good news for weary bodies

Studies show that girls who play sports delay their first sexual experiences, and when they do have sex, they are half as likely to become pregnant as girls who don’t play sports. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I wonder: do female athletes, strong and at home in their bodies, feel like they have less to prove than some of their peers? Might confidence learned on the field lead girls to exercise agency elsewhere, inclining a young woman to be more certain of her “yes” or her “no?” Would she feel less like an ornament and more an actor in her own skin?
Looking back, I felt most capable and myself not in my body at all but inside my head, which school and church both encouraged. My faith was something I believed fiercely and intellectualized, but it was not something I specifically learned to embody. Yes, Jesus wanted us to serve and follow with our whole selves, but there was a clearly implied dichotomy between flesh and spirit and a hierarchy of body to soul.
The stuff of spirit was holy and eternal and good.
The stuff of bodies, irrevocably tainted by sin, was lesser, fleeting, and ultimately passing away.
In the stories handed down around campfires, small groups, and lock-ins, Jesus’ perfect divinity trumped his dirt-under-the-fingernails humanity every time. If Christ’s own body didn’t matter much in the narrative of redemption, how in God’s name could mine?
I don’t recognize that Jesus anymore. (How could we have “a personal relationship” with One so pristine and removed from our shared human experience anyway?) And I no longer see wholeness or holiness in faith expressions divorcing spirituality from embodied existence or a person from her own self.
The shift was gradual. I studied religion (which was indeed a slippery slope). I put boots on the ground with activists of faith and set broad tables in community, with elders and teenagers and folks not like me. Somewhere along the way I became a feminist and a mother, and I began reading Scripture as if bodies mattered all along.
Blood and sweat. Laughter. Tears. Joy. Grief. Pleasure. Pain. Sickness. Sadness. Sex. Service. Social location! Ethnicity. Gender. Race. Disability. Age. Health. Birth. Death. Food. Family. Friendship. Resistance. Rest. Play. Work. Worship. Solitude. Community. Suffering. Celebration. Incarnation. Resurrection. God meets us—and works through us—within embodied experiences. I can meditate, pray, study, and love, but never apart from my own body. With physical bodies we practice our faith within a physical world, and it’s with bodies that Christians make up the Body of Christ together.
It’s perhaps my favorite metaphor, but the Body of Christ was never meant to exist solely as flat words on a dusty page. Together, herenowWE are the very Word of God enfleshed, the diverse hands and feet of Jesus in an aching world.
Glossy magazines, movie trailers, and primetime television tell us that bodies matter, too, of course: white, thin, youthful, rich bodies, mostly. Black bodies matter, so long as they entertain a white gaze. Many bodies are rendered invisible in popular culture (and our own neighborhoods, too). Once the shiny layers are peeled back, it’s an oppressive, restrictive story: bodily mattering is exceptionally limited and painfully exclusive. The media’s emphasis on desirable, unattainable bodies is perhaps not unrelated to a Church’s hyper focus on “greater” things unseen, spiritual, and eternal. We desperately want to tell a better story than the airbrushed, whitewashed ones taunting us in the check-out lines, so Christians talk earnestly of hearts and heaven.
But we are still embodied creatures who thirst and hurt and desire. What has the gospel to say for imperfect bodies here and now?
While it’s true that sorrow finds each of us, it’s hard to argue against the insulation that class, whiteness, and money can afford. In public housing where I work, thick concrete walls may keep out fire, but specters of illness, addiction, violence, and death loom larger than life sometimes.
We say bodies matter, but what about elderly bodies? Sick bodies? Fat bodies? Single bodies? Disabled bodies? Frail and crooked bodies? What about the bodies of noisy teens, young moms, or kids whose dads are in jail? Do the bodies of poor people matter, too?
I don’t think Christians can counter gnostic “gospels,” dissolve inherited dichotomies between flesh and spirit, or adequately affirm our physical selves without also intentionally choosing to see all the ways our bodies and bodily experiences are not alike and how very differently our different bodies are valued, both interpersonally and systemically. To do that, we’ll need eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to comfort, hearts to understand, and feet to kick at the darkness of bad theology and bodily harm till daylight bleeds through, and together we are healed.
Emmanuel, God with us, pitched his tent in our messy midst. That’s what we anticipate this Advent: Christ showing up, his very presence hallowing all he touches. Jesus–washer of feet, healer of lepers, feeder of crowds, esteemer of women, releaser of captives, blesser of mourners, friend of sinners and outcasts–could not be defeated by violence or even death, and his deeply embodied gospel is good news for weary bodies now.
The Lord is with us. Take we heart and be not afraid.
Faith Feminisms is back this first week of Advent with timely meditations on how and why #bodiesmatter. Come by to read, and be sure to link up any old or new post fitting with the theme of embodied life and faith practice. We'd love to hear from a spectrum of voices.
I'm also linking up two poems fitting with the theme: Incarnation and Test Everything. Blessings to you this Advent, loves. It's dark and getting darker, but there are so many reasons to hope.

