One Good Thing I Learned in Church: Embrace

What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo are running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. This week? Katey Zeh on the church as a place of experimental identity…and embrace.

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Flickr: Viewminder

Growing up I never got to be the new kid in class. For some this might sound ideal, but for me it was stifling. I went to the same school my entire life, and when I graduated from high school there were twenty students in my grade, four of whom I’d known since kindergarten. If I could go back to that first day of school and talk to my five-year-old self, I’d tell her, be careful about what version of yourself you choose to be today because that’s the person everyone will think you are for the next twelve years.

Church was my chance at reinventing myself.

I didn’t grow up in a faith community, so when a friend invited me to join her one Sunday for youth group, I finally got my chance to be the new kid. And it was fabulous. I thought to myself, this room is full of people who know nothing about me! The labels that followed me around year after year in school—“so-and-so’s little sister,” the goody-goody—were suddenly meaningless.

This was my opportunity to be someone different from the person I was during the week, so I just went for it. I tried a lot of different identities, but my favorite to play was that of the rebellious mischief-maker, cracking jokes during the devotional time and finding opportunities to sneak out of the church building when the adult volunteers weren’t looking. Church was the one place I wasn’t worried about how my shenanigans might get me into trouble or lead to a stern conversation about how I’d disappointed someone. Church equaled freedom and acceptance. No wonder it drew me back week after week.

At that time in my life I desperately needed a safe space where I could act out. The immature antics I pulled at church were fueled by my anger over what was happening at home. My divorcing parents had been battling it out for years, and I didn’t know what to make of all the disruption and chaos happening around me. Since no one else in my family went to church, Sundays were my escape from the gossip and invasive questions that humiliated me at school. Sometimes grace takes the form of a patient youth minister.

After some time I outgrew my desire to be a troublemaker on Sundays, and I started to take my faith more seriously. Church had become my community of choice, and I was ready to make a commitment to it. One summer day I walked in a white robe down to the beach across the street from our sanctuary and was baptized in the ocean by the same youth minister whose patience I had tested only a few years earlier. As I emerged from the water, my eyes stinging from the salt and bright sunlight, I caught a blurry glimpse of the congregation that had formed around us. Clapping and cheering, they met me at the edge of the foamy water with outstretched arms to embrace me just as I was in that moment—soaked, sticky, but spirit-filled.

I’ve learned that church can take on different identities, too. It can be worship in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. It can look like a rowdy bunch of teenagers in the fellowship hall. Its current form in my life is a community of faithful advocates who are committed to social justice. Undoubtedly it will shift its shape again. But no matter what it has been or what it will be, church is where I always have found the embracing grace to be who I am, sticky or not.

Zeh - HeadshotKatey Zeh, M.Div, is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written for Response magazine, Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Mothering Matters. She lives in North Carolina with her husband Matt and their daughter Samantha. Visit her website at http://kateyzeh.com/ or follow her on Twitter @ktzeh.

One Good Thing I Learned in Church: Abundance

What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo are running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. This week? Pilar Timpane on the church’s subversive message of abundance. 

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In the summer of 2012, I served a Catholic parish in Kasana-Luweero, Uganda. I developed a friendship with our housekeeper and one weekend she took me to her family’s village. I watched Daisy’s family members slash leaves and take down jackfruit and mangoes from high limbs on trees; her grandmother was leading the pack, telling them to gather things all along it. I was lost in the present moment. I would look to the gold sun and then back on this family showing me around their property, using whatever English they could.

The light was dying, and I knew we had to get back soon. As we waited in the near darkness for our seminarian friend to come pick us up on another motorcycle, the family dropped a huge package filled with corn, greens, and banana leaves on the ground next to us. This whole time they had been gathering food from their gardens for me to take home! I thanked them profusely, embraced the matriarchs and promised to return. We ended up having to bring back two motorcycles – one for our bodies and the other for our cargo.

This is what I have learned from the Church: Gift. Generosity. Abundance. A theology of abundance means giving life away. It means trusting the fruit to grow back if the tree is healthy.

The Fourfold Gospels all record pericopes about Jesus feeding multitudes (cf. John 6:1-14, Matt. 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17). A hungry crowd is gathered to hear him speak about the Kingdom of God, and Jesus serves them all a miraculous lunch. For Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, this is a subversive act and a sign of abundance that reveals God’s plan for society and the earth:

“The feeding of the multitudes… is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence…He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.”[1]

Some of us call this gift the Eucharist—Jesus’ body was broken, like a kernel of wheat, in order to multiply into hope for all, to be shared by a beloved community.

