Monday, December 2, 2013

I miss books

I was recently lamenting to a friend the fact that I've drifted away from "serious" reading.  It is hard to admit that.  But I have.

"Oh I remember those days," she said. "Life with small kids doesn't much allow for reading.  Quality literature was better than NyQuil in those days.  All I had to do was pick up a book and I was fast asleep."

Another friend with grown kids said she re-entered the reading world through New Yorker articles after a long hiatus filled with Goodnight Moon and The Berenstain Bears.

I know my intellectual life is suffering from lack of good input.  My brain, I'm afraid, is atrophying like a dying limb.  How does this happen?  Once upon a time, I would have described myself as an "avid reader" who read "everything I can get my hands on".  I would have listed reading among my hobbies.  And I read good stuff, too.  Theology and congregational theory, good novels with critical acclaim.  I thought about what I read.

Maybe more importantly than "how did this happen?" is HOW DO I GET MY READING MOJO BACK??

Like my friend, I'm working my way up to finishing a WHOLE New Yorker article without getting distracted, falling asleep or needing to tend to someone else's bodily needs.  Baby steps, I guess.  But it is honestly, something I miss about myself.  I like being an intellectual.  I like being able to have intelligent, informed conversations about something other than child-rearing.

Lately, like so much else in my life, my reading has been anchored in whatever present crisis (or blessing!) we find ourselves mired in.  I live very much in the NOW and my looking ahead doesn't really involve big dreams as much as it involves making sure that childcare is covered and that soccer practice doesn't overlap with church and that everyone is getting to bed on time.  My reading is the same: My last great read was The Other End of the Leash, about dog training.  Stimulating stuff.  And the dog is still a jerk on the leash.  I read to solve immediate problems, not to grow my brain.  Just like these days I cook to make sure we eat, not to experience the wonderful flavors and savor the meal.  

To be clear:  this does not mean I have no time for myself.  It simply means that I am whining about the fact that I've only been given 24 hours in each day.  And I'm making choices.  I get up early to run instead of read-- choice.  I painted the bedroom this weekend instead of tackling the dusty, neglected stack beside my bed-- choice.  I'm spending half and  hour writing about not reading instead of... well, you know-- choice.

I look forward to flipping that switch back on, figuring out how to get my brain back to a place where I crave that magic that only good books can bring.  I will get back there.  For now, it feels like one more chore, one more thing I'm failing to accomplish (that is a VERY long list).  The New Yorker will have to do for now.       

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pretty vs Beautiful

One of the wonderful nuggets I borrowed from my mother-in-law before she died is the quirk of describing bad behavior as "ugly".  As in, "do not throw your toast on the floor, that is ugly!" It has saved me from calling behavior (or the perp) "bad" or "stupid", both words I try not to use in my parenting.

But it has opened up another great conversation for me with my kids about looks vs. actions.  My daughter, age 4, often asks me if what she is wearing is "beautiful".  My standard response is "your behavior makes you beautiful, sweetheart, but that dress is pretty on you."  This works for now, in these confidence-infused preschool years.  She still believes me and doesn't really question the difference between "pretty" and "beautiful".

A young pal of mine has been struggling with this distinction recently.  She is the offspring of a bi-racial marriage and, as so often biracial kids are, she is a gorgeous girl, with creamy tan skin and hair that can do just about anything, from cloud-like to curly to Breck-girl straight.

She's also a pre-teen, which means that she's surrounded by pre-teen girls who are, as a general rule, ugly.  I do not mean this in a physical sense, but rather as my mother-in-law would use the term.  They are mean, insensitive, hateful, vitriolic.  And so my little friend, with her can't-be-boxed-in genetic makeup, has been the recent target of some nastiness.

It steams me.  Seriously.  I'm not even her mother and I wanted to find the little turds and clobber them.  This is, of course, not helpful in the least, so I reminded her (through her mom) that she's made by a God who doesn't make mistakes.  It won't help right now, but maybe when she's a grown up she'll remember that good folks had her back and she'll remember to be beautiful, not just pretty.