[Archived here.]


shall we strike with a sword?

Shall we strike with a sword?
Shall we crucify, terrify, vilify, war?
Shall we wound with our words?
Shall we seethe?
Shall we shame?

Shall we strike with a sword
or a fist
or a chain?
Shall we make them submit to our rule?
Shall we reign?

Shall we strike with a sword?
Shall we live by it, die by it,
crown it our god?

Shall we bow? Shall we break
every bow that we've made?
Shall we love a more excellent way?

Compellingly uncoerced,
casting out fear. Lay down arms,
forge new tools in the fire that consumes
every dross and illumines strange paths.
Plowshares strike only soil: till our hearts,
may the verdant grow wild.


the eczema company {giveaway}

When Dylan was little, she had itchy eczema flare-ups. Her pediatrician recommended a popular petroleum-based ointment, which was pretty much the last thing I wanted on her sensitive skin. We experimented with a number of natural products, and ultimately, she grew out of it. But I know eczema remains an uncomfortable and frustrating condition for many, so when The Eczema Company reached out, I was glad to shine my little spotlight on their small business, owned by mom and green blogger, Jennifer Roberge. The Eczema Company carries a spectrum of soothing products, from oils and creams to laundry soaps, supplements, and protective clothes, and they've offered a reader giveaway of one of their family favorites, Manuka Honey Skin Cream.

Although we know longer deal with eczema, I was glad to give it a try, too, since it's healing for chapped winter skin and even wounds, and my own elbows had developed irritating, itchy patches. The cream's ingredients are straightforward and organically-sourced when possible: Organic Olive Oil, Organic Beeswax, Filtered Water, Grape Seed Oil, Organic New Zealand Manuka Honey and Manuka Oil Extract. From their website:

Manuka honey is native to New Zealand and is created when bees pollinate the manuka bush, a relative of the tea tree. Manuka oil is extracted from the leaves of the manuka bush. Manuka oil is actually 10 times more potent than tea tree oil. Manuka and tea tree oil are praised world wide for their ability to naturally treat infections and reduce inflammation. Unlike the very medicinal odor of tea tree oil, manuka oil and honey have a lovely delicately sweet scent. 

I'd say the scent is barely noticeable at all, and unlike other oils, balms, ointments, and creams, it's not sticky or greasy and absorbs quickly. The patches on my elbows, which had bothered me for a couple of weeks, cleared completely, and the cream feels great on lips and hands, too. I look forward to keeping it close this winter and am glad to have it in my holistic arsenal.

Want to give Manuka Honey Skin Cream a try? Visit The Eczema Company's website, and come back here with a comment about something you learned or a product which interests you. If you like, follow them on Twitter or Facebook. Giveaway ends Saturday at 11:59 PM EST and is open to residents in the U.S. and Canada. Good luck!


God gives to his beloved sleep

If you're gonna go back to work full-time after seven years, it's probably best to go back after your youngest kid starts kindergarten rather than just before, especially if you're planning an October move from your home of more than a decade. We managed a few garage sales and cleared out a good bit of not nearly enough stuff ahead of time, but that and finding a new place and summer camp and commuting and starting a business sorta ate into what should have been packing time, which is why two weeks later we're still not entirely out of the farmhouse. (Hold me.)

Summer disappeared in a blink I barely remember. Team Paul could use a vacation, but I'm not sure where our suitcases are, and we're committed here till Christmas. Adulting is not for the faint of heart.

