To accept belonging for ourselves

PewWhen I graduated from divinity school, I was homeless. Not in a literal kind of way but a spiritual one. I had been living in the same city for two years without a church to call my own. Sure, I had dated a few congregations on and off but nothing serious developed. The only names I remembered were the ones printed in the bulletin and if anyone remembered mine, well, I didn’t give them a lot of chances to prove it. If I wanted to find a church where I could know and be known, I’d have to take some responsibility for my belonging. I’d have to sign my name on the pew pad.

Yes, I’m about to spend 500+ words talking about the pew pad – or whatever way your church keeps up with who shows up. As part of the “Trust Me” series, I’m breaking down the small things churches can do that build big trust with Millennials.

To finish reading this article, join me with your comments, questions, and other trust-building suggestions at Patheos:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2015/01/trust-me-church-why-im-not-that-interested-in-letting-you-know-im-here/

On Bulletins, Belonging, and Who Exactly “Beth” Is

BulletinIn my search for a church home during graduate school, I attended over ten churches in two years, each with their own different style of communication. Some handed out a tan, tri-fold piece of paper by which I could follow along, nose down, during the service. Others projected announcements on movie screens that required thick-rimmed glasses to read. My favorite bulletin was at an Anglican church who footnoted each part of the service so as to explain its theological significance. It was a divinity nerd’s dream.

It’s the second week of the “Trust Me” series, and I’m talking about the micro-resolutions church leaders can make to foster trust with Millennials. This week’s topic? The little things that can take our bulletins from information to transformation.

To finish reading this article, join me with your comments, questions, and other trust-building suggestions at Patheos:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2015/01/trust-me-church-how-your-bulletin-makes-me-feel-like-i-do-or-dont-belong/  

How to Build Trust With Millennials

Hello My Name is Millennial“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said to myself as the storm door pumped behind me to a close. I carried the day’s mail in on the flat of my forearm, like a waiter bussing dirty dishes. A letter from my former church lay on top of the junk addressed to “The Beam Family.” I took a deep breath. It was a small betrayal, to be sure, but the kind that erodes trust drip by drip until there’s nothing more than the sediment of a relationship that once was.

I want to talk trust with the church. It’s a precious commodity to my generation of Millennials (roughly those between the ages of 18-33) who experienced both the collapse of the World Trade Center and the collapse of the American Economy before we turned 30. We can argue ourselves silly about whether Millennials are psychologically different than our parents and grandparents were at our age but the facts suggest there are at least social distinctions shaping our present. For instance, when asked in a recent survey from the Pew Forum, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” only 19% of Millennials affirmed the general trustworthiness of humanity, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, and 40% of Boomers. We’re a cagey bunch, I’ll admit, but we have a lot of love untapped.

For the next four weeks, I’m writing a series of articles over at Patheos’ Faith Forward blog called Trust Me, Church: Five Micro-Resolutions That Make All the Difference. I want to get specific about what’s happening in my church that’s helping trust along or tripping me up – miniscule things like how the bulletin has the congregational responses included instead of assuming we all know them or how passing the peace feels more like a social break than an invitation to look a stranger in the eye. There are a lot of articles out there about how to “millennial-proof your church” that mention how important things like trust, authenticity, and a discernible website are to folks my age. I like a lot of these articles. But instead of talking about the big things that make a big difference, I’m curious about the small things that make all the difference. I want to know what the seemingly small things are for you, too.

To finish reading this article (and for the first trust-building micro-resolution), join me with your comments, questions, and other trust-building suggestions at Patheos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2015/01/trust-me-church-five-micro-resolutions-that-make-a-big-difference/

On Birthing a Book (and Why I’m Pacing Myself in 2015)

Birth Announcement

For those of you who know me and my writing, the connection between birthing a book and birthing a baby  is nothing new. With only secondhand knowledge of childbirth, it’s easy for me to make much of the similarities: both are an offering of our selves to the world, both produce something that wholly belongs to us and yet wholly has a life of its own, and both induce moments of less than flattering grunts, tears, and swears.  In sum birthing a book, like birthing a baby, is one of the most harrowing acts of creation I know.