But hearing about her struggle reminded me of my own ugliness.  These days, a few years beyond my own pre-teen angst, I turn my ugly behavior to the woman I put eyeliner on every morning, berating myself for the extra chips and queso I chowed down the previous night, scowling at the road map of stretch marks crawling across my abdomen, grousing about my sub-standard wardrobe and scarred knees.

I am my own mean girl.

I'm not alone in this.  It's true of many women I know.  I have friends that are kind, loving, supportive and helpful to one another and seriously hateful to themselves.    We nitpick and judge.  We compare our 30-something selves to our 20-something selves, never favorably.  

I've internalized the voices that I heard as a middle schooler.  I never thought it would happen.  I'm a feminist, after all.  I have a daughter, after all.  I know better.  I know about skin-deep and behavior and scars are a sign of a life well-lived and stretch marks are trophies and all that BS.  But as I really start to age and my body starts to show the hard wear I've inflicted on it, running, babies, sun, etc, my mean girl comes out.  It is as hard to admit as it is to live through.

The two practices that I find myself working toward in recent years are balance and gentleness.  I achieve neither on a regular basis, but I get them each from time to time.  And over and over, I find gentleness is much easier to practice on others.  Much much harder to offer it to myself.  So I'm going to work on pointing gentleness back in my own direction from time to time.

I do, after all, practice beauty.  I am--often even-- beautiful, even when I'm not so pretty.  In truth, much like what I tell my kids, I would rather be beautiful-- kind, just, gentle, strong, compassionate-- than pretty.  Beauty lasts while, as I am learning, pretty doesn't.  I want both.  I can't always have them.  But I can choose beauty, just like I'm teaching my kids to do, but I can direct it to myself.  

Recently, the previously mentioned 4-year-old said to me-- while I was putting on makeup, no less-- "Mommy, you are beautiful." To be honest, I was only half listening in the mad rush of the morning get-er-done.  "Thank you, sweetheart," I said, distractedly.  "You're beautiful because you love me," she contiued,  "And that's beautiful behavior."  And right there in the bathroom, with a towel on my head, in my old holey bathrobe, she was right.  The opportunity that I have to love that kid does make me more beautiful.  Scars and all.

She gets it.  For now.   Now I'm the one that needs to remember the lesson, to store it up for the days that are surely coming when I've GOT to get over my own petty pretty complex in order to bear her up when some other little girl tells her that her legs are too short, her hair is too brown, her smile is too wide.  I'll have to remind her that she is beautiful because she loves me, and that's beautiful behavior, even if she's having a hard time loving herself.  It won't be enough to counteract the pre-teen turds around her, but it might teach her a lesson in gentleness and beauty that she can put to use a few years later.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Christian Persecution. Not.

This whizzed by on my Facebook feed yesterday:

Apparently, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called out whining first-world Christians to "grow up" and stop referring to themselves as a "persecuted minority":  
"When you've had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely," he said. "Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. 'For goodness sake, grow up,' I want to say."

I don't agree with everything Williams said or did as the ABC and there are a few things I think he could have done much better.  But in this he is spot on.  

Christians in the United States have it pretty darn good.  And by "pretty darn good" I mean that we are not barred from government jobs because of our religious status, we can choose where, when and with whom we'd like to worship, we can be fairly certain that our religious preferences will be noted and respected while we are in the hospital, we can more or less trust that our families will not be killed in their beds because we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  

I get the sense that for the whiners that inspired Williams' harsh but totally deserved comment, having the postal worker say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" is some sort of religious oppression.  And not allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed at the county courthouse is rather like being publicly flayed in the Roman square.  