But the expectant canvas of vacant walls and as-yet-unmade memories are gifts, if lonesome ones, and our weary hearts receive them afresh, like amber leaves and dawn's new mercies.


the peace we make

For Christ himself is our peace: his flesh makes us one, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility.

Peace stands in the gap. With ears and hearts, peace listens, offering a hand (or keeping it to ourselves). Peace sets each wrong aright.

Speaking good words and hard truths, peace resists false choices, easy answers, cheap grace, and every entrenched pattern of empire. There is no peace in the presence of injustice (and it's rarely the center or top who knows how far we've come or where next to go).

Peace makes more room for the least, the last, and the lost. Peace de-centers power and conventional models of authority. It favors the margins, honoring their hard-won wisdom and recognizing paths to peace are unknown to masters of war and all who feast on their spoils.

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Peace sets to work, not despising the offerings of those who know conflict, too, is fruitful. Exposing violence cannot destroy a peace which has yet to be born among us. Clear out the old to make way for the new. Till each field, lot, and heart. Raze the systems. Raise the dead. Establish the work of our hands.

Many bodies, one Body. Many gifts, one Spirit. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One hope in Christ, whose body makes a way out of no way, birthing peace in place of great violence.

Heal. Feast. Invite. Wash. Serve. See. Teach. Feed. Bless. Rest. Honor. Listen. Forgive. Empower. Humble. Suffer. Challenge. Invert. Convert. Subvert. Sacrifice. Resurrect. Liberate. Re-create. Love.

The peace we wage is forged in fire. With skin in the game, we arm to the teeth: ploughshares, hammers, covered dishes. Pens and picket signs. Microphones, toilet brushes, canvases, keyboards. Sacraments and safe space. Boundaries. Imagination. Hospitality and hard work. Room to grieve and grace to grow. 

Peacemaking by incarnation and alchemy.


when life just doesn't add up {guest post lauren}

Lauren is someone I know via Twitter, and I'm glad to host her words here today. She gives voice to some of the difficulties of reconciling the faith we inherited as kids with the frayed-edge realities of adult life, and I think it will be a familiar story to many. It was for me. Thanks, Lauren.

I’ve been angry with God. I don’t know the day it started. I didn’t even realize it until recently. What I know is that some dark, unrelenting force has been lurking under every experience, every joyful moment, every thought for more than a year. The crux of it is this: this is not the life I feel I was promised. I sacrificed and waited, prayed and fasted, casted my cares, and praised my way through. And I’m still not where I imagined I would be. I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that life isn’t fair.

Growing up, we were in church almost every day. Sunday morning. Sunday evening. Prayer on Monday and Tuesday nights. Bible Study on Wednesdays. Youth activities on Saturdays. Underneath all the scripture, books, classes, sermons, lectures, hugs, corrections and honest-to-goodness love, I got this message: Do the right thing, and you will get the right life. Along the way, I made some bad decisions. I wasn’t perfect; I felt like I was punished accordingly. I also saw the ‘saints’ talk about (and sometimes experience) difficult times, like death, divorce, and unemployment. But I still knew, I mean truly believed to my core, that ultimately, if I would just obey God’s word, I would have a good life with mostly joy, mostly stability, mostly peace. Depression would be a thing of the past. Resentment would be something that only sinners felt. Being broke? Oh no. That was clearly a judgement for people who were of reprobate mind…and neglected to pay their tithes. Definitely not for me.

When it comes right down to it, I guess justice and logic have been my guiding lights. 1+1=2. Ice cream and cheese cause gas. Sinners go to hell. You know, things that make sense. But my God, was that wrong. I mean, for one thing, I can eat Kraft Mac & Cheese with no problem, but no Sonic milkshakes?!

Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. Seeing Trayvon Martin’s murderer walk free is one violent example of cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, I was taught America was a country of justice, freedom, and brave men. On the other hand, I saw a coward shoot an unarmed teenager through the heart and receive no punishment. How could this be? In my mind, I still struggle with it. One of these has to be wrong. America is bad and killers walk among us? It's a struggle to come to terms with these types of injustices. Nuances aside, wrong is still dead ass wrong.

