were dozens of dissenting comments on the youth pastor abuser narrative at Leadership Journal. The comment count was around eighty, but today there are just eighteen.

My comment was the first on the piece, and it's gone now, too, so I decided to post it here:

this is disgusting. you were not involved in an "extramarital relationship." "extramarital relationships" don't land people in prison. you are a child predator, an abuser, and possibly a rapist. you say that "we gave the devil a foothold", but that was all you, bro. you abused your power and a young person whose care you were charged with. no minor can consent to sex with a adult. have you learned nothing in prison? five pages of this junk? really, CT?

Oddly, the following response comment to me still stands on the piece, and without my own comment, it shapes another sort of imaginary narrative about the behavior of people who are sickened by a leadership publication allowing a predator to cast his teenage victim as an adulteress:


Hey Pastor Tim and Suzannah...you're both SO full of grace...unbelievable...it's not a wonder people don't want to stop sin habits in life (no matter WHAT they are) when the response is so grace-filled as the ones above...you both are missing the point - he is admitting that he will be labeled (and rightfully so) a sex offender for the rest of his life - but what he IS doing with his story is warning ANY of us about ANY sin pattern that will destroy ANY one who ignores God's plans and ways. instead of calling him names (which may be true or not) we should be confessing, forsaking, and finding mercy for the sin that can so easily entangle ANY ONE of us...we should be saying 'Thank you for sharing your story' and then 'Father, keep working on him (and me) to be more like Your Son.' This isn't five pages of junk...this is the story of the beginning of a restored heart - the kind of story that Jesus began regularly with "Go, and sin no more." Thanks, Name Withheld and CT

I didn't engage in any "name-calling." Adults who prey on minors are very much abusers and predators. If he was convicted of statutory rape--and the piece asserts plainly (and problematically) that he had a "physical relationship" with a minor--he is a rapist. Obscuring those truths--and calling it Christian leadership--is deeply troubling and dangerous.

We're gonna keep dragging this into the light, as my friend Sarah Bessey exhorts. Downgrading rape to "a sin that can so easily entangle ANY ONE of us" is not grace--it's a manipulative sleight of hand favoring abusers and re-victimizing the people whose trust, bodies, and childhood they violated. Deleting comments and blocking critics on twitter (as editor Drew Dyck has done) will not make this important conversation go away.

People don't abuse kids--or fail to "stop sin habits"--because "ungracious" Christians won't let them paint young victims with their shame. I rebuke any abuse-enabling, oppressive grace-talk that lays the fault for abuse on anyone but abusers and the cultures and systems favoring them. 

Grace and good leadership protect the vulnerable, not power and predation. Take down the post, Leadership Journal and Christianity Today.



UPDATE: They Took Down the Post

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