Several years ago, I traveled to Burma/Myanmar, which, at the time, was still a military dictatorship and had a <2% Christian population.  Our goal was simply to enjoy the company of other fellow Anglican Christians there, to let them know that they were remembered and to make the world just a little smaller.  We were told not to bring Bibles or prayer books in case our luggage got searched.  We could wear crosses but be prepared to hide them in case it became a matter of personal safety.  One afternoon, the local police showed up at our hotel to make sure we were actually doing what we said we'd be doing.  They checked every passport.  It was frightening and thought provoking but ultimately, we knew we would go home, to a place where we could wear our crosses, carry our Bibles and even preach on a street corner if we wanted.  Our persecution was limited in time and in scope because we were North Americans.  

Our Karin friends there lived well below the poverty line because government jobs were closed to them so long as they remained professing Christians.  In the city, violence toward them had abated in the recent decade but suspicion had not.  They often found themselves cast out, followed and questioned, meager homes searched and tossed, friends pestered, kids taunted and bullied. The stories we heard were not horror stories, but the situation was unsafe, frightening and relentless.  The power of their faith and their ability to continue to proclaim it, on the other hand, was inspiring.  

I have no idea if I could sustain a life of faith under such circumstances, especially with children to care for.  But my experience in Burma/Myanmar has left me with little tolerance for those in our country who play victim because their cream doesn't always rise to the top.  
Dethroning the entitlement of those who believe that the world owes them something special because of their faith beliefs and practices doesn't smack of persecution to me.  Nicely done,  Rowan.               

p.s. I have no idea why this post is randomly highlighted in white.  Sorry. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

self-definition and struggling with the Gospel

In the last couple of weeks, Luke has given us Jesus' walk toward Jerusalem and all the difficult teachings therein.  I've always had a love-hate relationship with the "where your treasure is" teachings.  I'm not much of a "stuff" person, really.  I want a car that gets me there, safely, but past that, I don't care much.  I don't get really excited about clothes and I LOATHE shopping.  I do love a good gadget, but I've had the same iPhone for 2 1/2 years and don't really care for an upgrade.  My beloved laptop is seven years old and I refuse to admit that it is ancient by technological standards.  It still works, after all.

But I don't really live simply.  I can be easily convinced that I "need" something and my messy house is a testament to all the things my family and I "need".  It is easy for me to imagine that Jesus didn't need stuff because Jesus didn't have kids.  Kids are ridiculous stuff magnets. First it is carseats, strollers, diapers and multi-part bottles, now it is socks and shoes, Legos, backpacks and art supplies.  Jesus can talk about lilies and ravens because he didn't have to carry a diaper bag.  And my kids are not really "stuff" people either.  They actually don't ask for much.  But we do seem to have scads of stuff lying about.

I can bluff and say that our hearts are not really with all this daily detritus.  But one glance at my four-year-old in the corner howling because she can't find THE-SHOES-I-WANT-NOT-THOSE-THE-OTHER-ONES-WITH-THE-STRAPS and my stomping around the house with WHO MOVED MY PHONE? and you'd call my bluff immediately.

Implicated.  No matter how I look at it, my heart is divided.  It is, admittedly, more divided now that I have kids.  So much of my baggage (literally and figuratively) contains things to keep them safe, occupied, fed and happy.  But as I get older, I am less excited about "making do" with a spoon when what I really "need" is a new stand mixer.  "Making do" is no longer a challenge or adventure, but a drag.  And so: more stuff.

So what to do with this placement of my heart?  What to do with this Gospel?  This time around, I'm thinking about stuff and self-definition.  How do I want to be known?  How do I want to know myself?  Am I "the mom who lives in the green house with the big addition on the back"?  "That priest who drives the Highlander"?  "That lady over there with the great shoes"?  When I die, will they say, "Oh wow, this stand mixer makes me think of Mom.  She sure loved this mixer."?  Ugh.

In an attempt to heal the divide of my heart--slowly and over time, of course-- I'm working on rearranging my list of definers.  I'm working towards moving "beloved child of God" to the top.  "Forgiven, loved and free" should come shortly thereafter.  Then maybe after that, my community connections: mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend... because it is through each other that we get to know God.