There are scientific and positive schemes of thinking that claim life is abundant because of the expanding properties and possibilities of material life. Since all matter is both growing and potentially reproductive, our fecund potential seems impossible to stop. The future of the economy, in this schema, is abundantly possible because of borderless markets converging with scientific innovations.

However, these views present an abundant life for some, which can be achieved, and therefore is not a gift. An abundance that comes from me, or an abundance that comes from the laws that govern the universe, or an abundance that comes from our capitalist markets and limitless human potential – none of these are describing the abundant life that comes from the Christ who died on a Cross, a God who gives without receiving, a God who feeds the multitudes without asking, a God of sacrifice.

During Lent, one of our parish friars gave a sermon on Jesus’ conversation with Andrew and Philip about his coming death (John 12:20-33). Jesus knows his death is imminent, and he feels fear. But in this fear, said our priest, is a different kind of understanding about what death means. Jesus’ response to the end of life was not to deny its suffering but to lean towards it. For Jesus, there will be no life unless he dies. God’s type of triumph and birth and miracle comes in the wake of suffering and labor and need.

The message that achievement and accumulation is abundance is antithetical to the faithful view of abundance. In fact, the Church has taught me that abundance is giving it away when I am tempted to hoard and think that scarcity is creeping up on me. Leaning into death to eventually arrive at new life – this is the abundance I have been taught by the manifold faithful witnesses of the Church.

[1] The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity by Walter Brueggemann. Available online: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=533

View More: http://urbansouthphoto.pass.us/ross-timpanePilar Timpane is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, and photographer. She has worked on independent documentaries and film series nationally and internationally including most recently Lamento Con Alas: Documenting Unidentified Deaths Along the Texas-Mexico Border (2014). She is also a contributor to Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith (2013). Pilar holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and a Masters Degree from Duke University Divinity School. Her work can be found at pilartimpane.com. She resides in Durham, North Carolina.​

One Good Thing I Learned in Church: Welcome

What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo are running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. This week? Sarah Thebarge on the physical witness of the church and why she still clings to its sign of welcome.

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Notice at Gwithian Church I Flickr: Tim Green

I spent much of my childhood living in a parsonage next to a church where my dad was the pastor. Our church had a Benevolence Fund to help people who were having financial problems, and it didn’t take long for people in the town to get word of the fund.

We often had people knocking on the parsonage door, asking for help. While my dad retrieved food coupons or utility vouchers from his office, my mom would ask the people on our doorstep if they were hungry.

If they said yes, she’d ask them to have a seat on our front steps while she and I made them tuna fish sandwiches and lemonade.

And then we’d sit with them while they ate, and hear more about their stories. They told us about losing their job and then their apartment and then living out of their car. They told us about running out of food, or running out of gas while they were trying to get home.

When we asked them how they knew where to come for help, they all said they could see the steeple from a distance, and they followed it to our house.

When I finished high school, I moved to California for college. Then to Connecticut for grad school. Then to Oregon for a job. And everywhere I went, I found a church to join. To me, churches feel like a little piece of home.

Over the past few years, there’s been a conversation amongst emergent Christians about the value or necessity of churches. Some say that meeting on Sundays in physical buildings puts the “organized” in “organized religion,” and maybe it’s time to do away with the bricks and mortar.

I’ve been unsettled by that line of thinking, but I didn’t know exactly why until last night.

I’m currently the artist-in-residence at a church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m staying in a house across the street from the church. Every morning at sunrise I can look out my bedroom window and see the church steeple, backlit by a glowing pastel sky.

Last night I spoke at a church event, and afterwards I was standing on the sidewalk, talking to Tasha, one of the pastors. As we were talking, we noticed a 50-something-year-old man wheeling his wheelchair up the street, calling for help.

“Can you help me? Can you help me?” he called.

Tasha and I walked over to him, thinking he needed help pushing his wheelchair up on the uphill street.

“Where do you need to go?” I asked him.

He shook his head. He didn’t need help pushing his wheelchair. Instead, he said, “I just got out of the hospital and I’m staying in a hotel and I don’t have anything to eat and I’m so hungry.” His voice cracked as he said the last words. I noticed his torn gray sweatshirt and stained red shorts. He had no shoes, and he was missing most of his teeth.