This is why it feels so strange to me that at the precise moment when an author is most vulnerable (publication), she is expected to be most exposed (publicity). It would be like asking a pregnant woman to give a press conference on the day of birth, host a “launch party” when she comes home from the hospital, or write a series of articles within the first week of motherhood for her blog, friends’ blogs, and friends of friends’ blogs on just what exactly she was hoping to accomplish with this child.

It’s not like anyone tells you you have to do x amount of interviews, events, and articles. Like a lot of things, most of the pressure we feel comes from the overachieving voice within that wants to “make the most of things” and “not miss out on opportunity.” I’ve even gotten pretty good at spiritualizing this voice. Instead of the overachiever, she becomes the good steward. “Making the most of things” becomes “using my god-given talents.” Not missing out on opportunity” becomes “not hiding my light under a bushel.” It’s hard sometimes to discern where her voice ends and God’s begins.

So instead of following some inner voice, I’ve decided to listen for God in my inner delight in 2015. Instead of making a list of all the things I could be doing to promote the book, I’m asking myself what I want to be doing. “What opportunities quicken my soul?” “What collaborations spark my curiosity?” and “How many monthly to-do’s sustain my integrity?” Delight is why my first book event has me leading a women’s retreat at my local church instead of lecturing in front of strangers. Delight is why when I travel I ask friends if they want to host a house reading before reaching out to bookstores. Delight is why I won’t get on a plane more than once a month.

An editor once told me it’s smarmy to complain about being published. (How did Amy Poehler do this so charmingly in Yes Please?) So in the spirit of gratitude (and social mores), I want to share some upcoming engagements that do, in fact, have me glowing*:

  • THE WINTER OF LISTENING: A WOMEN’S RETREAT
    Durham, NC. January 23-24, 2015. I’ll be facilitating this overnight retreat on how to practice deep listening, embrace stillness, and belong to God in the quiet. Registration is open until January 9th.
  • LAUNCH PARTY: RIGHT WHERE YOU BELONG
    Durham, NC. January 30, 2015, 5-7pm EST. Join me at my house to celebrate the launch of the new book – and the Durhamites who are featured in it – over cupcakes and bubbly. Contact me for an invite.
  • CHURCH NEXT: LESSONS IN BELONGING
    Online Curriculum. February 2015. Want to belong but don’t know how? In this web series, I’m sharing six key lessons for those who feel fed-up, left-out, or boxed-in by the church.
  • REGENT REDUX: MAKING PEACE WITH THE CHURCH
    Online Panel Discussion. February 3, 2015, 12-1pm PST. Join me, Scot McKnight, and two other engaging speakers for a debate on why church matters.
  • PRIVATE HOME: AUTHOR READING
    San Francisco, CA. February 8, 2015, 7:30-9 PST. Over wine, whiskey, and cheese, I’ll be gathering with old friends and new to read from the newly released book. Contact me for more details.
  • THE REGULATOR BOOKSHOP: AUTHOR READING
    Durham, NC. February 17, 2015, 7-8 EST. Join me in my hometown for a reading of the new book. If you’re lucky, my friend Sarah will bring her famous cinnamon roll cupcakes again.
  • THE BOOK PARLOR: AUTHOR READING
    Spokane, WA. March 5, 2015, 7-8 PST. My friend Cara S. set up this sweet reading at her local bookstore. I’ll also be facilitating a brief discussion on belonging to the church in a commitment phobe culture.
  • CONVERGENCE: WOMEN LEADERS CONNECTING
    Portland, OR. March 6-8, 2015. I’ll be leading a small group breakout session at this gathering of women who lead in the way of Jesus.
  • RISKING THE CALL TO BELONG: A COURAGE & RENEWAL RETREAT Chicago, IL. August 3-6, 2015. I’m facilitating this interfaith gathering with Parker J. Palmer and a handful of my Courage & Renewal colleagues on how to create true community.

I’ve likened these last few months before Lessons in Belonging pubs (official date: February 2, 2015) to the third trimester of pregnancy. “The calm before the storm,” I chuckle to whoever is listening, animals included. The morning sickness has subsided. The friends and family have been prepped. I’ve made peace with the fact that everything has not and will not go according to plan, but it’s still okay to have one. It’s also okay if it feels a little slack. It takes time for new life to be born.

In the book Free, Mark Scandrette writes, “God always invites us to a life that is freer and lighter than the false paths we will create for ourselves.” (Matthew 11:28-29). Let’s all agree to pace ourselves.