Eventually, the list will by necessity contain my hobbies, favorite ice cream, where I live, what I drive.  But my intention in reordering my list is to slowly convince my heart that it needs to be more firmly rooted in those primary definers.  Beloved, forgiven, loved, free.  I need to convince my heart that the stuff-- Highlander, Legos, iPhone-- while convenient and helpful at their best, are not even tertiary on my list of worth.

Hear me now:  I'm not going ascetic.  You probably won't even see the difference in my everyday self.  The difference is in my own head, how I value myself by trying to believe in the value that God puts on me, a value far greater than the stuff I surround and define myself with.            

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When you mess with a runner...

It has been three days since some maladjusted, vengeful, hate-filled person dropped off a package full of evil at the finish line of the Boston marathon. 

I'm running out of things to say about the darkness that can reside in the human spirit and the power we have to overcome it.  I'm tired of trying to think profound thoughts about how we can rise above, about how God weeps with us, about how the hands and feet of Jesus rush in.  It is all true, I believe these things, but there have been too many events, too many sadnesses on the national front, too much violence against bystanders and non-combatants and children.  I'm tired of hearing my own semi-profundity. 

This time I'm just mad.  Pissed, actually.  Tantrum-inducing, desk-beating, screaming at the computer ANGRY.  I'm keeping my choicest words to myself because I don't need to get my blog an r-rating for language. And I'm really glad I'm not schedule to preach this weekend because my poor parishioners might get an undeserved face full of white-hot unglorious furiosity.

I wonder (though I doubt) if I'm the only one who is experiencing this kind of weariness of meaning-making? 

These travesties of human evil keep hitting closer and closer to home.  I know, as many of my good friends do, that feeling of crossing the finish line at mile 26.2.  It was, for me, a fascinating experience of simultaneous great personal triumph and the humility of total depletion.  I used everything I had--every ounce of physical strength-- to accomplish a great feat of will.  I remember thinking that I was a member of a very small portion of the human population that could accomplish something so personal, so individual and do it entirely on my own.

And to see that video, with the marathon clock ticking along the 4 hour mark, watching runners so close to that goal knocked over in a blast of fire and smoke... well. White-hot unglorious furiosity. 

There are plenty of other things in the Boston debacle to be livid about and myriad others to weep about (8 years old, dear Lord.).  I've run all of them through the loop in my brain that obsesses over these things.  But I can so viscerally connect with the glory of the finish line and all that it stands for, now translated into yet another crime scene, yet another symbol of fear and violence.

Makes me want to go train for another marathon.


Saturday, March 16, 2013


Unfortunately, it is the word on the tip of my tongue this week. I don't believe for a minute that Lent or life with Jesus is about guilt. Guilt is stifling. And yet, it creeps into me and sits there. And taunts me. And, for the most part, I let it. Until I say, that's enough. Something needs to come in its place.

The week started for me with the birth of a baby. A long expected baby whose arrival I was very excited about. Immediately, I wanted to hold the baby, care for the baby, shower the parents with care and meals and love. Or what I equated with love at the time. It's Saturday, and I have not seen the baby.

Then, I went to a PTA meeting, my second of the year. Why? Because I believe I need to be there, helping, supporting. And I have been doing none of those things. Not only that, I am clueless. I don't know what's going on, and so I'm not much help. But I try.

Then comes an email from Paul's baseball coach. The league has cancelled their game because we (as a team) have failed to produce enough volunteers to run the concession on Saturday morning. It's our responsibility. As a team. Even so, I feel individual guilt. It's a stretch for all of us. But why can't I stretch more and make it possible? I offer help. I try. There is lots of saying, "it's ok" and "you do what you can". It gets covered by someone else. I know that if I don't help in some way by the end of the season, I'll feel more guilt. And I know too that it's not just in my head. Someone will say too, you needed to do this. We needed your help.

And the blog! I'm supposed to post on the blog!

This is hard for me. I know guilt is not the answer.