So with my faith, I really still have not been able to settle in my heart that "Doing the right thing" may not lead to "A good life." Perhaps it’s my foolish Millennial optimism. Perhaps my reasoning skills are amiss. I certainly have sin I haven’t acknowledged or repented for. Whatever it is, the discontent led to an abiding anger with God, and this, of course, led to more poor decisions. But it also led me to re-align my understanding of the world. God probably hasn’t sent disease to punish the wicked. The rapture, as I learned it, may be myth. Unfortunately, dairy still causes awful tummy-aches. I’m still driven by logic, but I question more--and I allow room for more than one right answer.

Still, I kind of keep expecting God to swoop down out of the clouds, say “Just kidding!” and give me my husband, 2.5 children, big bank account, and endless joy. I think, “Fellowship of suffering, got it, now give me my REAL life!” I don’t know if any of this will ever truly make sense to me. Some part of me will probably always feel like I “deserve” more (ignoring my wildly inflated sense of self-righteousness).

But I’m slowly (and I mean snail’s pace) learning to build a life of what is, not what could have been or what was supposed to be. I’m thanking God through hot, reluctant tears and an angry heart because I know, This is my good life. It will never ever be easy, I will probably always battle depression and loneliness, and nobody is going to rescue me, even if I’m really, really faithful. God still loves me, and I believe no tear falls in vain. I’ll shake my metaphorical fist toward heaven, twist and rail against God’s tight grip and collapse from emotional exhaustion, but He won’t let me go.

Lauren lives & works in SC. She loves Jesus, food, nieces, and science fiction. She's working daily to decolonize her own mind as well as the minds of those around her. You can follow her on Twitter @whimsikal.


were not our hearts burning?

Were not our hearts burning within us when the President preached Amazing Grace and Bree Newsome ascended that pole?
You come against me in hatred and oppression and violence; I come against you in the Name of God. This flag comes down TODAY.
One hundred fifty years from Juneteenth emancipation, six Black churches smolder, the dead in Charleston barely yet buried:
Clementa. Cynthia. Tywanza. Sharonda. Myra. Ethel. Susie. Daniel. DePayne.
And white Christians don sackcloth and ash, mourning marriage equality as churches burn, funeral hymns ring out, and wedding bells chime. They shall know we are Christians by our [lacking, lackluster, lukewarm neighbor-] love.
Bread unbroken
Stranger unwelcomed
Christ unrecognized
and we, unmoved, unblessed,
Give us a garland instead of ash and hearts of flesh ablaze, beating and breaking and bound up together, let love fuel our work and our days.

begin the begin

I went back to work full-time in affordable housing about a month ago. We're still figuring out how all this juggling works on the home front, but Team Paul is happy. I'm happy...thriving, even. For the first time in a long time, everyone in the family has their own physical sphere, which is good for the soul, I think.

Today is the first day of our last summer at camp. Jim's three weeks of staff training (typically the roughest of my year) are over, and I barely even noticed. Everything is changing. In the fall, Jim will launch his own business, James starts kindergarten, and we'll swap our farm house for a rental somewhere in town. So much is in flux, but we're ready to receive whatever comes next. It's time to leave well.


Feeln {like a Mothers' Day movie giveaway}

There's always been a soft spot in my cold robot heart for Hallmark Hall of Fame movies. (We all contain multitudes, don't we?) So when Feeln, the movie subscription service of the Hallmark Channel, contacted me about a promotion, I was game, so long as I could wrangle a giveaway or three for you.

Basically, Feeln streams movies people of all ages can watch together. I was a little bummed they don't have Sarah Plain and Tall, which I vividly remember watching curled up on the couch with my mom one Sunday night growing up, but they do have that one with Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich that I also enjoyed.

But it's not just Hallmark stuff, though. Feeln has a variety of content, including award winners like Chocolat and Rain Man; classics like The Sting or Twelve Angry Men; favorites like A League of Their Own, Big Fish, and Finding Neverland; and kids' stuff like The Secret of Kells or Ella Enchanted. They have the 1985 Rainbow Bright movie which I am definitely putting on for the kids soon, along with 1989's The Wizard, with Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis. 

Feeln streams online; on devices such as Roku, AppleTV, and Xbox; as well as on mobile phones and tablets. New subscribers can save 50% and get a year for $.99/month with the promo code 0515BlogSally. Feeln also kindly put up for grabs three complimentary year-long subscriptions for Smitten Word readers. Just check out Feeln's movie offerings, and leave a comment here about a favorite film listed or one you'd want to see. That's it. Giveaway ends Monday, May 11 at 11:59 PM, EST.