*For the most up-to-date list of my engagements, swing by my upcoming events page. 

An (Honest) Picture of Joy

JoyfulRush and I designed a family Christmas card this year. We debated whether it was worth spending over $100 to show our faces in other people’s mailboxes but agreed we liked it when they showed up in ours. We agreed to be equally invested in the logistics, although I stayed home from church one night and finished addressing envelopes. We even agreed on a theme, after Rush ex-nayed my recurring fantasy to do a cross-dressing family photo; he thought it  too S&M to go as the collared dog.

The card shows us as the picture of joy.

Except that we are not smiling.

We like our Christmas cards cheeky. It feels important not to take ourselves too seriously; sometimes all you need is to comb a good butt part to bring you down to earth. More so though it felt important for us to be honest in a year where from the outside everything looked sparkly. We have good jobs. I have a new book. For heaven’s sake, there’s Anthropologie wallpaper in our home now.

If we had written an update to accompany the card, we might have told you how in January, after finishing the first draft of her manuscript on being a “church-going commitment phobe” Erin switched churches, again. That part didn’t make it in the book.

Or we might have told you how in March, Rush realized that he feels a lot of pressure to make art in his backyard studio. What he really loves are projects: building a corn hole set, wiring an outdoor light fixture, designing a wood-planked Christmas tree. If you know someone who would like to build a tree house in the next year, he would like to help.

We also might have told you that while we really love living in Durham, we don’t, won’t, call it our forever home. We are not forever home kind of people. Some nights, we curl up on the couch and search Realtor.com in places like Seattle, Berkeley, and Milwaukee.

In other news this year, we learned, to our horror, that Amelia is now considered a senior canine; Erin’s sure her eyes are already getting cloudy. Rush wishes she were a better mouse catcher but refuses to get a cat, even though Erin thinks cats, like kids, are looking cuter these days. Did we mention we became godparents this year?

We might mention, too, that in October Erin started seeing a therapist and now likes to begin sentences with “My therapist tells me…” Rush is still figuring out how to love someone well who is “over emotional labor.” Erin is still figuring out how to actually be “over emotional labor,” especially when it comes to family, especially when no one has asked her to do it. The word compassion entered her vocabulary this year.

We wanted to be honest that though this year was full of higher highs and lower lows than we’ve yet known, we are becoming  joyful. Erin’s therapist tells her, “Joy is not possible when you are in fight or flight mode.” Now, instead of flopping between anger and fear, anger and fear, anger and a superiority complex, we are taking it all in. When you leave your heart ajar, you can’t help but take it all in. You learn to let it all go too.

In The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote, “When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.”  If I remember only one thing this year, it’d be that to belong – to yourself, to others, to God – is to embrace reality. To belong is to tell the honest story about your year, about who you have been and done, yes, but about who you are becoming too.

To belong is to listen to the story that’s telling you.

 

Faithful Rebel: Anurag Gupta on How to Cure Racism From Within

1404158494I learned about Eric Garner’s death like I learned about Michael Jackson’s: on Twitter. My initial reaction to both was the same, “Is this a joke?” There had been one too many hoaxes declaring the King of Pop dead to accept it. And there had been too many cases involving white officers killing black men to bear another. I placed the heels of my hands hard against my eye sockets and growled to God, “I am so tired of this shit.”

“We’ve been punked, collectively,” says Anurag Gupta, founder and CEO of Be More, a nonprofit start-up whose mission is to cure racism in our lifetime. “We are 99.9% the same,” he argues in my latest Lessons from a Faithful Rebel interview, and yet we’ve been placed in a “color-based human hierarchy.” And here’s the kicker: the hierarchy has spiritual underpinnings as the mythology surrounding angels and demons (good over bad / order over chaos / light over dark) is mapped out onto human bodies. Gupta identifies this categorization as the root of racism, which he defines as “a disease of the mind.” As our conversation unfolds, I begin to wonder, “If the root of racism is found in the mind, does this mean that the cure for racism is within too?”

The short answer: yes. The long answer: watch the interview. We talk about everything from how our brains create automatic biases just by looking at other human beings to why the media we consume is so important to closing the racial empathy gap, especially for the over 75% of white folks who don’t have a single in-the-flesh friendship with a person of color. (Note to holiday movie goers: Ridley Scott’s Exodus might make for a good story but it’s bad for your brain with the leads looking Scandinavian and the thieves, robbers, and servants, you guessed it, Sub-Saharan African.)