What good am I doing anyone if I do too much? Something will get dropped. And yet, there is the other voice that says, "you could do more".  Right?

Even now, I am at home while my seven-year old plays his second baseball game of the season. I haven't seen any of any game yet, and I won't today because someone needs to be home with the baby while he naps. Logical, right? I mean I can't be in two places at once. But, couldn't I have figured out a way to make it work? Apparently not.

Reading Noelle's two previous posts, I am reminded of all the life that has gone on while I have felt guilt. Life continues. Things happen. Big things and small things. Changes and moments that I knew nothing about, until now. I am forever grateful and expressing gratitude that in this moment, I got to read those stories and know about them. They remind me of all the things that we all have going on, and how much we are all trying to live into what God has promised: love, grace, mercy, forgiveness.

Where can I go from here? I say, "I'm sorry". Amazingly, that's enough. People accept my apologies! Even my kids, in their wild emotions, accept my apologies when I can't do for them all that they wanted. And then what? I listen. I pray. (thank you Noelle). I listen to what God has to say. I listen to what you have to say. God is working in you and in me and I have much to learn.

Some days, our amazingness will pull off many things at once, with God's help. And other days, I will try and I will fail.  I will lean a little harder on you. I will give thanks for you and I will accept me as I am and what God has enabled me to do today. These are easy words to type. Harder words to live. I welcome all your thoughts because I know that alone, I am guilty. With you, I am forgiven and made new.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


It was 10:36 when the announcement came over the intercom speaker on the phone on my desk. I knew it was coming. It is just a drill. I know it is just a drill.

Childcare lockdown.

For about 6 minutes, my daughter's preschool (whose phone system is tied in with ours) was practicing what they would do if someone came into their school to do them harm. And for about 6 minutes, and for a full 15 after the "all clear" signal came through, I've been sitting at my desk crying.

I had the same reaction to the email I got from my son's kindergarten teachers back in January. They did a similar drill, though in their infinite creativity, they called it a "giant bunny drill", you know, in case the class was put upon by a herd of giant bunnies. Each kid was given a special hiding place int he classroom, safe from the giant bunnies. They were just letting parents know that if our kids came home talking about attacking rabbits, this was why.

They were also letting us know that they were thinking about my child's safety, and even in thinking of that, they were also protecting his 6-year-old psyche, one that--so-far-- believes that bad guys only exist on Lego Ninjago and Star Wars.

I am grateful that my kids go to schools where the teachers are trained in "lockdown". I trust those teachers every day with little beings more precious to me than my own life. But I am so sad for the world they live in. I am deeply grieved that my three-year-old is learning how to hide from bad guys during her school day and something inside me permanently broke when my kindergartener laughingly told me about his giant bunny hiding place.

This is the part of parenting that no one can quite articulate: this feeling of total helplessness in the face of obvious evil. And that evil might be anything or anywhere: drunk driver, cancer, man with a gun in an elementary school. There is absolutely nothing practical we can do to escape either the evil or the helplessness, so we do nothing practical.

Instead, I do the impractical, the lavish, the ridiculous, the first stop and last resort: I pray. I have to. For non-believers, this sounds pointless, I get that. But at least feels like more than sobbing with my head down on my desk. And I believe that it is more than sobbing. It is admitting that, while I'm doing my best at taking care of what I've been given, there is a point after which control is no longer mine. There is terror and comfort in that. It's the best I've got in times like this.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Liturgy, in a mirror

I have presided over a funeral with military involvement before, but the one this morning was different. Maybe because it was so big, maybe because I knew the honoree so much better, maybe because it was on my home turf. In any case I was reminded how really beautiful the "liturgy" of the military can be.

The whole things started with an unexpected fly-by in the middle of downtown Atlanta. Three huge jets came screaming down low over our church yard. (We learned later that the unannounced nature of it terrified the occupants of the nearby office towers.) But it set the tone for the rest of the service. Not in grandeur or terror, but in importance. This time and space was set aside for something of utmost importance. After the Word, Eucharist, Commendation and Committal, the Marine Corps Honor Guard presented the Colors to the honoree's grandson. It was simple, clean and very moving. Throughout the service, I was struck by both the contrast and similarity of our purposes and presentation.