“Our church has an account with the grocery store down the street,” Tasha said. “I can call them and tell them you’re coming to pick up some food. Would $30 be enough?”

The man began to cry as he emphatically nodded his head. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said through his tears.

As we stood in the street, Tasha put her hand on one of his shoulders and I put my hand on his other shoulder. As she prayed a blessing over him, I stood facing traffic to make sure the three of us didn’t get hit by a car as we stood there, praying in the street.

When Tasha said Amen, the man wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He asked if he might be able to come to our church on Sunday mornings.

Tasha pointed to a sign outside the church that says, WELCOME. “Of course!” she said. “We’d love to have you.”

As the man turned his wheelchair around and started making his way to the store, I realized why brick-and-mortar churches are not optional; they’re integral.

Because as people in physical, emotional or spiritual need scan the city skyline, they see the steeple, and they make their way toward the place where people who love Jesus worship and fellowship and work.

They make their way toward the church building as if it’s a lighthouse in the middle of a stormy sea.

They come to feel the love of Jesus in a tangible way.

They catch a glimpse of on earth as it is in heaven.

They taste a little piece of Home.

thebargehighresSarah Thebarge is a speaker and the author of The Invisible Girls, which weaves her story of nearly dying of breast cancer in her 20’s together with the story of a Somali refugee family she met on a train in Portland, Oregon.  She is also a spokesperson for Compassion International and Vanity Fair Lingerie’s Women Who Do Campaign.

One Good Thing I Learned in Church: Confession

What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo are running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. First up? K.D. Byers on confession and why everyone – religious or not – needs to be doing it.

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Girl in Brooklyn | Flickr: Joe Shlabotnik


“Go ahead and call me a whore; everyone who writes a memoir is a whore.”

It was Lena Dunham’s truly awful wig that drew the most attention after her recent guest-star appearance on Scandal, but her comeback has stayed with me. In the episode, It’s Good to be Kink, Dunham’s character, Sue, writes a tell-all book about her sexual encounters with a fictional list of Washington elite, and fixer Olivia Pope dresses her down in a vain attempt to stop its publication. Although Dunham’s thesis is hyperbolic (Scandal’s modus operandi is titillation) I think it names an important fact about us as people: We desire to be known, and that drives us to confess.

Confession, by definition, is public in some mode or manner. I might concede my faults and failings when I’m alone, but to confess is to tell someone what I would rather keep private. Scandal confirms we live in a confessional culture, but it’s the church has taught me how to confess well and acts as my confessor.

In my local congregation we confess at the beginning of each Sunday morning worship. The liturgy is up on screens so I can’t get away with half-hearted mumbling; my chin is held high and my eyes cast forward toward the cross on the altar. My voice joins my neighbors’ as we confess together. After, there is silence, and then the minister raises his or her hands and announces, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” We echo back: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

Each detail of the ritual teaches me how to confess: to do so with earnest effort, to focus on the cross, to remember that I’m not alone, to receive forgiveness, but also to echo it back to one another. When I confess, I’m brought face-to-face with my humanity and – perhaps even more importantly – my corporate humanity. A cold reminds us that our bodies aren’t indestructible so we slow down and take care. Likewise, confession reminds me of my human-ness, and invites me to slow down and heed God’s forgiveness.

Everyone needs a confessor or someone to hear their confession. Scandal is not our only pop culture confessional box. Our novels, films, blogs, television, music, and – yes – memoirs all function as our collective confessors. Scandal collects our scurrilous confessions while superhero movies play out our collective desire to be invincible. We keep inventing ways to be known. These cultural confessionals are good and important, but the church holds a unique position as the Body of Christ.

Like any rite confession can also be harmful if abused. It can be used to shame someone so much it is hard for him or her to believe forgiveness is possible. It can be half-hearted. Perhaps, the most dangerous thing confession can be is comfortable; it can become a moment in which we lie to God, one another, and ourselves by what we’re unwilling to say publicly and desperate to ignore.

I desire to be known, and I look for means to do so. Does that make me a harlot, willing to trade and sell myself for attention as Dunham’s retort implies? No, I think it makes me human. I am thankful for the church and our confessions. Each time I’m left not convicted, but with the conviction to boldly proclaim, in the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.

IMG_2946K.D. Byers is a writer with degrees from Seattle Pacific University, Duke, and the University of Iowa. She writes about belief and disbelief. Her essays and articles have appeared in Talking Taboo and in online magazines. Find her on Twitter at @katiedbyers. 