It’s not just the brain, though, that will take rewiring. Our souls need rehab too. The vision for Gupta’s Be More takes its inspiration from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” When I ask Gupta, who describes himself as inter-spiritual but worships at a Christian church, what practices help him tend his soul, he lists prayer, Metta meditation, and yoga. Faithful rebels know that activism without contemplation is like exhaling without inhaling – just a bunch of hot air. They know that quantitative change without qualitative change is its own kind of violence.

My practices of contemplation have been varied in the weeks since I heard the news; I heaved. I breathed. I listened. I retweeted the words of L.A. rapper Propaganda whose daughter cried, “Daddy I’m scared for you because when police kill black men they don’t get in trouble.” I gave myself permission to respond here when ready, instead of with the cruel immediacy expected of bloggers.

I figure, if we can’t practice non-violence toward ourselves, what right do we have preaching it to the world?


For more about the history of race in America and how our repeated assault on black bodies is no joke, check out the following books:
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
- Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

 

Writer’s Envy: Silence And Other Surprising Invitations of Advent

photo (63)“This is the Lord’s doing.”

These are among my favorite words in Scripture. And not just because they point to faith in something greater than our own doing (and overdoing) but because they strike me as almost accusatory. It’s as if Elizabeth, mother-to-be of a baptist boy, is blaming God for her geriatric blessing. “You did this to me,” she says to God as she looks down at her elephant belly, shaking her head and chortling. “This blessing is all your fault.”

It’s for this reason and more that I’ve fallen in love with the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, carefully considered in Enuma Okoro’s devotional book, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent (Upper Room Books, 2012). While most Advent literature focuses on the miraculous action of God in the life of a teenage girl, Okoro turns our attention to two, elderly Jews who like many of us hold within their brittle bones years of unmet desire. It’s no wonder that when an angel of God shows up with news of answered prayer they’re filled with both terror (Zechariah) and joy (Elizabeth). Getting what you want requires no small amount of courage; to lay down your tired narratives, survival strategies, and coping mechanisms; to lay down your past and choose life in the unfolding present. “As we anticipate God made flesh in Christ Jesus,” Okoro writes in the preface, “we dare to relinquish control, to harness our empty life-numbing habits, and to forfeit logic and reason because God often acts outside such boundaries.”

Silence is a masterful blend of scriptural exegesis, personal reflection, and liturgical invitation. Each day of Advent is accompanied by passages of Scripture, a theological reflection from the author, and a brief prayer of presence. At the end of each of the four weeks is a longer, guided meditation for readers to explore questions about their own relationship with longing and a prayerful challenge to live into our “most life-giving selves.”  Resources for church pastors and leaders come at the end of the book in a guide for small groups and liturgies for lighting Advent wreaths. Okoro is a skilled teacher who packs much depth in this slim book.

Perhaps it’s because I know Okoro as a close friend and colleague (Talking Taboo) that her words on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary are particularly precious. There is a dearth of good, sensible writing on making and finding friends as an adult woman. (Cara Strickland is one of my favorite writers on friendship and the single life; Jonalyn Fincher is a lion in advocating for cross-gender friendships.) My first reading of Silence came during a difficult time with a friend who told me she couldn’t support my upcoming book for reasons that it didn’t edify the body of Christ to make private matters public. Okoro’s conviction that friends are people who “remind us of who we are, who challenge us to live into who we are called to be, and who accept us at every stage of the journey gave me permission to step back from that friendship, spend some time in solitude, and wonder if it was edifying to the Christ-image in me.

“This is the Lord’s doing.” I love these words. So much so that they begin the acknowledgements section of said new book. Anticipating its birth into the world has been an agonizing season of terror and joy (and therapy). Through the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, I am reminded that to accept the fullness of God’s promises requires time: of silence, of seclusion, of celebration with worthy friends. It requires a belly laugh from time to time too.

Okoro writes, “No one is left to discern God’s life-altering activity alone, to hold God’s promises alone, or to bear the burden of divine blessings without faithful companions, whether human or angelic.”

I count her as both.