This funeral had nine clergy vested and processing.  It also had a multitude of military personnel: a bagpipe, trumpeter, honor guard, arms presentation, family escort.

I was moved by the beautiful balance of fluidity and rigidity that the military contingent struck as they moved through their paces.  Not a movement was wasted, there was nothing extemporaneous or loose. This had been done thousands of times.

But so had our part, and for hundreds of years.  Our movements are not perfect, but they were smooth.  Our words are full of comfort and a message of grace.  I think the liturgy of military honors speaks volumes about a person's dedicated service to those things which are important here on earth: honor, pride, protection, duty.  But for my part, I believe immeasurably in the Christian burial (especially the Episcopal one!) and what it says about life eternal, and about those things which are important to God: love, mercy, grace, forgiveness.

We are people in the world for a time, so it makes perfect sense to honor those things that we held dear by those who held us dear.  Bill deserved every inch of those military honors and then some. They were beautifully executed and appropriately offered.  I appreciate that such as this is available to God's beloved who spend their lives in so great a calling.  But I am even more grateful that our burial liturgy is available to anyone and everyone who live on this earth at all, reminding us that we are all called into greatness, whether in this life or the next.            

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Being a companion and getting things done

I am here! To introduce myself. Thanks Noelle for already opening up a spot for me here. Noelle created this blog, so I will speak to my relationship to her. Noelle is the senior associate rector at All Saints' where I have been a member for almost 10 years. Our kids are about the same age. I have three boys, ages 7, 4, and 8 months. I also have a husband and a dog, who are also, both boys. I was not raised in the Episcopal church. I was raised evangelical. That may come up in some way as I sort things out here. My husband Tim and I were married in the Episcopal church after both attending the same one in college, and we have attended one ever since.

I have always enjoyed hearing Noelle preach and reading her blog. I knew she was interested in a companion, writing here at this blog, and well, I enjoy being a companion, perhaps most of all. While I don't think I can say I enjoy challenges, I do seek them out. I think to write well is hard. I personally appreciate writing that is concise. Mine is not. I have had dear people from English professors to graduate school supervisors, quietly and not so quietly nudge me in the direction of resources for how to be concise. I am working on it. And that's all I'll say about that.

So... I do have some thoughts to share, but one of the things that got me started tonight was that I told myself, "hey, Beth, you don't have to do this all at once". (And you're not alone! Noelle is here too). It can be bit by bit. Or as Anne Lamott says, Bird by Bird. (Interestingly, I read this book in undergrad as an assignment to myself when doing an independent study on short-story writing).  They are wise words that I try to remember. I don't have to tackle the world at once. I just need to start. So here I am, getting started. Getting things done.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge for me, and one I like be reminded of during Lent. During Lent, it is easy for me to beat myself up over all that I'm not doing. And in the midst of all that beating, I am immobilized. I'm doing nothing.

Be patient, I tell myself. God's work takes time. Just take a step forward. One step. You'll get there. And most likely, when you do, you'll find out how much further you have to go.
This is wonderful.  As a parent, I hope that my kids have half as much intergrity as these kids when they are in high school. Watch all the way to the end.

Walking in the middle, yet again

This morning's Gospel reading from Matthew took me in the opposite direction from where it was supposed to.

Jesus is warning the disciples against being like the scribes and Pharisees who spend a lot of time being "greater than".  They expect praise and recognition for their piety.  they don't practice what they preach.  What we are supposed to learn from this is pretty clear:  Don't be a puffed-up jerk.  Be humble, be faithful.  Do without expecting praise.  Lead without expecting recognition.

I get that.