Happy (almost) Mothers' Day, to everyone who mothers and mentors and loves well.

Feeln provided these (and my) movie subscriptions. Opinions mine.

i left my heart in pittsburgh

When we discovered a third floor walk-up in a brick Bloomfield row house, we knew our little family of two had come home to the East End at last. Boasting a sunny kitchen outfitted in fifties-era fixtures and compact appliances, Hobbit ceilings, and actual sleeping quarters, the apartment felt palatial at $325 a month. So what if it was accessible only by fire escape and lacked a bedroom door? The Shire was ours, and God bless the youth group parents who dropped off teenagers in the back alley for dinners and movie nights.

You Are Here is a multi-contributor storytelling site organized around ideas of place. I've got a guest piece up there today, and hope you'll come by and have a look.


and this world has everything

Back in college I loved the band Caedmon's Call. I had all their albums, saw a few shows, and was enamored with boys who could play their songs by heart. They were the only Christian band I didn't backtrack on there for a while, but when I got out of youth ministry, I sorta let them go, too. The over-dose was probably inevitable. One does not live by [Christian culture] alone.

I hadn't listened to or thought of them in years when the chorus of "This World" got stuck in my head:

This world has nothing for me
And this world has everything
All that I could want
And nothing that I need

But this time, these once-familiar lines caught me off guard. I don't believe anything close to that anymore. Did I even back then? (This is why I bang the media literacy drum!)

What about the Genesis creation narrative in which everything God makes is unequivocally deemed to be good? Are Christians somehow exempt from basic human needs: food, shelter, security, love? Is the kingdom of God not inaugurated here among us, "on earth as it is in heaven," as Jesus proclaimed? What the hell kind of world is this song even talking about?**

This world is making me drunk
On the spirits of fear

Despite believing "perfect love casts out fear," Christians can be among the bigger manufacturers of it. Isn't fear partly what drives the desire for safe alternatives to "worldly" bands, movies, gyms, and schools, so Christians can be "in the world" (ish...) "but not of it"?

I don't believe retreat from the world is what Jesus prayed for in John 17. I realize "the world" (and "the flesh") function as metaphors, but words shape our thinking, and overemphasizing these can lead Christians into devastating and idolatrous territory.

A world vacant of value is disposable, and so are its inhabitants. Dualistic theology prizing the spiritual and heavenly over the material and embodied cannot functionally practice neighbor-love or the sort of ministry Jesus models. In that worldview, people of other faiths and no faith at all are easily seen and treated as projects--which is objectifying and dehumanizing--rather than kindred, beloved co-bearers of the image of God.

I get that the Bible talks of Christians having heavenly citizenship, being strangers on earth, and following Jesus above all else. Christians believe in more than whatever we see and experience now, but ours is not a pie-in-the-sky gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die. It's the gospel of "Today salvation has come to this house,""the kingdom of God is at hand," and "all things new," even now. Even here.

Creation, incarnation, and resurrection reveal deep, abiding goodness in our world and bodies. In beauty and pleasure. Learning and work. Art and play. Friendship and hospitality. Birth. Growth. Sex. Justice. Community. Love. We worship, serve, and practice our faith in this world, with our bodies, like Jesus did. This side of heaven, there is no apart: falsely elevating the spiritual divorces our bodies from our very selves, diminishing wholeness and shalom among and within us. We are physical, emotional, rational, sexual, spiritual beings all at the same time, and it's good.

The gospel of Jesus is good news for people-with-bodies and a world which God created, loves, and redeems.
And now I'm waking up
And now I'm breaking up
But now I'm making up
For lost time

**Edited to add:
YOU GUYS. Amy Peterson told me she read "This World" as a rejection of the insular church subculture the group grew up in, [There's tarnish on the golden rule/ And I want to jump from this ship of fools/ Show me a place where hope is young/ And people who are not afraid to love] and my mind is blown. Please weigh in, nerds.

i'm just so good at spaceships

"I'm just so good at spaceships," he admits, blue eyes sparkling proudly. He shows me the nature one, the water one, the sports one: an entire cottage industry of space craft in every hue. I admire his work and confidence, not altogether sure which skill I'd claim for myself.