#OneGoodChurch

Old news: church has a bad rap in the western world. According to Gallup, Americans now have more confidence in the military than we do in the peace-making, justice-seeking, Sabbath-keeping community of Jesus followers. We might expect this of a country who in the last three years saw an estimated 7.5 million people join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. What gets me these days, though, is how our declining faith in “the body of Christ” is often propagated by the very people who belong to it.

Earlier this month, I was a part of the most creative and spirited gathering of Christian women leaders I’ve ever experienced. We met outside of Portland at a property that was best described as “a Magical Kingdom for adults.” Amidst banquet tables and art installations and glasses of wine, we reflected on the leadership story we’ve lived and the one we’re living into. It was disheartening how many tales included times the church had made these women feel small. There were fewer stories of how the church helped them get grown. Maybe I wasn’t really listening. Or maybe these are the stories we’re not really telling.

Why do we do this? Why do we often complain and criticize and commiserate over instances of bad church more than we praise and profess and pass along examples of the good? Why do we use the term “recovering evangelicals” like the Gospel is a disease to ward off and without any hope of health? Why when I tweet out “What’s happening in your church that would compel people to stay?” does the question compel no one?

The answer is largely psychological. In her book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, professor Christena Cleveland points out how we boost our sense of self-worth by disassociating with those we perceive to be “losers.” Social identity theorist C.R. Snyder calls this “cutting off reflected failure.” If the church is failing, at least according to public opinion polls, we use tales of its woe to assure people we aren’t failures, too, at least not unsuspecting ones. To be a fool in America is the worst kind of sin.

Oh, I’m part of the problem, too, you know. When I first began dating Rush, I complained about him all the time to friends, so much so that when he was on the precipice of proposing, one counseled me to break up with him. I was less worried about my tenuous reputation than the tenuous sense of self I was building around being unloved. Would I lose my edge if I found love? Will I lose my edge if I love church? There was a certain self-righteousness in not belonging, as if I wasn’t like all the rest, as if I couldn’t be wooed.

Many of us stand outside religious institutions more comfortably now than we do at the center. Doubt is more popular than belief these days. In the last few years, I’ve come across a handful of books exploring the freedom it has brought to writers’ acceptance of self and expression of God. I’ve often wondered if it’s a symptom of growing up Catholic that I didn’t doubt God for the church’s mistakes; there were too many to ignore—from the Crusades to birth control bans, the Spanish Inquisition to the pedophile cover-ups, the French Revolution to the crackdowns on American nuns. Surely these are reasons enough for anyone to find the church an inhospitable place, toxic to real human flourishing.

 Still, we find ways, weed-like, to grow out of its cracked foundation.

That’s why I’m excited to launch the #OneGoodChurch series starting on this blog in April. You’ll get to read posts by contributors from the anthology, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, answering the question, “What’s one good thing you learned in church?” I know a lot of us grew up in churches that were indeed toxic places – and some grew up with no church at all. I also know there are good things we learn by gathering together, things like enough-ness and forgiveness, thinks like agency and interdependency.

To be clear, the Bible privileges stories of pain over any other, people feeling it and people causing it. “Pain,” theologian Walter Brueggemann says is, “the primary language of human possibility.” To tell stories of hope and perseverance and possibility in the church is not to diminish the pain it has caused but to point to pain’s logical end in the body of Christ. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that the community gathered under God is like a “a city on a hill that can’t be hid” (Matt. 5:14). We are meant to illuminate the dark, not add to it.

Will you keep the light on for me?

Your Body is a Seed

Flickr Creative Commons: Zack Dowell

When I was younger, I used to practice giving interviews in front of the mirror. To prepare, I’d swipe my finger across rows of lipstick, eyeshadow, and rouge that sat potbound in one of those makeup palettes purchased for pennies; it all looked like the color of whoopee cushion by the time it reached my face. Then, I’d hop onto the bathroom counter, close the door, and practice my winningest answers (and smile) to questions like, “How does it feel to be the youngest girl ever to win an Oscar?” or “What’s it like being married to a part-time nurse with three kids and a career on Wall Street?” I was interviewer, interviewee, and even commercial spokeswoman between segments. I was in love with the experiment of becoming me.