But after reading this passage this morning, I realized that the other end of that spectrum gets on my nerves just as much.  I can't stand the overly pious, self-effacing behavior of those who take this Gospel too seriously.  In fact, this probably bothers me more than the puffed-up jerks of the world.  I wonder if drawing attention to oneself by purposefully taking the lowest seat or waiting to only gather up the scraps doesn't have a similar effect to self-aggrandizement: it is alienating and counter to good community-building.  Just as no one wants to be bossed around by a big shot, no one wants to be made to feel inferior for NOT wanting to be a doormat.

Anglicans have been talking about "The Middle Way" forever.  It is, if I am honest, my fallback response to most dividing forces in the religious world is some version of this via media.  When we are at our worst, this makes us Anglicans look floppy and uncommitted, as if we can't quite make up our minds on where we stand (see previous post).  At our best, however, it means that we are making room for both ends of the spectrum (pick a spectrum, any spectrum!) and everyone in between.  I love the middle way because it means that I have some thinking to do. 

And this issue of grandiosity vs. humility gets solved for me in the middle way:  Don't be a jerk, but don't be a doormat either.  We were created for goodness, goodness we should be.  I'm not really sure what that might look like, but I'm open to your suggestions.  I think it has a lot to do with intentionality and motivation, about keeping God in clear sight at all times, and when our sight gets clouded, wiping the windshield and starting again.  This middle way-- in this respect and in so many others-- is, for me, the Christian walk: purposeful and strong, but with a light respectful tread.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Who we are, who we are not.

At the rector's request, our program staff have been reading Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley.  Stanley is famous around these parts for being the creator of an enormous Christian ministry conglomerate known as North Point Ministries.  Like many folks who are extremely successful at what they do, Stanley gets a lot of flak for his methodology, pedagogy and theology, primarily from those of us in mainline traditions.  We've been not-so-secretly sneering at the North Point way for years.  But the truth is, in one very basic respect, Stanley is massively successful:  there are butts in the seats.  In an age where Christianity is purported to be dying on the vine, the several Atlanta-area North Point mega churches are bringing in newcomers by the hundreds each Sunday and playing to a cast of thousands each week.    

To be frank, I'm not really enjoying the book.  His writing style is irritatingly informal and chipper, while at the same time treading obnoxiously close to "daddy knows best".


It is making me think, and I appreciate that.  And I appreciate Stanley's willingness to unlock his secret formula and lay it out for the world (including his detractors) to read, pick apart and learn from.  He is bold and he's got some exciting, out-of-the-box ideas about church.  There are ways in which I wish I could ingest some of that boldness and translate it into Episcopalese.

Because in the end, there's the rub.  One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that there are so many ways to be engaged in Christianity, so many denominations that answer big questions in so many ways.  That same gift is also a challenge, though.  So often, we don't quite speak the same language, we don't see eye-to-eye or we think that OUR way has a corner on the Jesus market.  That, obviously, is when we get divided, pissy and decidedly un-Christian with each other.

For generations, Anglicans have been defining ourselves as NOT something else.  We're NOT Roman Catholics, we're NOT Protestants, we're NOT Evangelicals or any of the rest.  But we get stumped when asked to define who we ARE.  We're the "middle way", don't you know?  I think we can get so afraid of offending or alienating or disrespecting by proclaiming a positive identity that we avoid the issue altogether.

Stanley's book is reminding me to step up to the challenge of defining who we ARE then claiming and owning it.  I keep thinking while I'm reading, "That's nice but it wouldn't work for us.  It isn't who we are."  And I'm forcing myself when I have that observation to answer "well, why?"  It is a hard question because i'm having to make choices about who I think we are.  Why don't we have giant screens in our worship space?  Why do we have pews?  Why is most of our music classical?  Why are our sermons 12 minutes instead of 45?  Why don't I preach a feel-good message every week?  Why are we confessing all the time?

There are non-snarky reasons for all fo these things (snarky ones, too, but that's not the point).  Reading a "how-to" from a tradition so different than my own is helping me ask these questions again and frame them in light of community definition.