I used to be a good youth minister, but that was a while back. I was a good caseworker and a good student before that. Am I a good mom? What's a good mom, anyway?

I certainly don't "control my kids," picky eaters and chicken chasers in perennial need of a hair brush. They're part of me, but they're their own little people, too. I'm not sure their strengths or mistakes are ever mine to fully claim. 

But mine are. I'm just so good at kissing their soft necks. I'm so good at read-alouds, and I make a mean chili. I'm really good at scouting fish frys and remembering where I've seen that actor before. I'm reasonably good at starting fires and packing lunches. It's no secret I'm terrible at being patient or on time, but I try to apologize and model how it looks to make things right.

James reminds me that good is a different beast than perfect. Cold space craft are perfect; noisy, naughty, messy, creative people are warm and good and velveteen-real.


Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayer

I met Micha Boyett the first time I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2012. I'd long admired her blog writing and enjoyed hearing firsthand about her book project, which although mostly drafted, was far from making its way out into the world.

Just two years later, at that same conference, I had my own copy of her published work in hand and was able to congratulate her in person. Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayeris one of the loveliest books I read last year. It's partly about finding a home in the rhythms of the liturgical year, which is why She Loves Magazine chose it for their book club during Lent this March.

I enjoyed the beautiful writing and resonated with Micha's struggle to find meaning in the lonely ordinariness of young motherhood, particularly after the harried pace and purpose of professional ministry. Others would certainly connect with the perfectionist anxieties she documents and her search for peace in God apart from the try-hard faith of her youth.

It's a book about an honest and at times uncertain faith with deep roots and room enough to breathe, grieve, and celebrate big joys and little victories. If you want to read along with She Loves, they've got a Facebook group and they'll be talking about it on March 25 at the site. Happy reading.


On Female Friendship & "Girls Who Steal"

I want to talk about an article published at Gawker yesterday that is haunting me: Girls Who Steal, by Priya-Alika Elias.

Read it and come right back. We'll be here.


Just, please help me understand why on God's green earth anyone would put up with such behavior from anyone, let alone those we call friends?

Where shall we even start...the scarcity mindset that drives women to compete as if there were never enough love or success to go around? The distinctly gendered socialization against women standing up for ourselves or toward Regina George-level Queen Bee ugliness?

Is there a fear here of being alone or going our own way, against the crowd? I'm not sure I've ever really committed to trying to earn the approval of women or girls loath to give it, but I have endured many a lonely season, so maybe that's the trade-off some of us make. (Could hospitality save us from having to choose at all?).

I don't know, you guys. I love women. I'm grateful to have had good female friends since childhood, even if they are few and far between at times. The only women I tend to be suspicious of are the ones who claim not to trust or be friends with women at all. I have often found it hard in adulthood to make friends--which is another conversation worth parsing later--but never because women are capricious, dishonest, or mean.

But I cannot abide passive aggression or games. For better and worse, I am East Coast direct through and through. I mean what I say, say what I mean, and won't make you guess. I can be a bit of a honey badger, but love me and I will be loyal forever (even if I am terrible at keeping in touch).

Dylan dealt with some mean girl playground politics this year. I told her she needed to treat everyone with respect but that it was okay to put some space between herself and girls who consistently choose unkindness. Relationships are a two-way street, and none of us can want or work hard enough to compensate for the other party's sabotage or neglect. That is a losing game we don't have to play.

I'm interested, too, in the idea of whether or not people can make us feel inferior without our consent. I'm of the belief that we are all responsible both for our behavior and for handling our emotions in healthy ways. I don't think it is often constructive to attempt to hold people responsible for our feelings, but we can certainly speak up about behavior that is out of bounds and the hurt we feel--and create boundaries so that untrustworthy people don't have free reign over our emotional lives.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the article, female friendship, scarcity, Mean Girls, any of it. How can we navigate this better? 


a compelling sort of beauty

Team Paul could use a new couch. Our foam cushions are unstructured to go any sort of distance, and we're seven years out and counting. We picked it out when I was very pregnant with Dylan and not, perhaps, in fighting form for big decisions.