Last month, I got to listen in on a media training workshop from the inimitable Macky Alston. The training was part of a Courage & Renewal retreat I helped lead for the Beatitudes Society, a nonprofit whose mission is to equip young progressive Christian clergy in becoming public theologians and agents of change. (Interested in nominating someone for next year’s fellowship? Click here.) Macky was a masterful teacher, helping us to be ourselves in front of the camera, to peddle in stories and not just points, to say it fast and say it often. But more than that, he was a damn near motivational speaker. I swear to you he melted everyone in the room when he said, “I could make an award-winning documentary on any one of you.” We had the stuff of legends within us simply because we were made by one.

I remind myself of this when I do real interviews now with people like Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service or Shane Blackshear at Seminary Dropout. Sometimes I get word that a drive time show in Decatur wants to talk to me for twenty minutes. Other times it’s a print journalist on a deadline and could I be available tomorrow or – better yet – later today? Sometimes it all happens so fast I forget to have fun. I forget there’s another legendary human on the line. I forget I’ve got what I need within me (and, thanks to Macky, my core message in front of me).

I do still remember to put lipstick on, yes, even for radio.

I love talking, writing, breathing the new book whether on the phone or in my sleep. I’ve never loved any work more. But as the days grow longer and warmer, I find myself unable to keep pace, unable to keep away from the sun and soil and sidewalks. It struck me reading Scripture this week that our bodies are like seeds.”The earth produces of itself,” Jesus says (Mk 4:28). Our only job is to rest in the ground beneath us. And stretch toward our nutrients when needed.

The seed is in love with the experiment of becoming grown.

If the lesson of winter was “making friends with the dark,” the lesson of spring is “allowing myself to be a seed.” This means napping in the sun when the book stuff feels too urgent. This means going outside when my body is done at the desk. This means pouring a glass of wine when the dog puts her paws on my thighs and says, “Enough.” Some days this happens embarrassingly early, like 2:30 early, and I just let it.

I let myself grow. 

My body is not a machine.

It’s a seed.

Lament for a Bad Friend


I’ve had my heart broken three times in five years by girlfriends.
Theirs is a subtler rupture than the romantic kind. Because you can have more than one friend at a time, the need to “break up” so that you can “move on” isn’t there. You just stop calling. You return her texts slower. You don’t include her on group e-mails. One day, someone asks about how “so and so” is doing and you cock your head, look left, and say in a kind of dreamy way, “Huh. I guess I don’t really know anymore.” It’s a leaky kind of loss, and one we don’t often lament.

The Christian season of Lent is a ripe time for lament. During the forty days before Easter (not including Sundays) we harvest our grief, our longings, our questions wrestled in dust, our dust. No spec of human experience is too small to rub between our folded hands.

The psalmists knew as much. Although the title for the Psalms in Hebrew, Tehillim, means “songs of praise,” scholar Hermann Gunkel identified two of the five major kinds of psalms as lament, one group being individual laments and the other being communal ones. The message is that we need to go public with our collective heartbreak. But so too are there private heartbreaks that may be too bitter, too unformed to share. There are heartbreaks no one else can hold for us.

This week I was invited to offer a mini-sermon inspired by the individual lament of Psalm 41. It was verse 9 that grabbed me in the litany of complaints:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” 

The individual laments of the psalmists are frequently about verbal assaults from others, about the kind of words that wound honor and pick at shame. I know something about this pain. Sometimes when the name of one of those fallen friends comes to mind, my stomach turns a little, first toward anger, then toward the small voice of wonder, “I wonder if I gave up too soon. I wonder if I wasn’t a bad friend too.” If not to her, then surely to someone else. Surely to God. 

And so we lament the subtle ways our hearts have been broken, yes, but we lament the ones we broke too, through inattention or over-attention, through selfishness or cloying-selflessness, on purpose or without thought. We dust off our history of human error.

We thank God that those who need the most forgiveness are the ones able to receive the most love.  

You can listen along with my 30-second piece above, by clicking the title below, or over at ThirtySecondsorLess.net where each day of Lent the brilliant Jim Kast-Keat is curating a new sermon based on more psalms of lament.

Lament for a Bad Friend

A close friend, someone I trusted, who shared my bread (and cupcakes too), has stomped my spirit into the ground.

This is a lament for bad friends everywhere.

For the one who makes us feel small.

And the one who doesn’t call.

For the one who’s always busy,

And the one who’s frickin’ needy.

For the one who asks bad questions

And the one who hardly listens.

“Could you,” Jesus asks, “not stay awake with me one hour?”

I WANT BETTER.

Oh, Lord, I want better for you too.