Finally, I want to be clear that I don't think that defining who we are, what we believe and how we worship is creating an "us" and "them".  The bare truth is that we are not going to change who we are to fit the needs of every person who walks into our narthex (See that insider language right there?  See that?).  We will strive always to be open, welcoming, hospitable and TOTALLY HONEST about who we are.  We will be the community God created us to be.  And the sooner we claim it, can talk about it and be proud of it in positive terms, rather than over-and-against terms, the more people appreciating our vision of Christianity will want to be a part of it.

Sharing this space

I'm really excited that Saintly Mama Beth Frilingos is going to blog with me over here.  I had originally intended this to be a group project, but that didn't quite come to fruition.  But Beth is joining in!  I'll let her introduce herself, but watch this space in the next few days for her contributions to the melee.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sin, repentence, humility

How's that for a Lenten blog title?

We've put another Ash Wednesday to bed alongside with our Alleluias.  I was talking with someone today who said, "I love Sunday church, but I really love it whenever we do something just a little bit different." I agree, and Ash Wednesday fits the bill nicely.  In the Episcopal tradition, the language of Ash Wednesday is a lot about sin and fallenness, but it is also about repentance and forgiveness.  The Litany of Penitence is full and cathartic, confessing self-indulgence, anger, intemperance, and negligence.  We remind ourselves above all that we are NOT GOD.

I was a great discussion earlier today about whether Ash Wednesday is more about sin and repentance or about our mortality.  In the course of the worship, we smear our heads with a cross of ashes and hear the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."  Like any good Episcopalian, I think it is both-and.  I see this opening day of Lent as being about humility:  we are made of the stuff if dust, not of the stuff of God.  It takes the hand of God, the breath of God, the will of God to re-member us into being.  And then-- only then-- can we become. 

I do not think Ash Wednesday is a great service for newcomers or a great introduction to this system of beliefs.  We do talk about forgiveness and grace but on this one day we talk primarily about being dust, about how far we've fallen from that grace and how undeserving we are of that forgiveness. We talk about giving up and letting go, about dying.  I am afraid that without a foundation of understanding God's deep, unshakable love for us, this could be a really disturbing introduction to how we believe. 

I also believe that we deeply need to be reminded of these things.  Many of us need the reminder that "beloved" is not the same as "entitled" and that "saved by grace" does not mean "self-righteous".  We need reminding that, while free will is a precious gift, it does not make us God or godly. 

Ash Wednesday does these things for me.  It knocks me down a peg, into that dust from which I have been made.  It reminds me that I was indeed made from muck, but made for goodness, kindness, charity, justice. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Here we go again

Things got hairy.

Not really, life-threateningly-hairy, just can't-get-to-the-bottom-of-my-to-do-list hairy.  So there was a rather extended blogging break.  But I'm back, and happy to be so.     

It is no coincidence that I'm re-upping on Ash Wednesday.  I am using Lent to try to intentionally bring back two of my great loves: reading and writing.  I can't pinpoint when exactly they fell off my List of Important Things, but they did and I miss them.  I am (was) an avid and voracious reader.  Long working hours at the church and at home have lead to evenings collapsed in a useless heap in front of CSI or Glee.  It is a wicked cycle and I know I'm not the only one who falls prey to it.

So I'm letting Lent be my springboard back to spiritual and intellectual wellness.  Right now, I've got three books in the hopper: Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, and Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Build Inner Strength in Children by Linda Lantieri. I'm enjoying all three to varying degrees and hope to use them for writing fodder in the future. 

The writing I'm going to do here.  Not every day, but several times a week. And I might add some photography, too, though that might be pushing it.  I plan on going back to some of the original themes of this blog, kids, politics, religion, parenting, and see what is stirring.  My hope is that you will join in these conversations and that I will inspired to keep writing.  We shall see.  Just this first, semi-useless entry feels good.  Let's hope I continue to stay inspired, even as the hairiness continues.