The trouble is, it's got a perfectly good, if unsightly, matching giant chaise, and we'd need to replace both to get the most aesthetic bang for the buck. And it turns out, Jim is still not much for aesthetics. He's eager to buy another overstuffed eyesore, which I will not abide this time around.

So we're making do. I rearranged, hobbling together a makeshift sectional from the couch, chaise, and crib-turned-love-seat. I smile, remembering the "stadium seating" my friend's college boyfriend put up in his apartment, but what this lacks in beauty it makes up for in proximity to the fire and space to snuggle, put up your feet, or read.

Which is a compelling sort of beauty, too, now that I think of it.


but what are you FOR?

When you've got an analytical eye, folks may chastise your negativity. Why waste energies tearing down? Upright citizens less easily offended are actually contributing something worthwhile, so quit complaining and do something already!

Here's the thing, though: that binary is false. We can critique and create. We can do and do better still, and analysis is one of many tools that can move us forward. Gardens must be weeded if they are to flourish, and weeding is as much work as planting, watering, or harvesting the fruits of our labors. Each of us is uniquely gifted, and there is value in all sorts of service.

But a lack of concern for systemic injustice (especially that which hurts others and benefits me and mine) exhibits neither moral authority or Christ-like leadership. Despite the common refrain (often from those with most at stake in the status quo), critics and activists are not the reason Why We Can't Have Nice Things. Hierarchy and protected power, secrecy, greed, and oppression inhibit shalom far more than "the surfacing of tensions already present." A peace that does not yet exist cannot possibly be kept by silencing dissent, discouraging critical thought, or demonizing the hurting and those with eyes to see.

But what are the rabble-rousers, troublesome "mobs," and angry "social justice warriors" actually FOR, anyway?

The Fruits and Fire of the Spirit

We are for wholeness, hard truth, and a preferential option for the margins. We are for hospitality, boundaries, and diverse gifts. We are for accountable leadership, transparency, and learning. We are for knowing better and doing justice.

We are for indicting and exposing systems and patterns antithetical to the Kingdom of God. We're for assigning positive intent and showing our work. We are for taking responsibility for our own feelings and actions. We are for peacemaking, conflict, repentance, and seeing it through.

We are for the fruits and the fire of the Spirit. We are for testing everything and holding it up to the light. We are for one holy catholic and apostolic Church, the least, last, and lost.

We are for embodied faith, common prayer, and all things made new. We are for subverting power, dismantling empire, and love with roots, feet, and wings. We are for liberation and not losing heart or giving up. We are for belonging to one another and the good, hard, messy work of practicing resurrection and working out our salvation together.

"Our Struggle Is Not Against Flesh and Blood"

The sin in our systems cannot be addressed solely on an interpersonal level, and our best intentions do not exonerate us from participating in or benefiting from patterns favoring the powerful over the marginalized. When criticism and a desire for accountability and consistency are pathologized as ungracious and even satanic, it baptizes, protects, and reinforces power, which is, more often than not: white, monied, influential, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, educated, etc. "Mob" voices deemed malignant, irrational, and un-Christlike overwhelmingly belong (not coincidentally) to women, people of color, survivors, LGBTQ people, and those experienced in mental illness. Widely parroted ideas about civility and grace sound pleasing but may not resemble the way of Jesus.

Healthy leadership is accountable, humble, and willing to learn, and criticism is integral to public discourse. Pretending that criticism and social media are the exclusive domain of trolls is disingenuous, silencing, and frankly, ridiculous coming from the mouths of those who have built sizable platforms on both.

Criticism is a discipline that does not exist in opposition to Christian discipleship. Neither people nor criticism is the enemy. Our systems are sick, and it'll take surgeons' scalpels; healing hands; faithful prayer; and good, hard, all-hands-on-deck work to make us whole.



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. It was a cinema-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, hallway, or sidewalk. If you saw us on the street, you might think us strangers, but her scorn for me has bound us more like family, however estranged.


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 and their kids, who played together 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 with delight.


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

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 and 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. We get it wrong and set our feet toward better paths. We listen, learn, and carve out still more room for community, difference, and making all things new.

The Kingdom of God is like chicken paprikash with family--linked by blood, choice, and circumstance--singing Neil Diamond together at the Hungarian bar at Christmastide. Selah.

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